Photo: Dave Primov/Shutterstock

Fragile Moment: Pakistan Before the Rise of the Taliban

Pakistan Travel
by Greg Johnson Nov 17, 2009
Traversing Pakistan was not a part of Greg Johnson’s travel plans. Yet, here he is humbled by a small act of human kindness.

Peshawar, Pakistan. Those two words have a very different meaning to me today than they did 10 years ago.

One of the beautiful things about travel is that it gives you perspective to a place at a specific time, and context that may give meaning to future events that happen long after you’ve gone.

The place is real to me – not just a place where atrocities occur to nameless, faceless people.

I was in Peshawar, Pakistan 10 years ago as a tourist, and today when I see those two words in a dateline, I have to stop and contemplate them. The place is real to me – not just a place some might associate atrocities occuring to nameless, faceless people.

I was never meant to be in Pakistan. It was not on my list. I did not have an itinerary. I wanted to go to India, but the consulate in Kazakhstan would not allow me to have a visa. I remember the rakish look on the face of the impossibly young staff member as he told me he would not grant me a visa, and in the same breath that he was late for a lunch appointment.

He left the office and I stood alone in his wake wondering if I could sort my way through his collection of stamps to fake myself a 30-day visa. But then I shrugged it off. Fine, I’ll see what other country is available. I’m not ready to go to Indonesia.

Pakistan? Close enough. When is the next flight to Islamabad?

Finding The Way In

The train ride from Islamabad to Peshawar in mid-July was not exceptional. It was one of those ancient trains that wobble along the rails without air conditioning or padded seating.

The farmland outside the windows did not inspire. I felt relieved that it was not hotter and there were no chickens in my car.

Peshawar was odd, though, no question. The place had a presence that set it apart from Islamabad or the high country. The kind of place it was easy to hear footsteps behind you in an empty alley.

I had never heard of the Taliban. It would be years before I even had a conception of who the Taliban were, but something was not quite right with the place, you could feel it, though the feeling passed as the quest-like nature of the visit took hold.

An Act Of Kindness

Although foreigners were in Peshawar in the 90’s for NGO and missionary work, the majority of travelers came to Peshawar for one reason: to see the Khyber Pass.

This was the legendary pass crossed by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Humayun, and Timur. I was bound to join them. There were only a few companies that specialized in transportation there. I spent two days trying to arrange a Land Cruiser and then a truck to the area. I begged, I pleaded, I shouted, I cajoled. It was all for no gain.

As with many agenda items in Central Asia, timing is everything. I could not get there. I would never see the pass. I shared a bus ride back into town with an eager Pakistani who was so excited by my presence that he insisted on paying my bus fare.

This minuscule event is something that has never repeated itself in any of my travels, and this is what I took away from Peshawar, Pakistan.

This was an outrage, I thought. Not only have I been shut out from visiting one of the wonders of the world, but this man is trying to pay my way.

Once again, I pleaded, I shouted and cajoled. Once again I was defeated. He paid my way and shook my hand as he exited the bus.

This minuscule event is something that has never repeated itself in any of my travels, and this is what I took away from Peshawar, Pakistan.

Not a bomb or a bullet. Not a conquering hero, but a small act of human kindness.

Have you been affected by generosity during your travels? Share your thoughts below.

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