The friendliest country

At the time I went to Pakistan it was listed on the Australian Governments website as one of the 4 countries in the world that you should not travel to. Not just as a precaution but they were actually warning people inside the country to get the hell out if they were already there. As I crossed the border from India I said to myself again the question that I always make a point not to answer ‘oh well, what’s the worst that can happen’

The border crossing was very smooth and surprised me a little as to how easy it was. I had no guidebooks with me, as normal on this trip, and had no idea where I was staying or even going besides that I was heading for Lahore. I saw some buses waiting across the border and asked for one going to Lahore and was thrown into the back of one immediately and off we went. This is a reason why it is always advisable when travelling in countries like this to get a little local money before you enter as you never know what will happen on the other side. If I hadn’t had a little local money and had waited to change it then I would also have had to wait another 4 hours for the next bus.

The bus was a weird experience to say the least. I climbed aboard and noticed that the bus had just a bench at the back and two along each side, no seats in rows as on most buses. At the front of the bus was a section that was locked and protected by a metal gate, this is where the women sit as they are kept separate from men for reasons only the Koran can tell us I suppose.

I chose to sit on the bench at the end of the bus as there were less people there and I thought I would not stand out so much. Well, welcome to Pakistan! If you are white you will stand out, no exceptions. Within a minute of being on the bus I had two men come and sit beside me to talk about cricket, and Steve Waugh and Shane Warne, I also had every other person along the sides of the bus turn around to face me and stare. At this moment I realised exactly what it must be like for a celebrity to have people watching their every movement, in my own little world here on this bus I was a celebrity to everyone else there.

I had no idea where I was going in Lahore and figured that I will just walk around until I find something, I’d been doing it for 6 weeks now and had had no real problems. The bus conductor came to collect money and ask where I was going, I responded that I had no idea and said just drop me in the centre of Lahore. This caused great discussion amongst the back bench of the bus and after a few minutes the conductor said that I had to go to temple district because all the other backpackers went there. I said OK and asked how to get there and he said ‘don’t worry I’ll show you’

We reached a stop in town and the conductor got off the bus with me, walked me to another bus and told the conductor for that bus where he had to tell me to get off. At some stage of the journey the conductor asked me a load of questions in Urdu, which I obviously didn’t speak so he grabbed a guy from the front of the bus who spoke English and made him come and sit next to me. He introduced himself and said ‘I am here to tell you when you have to get off the bus’  we reached my stop and the translator gave me the directions for a hostel given to him by the conductor.

I started walking in the direction they pointed but took some wrong turns and could not find my street. I hopped into a department store and thought that so far the locals had been helpful so I’d try my luck again, it worked and the guy inside walked me 5mins down the street to where the hostel was.

I went to the reception desk and was greeted with a big smile and a bottle of water, it was 40c outside and a bottle of water was like a cold beer after a long days work at that moment. I chatted with the owner of the hostel about things and once he realised I had no guide book and no plans on what to see he seemed a little worried. I found my bed, mattress on the floor, upstairs and went outside for a smoke, the owner of the hostel arrived 5mins later with a copy of the lonely planet for me and some recommendations on where to go on my way to China.

Top 4 countries to get the hell out of! I couldn’t believe it, this was one of the friendliest countries I had ever seen.

My celebrity status continued when I went for a walk along the streets and found a lot of people coming up and asking if I was American, a white person was assumed to be an American at this time, something that caused me a major incident a few days later. People seemed to find it hard to come up and say hello and instead would bump into you, making me worry they were trying to pickpocket, and when you turned around they would say ‘Oh hello, are you from America’ to which you reply ‘no, from Australia’ to hear their excited response ‘Australia…Shane Warne, Steve Waugh’.

A new friend from the street saw it as his duty to show me around Lahore, I immediately saw this offer as Dollar signs, I had just come from India after all. Albert, or whatever his name was, spent 3 hours showing me the city and refusing to let me pay when we stopped for some mango shakes, I pleaded with him to let me pay as 10cents for me is nothing, but for him it is really something. He would have none of it and said I was a guest in his country and it was his duty, I just thought it was a way for him to ask me for more money or to convince me to buy something from his brother’s shop when the tour was over. Neither of these things happened and he was just a really nice guy who was being friendly, to this day the Pakistani people are the friendliest people I have ever encountered.

I was so exhausted from the heat of Lahore that I just had to get back to the hostel to lay down, I could feel a bit of heat stroke coming on so said my goodbyes and thank you to my new friend. On the way home a little beggar kid was walking with me, poking and pinching me with his hand out, but I held strong as always and said to myself that unless people stop my movement forward they can do whatever they want and I will put up with it, within reason!

