Travel stories

Lucky Stones of Tagus


A man was selling stones outside the Lisbon castle. I asked him what made those stones so special? He replied that he had collected these stones from the banks of Tagus River from all across the peninsula; their special composition of mud, water and magma  enabled them to attract positive energy, and change the destiny of whoever owned them. I asked him if stones from the mighty Indus river could do the same? He said “No river is like Targus”. I asked him if these stones had changed his destiny yet? He looked at me, smiled and replied ‘not yet’. I smiled back and walked away.

Dil Dil Pakistan at the Aegean Sea


I was about to jump off the highest mountain overlooking the small Turkish city of Fethiye on the Aegean Sea. My guide a 50 year old man from northern Turkey was setting up the parachute and carefully observing the wind’s direction. He asked me where i was from? Pakistan, i told him. With joy in his voice he started singing Dil Dil Pakistan. 

I was surprised so i inquired how he knew it. He told me that when he was a child, this Pakistani song used to run regularly on Turkey’s national television; as a result, his whole generation grew up singing it. He told me how the Muslims of India (now Pakistan) helped Turks during their war of independence. I was happy to see how a  generation of Turkish people saw Pakistan as a brotherly country: at the same time, i realized how much we had lost on the diplomatic front in recent times. Back in Istanbul, my Turkish friends, mostly university students, were totally unaware of the historic bond between the two countries.

Not the Center of My World

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Alfama neighborhood

After completing my guided tour of Alfama neighborhood in Lisbon, I asked my tour guide if he was free and could tell me more about Portugal’s history. He held a Masters degree in Portuguese Literature and was fluent in English; it had drizzled all day, we walked on the street that goes uphill from Arc Di Augusta. We talked about the Muslim rule of Portugal, the Reconquista, the Great Lisbon Earthquake, the second Republic, Portugal’s ideological rift with Spain and Lisbon’s naval supremacy during the 15th century. He pointed out how every nation of the world claims to be extremely important to the global civilization at some point in history and every nation looks back at this time with a lot of pride and nostalgia, referring to it as a ‘Golden Age’. For the Arabs this time can be the time of Caliph Umer, for the Turks it might be the era of Suleiman the Magnificent, for the Greeks it might be the era of Alexander the Great, for the French it might be the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, for the Persians it might be the time period of Sasanian empire, for Sikhs it might be the reign of Ranjit Singh and the list goes on. This self-proclaimed greatness is evident form the world map that our children study in school books, every country shows the world map as flat and shows itself at the center of the World. He told me that it’s very likely that the map I saw in my school books showed Pakistan at the center of the world and boasted about Pakistan’s great geostrategic location, while his school books showed Portugal at the center of the World and emphasized on Portugal’s great strategic location. Every child, doesn’t matter which nation he/she belongs to, grows up believing their country to be the center of the world.  Every civilization sees itself as the center of the world and writes its history as the central drama of human history. What might appear to be the center of the world depends on one’s perspective; one man’s center might be another man’s edge. A lot of unnecessary conflict could have been avoided if we just realized that ‘You are not the center of my world’. I am the center of my world, you are the center of yours and there are hundreds of similar worlds around us, each one of them is extremely important yet extremely insignificant. It had gotten dark and I had to catch an overnight bus that would take me to the Spanish city of Seville eight hours away. Suddenly the drizzle changed into a heavy shower, with this exchange we greeted goodbyes and parted ways.

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My Portuguese guide

The Falcon of the Quraish

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The Great Mosque of Cordoba, now known as Mezquita went through many expansions but its foundations were laid by Abd Al Rehman I

Abd Al Rehman I was an Umayyad prince in Damascus. He was the founder of the Muslim dynasty in Europe that lasted for over three centuries; it spanned over modern-day Spain, Portugal and parts of France. Abd Al Rehman was a young prince when the rival Abbasids toppled the Umayyad rule through a mutiny in the Umayyad capital, Damascus, in 748 AD. The whole royal family was executed but the young prince managed to escape Damascus with his son, brother and sisters. The prince and his family took refuge in a village at the banks of Euphrates, however, soon the Abbassid horsemen reached the village in search of the remaining members of the royal family. Fearing for their lives, Abd Al Rehman and his brother left the village, leaving his sisters and his own son behind. While they swam across the mighty Euphrates, the horsemen asked the princes to surrender and stop: the whole Abbasid army was hunting them and there was no way they could flee. Abd Al Rehman’s brother fell in the trap despite his warning and swam back to the river bank, while Abd Al Rehman begged him to not believe the Abbassid horsemen. Upon reaching the bank, he was killed in front of Abd Al Rehman’s eyes.

