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Iran Leaving Pakistan

A lot can change in the space of 5 years. From climates; whether they be temperature related or political, wars, humanitarian crises, my personal crises– things inevitably change. But, what was never going to change was the list of no go zones I’d drafted earlier, before venturing into this big, scary world. Never would I foolishly travel to Afghanistan- south of Mazar-i-Sharif, Syria, the Darien Gap, Iraq south of Kurdistan, or the north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. So it was with silent trepidation that I found myself in Balochistan Province, Pakistan. I promised myself I would never be here.

Stepping over the hessian sacks of rice, past the entire bus of rough looking men sporting turbans and quizzical eyes, I bumbled to my rear window seat. I assessed the situation and it was getting bleaker and bleaker by the minute. I started questioning how I could be such a selfish bastard; not only disregarding my own life, but the lives of people that cared about me. I looked around and found comfort in seeing the only other person under the age of 40 – a 12-year-old boy. Surely terrorists wouldn’t target children?

Balochistan Province was the last hurdle in leaving Pakistan and entering Iran. Spread over three countries (Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan) the Baloch area has seen a regular insurgent movement, often linked to economic inequality, marginalisation and a lack of royalties from the resource rich area. A sad alliance of factors I’d seen so often during my travels.

Troubles had quelled recently due to an army intervention, but the provincial capital, Quetta, was more tense than any city I’d even been in. A spate of terrorist attacks had taken place over the last few months, targeting hospitals and police, with over 140 people being killed, and 220 injured. Each block had a roaming army of soldiers fully equipped with weapons and black balaclavas. The tension was palpable and it hung thickly in the air. I could have sliced it with my knife.

Soon after I’d arrived I was spotted by police and escorted to the only place in town that accepted foreigners, The Bloomstar Hotel. The owner had cottoned onto the traveller’s dilemma, and heartlessly proceeded to profiteer from terrorism by charging a premium on any room. I knew Quetta would cost me an arm and a leg – one way or another.

My movements around town were restricted between the Interior Ministry, where I was to apply for an NOC (Non-Objection Certificate) and the hotel. The NOC perfectly summed up not only Pakistani bureaucracy, but also that of the entire subcontinent. In order to leave town, I essentially needed a piece of paper saying I was in fact leaving town. Over the next 5 hours I moved from room to room explaining why I came to Pakistan, followed by the now melancholy chit-chat of cricket, what I thought of India, and finally telling government officials why I needed the NOC to leave. A lot of them had no clue.

From that point on, things got…stressful.

“Bhai (Brother), what time will my escort be ready tomorrow?” I asked the police officer.

“You take the night bus with Karbala pilgrims. No problems”, he replied.

From there, time momentarily froze as we wove in and out of traffic on his Honda 125cc. Usually tourists are given an armed police escort spanning desert wasteland from Quetta to Iran a near 1700km distance. I’d mentally prepared for this - for a long, long time. Any variation would spell stress for my mental state and would no doubt bring a rise in anxiety. It did.

Arriving back at the police station, I pleaded my case with the police chief in charge. To summarise, I was now travelling under the cover of darkness in one of the most dangerous provinces in Pakistan. I would be travelling with Shia pilgrims through a Sunni insurgency area demanding independence. The road I was on would be skirting 10kms south of Helmand and Khandahar province in Afghanistan – the heartland of the Taliban. And to put the icing on the cake, I’d be travelling without a permanent escort. It’s shit like this that I only tell my loved ones once I have completed it and returned safely.

In moments of silence between the chief and I, I gazed into naivety and stupidity, vividly remembering the YouTube video of the Spanish cyclist. He was in a convoy similar to mine. My cycling friend Rocio pulled out of Baluchistan, my other cycling friend Marc still hadn’t been through. I was the first. Maybe my luck would run out?

I was once again ushered to the Honda, where I was sandwiched between two police officers, with the lack of space pressing his AK-47 into my back. In a town where police officers had recently been targeted, we drove around for 45 minutes vainly trying to find a bus company that would accept me. In an age of mobile phones, any chance at anonymity was lost with each time we slowed down and asked a ragged looking stranger for busses heading to Iran.

