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Published: March 9th 2011
I actually saw the airing of Nat Geo, Don’t tell my mother: Delhi
, the other day here in Pakistan and chuckled to myself. How fitting now, as I walk over the border from India into Pakistan, little brother in tow, mother intentionally uninformed. I would venture to say that given current geopolitics and furthermore the ongoing ex-Blackwater CIA-spy Raymond Davis case currently in Lahore, Pakistan is probably in the top 3 most dangerous countries for Americans to travel to. Well… surprise, Mom!
Postcard is in the mail – get excited!
… Lahore, the capital of the Pakistani state Punjab which holds more than half the country’s population, is also known as Pakistan’s cultural capital and as a city of poets. Sitting just 30km from the Wagah border and historically set along strategic trade routes between the subcontinent and central Asia, the city has suffered a rigorous cycle of “capture, destruction, and rebuild” by, but not limited to, the Mughals, Mongols, Sikhs, and Afghans (by which their oldest buildings and monuments have surely benefited.) Though born of the same as Hindu India just 60 years ago, Pakistan was created in 1947 as an Islamic nation in which more than 96%!o(MISSING)f the
population is Muslim. Although it claims the world’s 6th largest population it has nowhere near the same population problem of its neighbor but at the same time also forgoes the burgeoning world-renown economy that comes with it. Instead, Pakistan is unfortunately world-renown, or more like infamous, for less palatable things such as perhaps nuclear proliferation and extreme Islamism in the forms of suicide bombings, ransom kidnappings, or high-profile jihadi beheadings to name a few.
Not a small bit owing to that last statement above, Pakistan does not know tourists. Nearly all backpackers in Lahore stay at a $5 a night guesthouse situated down an alley in Regal Chowk, Regale Internet Inn, and when we arrive there are only two other travelers there. One is a Japanese guy, scraggly long beard and hair tied back in a ponytail, who has been travelling for 2 years. He’s been at this same guesthouse in Lahore for a few months waiting for the snow to thaw in Kashmir and for the northern border with China to open. The other is a 50-yr old French man, long grey beard, hair tied back but also poofed out as if he’s teased it. In the nicest
way possible, he kind of looks like a yeti. Both of them are wearing ugly linen Aladdin pants and cheap Jesus sandals that could not have cost more than 3 USD (combined.) They look like they very well may have gone 4 days without showering (I find out later that they do wash daily,) and are currently eating some home-made rice with what looks like thinned out ketchup sauce. Neither of them even barely look up when we arrive. So, correction: Pakistan knows a very few, hard-core tourists.
It was not always like this. The owner Malik tells us that three years ago the guesthouse would sometimes be full. While I’m not sure how American numbers tally, tourists to Pakistan in general seem to go through cycles likely dependent on the current security situation. And you needn’t be completely plugged in to gauge by occupancy that currently the situation seems to be at its cycle trough. As mentioned earlier, for the past month American-Pakistani relations have reached what has been cited an “all-time low” as a result of the Raymond Davis case. The day before we arrive, Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned-down in central Islamabad
me and the bro
on top of Cooco's Den and Cafe, Badshahi mosque in the back
while coming from visiting his mother for publicly opposing Pakistan's blasphemy laws. A few days ago I read seven oil tankers blew up on the outskirts of Peshawar. A day after we arrive, an explosion at a mosque in Peshawar kills scores of people. The Taliban has claimed responsibility for all of these. Every couple days, something or somebody blows up in Pakistan. This seems to be fact.
But as they say, a lack of tourists in too many ways is your gain once you do make it there. Sure, there aren’t as many facilities around for you to use and the guidebooks aren’t as comprehensive. The recommendations are very
curious and the maps have changed since the last edition ten years ago. But there are things to see in Pakistan, beautiful things, and once you adjust to the lack of a developed tourist market you really see just how much better it is, especially coming from an almost over-touristed country like India. People’s eyes actually light up when you speak to them, they have a curiosity in who you are and why you’re there. They pull their families over to meet you, and invite you to sit down
in the middle of whatever you’re doing to have ice cream, or cookies, or tea with them. Prices are not yet tourist-inflated, and you pay exactly what the Pakistani man next to you pays for that plate of dal or that ice cream cone. Rickshaw drivers don’t try to rip you off and when they decide to have a crack, they don’t even really know what to quote you and all too easily compromise back on your terms. They point out every big store, hotel, every monument or sight passed when driving, turning around to eagerly explain to you what it is and why it’s important to them. They get excited when you sit down in their restaurants; they fight over who can try to serve you in English. They go to no end to find you that mineral water, that fork, or that toilet paper. Now that they have a chance at a Tourist, they do their best to afford you the best experience of their country and genuinely want to dispel the negative portrayals we get overseas. They are just so excited and so grateful for your interest, it is extremely humbling.
