Biorhythms and travel
Venice is shrouded in mist, revealing fragments of its glory one piece at a time. The silhouettes of the buildings take shape slowly, a subtle blend of architecture and mosaic.
A massive, hulking structure conceals the edge of a pier. The S.S. Victoria, an ocean liner owned by the Lloyd Triestino line, is about to get under way. First stop: Karachi, which I’ve picked for very specific reasons. Pakistan is far away, Eastern and exotic. But more importantly, its customs officers don’t require that you have a return ticket.
There are about a hundred passengers, including myself, on board. Everyone’s in good spirits. But there are twice as many crew members. This is going to be one trip where the customer is king.
Once every passenger is on board, we mentally prepare ourselves for two weeks of communal living. It’s going to be a far cry from the usual routine back on terra firma: a third of the day will be spent eating, another third will be reserved for leisure activities or practice (depending on whether you’re a diplomat or a guitarist), and the rest will be spent at the bar, the location of choice for shipboard socializing. We’ll meet adventure-seekers bound for exotic locales, find out just how prim and proper the minister’s wife really is, and have an opportunity to create, or recreate, our pasts. In this kind of setting, alcohol, acting as a social lubricant, plays a key role. It enables people to let down their guard and reveal the “ordinary” aspects of their lives, which, truth be told, are actually quite extraordinary. Fortunately, the beverages are priced to move:
Coca-Cola…….. 10 cents
Whisky………… 8 cents
Brace yourself for rough seas!
Naturally, two weeks are not enough to meet all the fascinating passengers on this ship. The first thing that strikes me is that there’s no fixed schedule—everyone is free to do as they please. Your time is your own and isn’t subject to external pressures or obligations. The conventional distinctions between day and night are temporarily obliterated. The wildest impulses seem quite normal and commonplace. Do I feel like reading instead of having dinner? How about taking a nap at dawn? At sea there’s no one and nothing to stop you. You do whatever it is you’re in the mood for. There’s no need to stifle your whims and impulses. By disorganizing time you experience it more fully. Your attention span is significantly increased, in work and in play. And it’s a lot more enjoyable than being the subject of a biorhythm experiment in a cave a hundred feet below ground in the name of science.
There are, of course, other advantages to travelling long distances by boat, even if such forms of transportation are, unfortunately, becoming increasingly rare. The waves gently pull you towards your destination. Slowly approaching the coastline, being able to distinguish it as it comes into view is a magical experience. The excitement starts in the Red Sea, where the first sharks appear. This is followed by a stopover in Aden, which I was anxious to see after hearing it described by former soldiers in the British army, who had a fondness for talking about old times at the local watering hole.
Before even arriving in Karachi I discovered most of what I really need to know about the city. During one intoxicating tropical evening, a languorous European woman, whose Pakistani husband was imprudently spending too much time in the smoking room, spoke to me about her life. At length she revealed to me, with the sound of the ship slicing through the waves in the background, her frustration at finding herself in this hybrid marriage, in a remote location far from home. Of all the places we can travel to, our dreams are more exotic.
Of course, as sincere and authentic as a description might be, no description can ever accommodate the reality of direct experience. One person’s account can influence another’s understanding. This blasé European found no charm in the decadent squalor of a city built around a leper colony. The reeking sludge, the open sewers and pungent scent of drugs sicken her, whereas I find them exotic. Likewise, she is shocked by the country’s legal code (“anyone caught exchanging money in a location other than a bank will be hanged”). I, on the other hand, find it amusing.
The point of no return
The cultural capital of Pakistan is Lahore, some 700 km away, no more than thirty-six hours by train. Those of us travelling in third-class are in for a shock: The car, designed to hold eight people, will in fact be holding thirty-five, which will obviously provide ample contact with the locals. It’s not that uncomfortable, however. Because we’re packed into the car like sardines, I’m able to remain standing without having to exert myself. In addition, everyone takes turns cat napping on the luggage rack. Getting some fresh air and stretching your legs when the train stops is an adventure as well, requiring advanced acrobatic skills: You have to raise yourself above your neighbors, using their shoulders to crawl to the window, and then find a way to extricate yourself from the car.
For some reason the voyage actually seems short. The dignity of the penniless contrasts sharply with the futile climbing of parvenus. And there’s no place for idle chat-chat here. Money and material possessions are never discussed, if only because it’s none of our business. On the other hand subjects of a more aesthetic, mystical, or sensitive nature provide for lively conversation. These people are poor but not miserable. Their dignity is intact. The emaciated Brahmin doesn’t envy the untouchable rich. The people I speak to are calm and serene, probably more so than I am.
Thinking back on the graciousness of my travelling companions, the respect they maintained for one another in spite of the uncomfortable conditions, the novelty of their poverty and simplicity to a young man from France, I feel a tightness in my chest when I fly the same distance in an hour.
At the time, Lahore was in the midst of a ruthless war between India and Pakistan. It was the scene of intense aerial combat between prop planes and fighter jets, mutually unable to strike one another, in spite of thousands of cheering onlookers perched on the rooftops below. The lone casualty in this epic battle was the unfortunate spectator who fell from his observation tower.
A United Nations peacekeeping force arrived shortly thereafter. Their mission was to prevent further bloodbaths in the region. The officers made their HQ in the area’s finest hotel, the now defunct Park Hotel. They were so determined in their efforts, so hard working that they required something to distract them, and I often ran into them in the red light district near the fortress. Singers, drummers, sitar players, and organists provided musical accompaniment for the dancers, who could be seen behind every window. Guitarists are a rarity in these parts so I had no trouble finding work and was hired to play at the Park Hotel bar.
Thus began my brilliant career.
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