“You are staying in a hostel? Where are you staying? You need to tell me so I can make sure you guys are safe! I have contacts there! I know you’ve traveled to India but Pakistan is different! There is a lot of turmoil right now with the change in leadership! You are American! You can get abducted!!!” our Pakistani friend told us as my girlfriend and I waited in line to check-in for our flight to Islamabad.
“Don’t worry, we will be okay…” I constantly repeated every time I could interject. She was extremely worried and didn’t want us to have a bad time when visiting her country. However, her and I were different travelers. I was a poor man traveler while she was the complete opposite. The places she would avoid were the ones I wanted to explore. After a couple more responses of “okay, okay, thank you” I finally hung up and made a mistake. I told my girlfriend everything our Pakistani friend had said followed by “but don’t worry babe, everything will be fine.”
“Where are you taking me?” my girlfriend asked concerned now. She was fine about our Pakistan trip until that phone call. A few minutes went by when suddenly the messages started popping up on my phone from our Pakistani friend continuing her warning. I figured she was reaching out again because I never sent her where we were staying, like I said I would, or she wanted to add some more warnings to the list. “You can’t say you are boyfriend/girlfriend…” was what my girlfriend saw on my phone. I blocked any further messages and later deleted them without reading them. I didn’t need my girlfriend freaking out for no reason.
Instead, we focused on getting our tickets, choosing what movies we wanted to watch once on the plane and catching up on some ZzZzs. We also had a nice, overnight layover in Abu Dhabi, where we saw the Sheik Zayed Mosque and enjoyed a buffet breakfast at the airport hotel.
We arrived at the new airport in Islamabad and my girlfriend felt uneasy. There were soldiers standing around various parts of the airport with large guns. She wasn’t used to that. We passed the last set of soldiers when we exited the baggage area and left the section restricted for passengers.
Many taxi drivers began to bombard us with the question, “where are you going?” I quickly shut them down with a stern “no thank you,” and we made our way to an escalator, heading to the second floor. We needed to find a place to exchange $100 since the currency exchange counter in the baggage area was closed.
I had no idea where we could exchange money. However, I knew that we could more peacefully look around and think upstairs where there were no taxi drivers and less people. I didn’t want to make it so obvious to everyone that we had no idea where anything was.
We got on the escalator and one of the taxi drivers followed us. “No thank you” I repeated at the bottom of the escalator as we were going up. I looked over at my girlfriend who looked a bit scared (she wasn’t used to this either). The taxi driver again asked us where we needed to go. It was at this point that Peruvian Street Shawn (“PSS”) came out. He turned to the taxi driver, looked deep, straight through the taxi driver’s eyes and into his soul saying “I said no.” for the last time. PSS made it very clear that given his upper ground of an escalator step, the taxi driver was one kick in the chest away from being sent to the bottom. PSS continued to stare into the man’s soul for 5 more seconds after his statement was made.
The taxi driver didn’t reply. He just swallowed his spit and went straight down the other escalator once we reached the top.
“What the helllllll?!” my girlfriend softly asked as her fear towards the taxi driver switched to me. She was afraid that I was about the fight the guy and this would be the start of our trip.
“Don’t worry babe, you’re with me. Everything will be fine.” I reassured her. Physical altercation is of course a last resort. However, the people around us don’t need to know that it is last, just that it is a resort.
Everything was Fine
Yes, trust me, everything was fine. So many people are scared of Pakistan from what they see in the news. At no point in our trip did anything get crazy with anyone. Everyone was friendly. There were the couple times where we dealt with the usual people who rip off tourists in touristic locations, but it was almost nothing compared to other international locations.
In Islamabad we went around by uber and taxi. My girlfriend and I had no problem going around everywhere by ourselves. So much so that when Faruk (Matt‘s friend) met us after work to take us around, he didn’t know where to take us because we had already hit up all the touristic spots that day.
In Lahore, same story. Uber, taxi, rickshaw… you name it, we took it. We walked around many places where there wasn’t a single foreigner. We had no problem at all. Plus, when I wore one of the shirts I bought in Pakistan, people actually thought I was from Pakistan!
Fast forward to the end of our trip. We enjoyed our last sip of coffee in Pakistan at Gloria Jean’s Coffees before our Uber driver picked us up around 11:15PM to take us to Lahore Airport. It couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes on our ride when we stopped at a military checkpoint.
