Letter to Maura on way to India


Sept. 18, 1983
Hello Maura,
I got your letter (luckily) on our last day in Istanbul, which was the 7th of September. We left right after going to the American Express office and headed for Ankara, the capital of Turkey, located in the interior, about 450 km east of Istanbul. We decided not to take a bus straight to Zahedan (near Pakistan-Iran border) from Istanbul because the ride would be too long and we wouldn't see the east of Turkey. That turned out to be our biggest mistake so far on this trip. It has cost us a lot of time (which isn't so bad, because we are not short of that) and a lot of money (which is bad because we are short of that). When I say we are short of money I don't mean we don't have enough to get home or anything. I just mean if we want to stay away another year or so, we can't run into problems like Iran again, where we had to spend $160 to get out, as opposed to $60 if we had taken the bus from Istanbul. You must be confused, so let me start from the beginning.

Like I said, we went to Ankara from Istanbul. It took a few hours to hitch there. I phoned my mom from there on the 9th and I planned to phone you too, as you had suggested in your letter. But the first night I couldn't get through to my mom, just the answering machine, so I had to phone her the second night, which was supposed to be when I was going to phone you. The next day we left so I didn't get a chance to place the call. I would've phoned you instead of my mom, but I needed the address in India, since her letters to Athens and Istanbul never made it.

After Ankara we hitched some more, planning to go to Van, a city near Van Lake in the east of Turkey. We planned to take a train from there to Tehran, the capital of Iran, then a bus to Pakistan. But we got a ride with a Bulgarian trucker who was going to Tehran. What luck! we thought, this is easier and cheaper than any bus! we said. We thought the trucks, as in Canada, drive straight to a destination, non-stop. But this trucker, one in a convoy of three, planned to make the trip in 5 or 6 days. We stayed with him for three. They have special areas for international trucks in Turkey and we stopped there at night to eat and sleep. One night we slept in the truck, the other in our tent. The first day we went from Ankara to Sivas, then the next to Erzerum and the next to Agri. We left our Bulgarian driver in Agri, because for some unknown reason he and his two other friends stopped being friendly towards us. The next day we got a ride from a Turkish driver, also in a convoy of three (there are many, many, many trucks going into Iran), who was going to Tehran. We split up to cross the border, which took five hours, because of an extreme shortage of staff, and met him again on the other side. But for some reason he would not drive us any further. We think that maybe he was told that the police would give him trouble if he had hitch-hikers. So we met Alex, a Greek, English-speaking, racist, bullshitter and also a fussy, fussy bastard. He was delivering Peugeot parts from Paris to Tehran and took us in for the two day ride to Tehran.

Now we are on our way out of this place, riding on a bus from Tehran to Zahedan. Thank Allah! Our two days in Tehran were hectic. The big problem is that the local currency is actually worth nothing, and the economy is in bad shape, so the government gives a very, very bad rate of exchange. The dollar is only 88 Rials at the banks, which makes the country very expensive. We had to change $160, just for the hotel, bus and a couple of cheap meals. If it was possible to change on the black market it would have cost us $40. This country should be very cheap, but the banks make a huge profit when you change. You change $100 and the bank makes $60 and gives you about $40 worth of Rials. This was and is very distressing for economy travellers such as ourselves. But we just marked it down as a bad experience and will be thankful to get out of here.

But besides the money and the fact that Patty has to wear something to cover her head and shoulders at all times, this is a regular country and there are no problems or danger that wouldn't be encountered anywhere else. Of course, if you go near Iraq, and the war there, it is dangerous just as in the south of Morocco. This country used to be controlled by the Shah, who was pro-U.S. and capitalist. The regime didn't give a shit about the poor peasants and villagers. The Shah served the rich and they lived in luxury in the few developed centres of the country. The villagers were neglected, left to rot.

