Magic bus, p.9

Magic Bus, page 9


Magic Bus

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  Beneath a ‘Down with foreign mercenaries’ poster a small boy calls out to us, ‘OK USA!’, novelty in his voice. We flag down a Zaferanie-bound taxi on Hafez Street. On the back seat Rudy tells me that for more than a decade he followed ‘that long line of loonies’ between London and India, a trip taking about three weeks each way. He advertized in Oz and Private Eye (‘Want to take a trip on a little £.s.d.?’), hand-printed his own tickets, collected passengers on a corner outside Victoria Coach Station.

  ‘On my second run, there were twenty of them, all stood on the street with their huge suitcases and backpacks…’

  ‘Don’t tell me: girls in beads, guys with battered twelve-string guitars…’

  ‘… plus a chick in a mauve boiler-suit who was going to Ceylon to surf, if you can believe it. Her board flew off – along with the roof rack – when the paved road ended outside Ankara. I’d sent everyone an itinerary, telling them to bring only essentials, plus a blanket for when we broke down. They turned up with sewing kits, St Christophers, even steak pies and Christmas puddings. Everyone’s auntie had been round the night before saying, “Ooo, you’re travelling around the world, you can’t go without this.”’

  Rudy’s first stop on the continent was Amsterdam. In Dam Square, he would open the old Bedford’s door and shout out, ‘Anyone for India?’ He’d call by the youth hostels in Munich and Salzburg. He’d stop at the places where the Intrepids picked up mail, cashed traveller’s cheques, found themselves stranded.

  ‘People would get off, people would get on. No one was in a hurry. They’d sleep, play the guitar, slip back together into the love bunk.’

  ‘The love bunk?’

  ‘The fabulous love bunk. I’d taken some seats out at the back and made a bit of a bed, just like on Kesey’s bus. The Bedford’s springs and shocks were terrible and we’d go bouncing, bouncing across Europe. Dear God,’ he says, looking out at a wide hot boulevard, ‘this used to be Eisenhower Avenue.’

  At an intersection, women in long-brim chadors funnel between the cars. A tout taps at the window and offers us an illicit pack of playing cards. Rudy leans forward to shout directions but, as our driver speaks no English, he reverts to body language, rocking left and right on the back seat.

  ‘Did you hear about the Sheffield City coach owned by a Bradford insurance agent named Quddus?’ I ask him. ‘In the winter of ’71 it started out for Rawalpindi, but the engine was so useless that all thirty-five passengers – barefoot Westerners in flowing dresses and Pakistanis in saris – had to push the bus over the Alps in a blizzard.’

  ‘Must have been another Bedford,’ sighs Rudy, turning away from a child prostrate on a traffic island, exposing his hunchback, holding aloft an alms tin in his small, outstretched fist.

  In Turkey, Rudy had been a regular at the Pudding Shop. He convinced the Çoplans to paint their logo on his bus in exchange for a free fry-up every time he passed through town.

  ‘You were some entrepreneur,’ I say.

  ‘I had to keep the wheels turning. Nearly lost them once or twice. In an Istanbul traffic jam, this little fibreglass Ford started edging alongside me. I’ve never liked people who try to get away from the lights before me. Well, the bus’s aluminium trim lipped in behind the Ford’s wheel arch. When the lights changed, I pressed the gas – vroooom! – and heard a terrible tearing noise. I’d ripped the entire bodywork off the Ford. The poor Turk leapt out of his car seriously pissed off. Then – talk about Moses and the Red Sea – all the traffic cleared. I started driving for my life, with the Turk running behind and an American passenger sliding down a window, waving his fist and yelling out, ‘Don’t fuck with the Dart, man.’

  ‘Another trip – and this is the gospel truth – I almost drove Timothy Leary to Delhi. He was on the run from the FBI here in Tehran.’

  ‘That’d be 1973.’

  ‘Could be. Dates were never my strong point. Leary phoned Indira Gandhi to ask if she would grant him political asylum. “India is my spiritual home,” he told her. Like, give me a break. He said the bus was too dangerous and flew to Kabul, where Interpol arrested him.’

  Outside the window unfold endless, stifling suburbs. Distances seem huge, destinations unattainable. A decrepit taxi passes us, towing a smashed ambulance with a lash of seat-belt webbing. A Pontiac, another gas-guzzling memento of the former elite, cuts between them, snapping the belt. With its frayed, stubby end, a furious medic beats the offending car.

