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Published: April 25th 2011
Pakistan Zindabad!! Long live Pakistan!! The first words I learned in Urdu upon crossing the border at Wagah. "Asallam alaikum and welcome to Pakistan! You are a very brave man. You aren't scared?" a smiling man greeted me as I walked my first few steps on Pakistani soil. "I'm here right? Not scared, just excited to be here" I replied back. I was ready for whatever Pakistan had in store for me, which ended up being more exciting experiences than I could ever imagine.
The bus dropped me off somewhere in Lahore's noisy, chaotic downtown after asking several locals and finally finding sometime that could speak a bit of English help translate, I had a cab driver drop me off at Regale Chowk, where unknowingly I would spend the next ten days. Although I had no real travel itinerary for my time in Pakistan, my rough estimate of three to five days in Punjab's cultural capital proved not to be sufficient enough and I ended up staying much longer and had many unforgettable experiences.
I made my home the Regale Internet Inn and talked to Malik, the owner, for quite some time and enjoyed his fascinating stories. Malik is
a very interesting man who is quite well known in Lahore and around Pakistan. A former journalist for a left winged newspaper called "Revolution" opened Pakistan's first internet cafe after quitting his newspaper writing as a result of several controversial articles which forced him into hiding in different mosques around Pakistan for ten years because he feared for his life. "Even my own family wouldn't let me stay with them due to the potential danger it would bring" he explained. Anyway, during this time he and his friend wrote books under false names in order to make ends meet. "The only thing I could do to make money back then was write" he continued. After a while his internet cafe developed into a guesthouse and was Pakistan's first guesthouse open to foreign travelers. Malik, also a self-regarded expert palm reader, told me that I would be very successful due to my intellect, will write a book and will become very famous, especially after I die. Also, I will marry a rich woman and must be careful not to take too many risks like riding motorcycles and traveling on top of buses etc. He also mentioned I have very good luck
and should buy a lottery ticket in the near future. Malik also claims to have picked out a murderer who escaped his home country in Europe and fled to Pakistan just by examining the man's hand at a distance for a few minutes. Later the man confessed to Malik that he was on the run for homicide.
My first night in Lahore I went to "food street" only a thirty minute walk from my guesthouse. I conversed for a bit with a university physics lecturer with a very serious demeanor who could not understand why I would want to visit Pakistan with all the negative media and press coverage in the western world. After explaining to him the draw of his home country from a westerner's perspective and all of my very positive experiences with Pakistani people throughout my life we parted ways. After he excused himself and our conversation came to a halt, two more men approached me and offered to take me to a sweet shop for dessert and chai. They gave me their phone number and offered to take me around on their motorcycle on their day off from work that weekend. "Inshallah we will meet
again" they said as they took off on their bike.
Power cuts are the norm until ten in the evening in Lahore so my next task was to find my way home in the dark in the city I had just arrived at a few hours earlier. I stumbled upon a dark alley that vaguely resembled the one where I was staying and heard dark figures in the distance mention the word "guesthouse." "Bingo" I had found my way again. Now I was hearing a conversation in a different tongue than before "너무 춥네!" one of the women said. "날씨 춥지말고 지금 한국에서 매섭게춥죠" I replied as we were going up stairs together now. We entered the room of a different guesthouse from the one I was staying at but now I was sitting in a candlelit room with three Korean women in their 50s who looked very shaken up and panic stricken. "You speak Korean!" they exclaimed with a surprised look on their face. They explained to me that they were on a city bus earlier in Lahore when some political demonstrations turned violent, rocks were thrown and a stray one hit the bus they were on, shattering
a window and cutting one of the woman's hands. The women were trying to explain what happened earlier to the guesthouse owner but they were having a hard time with English so I translated back and forth for them. "Tell him we need a cheap bed for tonight, very, very cheap" they said. I gave them an apple that was in a bag with the name of the corner store I shop at in Seoul. "Have an apple from Korea" I told them and they looked very surprised to say the least. Anyway we talked for quite a bit and the owner tried his best sales pitch for me to leave the place where I was staying and make the switch to his guesthouse to no avail.
