There are places on earth that can teach a traveller invaluable and memorable things within a short period – A look at two of those
I wasn’t sure what time it was, but I knew it was early in the morning. I stayed in bed and saw the light gradually grow outside the train window. It was not only the night that had changed into the day; the weather had changed too. I felt I had reached home – not really home as in Karachi but into a sphere of warmth associated with home… the warmth, literally. Mash’had, when I left it a day earlier was definitely colder.
I looked outside the window and the sight of familiar kikar trees greeted me. Soon, the train stopped at its final destination. I was now in Bandar Abbas. Iran’s busy port city, sitting at the strategic Hormuz Strait was the last stop on my overland trip that had started in Moscow six weeks earlier. Now I had to take a ferry to Sharjah.
But I could not pass through Bandar Abbas so casually. I had to understand the place. I had to soak in the history of the locale.
Because of the economic sanctions on the country, few western tourists go to Iran these days and there was little information on the internet about Bandar Abbas’s ferry connection to the UAE. Now that I was actually there, I could do the legwork.
It turned out there was a ferry to the UAE every day. It was a 12-hour ride. Most ferries had a sitting-only arrangement. I bought the ticket for the next day on a ferry that had beds.
Bandar Abbas is a big city, but most of the tourist attractions are along the coast. After putting my luggage in the hotel room, I went out for a walk and soon found the only Hindu temple of the city located by the main drag. The sign outside the temple noted that the building was built during the Qajar Dynasty – the claim on the internet that it was built by the Indian subjects of the British Empire seemed plausible.
But who were the people who built it? What were their names? Did they board the ship from the port of Calcutta? Are there any written records of such voyages? There is a story waiting to be told, the story of movement of our people under the British Raj: to East Africa, to Fiji, to present-day Malaysia and Singapore, to Suriname, and of course to destinations nearby such as Bandar Abbas. I have been fortunate to visit many of these places. I wonder if I am ever going to get time to sit down in the British Library – where I can refer to the historical records of the Raj – and write that story.
The renovated building of Bandar Abbas’s only Hindu temple was now divided into two parts: one portion housing the non-functional mandir, the other part – probably once used for gatherings and dining – had an exhibition of jewellery and other artefacts.
But Bandar Abbas had something else to offer: a regular ferry service to the Hormuz island. I inquired at the port and figured out how to go to Hormuz in the morning and come back in the afternoon, just in time to catch the Sharjah-bound ship. It was a tight schedule but leaving Bandar Abbas without visiting Hormuz did not make sense.
Next day, I quickly went through the morning routine and started walking towards Shahid Haqani Passenger Port from where ferries to Hormuz leave. It was a sunny day and after the end of the Arbaeen holidays, the commercial activity was resuming – shop shutters were going up and men and women walked hastily to reach their offices on time.
There is a story waiting to be told, the story of the movement of our people under the British Raj: to East Africa, to Fiji, to present-day Malaysia and Singapore, to Suriname, and of course to destinations nearby such as Bandar Abbas.
Being a kharjee (foreigner) I had to pay much more than the regular ticket price for the ferry ride. It took almost an hour for the ferry to reach Hormuz. Once outside the port, I was surrounded by tuk-tuk drivers eager to take me on an island tour. They carried laminated sheets showing the tourist attractions of Hormuz. I negotiated the tour price and settled with a tuk-tuk driver who assured me he would show me all the sights and still complete the tour in two hours, just in time for my ferry service back to the mainland.
Hormuz is a small island with a big variety of geological features – counting their ages in millions of years – intended to make the visitor look small and insignificant. How to know what happened in the past? To know about the recent past, one should read history; to look back farther, one should learn geology; to really look far, far back in time, one should learn astronomy.
It was hard to hear the tuk-tuk driver over the noise of the machine, but he kept filling me with information about the island. Hormuz is nature’s artwork on a grand scale: the canvas constantly being set anew by the movement of the tectonic plates and then water eroding, transporting, and depositing minerals, constantly reshaping the picture.
We stopped to see the red soil – a vestige of the crushing of iron ores, by waves of ancient seas; the ‘salt goddess’ (Ilahi Namak) – salt leftover after evaporation of a foregone body of water, then compressed together in the shape of rocks, and finally thrust on to the surface of the earth; a cave – formed by the erosion of lime initially trapped between more hardy minerals; an open lime deposit; and craggy mountains given peculiar names by locals, owing to their resemblance to animals, birds and human postures. In taking the circuitous route of the island we kept stopping at beautiful beaches with their warm air loaded with the soft scent of the sea.
Besides the geological features, the island has a mangrove forest, a fort built by the Portuguese, and a large population of African-descent people. The last idiosyncracy from recent history when from Muscat, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, the Omani Sultans dominated ports around the Indian Ocean: Zanzibar, Mogadishu, Bandar Abbas, Gwadar, Surat, and others. Spices, ivory, coffee, and indentured labour, being the articles of trade in that era.
And then there was the eponymous strait, the jugular vein of the world trade through which the blood of the global economy, oil, flows. I stood there in the warmth of the afternoon sun, looking towards the Arabian Peninsula, oblivious to the fact that just weeks later there would be an assassination in Iraq that would raise the fears that Iran might try to close the Hormuz Strait.
By the time the sightseeing tour was over, the ferry to Bandar Abbas was getting ready to leave. If I missed that service – the next run being several hours later – I was going to miss the Sharjah ferry. I quickly made it to the checkpoint only to find out the ticket I was carrying in my hand was only one-way, it was already used. I had to get another one-way ticket to now go back to Bandar Abbas. I ran as hard as I could to the ticket booth at the port entrance. But ferry payment for a foreigner was not that simple. My passport was checked, and information was noted before issuing me a ticket. All this time I kept peeking out the window to make sure the Bandar Abbas boat was not leaving without me. And as soon as I had the ticket in my hand, I made another mad dash. I was the last person to board the ship.
It was now almost certain that I was going to leave Hormuz…Bandar Abbas…Iran. As the ferry left the Hormuz port I looked back at the island with a sense of gratitude—indebtedness for what the island had taught me in such a short time.