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Current Status:
Back home in Seattle as of 1 August 2001

London Bombay Cebu

Cultural Crossroads

Dispatch #12, Pakistan
7 April 2001
Before leaving Iran, we loaded up on cheap diesel fuel, and I mean cheap. We purchased 120 liters of fuel for something like $1.90! So, with our tank and jerry cans filled to the brim, we crossed the flea-bitten, windswept, podunk, middle-of-nowhere Taftan border into Pakistan. There is a lot of Iranian government propaganda painted on the walls all over the place at this border. “Down with the USA”, “Death to USA”, etc. The hard-line government in Tehran was getting in some parting shots, despite all the friendliness and hospitality we’d experienced from the people themselves.

We knew that the security situation in Pakistan’s Baluchistan region had been deteriorating for some time, and had appealed to several American consulates in hopes of arranging some kind of assistance through this region. After many futile attempts to contact any relevant person, we were finally directed to Tricia Cypher, Vice Consul at the US Consulate in Karachi. True to form, the official word from the State Department was that we should simply stay away. Here is an email I received from Ms. Cypher just before we left in September.

Mr. Laurel,

I have solicited and received a response from our Regional Security Officers and they are in agreement: and I am being blunt here, as I see no other way: you are putting yourself and your family at a very grave risk driving through Pakistan and Baluchistan in particular.

They wanted me to stress: Baluchistan is an area of tribal control. It is under tribal law, and no official Americans here are permitted to go there without express permission. When people do, they fly out there and are met by a fully armored vehicle. And that is on trips to Quetta itself, not the outerlying regions. Basically the Pakistani government itself is not in control there, and we find it a little odd they would tell you transiting the area is no problem. Carjackings are very common all over Pakistan--we are extremely skeptical you would make it through with your car, and possibly not with the lives of you and your family.

Tricia Cypher
Vice Consul
US Consulate General
Karachi, Pakistan

A pretty dire warning to be sure, but we had already passed through several countries on the State Department warning list, so we remained unconvinced. In addition, it was offset by our communication with the Consul General at the Pakistani High Commissions in London and Washington DC. Representatives of the Pakistani government assured us that, while there is some danger, it is not that great providing you take proper precautions. Our contacts all agreed that the most significant danger we would face in Pakistan was the other drivers. They were right. Nevertheless, we didn’t schedule much time in Pakistan so as to limit our exposure.

Our Pakistani guides were waiting on the other end and, as they had relationships with the border officials, entering Pakistan was a breeze. But we knew the drive ahead was going to be difficult. We had to cross a 600+ kilometer distance from the border to the nearest town where we could safely stay, Quetta. This road is just about wide enough for a small van, yet it is a major transit route for huge trucks carrying goods between Iran and Pakistan, not to mention Baluchistani smugglers. Driving this road requires nerves of steel…no…titanium! You approach oncoming traffic head on, in a game of chicken, until just before you meet, whereupon one or the other will (hopefully) move off the road. I always felt a perverse sense of pride when I was able to drive the oncoming vehicle off the road, and a corresponding dent in my manhood when I had to hit the sandy edge to avoid a collision.

We arrived in Quetta after a harrowing drive that took us over 12 hours. Our fixers were ahead of us in a separate vehicle, and were able to determine which roadblocks were real police and which weren’t. So, sometimes we’d stop and produce our paperwork; other times we’d hit the throttle and just blow through without stopping at all.

We were traveling through Taliban country, just south of the Afghan border. The Pakistani government has little to no control there, and the Baluchistani people move back and forth across the porous border freely. Once, as we were talking to an American anthropologist in the small mountain town of Ziarat, we noticed that a Pashtun man had been following us and was now eavesdropping on our conversation. The anthropologist confronted him vigorously, asking why he was listening to us, that he was being rude, etc. The Pashtun mean replied that there was a price on our heads. “Why”, we asked him, “We have no quarrel with you.” “It’s not you specifically”, we heard through our translator, “it is on all Americans”. That night, our imaginations ran riot, as we envisioned Taliban gunmen kicking down our doors and dragging us across the border to Afghanistan, never to be heard from again… Just to spite them, the Anthropologist and I spent the evening our rooms guzzling a bottle of truly nasty Pakistani vodka that I’d purchased in Quetta mixed with some Israeli orange juice we had left in the bottom of the kitchen box. If you can imagine screwdrivers made with isopropyl alcohol you get the picture.

Needless to say, we were up and out of there early the next morning without delay and, in a few more days, found ourselves in Lahore, preparing to cross into India. In retrospect, we regret limiting our time in Pakistan to a simple border-to-border transit. We did have a little time to check out Quetta, Multan, and some villages along the way to Lahore where we did little more than take a quick tour of the city and visit the spectacular Badshahi Mosque. But we missed visiting Harappa, a seat of the Indus Valley civilization, and many other places. Pakistan is a fascinating country from a cultural perspective. For tousands of years, it has been a cultural crossroads, sandwiched between the Muslim world to the West, the Hindu world to the East - truly a global melting pot. What we did see of the country was beautiful and we all resolved to make a return trip there soon.

Next up: India!

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