After the revolution, Khomeini and his regime came to power. He condemned the past setup, using Marxist-sounding political and economic terms, such as: exploiters, colonization, oppressed, imperialists, etc. blaming the situation on the world-devouring Western (U.S.) and Eastern (Russia) imperialist powers. But Khomeini is not a marxist and did not use that analysis, despite the sound of the political rhetoric he uses. Instead, he abides by the principles of Islam, as laid down in the Koran. Therefore there is no class analysis (the fundamental premise of marxism), therefore no division of society. All belong to Islam. Rich poor and in-between. I find the difference very interesting. Khomeini explicitly condemns the previous setup, but not the Iranian businessmen who directly caused the exploitation with their foreign counterparts. The marxist would put the blame on the rich class and seize power from them. Instead, Khomeini puts all the blame on the foreigners (superpowers) and ignores the local accomplices, preaching that all belong to Islam and that all must work together. But I think the businessmen are held by another power - $. After Khomeini came to power he lifted a law controlling market prices for essential goods. The next day the merchants doubled and tripled the prices. Khomeini then met with them and told them that this practice was against the teachings of the Koran. They complied and prices were stabilized, but soon after the prices shot up again, as the greedy merchants' interests clashed with Khomeini's. The law had to be re-instated. Obviously the religiously idealistic concept of justice and goodwill being practised purely on the basis of moral persuasion doesn't realistically have any force in the world of business and capitalism.

The merchants and rich are clearly at odds with the new Iranian government. Then there is the Revolutionary Guard who are the main activists under this "crazy old man's" regime, as my German friend refers to Khomeini. He certainly is a fanatic, applying conservative religious orthodoxy on a secular pro-Western state. Since he came to power many women doctors, lawyers, and other professionals have been fired or drastically demoted, because their traditional place in Islamic society is at home, not in the positions of power. This is inexcusable, and as far as I've seen, women have suffered the most since the revolution. The country is run by a bunch of fanatical extremist hot heads and it looks like it's going to stay that way for awhile yet.

Sept. 23, 1983

So, I'm off the bus now and it's a few days since I started this letter. We've been in constant travel since boarding the bus in Tehran. Right now I'm on a train, driving from Quetta to Islamabad, which is the capital of Pakistan.

But getting back to the bus ride from Tehran to the eastern city of Zahedan. It took 24 hours and left us enough time to catch the bus from Zahedan to the border. This bus was much worse than the first one. First of all it was overcrowded and hot, secondly it kept on breaking down and our progress was that of a dehydrated snail, and thirdly the army kept on stopping us to search all the Afghan refugees "that the Moscow bullets missed". It took us 4 1/2 hours to go 70 km and when we arrived the border was closed although it was 7pm. We had trouble getting food but in the end we succeeded, procuring some rice, which was the only food we had all day. But the fun was only beginning.

The next morning we crossed the border to find a filthy, depressing shanty town in the middle of the desert area that encompasses all of Iran (almost) and the south of Pakistan. Allah help the poor souls who lived in that hole.

We managed to escape on an old Bedford bus, which left at 3:30, three hours after we boarded. We had to wait for it to fill up with passengers. And it really did. It was a mini-bus with 50 inside and 15 on the roof who has to contend with constant sand storms. The trip was supposed to take 14 hours although it's only 400 miles. But the road wasn't paved for the first 200 and we got stuck in the sand a couple of times. Also the engine kept overheating, so it took 30 hours. We did stop to eat at several huts constructed from mud and straw, but the food was always goat's meat and the water was very bad. Ironically, in the middle of the bloody desert, where there is nothing but the sun and the sand for hundreds of miles, COKE and FANTA (made by Coke) were available every few miles. Children sold it by the side of the road, they kept it cool in big clay jars. We starved, lived on Coke and bread and arrived in Quetta exhausted, very dirty and of course very, very hungry.

Our hotel was excellent. Clean rooms and toilets and a cold shower. A hole by Canadian standards, but very good for here. It was only $1.20 each and the restaurant had excellent Afghani food for only 50¢.

