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Wanderlust: Two bodyguards for Harappa

June 23, 2013

Silvia Di Natale discovers how courteous Pakistanis are toward foreigners

To Pakistan? How can you go to Pakistan? Isn’t it dangerous to go there? These were the questions that everyone asked me when they heard about my plans. Pakistan doesn’t seem to be a country to go to, if you don’t have to. Had I such a pressing reason to go there? Well, not really, but I had a good excuse: I was invited to the Karachi Literature Festival. How could I refuse? And being there, how could I miss a unique opportunity to see this country?

Pakistan was, in an indefinable way, both familiar and unknown to me: it was familiar because I crossed it years and years ago, at a time when travelling from India to Peshawar and reaching Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass was quite easy. Familiar for having been in Balochistan seven years ago, notably in Quetta, a town where today only a starkly mad person would go voluntarily (at that time I was requested to write a story about a project of Doctors Without Borders). But, apart from this short acquaintance, Pakistan still remained unknown to me. I had no hesitation. I would go there.

I took from the cupboard the shalwar kameez that a tailor in Quetta had made for me and put it into my rucksack together with a book Learn a little Urdu and my own novel, Kuraj, for the reading in Karachi. I felt ready for the new adventure. Yes, because Pakistan can be considered one of the few countries left where you don’t need to make any effort to create an adventure, something like “travelling by bike through the Andes” or “crossing the world in two weeks without leaving the earth” and so on.

Try to go to Harappa, for instance: it is after all one of the most historical places of the Indus Civilisation. Everyone would think it would be easy to reach by means of public transportation. In fact, on the map it looks easy.

I began the trip very early in the morning, took a bus from Multan to Sahiwal (I had organised a little round trip through Punjab), got off in a noisy service area on the highway to Lahore, took a rickshaw to the local bus station, waited there for a small bus to get filled with people, got off in the small town of Harappa where I again put my faith in a rickshaw driver: almost two hours after having left the highway I was delivered to the front of a gate, the entrance to the Harappa archaeological site.

No one around, but finally a man emerged from nowhere to hand me a ticket and offer himself to me as a guide. I refused. I am too proud of my own capabilities and too jealous of my privacy. It is important to be alone, I feel, to best immerse oneself into the past; to accept someone going with me and explaining to me things I don’t want to know, would mar the experience. But I didn’t know how courteous Pakistanis are toward foreigners and how suspicious they are of their own people.

I began walking through the brick ruins of what 3,000 years ago was a city; in spite of the inclemency of the midday sun I enjoyed the peace and the solitude of the place. Alas, not for very long: soon a man in green uniform, a gun hanging from his shoulders, began to walk behind me, very close, stopping when I did, climbing after me, going with me step by step. Annoyed I addressed him quite rudely: “Are you following me?” “Thank you,” answered the man with the gun.

I ignored his excessive politeness and urged him. “Why are you doing that?” “Dangerous”, said the man patiently. I pretended to misunderstand him: “What? I am dangerous? Do you think that I will carry the bricks away?” (the British are said to have done it to build the railway).

The small man with the gun didn’t lose his calm. “Thank you, madam, no, not you,” he answered shaking his head resolutely and making a vague gesture to indicate someone or something over the hill. I looked around. Nobody was to be seen, except a second uniformed man, who was approaching us on a motorbike: due to the narrow sandy path and his own corpulence, he had a bit of a job balancing on his loud vehicle, but in a short time he was behind me.

This time very angrily, I accosted him: “If you absolutely have to follow me, please do it without the motor on!” The fat policeman obeyed reluctantly, but kept obstinately to his protection task, going along with both feet on the ground. To my satisfaction he lost distance, so that I could continue my visit with the first silent bodyguard.

I was still thinking the situation was absurd but circumstances would prove me wrong. On the other side of the hill we encountered three dogs, quietly sleeping in the shadow of a big tamarisk tree. Hearing our steps, they stood up and began to bark with a menacing attitude. Showing a surprising ability to react, the policeman picked up a stone and threw it at the dogs which ran away still barking furiously. Grateful, for the first time I too said “thank you” and saw a shadow of a smile appear for an instant under the heavy moustache of my bodyguard.

By the way, at the end of the visit he didn’t even accept my bakshish.