It is time to leave Lahore. But of course, when I say it’s time, I mean we will leave late. Clocks here run to Pakistani Standard Time. A nationally understood language that annoys the shit out of me.
“We will leave at 7am sharp”
“Ok, I will be ready”
We left at 9am.
Our journey today takes us up the Grand Trunk Road to Islamabad. An ancient route scattered with rural villages and typical Punjabi scenery.
It is dusty. Donkeys, buffalo and horses dominate the road traffic. All pulling wooden carts of some kind or another. It works fine.
Low bricked walls define the land plot boundaries. Not many of these plots are actually growing anything except weeds. Speaking of weeds, a local cannabis plant grows wild in Pakistan. Stop at any roadside tea stand and as an added bonus, feel free to pick yourself some of the good stuff. The locals here blend it into yogurt lassies. Apparently, it is very good.
Trucks here are all decorated and painted in wild colours like you see on TV. It is done as the owners are all proud of their vehicles. But, let’s be honest. They are just pieces of industrial machinery. Couldn’t that money be better spent elsewhere. You know, like on their home or children’s education? Just a thought.
Breakfast today is at 11am. We stop at a truck stop. Lentils, spicy chickpeas, roti and lassies for the four of us. It costs 810 rupees. About 8 Aussie dollars. Food is cheap here.
As we approach Islamabad, or “Isloo” as the locals know it by, the landscape changes. The clinical flatness of Punjab is ending and the Himalayas are beginning to rear their oh so beautiful head.
We are here to meet Imran Khan.
Cricket legend. Politician. Builder of cancer treatment hospitals. Potentially the country’s next Prime Minister if election go his way. Arguably the most important and influential person in Pakistan.
His residence is about 45 minutes out of Islamabad itself, up some back country roads on a short climb above Rawal Lake.
Our convoy needs to pass through two checkpoints. Security is evident, but not overbearing as in other places of the land or like I would have expected it to be. Our van isn’t searched. Only one of us needs to present ID. No metal detectors. In a way, this experience is no different to what you might expect meeting the leader of the opposition in Australia.
The Khan mansion is large but not overly opulent. Essentially a big country house without buildings dotting the gardens. The lawn is so well manicured, it could be a fairway at a golf course.
There are eight of us in the convoy. Myself, two camera men and five Cricingif fanboys. One even wears an Imran Khan shirt. It makes me feel uncomfortable given the pretence of the meeting is for a short interview. Yet the boys have come to try their luck at getting a selfie or autograph of this man.
It is hero worship 101. Pakistanis love their heroes and there is no reason why they shouldn’t love Imran. But not today please. I’m trying to be professional and sharp. I need to protect my brand too. Dragging an entourage along doesn’t quite fit the vision I had for the day.
It is peaceful here.
In the surrounding villages, the sound of prayer time echoes through the hills. It is soothing and only broken up by the random chirping of birds.
We are shown an area out on a balcony to set up for filming. While we are doing this, we see Imran in the room behind us, praying to the sound of the distant cries of the Imam. The crew’s collective hearts all skip a beat. Mine just wants them to hurry up and complete the set up. I have an interview to do. It could make or break the documentary. Get on with it lads!
Imran calmly strides out onto the balcony and introduces himself to everyone in a humble way. A gentle handshake while looking into your eyes.
“Would you like some tea?”
I decline and request pani [water] instead.
Later, the crew would rib me for being possibly the only man on the planet to reject tea from Imran Khan while at his house. I tell them that conformity for conformities sake is boring and unmemorable.
We have plenty of time to run through my ten essential questions that I’m asking everyone. He answers them with a thoughtfulness and assertiveness that good leaders demonstrate. There’s a few gems in there so I feel like the process was a success.
We take selfies. Imran doesn’t hesitate to offer up his face to myself, the crew or the entourage for this purpose. He also signs my replica 1992 World Cup Pakistani shirt. Right next to Misbah’s scribble.
The crew are giddy. I just feel like we have overstayed our welcome. Maybe it’s because I’m here to work, yet these guys are ticking off something from their bucket list.
I posted my selfie with Imran up on social media. It instantly goes viral. Perhaps I’ve underestimated his pulling power with the citizens of this country. Maybe I just don’t worship legends like I should? Am I broken? Is this a part of life I’m missing out on?
As we leave, a senior contingent of Imran’s political party manoeuvres past us to gather in a larger board room. It is surreal. One minute Imran is talking to some random Aussie bloke about cricket. The next minute, he is plotting the downfall of the current government.
We leave. The team is still giddy. I give them a few high fives. They have all had a good day.
Our night will be spent in a hill station, some 2000 meters above sea level north of Islamabad. We are past a well frequented tourist town called Murree.
It is pitch black outside so I don’t get to see any of the scenery, but can feel the tightness of the roads and acute angles of its bends.
It is meant to be a two hour drive. It takes five. The van has broken down with both an alternator failure and a busted fan belt.
We wait. And wait.
The guest house where we are staying is sending out its tiny Suzuki ute to pick us up. When it arrives, we all pile into the tray and hold on for dear life.
This is Pakistan. This is living.
It is cold up here. Below 10 degrees at 2am in the morning. But the air is pristine. Like breathing pure oxygen that has been laced with small hints of sweetness.
When we finally arrive at our destination, we pile into some dinner that was prepared hours earlier for us. Barbeque chicken with a strong dollop of chilli. A chicken curry. A vegetable one. Roti.
With our collective bellies full, it is time to move outside, listen to some local music on the portable speaker and debate life.
“So Dennis, have you answered the questions that you arrived here with?”
I pause to reflect.
The only rational answer is no. How can I in only two weeks of travel? But I’m certainly many steps ahead of where I began.
In this sense, Pakistan is no different to any new culture that a traveller wishes to explore. The surface stuff is easy to digest and reconcile with. But when you start scratching through the exterior shell just a little, a whole new world of paradox and juxtaposition presents itself in ways that shouldn’t work, but somehow do.