We slept well and the next day we managed to get a cheap train from Quetta to Islamabad.We are travelling with a German and an English man and plan to get our Indian visas in the capital. Then it's south to Lahore and east to Delhi, then north to Dehra Dun.

We've been on the train for 24 hours now. It's hot, very crowded, uncomfortable, and stops frequently. Luckily we all have seats, although I did get pretty dirty, not to mention cramped sleeping on the floor last night. Fortunately Patty found an upper vacant bench and hasn't left it since. It took us quite a while to get out of the desert, but when I awoke this morning at 6, everything was green. I feel a lot like Ghandi, travelling like this, since the scenes he saw are the same as I'm seeing. The birds are fantastic here, as they were in Turkey. The water buffaloes are hilarious, big, fat, leathery, hulking beasts. The poverty is widespread, total and depressing. Most houses are built of mud and straw, others with brick. There is no sanitation and there are large pools of stagnant, putrid water near the shanty towns. In many places the smell is awful. People just squat (men I mean) down and piss in the streets. The sewers are open. There are no garbage cans and noses are blown freely and frequently all over the streets. We've been driving constantly for over a day and it's just been one shit hole town after another. Venders abound everywhere. Again we laugh at how cheap it is. It's depressing. Simon, our English friend, has a small tape recorder and we heard some Clash (finally) and it was good. Just listening with the headphones puts you back home again into the living room. You experience a bit of culture shock if you close you eyes and feel that you are home again. Still it left me cheerful and happy when I finished listening and I think I'll ask him if I can listen to Dylan now. Then I'll get back to finishing this letter.

Ahh! That was good. I listened to the tape while looking at the scenery of Pakistan. I had some interesting thoughts. Most people are "Rolling Stones" complete unknowns, without a home. I mean how more unknown can you get than a Pakistani peasant. This country is really underdeveloped. Like the Dominican Republic but on a massive scale. Much poorer than North Africa was. But some people there were as poor as one can get.

I hope you got your birthday card. I was hesitant about sending the horse picture because you have so many already, but it was nice, so you got it.

We still hope to see you soon! I don't think you lack courage, you're just using your common sense. It wouldn't be a good idea to come over with no plan for when you get back. It's ok for me, I can go back to Celeste (wow, that place is rich!). I think you should save enough money to come over without selling your car. That way when you go back you can get to work. If you can't stay in Ashburn when you return you could manage somewhere else until you found a place of your own. Obviously you shouldn't take the route we did. It's too dangerous for a woman to go alone, even if you take buses. In Islamic society, Western women are thought to be really loose and the men are constantly harassing or even raping them. So the best thing would be to take a boat from London to Bombay - if it's possible. Somehow you'll have to find out. You can take a one way flight from London to Bombay or Delhi for 200 pounds. See a magazine called "Time Out". Syrian-Arab Airlines or Aerofloat (Soviet Airlines).

We should be in India for at least 6 months so it'll give you plenty of time to save. But after India we plan to start making our way home. The trip home will probably take about 8-9 months. We'll most likely take a boat to Africa, from India, and travel through there to Europe. A couple of weeks to one month in Europe, then a few months in Ireland. We hope to find work somewhere there or in England, as our money will be pretty low by then.

So, I'm thinking if you have enough money in 3 or 4 months, you would have to travel half way around the world to join us and the once you got there, we would soon be on our way back again. The time you would spend in India and back through Africa would be fantastic though. You can make up your mind if it's worth it.

This method of communication is lacking in many ways. When I get your reply to this letter, in India, I might give you a call to clarify some things and just to say hello. I hope the call from Istanbul wasn't too much.

Don't forget you don't need much money to travel in India or Africa and we won't be spending that much time in Europe, because it is too expensive. When we leave India, we will have at least $500 each. So we'll be staying there until we're down to the $500 mark. That should be enough to get us to Ireland and then home if we can't find work. We hope that we will be able to stay in India for at least 6 months, but if our money goes too quickly we'll leave sooner. This is not very likely. More likely is that we will end up staying over 6 months. It's really difficult to say until we get there and get a more clear picture of the situation. Example: if the orphanage is suitable or another type of volunteer charity setup is available.