  ‘Travel was easy back then. A Western passport protected you,’ Rudy says, watching the arguing drivers. ‘When you’re young, you’re immortal, aren’t you?’

  Our taxi drops us in Zaferanie, the Belgravia of Tehran on the slopes of the Alborz mountains. Here, men in ties buy NAD stereos and drive new LandCruisers, indulging themselves in the present day, while elsewhere in the city the poor embrace a populist message of heavenly promise.

  We stroll between airline offices, advancing uphill, Rudy dropping broad hints about the nearest beverage bar. Caution is not a word in his vocabulary. No duty manager offers us a tumbler of Talisker in a back room. No local financier invites us to a private party in a penthouse suite. I let on that my information on illicit alcohol might have been another of Babak’s distilled fantasies.

  ‘But my thirst remains most real,’ says Rudy.

  ‘How about some tea?’ I suggest.

  Above the noise of the city rises Sa’d Abad, a lush, lofty park surrounding the former Shah’s summer residence. Parrots and woodpeckers dart in the canopy of green, sixty feet above the winding footpaths. On the tree trunks are carved the initials of male friends. Outside the White Palace are two head-high bronze boots, the only remains of a giant statue of Reza Shah Pahlavi.

  Rudy and I climb to a tea house beyond the Green Palace, now a museum of ostentatious furniture not looted during the Revolution. We sit on a carpet-covered takhts lounger, shoes off, drinking tea and eating dates. The waiter welcomes other patrons by wiping off tabletops with a towel. We listen to their scattered laughter.

  ‘At least the air’s cool,’ says Rudy, thinking again of beer.

  In the course of telling him about my journey, I say, ‘I’ve never been able to find a proper road map of the overland trail.’

  ‘Never was one.’

  ‘But didn’t you get lost?’

  ‘Sometimes there weren’t any roads. My first trip across Iran I saw only one paved highway in the whole country. But every few months I’d come back and see the change. One time a town would get its first street lamp. The next there would be a new stretch of tarmac. The third, a roundabout with a fountain and a road sign. Then everything started to look so American: police uniforms, Budweiser beer, the Peace Corps.’

  As he talks, Rudy lights a cigarette and blows the smoke straight above us toward the trees.

  ‘Nothing changed in the desert, of course. The road was never paved and overtaking was nasty. You had to get a view several miles ahead to make absolutely sure there were no approaching sand clouds. Once you committed yourself, you couldn’t see a thing. I tended to turn the music way up loud when overtaking.’

  ‘To the soundtrack of your lives?’ I ask him.

  ‘The stereo system was the first thing every driver arranged,’ he nods. ‘I played stuff with meaningful lyrics, the tapes getting stretchier and stretchier in the heat. Reeeeur reeeeur.’

  Aboard the Silver Dart, Rudy also played the music of the country through which he was driving: marching tunes through Austria’s mountain passes, Beethoven’s Ninth in Germany, bouzouki tapes across Greece, arabesk songs in Turkey and qawwali chants in Pakistan.

  ‘As well as kids in Indian headbands, I carried dead-ass dentists, Essex shop-assistants, Welsh council-workers, people who’d spent all their lives in an office and had never left the UK. All of them were looking for an Adventure. I couldn’t let the trip be just a bus ride. I had to knock them out with foreign vibes.’

  With its patchwork radiator and without any windows (
they had fallen out on his thirteenth run along the rutted Caspian road), Rudy finally sold the Bedford in Lahore.

  ‘I don’t think there was one original part left in her,’ he laughs. ‘Praise Allah for the mechanics outside the Amir Kabir.’

  Pakistan International used the Bedford for another decade as an airport courtesy bus.

  ‘And that was the end of the Silver Dart?’

  ‘I’d always dreamed of owning a Mercedes,’ he recalls, shaking his head. ‘Every trip I’d watched them sail past me, their engine brake going buurrrp burrrrp.’

  In 1972, Rudy bought a Mercedes 321 with a 5.6 litre engine and a split windscreen. With its two supplementary 100-gallon fuel tanks, the Last Silver Dart (‘LSD’) could cover the 7,250 miles from London to Kathmandu with only two fuel stops – in Greece and Iran.

  ‘On its first trip, six Italian lesbians got onboard. In the early seventies that was – bam! – in your face. They were proud, defiant and very hairy. They refused to shave any bodily parts.’