The prince was sure that his son and sisters had met a similar fate by now. Heartbroken, lonely and hopeless, he maintained a low profile as he traveled across the Sinai, Egypt and the whole North Africa to end up in Morocco. At that time the Muslim territories in Al Andalus (Spain) were suffering from ethnic and religious clashes. The Arabs and Berbers were deeply divided and unable to agree on a common ruler. In this anarchy, Abd Al Rehman landed on the coasts of Europe, at modern day Malaga, and laid his strong claim to the throne of Andalusia.

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River Guadalquivir today.

Abd Al Rehman announced himself as the Emir of Cordoba, which was a prominent city in Europe and the Muslim world. The city was famed as the center of philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and arts in Europe. In Cordoba he was reunited with his long-lost son, who he had last seen weeping at the bank of Euphrates. None of his sisters made it though.

The rise of Abd Al Rehman in Andalusia rang alarm bells in the courts of the Abbassid king, Al- Mansur, in  Baghdad. And in 763, Abbasids invaded Al-Andalus. But this time the Umayyad prince managed to defend his kingdom.  After the conflict, Abd Al Rehman restarted his development projects in Al-Andalus. He ordered the construction of roads and bridges to increase connectivity and trade in the region. He brought Syrian agricultural expertise to Europe and started large-scale irrigation projects. His era was a period of religious coexistence. He brought reforms in civil service and ordered the construction of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, which was an architectural masterpiece of the time and is visited even today, by a large number of tourists.

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Inside the Mezquita

Abd Al Rehman’s vision developed Cordoba and Andalusia into the most advanced European kingdom of the time, however, zenith of the Caliphate of Cordoba came several generations later, during the reign of Abd Al Rehman III.

Abd Al Rehman died in 788 AD, after losing a dynasty and then founding another one on another continent in one lifetime. He is known in history as Al Dakhil (The Entrant) and Saqr Quraish (The Falcon of Quraish), a title given to him by his biggest enemy, the Abbassid ruler, Al Mansur. According to chroniclers, one day Al Mansur gathered his council in his court and asked them who deserved to be called the Falcon of Quraysh? The council named several leaders of the era, eventually Al Mansur stood up and said the following words.

The falcon of Quraysh is Abd al-Rahman, who escaped by his cunning the spearheads of the lances and the blades of the swords, who after wandering solitary through the deserts of Asia and Africa, had the boldness to seek his fortune without an army, in lands unknown to him beyond the sea. Having naught to rely upon save his own wits and perseverance, he nonetheless humiliated his proud foes, exterminated rebels, organized cities, mobilized armies, secured his frontiers against the Christians, founded a great empire and reunited under his scepter a realm that seemed already parcelled out among others. No man before him ever did such deeds

Despite the hostility between Umayyads and Abbasids, Al Mansur’s words show the high regard and respect he had for his enemy. Historians are divided on whether Abd Al Rehman’s dynasty was an extension of the Umayyad dynasty or a separate entity in itself. Muslims were eventually driven out of Europe with the successful campaigns of Frederick the Great and Queen Isabella. The fall of Granada in 1492, the last Muslim stronghold in Europe, symbolizes the end of the Muslim Golden age, which had started with Abd Al Rehman I.