As the Quetta landscape changed from harsh light to borrowed colours, my options were starting to dissipate. Things really couldn’t get worse.

I then looked at the TV and saw Donald Trump getting elected.

“Trump bad for Muslims”, one of them quipped.

“Trump bad for everyone”, I replied, to the acknowledgement of the entire room.

In the late afternoon I boarded the bus and no sooner we were roaring out of the depot with a flurry of indiscriminate horn blasts; a lasting memory of the subcontinent. We had a police escort to the edge of the town and then we were on our own.

A frantic mullah giving a sermon replaced the unmistakable, high-pitched Hindi music that I’d endured for the last 5 months. In my strung-out mind I swear I heard the words “Amerika” and “Jihad”. I was probably just being paranoid.

The bus sped constantly, bumping uncontrollably over the pothole-riddled road. Men started getting aggressive with the driver and an argument arose over his driving skills, or so I thought. The unmistakeable relief of hearing English in a foreign land arose, as a man described what was going on.

“Half the bus wants to stop and pray. The other half want to continue for your safety and because you are not Muslim”, he said.

I told him to pull over at the next mosque.

After stopping, the entire bus slowly shuffled out with a few “Shookria’s” (thank yous) thrown my way. A simple gesture went a long way, as for the next 12 hours I would have to continually exit the bus to register with the military, holding everyone else up. The bus driver still probably hates my guts. By the time I’d reached Taftan, the border town with Iran, I was well and truly mentally shaken. A soldier was waiting for me at the terminal and guided me to the local police station. I was given an empty jail cell to roll out my mat and get a few hours of well-needed sleep. In a few hours I’d be in Iran.

With the promise of a new country came the reality of yet another military escort. Again for my own safety I was not allowed to cycle until Bam, a further 300km away. With smooth, flat roads and fast drivers, I was expecting to arrive in Bam in less than 3 hours. What transpired was 13 different car changes in 14 hours. My escorts would speed for 20 minutes and then pull over and wait an eternity for the next car to turn up. I’d unpack and repack my bike every time and would then answer the “generic 5” (age, country, marital status, religion, thoughts of country) again and again.

Merely 2km from the city of Bam itself, it was still deemed too dangerous, even though by tomorrow night I would be freely roaming the streets. Sleep deprived, hungry, and utterly defeated, I wearily concluded that this was the worst start to a country, and I unfairly hated all Iranian’s for it.

Relative to Pakistan, Iran turned out to have a wealth of tourists. In the five nights I’d stayed in Bam, I’d seen more tourists than five months in Pakistan. As I settled back into a hostel environment, it became abundantly clear that I needed to;

a)Take more care of my personal hygiene

b)Wash my clothes on a more frequent basis

c)Speak English

d)Make the most of my time with westerners.

When Seb and Christine offered a chance at a homestay it didn’t take too long to accept; though paying to stay with locals still felt a little odd. We stayed with a local Baloch family, revering in the simplicity of life, whilst contrasting that to back home. Thankfully Christine was there, as I was too chicken shit to ride the camel. After relaxing with some welcome company, it was time to turn my wheel to Tehran and delve further into this misunderstood country.

In 2002, then president George W. Bush Jr. labelled Iran as one of the founding members of the “Axis of Evil”, sharing the inglorious title with Iraq and North Korea. A place on this axis was bestowed to nations hell-bent on sponsoring terrorism and threatening peace over the world. If I’d never travelled – in Iran, or in general - I probably would have believed the proclaimed “leader of the free world”.

Sure, the government has nuclear ambitions, but the gaping chasm between the establishment and Persian people/culture was truly astounding.

The practise of Taarof was perhaps my first indication Iranian’s weren’t as malicious as first thought. Taarof is like crossing a busy road in South East Asia. It’s virtually impossible for a westerner to fully grasp the concept and the only option is to tread blindly and not get crushed by the cultural truck.

