Before there was a family on bikes, two strangers teamed up for a once-in-a-lifetime journey that left them both changed forever.
What Were We Thinking? tells the tale of John and me coming together as strangers in a strange land. We spent an entire year exploring little-known roads of Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh – and had more unique experiences than most people have in a lifetime. In the end, we fell in love – with each other and the area we traveled through. Here is a preview of the first chapter.
Preface: A Place in Time and History
The year was 1990 and the world as we knew it was about to change. When John and I flew into Pakistan, we had never heard of Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda and the Taliban, now common household words, were unknown entities. Pakistan was a sleepy little country nestled between India, Iran and Afghanistan and we had no reason to believe it would change anytime soon.
For years international headlines had centered around the cold war. Tensions between the USA and the Soviet Union had everyone on edge, but within a month of our arrival in Pakistan, the cold war ended. A month later, Saddam Hussein sent his troops to invade Kuwait. The world had just taken a radical turn – although we didn’t know it yet.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait, we were cycling through the Karakoram mountains, not far from where Osama bin Laden would eventually be killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. It was a very traditional area and tribal factions were strong. As a female cycling through the conservative Muslim territories, I was very much an anomaly.
As you will read in the pages of this book, it wasn’t an easy time for me. The physical challenge of cycling over 16,000-foot passes on horrific dirt roads was tough. The mental and emotional challenges of dealing with a culture so very different from my own were even harder.
As I read through these pages now, twenty years later, I’m struck by how raw and jagged my thoughts were. I’m also struck by my own prejudices, presumptions, and criticism of cultures and religions I knew little about until I found myself immersed in them.
I’ve continued to travel the world since the days I’ve written about in this book and have come to a greater appreciation of the world and its people. I often wonder how I would look upon these same situations today with the knowledge and understanding I’ve gained through these twenty years of globetrotting.
Sadly, I’ll never know. I doubt the world tension, terrorism, and anti-American sentiment in Muslim countries will decline any time soon making it too dangerous to attempt the trip John and I took all those years ago.
I have been given some wise words to live by recently – take advantage of every moment today, as tomorrow may never come. I had taken this to mean that life is short and I may not be alive or healthy tomorrow, but as I write this preface it takes on another meaning. The world is changing so rapidly that I may not be able to do tomorrow what I can do today. Live every moment to the fullest.
Bike touring in India and Pakistan
Chapter 1: Attack!
It was a beautiful morning in the Swat Valley of Pakistan when John and I mounted our bikes and pedaled away from our small hotel. The valley was narrowing and the river crashed and splashed only a few feet from the roadside. Mountains rose majestically on either side of us, at times leaving barely enough room for a narrow ribbon of road along the bottom of the valley.
A few times we nearly ran off the road due to being awestruck by the surrounding landscape. This was what we had imagined our trip to be! The entire year ahead of us would surely be filled with easy riding, beautiful scenery, and nice relaxing days – certainly not like the previous six days. All too soon we were jerked back to reality.
“NANCY!” I heard John shouting frantically as he cycled behind me early in the afternoon. “Nancy! Let’s get out of here. This place is dangerous! I almost got killed back there!”
“Oh, come on,” I tried to calm him down. “What happened? Surely you’re exaggerating.”
“I’m not exaggerating. Honest! A huge boulder – the size of a football – just came flying down from that cliff. It literally passed inches from my head! It could’ve killed me!” he blurted.
“Come on. No one would throw a boulder off that cliff at you,” I retorted. “The kids here may be horrible and obnoxious, but they wouldn’t do something that outright hostile. Settle down and let’s keep riding. It can’t be that bad.”
Not more than five minutes later, I got my dose of reality. A boulder came whizzing down, clearing my head by mere inches. “JOHN!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. “They almost got me too! A boulder just came down – off that cliff fifty feet up!” I said, panic-stricken. “It could’ve killed me.” I couldn’t stop my body from shaking with fright.
“I know, Nance,” John replied. “It’s dangerous. These kids are wicked, but our only option right now is to ride – ride fast and try to outrun them. We’re only ten kilometers from town, and with luck we can dodge these things until we get there. But we have to go now!”
Paralyzed with fright, I could barely bring my legs to move until the next boulder came crashing down. I sprang into motion and didn’t stop until we were safely within the confines of our hotel.
A few hours later it hit me – we still had to get out of this valley. By now, we were at the very top of Pakistan’s Swat Valley, and the only way out was to return the same way we had come in. Could we make it out alive? Would boulders continue to be hurtled at us as we tried to make our escape? What kind of foolishness had possessed us to come here in the first place?
It was here in Kalam, the town at the very top of the valley, that we began to comprehend the truth of traveling in the Swat Valley. All the hotels in town had signs posted warning against venturing out of town without an armed guard and hotels provided guards for any tourists wishing to leave town to venture north. A few years ago, a couple of Swedes had disregarded the warnings, taken off on their own, and were never seen again. The tribal factions in the area were strong, and they didn’t take kindly to foreigners invading their area.
I was terrified at the thought of the trip out of the valley. If kids had been so vicious as to throw boulders at us, what else would they do? And to make matters worse, it was Friday. There was no school on Fridays. With no school to keep them occupied, the children were almost guaranteed to be in search of their own “fun.”
We had been in Pakistan for thirteen days and cycled six of them. We had risked certain death each of those six days from one thing or another. I didn’t mind taking that risk when it came to horrendous traffic or outrageous heat, but facing Pakistani kids hurtling boulders that could certainly kill on impact was where I drew the line. I figured I could mitigate the risks of dehydration and traffic with proper preparation and defensive riding, but there was no way to predict or avoid attacks by children.
