About a year and a half ago we got an email from someone in Pakistan inviting us to Islamabad when we passed through the Middle East. He was with the VW club of Pakistan, and had been following our trip through the Americas. When we got to Islamabad, he said, there would be a big community of friends waiting. We would have families to stay with in any major city in Pakistan, they would organize a club outing to the mountains when we arrived, they’d show us the best food and adventure drives in the area, and they even offered to give Nacho a new paint job. Sign me up! Ever since then we’ve anxiously looked forward to Pakistan.
Our plan had been to drive from India to Turkey by one of two routes: either by passing through Pakistan, China, and then the old Soviet republics of Central Asia, or by crossing through Pakistan and Iran. The first option became unfeasible for two reasons, namely timing and cost. A five day drive through Western China would cost us around $2,000 in fees—a proposition unjustifiable on principle alone. But even if we had made it, the Chinese tour company that would be responsible for us informed us that the mountain passes between China and Kyrgyzstan would be closed for the winter anyway, and we’d spend the remainder of our Central Asian drive on an icy tundra. We’d have to take the southern route through Pakistan and Iran.
When we told our American friends and family that we planned to drive this way, they invariably told us we were insane and would never make it out of Iran alive. Iran, I would say, seriously? What our friends don’t understand that Iran is one of the safest and most stable countries in the region. The people we’ve met who have driven through Iran have all said that it was fantastic. We tend to see a skewed image of Iran because of its negative portrayal in the American media when in fact the negativity is almost entirely based on political squabbling.
The American government doesn’t like the Iranian government for several reasons stretching back a few decades, but most recently for its nuclear power aspirations. And why do we care? It has to do with the fact that Iran (among many other nations) is vocally opposed to the ongoing human rights abuses and building of illegal settlements on Palestinian land by Israel. Our government, at least on paper, is also against these things, but Iran is one of the few countries that might actually do something about it if push were to come to shove. Having trained nuclear scientists would furthermore create the possibility for Iran to develop a nuclear weapons program at some point in the future. And this could level the playing field with already-nuclear-armed Israel. That’s why Israel assassinates Iranian nuclear scientists.
Israel, of course, is a strong American ally and maintains one of the best-funded lobbying groups in Washington, guaranteeing, at least until campaign finance reform can be achieved, that Israel and America will remain friends. So in short, America likes Israel, Israel and Iran hate each other, and American politicians want to please the Israel lobby so that they stand a chance at winning elections, and thus American politicians are obligated to hate Iran. I’m grossly oversimplifying here, of course, and much can be said about this (books, in fact), but I won’t dwell on it too much because this isn’t a political blog. I’m just trying to paint a picture and clear up a few misconceptions. Iran isn’t full of Boo Radleys like so many of us think it is.
Iran was still an issue for us, though, despite its safety and stability. The problem, again, is political. Drivers from Europe can obtain an Iranian visa without too much hassle, and drive freely around the country before continuing on to Pakistan. But being that American and Iranian politicians don’t get along, this isn’t possible for Americans. We, unlike everyone else, must hire a certified tour company to accompany us in our vehicle at all times, and we have to register a strict itinerary including hotel bookings with the government in order to obtain a visa. The cost of the tour company, by the way, is around $150 per day, and it takes about 10 days to get across Iran without stopping to enjoy anything. That’s if the government will even issue the visa, which it almost assuredly will not, we were told by the Iranian tour company that we contacted.
But then there was Pakistan. Over the last couple of years the security situation in Western Pakistan has deteriorated, namely in the province of Balochistan. The only international border crossing between Pakistan and Iran is at the far end of Balochistan, requiring drivers to cross a long stretch of desert where kidnappings by terrorist groups have become commonplace. In fact, foreigners wishing to cross Balochistan are now only allowed to go by military convoy.
We kept an eye on the situation in Pakistan as we approached over the preceding two years, and watched as several foreigners were captured, among them a Swiss couple driving a van just like Nacho. After seven months they escaped, but the same isn’t true for the Czech women who were captured on the same road about a year ago. We’ve never heard of any Americans attempting the drive in the last couple of years. We met several Europeans who crossed very recently, and they all said it felt pretty dodgy. Our friends David and Regina had been transported from their van each night to their hotel room, and then the military trucks lined up in front of their door for protection. They weren’t allowed to go anywhere or talk to anyone for five days. I tried to imagine Sheena’s father’s face when we told him that we’d put ourselves in that situation, and in my mind he seemed really mad.
