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tearing the rag off the bush again
Smugglers Train PDF E-mail
Kohitoftun is the only real village one sees before Mirjawa, the border town where you must change trains for the short and comparatively expensive ride into Zahedan.


Smuggling is a fine art. It requires both a peculiar talent and a very special temperament. Over the years, during travels in many lands, I have encountered more than a few practitioners of this delicate, if not occasionally dubious, profession. To a man, as well as to a woman (for some of the best smugglers, as you can imagine, are female), they had one outstanding trait in common. They all possessed absolute confidence. Or, if you prefer, big balls. I am sure Patricia would not mind.
     Of course, as in any business, there are always certain practical considerations, the where, when and how of it, so to speak. But one question successful smugglers never ask themselves is whether or not they should take the risk. As with those gamblers who make a habit of winning, they already know the answer to that. The notion of losing, should it exist at all, occurs only after the dice are rolled. Otherwise it would create fear. And art, whatever else it may be, is always fearless.
     In Baluchistan, a vast desert country whose nomadic inhabitants to this day will not recognize, except under duress, the division of their homeland between Iran and Pakistan, the art of smuggling is something else again. At one level it is a skilled craft, like carpet weaving. On another and perhaps higher plane it is both a way of life and a game. To watch it played is to witness a most incredible display of natural theatrics. Frankly, I enjoy it even more than I do Buzkashi.
     I had been in Goa about three weeks when a letter arrived from an old friend and sometime traveling companion asking if I would like to take over his job as sports editor of The Journal, one of Tehran’s two English language dailies. Seeing as how I had neither looked at a sports page since the Dodgers left Brooklyn nor worked on a newspaper for nearly two years, it seemed like a perfect offer. Besides, I was damned near broke. I wired my acceptance, forfeited several days’ rent on a delightful thatchroofed cottage by the beach and set off, mostly by overland thumb.
     In order to avoid visa fees in Afghanistan, and also put myself beyond the reach of Kabul’s timeconsuming temptations, her bakeries, her hashish dens and Aziz Supermarket, I decided to skirt round the south to Quetta and catch the weekly train to Zahedan, a route with which few Westerners are familiar, not even the most hardened travelers. The lure of Afghanistan, rugged and yet so mellow, is still strong. Except for the last leg, atop a dilapidated semi from Sukkur in the Sind, it was an easy journey.
     Quetta is high and cool and although I am a heat freak of the worst kind (I actually like Delhi in May!), the chill night air of late summer was exceedingly welcome after twelve unsheltered hours spent in the blazing sun. I was not unhappy hoofing it the final mile into town.
     The train was leaving in two days’ time. For six dollars and a flash of my phony student card, I booked into a firstclass compartment. It was just about my last money, but four hundred miles of desert can be very tiring. I needed space.
     The line, a typical broadgauge affair, was built by the British during World War I, for strategic purposes only. From the look of the carriages, little had changed over the last half century. Surely it is one of the oldest trains still in service anywhere. Sturdy and not quite decrepit, it nonetheless reeked of decaying antiquity.
     Naturally there was a steam locomotive, one expects that. And although a dining car was attached, it could not be got to except at stations; there was no going through from one car to another. In fact, it was more of a cook wagon than anything else. At mealtimes, which were punctually observed, the train would slam to a halt, allowing the steward to rush alongside the tracks carrying stacks of metal trays which he would then hand up to the passengers. The standard fare, unvarying apart from an equally depressing breakfast, was tough mutton, curried brown gravy, an obscene smattering of vegetables and a big blob of overcooked rice. Having lacked the foresight to stock up on provisions at Quetta, I soon swallowed my vegetarian’s pride and dug in.