Maybe I should have been surprised by kids throwing boulders off cliffs at us, but the sad fact is that I wasn’t. In my short time in Pakistan, I had grown to fear kids above all other possible dangers. I was convinced the greatest danger of traveling Pakistan was not gun-wielding Pathan tribesmen, nor careening trucks driven by lunatics, but packs of vicious boys bearing arms… or legs… or rocks… or anything else they could use to inflict bodily harm upon two innocent bikers invading their territory.
The last thing I wanted to do was head back through the Swat Valley on our bikes.
After hours of discussion, we decided to strap my bike on top of the car a friend of ours had hired to tour the same area. John would ride through the rock-throwing zone without panniers, thereby (hopefully) able to go faster than the kids could mobilize themselves. We agreed to meet at Bahrain, below the “trouble area.”
As I waved goodbye and saw him mount his bike for his mad dash through boulders from heaven, I wondered if this would be the last time I saw him. Although I had known John only a short time, I hated to see his life end this way.
In Bahrain, I spent an hour waiting for John to reappear. Sixty long minutes of visions of scraping his remains off the road after he was smashed into the pavement by a massive boulder chucked off the cliff by school-aged children.
Relief flooded into me when he, at last, stepped through the door.
The following morning, with fear as my companion, I packed up my bike. Even though the kids had been horrible farther down the valley, they hadn’t actually thrown boulders at us. I hoped they wouldn’t start.
That afternoon we crested a hill on the road and, taking advantage of gravity, screamed down the other side at top speed. It was during this magnificent descent that a bus, completely covered with gray-clad bodies of school boys, passed by. One of the boys dangling off the side of the bus reached out and kicked John’s bike as they zoomed by, sending him zigzagging and desperately trying to stay in control of his bike. John, who was behind me, yelled a warning to me as the bus bore down upon me.
I slammed on my brakes, just as my bike went flying out from under me due to a powerful kick of the boy’s leg. Luckily, I had managed to slow down sufficiently to maintain control, but the damage that kick could have inflicted was frighteningly real.
John had managed to regain control of his bike but his emotions flared out of control. He was furious. The bus stopped not far ahead, and John decided to take on the entire busload of students. He flew toward the bus as if steam was boiling out of his ears, fully intending to pay them back for everything kids had done to us in the past few days. Luckily, the bus pulled away just moments before John reached it.
Terrified of what could possibly happen before we got out of the valley, we pedaled somberly. Only a few minutes had passed when we again closed in on the bus. This time, it had stopped to let off one solitary fifteen-year-old schoolboy. All of John’s pent-up emotions and frustrations poured forth, and he took out his rage on the poor innocent kid.
John jumped off his bike and charged at the youth, screaming and yelling. The look on the kid’s face was one of sheer terror at seeing this raging madman charging him. The juvenile managed to run away, John regained control of himself, and we continued on. But not without the royal lecture.
“John,” I rationalized, “violence is not the answer. You shouldn’t have charged after that kid yelling and screaming. What good did that do? Now he’ll just be angry at the next cyclists that come through here and make it worse for them. Really, violence isn’t the answer.”
He remained unconvinced. Still fuming, we continued cycling.
A couple kilometers down the road, our worst fear materialized. We looked with horror at a huge mob of uniformed students milling about in the road. Sure that they were waiting for us, we stopped to ponder the situation. How could we possibly make it through a group of hundreds of angry, hormone-driven high school students? We had no chance.
Within minutes, a small group began approaching us on foot. John and I were convinced they were coming after us and we quickly mounted our bikes and retreated as fast as we could to what we thought was a safe distance. Could we get a police escort through the mob? There were no police, at least not that we had seen. Could we flag down a passing car and beg them to protect us as we passed through? But there were no cars passing.
We waited for over an hour, retreating and advancing several times. At last it looked as though the mob was dispersing. Were they hiding, waiting in ambush for when we rode by? What would they do to us if they caught us? Could we possibly outrun them?
We decided to take a chance. John and I shifted into high gear, started pedaling as fast as our legs could move and shot through the area at high speed. It turned out there were only a few students milling about, as most of them had apparently given up on us and gone to class.
Although we had only cycled in Pakistan a short time, we had been attacked by children every single day. By now, the mere sight of a group of children by the roadside was enough to strike terror in our hearts. At the sight of kids, we shifted into high gear and did everything in our power to speed past them before they had a chance to organize themselves to attack us.
We were not enjoying ourselves. This was not our idea of fun. Why were we here? Did we really want to put up with these attacks every day? Could we put up with these attacks every day? Would we survive? Was it worth risking our lives just to say we had cycled Pakistan? How soon could we get out of this country? Was it possible to bus the bikes to India? What about flying?
In the end, we decided to wait and see how it was once we got out of the Swat Valley – after all, the guidebook specifically stated this valley was notorious for belligerent kids. Maybe, just maybe, it would be better once we got out of Swat. Besides, we had talked about the need to accept both the good and the bad that each country we traveled had to offer.
The good in Pakistan was great – beautiful scenery, incredibly friendly adults, and the opportunity to witness a culture dramatically different from our own. However, the bad was horrible. Yes, there was a possibility we would die. In fact, there could even be a very strong probability we would die. We had to choose either to accept that possibility or leave the country. We chose to accept the possibility – at least for the time being.
We pedaled on.