I hope everything is explained clearly despite the messy writing. It's difficult to write on trains and buses.

Sorry for taking so long to write back. I feel bad because you feel bad.

Try hard to make it over. We're hoping and waiting.

P.S. Iran was interesting and if it wasn't so expensive and if we weren't in a rush to get to India, we would have stayed longer.


P.S. I'm copying this letter out for Marc and Davy, because I think they would find our travels interesting.

P.S. Send your reply Special Delivery because I don't think the mail service is too good.

Bye for now,
Peace and Love




Letter to Dad from Northern India

December 2nd, 1983

Salaam Dad,

Sorry for taking so long to reply to your letter, dated November 2nd. We left the orphanage to do a bit of travelling before returning for the last time, picking up our mail, and saying goodbye. I got your letter just before we left and forgot to bring it with me, so I had to wait until we returned from our little trip, before I could reply to you.

Thanks for your letter. We both enjoy reading them, as they give a good summary of what’s happening at home. At the orphanage we tried getting BBC World Service on the radio, but could only pick-up Radio Moscow - which is very the monotonous and unsophisticated propaganda. At least the British and Voice of America commentators are more subtle when they say their bullshit - but I think they are more effective, since so many people don’t recognize it as propaganda. We did hear about the Turkish earthquake and knew the area that was hit. Your news of the IRA break (jail), reminds me of two English people we met. They were the only British travellers we’ve come across who sympathized with the Irish and the IRA. They were intelligent enough to see through the biased media and Thatcher’s lies. We were both delighted and surprised to meet such people. They actually carried around newspaper articles and read them aloud, denouncing Reagan’s interventionist policies. This is something very rare among the travellers we’ve met and Patty previously thought that I was the only guy who saved articles and tried to talk to other travellers about them.

Speaking of news, we were both shocked reading the Indian papers and magazines. Like other Third World countries there are problems of hunger, disease, bad water, exploitation of labour, displacement of rural populations, corruption of government, etc. etc. But to add to all this - and India outranks any other country by far in these areas - is the age old problem of communalism. Of course this situation in the Punjab, regarding this Sihk’s desire for self-autonomy, is well-known and covered by the international media (I think so anyway), but there are so many groups - cultural and religious that are fighting each other every day. The Assam massacres were only different because they involved large numbers. But murders, riots, violent demonstrations, police brutality and even torture happen every day (the latter being excepted). India is a very disorderly place. Social breakdown is easy to see, especially coming from such an organized, tranquil place as Toronto. India is much more dangerous than Turkey (the military have such a high level of control and maintain order and the status quo), but compared to Pakistan or Sri Lanka, it’s a lot more safe. But we were shocked to see a man lying dead in a pool of blood, after being gunned down by a speeding jeep. I wrote to Maureen about it and at the time I thought the guy had been hit by a car, but later we found out he had been mistakenly shot. The assassin meant to get the guy beside the actual victim, the motivation being political rivalry. So, it’s not a nice place. Foreigners don’t really have to worry since the trouble is between competing native groups and most travellers don’t even know what is happening here. One thing that I’m sure all tourists have noticed is the way government-operated enterprises are run. The particular establishment - whether it’s a hospital, tourist bungalow, tourist information office, bank, post office, etc. - is always big and luxuriously built (except the hospitals) and has a large over-abundance of staff. The services offered are for the most part underused and as a result the staff sit around and drink tea all day. It’s really funny going into these places and seeing about 7-8 men just doing nothing all day in big, wealthy, and EMPTY buildings. But the thing that strikes the foreigner the most is the visible contrast between the rich and poor. It stands out so much here because the poor are so numerous and truly destitute and the rich are quite wealthy. Here, you can tell the wealth of a person by her or his weight. Everything from bone structure to chest measurements and height are different, not to mention other signs of affluence such as cars, servants, big houses, lots of cash, etc. So, it’s a pretty dismal place, but an interesting one all the same, and a good place to learn. We’ve left the orphanage (five days ago), but are still in the north. We’ll be moving south soon and will probably leave India in about two months. Tell everyone not to write to American Express in Madras (as we told them to) but to Bombay instead. We should be there in late January.