     My compartment, if hardly luxurious, was at least roomy. Next to each of two side windows, one of which looked out on the corridor, was a single seat, long and definitely not soft. Above these were individual dropdown bunks, just right for an Army officer. And there was a private lavatory, small and in the Asian style I had long since come to prefer, both for comfort and hygiene. I am not informed as to who invented the Western toilet seat, but he was certainly one of civilization’s more perverse heroes. Patricia agreed, emphatically. Like me, she even carried her own water can.
     “Oh,” I said when she breezed through the door; the train was just then chugging away from Quetta station. “I was beginning to think I had this all to myself.”
     “You almost did,” she replied, tossing her two suitcases onto the top berth across from where I sat. “I had to bribe the ticket agent to let me in here.”
     “How’s that?”
     “They don’t put men and women together in sleepers, you know, not unless they’re married. So I told him we were and for ten rupees he chose to believe it. Good thing. The rest of the first class is full, and a week was too long to wait for the next train. So here I am.”
     “Lovely,” I said.
     And she was, too. Tall and slender, sandycolored hair cropped short, angular body clothed in a boyishly feminine manner, she immediately struck me as the sort of person I would most enjoy spending two days crossing the desert with. When she slipped off her jeans jacket, revealing the contours of a small, firm and very pointed bosom, with rosy nipples just starting to pierce the flimsiness of an Indian cotton blouse, I was even more certain.
     Noticing the intensity with which I stared, she merely smiled, slouched into her seat and lit a cigarette. I was just trying to think of something clever to say when the Baluchis burst in.
     There must have been ten of them and they all seemed to appear at once, like a fat nomad suddenly exploding into several persons, one as wild and ragged as the next. In no time flat they had all the seats apart and had removed the ceilings, which were made of asbestoboard and easily detached. I was only surprised, later on, that they had not torn the floor up, as well.
     Then came the goods, sacks full of tea, textiles and God knows what else. Some of the stuff they tucked neatly behind and under the seats, in splendid little niches that could have been made for that purpose alone. But the bulk went upstairs, in the open areas     between the ceilings and the roof of the carriage. The entire procedure took all of fifteen minutes, if that.
     With winks, nods of the head and plenty of smiles, the Baluchis departed to take their places along the corridors, where for most of the journey they squatted placidly, for they had neither seats nor tickets. And of course they had no passports.
     “What the hell was that all about?” I asked Pat, who, after latching the door, had seated herself beside me. We were both laughing rather hysterically.
     “They’re smugglers,” she said, “taking goodies to Iran. Haven't you been this way before?”
     “No, it's my first time. I usually go through Afghanistan. Herat is so fucking lovely, I hate passing it up.”
     “Well, you just wait,” she said, “the real fun comes later.”
     Then, with a sudden mysterious glint which, as I soon learned, characterized not only her deep mahogany eyes but the whole of her personality, she added coyly: “Tonight. It’ll be worth missing Herat for, at least once.”
     Beyond that, she would explain nothing. She obviously liked surprises. From a long woolen carpet bag, the kind sold in every bazaar from Istanbul to Kabul, and not unlike my own except much less worn, she plucked a large orange and started peeling it. When she reached over to hand me a section, unconcerned at the sticky juice dripping onto the vinylcovered seat, our fingers touched long enough to send a shock of adrenalin shooting down to my toes. I was just about to lean forward and kiss her when my peripheral vision caught sight of a grinning Baluchi face peering through the corridor window.
     “Ah, yes, meester, very nice, very nice.”
     The soundless words drooled from the top of his unkempt turban to the edges of a scruffy black beard. Pat spotted him an instant later and we both started to laugh. Not feeling rude enough to draw the curtains (or was it an uncustomary lapse of boldness that held me in check?), I simply ate the orange and contented myself with thinking: Tonight, maybe tonight. And I tried to recall whether this had ever happened in Herat. If so, it must have been in a dream.
     Actually it was early evening and still light when the train pulled up at Kohitoftun. The only other stop, at Warechah, had been brief and uneventful. There, in the midst of an otherwise empty desert, a solitary walled compound of mud construction sat alone and forlorn-looking. It was inhabited, but one could only guess at what the people inside did or how they kept themselves alive, as there was no market of any kind, not even tea vendors, the ubiquitous chai wallahs of railway stations throughout the Indian subcontinent.
