There was that poem about the Akond of Swat by that prince of the absurd, Edward Lear. It was his ear for the good rhyme which must have led him to write a poem full of questions about a character who must have seemed almost mythical. In 1989 I travelled to the Swat Valley in Northern Pakistan, and you may be amused by an encounter I had. I was travelling around in search of stock for my shop Out of the Nomads Tent, and trying to work out if I should bring a group to this beautiful part of the world. I decided to stay in the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation hotel in Maidan. As I was costing out a tour I was keeping a close eye on expenses, to get a full understanding of how to price a tour. I was shown my nice bedroom and told the time for dinner. In due course I made way over to the dinning room and after a good meal I asked for the bill. The waiter apologised, saying that bills were normally only presented when guests left the hotel. I made a bit of a fuss and insisted that a bill be brought. The pound signs began to stack up in my imagination and I could see my costs spiraling out of control. Eventually the manager was summoned and politely asked what the matter was. I once again asked for the bill for my supper. He too repeated the mantra that bills were normally presented on departure but he said he'd prepare a bill immediately if I wanted one. In due course a waiter appeared bearing my bill for the equivalent of 75 pence. I felt so ashamed that I'd made such a fuss for a bill that amounted to less than £1. I settled up. I checked out of the hotel and went off to Baltistan (Devla Murphy wrote her account of that place in Where the Indus is Young). After a week away I returned to Swat and checked into the same PTDC hotel. The following day I checked out and when I cam to pay my bill I could see that the cost of dinner the previous night had been omitted. I pointed this out to the man at the reception desk who explained that dinner had been their gift to me!
In due course I did bring a group to Swat and you can guess where we stayed. As we were leaving after a lovely couple of days in this very special valley, the same manager, Mr Habib Afridi invited the group to a corner of the garden to formally plant a tree in memory of our visit. I was handed the spade and unaccustomed as I am to planting commemorative trees, solemnly put the soil onto the roots of the sapling.
A few years later, I was at home in Edinburgh when got a phonecall from Mr Afridi to say that he was in Vienna and would like to fly over for a night: could he come and stay? I made him welcome and in due course he arrived. He only with me for one night and during the following day I showed him round Edinburgh. I could see that he was unexcited about all that I could show him. We walked past the museum in Chambers Street, and then along George IV Bridge. Still nothing made him enthuse. I could see that as a tour guide I was failing. At the end of George IV Bridge, right next to the magnificent Bank of Scotland building we leaned on the railings and looked north over Edinburgh. It's a magnificent vista, but Mr Afridi was unmoved. And then suddenly his eyes alighted on the trees that cover Corstorphine Hill and he exclaimed 'Trees', and I realised I'd have done much better if I had taken him to the Edinburgh Botanic Garden.
It's nearly 30 years since my first visit to Swat, and I am still in touch with Mr Habib Afridi via his nephew, who rang today from Peshawar with Eid Greetings. What gentlemen.