As a surfer there are moments now and then when you want something else. You get ‘surfed out.’ We slip out of the saltwater like some primordial de ja vu in our evolutionary path trudging onto land in search of some new adventure. On a local scale, we get out the water and go to Town for a little excitement. In my case Town was Pakistan.
There were a few reasons not to go. Labeled a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalists and terrorism because of its lawless and ungovernable Northwest Territory bordering Afghanistan. The many travel advisories/warnings. It’s continual reputation for black market arms dealing. On the brink of war at times with neighboring India for possession of the disputed Kashmir area. The recent assassination of the hopeful democratic leader Benazir Bhutto. Yes, if you just got your news from the media then yeah, Pakistan seemed a little dangerous. But on the ground while in India, I had met a few travelers who had gone there. They spoke of some Utopian-like society in the north. About a place called the Hunza valley- a seemingly fabled Shangri-la where modern day descendants of Alexander the Great lived in a lush land guarded by the Hindu-Kush Himalayas.This sounded interesting.
So we went. We left colorful, chaotic India and suddenly found ourselves being driven in a rickshaw through Lahore, a major city shortly over the border, by a man who suffered from a horrible case of Tourette’s. Our small cart tipped and swerved with every violent tick or bob the poor man made. I thought we were going to crash. Then at an intersection a woman approached us begging for money. One of her arms was a stump at the wrist, like her hand had been chopped off by something; the thin bandage covering it was surprisingly bloody and fresh.
A man walking by with a pet monkey on a leash stopped and greeted us with a big smile. But although Lahore still had its share of shock, it was actually much more modern and orderly than a big city in India. People were relentlessly friendly, waving hello to us from motorcycles or welcoming us to their country. By people of course, I mean men. Because of the country’s strict Islamic code, women are nearly out of the public eye, or are covered in full-body burkhas. We call them ninjas. At dusk the Muslim calls to prayer sounded throughout the city in a mix of muffled, megaphonic whines and moans. Both eerie and comforting you’re haunted every sunset by the sound of a thousand ghosts.
Surprisingly, when politics came up in conversation, most Pakistanis liked to joke about it. When we told them we were Americans, we were commonly asked, “Oh, you are looking for Osama?” Usually we’d reply, “Yeah! You know where to find him?” Then everyone would be laughing. Besides being a high hostage risk, our nationality became a great ice-breaker.
Heading north towards Hunza, we were closer to Kabul or China than we were to India anymore. The landscape turned raw and apocalyptic. In the north of Pakistan there are only three colors- brown, grey, and green. The setting looks like it’s frozen between growing and dying- what is this called? We finally reached Hunza which was and wasn’t as we expected. It was an extraordinarily fertile valley surrounded by a Matahorn-like mountainscape. Life in the villages was like stepping back in time a hundred years. There wasn’t anybody there (as in other travelers). Because of the global effect and travel sentiment after 9/11, the tourist biz had slowed down, more like stopped, in this once vibrant place. Guesthouse owners kind of gazed out of their inns with looks on their faces like, ‘When’s everyone coming back?’ It was a little weird.
But we still had fun in this twilight zone. We traversed rickety, 500ft. long, Indiana Jonesish suspension bridges or walked to who-knows-how-old glaciers. We heard intermittent gunshots and small explosions in the distance, echoing not far from where we were staying. We heckled some contestants at an unusual footrace in a small village. Which we soon found out was a Pakistani version of the Special Olympics. Then we just felt like assholes.
Really, in this renowned terrorist hotbed, our lives were not threatened. There was really only one time when I thought things were going to get sketchy. We were on a bus at the beginning of our trip. At a truck-stop bathroom break, we all filed out of the bus and as I looked behind me, I saw a guy wearing a black turban and traditional cleric garb kind of eyeing me out. I had been told by the only American I knew that had recently been to Pakistan that the Taliban were known for wearing the black turbans, that this was how you recognized them. ‘Ahhh crap, ahhh crap,’ I thought. Trying not to look panicky, I sort of strayed away from him and his crew. He looked a little cagey. Just my luck, as I walked by them to go to the bathroom, one of them (who spoke English really well) asked if I might join their table to ‘talk about things.’ “Yeah, sure,” I replied, trying not to piss myself. The guy in the black turban still looked evasive.
“Are you a Muslim?” he asked. (I had a two month beard and was dressed in their national pajama costume)
“No.” I said.
“Where are you from?”
“Really?! I live in Houston! What are you doing here- looking for Osama?”
[Big sigh] We shook hands and drank tea.