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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.
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,"
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."
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.
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.
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.
in Pakistan drives on the left, British-style. Jahangir kept the truck in the
right-hand passing lane, where the asphalt was generally better, and traffic
swarmed past us. Even so, the truck -- which traveled at no more than the speed of
a fit bicyclist -- jarred violently over the tiniest bumps, and in certain gears
the engine itself shook the cabin. Outside, the rice fields and mango orchards
of rural Sindh scrolled by. It was late in the afternoon, but the day's heat
continued unabated. Possibly as a result of the busted muffler, the engine's
exhaust rose up around the back of the cab, heating up the back wall, its glass
window becoming too hot to touch. More than once, after the heat and motion
lulled me to sleep, I woke gasping for air and soaked in sweat.
was better to sit up in the middle and talk, as Ahmad rolled a spliff of hash
and passed it to his older brother. Jahangir was 34 (though he looked older)
and had a son, a daughter, and another son who had died in infancy, he told me;
Ahmad, 26, was unmarried. They had grown up in the Khyber Pass town of Landi
Kotal, near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, where they lived in a large
compound with more than 100 members of their extended family. Jahangir had
bought a truck four years ago, after a 10-year apprenticeship as a conductor.
The brothers had started off hauling oil tanks for NATO's supply line, which had been good money for them,
netting upwards of $500 a run as often as twice a month. Then in November 2011,
Pakistan closed the border to the supply
line in response to an errant U.S. airstrike that killed 24 of its soldiers.
After five months of waiting, Jahangir decided to switch to hauling private
containers, which was much less lucrative but at least it was work.
would take us between four and five days to get to the border. Besides the
physical dangers of driving through the hazardous traffic and mountain roads,
the threat of an attack by bandits or the Taliban, and the risk of being
kidnapped for ransom, by either our hosts or someone else who realized I was a
foreigner, there was also the fact that any Pakistani police officer or soldier
would be extremely nonplussed, to say the least, to find a Canadian journalist
in a transit truck. Fortunately, I had been told the police were interested in
extracting bribes only from the truck driver, not his passengers. The first
real challenge would be the Kohat Tunnel, a 1.2-mile passage that cuts through
the mountains south of Peshawar. After multiple militant attacks in the tunnel,
the Pakistani Army introduced checkpoints with stringent searches on either
side. Soldiers did not take petty bribes, and they were checking the documents
of everyone who passed. After that was the Federally Administered Tribal Areas,
a territory strictly off-limits to foreigners, just as the Torkham border
crossing was afterward. A special permit called a "no-objection certificate"
was required, but despite months of coaxing the civilian press office, I still
didn't have one. We were going so slowly, however, that I'd have a few more
days to think about what to do.
darkness fell, we lurched on slowly into the night, our headlights illuminating
an arc of pavement on the unlit highway, throwing shadows against the lush
tropical orchards that hemmed us in. Traveling in their own pools of light were
fellow trucks, sometimes with little motorcycles drafting behind them and
occasionally a fast-moving vehicle, a Corolla or the new black Hilux pickup of
a landlord and his men. Rural Sindh was a dangerous place, the worst stretch of
road before the tribal areas. At night, the bandits came out. On the edge of
the highway, a police pickup and cops in slovenly black uniforms, cradling AK-47s, lurked like predators. "Sometimes
they change their clothes and rob vehicles," Jahangir said.
The sun had set hours
ago, but the night was still stifling hot, the air heavy with the scent of
diesel exhaust and fetid rice fields. The road was potholed due to the monsoon
rains, and the cabin lurched violently. Jahangir smoked joint after joint and
blared cassettes of old Hindi music to stay alert, swaying his shoulders and
waving his hands to lines like "Those who love cannot know fear/And those who
fear cannot know love." I looked at my watch -- it was well past midnight. The
lights from the highway swam in the liquid arc of the windshield. With the heat
and the motion and the blasting music, it was impossible to sleep. There was
nothing to do but stay up, watch the road, and try some of Jahangir's hash.
Next: Paul Salopek on his seven-year journey to retrace the footsteps of early humans.
EPA PHOTO/EPA/SHABBIR HUSSAIN IMAM