  At the next table, a customer drinks his tea in the Iranian manner, from a saucer, with a lump of sugar between his teeth. As the waiter refills our glasses, Rudy goes on, ‘Somewhere between Kandahar and Kabul we stopped at a blissed-out hotel. My schedule was always flexible, to say the least, so in that beautiful place I decided to let a day or six slip away. But the lesbians were on a timetable. “Rudy,” said the pretty one, putting down her pipe, “we have to be in Kabul tomorrow. We leave now, yes?” They stood there with their hands on their knives, cutting no slack. When I didn’t respond, they said, “Rudy, we don’t want to kill you…” In a flash, half a dozen other passengers jumped up and formed a human chain around me. We left the next day.’

  Rudy flicks his ash on the ground. I watch him with close interest as his eyes take on a look of mystification, as he says, ‘Afghanistan, man, was another world. The gate opened and the light cleared. One minute, the world was dull and dusty. The next, the poppies were luminous red, the rivers electric white, the mountains balanced against the sky. The whole journey went from black-and-white to colour.’

  ‘Maybe it was the dope,’ I say.

  ‘The border police practically gave the stuff away. They lay on string beds on the customs shed veranda, slicing melons, calling for green tea, saying to us, “This is for you. First quality. Welcome to Afghanistan.”’ Rudy smiles, stirs his tea, doesn’t drink, says, ‘Baggy Aladdin pants, flowery shawls as big as blankets, hubble-bubbles filled with humungous chunks of the finest Masr. My single best moment happened in Kabul. Someone at Friends’ Hotel put on the new Steppenwolf album.’ He leans forward, lifts his voice and his hands to the table, sings softly about flying free on a magic carpet ride. ‘It doesn’t sound like much now but I was blown away.’

  He stretches his arms out along the bench, looks up into the trees. I watch his face. He says, ‘I wanted to go back there this trip but the wife wouldn’t wear it. All the news about the Taliban and American bombing had scared her. I told her, “Janie, don’t get your balls in an uproar. I’m a survivor.” She said to me, “Rudy, honey, you’re not immortal any longer.”’

  The waiter stands by our lounger, breaking Rudy’s concentration, catching my eye. Perhaps he doesn’t like hard rock. Or maybe he just wants us to pay the bill.

  Rudy’s face is flushed, almost as if a discharge of psychic heat is racing through his veins. ‘We were kids, turning nineteen or twenty, questioning and rebelling just like the world itself,’ he says as I find my wallet. ‘That synchronicity gave us such a sense of sharing, of possibility.’

  ‘Can you still smell the patchouli?’ I ask.

  ‘Yeah, I can,’ he says without a hint of cynicism. ‘Like it was yesterday.’

  As I pay for the tea I think of Laleh again and ask him if, after all his journeys, he feels attached to any single place. He shakes his head. ‘I felt the world was mine and that I belonged to the whole world.’ He takes a long, deep breath. ‘I found my little piece of heaven on the road itself.’

  The evening light is golden, the shadows now soft. Above our heads a gentle breeze rouses the woodpeckers, stirring beating wings and rustling whispers from the interlocking branches of the poplars and plane trees.

  Rudy adds, ‘But I lost it after the Iranian Revolution.’

  ‘Not just you,’ I say.

  ‘All the guys stopped driving then: Rob and Keith with their Setra, George on Budget Bus, ugly Bob from Chattanooga who had the Volvo. It broke my heart having to stop.’

  We’re standing now, descending towards the city. I ask, ‘Was driving always a big thing for you?’

  ‘Since reading travel stories as a boy,’ he says.

  At the age of eight, Rudy’s imagination had been captured by an anthology of automobile journeys in the Second Motor Book. In its pages, an army Major FAC Forbes-Leith set out in 1924 in a 14 h.p. Wolseley Felix, intent on being the first man to drive from England to India.

  ‘I carried the book on both the Bedford and the Merc, along with Heyerdahl and Vonnegut. I suppose Forbes-Leith was my inspiration. He and an amazing pedal car.’

  ‘What pedal car?’

  ‘When I was growing up, my uncle had a toy shop in St Austell. One Christmas he gave me a pedal car. It was made by Liberty Brothers – registration LIB 1212, I remember – and had a long bonnet, pneumatic tyres, spoked wheels and little doors with knobs which opened out like this. It was painted buttercup-yellow with dark-green upholstery and silver headlights. When I was very small – about five – I could just squeeze a little girl into the seat next to me,’ he says.

