The Regale Internet Inn, Lahore

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I could have named this entry “Lahore Lovin’” or some other such city-centric title; the fact is, though, our four-day experience in Pakistan’s ancient (and steaming hot) Punjabi capital revolved almost exclusively around this back-alley backpacker standby. Given a full-page “Author’s Choice” recommendation in the Lonely Planet, the Regale is a sure magnet for the handful of vagabonds who pass through this city on truly unusual overland journeys.

The main attraction of the Regale is NOT the quality of the partitioned-off rooms, the freshness of the air in the dormitories, nor the cleanliness of the cramped common spaces. Nay, the Regale’s selling point (besides the super-mellow rooftop “Tribal Area,”see Unusual People post) is the generosity of its owner, Malik Karammat Shams, a retired Pakistani journalist who uses his extensive network of friends and family to give his guests otherwise impossible access to some truly deep cultural niches.

“I want people to experience the reality of Pakistani culture,” he said. “I want to show you Pakistan; I feel that I am Pakistan, so I want to show you myself.”

It was Malik who brought us into the cool, wide basement of the Data Ganj Bakhsh Hajveri shrine, where we were given led directly to front-row seats (cross-legged and barefoot on the hard floor) to watch devotional Qawalli musicians sing about their love for Mohammed and peace and brotherhood. It was Malik who organized a fleet of auto-rickshaws to carry us to the Shrine of Baba SHah Jamal, where famed Sufi dhol drummers Gonga and Mithu Sain swept us along (the rhythms of dhol, says their CD cover, are used to “catalyze the mind of the devotee as he is seeking spiritual tracne, nearness to God”); again, we were accompanied by an entourage of Malik-ites who ushered us through the crowd to the very inner circle of the musicians. Malik claims that before he began such visits six years ago, few foreigners, let alone foreign women, were allowed inside these sanctums since they began – 900 years ago! (properly veiled Pakistani women are permitted, but must remain in a fenced off cage).

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And it was Malik who organized a field trip to a countryside Sufi festival, one hour-and-a-half outside Lahore in the village of Jamdiala Sher Khan, where, he told us, 95 per cent of the inhabitants had never seen a foreigner before. The festival itself was more secular than any of us expected (re: transsexual dancers, a Mad Max-style motorcross show, and an Pakistan Army vs. Navy team wrestling match), but the experience was phenomenal nevertheless.

As the 25 of us piled out of the 16-passenger mini-van, clown-style, not knowing what kind of spectacle awaited us, we were duly surprised to learn that WE were the spectacle, and a drum troop proceeded to accompany this parade of grubby Angrez through the throngs of villagers. Malik knew the festival organizer and the chief of police, so our security force now included several armed men, in addition to the handful of bodyguards who had taken us to the other events. We were marched through the shrines as television crews filmed our reactions, giving brief interviews as we were swept along (for the first time on the trip, we claimed we were Canadian); then through the muddy bazaar and finally into a private home, Malik’s friend, where we were honored guests, the lot of us piled into our host’s bedroom where we took off our shoes and lounged on his bed, enjoying the fresh swamp-cooler fan, as well as cold fizzy drinks and many smiling, staring women and children.

When the sun had gone down a bit, and the sky was turning dusky orange, we were led up a series of bamboo ladders to the flat rooftop, lounging on mats, drinking chai, looking out at the festival below, then, when a dust-storm struck, cowering on our stomachs until the winds brought rain and violent gusts of wonderfully cool air; we retreated back downstairs, where we again sat in circles on floor mats, candle-light now, power out in the whole village, until dinner was served: hot chapattis and the best dahl any of us had ever tasted in Pakistan. There was a great deal of smoking, laughter, and of course, more tea, until we made another sweep through the festival and then the long, cramped ride home.

And now we had this shared experience, this group of international strangers with only this night — and our common love of travel — in common: three couples — one each from Slovania, Holland, and Switzerland; a harmonium player from Bolivia; solo Iran-bound overlanders from Venezuela, Germany, and Japan; a pair of Korean girls; an American Sikh from Arizona; and us, Canadian honeymooners, on our last night in Pakistan.

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