05 Jan Crossing Baluchistan With Pedro
A turbaned Pashtun offers me a joint with a toothless smile and a nod of his head before he squats on his haunches. “Afghanistan”, he says, pointing to the joint and then to the right of the sun sinking slowly toward the horizon. Twenty metres to my left, a dozen men on prayer mats bow in unison toward Mecca — a thousand-plus miles to the west over brambles and hillocks of scorched, ochre earth. If nowhere has a middle, it’s got to be close.
I’m in the semi-lawless province of Baluchistan — a Texas-sized territory divided among Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan — during a roadside break, three hours into a 24 hour journey from the Pakistan-Iran border to the region’s capital, Quetta in Pakistan.
Kicking up a plume of dust, I find a bush where I can take a piss away. Looking back over my shoulder, I notice Pedro’s head disappearing behind a thick cloud of bluish smoke. This should be an interesting trip.
I’d first met Pedro — a Madrileño — briefly in the Iranian city of Esfahan a couple of weeks earlier. Esfahan, the jewel of ancient Persia, with its bustling bizarre, its alluring, waterfront teahouses on the Zayandeh River and its mesmerising, blue-tiled mosques. It was a city where I’d happily wandered without purpose for the best part of a week, drinking tea, playing backgammon and smoking the local water pipes, ghalyuns.
Not so Pedro. He’d spent his nights in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, sleeping rough and his days with the locals, learning their customs and sharing what little he had. Pedro was slightly built and softly spoken but with a quiet assuredness I’d never seen in someone of 26. He had a real passion for people. Nothing about him was superficial.
Pedro and I had met up again briefly in the mud-brick city of Yazd — where we sampled a sinewy, camel stew at an underground restaurant — and serendipitously, for a third time, at the Pakistan Embassy at Zahedan. It was in Zahedan that we decided to cross Baluchistan together. A good thing because semi-lawless deserts scare me a bit.
In true subcontinent style, our bus is an extraordinarily colourful affair, that has very little business being anywhere near a road. Doubled in height from the battered luggage lashed by netting to the roof, and with its back three rows of seats lost in a sea of Iranian contraband, I’m amazed it moves at all.
Back on the road, the air from a dozen wide-open windows quickly disperses the pungent odour that only 30 unwashed, smoking men in a small space can muster. Within minutes I realise it was our driver who’d been so generous with the Afghani hashish back at our rest stop. I get the sense he is now aiming the bus rather than steering it, using the tarmac as a vague guide to direction more than a surface to drive on. This should alarm me, but it doesn’t.
Pedro and I don’t talk much, content on taking in the the arid majesty of Baluchistan. It’s a comfortable silence. I take a pistachio from a paper bag, split its shell with my thumb and munch contentedly. It’s just part of the bounty of nuts and dried fruit that we’ve been plied with by our overly-generous, local travelling companions.
These people have little, yet they offer it so freely. Many are probably members of one of the 200-plus Baluchistani tribes who call this region of Pakistan home. Some of these tribes are still nomadic and manage to eke out a meagre living by herding goats with their camels. I feel embarrassed by the sense of trepidation I had had for this leg of the journey.
As unlikely a pair of travel companions as Pedro and I made, after Quetta we travelled onward together by train to Multan, where we spent the next week as all-inclusive guests of an overly generous Shi’ite family. I’d like to say we’ve been in constant contact since that day, but the truth is, I haven’t written to or heard from Pedro since we said our goodbyes at the railway station in Lahore.
I was on my way to the Holiday Inn for a little indulgence (BBC World on the box and maybe, just maybe, my first beer in a month a half), whereas Pedro had vague plans to head overland to Varanasi in India, where he’d spoken of a Yogi that he’d like to reunite with. I bet the Yogi could learn a thing or two from Pedro.
Photograph courtesy of Beluchistan.