Sunday, June 18, 2006


Five years ago, excited by the success of my first hitch hiking trip around Europe, I had written an email to my best friend in Argentina describing the adventure briefly. He had replied: “…and I am really happy that our beloved “thumb method” works also in the old continent, where in 1941 you could get a lift in a Panzer, and in 900 with a caravan of enraged camels. The epic episode of hitchhiking to a passing convoy of German tanks had remained ever since in the vault of dreams, until Afghanistan proposed a valid substitution. I was hitching out the outskirts of Kabul towards Jalalabad, in the Pakistani border. Initially, the front sun and the ever present dust allowed seeing only the hexagonal contours emerging ghostly. A second later, the German flag became visible, along with the white riveted black cross that stands for the Bundeswehr: it was a column of German armored vehicles on patrol. I pulled out my thumb, more as an acknowledgment than as a serious attempt to stop them. A bit confused –in shock- the driver waved at me. If the strong foreign military presence in the area did not intimidate me, I started to pay more attention as the local kids welcomed me replicating with the index finger the triggering of a gun. And this meant: “Welcome to Pashtunistan!” the tribal Pashtun are that extends on both sides of the relatively new Afghani-Pakistani border raw by the British a century ago, today a porous border permeable to smugglers and terrorists of varying lineage.

At the sight of this scenario I felt nothing but relax when I came across a camp of the road police, and the officer in charge of the road block, who spoke English and Russian, address to me with a “My dear! Come in the office please” It was the first of a series of charity actions by the police that week. As snooker balls that shoot each other, I was going to be passed on until Peshawar, my final destination in Pakistan. Of course, the office meant the tent, where another officer, of higher rank, seated behind a desk, cashed in a mysterious road tax from truck drivers who left the place mumbling references to Allah. Corrupt policemen are a classic grief for all travelers, but in this case I exited the tent with my stomach full, Pakistani pocket money, and a free ride to Jalalabad, where I arrived in the Hi Ace van the boarded me in. Jalalabad marked the entrance in a new climatic zone, technically known as “damned hot”, without stepping out of the Taliban risk zone, it also encompasses the risk of malaria. A great junction.

In Jalalabad I slept in the police station. The commander and his secretary, anxious to practice their English, honored me with a dinner at their fan ventilated room. Next morning they boarded me to the border in a typically Pakistani truck, excessively decorated with its wooden panels featuring landscapes, houses, women’s faces and prosperity amulets of various kinds among which, significantly, a Pepsi logo had found its way. At the end of the ride I was in the mythical Khyber Pass, a land of bandits even in the local’s regard. The pass itself is disappointingly low (only 1080 m), deservedly unnoticed behind an amorphous bazaar that sprawls under mediocre peaks. To spice up the peak was enough to remember that the road to Peshawar is considered by some to be the most dangerous in the world. When the Pakistani official heard I had come by foot, he twisted his mouth. When he heard I was ready to continue on foot, he almost literally fell from his chair. With a veritable shout he called in a young soldier with a machine gun. It was my personal escort! I explained that the soldier looked very elegant but I had no budget for Rambo, since I was expected to pay for my protection. In any case, I said, the soldier was welcome to hitchhike with me to Peshawar. As no officer wants to be responsible for the death of a foreigner in his jurisdiction (and no soldier wants to hitch hike) I also exited the customs room with a free van ride to Peshawar. And seated next to me, Rambo!

From the pass, the road zigzags down for 53 km before reaching Peshawar. After each bend, it became warmer. Parallel to the road, occasionally, the rail line could be seen. To install railways in this eternally lawless region, the British had to seduce local Pashtun chieftains by promising them that the train would roll slow enough to be assaulted. The sign that says: “Khyber Rifles welcomes you” suggests that the mood in the neighborhood has changed little. I had to meet Dustin, a North American aid worker, in Peshawar’s Kentucky Fried Chicken. Despite Pakistanis, as any ex British colony, speak reasonable English, the instructions of the first person led me to a dark alley full of live, caged chicken…