A Night Train to Istanbul

I was on my way to Istanbul from Ankara on a high speed train after traveling across western Turkey covering eight cities and over 3000km, sitting at the window seat I looked outside. The Sun was about to set behind the mountains and the sky looked like a beautiful canvas of orange and pink. Far away I could see remains of a castle on a hill top; it would probably have been used as a frontier outpost at some time in history. However, today there were no human settlements there. It was a lonely castle on top of a hill that had survived the tests of time. At that moment I wished for the train to slow down or even stop. It was a beautiful place that needed to be experienced slowly and not rushed through on the fastest train in modern Turkey.  As our train entered the next valley the Sun totally disappeared behind towering mountains. It got dark outside and soon all I could see in the window was my own reflection. The beautiful valley and the abandoned hill top castle were all in the past now, just like the people that inhabited them once. Hundreds of years stood between us, yet I could imagine how they had lived, traveled, fought and died there. Maybe hundreds of years later a man making the same journey as me today would think back at how we lived, traveled and died in the 21st century. Just like me he would be ignorant to think of his day and age to be the most advanced stage of human civilization, perhaps the men who once inhabited that hill top castle thought the same as well. Separated by centuries, all three of us will share one similarity. We will all be wrong.

Life is for living –  March 2015

Oldest bridge in Australia, built in 1823
Cold and cloudy, it was a typical April day in Richmond. Richmond is a small historic town in the state of Tasmania, the southernmost state of Australia with just a sea body separating it from the South Pole. Colonial architecture, sandstone buildings, classical houses and huge lawns, walking through Richmond you could clearly feel how historic this small town was. Over 200 years ago it was station of one of the first European settlements in Australia.

It was a working day, there weren’t a lot of tourists as I walked through the wide streets of Richmond I could feel the nostalgic vibe this town exhibited. I walked to a church, which is said to be the oldest church in Australia and then a nearby graveyard that had somehow fresh bouquets on every grave. For a small historic town this was very strange. Why were they put there and who put them remains a mystery.

Walking out from the church I met an elderly Dutch couple. Both of them were very friendly. We talked about my backpacking experience through Australia as we walked across a bridge that is said to be the Oldest Bridge still in use in the Australian continent.  They told me how they had just retired and now they were on world tour sort of a thing. The lady talked about her work experiences in  life and how she regretted working too hard and staying too focused and not enjoying the small things in life.

I walked with that elderly couple till the road divided there we had to take different paths. One thing with such meetings is that you’re almost certain that you’ll never meet again. Talking to them I could feel a connection that we had. It’s strange how sometimes spending little time with complete strangers in remote corners of the world can find you answers to so many questions, questions that even you never realized existed. And that’s why it was one of the strangest good byes of my life. We walked together for just 7 mins but those 7mins were enough to see deep into each other. As we departed the old lady looked at me and said ‘life is for living’.

That’s the last time I saw her. Life is for living! It’s just a combination of 4 words that I would never have cared about. But sometimes in life simplest of the words can create lifelong lessons that are deeper than the words when words are integrated in a setting. As time has passed, I have come to appreciate these re collections. For a traveler there’s nothing more precious than to come across a place that you will never find again, and so it is with that deserted town which I and that old couple chanced upon one afternoon in Tasmania.

*For my detailed blog on every city, visit the homepage*

Barcelona’s Ali Bhai – 16 Nov 2018

After an exhausting day at Barcelona’s CEM Olympic, i got back to our hostel. The Meeting Point hostel is situated in Carrer del Vallespir; Its a little far from the city center but a lovely place to crash in after a day of exploring the city. Lisbon was the first city on my itinerary. How i would get to Lisbon from Barcelona still remained a mystery. All i knew was that i had to get to Lisbon by morning –  it was already 6pm.

I had found an Air Portugal flight but it was departing in less than 24hrs. So they didn’t let me buy it online. i called their helpline and the lady told me that i could only buy it from the airport or an Air Portugal office.  In desperation I called Zohaib, who would be traveling with me. He was returning from his Camp Nou (home stadium of FC Barcelona)  visit. He suggested that we could take an overnight Train to Seville and then fly to Lisbon from there but there were no seats left in any train that departed Barcelona that night. A bus ride would take us over eleven hours. In that moment it seemed as if everything in the world was conspiring to ensure that we don’t get to Lisbon.  You should never leave your plans to the last minute. It was a hopeless situation. At this moment we decided that we will find an Air Portugal office, buy our tickets, and leave on the first flight to Portugal in the morning.

