Report by Jon Prunty
Welcome fellow readers of this paper. It is an honour to share my preconceptions and experiences of my 2010 visit to Pakistan with you, alongside the many other stories and events that appear here that colourfully portray Pakistan as a multifaceted inward and outward looking nation in the contemporary forefront of world events.
The many contributors concerns here for the great nation of Pakistan shows healthy debate, respect and concern for its evolution and wellbeing, especially from an external observers viewpoint such as myself.
Originally did I ever conceive the even remotest notion of travelling to Pakistan – of course not! Given the security issues being experienced in its current political climate, this may be deemed a valid point. But what a wonderful and life changing experience it was when I did go there this year.
Like most Caucasian nations in the shadow of post 9/11, Australia’s media portrays Islamic places like Pakistan as a growing haven for terrorism and ideology that will cause harm and undermine our national security, economy and cultural identity. Such ‘western’ perceptions are probably understood best of all by some of those hard working Muslims who live within these Western nations.
So what made me decide to spend my precious holidays in Pakistan? I think through the many modes of media available to us, we tend to judge national character by what is reported about that nation, Pakistan, Iran or the United States being no exception for example. Perhaps powerful individuals and collective self interest groups make world news and history in our society, but what of the real people and places themselves? What lies beneath these world views that constantly bombard our eyes and ears on a daily basis into our collective subconscious?
I have become good friends with a Pakistani man with whom I work with. We talk about the usual things that concern all of us such as sport, family, work issues and dreams and aspirations. He is from Lahore and gets back there as often as he can. He asked me where I was going to go on my holidays. I said not sure this time I have been to a few places being a keen traveler. “Have you ever considered Pakistan?” he said. With this I sat back and smiled thinking he was joking.
All I new was that Lahore was the biggest city in the Punjab and that the famous British Empire writer Rudyard Kipling had lived there for a number of years and was inspired to write his most famous book ‘Kim’ based on characters living in Lahore. Well adventure got the better of me and deliberately not telling some of my family and friends who would have worried and protested most strongly, I arrived in Bangkok waiting for a Thai Airways flight to Lahore.
I entered the departure lounge waiting to board the plan. All eyes were focused on me as I was the only Caucasian male about to board the plane. Did they think I was crazy going making myself a target, was I an American spy following a Taliban operative onto their flight, or a western recruit ready to join the Taliban in the NWFP. Perhaps I was just a bit nervous and I was becoming paranoid thinking people were looking at me.
I had a great flight and the people I sat next to were very friendly. The pilot said over the PA that we should prepare for landing at Lahore Airport. It began to sink in that a whole new world would be presented to me, one that I could only imagine. Would I be able to fit into or live up to an Islamic world without drawing attention to myself? Would I be turned back for not having any strong reason for being there? The woman at the Pakistani Embassy in Australia who gave me my visa had thought at first I was going for work purposes, but then couldn’t believe that I was going there just for a holiday. A “holiday” she cried incredulously.
My heart was racing and I was so nervous. Would people react to me with suspicion or would they tolerate my presence. I thought of some of the Muslims in Australia in their traditional clothing and this must be how they felt when they first arrived there. These thoughts seemed to calm me down. I lined up in the passport queue, the foreign queue is nearly empty and I move through very quickly. People are staring at me, not a westerner to be seen. Maybe I have made a mistake and the missing tourists know something I don’t. Too late I’m here now I thought to myself.
I exchanged some currency then went out into the terminal where people were leaning forward excitedly looking for newly arrived friends and family. Once again I sensed surprised stares. My heart was pounding, would the family members designated to pick me up be there amongst the large waiting crowd? “Hello Mr Prunty” said two friendly looking faces. It was the brother and cousin of my friend. With super polite habits the brother took my baggage. I politely protested but he would not have it. This custom of doing everything for a guest is one of the most vivid and endearing impressions I have taken away with me from Pakistan. It truly is a wonderful national trait.
The drive to their house was amazing with the car I was travelling in moving alongside many bicycles and donkeys with men in traditional outfits standing on the back of carts driving these street smart beasts. Many people were walking the streets in flowing costumes visiting food stalls with fresh food produce selling their daily stock. The roads were chaotic with cars crisscrossing the roads. Despite this chaos I did not see one vehicle accident which made me realize that it was really organized chaos and more accidents happen back in my own country. “Lahore Lahore hai” people said to me with a knowing smile.
My hosts took great pleasure in making me feel welcome at their home by showing me my room and offering me many foods. My hosts also were keen to drive me around their great city of Lahore and visit a few notable places. My personal caution left me after the first day as I walked amongst the people who gave me friendly curious smiles.
I visited the Lahore Fort where I must have taken a hundred photographs, and it was breathtaking in its scale and architecture. I had the most informative tour guide who was more than eager to tell me the history of the place and its people; the great Badshahi Mosque which I entered in my socks; the Lahore Museum with its magnificent Mughal history where I managed to get on Pakistani television as there was a news crew doing a story on the museum at the time. I saw the cameras and before I knew it I had a microphone in my hand! And we even made it to the Lahore Gate with the guard ceremony at the Indian border. The crowd loved it and the words “Pakistan Zindabad” are etched in my memory forever. The crowd on the Indian side of the border was far more subdued.
Walking to a local café with my hosts I realized that Pakistan has much to offer tourists with its vibrant culture and friendly people. I walked around and felt very safe, far more so than on a Saturday night in my own culture where alcohol fuelled violence is sometimes common. We visited a number of markets and the Fortress stadium where I bought some shoes and a few other things. The quality and prices would even push the bargain shopping destinations of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. I hope that a vibrant tourist industry flourishes one day and more westerners visit. From one angle I was happy because it felt like I had the whole place to myself.
On my last day we visited the Lahore Zoo. This was an older style zoo set in beautifully maintained gardens with lovely broad pathways where you could enjoy a leisurely walk. We took many photographs amongst the gardens and with the many different animals on show. I recall a beautiful white tiger and a massive male elephant.
It was at one enclosure that I was stunned into absolute silence. The sign said ‘Cassowary’ and the animal was parading along the fence line. In Australia this is listed as an endangered species and they live in the far North east of Australia in the Daintree rainforest. You can see them in some of the zoo’s there but I had been very lucky to see one in the wild once. Here was one in Lahore Pakistan of all places! To my guests I kept pointing and saying “Cassowary, Cassowary”, much to their puzzled but amused faces.
I thought I had conquered Lahore as the only Australian in town, but here was a true Australian living in Lahore all along. With customary politeness my hosts motioned me to the car. Lahore Lahore hai I said to myself over and over.