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Goats, guns and generosity: How Pakistan stole an Aussie’s heart

Updated Oct 02, 2015 07:42pm

“Don’t go, comrade, they kill cricketers there!” This was the general reaction I received when I told people back home I was going to Pakistan.

They would also ask, “Why?”

I wasn’t entirely sure of the answer to that. All I knew was that when you get a chance to go somewhere that you otherwise would never be able to, you go.

There are some nutters that do it alone. They don’t speak the language and have this bizarre feeling of invulnerability. They come to Pakistan, hitchhike around in blissful ignorance of the possible dangers and almost always survive. I am envious of these people and definitely not one of them.

Luckily, I had a friend on the inside, Madeeha. She promised to show me the true side of Pakistan, and that is exactly what I saw from one entry point, Karachi all the way to the other, Khunjerab.

“Tell your friends back in Australia we are good people.”

The warmth! The people are lovely, that’s just the way it is.

Nobody tried to rip me off, leer at me like I was an alien (well, there was some confusion initially) or generally appear threatening or nasty. People always wanted to say hello, offer us chai, have a photo taken and just chit chat.

Some would say, “Tell your friends back in Australia we are good people.” Which I have.

The pictures I took show breathtaking landscapes, glorious mountains and stunning lakes, but while my phone captured the vista, the people captured my heart.

Having a chat with a mate at the Khunjerab Festival. —Madeeha Syed
Having a chat with a mate at the Khunjerab Festival. —Madeeha Syed
Holding the breakfast tray with the mighty Passu cones in the background. —Photo by Viviana Mazza.
Holding the breakfast tray with the mighty Passu cones in the background. —Photo by Viviana Mazza.

At Attabad Lake, I did my own version of Australian travel blogger Sophee Smiles' famous photo pirouetting on top of a boat. See below.

The original:

My version:

Close enough? —Madeeha Syed
Close enough? —Madeeha Syed

I even reluctantly wore the local hat (Pakol) around and people loved it. ‘Reluctantly’ because back home in Australia, we are being taken over by politically correct idiots who are convinced that everything is racist. Wearing a hat like that for them is ‘cultural appropriation’. (For real, Google it.)

But while I was unsure about being ‘racist’ for wearing the hat, I was met only with cheers and welcoming embraces once I put it on; it seemed somewhat typical of the Pakistani spirit. I had left behind the bullying western culture of shutting people down; nobody was trying to tear me down. Everyone was welcoming and I adored that.

The mate who sold me the hat (Pakol) and put a feather on it so I could look even more handsome. —Madeeha Syed
The mate who sold me the hat (Pakol) and put a feather on it so I could look even more handsome. —Madeeha Syed
All foreigners were required to register at the many checkpoints in the Northern Areas. Here, I am patiently waiting for them to scribble something in their journal and hand my passport back to me. —Madeeha Syed
All foreigners were required to register at the many checkpoints in the Northern Areas. Here, I am patiently waiting for them to scribble something in their journal and hand my passport back to me. —Madeeha Syed
I try to man a check post. Madeeha thinks I'm not exactly cut out for the job. —Madeeha Syed
I try to man a check post. Madeeha thinks I'm not exactly cut out for the job. —Madeeha Syed
"Postcards that are never going to leave the subcontinent" ‒ at a post office in Hunza trying to send home some of the Pakistani love. —Madeeha Syed
"Postcards that are never going to leave the subcontinent" ‒ at a post office in Hunza trying to send home some of the Pakistani love. —Madeeha Syed

When it was time to return, a taxi driver rode us to the airport through roads fraught with traffic. We almost missed our flight. I wanted to offer the driver a tip, but he refused. We had been chatting in the taxi (mostly translated by the capably bilingual Madeeha) on the way and, apparently, he considered me a friend and a guest. He would not accept my money. This was typical of the hospitality shown to me during my stay, something I have never seen in my travels anywhere else.

One thing I did take issue with in Pakistan is slavery. You guys might be used to it and you may not even consider it slavery, but there are some people who are just accepted as more equal than others; these 'others' being destined to do nothing but menial work for the rest of their lives, and they, too, accept it like it is meant to be.

I find that hard to swallow. Where I come from, we have a thing called ‘social mobility’, which gives everyone a chance to move up the ladder. I mean, people are born poor everywhere, but man, get a welfare system and rise above it.

Let them go to school. Let unlikely excellence shine. I know this is easier said than done, but ultimately, it must be done.

