house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

'We Scare Because We Care'

I'm driving through Islamabad at night. Always a high-adrenalin venture. Like an impure drug, you never know what trip you're going to get.

People, goats, dark coats. Bicycles. Stray dogs. Children carrying bundles of grass on their heads. Party-goers. Soldiers with guns. Women laden with logs.

What I'm getting tonight, on the darkest and windiest street in this town made of squares, is this: an entire family, women swathed in dark veils, men with purposeful gaits, children playful at their hems. Children, my Sweet God, children: they trot along in little shalwar-kameezes of midnight blue, utterly invisible. They hold on to their mothers' dupattas. They run in little arcs sweeping into the middle of the street..

Now, cars are coming from the other direction, headlights full on, of course. Jeff Buckley is singing Hallelujah with that voice of smoke and despair. I am blind. I am deaf. I am exhausted.

At the last moment, I see this lot.. I can't swing out into the other lane because of all the oncoming traffic.. I break so hard my brains rattle. The family carries on, slow and oblivious, like a small herd of protected wildlife straying into the city. As I overtake them, I blow the horn, twice, long and hard. An Islamabad reflex: C'MON PEOPLE! I am screaming because there could have been dead children in the road.

Instead, I realise a moment later, there are scared children in the road. They had absolutely no idea of my drama-on-wheels. They don't understand traffic. They don't know pavements, what they look like, where they should be laid. They, finally, do not decide how to get from A to B, in the dark, along windy streets with no pavements (there was a path, but the Alpha male chose the road and the clan followed). And now the children are scared. But safe. But scared. But safe. But scared.

And so on. I am aghast with shame. What did I do that for? Why, once I managed to avoid them, did I blow the horn?

Then a thought: The adults will curse the gori and carry on, but the children, shocked to the core, may remember and feel the dread long into the future. I hope this moment has put cars at the top of their list of monsters, a fear as irrational and unshakeable as you get. I hope one day they'll keep their own families away from roads (without even exactly knowing why).

'We scare', in other words, 'because we care'*.

*Monsters Inc., with thanks for the rhyme that is right for the night....

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Hunza Hike (or The Goat and the Glacier)

We're hiking in Hunza. I'm not worried. I've read all about it. The website says:

'The trail is easy to follow and never overly steep.'

It starts almost vertical. We walk through deep Karakorum dust, clamber up boulders the size and texture of elephants. A twinge of alarm - are we on the right path? The gentle walk, remember? Hello?

But the guide doesn't have a) knowledge of other routes, b) enough English and c) mercy. Oh yes, we have a guide. He speeds along, hands in pockets. When occasionally we pass out, he stops and sighs. His eyes glaze over, fixed on random clumps of dirt. He's about 15 years old. Someone must have called him this morning and said TAKE THESE ANGREZI TO ULTAR MEADOW. GET A MOVE ON. PARKING LOT IN TEN. Just as he was getting ready for a meal of kebabs and yak's milk. A pleasant day of bed and Bollywood. He hates us. I would, if I were him.

'Climb north out of Karimabad village (2440 m), passing the spectacularly set Baltit Fort. Continue up through the Ultar Valley until you reach a gorgeously set meadow of the same name.'

We are now somewhere above Karimabad. The path is narrow and slippery, still vertical, about a million miles above the rest of the world, where apples grow, drums beat and people eat goats. I am trying to walk casually onwards, like I did this daily... I am trying, really, not to clamp onto one of these rocks and freeze. And most of all, I'm trying NOT to think of doing the same journey in reverse, downwards.

Oh-oh. I AM thinking of doing the same journey in reverse, downwards. Next, I'm clamped onto a rock and frozen. I can't move. M. peels me off and gives me a gentle, undignified push up. Imagine coaxing a donkey up a slope. A bit like that. I vaguely wonder what would be more culturally-appropriate: a push or a pull? The guide stops and scowls. 'A woman's place is NOT hiking in the hills' his face seems to say.

I put one step in front of another, teeth clenched over streams of low, unladylike language. He won't see me like this again, I swear. I'll get to that snotty meadow. We pick our way through loose stones, along narrow ledges and cauldrons of dust. And then, small miracle, the path becomes level.

Oh what I would have given for a gentle, level path. And here it is. I dash along. Small detail: on one side, inches from where I step, the world ends. Just like that, exit right and vanish.

We are sandwiched between vertical walls: one going up into the sky, one falling to hell and a mad river miles below. And us, four crumbs in the middle, shuffling along the Ultar pass in search of some meadow.

Note how Kira, waltzing along the path and with a mountain above her head, finds it a perfect time to strike a pose. Note our guide: how close to the edge he stands, leaning over the void, hands in pockets. Perhaps it's a necessary lesson around here: maybe the locals have their toddlers routinely dangling above some precipice before they're out of nappies.  Instead, note how I've jumped into a dried up water channel hugging the wall.

That is because I am convinced the wall is pushing me towards the abyss; to make it easier, the path leans towards the said abyss;. and to seal the deal, the valley below, with all that crumbling rock and rushing river action, actually CALLS to the weary traveler to jump. I need blinkers.

Much later, we collapse on a flat rock, Kira and I. The men press on, to determine the lay of the land ahead (lunar and lonely, more  dust and rock fall). We close our eyes and take the first full breath since breakfast... Pheeew. It smells of fresh manure and warm morning breath. Furry flanks rub against our arms and we sit up in a sea of goats. Yellow eyes, a drumming of hooves, enough to dislodge pebbles and raise a cloud of dust. We vanish in the sedate migration. Kira holds out a dry apricot - a mini-goat is instantly glued to her side. He is sweet and naughty, just like she is. Her counterpart, you may say, in the herd. The boys come back and fish us out. The shepherd comes back and fishes the baby goat out of Kira's backpack where the dry apricots used to be. We all go on our way.

Up the hill, down the hill. To a grey meadow and back. To a slab of glacier that groans and darkens the valley. Through a vast horror and out. Kira finds a cave. M. discovers that if he holds my hand I won't slip away and break. I learn that if M. holds my hand I might fall but I won't fear.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

In a Haze, in Hunza

Hunza. In a complete haze, I will confess. No idea where to start, what to say.

How high the mountains? I could dig out some fancy words, murmur in metaphors about how the air vibrates with fresh autumn, how the sun makes the peaks burst into pink shards. Nah. I'm no lyrical travel writer.

Statistics, geography, population, politics, religion? No. You didn't open this blog to find a dry report.

The dangers, terrorism, corruption? Nope. Not got the temperament for investigative journalism.

Hotels and hikes, routes and restaurants? Never. This is not a travel brochure.

What then? (What is this blog, after all? And what kind of a writer am I? Hah - leave that alone. No time for existential angst).

Time to stare at the screen for a while then.