After returning to my guesthouse, I met Mohamed, a Palestinian college student who has been studying pharmacy in Lahore for three years. We started talking for a long time over tea and he told he so many stories about his life in Lahore. He said he thinks it is the craziest city he has ever been to. Anything goes, he was robbed at gunpoint and got into numerous fights, one time with
a guy that had a sword- fighting up to thirty people at once. I remember the first day we were walking around together and he pointed out a building where there was a suicide bombing several years back. "That one over there?" I attempted to confirm by pointing my finger in the direction of the building. "Don't point! They might be suspicious of you" he said referring to the hoards of military and police on alert behind sand bags and barbed wire on the streets of Lahore. Anyway, I was really lucky to meet such a great guy my first night in Pakistan. He took me around to many places I probably would have never found on my own and helped me buy a Shalwar Kameez (Pakistani traditional clothes- always better to blend in as much as possible) as we hung out quite a bit and he showed me around Lahore while he was on vacation from school.
Overall, Lahore provided endless culture and history for anyone with a thirst or curiosity for travel and excitement. Our guesthouse owner Malik once advised many of Pakistan's famous musical talents to take on some more innovative marketing strategies that helped put
them on the map. As a result, many of these now world renowned musicians help fill Malik in on any performances happening in the area and go out of their way to see to it that Malik's guests get a unique, full on in your face Pakistani musical experience. In particular, sufism, a mystical version of Islam that involves passionate singing and dancing as a result of being fully influenced by the almighty power of Allah. We went to several mosques where there were amazing musical performances (see videos)
in a very unique atmosphere.
Also, the people of Lahore were always very kind and hospitable as I ate several meals for free in the old city. Restaurant owners and street food vendors would refuse my money and say that I was "their guest" as they loaded my plate with foods and refilled my cup of chai. Cheers to Pakistani hospitality. Sufi Festival
One of my most unforgettable experiences in Pakistan was going to Lahore's Sufi Festival. By far the craziest, most energetic festival I have ever seen- music, lights, street dancing, food- it was all there. Upon entering Istanbul Chowk where the streets were blocked off, there
were crowds of people waiting to bypass numerous security checks and lines to enter the Tha Tha Thar Bhar mosque to watch Qaawali music. It was pretty chaotic as people were pushing and holding each other in line to enter the mosque. I tried talking to one of the guards for a bit and practice the very minute amount of Urdu I could speak. He was smiling because I was wearing a Shalwar Kameez and liked that I was trying to learn a bit of the local language. "How can we get into the mosque?" I asked. "Go to the end of the line" he pointed to the back of the line that extended beyond my field of vision. We made our way to the back and waited for several minutes with all the people pushing and holding on to each other in order to secure their position in the queue. After a few minutes of trying not to fall and lose my balance the guard came to find us "come with me, I will have someone escort you into the mosque so you don't have to wait in line," he said. He called another large, AK-47 armed guard who
led us past the endless queues of people and took us into the beautifully lit mosque. The guard took us into the main area where we were given beautiful flower necklaces-mine must have been made of at least three hundred flowers all stringed together. We spent the night dancing in the streets and listening to amazing music. It was all good fun until some kids started messing with one of the police officers, which resulted in wild night stick swinging and crowds scattering in order to avoid being caned.
As we hit the streets all night long crowds of Punjabi's circled around us and took us around different places to dance and take pictures with there friends and family. Although I had an amazing time at the festival, now I feel what feels like to be a movie star and I have to admit I was pretty exhausted by the end of the night.
Overall, I had a great time the first night at the festival but felt like it was time to move on and go to Peshawar. The festival would carry on for a few days thereafter but I thought a street party put on by
one of the more controversial Muslim groups combined with the huge crowds of people could be a potentially dangerous scenario and perhaps a perfect opportunity for a suicide bomber to appear on the scenes. My intuition and gut feeling proved correct as I returned to Lahore to sleep for the night over a week later on my way back to India. "There was a suicide bombing at the Sufi Festival and thirty people were killed the evening after you left, so they ended the festivities early" I heard when I returned back to Lahore. Always follow your gut feeling.
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