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The World Is Home to This Pair : Pakistani Journey Reinforces Love for the Nomadic Life

December 14, 1989|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Feverish with malaria, Shelly O'Reilly had to be put into a sickbed with another patient because there was no other place for her in a Pakistani hospital.

Her husband, Chullaine O'Reilly, once became so ill with hepatitis after setting out on a horseback trek from Peshawar, Pakistan, that he tied himself to his saddle with his turban, fearful that he would fall and be left behind.

A professed wanderer who alights at his family's home in Orange between expeditions, Chullaine set out on horseback treks in Eastern Asia four times over the past 11 years, with Shelly accompanying him once.

Journey after journey was halted by illness or forbidden by authorities. But last summer, the couple finally completed an arduous horseback expedition across the rugged terrain of northern Pakistan, covering more than three months and 1,106 miles.

Government officials told them when they finished their trip that it was the longest made by horseback since the country was created in 1947, at the time of India's independence--and probably for some time before that.

They avoided serious illness this time, but dysentery, the classic traveler's malady, became routine.

And now that they are living in Orange with Chullaine's family as they plan their next expedition, Chullaine has another traveler's affliction: He no longer feels at home when he is at home.

"Home? Where's home?" Chullaine said.

The expedition was one Chullaine had been attempting to make in one form or another for 11 years, or almost as long as it has been since he became fascinated with the region and converted to Islam.

Chullaine, 35, converted in 1978, and Shelly, 23, converted before they were married in Pakistan in a traditional ceremony in July, 1988. Shelly's bridal portrait shows her draped in red cloth and adorned with gold.

"There's no such thing as a white wedding there," Shelly said.

Chullaine, a writer, and Shelly, a photographer, are back in the United States for what Chullaine hopes will never be too long a stay. He says now he finds this a "bland existance" and yearns for the days he spent in Pakistan, days punctuated by the sound of the Muslim call to prayer.

"Please don't call me a tourist," Chullaine said. "I'm an explorer. I'm an equestrian adventurer. . . . I travel like this because I'm looking for a spiritual something in myself."

On July 31 of last summer, after months of logistical planning and wrangling with authorities, the O'Reillys, along with another American and a local hired hand, set out from Peshawar, a city of about 500,000 that is less than 50 miles from the Afghan border and from which one can sometimes see the Khyber Pass, perhaps 30 miles away.

They returned to Peshawar on Sept. 11, minus one horse, which died, and the native hired hand, who grew weary of the tedium and the meager diet and slipped away when the group reached a sizable town.

They traveled light, carrying very little food and subsisting off what they could find--onions, okra and lentils. At night, they asked permission to sleep in homes, restaurants or abandoned buildings, occasionally even a police headquarters.

For the sake of safety and propriety in a culture in which the status of women is low and interaction between the sexes is strictly limited, Shelly traveled in disguise. She wrapped her head in a turban, and draped her body in the traditional clothing of an Afghan man.

She was so convincing that one man approached to embrace her in a traditional male greeting, but at the words of Chullaine's introduction--"my wife,"--he recoiled, horrified that he had almost embraced a woman.

They traveled under their Muslim names--Shelly's is Aesha Siddiqa, and Chullaine's is Asadulla Khan.

Language was an obstacle. Although the official language of Pakistan is Urdu, there are many native languages. The group encountered 14 on their trip.

"You practically trip over them," Chullaine said.

They made do with a mishmash: The O'Reillys know some Urdu, their American Muslim friend Noor Mohammed Khan speaks Farsi and Pushtu, and the hired hand spoke Pushtu and Urdu.

The group had not completed the first leg of its 1,000-mile trip before it had lost a horse. The route was north to Chitral, a trip over paved roads that would take two hours by car, but took 15 days by horseback.

But before the group reached Chitral, their packhorse developed sores, and the group sought a doctor, who gave the animal an injection. But the horse grew sicker, convulsing and finally dying.

The group concluded later that the medicine had been old, a theory that seemed confirmed when fresh supplies of the medicine arrived, the color dramatically different from the first.

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