Take a minute to go to Google and do an image search for Pakistan. I’ll wait. What did you find? A couple maps, a couple flags, sure.. but then what did you find?
All death. All destruction. All terror. All horror.
When my tourist visa was rejected, I heard a resounding sigh of relief from all my friends and family. They were all thrilled that I wasn’t going because that meant, instead, I’d be safe and sound in my own home country.
When I decided to apply again, they all crossed their fingers in hopes that I’d once again be rejected. This time though, the application was successful. I was going to Pakistan! A lot of people expressed grave concerns about my going: it’s dangerous; it’s a hotbed of terrorism; you’re a white, non-Muslim woman going to a conservative Muslim country; what if you’re kidnapped?
I heeded all of their concerns. I had some of my own. I woke in the middle of the night wondering if I was making a stupid decision to go. Was I truly putting my life in danger this time? What would happen if something did happen to me? How would it hurt my family? Can I do that to them? But at the end of the day, I was tired of living in fear of traveling to a place that called to me for years to visit. But for every awful news story I read about Pakistan, I’d heard an equally good one from friends who live there or are from there. That’s all I needed–the curiosity to see it and find out for myself.
I’m not sure what I expected of Pakistan before going. I was trying to keep an open mind, but I also had some ideas of what it would be like based on books I’ve read, movies and TV shows I’ve seen, and having spent time in India, once part of its country. I suspected it’d be a bit overwhelming–loud, dirty, chaotic, intense. I didn’t discover that part of Pakistan until the very end of my trip though, when I went to Lahore. There I found the Pakistan I was expecting. The rest of it was an utter surprise, and treasure.
I spent two weeks traversing 3000 miles of the country, from Islamabad to Hunza Valley, Gilgit, Khunjerab, Skardu, Besham, and Lahore, with a ton of places in between. I met many people along the way–men, women, children; families, police officers, farmers, shepherds, guides, truck drivers, and more.
Do you know how many times I feared for my life when I was there? Once. But the circumstances could have happened anywhere there are mountains–our tiny bus wasn’t a 4×4 and we were climbing some treacherous one-lane mountainous roads when another vehicle was coming. We backed up, hanging a bit off the end of a cliff to let the vehicle pass and then were unable to gain traction to get back up. My friend turned to me from the front seat and said, “all four of you need to move to the back to put weight on the wheels so we can gain traction.” My instant reaction was wide-eyed terror and I was only able to mutter a soft “no” with a head-shake. Of course, later this became a running joke of the trip because everything was fine.
What I found in Pakistan was the complete opposite of the destruction and devastation you see on the news. It was unbelievably peaceful and quiet, almost everywhere I visited (including Islamabad). People were curious and thrilled to see a goree (white woman) visiting. I’ve spoken to a lot of Pakistanis, both while I was there and since I’ve been home, and one comment has been repeated to me time and time again: We, the Pakistanis, are the true sufferers of terrorism.
And they’re right. It’s not just about the death and injury they’ve suffered at the hands of terrorists in their more tribal areas, or about the destruction of the attacks they’ve suffered in their public city spaces. They’ve also lost tourism there. Pakistanis are unable to travel abroad easily because they’re all pegged as terrorists. Their entire country has been called a “Terrorist State” in the media for years. How does a country come back from that?
That’s not a rhetorical question. How does a country come back from that? The only way I can guess is for people like me and you go to and visit and to come back and tell the world that it’s not as you see on the news.
So, I’m here to tell you: I flew 9000 miles to travel over 3000 miles around Pakistan to finally see it with my own eyes: no hidden agendas; no sensationalized news stories; just an open mind and a world of curiosity. And what I found was spectacular! But you’ll have to wait for more detailed posts.