It’s getting cold in Kaifeng. It’s the halfway the point of a ten week contract and the slow depression is starting to sink in. All the exhiliration and newness of a place has been bung, bunged, and balzaed out of us. We are stuck. The mind starts to play tricks on you. I was talking to my wife the other night on SKYPE and the computer froze. Her image staring at me, her body planted on the deep green grass while the golden and purple hues of the Australian sunset glimmered behind her head. It seemed the spitting image of an old British pastoral painting, but instead of being hung on the walls of the National Gallery in Canberra it was suspended on my laptop. In the distance I could hear the nightly joggers and dancers gathering at the local track field, the fury of hundreds of middle aged people dancing in unison. Men were practicing their classical baritones directly under my window. I stared again at the colorful image on my screen and imagined the Antipodean wind blowing gently around me. It was a glimpse out of the cold, grey insane aslyum, but would anybody believe me?
It is at these times that I decided to scour my notes of happier times. I found this little ramble of a story from Pakistan in 2005. I don’t know what the moral of these coordinated notes are, except maybe if you want to go to a place that can be seen as dangerous, scary, that may be okay if you just go. At the time, Pakistan was seen as a really scary place to go and far too dangerous. I found the exact opposite to be true, so much so that I went again in 2007. On the second trip, our Pakistani friends told us as long as Pakistan had cricket it would be safe. Well, even in that regard Pakistan has become something of the odd man out, and militants even attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team. So now I cannot vouch for how safe Pakistan is for the traveler, but in my experience, Pakistani’s showed themselves to be regal, friendly and worthy of the illustrious history their land has seen.
Lahore was nice if a little bit dirty. It seemed like a town that was simply 17km away from Armristar, a large Muslim city in India. We weren’t staying long. A three week loop of central Pakistan and we would be back in Lahore. That would leave us with plenty of time to to see the Sufis and the Mogul architecture.
We boarded a night train to Peshawar. The only tickets available were in first class and we lived it up, ordering expensive chicken biryani and just being proud that we were not the others. The others who went to Nepal, the thousands of casual tourists and Israelis who were making the pilgrimage for the season.
The train lurched off from the daunting Lahore Railway Station and through the scrubby desert land of the Punjab. Night slowly descended on us and the worst fears and warnings of others started to creep into our minds. It seemed wild dacoits and bandits were boarding the train and God forbid, Osama Bin Laden types. They seemed to warn us. One man was so angry that he talked openly about the revenge he planned on carrying out on Americans for everything they had done.
I quickly developed a new Kiwi persona to carry around — an avid cricket fan from the dairy farms outside Christchurch — to conceal my true identity. It failed almost at once.
‘Who is your favorite New Zealand cricket player?” a man asked me on the train.
“Ricky Ponting,” I replied.
The silence and the his eyes scanning me up and down led me to believe almost instantly that I had a made a fundamental and possibly fatal mistake.
“Why, he plays for Australia.”
This routine would require a lot more research.
We got off the train and were picked up by a taxi that would take us to the best hotel in Peshawar. We passed a giant looming fort late late in the night. It seemed to be the center of town and a bright floodlight reflected off its ochre red bricks like an ominous beacon. It shined its light across the dark streets, illuminating our innocence for all the villians of the night to come and find us.
We were dropped at a hotel, the New King Hotel, which could become our home for the next ten days. Walking into the lobby I felt the cold knife of fear stab my belly. On a blue couch and a grey tiled floor sat six very large men with gigantic beards, sitting in deep in discussion, their voices rising and falling — debating the conditions in a local refugee camp or how there had been so few Americans around to decapitate for their wives.
One set of big brown eyes landed on me and widened. Slowly, all six men became silent and turned to face me.
I almost closed my eyes and waited for it….the kidnapping, the yelling, the shock and horror.
Then a voice blurted out:
Then a chorus from the five others…and quite instantly I was mobbed by all six men.
“Welcome to Pakistan.”
“Thank you for coming.” (A refrain I was going to hear throughout my time in Pakistan).
“Sit down. Can we offer you tea? Anything?”
I was overwhelmed and relieved. For the second time on that very night I felt my fears were completely unjustified.
Before falling asleep I heard rythmic sounds of Sufi style music pulsating from a an abandoned lot next to the hotel. I looked out of my window and saw a gyspy girl with a red sari with gold sequin dancing a strange type of hallucinegenic dance to a small crowd of boys and girls sitting in a circle around her.
After a moment she looked up and saw me standing on the balcony.
“Where are you from?” she yelled from the ground below.
“New Zealand,” I shouted back at her.
“No you’re not…USA!” She squealed. It was impossible to lie in this country.
Almost instantly after my exposure the music cut out and an Urdu version of Hotel California kicked over on the PA. Maybe we could never leave.
I rolled over and saw the brown peeled paper of the New King’s Interior and had a splitting headache. The emotion of the day had worn me out. The smell of rotis and kebabs wafted up, ever so delicately and every so disgustingly into the room.
Stumbling out of bed the light seemed to sharpen like a knife, and I wondered where the blade would land.
I wandered down the stairs and out the front door to look for breakfast. I walked onto the street and for the first time looked out into the world around me with culture shock. The streets were mostly barren. All the men wearing Pashtun suits and many women in the full burqa, which was something I wasn’t accustomed to seeing on such a level in India.
I felt a man disillusioned and sick. A Pakistani man quickly (he must have noticed my disorientation) offered for me to come into his cafe and have some chai. He asked if I would like a joint. Not overly believing what I heard, I nodded in strange agreement. He proceeded to roll me a cigarette filled with the charred crumbs of hashish.
Who needs Amsterdam, I thought.
[Photo from Wikipedia]