Sunday, August 14, 2011

News from the undisclosed location

Despite recent news to the contrary, Pakistan is not fatal to tourists--though my eight group-mates and I just about have the country to ourselves. We've been the only guests at nearly every hotel, and most locals have obviously not seen a foreigner in a long time, if ever. The plus-side to all the fear-mongering is that Pakistanis are without a doubt the friendliest, most innocently curious people I've ever encountered. Almost everyone is thrilled to have his picture taken; some even ask. Many want to take pictures of me--or, better yet, one of the women in the group. They smile and exercise their English as we drive or walk by, and many want to shake hands (in that especially warm, double-handed way common in the Muslim world) and extend a personal welcome.

When I was asked back home why I wanted to come to Pakistan, I struggled to come up with a better answer than, "It's not as hot as India." Now that I'm here, two obvious reasons have coalesced: mountains and people. Though our guide scoffs that anything less than 6000 meters is just a "hill," and we haven't gotten very close to the named 8000-meter monsters, or anything snow-capped, we've been surrounded by monolith after monolith, cut through by raging rivers and draped in a luxuriant quilt of fruit trees, evergreens, and terraced crops--more than enough to melt the heart of a Michigan boy starved for contours. When I was told in Lahore that Pakistan's major source of energy is hydroelectric projects, it rang funny, because this was the same fertile flatland of India. But as we climbed north on the most rugged roads I've ever seen, it became evident that Pakistan is as much a country of water as rock. Much of the Himalayan glacier base drains here, one way or another; the crush of snow melt is so strong in places that the rivers run grey with all the granite they've exfoliated from the mountainsides. And in those few places where no natural river runs, an irrigation canal has been cut, so that walking along the rural hills is like strolling through the Alhambra: everywhere the intoxicating gurgle of water, and its fresh cool smell.
In this picture the local people portage across a stream that had temporarily swollen with rain and washed out the road. In surprisingly short order, they re-positioned enough rocks by hand to resume minibus, truck, and car traffic. Even our Jeeps were temporarily halted by this avalanche, and we too had to clamber across on foot, but the drivers took care of our luggage, and none of us had a baby to carry, as does one man here.

“Do you notice any difference in Pakistan?” the guide asked. Crossing from India to Pakistan is not as dramatic as going from Texas to Mexico, but it’s close. There’s much more space, and less filth, but it also seems noticeably poorer, more controlled. Pakistan is India with the lid on. The dazzling diversity of people is all but gone, despite the guide's claims to the contrary. Suddenly all the men wear shalwar kameez and fez, nearly all have beards, and the women still wear bright colors, but gone are the makeup, bindi, hair plait, and bangles, and the dresses are much more closely cut, not the flowing, extravagant saris of India. Even the machinery is more uniform: though the trucks are spectacularly decorated beyond anything in India, and there are tuk-tuks and cars, the whole world seems to be riding the same small motorcycle—I took a picture of a rank of at least a hundred in one small street.

People are if anything more friendly, certainly more curious, to look at and greet me, though there’s a certain meekness I didn’t feel in India. Many people seem to be waiting for me to make the first move—a smile, a nod, a tip of the hat—at which point they smile back and sometimes shake my hand enthusiastically. These friendly young fellows were the first of many to ask me to take their picture.

But in other ways Pakistan very much has the lid off. The natural beauty is astounding, and the people are boundless in their enthusiasm. While India undergoes visible growing pains of socioeconomics and technology, Pakistan keeps on keeping on with its simple, traditional life. The roads are far better, everything is vastly cleaner, and space is no longer at any kind of premium. In fact the two countries are so different as to render any comparison silly, yet they insist on considering each other rivals, and forcing the question; a young guy in Lahore asked me what I thought of India vs. Pakistan. You might as well ask how a watermelon measures up to a pumpkin.


  1. That sameness of everyone wearing the exact same navy blue pants and black shoes depressed me in Turkey too.

    If this is how the topography of Pakistan takes you, you will so love reading Kim by Rudyard Kipling!

  2. What an interesting portrait--some of your very best writing, I think. Are you sleeping in tents or hotels now? If hotels, are they still the luxurious ones? Can you tell if the lid is religious, political, cultural, or all the above? I forward to examples (if you ever have time) of the lid, especially next to "brazen" India by comparison. This is very enjoyable writing.