Little beggar kid crossed my line when he grabbed my arm and tried to pull me back and stop me from moving, he had followed me too far(15mins walk) and I was not giving in and he realised he needed to go back. I was so hot and sweaty and tired that I just snapped and flung my arm forward while he was holding it. This kid flew into a parked car and hit it pretty hard, he was only about 7 years old. I didn’t feel guilty for what I had done but worried that the adults around might lynch me for abusing a young kid like that. The kid ran for his life and I looked around without being obvious and saw people waving to me and saying well done, they agreed that the kid should never have tried to stop me.

Thank feck for that I thought and the next day I headed for Peshawar, the town bordering Afghanistan near the Khyber Pass, where life got a little bit more interesting for a short period of time.

See photos Pakistan:

 

Tear gas, riots and curfew internet

I had been moving very quickly over the last few months and was spending only a few days in each town I visited before moving on to the next one. By the time I had reached Nepal I had already decided that I would miss the south coast of India and take it easy where I was and actually start treating my trip like a holiday. With Nepal being so absolutely dirt cheap it was a very easy decision to make.

We left for Lhasa, Tibet in our 4wd tour and had an amazing 3 day drive down to the China/Nepal border, passing Mt Everest and even more stunning Himalayan scenery along the way. I didn’t have a digital camera back then and took just a few photos but luckily the memories of the beauty are still very easily held in my head.

Crossing the border we left the somewhat organised China behind and were not long after in the complete disorganisation that is Nepal. We were delayed for hours at the border as there had been a rock fall and the road was backed up for miles and supposedly impassable. We kept walking along the line of taxi drivers and eventually found one that was tired of waiting and said he would do his best to get through. It took him about 30mins to move 100 metres as the road was blocked with cars and all the drivers had just left them to sit in the shade and our driver had to get out and move all their cars one by one as he very tightly weaved his way through.

Once we were on our way it was very smooth sailing and the area blocking the road was passable for us in the car but the line of buses waiting to go through was what was causing the delay. As always happens on trips like this we got a flat tyre along the way but still reached Kathmandu after 2 hours due to our driver’s expertise and driving exceptionally fast and weaving through traffic in a very shaky old death trap.

I spent the next few days relaxing in the Thamel region of Kathmandu city and it was a real highlight of the trip. Wandering  through the little streets, stopping off in cafes to watch the world go by and buying plenty of $1 pirate DVDs to take home. Despite it being a nice to place to walk Kathmandu also had a lot of poverty and very poor people begging in the streets, I feel a little guilty but when the two lepers, all covered in lumps, tried to grab my leg as I walked past I did let out a little cry and move from them as quick as I could. I felt bad that I had treated them like ‘Lepers’ but I guess that is actually what they were and probably didn’t mind. Maybe the saying came from someone who had had the same experience as me.

After a week in Kathmandu I headed off with some guys I had met in China for Pokhara, Nepal’s second city, and we had planned to hike up into the Himalayas for a few weeks but on arrival we were told that it was the wrong season and there would be too much cloud to see anything. We didn’t want to walk for a week and then see cloud so we spent the next two weeks just doing nothing but play cards and become regulars at the movie days in the local restaurants. Gal and Kik spent most of their time smoking the cheap hash that they kept being offered in the streets. It was a hilarious sight when we hired a row boat and let these two row us for a while, they were so stoned that one was rowing forwards, the other backwards and all we did was go round in circles for 5mins and they never noticed.

I also got my second case of Girardeau in Pokhara and it laid me up in bed for a few days. It is a horrible feeling when you are peeing out of your bum nonstop and even worse when you are puking at the same time. I lived on rice and curd for 5 days and seemed to be getting better and headed back to Kathmandu where I needed to go and apply to get my visa for Myanmar (Burma).

I had bought a Bike when I was in china and intended to ride it through Nepal but once I saw the cheapness of the busses, $2 for a 10hr trip, I decided against it and just used the bike around Kathmandu’s streets and sights. I rode the 40mins to the embassy and headed back to watch some of my new DVD’s while I waited the three days for the visa to be ready. It turned out that buying the DVD’s was the best thing that I could have ever done with what eventuated the next few days.

It had been reported on the news that some Nepali workers had been kidnapped in Iraq and would be executed if certain demands were not met. The Nepali government stuck by the usual process of not negotiating with terrorists and as such the 12 men all got murdered on film. The business minded DVD sellers came up with an ingenious plan to download the footage of the incident and sell it off for $1 a pop to anyone that wanted it.

The 11 men had been shot and the poor other guy was laid on the ground while someone pushed a knife threw his throat and cut outwards, they then pulled his head back allowing blood to gush out as though someone had just released a valve on the Hoover Dam. When he had stopped shaking and his throat had stopped making gargling sounds his head was then hacked off and after holding it up for all to see it was dropped on the ground and kicked around like a football amongst the kidnappers. A day later the Indian government got 7 prisoners realised and the people of Nepal were very unhappy that their government had not achieved the same result.

