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“My name is Hellmut – you want smoke some joint” .
He had lit and was offering them a joint – on the bus!
Well, I could tell Al liked the smell so he quickly accepted it with a “Danke” (thank you in German, Al thought). He took three rapid puffs and passed it to Keith who took three puffs and passed what was left back to Hellmut.
Al was feeling quite self-conscious about smoking on a bus heading to Pakistan. He thought everyone was looking.
He turned round to look back down the bus.
Almost every seat had a man leaning out and looking back up the bus at him!
And, Al noticed, they were all grinning and smiling and nodding - as if to say “You are stoned now, as we are stoned too."
Al thought those men probably did not smoke cannabis but it must have been in their blood, handed down over the centuries.
He relaxed, chatted with Helmut a while – Helmut said he travelled that route every year for ten years. Then as the calming effect of the lovely hash took over, he sat and started to enjoy what was to be an incredible journey through the Khyber Pass.
The over-laden coach trundled on, struggling up hills and rounding bends with sheer drops, then down and up again. At the end of most down bits there was a small waterfall. At the end of each up bits there was a beautiful view, often including the same road below them, winding around the boulders in between the fields.
At some places there were what looked like caves in the sides of the hills.
We passed small groups of men that seemed to be just sitting and looking; we saw young boys driving herds of sheep or goats or camels and several times we had to stop to let them pass us.
Occasionally we saw groups of women carrying baskets, bundles or clay pots on their heads, trailed by urchin-looking children – her children always waving at the coach.
The women here were dressed very differently and, Al thought, more practically than those in Burkas. These showed their faces beneath head-scarves decorated with beads and chains and quite colourful too. These must be tribal mountain women, Al thought.
The coach was moving quite slowly and Al had a chance to take a couple of photographs through the window, of the valley below. He wished he had more film, but thought he would not be able to afford it .
Hellmut was quite jolly company and did lot of talking – they smoked another couple of joints.
He explained that he travelled this same route for years and the border post guards knew him – he always gave them a little money and they left him alone. He also said that every year he visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, India and Nepal, and arranged for shipments of hash to be sent back to London where his partner lived. He travelled for six months, then went back to London and his partner did the same. They were paying off customs everywhere, including the UK, and they were making a lot of money. But, he said, he preferred to stay in cheap hotels, not the big ones, and then he met people. So Hellmut too, was heading for the Hotel Rainbow.
“Very very cheap”, he said, “But it is OK for a few days, but do not eat their food – it is better to go out to eat in a secret local restaurant that I know, it is good and clean.”
Hellmut said that after Peshawar, he was heading to Lahore and then would fly to Amritsar where the “Golden Temple” was and where travellers could sleep and eat for free, courtesy of the Sikhs. The same plan as Al and Keith's – they used to call it the “Hippy Trail.”
It was quite a journey until they reached Peshawar, but once there, with Helmut leading the way, they soon found and booked into the Rainbow Hotel. Reception gladly changed Afghani money into Pakistani Rupees.
The room for Al and Keith was small with two beds, but the view out of the window into the street below was good.
It was May 5 1972.
The street looked like a chaotic mishmash of tumble-down buildings with broken or torn flags hanging everywhere. The road was pot-holed. It was crowded with people. There was a restaurant across the road. Al took a photograph – not many left.
There was no toilet in the room. In fact, there did not seem to be one visible at al. So still with me on his head, he went to the reception to ask.
“On roof,” said the small man sitting behind a desk reading a newspaper. He did not seen interested.
Al climbed two flights of stairs to find a door that opened onto the roof.
In the middle of the roof was a wooden structure with three doors, a couple of steps up and inside there was a hole in the concrete floor and a jug of water. The water was to wash instead of the Western toilet papers we had seen in some cities.
Below the hole was another level of concrete – piled with human shit. It was smelling real bad even though the day was cooling fast as the light was beginning to fade. The whole place was, of course, swarming with flies.
Later Al learned that the place was emptied once a day, the shit shovelled into wicker baskets lines with rushes and leaves, to be carried down through the hotel and into the street. Al could not imagine what they did with it after that. Those poor women deserved a reward. But he had nothing spare to even offer.
A while after returning to the room, there was a knock on the door. Keith jumped up and opened it and there stood Hellmut, grinning and with a smoking joint in his hand.
“Hello my friends, you want to smoke some hash with me and I buy you dinner?”
So they puffed on the joint, their spirits again lifting. Al had been wondering where he was – absolutely everything was so different to his home city; in fact it was so different to anything else he had seen even in the places we had passed through.
Al was thinking, what is different: well for starters the smells and the air, the people and their costumes, the language and the script, the food and the drink, the streets and the buildings, the transport, the health care, the hygiene and safety rules and protection, life expectancy and family life, politics and religion, even the ways in which business was conducted - people argued over prices.
And, thought Al, what is the same – well I guess I am, he thought – I guess everyone, well most people, have two arms, two legs and two eyes; we're all breathing; we probably all want the same thing, We all want to achieve something and to find fulfilment, peace, love, freedom.. We probably all wonder at some time what life is all about – or maybe their religions satisfy all that.
Al began wondering why he was travelling – what was he looking for. Religion and science had failed him, now he was feeling like he was wandering far from home, maybe risking his health and safety, taking risks in a dangerous part of the world and with very little money. “Am I nuts?” he thought.
But so far this adventure had gone well, and in any case there was only one direction to go and that was India. Al thought that it was said people could find answers in India – it was where The Beatles had gone to their Guru called Mahesh Yogi. It was a land of many beliefs, supposedly with enlightened beings willing to impart the truth. Or so he'd read. Probably not like that at all. And, thought Al, I probably don't have enough money to buy enlightenment.
