Postcard from Pakistan: A Delhi-Based Expat Crosses the Border
By Jasper Reid
New Delhi, India
“I think I’ll go visit Pakistan,” I announced.
“One hundred percent terrorist,” proclaimed Victor William, my driver, with utter conviction and summing up a widely held take in India. “Don’t go,” he added.
“You’re off to that ‘Homeland’ place?” squeaked friends newly boned up on Islamabad (as imagined by HBO).
Their reactions alone seemed reason to go. I likened it to certain people’s prejudice about America, which, in my mind, is closely correlated to their never having been.
Pakistan, so close to Delhi and so very far away. A land less visited, the bugbear of India, an expat wilderness, the last refuge of Osama Bin Laden. But also: home to the Khyber Pass, the Indus Valley, the Northwest Frontier; a country of almost 200 million and, reservations notwithstanding, too hard to resist when living 320 miles from the Pakistan border.
First step, a visa. Not hard with a UK passport, but the brooding presence of a Pakistan stamp might mean an Indian immigration grilling—a bit like having an Israeli visa on arrival at Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport. What does the enterprising expat need in times of tricky travel? Friends in high places? Jedi border-crossing powers? No, what the expat really needs is the coveted second passport, preferably something Swiss, or Scandinavian, or, in my case, Irish.
Ah, Ireland, you green and happy place; country of tolerance and welcome with a history of rebellion, oppression and emigration. The Republic of Ireland, possibly a rainier sort of Pakistan (with substantially more Guinness).
My second-passport thesis seemed proven by securing a visa in a mere 24 hours after a relaxing morning filling forms at the Pakistan High Commission, a large and rather soulful compound in the depths of diplomatic Delhi. Even Mr William was impressed, coming away with a favorable opinion of his first encounter with Pakistani citizens. “Just like us, boss,” he declared in a rare outburst of bi-lateral detente.
Next, the logistics. At this stage the decision to take Latin over Geography at O Level proved unfortunate as I booked Delhi-Abu Dhabi-Lahore over the more logical Delhi-Amritsar and a walk across the border. My Indian business partners, too polite or perplexed by the escapade, refrained from pointing out the error and so I boarded my flight to Abu Dhabi (a 3,000-mile dog leg to Lahore). Quod erat demonstrandum, as a geography student might like to say.
The flight was a riot of construction workers en route to their expat jobs in the Gulf, and me. But what a contrast with the passengers at the Abu Dhabi departure gate for Lahore. It could have been JFK—vibrant, international, fashion-conscious; all iPads and Tory Burch.
Dawn the next day at Fort Lahore. Heavens, what a place and reason alone to visit Pakistan! A glorious morning, no one there and standing at the foot of Shah Jahan’s Elephant Steps to his magnificent palace. What a thing, what a thought—a stairway for your favorite pachyderm and its very big strides. Something to inspire a man on a gray morning commute and an action item to be more like the Mughals.
Later I toured the hip, up-and-coming city boroughs and saw an outbreak of US burger joints and burgeoning mall developments. Pretty girls, blue skies, ancient places, modern ways, few traffic jams and no trash. Quite a place, and a pleasant contrast to the hard-knock life of Delhi with its press of 25 million people. Surprisingly, it turned out that doing business was easier than India—less regulation and more free trade. This was borne out by an out-of-body hour spent cruising the aisles of a Rawalpindi supermarket as good as Whole Foods WFM +0.39% or Waitrose.
And so on to Islamabad and the charming Serena Hotel. Old expat hands would recognize its type in comparable hotels of the day— the places to meet in an era when knowing the right people mattered: the Mandarin, Hong Kong of the ’80s, the Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg, the King David in 1960s’ Jerusalem, the Okura in Tokyo. At the Serena, the local political crowd mixed with South Asia journalists, Chinese businessmen and the odd Westerner of uncertain provenance.
On the final day. Islamabad sparkling with views of the surrounding green hills: I set off to explore the city through the universal medium of jogging, much to the surprise of the Serena’s security team and their adorable black Labrador sniffer dog. After detouring through a dusty park, I emerged on to Constitution Avenue (think Champs-Élysées) and ran the length of the road past sandbagged machine-gun posts and slow-driving, tinted-window Chevrolet Suburbans bound for the highly defended diplomatic compound.
As the plane took off from Benazir Bhutto International, I felt privileged to see Pakistan before it becomes, in all likelihood, less like itself and more like a modern Middle East or Asian city. When this happens there’ll be no time to wander up Elephant Steps or jog alone on Constitution Ave.
Back in New Delhi I spoke to my young team about the trip. Reassuringly, they were intrigued and asked questions, and many wanted to visit their neighbor. Perhaps the passing of years may lessen the pain of partition and cross-border traffic will increase, surely to the benefit of both these splendid, complex countries.
In the meantime, my wife and I shall take our children to Pakistan for one big reason: to show them they’re able to visit this remarkable land. In the end, providing this permission to travel (the ultimate visa stamp) may be the biggest benefit of being a family abroad. Kids may or may not travel later in life, but they’ll know they can.
(Jasper Reid is a British expat, entrepreneur, husband, and father of twins based in Delhi. – Courtesy The Wall Street Journal)