Lahore 2004

Trip Start Nov 02, 2000
Trip End Nov 16, 2004

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Saturday, October 2, 2004

Racing to board Pakistan International Airways...

I was speed walking for what felt like two kilometers through Gatwick airport because red words were flashing on the departure screens, "gate closing - PIA Lahore". When I got there, winded, not only was the gate wide open but the cue stretched all the way back to the waiting lounge. A little sign in the departure lounge said welcome to PIA. The gates continued to close for the next half hour.

I started to dread boarding the flight as soon as the check-in clerk told me I had to have a middle seat. So much for a window or aisle. I had visions of being sandwiched all the way to Lahore by two oversized Pakistani women.

Luckily that wasn't the case, once comfortably seated beside two relatively small people, music and stills of what looked like an English garden with close-ups of lily pads and flowers came up on the television screen in front of me. Then someone speaking Urdu was on the loudspeaker of the plane. The man sat to my left explained that it was a prayer to Allah for a safe flight.

He was old enough to be my father he told me how he had immigrated from Lahore to London in the 40's and who came to England to work on the ship yards during the war. He was very proud of the life he built in London and told me he how he spoke no English and was practically illiterate when he arrived.

He went on to say that now he has two sons similar in age to me, one of whom is a computer software engineer and the other at the top echelon of the management board of the UK National Health System on a hefty salary. He proudly showed me his family photos of beautiful grandchildren with long dark eyelashes, smiling wide.

He told me he arranged one of his son's marriages when he met an air hostess on one of his PIA flights who was very attractive and friendly. He went on to explain how he sent a note to her parents in Pakistan proposing that she marry his son. A few weeks later they did.

To my right was a very pretty Pakistani woman who caught the eye of more than a few male passengers as she strolled down the aisle to her seat beside mine. She was dressed in trendy designer jeans and a pretty tunic.

She smiled and told me her name was Mehreen. A year younger than me at 25, she was also a corporate lawyer from a high caste family and had studied law in London for the past four years. We chatted about why I was going to Pakistan, she told me of places to visit and explained that Lahore is the culinary capital of Pakistan. In the same breath she told me about her arranged marriage, which is planned for January.

She was bright and well spoken and appeared to be genuinely excited about her marriage. She said that people in London are usually sceptical when she mentions the word "arranged" before "marriage". I smiled and said nothing, but she went on to explain that it should not be confused with forced marriage. She was able say yes or no to prospective suitors her parents put before her and she said arranged marriages are also a form of trust between a daughter and her parents - after all, she told me, her parents know her best.

She explained that her fiancÚ is someone she's known for years as they grew up in the same circles. And, it turns out, Mehreen was also considering a career change, and possibly going into teaching because that way she could be home when her husband comes home from work which, she told me, is a common courtesy. She said this with a contented smile. She was very open and friendly, I liked her immediately and we exchanged contact details.

After flicking through Hindi music videos in my little economy class seat, I watched the end of what appeared to be a bootleg version of a Drew Barrymore film. I caught some sleep, ate some airplane curry and before I knew it I was in Lahore at 4:30 in the morning local time.

First impression of Lahore

The sky was just starting to brighten when I walked out of the brand new airport in Lahore. It had marble floors and high glass windows and my boss commented on how immaculate it was. She said she could eat off the marble floors.

After passport control and passing a few military men guarding the doors of the airport, I pushed my bags out into a mass of people, mostly men, on either side all standing behind waist-high barriers around the arrival walkway. They were dressed in white and grey long tunic tops and baggy trousers, some with grayish turbans, all looking on. A man ahead of me grabbed another man who had just arrived and kissed him on the forehead. They started to hold hands and cry. I weaved my bags around them and kept walking into what was a muggy but refreshing heat.

The sky was that dawn shade of greyish blue and looked so vast and there was a haze in the air from the dust. I felt a bit like I was in a dream as all the faces in the crowd watched us with interest. It looked like we landed in the middle of the desert. I remember feeling very serene and alive. If I could paint one memory from my trip, that is the one that lingers in my mind - arriving at dawn in Pakistan.

Flavour of Lahore

Even the spices being sold on the side of the street in burlap sacks are bursting with shades and tones of colour. The city of Lahore taunts and teases your eye in every direction. It is like going back in time, sitting in traffic beside tuktuks, donkeys and horse-drawn wagons all honking and squealing at each other. Not to mention families of four and five all crammed on one motorcycle.

Those women who are not veiled in black wear the most vibrant colours. Common dress is the Shalwar Kameez, which looks like pyjamas including a long straight dress with trousers underneath. They come in the widest array of colours and styles, some bejewelled, some sequined, some multicoloured. I dressed in Shalwar's the entire time; they help you blend in a little and are possibly the coolest form of clothes you can wear in 40+degree heat. My friend Asfiya, a magazine editor in Karachi, told me I could pass for a Kashmiri woman wearing the Shalwar. She said it was so nice to see western women in them and that people think it is great compliment. For me it was practical because I wanted to respect the customs of Islam and keep covered and comfortable.

I saw very few western women on the trip and found a lot of people gazing at me with curiosity. I greeted their stares with a very wide smile and they always smiled back. The people were lovely and on the whole, very polite. Some were very striking with dark hazel eyes and long eyelashes and their shades of skin varied from fair to very dark.

The children I encountered were especially beautiful, but also very curious and cheeky. Some followed us along tourist sites like the main Mosque and Moghul Fort in Lahore. There were many who would trail along behind us with big grins, wide dark eyes and would encourage us to play peek-a-boo.

Poverty springs up and slaps you in the face every once in Pakistan. A disfigured boy who looked about seven ran up and banged hard on the window of my taxi door and I had to stifle my shock and hot tears welled up my eyes. But the one thing that struck me more than anything is how busy everyone is. Whether you're shining shoes, selling socks, carving up a goat, or begging in traffic, people continue on their way with amazing endurance.

I felt very safe in Pakistan contrary to my preconceived ideas of it being a dangerous country. There were a few moments when the instability was more apparent and I was reminded to keep my distance.

A small arms deal was going down just a few meters away from me when I was outside the mosque in Lahore, as one guy laid a blanket down on the grass outside the mosque I was visiting and he must have had 30 machine guns. He was gone about ten minutes later when I peeked out of the mosque.

Also, a bomb went off in Multan, and the day I left another bomb in Lahore itself. The Islamic fundamentalists were targeting their own people and both bombsites were mosques. I think there were 40 killed in Multan:

I noticed that they immediately upped security in the hotel in Lahore because when I returned from supper that night, there was a guy with a machine gun sat outside the elevators on my floor and he hadn't been there a few days before. A few weeks after returning to the UK BBC reported that another bomb went off in the Marriott in Islamabad, where we were in meetings for two days, seven were injured:

The journalists I met in Pakistan explained to me that the country has received such bad press from the violence that a minority of fundamentalists are causing has created a decades of damage to their economy and confidence. The journalists told me that they are saddened that people feel afraid to travel to their country, even more, they seemed genuinely disappointed that people fear Islam. The Islamic places of worship are so beautiful, serene and enchanting; it did seem crazy that the tourist industry isn't thriving. It seemed ironic to me, like domestic terrorism has actually been victorious and is causing as much grief at home as it is elsewhere.

Pakistan was a fascinating travel and an adventure for the eye. Islamic art is a form of worship in the country is incredibly intricate and with its colours and curves. I have attached a few photos of Islamic art and architecture I came across. I'm very happy to be able to share it with you.
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