The first book I remember reading that involved travel to far flung locations was one written by an old colonial hand, Fred G Merfield, with the alluring title ‘Gorillas were my Neighbours’. Looking back, I now see it as the memoirs of a casual racist, (amazingly quite acceptable at the time), with caricatures of tribal rituals, cannibalism and bush meat in Equatorial Africa. However, it was a considerable eye-opener for an eleven year old boy and certain phrases from it still loiter in my mind.
‘A little local difficulty’ was one, and it reappeared regularly in accounts I later came to read of historical exploration, even into the 1960’s, as a euphemism for insurgency, rebellion, floods, brigands, even something as slight as a local leader refusing passage because insufficient regard had been paid to their status, either by assuaging their dented honour or via the astute application of hard currency or gifts. Of course, travellers of old would take these things in their stride, making appropriate preparations (one is reminded of Mary Kingsley’s ‘blessings of a good thick skirt’), or simply avoiding the area and taking a different route. Edward Lear, painter, poet and essayist records the phrases he deemed worth learning when travelling in Albania and the Balkans in the early 1800’s, ‘are there banditti ?’, and ‘shall we need flea powder ?’ Even chroniclers of the pro Chinese insurgency in Malaysia in the 1950’s found plenty of occasions to use this masterstroke phrase of British understatement.
One of Amateur Emigrant’s contributors, Carl Welsby, sent me this colourful account (and great photos), of a rather nerve-wracking time on his first trip in Northern Pakistan.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have been up and down the Karakorum Highway a few times, but the first in 1989 was possibly the most memorable.
Rawalpindi to Gilgit by bus was at that time, and I’m guessing now, a 24 hour affair. Locals do it in one hit, but if you are not in a hurry it’s best done over the course of 2 days, with a break at the truckstop village of Besham.
Typical of the area Besham, is laid out as a long sinuous bazaar, selling wholesale foodstuffs, bolts of cloth etc. and armaments. It’s not particularly attractive, but its setting is spectacular, indeed the whole length of the KKH is so; a steep sided river valley with the Indus boiling far below.
On arrival we checked into a local hotel which comprised of a chai-khana cum restaurant below and rooms above, most of which opened onto a flat roof terrace affording great views over to the other bank a kilometre or so away.
Tired after a long bus trip we ordered “tray tea”, rather than masala chai; (a ready made spiced and sugared milky tea boiled forever); tray tea comprises of 2 cups and saucers, a pot of tea and some buffalo milk, also in a pot, together with a K2-sized mound of sugar lumps.
We’d just settled back when there was suddenly automatic weapons fire from the other side of the valley. Massive volleys from an AK47 or two, or similar. No more than half a minute later and from the street below a burst of shots replied.
We were used to seeing men in Pakistan shouldering all sorts of weapons and we weren’t unduly alarmed. We asked what was going on and was told that there was a wedding over the river and the initial gunshots were celebratory.
What followed was a tit for tat who-can-make-the-most-noise competition between Besham and the unseen village over the Indus. It lasted some time but all fell quiet over the Indus and I’m sure the Besham guys felt their honour was vindicated. We were enjoying the last of our tea when suddenly there was a tremendous series of whooshes from over the river. The pause had been only temporary as the celebrants had gone to get the bigger guns and had returned with what were SAMS or some other sort of rockets and launched them over the top of Besham and to who knows where.
Our side remained silent.”
I know exactly his feelings. There have been a lot of occasions for me where unfriendliness, not to mention aggression, even weaponry of all sorts have been encountered, but by and large they were confined to a small area or a few people. A teenager in a busy Yemeni village loudly cursing us as ‘kaffars’ (unbelievers) sets the nerves tingling, as did bullets whizzing over our heads in the Empty Quarter until we realised this was often a local form of welcome to honoured guests. More unsettling were armed but ill equipped, clearly drunk, red-eyed and nervous Ethiopian military holding us all to account for one idiot’s photo habit. Or a convoy of heavily armed Egyptian militia forcing us to take our bus directly into the the centre of a town known as hotbed of the Islamic Brotherhood where the chief of police had been assassinated the day before by extremists. All these events and more came and went, and drifted into the realm of experience.
The stratospheric increase in the ease of communications and spreading of information whether accurate or not has changed the game somewhat nowadays. Any hothead, even in a very remote area, somehow may feel entitled and empowered to challenge, insult or even attack someone for being different, meaning that instead of by-passing a rough area of a city, avoiding a notorious valley, or an outbreak of some disease, we tend now to avoid entire countries. After some recent terrorist incidents in Paris and London, I was dismayed to read and hear of would-be travellers cancelling, claiming France and the U.K. as a whole were too dangerous to visit.
On a more positive note, though, our own experience of life (and certainly mine), will surely advise us that there are good people everywhere, if you take the trouble to look and to trust.
Travel hopefully indeed !