Travel, experience, misconceptions, learning about the Muslim religion, outsiders
|Happily Ever After:
I awake at 5 a.m. April 14, 1995. My parents are already out of bed and stomping frantically through the house. With my bags already jammed in the back of the car, I wake my brothers. With eyes half closed, they turn out of bed and drowsily hug me good-bye.
On route to the Edmonton International Airport, mother blathers about neighbors and where the family might go for summer holidays. She discusses everything except the fact she doesn't know when she'll see me next. Dad is quiet at the wheel as we drive through an industrial park and dull fields for 45 minutes.
Airports kick me into a state of being reserved only for their junk shops, security gates, and departure lounges. I develop a puffy face, my throat dries and my stomach begins to grate as though it’s full of sand and battery acid. I love flying and the excitement of going to new place's. I enjoy peering out the window at the land and clouds below. Whether the trip has a positive or negative reason, I still get the airport feeling.
Before walking through security, dad asks me if I'll miss this place. He offers to update me on changes, like the new buildings erected, old ones destroyed, and the weather. In the voice of an idealistic, 22-year-old, I say, "I am not attached to places, it seems better to be attached to people, but even that has it's difficulties."
The smile disappears from dad's face. I try to backpedal the effect of my words, especially since the plane is departing soon. "Of course, I'll miss you dad," I say.
My mother allows tears to flow, asking between sniffles, "why do you have to go to those hell holes? Why travel to those places?"
After graduating from the University of Alberta, five people, whom I've met on travels through Europe, buy an open-back Bedford truck. Our plan is to drive from London, England to Katmandu, Nepal. We will sleep on camp beds under mosquito nets and beneath the stars. There is Shinichi Katano from Tokyo, Hillary Downs from Plymouth, Patrick Candrian from Zurich, Angelina Naberhauis from Amsterdam, and me, the North American contingent.
It’s an adventuresome four months, weaving through Eastern Europe, Turkey, and Iran. These places provide unique stories, but Northern Pakistan leaves the deepest imprint on my memory.
The choice to travel to Northern Pakistan is arbitrary. It is simply where I go solo. Pakistan resonates with me because I cross its border as I dislodge myself from the group and its bubble of protection. Until I travel alone, the trip is like viewing a film from a distance, as we pass through crowds of diverse people and landscapes.
My destination is Skardu, a town at the base of K2 and Nanga Parbat, the second and third highest mountains in the world. I've heard there is an NGO that deals with women's issues in Skardu. I may be able to volunteer there. Mainly, I want to learn and be "immersed in the culture", a concept that might be nearly as problematic as merely being a tourist. Regardless, I have no idea what to expect.
The four people in the group wave frantically as I push off. I am to contact them at a guest house when I'm ready to meet them in Lahore, on the central border into India. The bus ride from Peshawar to Islamabad lasts five hours and followed by a one hour flight to Skardu.
The route to Islamabad moves along the historical Grand Trunk Road; the route Marco Polo took on his adventures in silk trading. I take this journey at night, and it is a relief to find the bus under-crowded and air-conditioned. At night, temperatures remain at 30+. The fact I have to be hidden top-to-toe in fabric increases the heat. I remain covered, unlike some western women who travel here, out of respect for Muslim culture and partly because I believe it makes life easier. Rumour is that there are men who carry permanent spray paint around, spraying any inappropriately exposed skin on women.
Still, I have come to love being in Muslim countries. They are full of surprises mostly because of my socialized beliefs as a Canadian. I visualized violence, sexual harassment, extreme lack of food and comfort and not a westerner in sight in a Muslim country. I am proven incorrect.
One incredible aspect of traveling in a Muslim country is that if I forget where I am for one second, the call to prayer reorients me. Its haunting cries wail out of PA systems five times a day, echoing over the towns. One morning at 5 a.m., I bolted upright on my camp bed. The prayers were louder and more fervent than usual. The prayers were accompanied by the bleating and yelps of what sounded like hundreds of animals being led to slaughter. The outline of the full moon through my mossie net. I discovered the next day I'd heard a wedding celebration.
In Esfahan, Iran, I walked through the streets at 3 a.m., feeling completely safe and amazed to see so many families out in parks, picnicking on grass. This is common year round in Muslim countries, but especially during celebrations like Eid Al Fitr and Ramadan. Shops are open around the clock, except for the two hours at each of the 5 prayer times, leaving one hour for prayer, one for a nap.
I peer out the bus' window; fires in metal barrels alongside the dusty road are all that illuminate the black night. The landscape here is reminescent of the road from Edmonton via Calgary on the way to the Rocky Mountains. Flat terrain whizzes past until the bus lurches to a halt at a candlelit service station. There are men napping on cots and sitting at tables outside.
