This is my first post on this blog. I chose to start with Pakistan, even though I have been fortunate to travel to many other places since, this trip is the one that has stayed with me throughout.
I arrived in Lahore expecting a city filled with religion and culture, and I did indeed find that, but not in the way I had expected. What I found instead was a nation transitioning in to the modern world.
My family and I were greeted at the arrival gates by my dad’s step brother, Uncle Ashraf. Leaving the busy airport grounds we were relieved when we settled in to the cool air-conditioned car. We weren’t relaxed for long, however.
“Number one rule kids, beep once to turn right and twice to turn left! I don’t know why they invented indicators,” exclaimed uncle Ashraf as he swerved his car expertly through donkey-driven carts and colourfully decorated rickshaws.
No sooner had we arrived through the high metal gates to my Uncle’s comfortable five bedroom house, we were greeted by our relatives and the cook brought out dish after dish until we could eat no more. After the last watermelon had been cut, everyone went their separate ways for a siesta and I found myself on the roof of the house, overlooking palm trees and street after street of fancy houses. This was definitely not the Pakistan I had seen on the television or read about in books.
There was a different sense to the words ‘hustle and bustle’ here. I was used to living by the clock back home, rush hour from five pm til six pm, Saturdays being manic in Asda. Here, however, traffic filled the streets all day, horns blared, but the actual rush to do anything wasn’t as prominent. The sense of urgency to get everything done in England was replaced by a calm assurance of ‘it will get done, at some point.’ So with that in mind, we didn’t fret over which museum to visit first or which parks we should take our evening walks in. I often left my family to their own devices and allowed my cousins, Uncle Ashraf’s daughters, to lead me through bazaar after bazaar. I wandered through the alleys in Liberty Bazaar, a trendy area where one can buy anything from electronics to food. Young men and women roamed around in groups, wearing designer watches and western clothes, whilst shops blared out the latest Jay-z songs. If it wasn’t for the hot weather and the hundreds of cars beeping their directions, one could have mistaken the bazaar as somewhere in London, Southall perhaps.
On our fourth day in Lahore, I was awoken in the early hours of the morning by the most enchanting sound I had ever heard. I had no clue as to what the words meant, but across the city thousands upon thousands of voices chanted in tune, a melody which I later found out were Islamic verses from the Quran. The chanting lasted around 15 minutes, but I will never forget the calm waves that washed over me as I stood on the balcony overlooking the streets as the sun rose, there was something so liberating in hearing so many voices join as one and echo through the streets.
That same day Uncle Ashraf announced we would be going to the Wagah border ceremony. This ceremony takes place every evening before sunset, on the border of Pakistan and India. As a sign of respect, soldiers on each side perform a series of marches and then simultaneously both countries flags are lowered. However, we weren’t going as just ordinary spectators, we would be going as members of the army. Uncle Ashraf had been a very high commander in the army, and had trained Pakistan’s 10th president, Pervez Musharaf. So when we arrived at the border, we were immediately introduced to the attending soldiers and commanders on both the Pakistan side and then some from the Indian side. We were then seated at the front of the stands, alongside the King of Oman, who also happened to be visiting Lahore at the time.
Once the show started the atmosphere changed completely. A mascot walked around waving the Pakistan flag, his counterpart on the other side waving the Indian flag, and the crowds began to chant. It soon became a competition of which side could shout the loudest ‘Pakistan Zindabad!’ (long live Pakistan) or ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ (Long live India). The crowds which had initially stood around fanning themselves in the heat and looking somewhat bored, enthusiastically sang along to the songs and repeated after the chants, growing louder and louder, whilst children danced and played amongst the stands. Once the initial warming up act died down, the appointed soldier would start his routine. A series of kicks, shouts and general combat movement was displayed by both the Pakistani soldier and the Indian soldier on the other side. Finally, above the two gateways which divided each country from the other, the two flags of these separate nations were brought down in perfectly coordinated time, and folded away.
As I watched a tradition of 53 years unfold in front of me, it occurred to me that within one city I had experienced the modernization of a generation emerge alongside the preservation of a culture. As I looked around, I noticed teenagers donning American fashion whilst assisting elders dressed in traditional shalwaar-kameez’s in crossing the road. The same roads had BMW’s driving alongside donkey-driven carts carrying sugar cane, and the occasional buffalo resting in the shade of a shop which had plasma screens displaying Sky Sports inside.
I wondered whether the new emerging western culture would over-run the old, or if the two could walk hand in hand together. I had arrived here expecting to find a world so different to England that I would feel like an outsider. But strolling around in my jeans and speaking in English, I found my place amongst the youths of Lahore.