An American in Pakistan

“When will you be back?” my girlfriend asks? 

“Why?”  I reply, even though I know the reason she is asking the question.

“I want to know when I can stop worrying,” she replies.

cowsinlahoreThis conversation has been repeated with my friend since I started going to Pakistan with my Pakistani husband 26 years ago. Annual trips have made my visits to Lahore, Pakistan routine. The rapid changes common to a developing country have made each visit to Pakistan both a familiar and a new experience. One of the largest cities in Pakistan, Lahore quilts together the most modern amenities with ancient sights and activities. Although, building height in this densely packed city still does not exceed five or six stories, you can find the same consumer goods in Lahore that you can here (also made in China). Visit the outskirts of Lahore, however, and you go back in time. Villages are scattered across the dry plain and centered around communal wells.  Water buffalos pull wooden plows across the fields and dust is stirred up on dirt roads by donkey drawn tonga carts and bicycles.

lahoreairportWe usually arrive at Lahore’s new modern airport late at night. Air thickened with industrial pollutants, dust and the exhaust of vehicles burning leaded gas immediately assaults our lungs – think Los Angeles on a bad day, times ten. After the usual hassle of going through customs and waiting for luggage that is common to all international airports, we work our way through the waiting crowd until we spot my brother-in-law. Arriving at a house filled with sleeping relatives, we drop into bed for the first time in 24 hours. My lullaby is the intermittent tweeting of the night watchman’s whistle signaling that all is well. By morning, even the thick concrete walls will not block out the muezzin’s call to prayer (amplified by loudspeakers) that nitescenerepeats like an echo from mosque to mosque across the city. 

Over the years I have played tourist in a city where dramatic changes have not erased ancient architecture.  Streets once a mix of cars, tonga carts and herds of goats or sheep are now clogged with small cars, buses and the ever popular motorbike which often carefully balances a family of two adults, two children and a baby. Driving in Lahore is not for the faint of heart. Drivers play chicken with each other to establish the right-of-way and horn honking almost never stops.

It is most unfortunate, but sometimes the headlines obscure the true nature of many places and people that share this planet with us. Pakistan is one of those places. Some of us are lucky to know it as it truly is and have been forever changed for the better by the experience.

Susan Harrison is an attorney by training, home remodeler by accident, and a writer by choice.

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