Fayes T Kantawala remembers someone who inspired young people to explore Pakistan’s rugged landscapes

We had been in touch for weeks before, but I didn’t actually meet Shiraz Nasir until the morning we were to leave Islamabad. Friends and I had signed up with his company Adventure Travel Pakistan - geared towards developing sustainable adventure tourism in Pakistan - as part of a week-long camping tip in Chitral.

When I arrived that morning - puffy eyed and under caffeinated - Shiraz was already bounding up the side of the our bus to help secure the luggage.

He spotted us and bounded down the height of the bus like a friendly snow leopard. He wore a pair of slick Oakley sports shades over a black track suit. Around his neck were a collection of strings and pendants, souvenirs of hikes in the Karakorums and bungee jumping trips to Thailand. He had a bandanna tied around each wrist, and I would later see him wrap them around his head, but only when he wasn’t wearing his baseball cap.

It wasn’t the first time I had met an Adventure Junkie - those few brave enough to live their life outside of four walls - but it was the first time I was expected to keep up with one. The bus set out an hour later from Islamabad, headed towards Peshawar, where it would take a sharp left up through hills and valleys that, in those days, were still crawling with Taliban sympathizers. As we drove, Shiraz gingerly stood up in the small landing by the bus entrance and asked everyone to introduce themselves. His voice was raspy and deep, a soothing baritone at odds with his youthful adventurer persona.

Our group was mostly young adults in their mid twenties - recent college graduates interested in experiencing Pakistan as both tourists and locals, and Shiraz was our guiding shepherd.

It took 19 hours of nonstop driving to get us to Chitral that first day, and during that whole time it was Shiraz who negotiated with security checkposts, decided when we stopped for rest and kept the company entertained with his stories of near death experience in icy glaciers or the joy of being able to fly over an expanse of white raging river. During a story the van stopped abruptly, and the driver said that a car was hanging off a cliff. Shiraz jumped out and five minutes later returned, rubbing a cut on his arm. It wasn’t until later that someone told me he had rescued someone from dying, just minutes before the car plummeted.

He was warm, personable and, as any one who ever met him can attest, deeply cool.

We stayed for one night in a rest house but by the next we had been relocated four hours east to a meadow in Bumberat, in the heart of what is known colloquially as “Kafiristan”. During the days Shiraz guided us though the labyrinth of village lanes to be able to see the Spring Festival of the Kalash people. Everyone knew him everywhere, from the the wizened old men who sat squatting on rocks smoking cigarettes to the young girls playing hide-and-seek in the forest. Army personnel would wave to him as we walked down the a street and souvenir shop owners would get up to hug him as we approached.

After the festival itself was over, we spent the days taking long hikes up mountain ravines. He would be a a hundred feet ahead of everyone else, obviously, and I marveled at how natural it was for him to be in, well, nature - while the rest of us looked like penguins in hell. After sunset he would oversee a meal of apricot naan and hot daal, and afterwards we would sit around a roaring fire, listening to stories.

One night he took out a pair of lit torches attached to chains, and these he waved and sliced through the air with the grace and efficiency of a circus star, in what I later learned was only one of his many skills.

On the last night I remember lying down on the grass in a nook removed from the rest of the group and looking at the sky. There were so many stars that it looked like someone had just run a white paintbrush across a ink blue sky. Shiraz came and sat next to me and fumbled around with one of his pendants. He eventually produced a laser pointer and held it upwards so that its beam shot up uninterrupted to the heavens. Then, like a celestial professor, he used it to literally point to which star was which, as if the sky itself was his blackboard.

But dreams end, and eventually we all left Chitral.

That trip was in 2012, and I wrote about it in these pages in what turned out to be a three-part series. Shiraz emailed me shortly afterwards to thank me for writing about his company, which had been a surprise to him, and for coming along on the trip. Ever since the trip we have stayed in touch.

Last I was told that Shiraz Nazir had died in a paragliding accident in his beloved Chitral. I don’t know what the details are, and I am not sure I want to. What I do know is that platitudes like “he died doing what he loved” don’t help find meaning in his untimely death. I don’t think anything can. But what I do know, beyond a shadow of doubt, is that his life had enormous meaning: for me and for scores of other people. His bravery and passion will always remain an inspiration for how we should live our lives.

His ease in an alien natural world was not as impressive as his easy generosity in sharing it with us. Due in no small part to Shiraz, I came back from my short time with him a changed person.

I know I speak for anyone who knew him when I say that there is no person better equipped to handle life’s greatest adventure in the unknown.

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