Take buying food for example. I’d always have to overemphasise the motion of handing money to a shopkeeper. You see, Taarof dictates that accepting money straight away is impolite – obviously. The general rule is that the third offer is the binding one. If they take the money after the third offer, it’s Taarof. If they again refuse payment, it’s a gift. Express checkouts are non-existent in Iran and buying food at a bazaar can be painfully time consuming.

Then there was the countless times I’d be cycling along minding my own business, to have an Iranian violently pull over in his car and hand me 5 kgs of fruit. Or the time I fell asleep on a park bench, only to wake with my bicycle still there and a cake resting on my rear rack. Those evil bastards. The hospitality shown throughout my time in Iran perfectly encapsulates my time cycling through any majority Muslim nation – extremist hospitality.

After Yazd, an unseasonal cold snap shadowed me all the way to Tehran. Night-time temperatures plummeted to -15C, with my yoga mats and sleeping bag no match for Mother Nature in a callous mood. Looking back, I’m not really sure why I didn’t handle things smarter. There was certainly no prestige in cycling along an arterial highway for the next 12 days. But something felt so righteous about rolling into Tehran under my own steam. Whether it was because I had a friend there, or perhaps it marked the transition from foreign continents to something more familiar (Europe), I’m not sure. All I know is that my body and mind paid the price for my doggedness – it always does

I knew my health was starting to worsen quickly, as I rode my bike in the constant, cold headwind. The first to go was my appetite, later my balance and concentration, and finally my temper. Every 10 km’s I’d stop and restart, convincing myself that a brief pause in time would reset my cognitive functions. I’d forget simple tasks like sleeping with my water to stop it freezing overnight. I dreaded each breakfast, knowing no amount of MSG laden flavouring could mask the unpalatable taste of uncooked noodles. I’d take shortcuts setting up camp and regret it when trucks roared past throughout the night. I would lay awake in my tent void of any emotion and too tired to sleep. Below my neck would shiver, whilst above would resemble a furnace. Alas, each morning I packed up and kept going. Stubbornness knows no bounds. I limped into Tehran in the early hours of the morning and made my way to a prearranged hostel.

“You look like white paper”, noted Medhi with a broad smile and genuine warmth that I’d find not only in his personality, but inside his guesthouse.

I was finally out of the cold.

After getting settled in, Medhi drove me to the local doctor. Without travel insurance, I was initially fretting at the thought of an equally painful medical bill and the imminent ear lashing from Mum, asking why I didn’t have travel insurance. But as I took in my surroundings I realised my biggest concern was perhaps the quality of the hospital itself.

The examination and subsequent treatment came to a paltry $6AUD. I was ushered to a small cubicle that struggled to fit a bed. From there, my initial cloak wearing doctor vanished and a random person walked into my humble abode; wearing plain casual clothes and no gloves. With one fowl strike of a needle I was hooked into an IV bag which dangled from a rusted meat hook dangling from the ceiling. As the bag drained, my casual clothed doctor occasionally returned to stab another random needle into the IV bag, and at this time decided to stare at the mould on the ceiling, paying homage to the saying “ignorance is bliss”.

I’m not really sure what I stood to gain from this little undertaking. But I’ve come to the resolution that stubbornness is both vice and virtue. Through stubbornness I picked up pneumonia and a sinus infection. Although, through this act of stubbornness, I convinced myself that I was ready to circumnavigate Africa by bicycle. Time will tell.

I was sent back to the hostel with a bag of goodies for the next nine days. Every eight hours I’d have to take cough syrup, strong codeine and even stronger anti-biotics. I effectively became a live-in patient for the next few weeks, occasionally building up the strength to have a shower, or even walk to the bazaar. After constantly being on the move for the last year, being stationary for so long felt uneasy. And with my drug-taking regime resembling scenes from Woodstock 1969, I started to seriously weigh up my options.