I got up in the morning and rode my bike through the narrow streets of Thamel and was amazed that all the shops were closed. They were always open, day and night, as tourism was the biggest business in the region and they were all about the sell sell sell. I brushed it off as some sort of special day that no one works for religious reasons and continued on.

After a few minutes I rounded the corner onto a main street and immediately realised why the shops were closed. The city was rioting! In the distance down the road I saw hundreds of people yelling and throwing things, there was a huge plume of smoke going into the air from the middle of the road and it looked like shops were having their windows smashed. I stopped and freaked out for a little bit and wondered what I should do? I came to the conclusion that they were protesting killings and would never kill a tourist due to it being their main economy and decided to keep going on my way and hope for the best.

As I got closer I could see that they had knocked two motorbikes down in the street and set fire to them and also dragged some tyres from a local shop to keep the smoke pluming. They had also set fire to two shops and one guy was upstairs and throwing everything from inside the shop down into the fire while everyone cheered. I asked someone what the hell they were doing and he just yelled ‘feck the government’

I kept on riding and saw that no-one was watching me and became a little calmer as I rode past another three tyre fires and realised that I was through the worst of it and the road was now clear. I took a deep breath and chuckled a little about what an experience that was and hoped it might be over by the time I got back.

I rode for another 15mins and into the next neighbourhood of Kathmandu and nearly fell off my bike in horror. The previous riot was nothing compared to this one. There were thousands of people in the street and fires all over the place. I kept my notion of them not hurting tourists and kept riding through, stopping once to watch as a another shop was being gutted upstairs and having all its computers and chairs thrown down into the streets. It was hilarious when as one computer fell down it clipped some power lines and they sent sparks flying in all directions upon us and all these hard core protesters scattered in fear, I was the only one left in the street near the fire. I looked at one guy as I rode off and said ‘You Pussies’ he just lowered his head and looked away.

I finally reached the embassy and told the guy there that it was madness out in the streets today, he just smiled and gave me my passport back. I really wanted some reassurance from him that it was no big deal and nothing to worry about and his little smile didn’t do anything to calm the fact that it could be getting worse as I ride back and I was now in an area of town that you don’t really want to hang around in.

The ride back was much the same as the ride down except for a few more buildings on fire and a lot more people joining in on the protests, if you can call them that. This had been going on for over 2 hours by now and still there was no presence of police or army in the streets which surprised me, I thought that maybe they were letting the locals get it all out of their systems and come out to chase them off when their adrenalin had calmed down.

I was about 10mins from the hostel and taking the side streets back when all of sudden I got hit with a feeling that stopped me dead in my tracks. I suddenly couldn’t breath and my eyes were stinging and so watery that I could not see out of them. I put my T-shirt over my face but it did nothing so I sat on the bike and pushed myself forward opening my eyes every few seconds to see if I was still going the right way. Some people came running from a side street carrying a lifeless body all covered in blood and I asked them what was happening?

The just yelled ‘Gas, Gas run’

I screamed at them ‘where, which way’

To their reply of ‘It doesn’t matter its everywhere, run’

All I could say to myself was ‘oh feck’

At first I thought that the fire was burning paint and this was causing the fumes but after a few minutes it dawned on me that the police had arrived and I was riding through tear gas. I had no idea if I should go forwards or backwards as I didn’t know which way the gas had come from to reach me. I thought that I should keep moving forward as if I go back I am heading more to the centre of the trouble, as I rode off with my eyes closed I was thinking that if it gets any worse I think I’ll be collapsing in a heap and who knows what else.

It only took a 5mins until I could see through my watery eyes and was able to take decent breaths again so I started pedalling quickly as I wanted to get back to the hostel and wake up my Israeli roommate to take him back out into the streets to watch. I was enjoying this now knowing that tear gas won’t kill me. I raced into the hostel and saw an Italian guy on the floor hiding. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was scared for his life and didn’t want to be seen. I laughed and told him to get up and come with us outside and join in the fun. He declined and kept praying on the floor.

I woke Gal up and told him he had to come with me as it was like Gaza strip outside, fresh from his 3 years of national service I thought he might enjoy it. We headed back out and saw that even the tourist streets of Thamel were now full with protesters and tourists taking photos and following them. The softness of the protesters was shown again when the 50 of them were chanting and cheering with signs as they rounded a corner only to meet a line of 4 police. They all stopped mid chant and started heading back from where they had come with their heads down. One guy kept walking and as he passed the police they did nothing so he let the others know and they all resumed full chant and marched past the police, looking very nervous as they did.

We got back to the main street, and epi-centre, of the riot only to find it blocked by soldiers who were letting no-one pass. I told them it was OK as we were tourists and not here to riot, just to watch, but it didn’t work. Instead we went one street over and then back along a side street to where it was all happening, showing some fresh rioters the way as we did.

