Nathan Gali is one of those special places.
High in the hills outside of Islamabad. Green. Ancient pine trees towering over everything. One can only lead a calm life here. There is no other choice.
I was the first of the crew to rise. It was 10am. Pakistan is still asleep. Well, around here it was. Just the sound of cricket’s and a truck’s engine far into the distance.
The morning sun warms me despite the cool air trying its best to remind me of a Melbourne winter.
A quick stroll around our guest house reveals an ageing structure that is lost amongst the brilliant valley views. Breakfast is had outside, and consists of a simple omelette, toast and tea. It’s all I needed. I had slept well.
The rest of the boys finally rise, offering differing states of energy and conversation.
Some of us go for a short walk to stretch our legs and suck in the air. Not much is happening up here. But before long we are back in the van and headed for Islamabad.
After a bit of driving, we arrive at Murree. A halfway tourist town that offers up chaat and yet more tea. It is going to be a slow, cruisy day. My last in Pakistan. For now anyway.
When we do finally get back to civilisation, I catch up with old friend David Oram and his wife. An occasional cricket journalist who used to host a cricket radio show in the West Indies. We had never actually met in person, but had used social media and Skype to develop a strong mateship over the journey.
We share another cup of tea and discuss his experience as a British ex-pat living in Pakistan. I sense he is happy here, but perhaps he’d still rather be somewhere else. Does Pakistan wear a foreigner’s spirit down over time? Maybe it does?
Our next stop is the home of Dr Nauman Niaz. He lives in Rawalpindi, the twin city of Islamabad. Nauman has had an amazing history with Pakistani cricket, holding roles from team official to now being one of the main men at PTV, the national broadcaster.
Nauman is well known to own possibly the greatest personal cricket memorabilia collection on the planet. I can’t recall seeing anything even close to it. Every wall is covered in a picture or print. All have been signed by the player that appears in them. Then there is the bat collection. The ball collection. The books. All signed. Then the DVD’s. The VHS tapes. The documents.
All original. All authentic. All unique. Some are outright breathtaking.
He even has a signed portrait of Adolf Hitler. Why? Because he can.
Nauman is the host of “Game On Hai”. The country’s most watched sporting TV show. He decides to drive me to the PTV studio, where we will record an hour long show. Just he and I. Debating cricket and making bad jokes.
We click. We plan to remain in touch after I return to Melbourne. Maybe we can collaborate on some projects? I hope so. I like his intellect.
But it is now midnight and my flight leaves in four hours.
Qasim drops me at the underwhelming Islamabad airport and just like that, it’s all over.
It was a quick goodbye. They are always sad.
I’m tired. It has been 15 days in a row. Working. Filming. Driving. Flying. Eating. Interviewing. Trying new things. Not sleeping much.
I came to Pakistan to try and understand why this people is so intrinsically linked to cricket. I also wanted to explore and challenge the negative perceptions surrounding this country.
I clearly understand both much better now.
I experienced so many things, yet left way more on the table untouched.
There was no train ride. No tuk tuk. No Wasim Akram, Younis Khan, Afridi, Fawad Alam or Salim Malik. There was no Javid Miandad. At the end of the day, these are just names. Did they detract from my learning? Who knows?
I set out to hit a ball over the fence into India. We never even got near a border. We missed the northern areas and the mountains. I saw none of the west.
But I got to interview Zaheer Abbas, Misbah, Moin Khan, an Akmal brother and the great Imran. I got to play tape ball cricket with young men across the city.
The whole time, I felt extremely safe.
I discovered that cricket is the great social leveller. If Pakistan is winning, the country smiles in unison. If Pakistan is losing, the country’s mood sinks as one.
It is the only thing that unites. It refuses to discriminate on any grounds. Not class. Not wealth. Not by which car you drive, which God you pray to or where you live.
I ate everything. I didn’t get sick once.
I met so many amazing people. The Cricingif crew. The Pakistan Cables crowd. The Super Daddy Cricket Club. PCB staff. People who stopped me in the street for selfies. The crowd at LUMS. Fellow journalists. My camera crew. The waiters. The hotel staff. Policemen. Secret military agency personnel.
Everyone I engaged with added value to my trip.
Islam is here. But it is not in your face. It’s more subtle than that. Think cultural. It is life’s patterns and values rather than a strict keeper of rules.
If you don’t seek it, it won’t impose itself on you. Pakistan is both defined and not defined by Islam.
Pakistan is that crazy girlfriend that you had back at University. It is uncontrollable. You cannot read her mind. Yet, she is captivating and alluring. She provides you with every possible emotion in spades. Even when you don’t pursue it. And when you finally break up with her and perhaps choose a safer path, she continues to hold a special place in your heart.
Pakistan. Land of the pure.
Home of the resilient.
A place of wonder.
Deliverer of dreams.
An incredible puzzle that is probably unsolveable. But trying to has been so much fun.
Thank you Pakistan. All of you. Every little last inch.
The biryani was delicious, but not as good as the mixed tea.