Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road.
What's the most foolish thing you've ever done? It's not always easy to pick just one, at least if you're me. That was, until the day I decided to visit the salt mines in northern Pakistan. They are the second-largest salt mines in the world, and a huge draw for tourists, mostly locals. It was more than just walking through a cave. The salt mines have been turned into a tourist site, with salt sculptures, a health-treatment centre (to help clean out your lungs in the mines) and even a train that will take you from the front of the mine to the back.
Outside, there's more to see, including lots of shops and even a "fairground." In developed countries, fairgrounds are kind of sketchy. In developing countries, fairgrounds are totally terrifying. After leaving the mine, my friend Dan and I joked about riding the scary Ferris wheel that we saw towering over the fairground. We became more and more enthralled with this idea and our wives were enjoying our banter about it, until we reached the edge of the fairground. Then it led to: I wonder how much it costs? We asked the young man running the fairground. He said it was about 20 rupees or around 20 cents Canadian a person. Then, for some reason, our minds snapped.
We went from joking about how unsafe the Ferris wheel was to talking about what a bargain it was. Within minutes, Dan and I were heading to the attraction with money in hand. Upon arrival at the base of the giant wheel, I could see the motor that keeps it spinning right out in the open. I could also see a tube running from the motor to an open barrel of gasoline that was fuelling it. The gondola floors were made of wood, and it appeared to be dry wood. As we made our way into the first gondola, the nice young man running the ride informed us that we would have to sit on opposite gondolas to distribute our weight. This was a little nerve-racking. After Dan got into the first gondola, the Ferris wheel spun for a few seconds and my gondola came around. The nice young man informed me that I would also have to sit on the opposite side of the (different) gondola from Dan, to distribute the weight completely.
This is likely the moment that I should have turned around and left, but I had already paid my 20 cents, so there was no turning back. I got in my gondola, and the wheel started to turn. The first thing I noticed was the door – or lack of it. This might have been a good thing if I needed to bail out, but not a good thing if the gondola started rocking out of control. Many of the planks in the floor were either broken or missing. I'm assuming the missing ones fell out, and although it gave me an interesting view straight down, that did not cheer me up. Most of the mechanisms for the wheel were exposed, so there was nothing to hang onto that wasn't moving in a way that could seriously hurt me or even remove an arm. Did I mention that this wheel was about three storeys high? Dan and I were the only ones on the ride, and our group of Canadian friends were the only foreigners in the area, so our hijinks became a bit of a show for the locals. The empty fairground started to fill up with kids and parents watching the crazy foreigners on the Ferris wheel. The young man running it didn't want to stop it because it was attracting such a crowd. We were on the ride for about 15 minutes (which is a long time to spin).
At about 10 minutes in, I thought the ride was over. The young man started to walk toward the controls, which he had been ignoring for the past few minutes. What I learned at that moment was troubling. It turns out Ferris wheels have gears, like a car. We were in low gear until then, but the young man was going to change that. As he pulled the comically long pipe controlling the wheel, we started to go faster. At some points I was being lifted out of my seat, toward the many gears that were exposed or toward the non-existent door. I figured I was likely to die – but at least it was a cheap ride.
Dan's wife and my wife were watching this with our friends. Apparently they discussed appropriate epitaphs on our tombstones. They eventually agreed upon "Died Foolishly."
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