I googled the location of the nearest Air Portugal office, which was 17 mins away and would close in 30mins at 7pm. We left the hostel and rushed to the office. We were not ready to give up on Lisbon yet.

However, when we reached the office it turned out to be a truck shop in a narrow shady street. There was no office there. i checked Google maps twice; it showed Air Portugal’s office there when there was nothing. For a minute we sat there in abject hopelessness; our chances of making it to Lisbon looked bleak just like this very street itself. The street lights here were dim and far apart, it was quite a small street with puddles here and there. Most of the shops had closed, mechanics of the truck workshops were wrapping up their stuff after a long busy day. Most of them look tired just like us. But we looked more heartbroken. How could google do this to us?

While we are discussing what to do next, i saw two men passing by the street. I approached them, and told them our situation. It was just the four of us on that dark narrow street.  The guy introduced himself as “Menu Ali Bhai kehnday nay” (i am known as Ali Bhai) and told us that he would take us to a travel agent nearby. Ali was from Pakistan and his friend was from India. Trying to be funny, i told him ‘ Mainu we Ali bhai kehnday nay’ (I am known as Ali bhai too). He gave me  a strange look as if i had broken an unsaid law. However, a ray of hope emerged as we followed his lead into the narrow, wet streets somewhere totally unidentifiable and unimaginable. Ali bhai was 5’10 with a solid built like that of a kabbadi player. The man walked as if he was the king of Spain. Trying to strike a conversation, i asked him where in Pakistan he was from? Ali bhai spoke in Punjabi only and i tried to speak the little bit Punjabi i knew with him. He told me that he was from a village in the outskirts of Gujranwala. He missed his village and told me how he missed his childhood when he would play Kabbadi in his village. I asked him when was the last time he visited Pakistan? He told me he never went to Pakistan after coming to Spain over ten years ago. A few days ago, i had read in a newspaper that Europe was suffering from an illegal immigrant crisis. Maybe Ali bhai was one of those people, i thought.

Around 15 mins had passed by, we were still walking where Ali bhai and his friend were leading us. I was observant of Ali bhai’s body language, which looked overly aggressive. He would randomly pick an apple from a food stall, and he walked with such an aura that you would think he is the owner of the city. We were getting more and more suspicious of Ali bhai, he had taken us to streets that were even narrower than the ones before. People in those streets looked uncomfortable with their own existence. There was an air of mistrust and confusion. The dots started to connect, maybe he was a thug who was trying to take us to an isolated place to take our cash. We had told him we were looking to buy an air ticket to Lisbon, which meant that he knew we were carrying a good amount of cash with us. Our doubts kept on increasing with every single turn Ali bhai and his Indian friend took.

We had reached a part of the city that was almost empty and isolated. At this point, we decided to leave Ali bhai and run back. We were already maintaining a good five feet gap from them to allow us some reaction time. Ali bhai probably gauged what we were thinking. He stopped looked back at me and said ‘Ithay aa prawa’ (come here, brother). Despite all our doubts, the warmth with which he spoke that sentence gave me almost no space to be rude and not walk to him. So i walked to him, and the moment i walked to him he put his arm over my shoulder. I realized that i had made  mistake, but i also realized that now Ali bhai, indeed, had an upper hand. So i put my arm over his shoulder and told myself,  ‘its happening, lets embrace it’.

But if you have read my previous blogs from Konya and Adelaide, you would know that i have been in similar situations before. This is what makes traveling so thrilling. Nothing works out and everything works out. its just like that.

i was all prepared to hand my wallet to them, and  had made up my mind that i would give them all my belongings, but not my passport. If i lose my passport that would be a disaster. Suddenly, Ali bhai turned towards a door that had no airline board over it. He opened the door, and said here is a travel agent’s office. I looked inside the shop and the shop had posters of airplanes in the background; it had a poster ‘Most economical Hajj and Umra package’ in Urdu. The men who sat at the desk looked to have a Pakistani/Indian origin. We had made it.