     Kohitoftun is the only real village one sees before Mirjawa, the border town where you must change trains for the short and comparatively expensive ride into Zahedan. It also provides almost the only sign of outdoor life aside from the monotonous sands, the indifferentlydisplayed patches of brushwood and the occasional ramshackle bus following a mostly parallel route to Iran, its sides bulging with more than enough passengers to make you so glad you are not out there with them, roasting in the daytime sun or chilling with damp sweat in the cold night air.
     Pat said we would be at this stop for "awhile" and from the way she put it, again punctuating her words with that certain glint, I assumed it would be a long while. It felt like years since I had drunk a decent cup of tea, so I fell right in with her suggestion to head for the bazaar and hunt up a friendly chai shop. I think we had three potfuls in all and shared a large plate of iced tea cakes. Even in the deserts of India, there are undying reminders of the British raj. Tea cakes are among the endearing ones.
     It was quite an ordinary village for that part of the world: small mud buildings, dusty dirt roads and plenty of rambunctious children running about. And of course it was very masculine, with all the adult women observing purdah, which thereabouts means going in public looking like walking shrouds.
     “Ever try on one of those?” I asked Pat.
     We had just passed what might have been a young lady, her physical identity utterly hidden under the folds of a solid maroon chaderi.
     “Yes, several times,” she answered. “It’s pretty hard at first, looking through that webbing and all, but I imagine they get used to it.”
     “I’m sure they do,” I said; “but who needs it?”
     “They do,” she replied.
     For a moment her dead certainty took me aback. She hardly seemed the kind of girl who would defend an institution so degrading to femininity as purdah. But she sensed my bewilderment and stopped short.
     “It’s different,” Pat said.
     With a single long fingernail, trimmed sharp and polished bright violet, she scratched at my chest between the hems of a faded denim shirt. Her eyes were at once soft and devilishly penetrating.
     “It’s so different,” she went on, “and like so many Muslim traditions, it’s so totally beyond our ken. Believe me, they have their ways, and they’re not one jot less effective than ours, purdah or no purdah.”
     There was a long moment of silence followed by a muffled giggle coming, not from Pat's throat, but from someone standing nearby. Our heads turned together to look down the narrow roadway. It was the woman in the maroon chaderi watching us with amused interest. Though I could not see her face, and her eyes just barely through the embroidered grate, I knew for certain she was smiling. I knew, too, that she was very pretty.
     When I smiled back at her, the woman hurried off, still giggling. I turned again to Pat, but all I could see was that compelling glint, still mysterious but no longer unfathomable. I took her hand in mine and we walked slowly back to the train. Our return was greeted by one of the greatest shows on earth.
     There were the smugglers, who by that time I had practically forgotten, variously standing and squatting in a long row on the hard dirt platform. They were at least fifty men strong. Facing them, looking both officious and disgruntled, were a dozen or so Pakistani customs men, all wearing slipshod uniforms and crumpled peak caps. Between the two groups, like pirates’ booty hauled from a dark cave, was the contraband, tons of it for all I could tell. It must have stretched half the length of the train.
     All the smugglers wore glum expressions, while one, their spokesman, appeared genuinely angry. He was standing off, front and center, against the chief customs officer, a fat fellow with a bushy moustache and a pudgy right hand that grasped the universal crutch of all bureaucratic types, a large clipboard. Both men were gesticulating wildly, their voices rising and falling according to the endless points being made and disputed. Now and then one of them would throw up his arms in disgust and pretend to walk away. After a suitable     pause, and a few more huffs and puffs, the shouting would resume with even more ferocity.
     “How can you do this?” cries the smuggler. “Are we not countrymen, even brothers? Why must you take the food from our very mouths and the mouths of our wives and children? What kind of rotten brotherhood is that?”