Bye for now,
Peace and Love

Letter to Dad and Frank from Southern India

December 28, 1983

Salaam Frank and Dad!

I’m sitting in our hotel room resting after day of swimming in tropical waters and being sunburnt by the hot sun. We’re staying on an island just off the southern tip of India, waiting for boat to Sri Lanka. On the globe you won’t be able to tell it’s an island, you can just see the narrow strip of land extending from the east coast of India, and pointing to the North Coast of Sri Lanka. The town we are staying in is called Rameswaram and it is this site of several battles that the Hindu Gods fought. So, it’s a religious place. There’s a big Temple here and we went to take a look. You have to leave your shoes at the door and as you enter you are greeted not by the statues of Shiva or Vishnu, but my little shops selling sea shells, toy guns, and surprisingly enough, bamboo wall hangings with Jesus’ face on them. You continue down the corridor, past pillars with animal (lion, elephant) carvings until you reach an area where they have a live elephant chained up. Not a nice life for it, being locked away in the dark, concrete cage, but at least it’s fed, not like the numerous beggars lined up by the exit gate. We weren’t allowed to look at most of the place as only Hindus are permitted. This pissed us off and was the opposite of the Golden Temple (Sikh’s holiest place), where all people, regardless of sex, creed or nationality, are allowed to go in.

They southern part of India is noticeably different than the north. Many houses are made of palm tree branches and/or mud, since these two materials are cheap and abundant. The rural areas look more poor, but the cities appear more modern and developed, except one we are in now which looks very backward. The language down here is Tamil, but many speak English, at least a little bit. The people here are much darker than the northerners who have been racially mixed with invading Ayrans. The whole northern and central part of the state of Tamil Nadu has been hit by extensive floods. When we were in Pondicherry (former French colony) it rained straight for four days. It wasn’t too bad in the cities, but the subsistence farmers in the rural areas were devastated. Their mud and palm houses were washed away and crops were submerged. A lot of people are going to go hungry in the new year and many children will die, as the crops are the only source of income for these people. On our way to Pondicherry we saw “lakes” on both sides of the road and wondered what was going on. It was only later that we read in the papers and found out the seriousness of the situation. For us, it wasn’t a much of a problem, we just continued south to the hot, dry tropical weather.

We’ll be in Colombo on January 2nd and stay less than a week. We would love to get a ride out of there on a yacht, but if we don’t we plan to visit another national park, which will be great. After the park, we’ll go to Goa, the former Portuguese colony, where “hippies”, nudists and druggies (often the same people) hang out. From there we’ll go to the New York of India - Bombay. And if we can’t get a boat out of there, its on to Delhi, then Amritsar to Lahore (Pakistan) and south to Karachi, where will go to Europe by sea or air. We were reading in a magazine about a movie called “The Day After” and its effect on the US public and military establishment. The articles seemed to be really optimistic regarding the effect it had on people. Did it show in Toronto too? We are hoping that mom taped it on the VCR. Shelly says you too are getting along well - that’s good. Frank, save money! I don’t really believe we’ll see you in Éire, but I still have hope, Patty only laughs at the idea. Tell mom she should get a visa bill for US $130 and that we’re sorry it’s so much, but our hotel was more than we thought. In case she didn’t get my letter with the details, we spent a few days, just before Christmas, in a nice hotel, relaxing and living in relative luxury. We were caught on a Sunday with no cash. Dad, we will be back soon enough and will go to university too. We were in Madras on December 21, but received no mail. We’ll be in Bombay around January 20 and hope to get something there. Bye for now.

Peace and Love Seán

P.S. Frank - no letters since Israel from you!