We were in disbelief because we had absolutely doubted this guys intentions, and the fact that he was trying to help us came as a pleasant surprise. Ali bhai was in a hurry so he left the office immediately. We had a hand shake; in utter disbelief and shock i couldn’t even greet him Allah Hafiz. We had an eye contact, and i could clearly see how he wanted us to say a thank you, at least. We are courteous and we always say thank you to people. But in that moment we were just stunned. Ali bhai stood there for a second or two. And we were so surprised that we forgot to thank him. I still remember the little smile on Ali bhai’s face as he left the shop. Maybe he had realized what we were going through.

I felt bad for a whole day for doubting that man and not saying him a ‘thank you’ at least. We ended up buying a ticket that was 10 euros cheaper. I didn’t take his email, mobile number or even his full name. it was the first and last time that i met Ali bhai. He is probably still in Barcelona, eating fruits from random street stalls, and reminiscing about his beautiful village, in the outskirts of Gujranwala, that he may never visit again. I am sure that i will never meet him and that ‘thank you’ is something i will always owe him. I have read countless stories of nice and kind people but it was Barcelona’s Ali bhai who taught me a lesson in ‘goodwill of strangers’ that day.  It’s amazing how sometimes you get help from people who have no incentive to help you; yet  those people go out of their way for you, expecting nothing in return but maybe a ‘thank you’. Indeed, it’s a beautiful world.

We took a bus back to our hostel and packed up our stuff. We left the hostel at 3am for the airport. We changed two buses, reached terminal 1, checked in and received our boarding pass. Our flight to Lisbon was scheduled to take off at 6 am.

Green tea piyo gay?

I reached Adelaide after taking an 8 hour bus from Melbourne. The following day, Pakistan was all set to play Australia in the quarter final of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015. This would be Pakistan’s last World Cup under Misbah Ul Haq’s captaincy. It looked like the whole Pakistani community in Australia had made its way to Adelaide for the quarter final. The hotels were full, streets were jam packed, and cafes weren’t even taking reservations. After much struggle, I got a bed in a six bed dormitory in Adelaide backpacker’s motel. The room had a British teenager, Ed Ford, who became my first friend in the motel. He, too, was backpacking across the Australian continent. There was a Taiwanese guy who wasn’t proficient in English and not at all interested in mingling with anyone; there was an Indian guy, who watched Comedy with Kapil all day; and then there was a Chinese guy, who looked very serious and would always wear nicely fitted suits when he went out.

Around midnight, I woke up. I stayed in the bed for a good 20-30 mins unable to fall asleep again; in the meantime, the Chinese guy entered our room in his usual well fitted suit. Who wears a suit at midnight, I thought. He pulled some teabags out of his suitcase. I felt like having tea as well, but I had not talked to the Chinese guy all day, so it didn’t feel appropriate to ask him for a favor. While all of this was going through my mind, he walked to my bed and said, “Green tea piyo gay?” I was absolutely surprised at his Urdu accent that looked quite natural. I said sure, and we made our way out of the room and down the narrow staircase to the sitting room. I asked him how he knew Urdu; he looked surprised at my question. For the next four hours we sat in the hotel’s drawing room, he grabbed more tea bags and it turned out to be one of the most enlightening and memorable chai sessions of my life.


He told me that he was from Quetta, Pakistan. Belonging to the often persecuted Hazara community, his family moved to Australia a decade ago. After settling in Melbourne, his family started a logistics business there, and right now he was in Adelaide to attend a business conference.

Our discussion that night ranged from ethnic violence in Balochistan, Quetta, Pakistan’s politics, life in Australia, business prospects, university and life in general. His name was Ali too; he had a very interesting take on human ability; he strongly believed that human mind was the most delicate yet resilient machinery in the World. He also had an intersecting view on university; he told me that university was a waste of time and money. According to him, universities only created qualified labor that had no idea about how money works, and how one could gain financial independence. I listened to him very carefully, and reconsidered my decision to join LUMS. He exposed me to a perspective very different than what our society propagates; soon it was close to four in the morning, so we decided to end the session. He told me to read Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and then get back to him once I had read it. I finally managed to read it after completing my first semester at LUMS; it remained my favorite book for quite some time. I texted Ali and he suggested me another book. We are still in touch; Ali lives with his family in Melbourne. He and his businesses are doing fairly well.

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