     “And what kind of brotherhood is it," shouts the inspector, shaking a fat fist for unneeded emphasis, “for you to insult me and my office by violating the laws I have been sworn to enforce? Have I not also a wife and children to support? Even two wives, if you must know. If I let you go and then lose my job, who will feed them?”
     “Who? We, of course! We will feed you. Why not? We are brothers!”
     “Are you trying to bribe me? Is there no end to these insults? How should I show compassion to such a one as you, who hurls defamations when he should be begging for mercy? If I am in jail for not doing my job, then how should you feed me?”
     “Is this a man or is this an idiot?” asks the smuggler, turning first to his comrades, then to the other customs men who either shrug their shoulders or wobble their heads sideways after the Indian fashion of signaling assent, understanding or a whole range of intermediate moods.
     “Idiot? You call me an idiot? You are an idiot!”
     “I?? I offer food and into my face you spit salt. Fie, do what you want, I don’t care. If I must starve, then I will starve. And if my brother renounces his brotherhood, so be it.”
     Pat tapped on my shoulder.
     “This might take another half hour,” she said. “Should we go back to the market and find some nice Persian melons? Maybe they’ll take the edge off that curry. I’m afraid my sandwiches have nearly run out.”
     “Sandwiches? Melons? Oh, yeah, sure.”
     I felt like a child who had just been shocked away from an enthralling television program. We thanked the young Iranian who had been translating for us and strolled the hundredodd meters back into the village.
     We were still bargaining for a batch of ripe melons when we heard the whistle blow.
     “Looks like he has us,” said Pat, quickly taking up three of the long, palegreen gourds. “Better pay him. I’ll give you the half later.”
     The fruit wallah chuckled as I handed over some crinkled onerupee notes. I grabbed the other two melons and rushed off after Pat. My eyes homed in on her bright red pajama trousers, tapered tightly from the waist down. My, I thought, what a beautifully petite ass she has.
     We made it just in time.
     It was some hours before we were alone again. Two men from the next compartment, having helped us back onto the train, which was already starting to move out, took advantage of the situation to follow us to our own sitting room and strike up one of those unbelievably redundant conversations beloved of all middleclass Indians and Pakistanis.
     Finally, having disposed of two melons and answered a thousand and one questions about our personal histories, our philosophies of life and our plans for the next twenty years, we managed to get rid of them by pleading fatigue. I locked the door and drew the curtains on the corridor side. Through the opposite window a low and nearly full moon cast a pleasantlyeerie light over an unbroken expanse of sand. The train continued to bump along, very slowly.
     “And what are your qualifications, madam?” I asked Pat, mimicking Indian English.
     “Oh, I am a qualified hashish smuggler,” she answered with a laugh. Her imitation of Indian speech was even better than mine.
     “Really?” I said, speaking normally.
     “Really.” She sounded serious. “Do you smoke?”
     “Yes. I have a small stash with me, some Chitrali black. I was going to ditch it before the border.”
     “You'd better,” Pat said, reaching up for one of her suitcases. “They’re very thorough.”
     “They certainly are at the Taiebad frontier, on the way to Meshad,” I said. “I believe they’ve even built a new jail there, just for foreigners.”
     “I know,” replied Pat, rummaging the while through her luggage. “I've visited friends there once or twice. It's not so bad, though. At least they have a good supply of dope. Most Asian prisons do, if you have the bread to pay for it.”
     “Yeah,” I said, “like with the food.”
     “That’s right. Same everywhere, isn't it? Money, money, money. Here, let’s try some of this,” she said, handing me a huge hunk of very black, resinous hash. “You don’t have a pipe, do you?”
     I didn’t, so we rolled two joints, using the tobacco and casings from two of my cigarettes. Pat’s were unfiltered and rather harsh.
     Passing Show, one of the cheapest brands you can buy.
