Should I risk my life by traveling in Pakistan? Bomb blasts, terrorists and the Taliban are keywords the Western media has ingrained in us regarding the nation sandwiched between Afghanistan, Iran and India. Statistics on violent crime and terrorist bombings against tourists led me to the conclusion that there would be little risk for a tall, pale skinned guy like me to explore this unknown territory. The probability of becoming a casualty of violent crime or a bomb blast is the same as the likelihood of being struck by lightning on a rainy day. As a guy who likes to go jogging in summer thunderstorms, there was only one thought in my head. Go for it!
“Aren’t you scared?” a smiling man greeted me as I walked my first few steps on Pakistani soil. “I’m here, right? I am not scared, just excited to be here,” I replied back. “Good! Asallam alaikum and welcome to Pakistan!” the local man continued. 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 central business district. After asking several locals and finally finding someone 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 than expected. The seductive combination of Sufi music, local spices and tales from the fascinating people that call Lahore their home made me change my plan and stay much longer than expected. Here is the story of how Lahore’s charm won me over.
My home in Lahore became the Regale Internet Inn and I enjoyed talking to Malik, the owner, for quite some as he had many fascinating stories. Malik is a very interesting man who is quite well known in Lahore and around Pakistan for voicing his opinion. The former journalist for a left winged newspaper called “Revolution” opened Pakistan’s first Internet cafe after quitting his newspaper writing gig as a result of publishing several controversial articles. He was forced into hiding and slept at several mosques around Pakistan for ten years of his life because the authorities were after him. “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 Pakistan’s first guesthouse open to Non-Pakistani travelers.
As someone born in the United States of America where voicing your opinion is encouraged from childhood, I felt a new sense of privilege regarding my upbringing. I have always been opinionated and enjoy a good debate but have taken for granted the fact that in many places in the world you can be severely punished for taking an unpopular stance on an issue. Anyway, I can’t imagine what it would be like to live ten years of my life as a fugitive as Malik did.
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 become extremely 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. He also mentioned I have very good luck and should buy a lottery ticket in the near future. This is good news indeed, only time will tell if his predictions come true for me. 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. Given his track record for palm reading I made a mental note to visit the bazaar the following morning in order to invest in a paper and pen and try to find a rich Pakistani woman who would be willing to marry a vagabond like me.
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. I explained the draw of his home country from a global citizen’s perspective, focusing on all the positive relationships I have had with Pakistani people throughout my life. I told him stories of my elementary school Pakistani friend who ruined Christmas for me by spreading vicious rumors around school that Santa Claus is a fictional character. Of course his family did not celebrate Christmas due to their religious views. Indeed my friend was jealous of his classmates who received a plethora of gifts under the Christmas tree. Despite our conflicting views on the proper way to celebrate December 25th, whenever I visited my play companion’s home I was always treated as one of the family. I also mentioned how great it was living with a Pakistani roommate in graduate school. I remember very clearly his peaceful and compassionate demeanor, generosity and positive outlook on life. These experiences with Pakistanis helped shape me into the global citizen I am today and helped spark the thirst for more knowledge on their home country. There is no better way to educate yourself than by direct experience. So this journey into Pakistan is just a chapter of my life’s destiny. The university lecturer left me with a satisfied look on his face and shook my hand. “Inshallah you will enjoy your time in Pakistan” he said. Inshallah- Arabic for “if Allah wills it so” is a phrase I heard time and time again over the course of my stay in Pakistan.
My first day in Pakistan had already been so action packed. Little did I know that I was in for a roller coaster ride over the next three weeks and this was only the slow ride to the top of the first steep drop down!