The next hour was spent watching them set fire to more buildings and target anything that had Arabic writing on it. Once all the shops had been gutted by fire the rioters headed for a nearby mosque and started trying to climb the fences, at the same time a helicopter came over head and started shooting tear gas canisters in amongst us. I wanted to stay a little longer but Gal told me

‘I am from Israel, when the helicopters come it’s time to run, trust me’

I did and we headed back to the hostel full of stories for all the other guests.

The buying of so many DVD’s was a good thing as at 2pm that day the government imposed a curfew for the whole of Kathmandu and it lasted for the next 51 hours as people had started to riot again the next morning. On day three of the curfew we snuck outside as we had used up all the toilet paper, and newspaper, in the hostel and needed more. We found some soldiers sitting in the street and asked them where we could get some, they knocked on a door and we were lead down a side path and from a neighbours backyard 5 rolls of toilet paper, and 4 packs of cigarettes, were thrown over the back fence.

We sat and had a smoke with the soldiers, who could not care less that we were out and about, when a police chief turned up and demanded that we leave for home. I explained that we were tourists and unable to wipe with our hands as locals do and were desperate for toilet paper. He didn’t seem to care and threatened to arrest us if we did not leave. Gal decided now would be a good time to start an argument with him and I decided now would be a good time to drag Gal away and do as he said.

As we rounded the corner for home a little voice peeped from the distance ‘Curfew internet’. We looked around and saw the boy from our local internet shop and went in to send some emails home. The place was full of tourists and I looked over some shoulders to see the type of messages being sent. Most were the usual that we would all send but one guy was saying how it was dangerous and how  he was worried for his life etc, all I could think was that if you are worried for your life then why did you sneak out on the streets in curfew.

We heard on the radio that on day 3 the curfew was lifted from 5-7pm so we all headed for a restaurant to get some food. The place was packed and the cooks couldn’t get the food out quick enough to the people. At 7pm they realised that people were still eating and waiting for food so they pulled their shutter down and told everyone to be quiet and keep eating. About 10mins later there was a knock on the shutter and it opened to 4 police with batons out and wanting to know what was happening. The owner kept pointing to us, which we thought was a bad sign, so we dropped some money and left.

As we walked down the street we heard voices behind us yelling ‘run, run’ and a stick hitting the ground. Gal and I both agreed it was the police and that we were not going to run. The yells kept coming and the knock of the stick on the ground kept getting louder and we could hear footsteps coming up behind us. We held strong and said there was no way we were running and we would take the whack with the stick as best we could.

The footsteps got closer and we were gritting and teeth waiting to be whacked, I said to Gal how much it was going to hurt and we both laughed and waited for it. At the same time a person ran alongside us and as we looked it was a little Japanese man saying

‘Ha Ha Ha, curfew, curfew, Run RUN’

We pee’d ourselves laughing and heard the police in the back do the same. Back at the hostels we continued to watch DVD’s hoping the curfew would be over soon.

The next day we were allowed out between 9-11am and again from 4-7pm and finally on day 5 everything was back to normal and the street life carried on as though nothing weird had even happened. We felt a bit lost as we had spent so long inside that now we had freedom we didn’t actually know what we wanted to do so we just wandered the streets again and found the guys still selling the beheading videos even though they faced jail time for even holding a copy. Most other tourists fled the city for India as it was the second time in a month that Kathmandu had seen problems.

While the curfew was on we watched BBC news constantly looking for updates about what was happening. We wanted to see what the foreign news reports were showing compared with what we were actually seeing from being there. The report never came and the best we got was a little sub-heading once that said ‘Curfew imposed for a second day in Kathmandu’ at the bottom of the screen. We felt let down.

See photos for Nepal:

 

 

The Lady that got burnt

I have never written about this travel incident before nor even told more than 3-4 people about it, to this day it still brings a tear to my eye to remember it. It is the worst thing I have had to experience in the life I have lived. I can only call this story ‘The lady that got burnt’

Leaving Edinburgh after working and partying for 8 months was hard but it was also so exciting to head to South Africa and see Eilidh and Tracey again and to do some travelling with them. We had all met on our trip through the middle east and were so looking forward to travelling together again especially in Tracey’s home country.

I arrived a few days after Eilidh and was driven by Tracey’s sister the hour’s drive to meet up with them in Moussel Bay. As expected they were already on the wine and beer and ready to party. That was basically what we did for the next few days in the beginning of our trip up the garden route until we reached Port Elizabeth for a nights rest.

We started the drive to Grahamstown the next day late and were excited to be getting there for their big yearly festival when all the students graduate from university. We were in a real party mood and knew that rocking up to a party town would bring out the best and worst in the three of us.

Tracey always seemed to drive at a high speed but it also seemed normal when on the South African highways. On this day however it was a little more worrying when at 130kms per hour in the middle lane of a three lane highway the car started to wobble and swerve all over the place, luckily Tracey did a great job and got the car safely to the edge of the road. We were on a section of road built upon the side of a hill so there was little room to pull off the road before you were against the guard rail.