Our Uber driver began talking to the solider who lowered his head and looked into the back of the car. All he saw were two foreigners packed in the back of a small Suzuki covered with backpacks. After about 30 seconds of talking in Urdu, the Uber driver began to slowly drive and pulled over on the side. “Ehhh, you need to show them the passports,” the Uber driver told me.
“Passport” I told my girlfriend reaching over. She gave it to me looking worried. “Wait here babe,” I whispered with a smile and nod. The Uber driver and I walked out of the car and we headed towards the military stand on the side of the road. I handed our passports to the soldier in the booth. The Uber driver began talking to the soldier, probably explaining to him that he was taking us to the airport. The soldier flipped through our passports to find our visas. “You are not allowed to be in this area,” he said as he showed me my visa and pointed to the Entry NOT allowed stamped in green on the side, which prohibited us from going to military areas.
“Okay,” I said with a smile trying to say as little as possible. He asked a couple minor questions which I responded to, but I tried to leave the talking to the Uber driver. The less I said the better.
I obviously didn’t know which route the Uber driver would take to the airport and where the military checkpoints were. As long as the Lahore airport wasn’t surrounded with military checkpoints, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t the case, then we should be good. The soldier gave me back the passports and continued to speak to the Uber driver in Urdu. The Uber driver nodded, and we walked away.
Fearing The Worst
“They said you need to stay here, I will make a U-turn then pick you up,” the Uber driver told me. “Sounds good,” I replied and he walked back to the car. I felt no sense of danger. The Uber driver was just a college kid probably working to make ends meet. The soldiers were just chilling, working the graveyard shift. Nothing seemed out of place.
As I walked closer to the street awaiting pickup, I looked over at the car and watched the Uber driver close his door. I knew at that moment, my girlfriend was far from sharing my perspective.
Her boyfriend had gotten out of the car with both passports to talk to the military. She was helpless and could do nothing but wait. She had no idea what was happening, and as time went on, she began to think the worst. Finally, a door opens…but only one. It was the driver’s door, which then closed shut. She looks around, but her boyfriend was nowhere in sight. She was a woman, now all alone in a male stranger’s car in the middle of the night in a foreign country. That country being Pakistan, which many questioned why she would go to such a dangerous place and our friend, a Pakistani woman, even drastically warned her about it. Her warning from the beginning of the trip had crept back and become reality.
“Stay calm and listen to the driver.” I thought as hard as I could, hoping it would reach her. Just then, a few soldiers began walking towards me.
“Why are you here?” The shortest solider asked me while I waited for my ride. He stuck out his chest and gave me a stoic, almost angry look. The other three soldiers stood around, waiting to hear my response.
My feet were close together, eyes a bit wider than usual, slight smile on my face and my hands apart, right in front for everyone to see. “Tourism,” I responded.
“Terrorism?” He replied raising an eyebrow.
“Shit” I thought to myself and chuckled in my head. The soldier at the counter who talked to the Uber driver and I spoke perfect English. This other soldier’s English was far from good. The problem was, you couldn’t tell how good someone’s English was just by looking at them.
I had chosen my response to the short soldier’s question to match exactly the purpose of visit written on my visa, assuming this short guy’s English was good enough to understand. Guess I was wrong. But at least now I knew who I was dealing with.
My tactic changed. This soldier’s bravado was bright and bold in an attempt to overcompensate for his height.
“Sightseeing,” I replied. I knew damn well he didn’t know that word. How could he if he didn’t know the word tourism? I was doing my best to kill time and keep us talking about nonsense. He wasn’t about to admit that he didn’t know the word.
He nodded and continued to stare. “Wahga border,” I told him with a thumbs up to break the silence.
“Why?” He continued.
“It’s very beautiful.” I responded.
The questions didn’t end. “Where are you from?” “Where did you go?” “Why?” “Where do you live?”…
On and on I answered with short & sweet responses until I got a question that took me a second longer to process.
“She friend or married?” The soldier asked.
Before arriving to Pakistan I had told my girlfriend that if anyone asked, we were recently married and Christian. “Just say Jesus,” I told her.
“Jesus?” she asked.
“Yes, Jesus. Now you’re Christian.” I confirmed.
Guess what? People did ask. When we were checking into our hostel in Lahore the owner asked us if we were married. “Just married.” I responded with a smile. “Congrats!” the hostel owner replied as he looked at our passports.