     “The name reminds me of what life is all about,” she remarked later. “That way I don’t get hung up over...abrupt changes.”
     The dope brought it all together, though it was surely destined to happen anyway. We were both hungering for someone to share ourselves with, someone with whom we could communicate wordlessly, speak to with moist lips and the sensual rhythms of a warm, tender body. And, wanting love--which is essentially all one ever wants--we easily chose sex as the most eloquent expression of our mutual need. It was like taking communion and certainly no less sacred.
     We made love until long after the moon had slipped out of view. From high above the unbending tracks it spread a luminous veil both solemn and joyous, obscuring a host of stars and lending the waves of passing desert sand an appearance of newfallen snow.
     Pat’s body, strong, supple and totally responsive to the most gentle hint of latent desire, was perfect in a way not even the most imaginative male fantasy could hope to project. It was young, as all things that live truly and without fear are young, always giving fresh birth to an immutable sense of wellbeing. And yet, imbued with a quality never lacking in any human temple dedicated to the goddess of erotic wisdom, it was also ageless. Memory alone creates time. In the act of love there is no remembering.
     It is not many women who can simultaneously excite a man’s deepest emotions, keep them simmering on the very cusp of timelessness where one’s awareness of reality is accentuated beyond all notion of physical space and still prevent them from boiling over before they have tasted in full her manifold charms. Pat was even more rare in that she was able to do this, and more, on a first encounter. Her power lay in her receptivity, a seductive virtue which, in the modern world, is all but dead. Through her willingness, I became a skilled lover. Two bodies, each using the other as an object of sexual devotion, became a single free spirit. Thought ceased and time suspended itself.
     Later, as we lay snuggled on the seat nearest the corridor, smoking cigarettes and with our free hands describing primitive patterns on each other’s naked skin, I started, for some odd reason, to think about the people packed together on crude wooden benches in the third class; or even of those families in some of the other firstclass compartments, two, sometimes three couples plus their children sharing the same space we now had all to ourselves.
     It was a strange musing and one that took no account of all those times I, too, had traveled on other Asian or on African trains jammed together with hundreds of other sweating bodies, none of which had ample breathing room. But the trend of thought persisted and I was just becoming conscious of a slight twinge of guilt, one that would soon grow strong enough to demand verbal expression, when the train stopped short and sent us both crashing to the floor. The effect was pure Zen.
     “Serves me right,” I could hear myself mumbling as I crawled over and planted a loud, wet kiss on one of Pat’s still erect nipples. “Must never despise a karmic blessing, especially in the desert.”
     “What on earth is the boy talking about?” she said, sitting up and kissing me full on the mouth.
     “Nothing,” I answered, “just a private joke between me and the gods.”
     There were several quick jolts, and a few muffled shouts from the neighboring compartment, after which the train resumed its lumbering journey. Pat and I sat on the floor awhile longer, kissing and caressing playfully, and it was then that I noticed the smugglers’ goods.
     In a protective gesture, as we were being hurled from our love couch, I had grabbed at the back of the seat and carried it most of the way down to the floor. Numerous sarongs and blankets, all of which had been neatly replaced in their niches while we were still bargaining for melons at Kohitoftun, now lay scattered around us in untidy piles.
     “I thought this stuff had been seized,” I said, picking up one of the plainlycheckered sarongs usually favored by Muslim men.
     “It was,” answered Pat, “and it will be again...in the morning. Should we put it back? And then maybe get some sleep?”
     Thankfully, our familiarity had changed nothing. The glint in her eye was as mysterious as when she had first aroused my passion with it. We lay together on one of the top berths, and each fell quickly into a deep, satisfied sleep. The next thing we knew there was a loud banging at the door, accompanied by a series of garbled yells from all along the corridor. It was the customs men. We nearly fell over each other scrambling to get dressed.
