A carry-on up the Khyber

That summer: Heather Bolton remembers 1968 and a trip to Pakistan in a van-full of baby clothes
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The Independent Travel
Being stuck at Torkham, the Pakistani frontier, after a 6,000- mile journey in a 10-year-old Morris 1000 van, did not seem funny at the time. It made me wonder what on earth I was doing at the foot of the Khyber Pass in the first place.

It was 1968, and I was on my way to Lahore. The customs official, however, nearly made this an impossible dream: he was convinced we had made the entire journey in order to open a shop.

I had met my friend Farooq, a Pakistani, in London two years earlier, and he had persuaded me that Lahore would be a great place to visit. He himself had been trying for about eight years to organise a trip back to his homeland.

The problem at the border had originated prior to our departure. Farooq's friends and acquaintances had arrived from all over London, all carrying parcels which they wished us to transport to their families at home. Many of these packages contained children's garments, in the same style but in a multitude of sizes. Looking back, I am not surprised that the official at the Khyber Pass was wary of our motive for going to Lahore.

After many hours of argument he eventually stamped our passports, but by that time it was dark. He leant slowly back in his chair and said: "Unfortunately there is tribal warfare in the vicinity, and it is not unknown for white people to be kidnapped and disappear."

We were left with little alternative than to stay the night on the encampment. Farooq slept in a barracks, and as I was the only female I spent the night sleeping upright in the front of the van with an armed guard standing alongside. Those wretched parcels had caused further discomfort: they totally filled the space at the back, so that we had been obliged throughout the journey, when we had no other accommodation, to sleep upright in the front of the van.

Indeed, our journey had been riddled with such practical difficulties. For example, a windscreen wiper, flying off on an autobahn in Germany in driving rain, had further repercussions. Our only remaining one was transferred to the driver's side - and as the passenger I therefore got a very blurred view of the deserts of Iran.

But things got worse; a fan that Farooq had installed to cool the engine collected the dust and fired it at our faces as well as on to the bonnet. Farooq was able to see to drive only by keeping his wiper working non- stop. As I was not fortunate enough to have a wiper, I had to be content with eating the dust which also infiltrated my ears, nose and eyes.

In fact we got so dirty that we were refused refreshment at a desert rest-house. The landlady ordered us to wash in a nearby stagnant pond and then collapsed with laughter when she discovered that one of us was brown, the other white. She told us that she could never have guessed.

Eventually we arrived in Lahore and were taken into the bosom of Farooq's warm and loving family. Although middle class and well educated, descended from a long line of physicians, the family seemed very poor to me. The frugality of their home was at first a shock, but their hospitality quickly made up for it.

Six beautiful children were being cared for by their two aunts, Farooq's sisters. The children's mother had died the year before, during the birth of the sixth, Anse.

Life in Lahore opened a door to a new dimension for me. Nothing could be hurried. Everything had its own pace. Conversations with Farooq's brother, the doctor, were totally unlike anything in the West. The tendency not to compartmentalise what was said, and not necessarily to compare it with direct experience, meant that there was an amazing freedom in our talk. It was almost as if ideas could be tossed around in time, seen from numerous angles.

Conversations like these would usually take place at dusk. The air would be heavy with the perfume of blossom. I felt such pathos that it was difficult not to weep. Children with brown eyes deeper than pools would listen quietly and attentively. Their ages ranged from 12, to baby Anse.

I am happy to say that today, nearly 30 years later, I am still in touch with many of Farooq's family. Parting with them that summer, after a five- week stay, seemed grotesquely painful. I was to fly back, Farooq to return with the van.

On the way home I changed planes in Moscow, where the cold was shocking. As I stepped off, the wind whipped my cheeks - a cruel reminder of the love I had left in Pakistan.