One man is covered in the fashion of a Muslim woman instead of a male’s Shalwar Camese. His lips are red from betel juice and the hair escaping from under his scarf is orange with henna dye. He teeters between the cots. Men, perched on their elbows, eye him and the outline of his facial shadow. As the bus' engine revs, the cross-dressed man steps up onto the bus. He finds his place next to me. “Asalaam u alaikum,” he says and I reply, “alaikum u asalaam,” the only Urdu and Punjabi I know. It means the same in both languages, peace be with you, be with you peace.
Pakistan is sandwiched between Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikastan, China, India, and the Arabian Sea. Surrounding countries flavor the politics of Pakistan. Iran seems the most compatible border area. Pakistanis and Iranians cross between the countries with relative ease. North of Iran is Afghanistan’s infamous crossing into Pakistan, the Khyber Pass.
The Khyber Pass is a weapons trading bazaar. There, men sitting cross-legged along the stony roads vending everything from pistols, grenades and semi-automatic weapons. The wares are laid in neat rows on vibrantly coloured mats. Nearby, hundreds of refuges from Afghanistan are crammed into tents comprised of blankets and sticks. I carry a stick to keep the stray dogs at bay. A British Marks and Spencer shop stands next to the camps and bazaar; the shop is an strange reminder of the British presence in south central Asia.
Pakistan's border with China winds through the glacial and loftiest sections of the Karakorum Mountains. The narrow and uneven roads teeter on the edges of mountain faces leaving little space for vehicles to pass oncoming traffic. At times, buses have to reverse for 15 minutes down the icy way to let another by. Chinese and Pakistanis are overly infamous for carting drugs via this dangerous route. Skardu is closest to this border and the abundance of commerce and import from China is more innocuous than opium, heroin or hash; the majority of trade seems to revolve around Chinese Medicinal herbs which are outlawed by, at the time, Benzir Bhutto's government.
Army presence is strong near the Chinese border. Driving on the lower roads, all one has to do is look up to see green clad heads and gun's barrels bobbing along the mountainside. The army is preoccupied with Kashmir, the contentious land between India and Pakistan. The two countries have been embroiled in four bloody battles over Kashmir since the partition between Pakistan and India in 1947, at the end of British colonial rule. The partition was designed to give the Muslim population their land, Pakistan, while leaving India to hundreds of other spiritual practices including, Hinduism, Sikhs, and Vedics. The partition was a gory and violent event. The waves of pain and loss between India and Pakistan carry forward to present times.
Pakistan is diverse in its landscape and people, though its official government is Islamic and 97 per cent of its people are Shiite Muslims. Most of the other 3 per cent of the population are hill tribe people; the only residents of the country permitted a relaxation of the Shiite Muslim's fundamentalist and strict code. Despite the unifying order of Islam religion, there is internal strife between linguistic and ethnic groups in Pakistan.
In short, the climate in the south of Pakistan is brain-boiling heat. It's dusty and crowded and has the plant life of the tropics, like palm trees meeting desert. It seems impossible to stay dry. After a shower, there is no sense in toweling off.
The north is sparsely populated and in the mountain range, there is snow and ice. The northern climate allows for the growth apricots, peaches, and nuts. It has sprawling, otherworldly-green rice plateaus are riddled with flat roofed, rust coloured, clay houses. Increasing my bias favouring the north, the climate supports considerably fewer and smaller insects.
At 7 a.m., after keeping my eyes open through a night in the Islamabad airport’s plastic chair, I realize that in order to get on the plane to Skardu, I am going to have to push and shove through a crowd of Pakistani men. Pakistan International Airways is literally, "first come first served." I decide to hang back and begin speaking with a man who pulls a his business card from his back pocket. It reads, "Owner of Shangri-La Hotels in Singapore," yet there is no name on the card. I don't know whether to trust this fat, balding, Asian businessman when he leaves his vinyl briefcase with me. I eye him as he chats with ticket vendors. I wonder, "should I run and leave his bag here?" He wanders back over and hands me a ticket. Sheepishly, I recieve his generosity.
The plane ride is glorious. One hour riding above mountains without the sight of human settlement. The mountain tops are more sharp and spiky than I remember the Rocky Mountains being on any of my one hour flights from Edmonton to Vancouver. "Maybe we've done something to wear our mountains down," I think. I am fascinated by how the earth's formations develop similarly in similar climates. Do people?
