Would you please introduce yourself?
My name is Razi Azmi, sixth of eight brothers and sisters. My father migrated in 1948 to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from Uttar Pradesh in India. He was a station master in the railway and worked at various locations until his retirement in 1970. Beginning in March 1971, our entire extended family (including myself) gradually moved from Dhaka to Karachi due to the turbulent situation and violence there.
You have spent considerable time in both the then USSR and USA. What was the major difference between two superpowers?
I consider myself very privileged to have lived both in the Soviet Union (1973-77) and the United States (1983-87, 1989-90). At the time I lived there, the USSR was a superpower at the pinnacle of its military might. Similarly, during my time in the USA, it was a confident and resurgent superpower under President Reagan, having recovered from the debacle in Vietnam.
These two global superpowers were not just different countries, but different planets. The Soviet Union was a land of scarcity, while the United States was a land of plenty. In the USSR the Communist Party totally controlled people’s lives, censured information, banned political parties and outlawed any form of dissent. The United States was characterised by freedom of choice, thought, movement, association and expression.
You spent your early years in erstwhile East Pakistan. Did the Bengalis always want a separate country or did this sentiment develop overtime?
As late as in 1965, during the war with India, East Pakistani political parties, intellectuals, students and the people all strongly denounced India and supported the war efforts of Pakistan. I witnessed it myself being a student of class ten. There was a growing feeling of neglect and second-class treatment of East Pakistan by the Pakistani State among the people of East Pakistan but the thought of secession was not on anyone’s mind. Think about it yourself: East Pakistan had 55% of Pakistan’s population, but the country’s capital, as well as the headquarters of army, navy and air force, as well as the State Bank of Pakistan and National Bank of Pakistan, were in West Pakistan.
The refusal of the Pakistani government to hand over power to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League despite it winning 160 out of 300 seats in the National Assembly in the general elections held in December 1970, followed within weeks by a brutal military operation on 26 March 1971, totally alienated the people of East Pakistan, leaving them with no choice but to fight for their own independent state of Bangladesh. It is true that India took advantage of the situation for its own strategic gain, but the problem was not an Indian creation. Pakistan has only itself to blame for the alienation and secession of a majority of its population.
Would you please tell us about your recently published travelogue “A World Unveiled: Joys and Jitters of Many Journeys”?
I have been to 96 countries but this book does not cover all. It has two chapters each on India (Amritsar to Assam, Delhi to Kanya Kumari, and everything in between) and Africa (24 countries), and chapters on Central Asia, Afghanistan, China (including Tibet), Russia (Trans-Siberian Railway), Mongolia, USA and Canada (about 17,000 km by road).
My travelogue has many elements: personal stories, adventures, social encounters, historical facts, geographical descriptions, anecdotes and more. I share with readers not just the thrill of my journeys but also the frustrations and annoyances that come with them, including the vagaries of visas and border crossings. It was published by Folio Books, Lahore.
Who is your favorite travel writer and why?
Ryszard Kapuscinski. He makes his subject, the people and places he writes about, come alive. “The Shadow of the Sun” is a gripping account of Africa by this Polish journalist based on forty years of reporting from the continent.
What’s your best and worst experience so far during your travels?
This is no doubt the most difficult question to answer. Excuse me for mentioning more than one in each category.
Worst: My train overturned although I emerged without injury (India), a road accident which broke my sternum (Indonesia), I collapsed from a drop in blood pressure fracturing two ribs (Russia), high altitude sickness in Tibet (China), came close to being crushed by crowds in Tibet and Gambia, detained under guard for a few hours at Orly Airport (France), a long-drawn visa glitch at Abidjan Airport (Ivory Coast).
Best: Mumbai to Goa on Konkan Railway over the Western Ghats (India); driving Adelaide to Perth through Nullarbor Plain (Australia); driving on the Big Sur coastal road in California (USA).
How did you develop this passion for traveling?
As a teenager, I was fascinated by maps, mountains, tribes and exotic places. Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation published beautiful coloured maps and brochures of both East and West Pakistan.
What has been your biggest challenge as an international traveler?
On Pakistani passport, getting visas was number one challenge, followed by finance. On Australian passport, getting enough leave from work, some of which had to be spent on family visits to Pakistan.
What is a common misconception people have about your travel passion?
People often ask how I can afford to travel so often, so far and wide. I tell them that travel is my highest priority. I choose to spend money on travel, rather than on expensive parties, repetitive rituals, brand clothes, shoes and watches, new furniture and curtains, and expensive cars. I arrange my itinerary itineraries in such a way as to utilise every trip for maximum destinations.
Do you have any favorite travel destinations where you would like to go again and again?
Argentina, Chile, Peru, Mongolia, Vietnam, Siberia (Russia).
What’s your favorite song and movie?
I listen to songs in Urdu/Hindi, English, Bangla, Russian, French, Farsi, Spanish and Italian. One doesn’t necessarily have to know the language and understand the lyrics to enjoy the tune and the voice. Listen to Ahmad Zahir, “Man Randa Ze Maikhana Ham” (Dari Farsi), to understand what I mean.
I have seen very few movies recently. I found “Chernobyl” (TV mini-series, produced in 2019 by HBO), which I watched on an international flight, absolutely gripping. The movie that left the greatest impression on me was Ben Hur, starring Charlton Heston (1959, won 11 Oscars).
Do you have any unfulfilled fantasy you would like to share with the readers?
Yes. To be a musician.
What advice would you offer someone considering traveling to international destinations?
Just do it. Don’t plan too long or too far ahead. Grab every opportunity. Create opportunities. Travel light. Do research on the Internet beforehand.
Note: Readers may contact Dr. Azmi at his email email@example.com or at his blog at raziazmi.com