Just like a Celebrity
The crowd gathers in Babusar, Himalayas, Pakistan
“Hey man, I’ve been following you for the past three blocks” said the young biker on his aging Honda as he pulled up next to me in the dark.
I was trying to find my way around the outskirts of Amritsar (India), just across the border from Pakistan, it was getting late and I felt a little startled.
“Really?!” I replied feeling the sting of apprehension.
“Yeah, I recognise you. I know who you are” the boy insisted .
“Oh yeah?” I replied as I stiffened, trying to anticipate what might be coming next.
“Come on man, I’m your fan! I saw you on the Discovery Channel…. mind if I take a selfie?”
I found out on my route across Asia, that as a solo traveller on a motorbike I was in many ways as much of a curiosity to the people I encountered on my path as they were to me, often even more so. Also, riding an “exotic” machine with increasingly weathered riding gear just added to my alien carisma and boosted my standing pretty much to celebrity level. There were countless occasions by the side of the road in which I was approached by locals with smiles, hand shakes, words of appreciation and eager offers of hospitality. I was treated like someone in a position of eminence, ranking, a star, or at least it certainly felt as though I were.
Just a few moments stop and I’m the centre of attention on my way to Sultan, Pakistan.
The attention however, caught me off guard. It was flattered initially and I felt encouraged to engage with my new found friends and “fans”. People seemed authentically welcoming, kind and concerned about me. I was a guest in their country and a flag carrier for the world I had come from. However, it soon became apparent that dealing with the interest and inquisitiveness of the locals was a repetitive routine in which I was asked the same questions time and time again, five, six, ten times a day. It became hard to bare, a bit of an annoyance and I found it less stressful to avoid any unsolicited attention as much as possible in pretty much the same way I think real celebrities do.
It all began as in Chechnya, the rebellious Russian republic just north of the Caucasus. Since the end of the clashes for independence (fifteen years ago or so), this area has seen few tourists and even fewer foreign registered motorbikes venture across it’s borders.
As I idled at a traffic light in Grozny (the capital) admiring the gleaming new town centre I noticed a little commotion reflected in my rear view mirrors. A bunch of lads hurried to my side from the cars behind me.
“Mister, where are you from?” they asked smiling.
I explained that I had travelled from the UK.
“From UK to Grozny with moto?”
I nodded, and acknowledged the looks of surprise on their young faces.
“….welcome to Chechnya and thank you for visiting!…..selfie!” and before I knew it, half a dozen smartphones were at work.
First stop in Iran and a young family comes along to enquire about my trip.
In Iran things really took off. I was regularly honked at on the roads by truck drivers and given the thumbs up sign of approval. I noticed smartphones pointed at me from passegers inside cars, either filming or taking a sneaky picture with waving hands and at many road side stops I was regularly approached by curious passers by.
I stopped at a beach side eatery one afternoon, on the Caspian coast. As I pulled up I caught the attention of some youths lounging near by. While I sat at a table and sipped at my hot drink the youngsters gathered around me and one by one politely asked their questions. What was the reason for my trip? What I had seen so far? What did I think of Iran? There were some particularly telling ones as well:
“Is it true that everyone in Europe believes we are all terrorists here in Iran?”
“What’s it like to travel to a foreign country?”
“How many countries have you seen?”
“Do you have problems with the police?”
“Can I take a selfie?”
Students surround me when I stop for a sip of water in rural Pakistan
… in Pakistan
In Pakistan it continued. An overnight stop in the village of Dalbandin on my way to Quetta, attracted a few locals to the guest house I was staying at. I was a foreigner and an opportunity for these people to practice some English. So, converse we did.
“Sir, are you married? Sir,why not? Do you have a job, sir? You have children, sir? Sir, will you be travelling to India after Pakistan? Please sir a selfie, yes?”
Further East, through Punjab and beyond to valleys of Gilgit and Baltistan in the Himalayas, every road side stop close to a village drew a small crowd of polite inquisitive folk .
“Sir, where you from?”
“Sir, you married?”
“You have children Sir?”
I was an eccentric, an oddball, a weirdo on a strange bike someone that clearly needed to be checked out. Although the attention was occasionally massive with maybe twenty to thirty people crowding around me I cannot say that I ever felt under any threat, far from it.
There was always someone that would come and enquire about my well being in Pakistan
Eventually I had enough of the attention and decided that I should try to blend in with the locals as much as possible. Camouflage seemed like a good idea. In Islamabad I bought a Salwar (trousers) and a Kameez (shirt), the traditional dress for a man in Pakistan.
Confident that I could now mingle and not stand out too much from the crowd I put on my new outfit and walked into a small restaurant I had never been in before. The cashier spotted me immediately:
“Ohhh, Pakistani style today. Very good. Nice colour. ….You American Sir?” he asked, as him pick up his smartphone ….”Selfie?”
Clearly, Discovery Channel or not, there was nowhere to hide.
(I have never knowingly been featured on the Discovery Channel either.)
Kamez and Salawar for camouflage
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