Saturday, September 24, 2011

Journey into Pakistan

The last leg of my trip was the week I spent in Pakistan. My journey there went off without a hitch, for the most part. It was a little different from last year's experience crossing the border by land. For those of you who followed my old blog on Windows Live Space (stay tuned for the archived version!), you'll recall how much of the VIP treatment I received crossing the border. To shortly re-cap that experience, when I arrived at the Amritsar border, my cousin, who was fairly high up in airport security, had a couple of police officers meet me there and drive me to the border. While I sat on a chair and had tea, people whirled around me and took care of as much paperwork that was possible for a third party to complete. When I crossed the border, Mom and Asif were waiting right on the other side, since Asif's nephew in the military is posted at the border, and they were able to get right in and even helped me fill out the customs form as there were some fields that weren't really clear to me.

This time around, because my cousin had moved to a different police unit, I took a taxi from the airport. One thing to note about that, if you ever decide to do a trip like this, is that the taxi ride will cost you Rs1500 when to get from the border to the airport, it's only Rs800. Secondly, make sure to have enough cash on hand because the airport is one of the few that doesn't have an ATM. I didn't have enough because I was expecting the 800 I had seen last time I crossed from Pakistan to India, so the taxi service had to stop at an ATM en route so I could get the remainder of the money I owed.

I was counting down the kilometres, and when I was 5km away, I sent them a text to let them know how close I was. I arrived at the first office on the India side, filled in all the paperwork myself, and was offered no tea this time around. I don't know why there are so many offices, but in total, you make 4 different pit stops where someone records your name, citizenship, and passport number, once in a computer, and the rest in some sort of log book written by hand. The 2 porters humbly accepted the Rs200 I gave them, though the one protested it was too much despite the fact he had tried to tell me how poor he was and how rich I must be.

I walked to the other side.

It's hard to describe how that feels, especially after such a long time since I last saw my mom, I just couldn't wait to give her and Asif great big hugs. I was a little teary but realised I'd have to buck up when I didn't see anyone waiting for me there. I showed my passport to the military guy sitting at the border with a Kalashnikov resting on his lap. Then I went to the next and only other office to have my bags scanned and to fill in the customs form. Mom and Asif had been with me there last year, but I figured Asif's nephew probably didn't have a shift that day, so they couldn't get as close as they usually do. I filled in all the necessary forms, and then I had to end up opening my one bag because something in it made them think there was a bottle in it; they suspected I was carrying liquor in, though the one man protested that I was trustworthy because he thought I was a teacher. People in that part of the world don't always understand what I do for a living, and if they have limited English, it's difficult to explain. In any case, they confirmed that I did not have alcohol.

I then proceeded out past the border in public space, and still, there was no one waiting for me. I figured they must be on their way, so my new porters took my bags and set them down in some shade in front of a shop, and one of the shop owners was kind enough to bring a chair for me and offer me water. These porters were not humble and complained about the Rs500 I gave them. Granted, that's only slightly more the value of the Indian 200 I gave the other fellows on the India side, so I was not impressed with that! Anyway, I know I looked like such a curiosity: wearing jeans and a t-shirt (atypical for that part, though common in some of the wealthier business districts in Lahore), a female alone with 3 pieces of luggage. Guys had kept hounding me to exchange money that I'd need for a taxi, and taxi drivers were hounding me to hire them. Little boys were sitting next to me staring at me in the unashamed way people from South Asia will do. I tried to get reception on my phone to send them a text and find out where they were, but the signals were so weak near the border that I wasn't able to get any reception. The kind shop owner was really paying attention. He spoke some English and asked me if my phone would work, and when I replied that it would not, he asked me if I had the number and offered me his own phone. I had been ready to cry, and this was the hope I needed.

Asif answered and said they were close by, so I was quite relieved to find that out! I wasn't sure what had happened to them up to that point and didn't know what to do. I had their address, but if I went there, I had no guarantee anyone would be home, and then I'd be stuck. So once it was determined that people really were coming to get me, somehow everyone around me figured this out, and I wasn't so much of a curiosity anymore. Another man approached me and said there had been some people looking for me there before but had been sent away. I didn't understand what he meant until I found out that Mom and Asif had arrived earlier, prior to my arrival, and tried to get into the border. They were told no one was coming until 4pm, so they got turned away. We don't know what happened, but we think maybe there was a bus of travellers expected at that time, so the border guards maybe assumed I was going to be with that group instead of travelling there by taxi.

It really warms my heart when I think about the concern of those guys around the shops at the border. Another man had helped me carry my bags to Mom and Asif's car; it was true concern. At no time did I feel unsafe; it seemed like those guys were truly hospitable and caring. It felt so good to be with Mom and Asif again and that finally, I could rest.

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