I guessed it would take a month to cycle away from Tehran, given my health. My thoughts turned to home, and those thoughts manifested into looking out a plane window en route to Adelaide, Australia. My hometown. It was time to get better, see family, see friends, earn some money and attend a wedding. For what took nearly 1.5 years by bicycle, I was home in 32 hours nursing only jetlag.

ON COMING HOME

I’ve been home for nearly two months. Australia - the lucky country. Many people have asked the bleeding obvious, “So…what’s it like being home?” and in all honesty, I’m not really sure.

That first month home was like a dream. I got to converse with my family sans Skype. I got to hug my niece who was now walking and talking. I indulged in the long lost art of eavesdropping, and I even had a legally purchased beer. I shat sitting down in comfort. And I went to a functioning supermarket with every grocery imaginable. I didn’t even have to haggle! Beyond the 10kgs I’d quickly stacked on, the only worry I had was a small bout of anxiety seeing so many white people frantically run around the CBD in a pre-Christmas frenzy.

After constantly being on the move for well over a year, I was able to relish in procrastination and relaxation. I observed my hometown from a different side; a visitor, rather than a resident. Luckily, Adelaide has the evolutionary speed of a turtle, so it was refreshing to see that nothing had really changed.

But every so often, as time back home grew, so did a scepticism of a country that I’d never really questioned. From a young age we’re brought up in this jingoism that Australia is the greatest country in the world. Anything different would be “Un-Australian”, the worst insult one could get. My procrastination soon manifested into drawing parallels from my experiences abroad to those at home.

Throughout the subcontinent I started to really understand the plight of accessing clean water. Granted I had money to overcome the issue of hygiene and hydration, but the daily 500 Indian children who are under the age of 5 don’t – they simply die (Water.org). But Australia is the lucky country. We simply go to the tap to wash our hands, we complain about high water prices, and if we’re really fussy, we don’t even drink tap water at all.

In the mountains of Nepal, India and Pakistan I was invited into countless homes where cow faeces are burnt to generate warmth and heat stoves. I often sat in a smoky haze wondering how Australian’s would embrace the warming qualities of cow shit, and it only took a 24-hour state-wide blackout to confirm my suspicions. Australia is the lucky country, if our power system goes out for extended periods we’re entitled to money from our government as compensation. The monetary amount often equates to countless months income for the people sat across that smoke filled room I often found myself in.

In every single country I’ve been to I’ve been treated as family, a long lost friend, and most importantly, an equal human being. Countless times – as a complete stranger – I’ve been given food, had people pay for my meals and even had a few marriage proposals thrown on behalf of parents. The vindictive part of me assumes this boils down to white male privilege. But I’ve come to the honest conclusion that the poorest people in the world really are the friendliest.

I guess this is why it stings so much to be back in Australia where racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and bigotry have become so prominent. The rise of groups like “Reclaim Australia” and “United Patriots Front” are a disease driving through the veins of this country, riddled with bumper stickers saying “Fuck Off We’re Full”. Quite bizarre for a country with a population density of 2.91 people per square kilometre (8th lowest in the world). Then there is the resurgence of “One Nation”, a political party intent on literally creating one nation – for white people. Of course there are many Australian’s who don’t fit into the above, and perhaps I’ve become more cynical, but it’s the most overwhelming thing I’ve noticed. The world abroad has offered me so much, yet my own home, my own world, struggles to return the favour.

Many people will probably think I’m just another spoilt, whinging Gen Y (it’s what we’re good at). I’m sure I’d get the generic, “if you don’t love it, then leave!” quote from people that have never actually left Australia, let alone their own state. But, far from hating Australia, it’s actually quite the opposite - I really do love my country. And it’s this love that makes me demand so much more.

Boundaries come in many different forms. You can set boundaries for places you won’t travel. You can set boundaries for people you choose to trust, and you can set boundaries for what you can morally accept. The promise of circumnavigating Africa by bicycle demands no boundaries at all, and my heart skips a beat thinking of it. I wonder if Africa will change my perspective on life even more. Maybe Australia won’t be so bad when I return?

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