When we reached Western India I contacted our friend in Islamabad to get his take. After all, getting the inside scoop from a local will always be more reliable than checking the media coverage. Especially the American media; case in point: Mexico. Our friend was really happy to hear that we’d reached the Middle East, and remained enthusiastic about our visit. He said that Eastern Pakistan from the Karakoram Highway down to Karachi would be perfectly safe with lots to do and see. But Balochistan?
“I’d suggest shipping your car from Karachi to Iran,” he suggested. Balochistan was just not worth the risk right now.
For us, the cost of shipping to Iran and then paying to drive across was too big a cost to bear. We considered driving to Pakistan, exploring the East, and then returning to India, but India had refused to issue us a double entry visa. We’d used up our only re-entry by going to Nepal, and would have to wait several months to get a replacement India visa. Unfortunately, Pakistan just wasn’t going to happen.
And so it was that we decided to ship Nacho from Mumbai to Istanbul, skipping most of the Middle East. After years of reading books about the region and dreaming about traveling in the Middle East, this was really disappointing for me. But what will be will be. I guess this means we’ll have some unfinished business to attend to in the future. And by the way, if you’re interested in gaining a better understanding of the multifaceted Middle East, I highly recommend reading this, this, and this for starters.
Once Nacho was safely loaded in a shipping container, a torturous regimen of inane Indian bureaucracy, we had a few days to burn before our flight. In a highly fortunate alignment of the stars, our friend Jeff who works for Amazon in Singapore, and who we’d met up with while we were there a year ago, invited us to come to Goa where he and his family would be renting a house for their vacation. We saw Nacho off and loaded the next train for the 14 hour trip south to Goa.
We arrived late at night and grabbed a taxi, and then threaded our way through palm groves toward the beach. With our limited visibility in the dark it felt a lot like we’d been there before, and rightly so; we had driven as far north as Gokarna a few months earlier before ducking inland. Gokarna was only 80 kilometers to the South of Jeff’s rental house in Canacona.
When we arrived Jeff and his wife Sharo were sitting outside having a potluck with their temporary neighbors, Gabi and Kobi from Israel. These two and their troop of kids, as it turns out, have been traveling for a good long time and are known online as the Nomadic Family.
The next morning we walked to the beach and did some minor exploring, and discovered that this part of Goa isn’t really like India at all. In fact, there were hardly any Indians to be seen—it’s almost completely inhabited by expats and vacationing foreigners. But whereas we would usually not like this, it felt nice, like we’d escaped to another country for a vacation. White sandy beaches fringed by idyllic coconut palms. The feel here was much more laid back, and there was a notable lack of touts, beggars, and filth. It was a relaxing change of pace.
Over the course of our few days in Goa we slowly felt our bodies draining themselves of the stress that had accrued while fending for ourselves as vagabonds in India for three months. We hung out with our friends, we cooked and ate good food, and we relaxed. Sheena and Sharo took an Indian cooking class from a local restaurateur and Jeff and I zipped around town on his scooter. All the while, Jeff and Sharo’s daughter Nancy kept us entertained with her wit and charm. One morning I was left alone with Nancy for an hour or so, during which time we discovered that we’re both Shakira fans. For much of the hour we listened to Shakira and she read me stories she’d written about a civilization of intelligent cats. Shakira and cats: two of my favorite things. This kid’s all right.
Finally, despite not really wanting to leave, the day came that we boarded the train back to Mumbai. It was a sleeper train, and we spent the night crumpled up on grimy beds in a stuffy railway car filled with stifling body odor vapor. After seven or eight hours of this I realized that the best seat in the house was in fact in the open doorway where I could hang my legs outside of the train and watch the scenery flash by.
The following evening we watched from our hotel room window as throngs of people flew kites from the Mumbai rooftops, and in a flash we were whisked out of the country, stopping for tea in Amman, Jordan, before touching down, finally, in Turkey.