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After days of negotiations, our truck, festooned with embossed metal decorations and hauling a navy-blue container of foodstuff marked WAN HAI, finally set off along the highway that skirts the northern edge of Karachi, carrying in its cramped cabin me and my friend Sardar as well as the two Pashtun truck-driving brothers who had agreed to take us all the way from Pakistan's port megacity over the Hindu Kush to Afghanistan. It didn't take long, however, before the four of us were introduced to two of the principal impediments encountered by anyone trying to go overland from Pakistan to Afghanistan: bribery and breakdown.
As we connected onto the main highway heading north to Hyderabad, a Suzuki motorcycle swung in front of us, bearing two tubby traffic cops in white uniforms. The cop on the back got down and came over, and he spoke sharply to our driver, Jahangir, through the truck's window. Ignoring the folded 100-rupee note that Jahangir offered, the officer made him get out of the truck and began an angry pantomime. We watched them gesticulate -- the cop's motions domineering, Jahangir's placatory -- and finally, they exchanged the truck's documents for some cash, and Jahangir got back inside. "How much?" his brother and assistant Ahmad asked. "400," Jahangir replied.
That was about $4, which was a little higher than normal, Ahmad explained, because their registration papers were for hauling an oil tank, not the shipping container they now carried. Nor, for that matter, did Jahangir have his driver's license, which the traffic police had taken from him earlier in the week, something neither of them seemed concerned about despite the fact that he was about to drive a truck 1,000 miles across the border into Afghanistan. "They don't need papers," Sardar said, seeing the expression on my face. "They know that the only thing that can solve their problems is money."
The truck pulled onto the main four-lane highway that led north through Sindh province and, beyond that, the rich Pakistani heartland of Punjab, before starting to climb up into the Hindu Kush mountain range, into Afghanistan. Thousands of trucks and billions of dollars in supplies have passed over these roads since late 2001 to feed the 11-year war in Afghanistan. Outer Karachi's dilapidated factories and car dealerships quickly gave way to fields and strips of one-story shops. Before we had driven for even an hour, however, Jahangir pulled over onto a wide dirt lot in front of a mechanic's shop. The muffler, he explained. The truck, an old Nissan diesel, was generally in poor condition, flaps of rubber flaking off the tires on the trailer -- I knew it was going to be a long ride.
The shop's grubby, whitewashed walls were painted with green and red Pashto writing: "Welcome," then the name and phone number of the owner, and next "Pardes," a Pashto word for someone who lives away from home. It's a sad word, more melancholy than "traveler" or "stranger." Under the awning, dangling from metal poles and wires, propped up on sticks, or sitting on the hard-packed dirt floor, was a collection of sundry objects that gave the shop a post-apocalyptic feel: decorative metal plates from trucks, including a red rose; a stack of rusting suspension leaf springs, big like dinosaur ribs; an ancient, box-shaped power distributor, yellow with a pair of painted pheasants; a row of colorful jacks; an anvil; a rack of flat piston casings hung high like hunting trophies; grease-encrusted oil drums; and a spindly chair welded out of wobbly iron bars that might have been designed by Giacometti.
Sardar and I got out of the truck and wandered through the heat to a scattering of the rope beds known as charpoys beneath a bedraggled acacia tree, as Jahangir and Ahmad watched one of the mechanics spot-weld the muffler back onto the exhaust pipe with an acetylene torch. After a failed attempt to get back on the road (this time the transmission wouldn't shift into gear), the mechanic came sauntering out again and squatted down to peer at the gearbox. "Don't worry; it won't take very long to fix," he said, and then left for Friday prayers. He returned two hours later and took apart the gearbox. "It's fine for now, but you'll need to get it properly fixed when you come back," he warned. We set back out.