“Turkey! Are you Muslim?” the hostel owner asked turning to my girlfriend. I didn’t give her a chance to respond. “We’re Christian.” I swiftly replied in a polite, yet stern tone. That ended the questioning.
There are usually different rules for foreigners and locals around the world. I had read somewhere that it wasn’t enough being foreign to buy alcohol in Pakistan. You also couldn’t be Muslim (of course there are ways around it, but speaking in general). What I read may have been referring to alcohol, but the idea that Muslims, regardless of nationality, may have to follow local and cultural norms could definitely extend far beyond a couple of beers.
Let’s say as far as a non-married male and female traveling alone together around the world perhaps?
Whatever the case may be, my goal was to make sure that we didn’t fall under any cultural norm that could lead to a problematic outcome.
I tried in vain to divert the soldier’s question by re-answering the previous one and act a little distracted.
“She friend or married?” the soldier repeated not taking my bait.
My rules for how to deal with the military or any sort of law enforcement once caught kicked in: Don’t act like they’re stupid, don’t piss them off, don’t give them more than they ask for, and don’t lie. Again, no set of rules are absolute. Each situation is unique, but this one seemed standard.
If I told him we were married he could easily look at my hands and see that there is no ring. Boom, there goes breaking my first rule. If anyone’s questions reached the whereabouts of our rings, I was prepared to tell them we left them at home so we don’t lose them while traveling. Would he interpret that response as me saying his country has thieves? Could they also not easily check our passports and see different last names?
Different scenarios ran through my mind. My extra second to decide my answer was up. Any longer in silence would just make things awkward and not natural. He knew that we both lived in the U.S. so i chose my route.
“We’re friends” I finally replied concluding that it was my safest bet. This wasn’t an interrogation, I hadn’t committed any crime. The intention of my audience was purely curiosity. It was almost midnight, and they had nothing to do. Why not talk to the foreigner?
The short soldier raised an eyebrow then turned to his buddies for a quick chat. I didn’t need to be fluent in Urdu to understand what he said. The ha! America! followed by a few chuckles and head shakes explained it all.
I had answered correctly and was in the clear. Just then, my Uber had finally arrived. “Thank you!” I said with a smile and a single wave at the soldiers. I calmly got back in the Suzuki.
“Hey” I said smiling at my girlfriend who let out a sigh of relief that she had been holding since I had gotten out of the car.
“Should we try another checkpoint? The road going around where there is no checkpoint is very long” the Uber driver asked as he drove off from the first checkpoint.
Normally, I would have said no, and have the Uber driver go the long, permitted way. But he was so calm and relaxed. This wasn’t a big deal.
“Let’s do it” I responded.
“Better if you sit in the front.” the Uber driver said and pulled over. I got out and walked around the front of the car and into the passenger seat. Soon after, we pulled into a different checkpoint. This soldier peaked into the car. Before our Uber driver could finish his first word the soldier waved us through. No questions asked. Probably helped that my girlfriend pushed down my hiker’s backpack towards her feet and I was rocking my Pakistani shirt.
We later drove into and stopped at what felt like a carwash station which instead of providing soap and water, checks for bombs under your car.
After a couple more turns we had arrived at Lahore Airport!
I thanked the Uber driver for his patience and help. “Humanity, we all help each other.” He responded.
I slipped him a $20.
It didn’t help that they wouldn’t let us in the airport until exactly 3 hours before the flight. My girlfriend wanted to talk about what had happened while we were waiting outside.
“Nope” I responded explaining that we can talk about it once we were sitting at our gate.
We made ourselves comfortable and patiently waited for 1AM to strike.
After passing 7 more security checkpoints in the airport, we reached a comfy lounge with almost no seats left. Unfortunately, we couldn’t tell if the food out was to grab or people’s leftovers…
We talked about what had happened and what was running through each others’ mind. My girlfriend was still shaken up but we had finally made it to our gate and were now about to board the plane.
Once in the air, the turbulance was so bad that the woman behind us started sobbing so loudly it could be classified as screaming. When my girlfriend woke me up, worried about the plane intensely shaking and the woman losing it, I calmly responded saying “if we die we die but lets get some rest while we’re alive.” We closed our eyes and slept the rest of the ride.
Stay calm & alert, assess the situation, and make your best decision.
Safe travels everyone!