Lack of social mobility and welfare is a problem in Pakistan. But I had a hard time saying no to getting pampered by people. In my defense, I did call them 'sir'. —Madeeha Syed
Lack of social mobility and welfare is a problem in Pakistan. But I had a hard time saying no to getting pampered by people. In my defense, I did call them 'sir'. —Madeeha Syed
"Why are you taking photos? There is a Pak-China (and Australia) friendship to be celebrated!" I had told Madeeha. —Madeeha Syed
"Why are you taking photos? There is a Pak-China (and Australia) friendship to be celebrated!" I had told Madeeha. —Madeeha Syed
Scanning the mountains for ibexes while on the way back to Hunza on Attabad Lake. —Madeeha Syed
Scanning the mountains for ibexes while on the way back to Hunza on Attabad Lake. —Madeeha Syed

Initially, I also found it hard to accept that there was no booze. But as time went on, I learned that it was a blessing in disguise.

In Australia, taking a week off alcohol is an achievement. Until this year, for a decade, I can say I have literally not had a week away from alcohol. But, I didn’t miss it. I didn’t feel the need for it at all. I would have loved to have been able to go to a Pakistani pub to meet people, but we just met people on the street and around the place, who were amazing. And sobre.

Another reason why I was glad that there was no booze was that there were tons of machine guns around ‒ mostly, in the hands of the several different police/paramilitary units that were patrolling the places I visited. But I would never know the difference. On the one hand, I am happy to know that we are being protected. But then, protected from who? That is always a disturbing thought.

One day, as we were walking through Hunza, enjoying the sights and chatting with the locals, Madeeha got a phone call. Some intelligence agency guy was 'just checking' where we were. I thought, okay, well, I guess that is a good thing. But are the intelligence agencies worried about us? Should I be worried? Now I am a little worried. But I felt so safe!

Needless to say, there was no cause for alarm. I don’t know why, but there wasn’t.

At the stunning Khunjerab National Park trying really hard to fight altitude sickness. —Madeeha Syed
At the stunning Khunjerab National Park trying really hard to fight altitude sickness. —Madeeha Syed
Water, water everywhere and not a single cup of coffee. It's very early in the morning. —Madeeha Syed
Water, water everywhere and not a single cup of coffee. It's very early in the morning. —Madeeha Syed
Trying this suspicious packet that a group of men from Karachi convinced me to have at the Khunjerab Festival. It turned out to be our very own Shahi Supari. —Madeeha Syed
Trying this suspicious packet that a group of men from Karachi convinced me to have at the Khunjerab Festival. It turned out to be our very own Shahi Supari. —Madeeha Syed

With all of this ‘danger’, though, I must preface: I am Australian. We don’t have guns. People find that hard to understand but we really don’t have guns. They freak us out. Our police have guns and even that is a bit creepy. So we take time to get used to guns.

The food, however, was the most essential part of discovering the country and predictably, Pakistan didn’t disappoint.

To be honest, I think all I need to say is that it was better than my trip to India. Also, I discovered that money doesn’t necessarily buy you great food. Excellent and well-made food comes in all places and at all manners of expense. One of our cheapest meals was clearly one of the best.

Speaking of food, I have a newfound respect for goats now. I’m not sure why, really, seeing as their purpose, for the most part, is to end up in a curry. But they do prance around like champions, taking on rough terrain like it is nobody's business. Pakistani goats are total legends and worthy of much respect. Especially when eaten.

"Please don't jab me with your mighty horns goat friend," I told this goat. It obliged. Pakistan's goats are noble creatures. And this one is a top goat. —Madeeha Syed
"Please don't jab me with your mighty horns goat friend," I told this goat. It obliged. Pakistan's goats are noble creatures. And this one is a top goat. —Madeeha Syed
My friend Madeeha (read: bodyguard) and I against a sunset on the Passu Glacier. —Madeeha Syed
My friend Madeeha (read: bodyguard) and I against a sunset on the Passu Glacier. —Madeeha Syed
An Australian, American, Italian, Pakistani, their trusty driver and a random Chinese person pose at the Khunjerab Pass. Everywhere I went, people wanted to get their photos taken with me and then, of course, they would offer me chai. —Madeeha Syed
An Australian, American, Italian, Pakistani, their trusty driver and a random Chinese person pose at the Khunjerab Pass. Everywhere I went, people wanted to get their photos taken with me and then, of course, they would offer me chai. —Madeeha Syed

As a general summary of my trip, I would say that Pakistan is widely misunderstood and very much worth visiting.

The landscape is beautiful and the potential for adventure is huge, but the people are what truly matter. They are hardworking, honest people who would readily give you their last dollar or their last cup of chai.

They have peace in their hearts.

I hope that one day, Pakistan can spend less time defending itself from itself and more time fostering the excellence from within.