As I fly, I think of Edmonton and the way dad tries to make me believe there has been an enormous change in Edmonton and people's lives while I’m traveling. Unfortunately for dad, I would love it if mom and him were going on a boat ride to Africa, my best friend was on the way to the moon, and my other friends decided to live in submarines and take over the world. However, I know that they will all be sitting in the Sugar Bowl Coffee Shop, gossiping about their teachers and classmates, who likes who, etc.
My parents would renovate the house 10 times before they'd even think of moving out. They say, "Why can't you just backpack through Europe, stay in hostels and check out museums, come home, get a teaching job, get married and have children?"
Walking down the one wide main street in Skardu, I stare wide-eyed at the mountain faces trapping us into this place. How do people get around? Surely not everyone (and barely anyone) can afford to fly. There's something about looking up when surrounded by mountains. It feels like the sky is higher, bigger, and more powerful. At night, the stars feel closer.
I notice the people in Skardu are tall and large. Their bodies are not fat but fit. The average height of men seems to be six feet and women are my height, five foot nine. This is a revelation for me.
As I along the main street, my lungs expand and my brain unscrambles (I didn't realize it was scrambled until I felt this release.) Growing up in Alberta has made me unaccustomed to heat. Now, I'm realizing I have physical, mental and emotional aversions to hot weather. The size of the people in Skardu made me feel at ease as well. I wasn't aware that it was bothering me that I was considerably taller and stronger looking than most people around me in Southern Pakistan.
The main road in Skardu is wide and dusty. The vendors are neatly lined alongside the road. They are tidy clay and wooden buildings, with flat roofs and families bustling inside. Wandering along, I'm overwhelmed by the shop's colourful wares. There are brightly wrapped candles, dried fruits, incense, paper, baked goods and brick-a-brac.
I hear men shouting and the sound is drawing nearer. Out of the corner of my eye, I see them running towards me. There is an old man dressed in white. "A holy man," I think to myself.
He's bow-legged, toothless and yelling in a raspy voice. He runs closer. In his hands he has a boulder the size of his head lifted above his shoulders. I freeze and take a mental inventory of whether I am dressed and behaving appropriately.
I wonder, "will anyone help me? What if I’m injured here and left stranded. People will steal my money so I can’t get on the plane. I will be too weak to climb over the mountains."
I decide to freeze in the middle of the road and face the man and deal with the consequences of being in this place as a westerner.
The man leaps past me, gazing ferociously at the ground ahead of him. I turn and see a rat as long as my foot. The rat scurries in front of the old man and the group of young people following him. He hurls the rock and misses the rat, who slips down a sewer’s crack.
A nearby vendor, witnessing my bewilderment, chuckles and invites me to his stall for green tea. His name is Hasseeb. He is a tailor and clothing designer of the most extravagant coats and scarves. Hasseeb’s items are woven of cream-coloured wools, hand-embroidered with gold and jewel-coloured threads. Hasseeb and his wife Rui became my greatest support over the eight months I lived in Skardu. A bright jacket and scarf hang in my closet, gifts far too precious to wear but powerful reminders of friendship.
During my time in Skardu, I felt drawn to at least visit K2 and took a camping trip to the glacier at its feet. I erected my vinyl tent on a grassy patch in the center of a rocky field. The night went undisturbed, only a candle, my travel stories and calm, cool mountain air. As the dawn broke, I could see the jagged outline of a figure outside my tent. Being far from Skardu, I panicked. "No one knows where I am. I am naive to be taking such chances in places like these."
I unzipped the door and crooked my head around the corner. The sight must have been as absurd for her as it was for me. A slight woman in a purple, wool skirt with a traditional hill tribe hat on stood outside. She had an enormous bundle of sticks tied to her back with twine. She circled the tent, inspecting the seams and fabric. It seemed like she was eyeing it with approval. She trudged off through the rocks.
I lived outside Canada for six years from the time I left my family in the Edmonton airport in April of 1995. I went to many places and collected a mass of stories. Yet, when I visit my family, they want me to tell them over and over again about Pakistan. Their desire to hear about Northern Pakistan stems from the fairy tale I evoke when I speak about it. There are "happy endings" and "that wasn't so bad now, was it?" and laughs of relief from my family. Northern Pakistan seems familiar to my family; there are similarities between Northern Pakistan's land and people and Canada's.
Pakistan is not a fairy land, the public has deducted this from Canadian news coverage of the area. I feel obligated to let Canadians know Muslim countries are misrepresented. They are not one-dimensional places of terror and cruelty to women. People are very human everywhere.
Word Count- 2540 (hand-counted. I don't like it when the computer counts my "I"s, periods, etc.)