After assessing the damage to the car we saw that all we had to do was change a tyre and we would be away again, no problem as I had changed a lot of tyres and knew how simple it was. I had the girls stand at each end of the car and wave to other drivers to warn them that there was a problem and chocked the wheels of the car so that it would not roll back down the hill. It was a very freaky experience as at times I had to lay down to get under the car and have my legs out near the traffic lanes of the road.

Cars didn’t really see the point in slowing down or in trying to keep their distance from us, I found out after that some cars were driving at very high speed and within a few feet of where my legs were in the road. Thankfully we fixed the tyre and were back on our way after about 20mins, I started chain smoking the strong cigarettes I had as my adrenalin was pumping so much after the incident. It really was one of the scarier things I had had to endure, little did I know that less than 3 hours later it would seem like a holiday experience to what was to come.

We forgot the tyre incident, laughed about it and kept having our usual great time on the road. Eilidh as usual feel asleep on the back seat and I kept chain smoking and talking with Tracey to make driving easier for her. In the distance we could see some smoke over the road and brushed it off as a small bushfire which was not uncommon. As we got closer we realised that it was not a bushfire but a car that was on fire, still we brushed it aside and thought it had been an accident before and no need to panic.

Just seconds later we realised that the accident was not a thing to ignore, it had actually just happened and we were the first vehicle on the scene. We stopped and I Jumped out of the car to rush over and help, I still cannot remember whether I had put my shoes on first or just run barefoot through the broken glass. I came to the first vehicle and saw steam coming from its front and water leaking underneath, behind it was another car that was smouldering and had a small fire under the hood. I asked the guy at the first car what had happened and he said he was driving behind the car and suddenly it burst into a cloud of smoke, he rammed as he could not see where he was going, it then burst into flames.

I asked if he was OK as he had blood all over his arms and also as to what we could do to help. He told me that he had cut his arm busting the window open on the other car and dragging the kids out to safety, I looked across and saw two kids sat on the ground with a look of fear in their eyes and not making a sound. I asked him if there was anyone else in the car and he replied

‘I don’t care… they are black, I got the kids out and that is all I care about’.

I am not sure if the man meant to be racist or if it was the shock of the moment but being South Africa apartheid was still very real to many and it probably was his real thinking at the time.

I looked back to the car on fire and saw that the father was at the backdoor of the car and his wife, the kid’s mother, was trapped inside. The noises this man made are the sounds that bring a tear to my eye, It is a sound I had never heard before, never heard since and hope I never have to hear again. It was not a scream, and not a cry it was just a noise of pure desperation and anguish, truly an indescribably sound.

I rushed to the man and started to help him pull his wife out of the car, the heat from the flames was very intense and I noticed the man’s very black hands and arms had huge white patches on them, where his skin had melted away. We got his wife to the edge of the car window and I thought she was going to get out and left the heat to stand at a distance. As bad as this is to say, and it would be funny if not for the circumstances, the wife had such a big bum that when we pulled her to the edge of the window her bum was too big to pull over and the husband had to let her drop back in.

I rushed into help again and the same thing happened, I feel quite sad knowing that if had just stayed that bit longer and not worried about burning myself badly the lady then would not have had to experience what happened next.

As I stood back for the second time and watched her fall back in, the car made a ‘woosh’ sound and went up in flames even more and instead of seeing the lady and the flames behind her I was seeing the ladies face behind the flames. The flames were immense and she was stuck in them, I stood shocked and all I could think to myself was ‘Am I about to watch somebody burn alive’ and I didn’t know what to think to this thought. It was the worst feeling and thought I have ever had to think through. I could not even see the ladies face, I could only see the whiteness of her eyes and the complete fear in them. She did not make a sound, like the kids she just had the biggest look of fear in her eyes and was silenced by the shock

Not the husband though, he was now making those noises that I never want to hear again louder than ever, which snapped me back to the fact that we have to get this lady out. At the moment his last scream was heard all his strength was put into pulling his wife’s big bum over the car door and getting her to the ground. As he did I rushed over with someone else who had appeared and we dragged her off to safety, her body was smouldering, her clothes and shoes had melted to her body and still she made no sound just that look of fear in her eyes.

Luckily a nurse had arrived in another car that stopped to help and called an ambulance and immediately went to the lady, she had been looking after the kids until the mother was rescued from the car. Tracey and Eilidh were in shock over the incident and none of us knew what to say or do, there was really nothing we could do and I often wonder if that lady lived. In some ways I hope she did but in others I hope that maybe she didn’t! She was in a terrible state when she got out of the car.

I told Tracey and Eilidh that we should leave as there were to many people about already and there was nothing we could do to help. We went to the car and started driving off in silence, I continued to chain-smoke more than before and after 20mins Tracey asked me to drive as she was not feeling well.

We got to Grahamstown 2 hours later, pitched our tent, got a drink and sat and tried to talk about things other than the accident. None of it worked and we realised we had to go to bed and hope for a better day tomorrow, I was the only person that could even finish their drink that night, some things never change I guess.