Outside in the damp street, the women were dressed in black Burkas again, or colourful cloth wraps, except the Westerners of course. Some of them were well covered too and many wore head scarves. Almost all the Western men wore blue jeans, some with hats of varying sorts, and one even looking quite like myself.
The local men were of two distinct types. One lot were quite short in height and slight, dressed in what often looked like dirty pyjamas with white caps or wrapped in sheets of cloth. The other lot were massive, thick set giants over 6 feet in height, wearing turban-like headgear and armed with rifles and long swords.
Bicycles, three wheeler Rickshaws, and beasts of burden, were the main form of transport here.
Al spotted a sign above a doorway. It was a drawing of a set of false teeth.
There were three-wheeled street stalls with massive piles of apples, oranges, lemons and yellow and green melons for sale. Dirty-looking streets stalls offered strange looking food in huge pans cooking over charcoal or wood fires.
“You know, my friends, Peshawar is called the 'City of Thieves' – you can buy guns here – be careful with your bags,” said Hellmut.
“Fucking great, man,” said Keith.
The street was filthy.
“Two nights here, then I am going to Lahore on the train, if you want, my friends, I will tell the manager at the hotel and he will buy us tickets,” said Hellmut.
“How much do the tickets cost?” asked Keith.
“No problem my friends I am paying, you are my guests. Now we go to special place to eat and we can smoke hashish. It is called The Secret Restaurant and my friend from Berlin, Karl is running it. And his wife Marianna is from Switzerland. They have good vegetarian food and good music.
The Secret Restaurant was actually inside a large second floor apartment down a poorly lit back street and on to another main road, this time far busier with trucks, carts, colourful coaches, cars and bicycles – and men with donkeys carrying either them or their wares. The roadway and pavements were equally muddy and dirty and it was quite noisy. Street stalls were still selling fruit and vegetables and bottles of fizzy drinks – a lot of signs for Pepsi. Other stalls were issuing clouds of smoke or steam, offering a whole range of quite unpleasant looking foods. Hygiene was an absentee here.
But the apartment building itself, behind a large wall separating it from the road, and guarded at the entrance by a costumed and armed giant from the hills, was remarkably clean.
The guard greeted Hellmut and let us pass through the arched gateway. Hellmut pressed a buzzer near the doorway and soon a pretty young lady came to let us in. Hellmut greeted Marianna, they hugged like good old friends. She led the way for us up the stairs and into the apartment.
The apartment consisted of at least two bedrooms, kitchen, western toilet with shower and a massive living room with a balcony looking out on to what may have been the back garden or a park. There were several round tables with chairs in the room seating for maybe 16 people. That still left plenty of room for the many cushions scattered around by the walls. About half a dozen people sat at tables another half a dozen or so on the cushions. A young dark-haired girl was playing a guitar and singing 'The Circle Game”, a Joni Mitchelle song.
For a second or two Al thought it was Miriam, but no.
Al could see outside through a double glass door was a balcony – he could see people were smoking.
The three of us sat at a table; Al took me off his head and put me next on the table next to the fourth chair which was empty. I felt as if I too was a guest at this meal.
The meal was three courses of vegetarian food – two choices for each course.
Al chose dahl with bread, a Madras vegetable curry with rice, and pancakes with fruit. The dahl was a very hot dish made from lentils and onions and garlic. It was all delicious, to Al's taste. And Keith had finished his plates too. Keith had eaten vegetable samosas – triangle of pastry with spicy potatoes and vegetables inside – pasta with creamy sauce and cheese, and rice pudding for afters.
They each drank a beer. It was the first alcohol Al had drank since the Ouzo in Syria. It was not as strong but still went straight to his head. He felt giggly.
Afterwards they smoked chillums on the balcony, looking down on a garden complete with flowers and a small pool with trickling water.
Al was lost looking down at that pool. Suddenly he began to wonder where he was.
One minute there's a dirty gloomy fearful city at night, with all the hustle and bustle and smoky fumes. Next, a veggie banquet with beer and chillums and Hendrix playing ' Foxy Lady' on a balcony above a heavenly garden. "Maybe in fact", thought Al, "we're actually all dead! Or just sleeping, dreaming. Or being dreamt?"
Al was thinking of the nature of reality - or was it illusion? Science had told him that everything was made of atoms and molecules, forms of energy, but those very atoms were almost all space, with wisp-like clouds of negative charge called electrons around a positively charged nucleus itself made of tiny particles that were sometimes behaving like particles and sometimes like waves – the wave-particle duality. And in between it all, 99% was nothing but space. So we are all mostly space.
Al thought that just as ridiculous to believe as a religion saying we were all made out of and by some supreme creator four thousand years ago in the Garden of Eden.
And where was the Garden of Eden anyway?
Certainly not in Peshawar.
With that he realised he was sitting on a balcony, high as a kite, looking at a pool of water.
They drank another beer and Hellmut led them back to the hotel, this time taking a slightly different, longer but better lit route.
Was that fireworks or gunshots we could hear? Guns?
The next day was spent mostly in the Secret Restaurant smoking talking and eating.
The morning after that, they took the train to Lahore – direction India.
In comparison to the bus rides, the train journey was boring. It was about three hundred and twenty miles but it took many hours.
When they reached Lahore, Hellmut took a taxi to a hotel he knew and they soon booked in. It was another hotel for mostly western travellers.
It was the Hotel Eden!
A small hotel with about a dozen room surrounding a small open garden with small shady trees, potted flowers and a pool in the centre!
Eden! Was this the Garden of Eden that Al had been thinking about at the Secret Restaurant in Peshawar?