Lower Punjab

Leaving Lahore behind, I bused six hours south to Multan. A dusty little city in central Punjab, Multan is famous for its mosques, mausoleums, and shrines to Sufi saints. I was out of breath by the time I'd discovered that my first three guest house options, not exactly next door to each other, were full. When I reached the third floor "reception" of the fourth inn, the man behind the desk answered my broken Urdu request for a room with a big smile and a nod. I reached out to shake his hand, happy to have found a place. He seemed just as happy to meet me, asking the usual set of questions reserved for odd-looking foreigners (a set that usually begins with "what country?" and usually includes "marriage?"). Minutes later, feeling over my gratitude and bored of talking, I motioned to see my room, at which time he mentioned that all rooms were full. I was confused and irritated, but luckily the sixth time was a charm. I finally dropped off my bag in a shoe box of a room that was worth every rupee; 200, to be precise. Apparently, some guest houses avoid taking in foreigners to keep from doing the extra paperwork.

Aside from the crazy man that tried to snatch an ice cream cup out of my hands, Multan's people were friendly as anywhere. Everywhere I went I was treated as an honored guest, discounting the guest houses and sidewalks outside ice cream shops. First, a chatty store-owner decided not to let me pay for a coke. Minutes later and just down the street, a couple brothers pulled me into their conversation then handed me another soda, their treat. Half-way down the road to the Old City, a couple teenagers pulled their motorcycle over and insisted I hop on. They dropped me off right in front of the early Mughal mausoleum of Sheikh Rukn-i-Alam. And the luck didn't end in Multan: plenty of free drinks, food, and rides awaited further to the south.

My next stop was Bahawalpur, a much smaller and much dustier town than Multan. Bahawalpur borders the Cholistan region, a continuation of the Thar Desert in western India. Waves of dust blow through its streets day and night. Leaving my windows open to let in the breeze, I woke up to find I'd also let in a thin carpet of sand that lined every surface.

I wandered the old streets and alleys and finished off my shalwar kameez by picking up a thick string belt. I hoped to blend in a bit more for my final push to the southwest, not mention my upcoming travels in the north.

The local dress worked wonders. Having become close to numb towards the incessant pressure of staring eyes on my back, it has been a bizarre sensation to feel a lack thereof. Dressed in my shalwar kameez and kafiyya, most people don't even look up when I pass, and even then they rarely bother to meet my eyes. Of course, at that point they might notice something odd in my face and there may be a slight double-take, but overall, the results of the "disguise" are positive. The only downside is that people seem to expect me to speak perfect Urdu or Punjabi. Rather than play deaf, I've embraced foreignness, taking on the identity of a Palestinian named Yusef who speaks Arabic and broken English in an accent that sounds part-Arab-part-Borat. A cover-up may not be necessary, but I'm happy to avoid the otherwise constant shouts of "Hello! What country! How are you! Marriage!" and about a dozen daily invitations to tea. It also lowers rickshaw prices. Getting around becomes a much more pleasant and peaceful thing. Plus, several friendly Pakistanis have advised that, at least in meeting people on the street, I should never admit to being American. So maybe the get-up serves more than one purpose.

Stepping off the bus in Uch Sharif, I passed beneath one of the old town gates and meandered through its alleyways until I'd left most of the mud-brick buildings behind. But for a few Urdu characters painted on the walls and perhaps a shade of the locals' skin color, I felt I could just as well have been in rural Iran or even Iraq. Dust stormed across fields of trash which children bent over to scour, filling little plastic bags with garbage. Beyond the dump was a haphazard grid of green boxes lined with date palms stretching off into the hazy horizon. Further down the path, I caught sight of the glittering blue tiles of Uch Sharif's crumbling mausoleums, mostly hidden behind a giant earthen mound of graves and half-buried tombstones. The domed tomb of Bibi Jwindi alone was worth the trip from Lahore. A gem of a destination, it owes its lure almost as much to its remote desert setting as its artistic value, with its brilliant blue and white tile-work in a beautiful state of semi-collapse. Half of the building has in fact collapsed, revealing a crude cross-section of bricks that somehow manage to hold up the other half. I sat under some trees in the graveyard to sweat in the shade, joined by a bunch of little boys asking for rupees and candy and pens, a sign that I was by no means the first foreigner to make it this far. One of the few dumb enough to come in the middle of summer, maybe. But then again, if the heat is what got me such solitude at these sites, my timing was perfect.

Back in Bahawalpur by evening, I found a seat on an overnight bus to Islamabad.


Kristen said...

The Borat returns!! We'll meet you in Kabul in 1 week from today.

Kristen said...

PS you should probably embrace the 'stash if you want to really blend in.