We woke the next day and heard that we had gone to bed and missed the best party that Grahamstown had ever had in its history, yet we were not really that bothered about it.

See photos for South Africa:

 

Close calls on the Gypsy Train

When people mention Romania I always seem to hear a mention of the dreaded Gypsies that you meet all across Europe and how annoying they are. I had come across them a few times so far and was a little worried to be heading to the country they seemed to originate from but had to go and see Draculas castle in person.

I left early in the morning from Varna and took the train to the Romanian border and waited a few hours to get my connecting train onto Bucharest. I could have taken a direct train but it would have cost an extra 4 Euros which adds up to a night’s accommodation in a lot of the countries I was travelling at that time and I knew how much fun waiting in train stations and people watching can be.

I found where I needed to be at the station and got my ticket and was immediately pounced on by taxi drivers telling me that the train was delayed for 6 hours and that it would be better for them to drive me there and that 15 euro was a very good price. I returned to ask the ticket lady if the train was indeed delayed, to which she replied ‘of course not’. Well that is what I guess she said anyway, couldn’t understand really but the taxi drivers immediately said she was wrong.

I spent the next 2 hours waiting for my train, trying my best to ignore the constant noise of the drivers harassing me. When my train arrived on time and I headed for it letting them know that it was here and not delayed, they all couldn’t care less and just went outside to wait for the next tourist they could try to scam.

I have always found that the best judge of what there is to do in a city is to wait for the local scammers to come up and offer you things. In Cambodia they offer a trip to the killing fields, to the shooting range, they then offer drugs or women to you so you know that those are the main sights in town that you can consider going to see. I had been in Bucharest for less than 30mins and I was offered drugs, then girls, then boys! I declined on all three and decided that with those choices I would only need one day in the city to see the sights before I head for Brasov and Draculas castle.

Brasov is probably the main tourist trap in Romania and it was not a disappointment. I enjoyed wandering the little town and taking the walk up the hill for the fantastic view that it offered. The scenery was amazing and the local life around the streets was a great thing to experience. I had already decided to head to Sighisoira the next day and that I would take the cheapest possible train, as I always do, to get there. I had been told by many locals and tourists that I should not do it as the train is dangerous for tourists and dubbed the Gypsy Train for a reason.

I said ‘screw it’ and thought that if I can survive my Indian journey then I can survive a few gypsies. I got to the station and got the ticket for the 4 hour train ride no problems and was happy to see when I got onboard that the carriage was completely full and the majority of people seemed friendly, as most Romanians are, and having a good time. The only problem I had was the local drunk who decided to sit opposite me and mumble away a load of crap for the next few minutes.

I had sat next to a lot of drunks and knew that when things like this happen they always want something from you, so be strong and except nothing from them or they will use that against you later. Mr Drunk started to sober up a little and pulled out a plastic bottle of what can only be described as ‘rocket fuel’ to start drinking. He offered some to me and forced me to smell it but I held strong and let him know nicely that I would go without.

He really started hammering the stuff down and the more he drank the more he looked at me and yelled some stuff. I was guessing it wasn’t good stuff when most of the people in the carriage were looking around and seemingly a bit embarrassed by him. One older man came up and told me to ignore the drunk and go to sit with him, he then signalled that the drunk was a very bad man. I said I was OK and knew I would be with so many people on the train. The ticket conductor kept passing through and laughing at me, I made a point of always giving him a big smile back.

As the journey went on Mr Drunk had nearly finished his half litre of rocket fuel. I also noticed that a big majority of people were leaving the train and I was left in the carriage with Drunkey, a young man and his daughter and around 4 others. Drunkey also seemed to notice this and started to get more animated in his attempted conversations with me. He now pointed at me, signalled money with his fingers and showed a fist or two to me insinuating that if I dint pay I would be in trouble.

I called his bluff and pointed to my wallet and said ‘yeah it’s OK I’ve got money, no problem its fine’. This continued for another 25mins and I was starting to feel really uncomfortable. The climax came when Mr Drunk stood up and came towards me and fell on top of me, I had my fists clinched and was ready to wallop him when I realised that he wasn’t lunging for me, he was trying to pull the emergency stop but was too drunk to stand.

It turned out that Drunkey had missed his stop and now needed to get off the train urgently. The locals all stopped him from pulling the emergency stop so he just mumbled some expletives, I assume, and headed for the door. By this time the train was not moving at full speed but it was moving at a decent pace, Drunkey didn’t care, he opened the door and despite yells from people to stop he stepped out of the train. We all looked back and saw him laying across the tracks beside ours and moving a little trying to get up.

I am not sure if he ever did get up or if he just passed out and got run over by the next train passing through. Either way I wasn’t so bothered about it, if a train had got him then it might have made life a lot easier for his family, living with a drunk like that as a poor villager must be a horrible thing.

