“Hey man, I’ve been following you for the past three blocks” said the lad r as he pulled up next to me in the dark on an ageing Honda 125.
I was trying to figure my way around Amritsar (India), after crossing the border from Pakistan, it was getting late, I needed to find a place for the night and I felt startled.
“Really?!” I replied feeling a sting of uneasiness.
“Yeah, I recognise you. I know who you are” insisted the lad.
“Wow, tell me” I stiffened, trying to anticipate what might be coming next.
“Come on man, I’m your fan! I saw you on the Discovery Channel…. please, selfie?”
I discovered, 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 met on my path as they were to me, often even more so. Riding an “exotic” machine with weathered riding gear also added to my alien charisma and helped boost my standing with many locals pretty much to celebrity level. There were countless times by the side of the road in which I was approached by people with smiles, hand shakes, words of appreciation and eager offers of hospitality. I was treated like someone in a position of eminence, of ranking, a star, or at least it felt as though I were.
The attention caught me off guard. It was flattering initially and I felt encouraged to engage with my new found friends and pals. People seemed authentically welcoming, kind and concerned. I was a guest in their country and a flag bearer for the world I had come from. However, it soon became apparent that dealing with the keen interest from the locals was a repetitive routine that gradually turned into a chore. I was often surrounded to the point that I had no space to manoeuvre my machine, people would start to touch and fondle with my bike and equipment and 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 in the long run 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 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 group of lads hurried to my side from the cars behind.
“Mister, where are you from?”
I explained that I had travelled from the UK.
“From UK to Grozny with moto?”
I nodded and acknowledged the looks of surprise on the young men’s faces.
“….welcome to Chechnya, thank you for visiting…..selfie!” and before I knew it, half a dozen smartphones were at work.
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 inside cars, either filming or taking a sneaky pic of me 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 sipping at a hot drink the youngsters gathered close and one by one politely asked their questions. What was the reason for my trip? What had I seen so far? What did I think of Iran? There were some particularly telling ones as well:
“Is it true that people in Europe believe that everyone in Iran is a terrorist?”
“What’s it like to travel to a foreign country?”
“How many countries have you visited?”
“Do you have problems with the police?”
“Can I take a selfie?”
In Pakistan it continued. An overnight stop in the village of Dalbandin on my way to Quetta (Baluchistan), attracted a few locals to the guest house I was staying at. I was a foreigner and an opportunity for for them 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 inquisitive folk .
“Sir, where you from?”
“Sir, you married?”
“You have children Sir?”
I was an eccentric, an oddball, a weirdo on a strange looking machine, someone that clearly needed to be checked out. Although the attention was sometimes massive with maybe thirty to forty people crowding around me I can’t say that I ever really felt under threat, far from it.
Eventually I had enough of the attention I seemed to attract everywhere I went and decided to blend in with the locals as much as possible. Camouflage seemed like a good idea so in Islamabad I procured a Salwar (trousers) and a Kameez (shirt) as is customary for a man to wear 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 not far from my guest house. I had never been there before. The cashier spotted me immediately:
“Ohhh, Pakistani style today. Very good. Nice colour. ….You American Sir?” he asked, as he pick up his smartphone ….”Selfie?”
Discovery Channel or not, there was nowhere to hide.
(I have never knowingly been featured on the Discovery Channel either.)
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