  ‘For a magic carpet ride?’

  ‘It was such an item in my life. One day I came home from school and my dad had given it away. My bloody pedal car.’ He’s quiet for a moment. Then he says, ‘Hey, did I tell you that I drove the first double-decker bus into Kathmandu?’

  Rudy is determined to track down a pre-dinner drink. We agree to meet later and I leave him at the edge of the park. I’m heading back to my hotel and to reach the Metro station must cross a main road. Iranian drivers ignore traffic lights so, to survive, I’ve learnt to tuck myself in behind groups of pedestrians. As a body, we leave the relative safety of the pavement, striking out into the organized chaos of fast, filthy vehicles, looking straight ahead, not stopping. Horns blare, a bus hurtles down a contraflow lane piping its piercing whistle, a green and white BMW police car slices by my tail.

  I duck into the station.

  In the ticket hall, every sign is written in Farsi, except for an arrow on a city map reading ‘You Are Here’. On the platform, the first two carriages are reserved for women. I am packed into the male section of the train, pushed up against a middle-aged man with rough, fawn-coloured skin. He starts to talk, says, ‘I have been to the cemetery.’

  He extracts from his breast pocket a photograph of a young man, maybe twenty-one years old. In the prime of life. ‘My youth,’ he says.

  ‘Your son,’ I say, attempting to correct him.

  ‘He died 3,212 years ago.’

  ‘Days ago. I am sorry.’

  ‘He was an artist. A poet. A scholar. A helicopter pilot. I am unfortunate.’

  I repeat my regret.

  ‘He flew for Ghalicheye Parandeh. Air Squadron – how you say? – Magic Carpet.’ He takes back the photograph as the carriage flickers into darkness. Under the flashing tunnel lights he stares at the black-and-white image of his lost boy. ‘I used to work in the south with the Americans on oil wells. That is where I learn my English thirty years ago. Now I forget my English. But never I forget my youth.’

  12. Dark Side of the Moon

  ‘If you do not allow me to drive you I will eat sorrow,’ said Sahar, my lean, persuasive taxi-driver.

  Ten minutes ago, he spotted me outside my hotel, advised me to avoid the central bus station, offered instead to drive me the 250 miles south to Isfahan. The price, even before negotiation, was not expensive. Now, we’re barrelling out of Tehran in his
shattered Paykan as I tell him about the hippie trail. He says, ‘I’ve been on it. I’ve been on it.’

  But when? Why? He’s too young. He must have been born years after the Beatles broke up. Then I notice his eyes.

  In the early 1990s, when he was sixteen years old, Sahar’s family – itinerant fruit-farmers in the Zagros mountains – decided to send him and his younger brother to England to give them the chance of a better life. Visas were not available for unskilled Qashqa’i boys so their father, a hard-working khan who only wanted the best for his family, decided to pay to smuggle them to Britain. The family had contacts – a cousin in the police, relatives on the Turkish border – plus the example of a friend whose own sons had made it to London.

  ‘His boys have good slippers and their own television,’ said the khan. ‘My boys have none of these things.’

  The fee was exorbitant, almost two years’ income, but the boys’ earnings would in time pay off the debt and enable the family to plant an acre of orchard.

  Only half of Iranians are Persians, descendants of the Elamite and Aryan tribes who first settled the central plateau. Azaris and Kurds make up the largest minorities, followed by a sprinkling of Lors, Arabs and Turkmen. The smallest ethnic groups are proud, independent nomads: Bakhtiaris, Baluchis – whose name means ‘Wanderers’ – and Qashqa’is. Since displaced by a grandson of Genghis Khan in 1256, the Qashqa’is have roamed the wilds of Iran, driving vast flocks of sheep from winter pastures on the southern plains to grassy summer highlands in the Zagros.

  Sahar was born in a black kilim tent, nursed on horseback, swayed and pitched up into the hills at a few weeks old. During his first, month-long, 400-mile spring migration, his father walked beside son and wife, wearing his cylindrical camel-hair cap, sweeping aside the new grass which grew to the height of a horse’s girth. At night, when a hundred tents were pitched along a barren hillside, Sahar was a warm bundle dozing on thick Persian carpets. Around him, his family shared plates of rice, tore off thin leaves of flat bread, talked of the next water hole, a lame camel, the death of a lamb. By lamplight, his mother, unveiled, wearing a bright saffron and green dress with the coins of her necklaces gently ringing, sang old lullabies to him.

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