Paris was brilliant, but it was easy â€” millions of gawking day-trippers stream through its polished and numerous attractions each year. Dubai was a mildly exotic layover, its air-conditioned malls stocked with so much Western and Chinese consumer clutter.
Pakistan (and, in a few weeks, India) will challenge us in ways we cannot know â€” and, inshallah (God willing), it will reward us in ways that will affect us for the rest of our lives.
Bags packed again, Dubaiâ€™s gleaming optimism followed us all the way into the airport â€” a colossal shrine to capital and duty free crap â€” and onto our state-of-the-art Emirates airplane, where economy class brought business-class luxuries I’d only heard about before (including our last drop of alcohol for who knows how long).
We landed in Islamabad at 3 a.m., where the heat was dry and, even in the middle of the night, powerful and foreboding. Asia was suffering its worst pre-monsoon heat wave in decades; daily temperatures of 125 degrees Fahrenheit (50 Celsius); hundreds had already died from it, the headlines had claimed on the BBC on the plane, and we could only wonder what daylight would bring.
The ride into the city brought the familiar Developing World smell of burning trash through four open windows, rushing over our faces in blasts as we passed burn piles and broken down cars. Off the highway, we circled a block of low buildings, searching for our hotel, street corners clustered with men wearing long cotton tunics called shulwar kameez; they squatted around grilling chicken and chapattis, talking loudly around the low flames and smoke.
Our hotel was full, no sign of the reservations Iâ€™d made the day before. Our driver, filled with resolve, began running in and out of other accommodations with Tay while I watched the bags, groggy and hot in the dilapidated car. By the time we found a room, it was still dark and the first muezzin was calling the city to prayer. But instead of rolling out his prayer rug, our driver had entered our room, stood on the corner of our bed, and was fiddling with the air conditioner. Tay was out in the hall, trying to tell me something in broken Spanish so that he wouldnâ€™t understand. But I couldnâ€™t hear her over his too-loud shouting.
“Your problem â€” now my problem! My friend! My brother!”
His sudden eye contact seemed strange, but I rolled with it, so tired, “Yes, thank you, yes,” oblivious that he was perhaps trying to redeem himself after making sleazy advances toward my wife.
He picked up the phone and shouted a stream of Urdu at the night watchman and, miraculously (had it all been staged for bakshish?), click-hum, a fuse was sparked and wonderful cold air poured in. Never mind the pinky-sized roach behind the toilet or the mystery hairs on the pillows â€” we slept till noon.
We emerged from our cold cell to a white, pressing sky; the sun was nowhere but we felt it everywhere. We hopped a taxi to Rawalpindi, the raucous and sprawling sister city of orderly Islamabad, to change money and search for better lodging. Tay had lived in a Moslem country before, but the mosques, the robed men, the swirling Urdu letters, this was new to me. In the Hadharamoot Restaurant, my wife taught me how to tear chicken and ball up greasy rice using only my right hand. The ultra-sweet, after-meal shot glass of tea brought a nostalgic smile to her face, but she remained indignant at another memory come back to life: the staring of so many pious men whose religion mandated the exclusion and subservience of their women. And even though Tay respectfully covered her legs, shoulders, and head, her foreign face and figure turned every head on every block; no wonder, among so many hidden Pakistani women, half of whom wore black-ghosted burqas with only a slit for their eyes.
For me, having spent nearly four years in Central American, the familiar things included the sight of over-stuffed buses and taxis in clouds of exhaust; the squeegee children of the traffic lights, whose begging carried the same practiced intonations as their counterparts across the world in Managua, Tegucigalpa, San Salvador. I recognized the market chaos, with so much shouting and sweet, vomitty smells; the taste of orange mango pulp and the sucking afterward at the fibers between my teeth; and, of course, the back-sticking, hot-headed heat. These things I had known, but I had known them while still in the Americas.
This, I keep reminding myself, is Pakistan! War torn Kabul lay only a few cities to the west, on the Peshawar Road, just over the Khyber Pass! (Which my guidebook says is safe to travel, outlining how to hire an armed escort — don’t worry, we won’t try). To the north, K2, Kashgar, and China! To the east, Kashmir, India, Nepal, and Tibet! This was the Middle East and the Orient, wrapped up in one and, after only a day, it felt farther away from home than I had ever been.
Which, of course, is the point.
That feeling is what we are seeking, that overwhelming, sensory bombardment brought on by so much newness: the fluttering, cool-looking shulwar kameez suits, worn by nearly all the men; the fast-paced Urdu tongue, smoother than the bit of Arabic Iâ€™d heard in Dubai; and the food: curried mutton and buttered dahl, oven-crisped sesame-studded naan, and dood-chai milky tea.
This is the beginning, this dust-swirling pair of Pakistani cities, this urban insurgence of sound and light; and everything we do here in these first few days, is only acclimation and preparation for the next leap:
North, to the Himalaya. Inshallah.