WHEN JOAQUIM Marques headed off for a month’s travelling around the north of Pakistan at the beginning of October, it should have been the holiday of the year. After all, he had already been trekking through Cambodia and Laos the year before and much of Bolivia and Argentina the year before that. A seasoned traveller, he made sure he’d had all his vaccinations, took a bag full of basic medicine and flew off from Lisbon to Islamabad via London.
In the middle of nowhere – or rather somewhere close to the border with Afghanistan in the northwest frontier lands, he awoke on day eight of his travels, the morning of October 8, to the shock of his life.
“I nearly fell out of bed! It’s so hard to describe, I felt like I was in a wooden barrel which was being violently shaken from side to side by several men,” he told The Resident’s Chris Graeme in an exclusive interview.
“I thought I must be dreaming and, as I came too, noticing it was daylight, I looked out of the window which was shaking and vibrating like a sheet of thin plastic,” he added.
Out on the street, the bushes and trees were swaying violently back and forth, buildings were shaking, dogs were barking and I thought, oh, this must be a monsoon or hurricane, until I noticed there was bright sunshine,” he said.
The whole tremor lasted around a minute and in that time I could hear things in the bathroom falling over and see the mirror vibrating noisily from where I was lying,” he recalls.
Luckily, the part of Pakistan where he was lodged, in a wooden pension house in Chitrãl, was relatively undamaged by the devastation – although strangely that wasn’t the problem. The issue was that communication to Islamabad had been cut, he was feverish and sick with dysentery, had lost four kilos in weight and needed to get to a doctor because he felt so weak and dehydrated.
“I had gone up to the foothills of the stunning and spectacular Kafir-Kalesh Valley with some other trekkers, with the intention of walking through the mountain passes for four days. The idea was to walk through the breathtaking Hindkush Mountains with its soaring 8,000ft peaks, the very mountains that inspired Rudyard Kipling to write his novel The Man who would be King.
But he had to turn back because, “I felt so ill and knew there would be no chemists, let alone doctors around for miles,” explained Marques who works for Banco Espirito Santo Leasing in Lisbon.
For his family, friends and colleagues back in Lisbon, the nightmare was only just beginning, as shocking images of crumpled apartment blocks and entire villages that had collapsed like decks of cards were beamed around the world by national and international news channels.His mother and sister were worried sick because for days they heard nothing, didn’t know if he was dead or alive, while meanwhile the death toll was mounting to as high as 40,000.
“Because I was so ill and since the earthquake had been relatively minor where I was and I had had no news about its full extent, it simply didn’t occur to me to try and phone anyone. In any case, I felt so isolated and cutoff from the world I had left behind that I somehow felt in a kind of time warp or other dimensional bubble,” he added.
However, there was a happy ending to the story because he was in one of the few parts of Pakistan where all foreign nationals have to report and register to the local police. This is due to the area being so close to the border with Pakistan, and the insurgent Al Qaida rebels hiding out in the mountains near Peshawar.
“That fact probably saved my bacon because the police knew I was a registered alien and contacted the Portuguese Consulate, who were marvellous, and got me home straight away,” he remembers.
Despite the earthquake and the cockroaches in the bedroom of one pension house where he stayed, it wasn’t all bad. “I dressed like the locals and I was treated exceptionally well wherever I went. People would take me to the bus stops and station, they were always inviting me to their homes to partake in tea and were surprisingly clued up on world politics,” he said.
The only thing I found shocking was the gender segregation with the women covered from head to toe outside the main capital of Islamabad. “The cliché of women walking three steps behind their men folk really is true,” he concluded.