     The three officers, looking much the same as the last crew, went about their routine matteroffactly and without exchanging a word. They removed the contraband from behind the seats. They unscrewed the ceilings and lowered the sacks and parcels from their unsecret hiding places. And they dragged the whole lot out behind them.
     We were at Nokkundi, the third and final stop before the Iranian frontier at Mirjawa. But this time there was no bazaar for us to wander off to, so we simply sat by watching a replay of the previous day’s scene. Two hours later we were on our way again. So, too, were the smugglers. They had lost nothing except a few rupees and a store of energy. For me it was a rather amazing drama, even the second time around. For them it was just another day’s work. They seemed pleased.
     The Baluchis did not bother our compartment after that. Instead they stacked their goods near the outer doorways and in the broad open places where the carriages were hitched together. A few hours later I saw why.
     We must have been ten or so miles outside of Mirjawa when the motorcycles began to appear. At first they looked like small dark animals, gazelles or deer, leaping in long, graceful bounds between the sand dunes, now grown more frequent and generally free of scrub as we approached the western reaches of Baluchistan. Soon there were dozens of them, mostly new Japanese machines, all driving close along both sides of the moving train.
     That was the signal. One by one the bundles of contraband, now tightly bound with strong cord, went sailing off the train. Here and there cyclists were stopping to load up their bikes, then disappearing into the same hills from which they had just come. In another hour they would be in Iran. As the train crept at a snail’s pace into the tiny border station, the smugglers themselves jumped off and fled from sight. The Smugglers Train had completed another run.
     The border check was, as Pat had predicted and I had surmised, fairly thorough. First the health officers came aboard, prim Iranians wearing gaudy American sports shirts and, of all thing, baseball     caps. They provided an astounding contrast to the more homely Pakistanis. It was nearly enough to make me return to Quetta, third class if necessary. Nor did those little pink capsules they made us swallow help to impart a more favorable impression of the Shah’s Great Civilization, with which I was already too well acquainted.
     “Take them, they're good. Antibiotics. Pakistan is dirty, infected,” said the first baseman, who somehow failed to notice that my cholera shot was three months out of date. There were just too many stamps on my immunization card.
     The immigration officers were quick and to the point. Passports. Visas. Stamp, stamp. Goodbye. The customs men, however, took their time, going through each of our bags very carefully. The Pakistani officials had not been in the least concerned with them. I held my breath while they scrutinized Pat’s suitcases. And I was dumbfounded, despite the straight face I tried to keep, when they discovered nothing. With a curt doff of their hats and a polite thank you, they smiled and left.
     “I thought sure they had you, girl,” I said with a relieved sigh. “That Meshad jail may not be so bad, but it certainly can’t be very nice, either. Did you dump it?”
     “Not on your life,” Pat answered.
     She shot me another fleeting sparkle of mystery, that insane glint that seemed to well up from some unreal space beyond her own physical being. Then she turned around and whipped the back off her seat. Several plastic bags tumbled out. They were all full of hashish. ‘Sleight of hand artist, too,’ I mused. She’d obviously switched them from her luggage to there after Nokkundi.
     “Five kilos,” she said, stuffing them into her suitcases. “Just enough to pay for a pleasant winter on a small Greek island. And then some. At worst I would have simply lost it. I mean, the smugglers left it behind, didn’t they?”
     We spent the night in a small hotel in Zahedan and the next morning made our separate ways to Tehran. After trying at several companies and being told they were booked full for three days in advance, Pat finally managed to get on a through bus. And I accepted a ride with a friendly truck driver as far as Isfahan, after which I hitched another couple of lifts. I arrived in the Persian capital with about one dollar in my pocket. My friend was waiting for me when I called at his house. He had a visitor.
     “You two know each other?” he asked.
     “Yes,” said Pat, the whole of her face smiling deeply, knowingly and without a trace of regret. “We smoked a couple of joints together, on the train.”
     “And did a little...smuggling,” I added.
     A week later they left together for Greece. It was the final day of the World Series. I forget who won.



 
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