It is four weeks since we arrived in P’stan. It has taken me this long to be able to write something about our two weeks there. As we flew from Bangkok to Islamabad, I looked out of my window at a brand new crescent moon. It reminded me of the bright star that the wise men followed to meet the infant Jesus. I didn’t feel too wise, but I did feel as though God was with us. “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry for help.” I had read this verse in Psalm 34 a few hours earlier and felt that He was showing me in a real way that we were not alone as we travelled to this country.
P’stan is not on the tourist road map. It is roughly the same size as New South Wales, but 165 million people live in it. There are fewer than 100 Australians living near Islamabad. It is an islamic country but there are pockets of Hindu and Christian people. The Government estimates that 5% of the population are Christian, but unofficial figures may well be higher. We arrived the day before a National Public Holiday. The Government declared Friday 21st October to be a day when the nation could peacefully protest against the making of a video in which the muslim faith was denigrated. You-tube had been shut down so that no one could see the offensive clip.
We were staying with friends and lay low on this day. All phone networks were shut down. We felt safe and under no personal threat, but I would never choose to repeat this experience. Our friends have lived in this country for eleven years and this was only the third time they felt under any threat such as we faced on this day. We are good at timing our visits.
I had heard about culture shock, but never experienced it and had no clue as to what one would feel if hit by it. Twenty-four hours after arriving in this country and we were both in extreme culture shock. It was a surreal experience and felt a bit like landing in a painting by Dali where things are not quite right or normal. All of our senses were bombarded with stimulation. It was humid, hot and we wore clothes that were not what we would normally wear. I had a scarf to cover my face and when out in public, I hid my face from view. I didn’t feel like me. Each morning we were awakened between 4.30am and 5am by the call to prayer.
The density of the population is most obvious on the roads. Sitting in traffic, car horns beep – I think it is a form of morse code understandable to the drivers but incomprehensible to my ears and there don’t appear to be any discernible road rules. I saw a road sign that said “keep your lanes” and wondered which lane was ours. We were on a road that looked like it should have three lanes with at least six lanes operating and barely an inch between vehicles. There were brightly painted trucks of all sizes, motor cycles carrying whole families – up to three adults and children and babies and no helmets. A mini van that in our country would seat six or seven was filled to the brim with people – sometimes up to fourteen and no air con. It is no wonder that there are street walking vendors selling beautiful necklaces and bracelets made of sweet scented rose petals.
We had a wonderful driver who took us everywhere but it was wisest to close my eyes and not look at how he drove. His understanding of the sign that said “maintain a safe distance” was clearly different to my western idea of a safe distance. Remember the perilous drive that Keith and I took across the hills of the Lake’s District? This was even more perilous. However, not once did we hit another vehicle. Nothing short of miraculous.
I saw a tiny truck carrying a giant block of ice. It looked like it was slowly melting and I wondered if it would reach its destination. This ice captured how I felt for two weeks. Each morning, I would awaken and feel vaguely brave and robust but by the end of the day all that remained was a puddle of water.
We spent a week in Islamabad – this is a planned city and on a clear day has glorious views to the mountains lying to its west. The streets are wide and there are parks for walking. This is not easy for women to do – it is not very safe for women to go out alone or without a male chaperone. So I didn’t get to explore any parks. In fact for two weeks, we did no walking at all and I confess, I had twitchy and restless feet. We saw groups of boys flying kites that were brightly coloured with glass covered string and games of cricket happening between men and their boys. The local markets were filled with men gathering, to talk, to share their day, to sit and watch the chaos pass them by. This is a male dominated world.
We drove to Lahore for our second week. Believe it or not the road is fantastic and leaves our Pacific Highway for dead. It has three lanes going in each direction, flat and straight. We drove through spectacular country side and through a pass taking us through the salt mountain range and down into the floodplain valley. We passed numerous tiny villages and could see men and women working in the fields – we saw fields of corn and wheat – almost ready for harvest. We also saw many brick kilns and I didn’t want to think about the villagers working there.
There were stopping stations where you could buy petrol and food and visit the toilets. Surprisingly they were clean and western. We ate food that was delicious – freshly cooked and cheap. We could feed four for under $10.
Our driver knew Islamabad and Rawalpindi like the back of his hand, but not Lahore. We got lost and swallowed into the myriad of roads – were we looking for Canal Road or Mall Road and if so, how did we find it? We couldn’t read the road signs, we had a map, but no idea of where we were on the map. Keith and I were both hit by a nasty tummy bug on this day and all I could think about was “would I make it to our next toilet stop?”
We visited the border between P’stan and India and watched the flag lowering ceremony. It was incredible. The display of national and religious pride was deafening. On the other side of the border, we could hear India attempting to outdo P’stan. The tallest soldiers are used in the ceremony.
We were kept so busy during our two weeks, that I had no time to visit the fabric malls or the clothing stores. The women of this country take much pride in what they wear and look stunning. They know how to manage their scarf, cover their face and still look beautiful. I spent my time keeping my scarf in place, whisking it onto my face – it spent more time falling off in my hands – it is definitely a skill that I failed to acquire.
In two weeks we met many people, spent time with them and shared their life and gained a small insight into life in this country. I was struck by the women’s strength of character. I never heard a complaint. Most of them worked extremely hard – in the home and out of the home and face what I a “westernised woman” would consider to be insurmountable obstacles. But they displayed a resilience that I have rarely seen. I have much to learn from them. The men we met were wise and kind and treated me with much respect and love.
A final moment happened at the airport as we awaited our flight to Hong Kong. The waiting room was filled with men preparing to go to Mecca. There were baths set up in the corner where they washed and dressed in white – towels and cloth and then rapidly disappeared to alight their plane. They were oblivious of the pounds of flesh they showed – I tried hard not to look. I noticed a young muslim woman waiting for her flight. She was alone and had a tiny baby with her. Keith and I started talking to her and helped her onto the plane. She was cheerful and chatty and I learnt a lot about her. She was returning to Lakemba after three months visiting her family and showing off her new baby. She had sat her Master’s exams during this time and was returning to her husband and continuing further studies in Australia. Education is a doorway for women and opens possibilities that would otherwise be unavailable. Fourteen year old girl Malala who is now fighting for her life is brave indeed.
If you would like to read the story behind this story and hear about what we did, I will happily send you an email version of what Keith and I did during our two weeks here. I am not going to put it on my blog. Simply email me: email@example.com. Sorry, no photos, I am not able to upload any.