I stayed two days in Peshawar, before hitting the road again aiming to cross the country towards India. I will zoom in Pakistan later in the summer, as I expect to enter China through Pakistan’s Karakorum Highway. So for the first time in a while I was moving through grounds where there was no reward for my head, and that was something to appreciate. As was the heavenly sent three lanes motorway, a real bless after the always off road Afghanistan. Moreover, a steady flow of cars (yes, private cars!) not only UN vehicles, trucks and taxis, dashed by. With 40ºC, I didn’t complain when this air conditioned cars started to pull by gently, their drivers stopping now and then to invite a cold drink by the road side. In spite of independence, high class Pakistanis display, in their politeness, standards, and self image, the stigma of the British Empire. When I asked one of my drivers, a textile businessman who was taking me to Faisalabad, if that city was big, he replied: “It’s is the Manchester of Pakistan, the heart of textile industry” So he still looks in an old mirror. The driver of a spotless Corolla, instead, when asked about his profession, he surprised for his originality and sincerity, and replied: “I don’t work. My father dedicates to money laundry in Saudi Arabia”. From the air conditiones Corolla the back of a truck with two oxen, and on in another truck –in the cabin this time- to Lahore, where I arrived at dusk, having completed 450 km since the morning. Being at shouting distance from the Indian border I called it a day, and phoned Riaz, a local member of Hospitality Club there.

“No problem –said Riaz unworried- I am dinning with a friend at the Holidays Inn’s restaurant. You are invited” In this way, straight out from the road, considerably filthy, I flagged down a rickshaw, announced my destination proudly, and 20 minutes later I was arriving, heralded by the explosions of rickshaw’s exhaust, to the all marble and golden foyer of the luxury hotel. With no ferry to turn my proletarian tricycle in a chariot or Lexus 4x4, the confused steward barely let me in. Fully equipped as a moonwalker I made it to the table where Riaz was serenely chatting with his friend, a politician who had just landed from the UK, where he had interviewed Pakistan’s former prime minister. In such a celestial setting I couldn’t do less than apologizing for my spontaneity, and sited own. Averaging half dinner, Riaz asked me where I was planning to stay overnight. “Well, in your house”. Misunderstanding, misunderstanding! The good man had omitted that his sister and nephews were visiting so he had no free beds at home. “But no problem – he anticipated- There is a YMCA hostel near by. We boarded his friend’s Land Cruiser (“Pakistan’s most expensive car! –he said proudly) towards the hostel, which was closed. Then, my “host” hided his sight stretched my hand, said sorry, and protected himself behind the dark windows of Pakistan’s most expensive car’s.

The park seemed to be waiting for me, with a show of Sufi music. A bearded man in white tunic makes place for me in his bench. “Why are you here?” –he goes. I explained him. In the curious English of the subcontinent, he replied: “Oh, so you are here for sleeping purpose! Don’t mention it, come to my house!” Sajid lived in a student’s residence, because even if he looked older than me he was actually four years younger, and studied Laws in Lahore. The common room of the residence lacked all furniture. At its center there was a PC, and some hundred books scattered around as if intending to eat it. There was everything among these, from Chomsky to an anachronic book about the “rational spirit of socialism” in which pages you could see a picture of two blond guys repairing some radio equipment, and the legend “Kaunas Technical University”. Sajid and Kaswar, his friend, were two men at the edge of their society. “Which is the meaning of life?” –he repeated once and again. I declared that I didn’t know, but I knew many things that were not. “Shall we be materially productive?” – Kaswar essayed. Somehow, submerged in a society where one has to buy a Corolla and a wife (yes, buy) before becoming thirty, these guys had managed to realize that happiness and material progress are two different wheels. Curiously, Pakistan’s high class, who would always claim to be moralist, suggests their children a path in which family seems a mere added value, an effervescence of time, a fermentation of money. OK, also in Europe I have met guys who, running after the Porsche, have lost their wives, children and got an ulcer. While we talked, two lizards on the wall were acrobatically trapping the insects which happened to be in the wrong place on the wrong time. Sajid improvised a joke: “One day Moses, disturbed, came to God and demanded: God! What is the meaning of the lizard? Why did you create it? God replied: “Curious! The lizard was here yesterday, and asked for the meaning of Moses!” Meaning. Sense. Perspective. I diluted in sleep happy to have met two alert minds in a country of automats.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

inspiring blog!!