Tahir Shah was born into a respected Afghan family and was educated in England. He has written widely on intercultural themes, and his previous books include ‘Beyond the Devil’s Teeth: Journeys in Gondwanaland’ and ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’. He lives in London where Edmund Hardy caught up with him for The Richmond Review
The trail began with a mysterious email: ‘Meet 3.00, the café on Piccadilly.’ Without saying a word to anyone, I packed my bag and headed for the station. I was on my way to meet Tahir Shah, whose travel books are packed with mysterious adventures, strange people, and faint clues which end up leading to some amazing things. Walking through central London, I slowed my pace, began to observe the huge variety of people walking past me. Maybe something amazing would happen to me.
Shah’s new book Trail of Feathers begins with a chance encounter in London, in which he is told that a Spanish monk recorded the Incas flying over the jungle. The idea of primitive flight captivates him, and, within a month, Shah is trekking through Peru following a trail of barely existing clues in search of the flying birdmen of the upper Amazon. As we read, his sheer enthusiasm rubs off on us, and we too are keen to discover the truth behind all this mystery. The answers lie with a remote tribe – descendants of the original people of Southern America – the Shuar, who believe this world to be an allegory, and seek to leave it by use of ayahusca, a powerful hallucinogen through which they fly to the real world. On his way to visit a shaman, Shah ends up struggling through the dense rain forest- his guide, an ex U.S. marine, tells him the rules of jungle life: ‘Go slow, chop stems downwards and close to the ground, love the jungle instead of hating it, and check your groin for parasites twice an hour.’
The café has huge glass windows and an impressively big door. As soon as I walk in, Shah comes over to greet me: ‘I’ve recently come back from a trip to western Ethiopia,’ he says. ‘I’ve been in search of King Solomon’s gold mines.’ The image of the great adventurer setting out to discover the truth, the Indiana Jones or the Lawrence of Arabia, is a potent myth, a dream of escape we all have lodged in our minds- but you never really believe such people can exist in the cold light of day until you meet one. They challenge our notions of a secure future and a planned life. They can drop everything and travel off into the unknown with a one-way ticket and a little cash in their pocket. As Shah says, ‘Anybody could go and live in Calcutta for a while if they wanted to, you need very little resources to do that.’ Indeed, Shah’s first book Beyond the Devil’s Teeth was written when he was 23, and is about his journeys across the world on hardly any money at all.
I wondered where, in Shah’s case, his boundlessly enthusiastic sense of adventure stems from. ‘As a kid we were always encouraged to travel to unconventional places, and to go with a purpose, a project in mind. And because I’m a mixture of all different nationalities I don’t feel very settled here, I’m much happier when I’ve got an aeroplane ticket and I can leave Europe behind.’
Now in his mid-thirties, he grew up in Kent, obtained a BA in International Relations, and has since lived in California, India, Japan and South America. He says that for him one of the most important things is to have an interesting life- he goes on to tell me about his friends who have well paid city jobs, but are having a dull time, whinging and feeling trapped. ‘There’s no need to be obsessed about getting the right career or the right job early on. If you feel restless or unsure about your life, go and put three thousand miles between you and your problems and don’t come back until you’re ready. You’ll be a different person when you return, who’ll be able to face things with a totally new perspective.’ It seems Shah prefers to be free from the safety of plans: once, he bought an antique sword on Bermondsey market, travelled to India to buy and sell antiques (which fell through), but then met his wife in Bombay. They married, and have recently had a baby. Experience is what matters, not credentials.
As well as being an entertaining and funny travelogue, Trail of Feathers is also a compassionate account of Amazonian cultures which are disintegrating under external pressure. Ten thousand year histories and survival techniques are disappearing. The West arrives, with missionaries, guns, money and greed, a few things change, and then gradually social structures collapse like packs of cards. Shah is outspoken about this, and he obviously feels very strongly about our responsibilities to human diversity: ‘It really upsets me, and it’s so horrific to see at first hand a whole society being literally unpicked in this way.’ He points to one example- ‘In the upper Amazon there is an incredible medicinal knowledge which is quickly evaporating. But this is so important- our western medicine is based on only 95 plants out of a possible 25,000 or so species in the world.’
From where we are sitting, just inside the café, we can see thousands of people pass by along Piccadilly. ‘If you just sat here and stared out into the street, after a few days you’d start seeing stuff, the invisible patterns would emerge. There’s a café in Bombay where I sat for hours, just watching and taking notes. You need to complement travelling with being still, otherwise you miss so much because you can’t take it all in.’ It seems that, essentially, Shah is interested in people: he suggests that if I interviewed five people, randomly from around the café, I would find out some amazing things, some incredible stories. When he asked the magician Hakim Feroze, in Sorcerer’s Apprentice, whether he should observe people or scenery, Feroze replied: ‘People change, they’re changing all the time, they’re doing things- whereas the bloody scenery will be there forever!’ Likewise, the last thing Shah does when he arrives in a place is to go and visit the tourist sites- he likes to see what’s really going on, instead of wandering around in a kind of European dream of the world.
Shah’s books are packed with strange encounters and even stranger people. In Trail of feathers he meets, among others, a Slovakian chess hustler and a Vietnam veteran jungle guide, and is given a dried llama foetus (for the purpose of making a good-luck soup) and a four hundred year old mummified human head as a present. This is certainly not the Peru that most tourists encounter.
But when I suggest that his books are surreal, he smiles and disagrees: ‘If people would open their minds a little bit they would realise that this world is an extraordinary place and amazing things are happening all the time. You need to relax a bit, work out what is happening, what is really holding a place together- the mysterious underbelly of a society.’ India is a place which he clearly loves, and which features in Sorcerer’s Apprentice in which he learns the art of magic and illusion from a master teacher in Calcutta. That book is packed with eye-opening information- everything from the international second-hand skeleton market to retirement homes for old-age cows and herds of elephants who drink from alcohol silos and then drunkenly destroy whole villages. After you have read it, you are forced to consider the world in a new light: as a place in which what we think of as being strange is maybe just ordinary after all, if only we had the sense to realise it.
Copyright © 2001 Edmund Hardy
Edmund Hardy studies anthropology at the University of Durham, and also works as a writer and painter. He has written widely about multiculturalism, photography and literature. He can be emailed at email@example.com