I was now relieved and thought the worst was over so I offered the young guy with his kid another cigarette. I had given him one earlier to try to by his support when Drunkey was giving me hassle. I think the only reason I smoke when I travel is that I find it a great way to start a small friendship with locals, hoping that when things seem dicey they will then feel the need to help you instead of turning the other way.

This policy seemed to pay off about another 30mins further into the trip when a huge gypsy farmer came into our carriage and once he found out I spoke English it was game on. He looked me up and down and with a sinister look in his eye he just mumbled ‘ahhhh, English’ and smiled. I knew he was only thinking one thing….Money.

He sat opposite me and starting trying to have a conversation which I had to go along with in the hope that if I made a nice impression then he wouldn’t rob me as he seemed to be planning. The young man came across and joined him, leaving his young daughter at the window on the other side of the carriage. The conductor then came through and laughed at me more than he had before, I again beamed my smile back and just thought ‘Oh feck’

Our conversation went nowhere as expected but it kept being about money, no matter the language people speak you can always tell when things are about money, it’s that small thing of rubbing fingers together that gives it away. I knew was I was in a spot of bother and had it confirmed when I was left out of the conversation and farmer man, with forearms bigger than Popeye’s and full of cigarette burns, started talking with the  young man while pointing at me and doing that finger thing. I was very annoyed with myself for getting into this situation but kept smiling as though I knew nothing was wrong and thought about what I had on me, where, and what I could afford to lose and what I would have to fight them for. I even considered grabbing the guy’s daughter and using her as some sort of leverage, that would have just got me killed though, but a fight is a fight and you have to do what you have to do to win.

To this day I am certain that making cigarette friends with the young man is what saved me from a mugging as throughout the whole discussion about me he kept saying ‘Nah nah nah Polizei Polizei’. I don’t care where you are from, this translates into all languages as they are only talking about one thing.

At the point when I was most ready for it all to go horribly wrong the train went into a tunnel and everything went pitch black. I immediately freaked and put my arm directly up along the middle of my face, covering my throat in case anybody lunged and tried to grab me by it. I used my other had to search my pocket for my lighter and lit it as quickly as I could so that I could see exactly what my two potential attackers were doing. The tunnel seemed to go on forever and when the light came at the end I truly understand the meaning of the famous quote.

The train continued and I was super excited when we reached our stop and couldn’t get off quick enough, making sure I was protecting my pockets the whole time. The conductor gave me one last laugh, the young man invited me to his house and said that if I bought his daughter a new bike that she would be so happy and the Gypsy farmer just stayed on the train looking very very disappointed.

I told the young man that I had to go meet with the friends that I had told them on the train would be waiting for me at the platform, it’s not lying if it’s self preservation, and walked quickly in whatever direction he was not headed.

I made it to my hostel and told the young guy on the desk about my train trip, he was amazed that I had taken the gypsy train and not surprised at all by the story I told him. I never did actually make it Draculas castle either.

See photos for Romania:

 

The day they wanted to Kill me

I felt a bit bad on my bus ride to Peshawar. I was on a luxury class bus and the only foreigner onboard yet the hostess lady after explaining the rules of the bus in Urdu then started in English. She had terrible English but was trying really hard and after 2 mins had got her first sentence out and went for sentence number two. I was going to tell her not to bother as I understood enough but thought this might hurt her confidence in speaking my language at another time, so I smiled and listened hard while she was explaining. It took a while but all I can say is her English was so much better than my Urdu,  she did a great job.

As we drove into Peshawar I thought we were driving into the depths of hell. There was so much pollution about that the sky was a cloud of exhaust fumes, it really was filthy but how can you judge when so many places don’t have the luxuries we have. I have to live with this for a few days, they have to live with this for life. I’ll just have to blow my nose each night and try to sell the tissue back to Shell to be re-used at a gas station at a later date I thought.

I got a rickshaw taxi to my hostel in town and the larger than life and very anti American owner, let’s call him Mohammed,  sent me to my room and asked what excursions he could arrange for me while I was there. I mentioned me desire to go to Dara Town, a tribal village 40mins south that make illegal weapons and smuggle them across the border to Al Qaeda and rebels in Afghanistan. This tour was stopped by the Pakistan government after September 11 and I assumed it was just the government being careful and over cautious.

It wasn’t until I had paid a hefty fee($30) to Mohammed and headed off on my trip to Dara Town that I had realised it wasn’t the government stopping us going, it was the village itself saying we support Bin Laden and we don’t want white people here. Mohammed had not made this clear and told me he had friends there and all is well and we will have a fun day shooting guns and seeing people make them by hand. He told me to dress in whatever I wanted and be at reception at 8am.

