Mall Road, Lahore, Pakistan
The line that divides India and Pakistan is one of the world’s most definitive borders, visible from space, and cross-able at only one point, and even then with no special ease—no international buses or trains do the route and flights cost out the yin-yang. You have to take taxis, cheap enough to the border itself for the special daily closings, but not intended for actual crossings. Only limited amounts of freight cross, too, the majority going by sea, between two countries with miles of contiguous border.
The reasons for this go beyond the scope of this write, but the relationship is not always cozy, to say the least. But already in Amritsar on the Indian side the region is starting to feel a bit different, a bit more like what Uzbekistan felt like, though I dream of those broad avenues right now, and don’t expect Pakistan to be much better on that account. It’s over-crowded, too, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon. That’s where I’ll soon be, two taxi rides away. There are just a few pesky details.
Post Office in Lahore, Pakistan
It is an axiom of independent travel that you break your big bills whenever and wherever you can, especially if you’re using ATM’s. That’s the way they work, and you can’t really ask for small change. It’s much more convenient to do it before you really need them. Another less savory aspect of the game is dealing with skanky bills, those limp mangy ones that you really don’t even want to touch, much less put in your pocket. In India they have refined this to a high art. Bills are used until they’re almost—almost—falling apart. The minute they get even a small tear, though, no one will take them. And God forbid you try to mend one with tape. Now it’s marked for life.
Everybody gets stuck with them, though, of course. That’s another high art. You slough them off on to unsuspecting victims: kids, old people, beggars—and foreigners, of course. People you’ll never see again are prime marks. Night time is the right time. On my last day in India I’ve still got one, and relatively big, almost a dollar US. I’ve given up looking for suckers and I really don’t want to hold it for two-three months, or even two-three days. So when my taxi driver to the border asks for a tip—you guessed it. Now I’m good.
This is one of the most sterile borders I’ve ever seen. Many are an absolute cacophony of sights and sounds, and an entrepot for trading and smuggling: not here. So few people cross this border that it’s no wonder that the two sides have diverged so fully. The two peoples are genetically virtually identical, linguistically the same, but thousands of miles apart culturally. If Pakistan takes its cues from Islam and Arabia, then India takes its cues from… itself, and its past.
Lahore Backpackers Hostel, Pakistan
There are few touts in Pakistan, just the sun-glass sellers and the few tuk-tuk drivers who speak enough English to be a nuisance. I wish my driver from the border had spoken more. We had problems right from the start, he finally conveying to me that his tuk-tuk can’t enter the urban zone, probably because it’s a two-stroke smogger, probably doing double service as a mosquito fogger. So he drops me off at the edge of town, and puts me on another tuk-tuk to Mall Road, my destination.
The new tuk-tuk just drops me off, too, at the intersection of Mall Road, far out of the center. But I don’t have a map, so I don’t know any of that. The next time I travel, I will have GPS, confirmed. So a new tuk-tuk driver picks me up, doesn’t speak a word of English, and the comedy only thickens. We get stopped by cops—twice—the second of which takes a thumbprint of me since I don’t have a cell-phone (!?), all to take me to a mall, that I don’t want to go to.
“I’m just a tourist! I want to find my room!” Showing a print-out of my hostel reservation does no good. Finally—finally—I find a driver who speaks some English. He knows what I want, more or less. But he can’t find it right away, either. After another half-dozen false endings, I finally see a sign for my hostel. “Stop! Stop here! Thank God! Allahu akhbar!” Lesson: take the more expensive taxi from the border to town.
And the Mall Road area where my hostel is located is not bad, definitely an improvement over most of India. This is as good as the best I saw in Delhi and the worst I’ve seen here so far is far better than the worst I saw there. I feel as though the bacteria are at bay here, no small consideration with a lingering sore throat. That’s a good time to indulge in some cough syrup, but they won’t sell you the good stuff over the counter. To rub salt in the wound, it’s alcohol-free; just my luck: Muslim cough syrup.
The food in Pakistan is very different from India, though much of that is available, too. In addition, there are kebabs, shashlik, shawarma, etc., the standard Muslim fare from Morocco to here. Strangely there are few curries, their natural birthright and definitely considered ‘Muslim food’ in SE Asia. Such is the DNA of cuisine. Then there are tons of nuts, which I don’t remember seeing in India at all, and of course: dates, straight from Arabia no doubt. They DO have French fries, though. I’m good.
(to be continued)