I admit when I first
arrive it is also extremely intimidating as a foreign woman walking around on streets on which their own women barely make appearances. I’ve been male-dominated Mulsim countries before by myself, Syria for example a few years ago, and still find Pakistan to be more uncomfortable even though I am accompanied by my brother here. My guess is the added security concerns. Although Syria was technically also on our “Axis of Evil” and conjures a fairly dangerous picture in most American minds, Pakistan with its homegrown Taliban is definitely worse. However a couple days later we are comfortably visiting our favorite stores in Anarkali bazaar, returning to our new favorite restaurants around the chowk and Old City, knowing how to walk from A to B and how much it should cost in a rickshaw. We need to make some adjustments; for one, we buy some local garb, called shalwar kameez, which basically constitutes the long cloth tunic to your knees over loose cloth pants. And though we have hoodies, we switch over to the large wrap shawls that everybody uses (we are both huge fans – converted) to keep warm at night. Most importantly though, we never tell anybody we are
American and instead say we are Chinese which really gets the fan crowds going. “Oh, Pakistan and China good friends!” Which is true, similar to the attention China has been pouring on African nations, it has helped Pakistan from facilitating business to constructing the famous Karakorum Highway. And they love us. So the lesson here is: pretend to be Chinese.
Pakistan is like any other country in many ways. Surely it does have its own dangers, and I won’t try to downplay them here or anywhere else. Taliban was born here, Taliban does breed here, and Taliban are active and kicking. Nobody will deny this. What you have to realize though is that Taliban presence and danger greatly varies from province to province. Lahore, being in Punjab, is known to be the most insulated from Taliban activity here on the Indian border. While there have been bombings as recent as this year, they are few and far between when compared to activity in any of the other provinces. (Though, the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated in January by a member of his own security detail.) Karachi is dangerous as it always has been, Quetta as well, and
so on and so on. Peshawar is very dangerous (the Pakistani consular actually wouldn’t grant me my visa until I told him I would not go to Peshawar) as the capital of the northwest frontier province bordering Afghanistan, the birthplace and continuing beating heart of Taliban activity. It is also important to note though that foreigner kidnappings are not as common anymore and the Taliban now concentrates much of its efforts at targeting the Pakistani army and police forces, who with American aid and dollars behind them are hard at work in dismantling the organization which duly they gave birth to. The Taliban are also known to target mosques of certain religious sects, special event gatherings at these places, or crowded areas such as markets and bazaars. They also seem to have a penchant for the 5-star hotels, for instance the Marriott in Islamabad has been bombed something like 4 times in the last couple years.
This all sounds a little crazy and sure, it’s on the intense side but the key is to stay informed and aware of developments and to be especially cautious when you are out at night. It sounds so cliché that I can also
throw in, in response to everybody who thought I was nuts and bizarre in coming here, “Your chances of dying in a car crash are a bazillion times higher, and would that keep you from driving your car every day?” I can just imagine the blah blah blah retorts now, but either way just know that the calculated risk to some people might just be worth what they get out of seeing a country that consistently is the headlines of our news, the settings of our movies, the topic of our books - a country which has a disproportionally large impact on geopolitics in the world we live in today.
One of the main reasons for this venture into Pakistan and any country on the more unappetizing end of the spectrum is just plain curiosity. Is it really
as dangerous as they tell us? Is it really
how the movies, the books, the newspapers make it out to be? Are they really
that backward, that hostile, that different? Rarely if ever do I find that our western media portrays any of these countries completely fairly, and if this is the case I prefer to see for myself and find
the beautiful parts that so few have the privilege or faith to find. And Pakistan is lovely, interesting, delicious, warm, colorful, and full of history and importance. I admit that I didn’t expect this of Pakistan, but then again I really didn’t know what to expect at all – and there is something beautiful in that alone.
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