So far, 4 days in Lahore, one travel day to Islamabad and now it’s our third day here. We’ve posted a lot about the hospitality of the Pakistani people, which has been quite literally overwhelming at times, but not much about the country itself.
So what’s it like here? Well so far it’s been very diverse, with the one constant being the kindness and curiosity of all the people we meet. Everywhere we go, people stop and say hello, ask where we’re from and where we’re going, wish us a warm welcome, ask if we need any help, and then say goodbye.
Stopping on the highway to Islamabad, I was a bit nervous when a group of long bearded men in traditional dress came over to us, but they just wanted to say hello, talk about the cricket, and welcome us to Pakistan. 5 mins later when I went to pay, another guy came over to say hello (only the men say hello – but more on that later), and he paid the bill for me…
“I am a christian, all christians in Pakistan are my guests”
“ok thanks that’s very kind. but… we’re not christians”
“what?! what are you then?”
“actually we dont follow any religion”
“why not? but why?” he was visibly shocked
“because religion is a negative force in the world, too many wars, too much hate…”
“oh…” very confused looking man
“dont worry, I’m happy to pay for our own meal”
“no no, anyway, you are a guest here, it is my pleasure to pay your lunch”
Lahore… labelled as the friendly and lively city by the Lahorians, is also from the outside, the most male dominated city I have visited in the world yet. On the street or in a restaurant, it’s quite rare to see a woman, a ratio of 50 or 100 men for each woman would be near the mark. Most of the women wear the burqua, or another cloak (I can’t recall the name) which to the uninformed looks almost the same. The hijab (hair covering only) is less common, and only teenage girls show their hair.
We tend to assume that most societies are similar to our own, so it comes as a shock when you visit somewhere so different from a male/female perspective. For example, when being introduced to a man’s wife (or wives!!), it’s not normal to shake hands with her/them, as this is seen as being too close. If I do try, which I usually do, the handshake isn’t reciprocated until the husband gives permission, and then it’s still rather awkward.
The staring… When we went out for a walk in the city, the men all stopped whatever they were doing and just stared at us, actually they stared at Sally, it was pretty uncomfortable actually, so we didnt do much walking. Initinally I though it was just because we’re foreigners, but then I went out alone (Sal was sick), and realised no one so much as glanced at me. So they just stare at the women. Not sure if it’s the dress sense, or just that she’s a western woman, but suspect they dont get many women in t shirts!
The ride to Islamabad… was really easy, after the chaos of the India roads, the relative order over here is really nice. Smooth roads, people keep to the left mostly, and there arent cows or carts on the roads.
Then Islamabad… is SO DIFFERENT to Labore. Lahore ‘looks’ like a lot of India, small narrow streets, lots of dust, a bit of rubbish around, some chaos. To say Islamabad looks like a city in Australia is no exaggeration. Also the people are a bit more confident, and there are women around. Still not an equal split, but we see plenty of ladies on the streets, and the burqua here is quite rare, some women even show their hair!
We were frequently asked in Lahore – what we thought about Pakistan, whether we felt safe, and if we thought all Pakistanis are terrorists. The people there seem quite desperate for foreigners to know that the Pakistanis are friendly people, and that the perception we have of it being a dangerous place is misguided. And in many ways they’re right. The people we’ve met so far have all been amazing. If Australians were just half as hospitable I’d be proud.
In reality though, there are some security issues here, and what a Pakistani person considers totally safe is quite different to what I might call safe. In our little camping trip, we ended up with 13 soldiers with automatic weapons guarding our campground. There are frequent road checkpoints manned by Soldiers, Police or Rangers, all heavily armed. In Islamabad you cant ride more than a few km without passing under an array of surveillance cameras, and many of the housing estates are gated wiith guards armed with AK’s!
Then Sal read in the paper today that 22 suicide bombers were reported to have crossed the border from Afghanistan in the previous month, two of which have already gone off, I guess that leaves another 20 to watch out for! Yesterday a woman was gunned down in her car in a city to the west of here. It goes on… I told Kevin at dinner last night that back home i’ve never seen anyone with an automatic weapon, that we dont have checkpoints at all, and he looked at me wide eyed in disbelief.
Fortunately for us, we have the MAP guys really good care of us, and the president of the club, Sanuallah, has some good connections in the government, so is really knowledgeable and realistic about where we can and can’t go, where we should seek an armed escort, and where we will be fine.
This is about as much security as we could have hoped for, and sets our minds at ease for the remaining 1000km we still have to travel here. I think we have another day in the city before hitting the KKH, really looking forward to seeing the northern areas!!