When I arrived he immediately questioned my attire and said I would need to get changed as I stood out too much. A few minutes later I was wearing a white Muslim style robe and a Muslim hat that are so popular there and off we went

We stopped first in Dara City, a few kilometres from the village, and met with Mohammed ‘s friend. His friend said he was the police chief in the city of 6 shops but he looked like the local hash dealer to me. His police desk was in front of a wall of guns and filled with cigarettes and set of scales on top. Mohammed bought a block of hash and offered me a smoke which I declined, I was heading to no-man’s land and wanted a clear head. I had asked that if the police can’t go into the village then what happens if someone gets killed, the response, well they die! As easy as that, they die. I pushed the issue a bit and he followed up with the repercussions of killing someone. If the dead persons family deem the killing wrong then they kill the killer, if his family deem that wrong then they kill back in revenge and it keeps going until someone says ‘Oh it’s ok, he deserved to die, he should not have done that’

Maybe I should have been a little concerned by his time, heading into a no man’s land where death is a small issue in day to day life, but I was still excited by being off the tourist trail and seeing something uniquely different ‘what’s the worst that can happen’ I thought.

As we drove towards the village I was told that the main entrance was being guarded by police to stop tourists going through so we would need to go the back way into town. A little worry was setting in here, especially with Mohammed now high on hash, and it got worse when the driver swung on the wheel of the car and I was told to get on the floor as the back entrance was being guarded and they didn’t want the police to see me or we would all be in trouble.

I got back up to my seat when told it was ok and realised we were now inside the barbed wire fence that separated the village from the normal law and order of the outside world. Enjoying the scenery and getting excited for a day in the village was overcome by Mohammed telling me to read a book quickly, I didn’t have a book and told him so, he gave me his newspaper and reading glasses to put on and told me to cover my face as too many people were looking into the car and seeing me and that was not good, we could have problems.

My lack of brown underwear was looking like it could have been a bad idea at this moment and intensified when we got out of the car and within seconds 6 locals had pounced on us. Not physically but verbally for now, one man and Mohammed were now having a shouting match and pointing at me. I knew this was not good but tried to bluff my way though by smiling through gritted teeth and pretending everything was normal. The shouting match lasted 5mins before Mohammed told me to go with him. I smiled and said goodbye to the locals but they looked at me in disgust and seemed like they were ready to spit in my face.

We entered a house and took a photo of a guy squatted on the ground making AK-47 parts using just a file and a vice. As soon as the photos were taken we left the house and headed back for the car while being watched by the local contingent. Mohammed said as soon as we got inside the car

‘OK we are going now, you can take as many photos as you want from inside the car but we are not getting out again’

‘What do you mean we are leaving? You said we could stay all day’ I replied .

Without any hesitation he responded very bluntly and directly to me

‘ You see that man over there’

‘Yes your friend you were talking to’

‘No he is not my friend, he wants to kill you!!’

Now my ears pricked up and I realised that at this exact moment I was in one of those experiences that end so badly for so many stupid tourists that you here about on the news.

‘WHAT’ what do you mean he wants to kill me, you said it was safe for me to come here’

‘It is safe don’t worry you are with me, but if you had come just you and the driver then, sorry, I don’t think you would be going home tonight’

The story went on and the man he had argued with had told him that he was a bad Muslim for bringing an American to their home, he explained that I was Australian and wanted to see their country and the man had  none of it. He told Mohammed that it would be better for him and safer for me if I left immediately. If we did not leave now then they would make it so I would not capable of leaving.

At the end of his rant I asked if now was probably not a good time to ask for a photo with an AK-47? He said we would have to go back to the police chief’s house and do it there. I was content with this and still didn’t realise how much danger I was in, I still don’t to this day to be honest. As we started to drive off two AK-47’s opened up full automatic fire near to our car, I had seen black hawk down the night before  and knew that unless you hear whistling of bullets, or car windows smashing, then the bullets are not near to you and realised that they were probably just testing their weapons, ready to sell.

This gunfire lasted the full 5mins it took us to drive out of town and back to his friends shop. The chief looked a little shocked that we were back so soon and he and the owner proceeded to have a long debate about what feckers they are in the town and that they should all be blown up. I interrupted their rant and asked about my photos with some guns, the Chief sent an 8 year old boy off and he came back 5mins later with an AK-47 and some pistols for me to wear. While taking the photos I was constantly shown that the guns were loaded and the safety was off.

The chief even offered to take me to Afghanistan to deliver some guns with him.

‘No Passports, No Visas just me and you and two days on horse.’

I mentioned that it could also involve bandits and me dead in the desert to never return, he insisted it was safe but I decided the best thing was to continue back to Lahore and keep carpet shopping with the old American guy who always walked 10 metres in front of me as he thought we would get lynched because I was showing knees and elbows! You meet all sorts wandering I guess.

I later sent the photos of me with the guns off as postcards to friends and family with the quote on the back ‘Al Qaeda’s latest recruit’. Lucky I’m not writing this post from Guantanamo bay I guess.

See photos for Pakistan: