Taking a Leap: A Northern Pakistan Travel Diary
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
The minute I stepped off the plane into Pakistan, I knew it was not going to be an easy final leg emotionally. I had a lot going on in my head – about purpose, life, relationships, and everything I was hoping to find answers to before heading home. I knew I had to face some difficult decisions, and brace myself for challenges ahead as I tried to close off one chapter of my life, and re-start over completely with the next. At the time, I felt uneasy, and my anxiety had been on high. Admittedly, over the month in Pakistan, I cannot really count the amount of times I questioned myself. Even now, as the journey is all over, I do not feel all that particularly strong.
People who have seen me since have said I look ‘stronger and more resolved’, but my head and heart are not fully aligned.
While the past half-year has certainly been experiential, I am still not sure if I have attained the self-growth I have wanted for myself. Even though I am open to it, I am not one hundred percent sure I will ever find within myself the self-love that I am looking for. I have certainly accumulated a lot of thoughts in my head as to what contentment could look like from at least a purpose perspective, but I am still not sure what the next right step should be. Maybe there is not a right next step, and I should just start making decisions and make the necessary changes – just do something.
Sadly enough, I feel like Pakistan was slightly tainted for me as I travelled through many parts of the north feeling distracted by my thoughts every single day. I could not breathe at certain moments, and while I tried to continue learning and taking in every intricate detail about the country, my focus was definitely off. My mind was completely elsewhere as I was trying to have conversations, and there were other moments where I just wanted to break down but I could not because I was caught in moments with others. So, it felt like home again where I repressed everything inside and when I was alone again in privacy - in a black hole - I would just curl inside of myself, and every bone inside me felt like splitting. You would figure that half a year of change would correct this somehow. It did not. I am still as scared today as the day I left – even more so as I have come ‘home’ to realize that everything has fallen apart and I have to completely start over from literal scratch. What I do next is pivotal, but I feel like I am frozen in time, and it is a bit crippling.
I am so scared of making the wrong decisions. I know I am talking in regret, which is not great for purpose or self-growth, but I am not sure if there is ever a day where I will not overanalyze every decision I could have made to find ‘happiness’ earlier in life. I am not sure there is ever a day where I will overanalyze every single situation to see if I could have avoided feeling suicidal. But, as I surround myself in a swath of lonely thoughts, let me at least try to talk a little bit about the last part of my journey.
As I already mentioned, the month in north Pakistan was full of ups and downs. I am not sure it was the place to close off the sub-chapter of the last six months. But, along the way, I did meet people who mattered; I did learn a lot about the nuances of the country, and I did grow an appreciation for every place that I travelled through:
- Islamabad, Lahore, Skardu, Karimabad, Ghulkin, Gulmit, Astore, Tarishing, Rupal, Chitral, Kalash Valley, Ishkomen, Peshawar –
I am not going to go into every place in detail at this time. I will try to at a later point because the culture, history and make-up of Pakistan is just fascinating, but I am going to focus in on people that I met along the way. I have said this time and time again. You can travel extensively – set foot into thousands of sites and attempt to process a hundred thousand details and facts, but at the end of the day, the real experiences come from those long conversations and nuanced moments you have with people you meet. These are people who influence you, open up your perspective, challenge you, and who laugh with and accept you without question. These may even be people who you encounter in just a fleeting moment. These may be people who make you feel like you are family.
Every time I felt myself withdrawing from the world this past half year, the people I encountered unintentionally snapped me back into place. I spoke in extensive depth in my other writings about community and support structures. Even if you are in a temporary support structure for a day or two, certain individuals have the capability to remind you, even just for a second, of all the strength and resilience that exists out there. And like that, you somehow forget how weak you are feeling.
So, where to begin – let’s start by flashing back a few weeks in time:
I am in Ghulkin right now, in northern Pakistan. It is a small, modest Ismaili Muslim village surrounded by looming mountain ranges, icy turquoise rivers and glaciers. Cows and sheep spot the fields, along with the remnants of apple and apricot trees that once bloomed in the summer months. I am here during winter, and it is currently negative seventeen degrees. The scenery is a bit haunted, but graceful nonetheless. The community is tight-knit. All across the valleys, all the villages know each other. The people support each other.
Case in point, one of the village women died yesterday from long-term sickness. I attended her funeral this morning. It is a three-day affair where thousands of people from other villages in and around the valleys and mountains make the journey downwards to pay respects to her and her grieving family. I stand solemnly with all the women in the community today. Some of them have sunk to their knees crying, and there is a small water jug at the side of the ground where people splash their faces after having an intense cry. Her family members are choking back sobs. Feelings of death swirl around me as intensely as the emotions I am observing and experiencing. I let those feelings embrace me as they have done so intimately before. I will not see the next day’s affair as I am leaving tomorrow. But, I will always remember the sombre grief that I experienced. It was that intense. I could barely keep tears in as I watched her sisters fall to their knees clutching each other in the most surreal moments of pain. In some ways, I allowed my own life to flash before my eyes. I kind of imagined what it would be like to watch my own funeral. For some reason, I could not imagine the same magnitude of mourning or attendance. For some reason, I could only imagine a few specific, but blurry faces there.
The people here live hard lives to sustain themselves. The work to maintain their home and sustain a minimum income is difficult. The weather is harsh, and the environment -complete with floods, landslides and storms- is unforgiveable. Yet, they laugh and smile over and over, apologizing to me for ‘just living the simple life’. They have found happiness in each other, and maybe that’s all that matters, even if dreams are not fulfilled. They have to work multiple jobs, and everyone sleeps in the same room without heat, sustainable electricity and all the luxuries that I have grown up with back at home. But, these are all tight-knit families that share in each other’s lives intimately and support each other without question. Their children are educated. Dinners are hearty and produce-driven. I am spoiled with fresh bread, dried fruit and chai constantly.
I speak to Starra for awhile on my first day there. She sometimes dreams of being an accountant or banker still. But, somewhere along the way, she had to put those dreams on hold because she had children, did not have the financial means, and right now, it is just not feasible for her to go away for school. She still has three young children, and one teenager in tow. She works long hours for the community school for little pay, drives back and forth between Ghulkin and Gulmit six days a week, and then comes home to be a fierceless mom and caretaker. She is the epitome of strength. Her intelligence and eloquence of spoken word sends chills through every part of me. She hits on the challenges of the education system within the villages right on the nose. Curriculum is very dated; the kids are still learning from the same resources that she used as a child. They are backwards, and this does not help the kids compete with children from inner-city schools. Some of the children give up and do not pursue higher education. This does not help the villages to progress.
Her brow furrows as she speaks on the issues. There is no time for her to waste though as she sits there with me. She is making bread and chai at the same time. I try to help her by helping her girls study for their English exams, but the comprehension curriculum is frustrating. I soak in her strength, but at the same time, I feel an underlying unease with myself. I wish I could help her. In some ways, I know I can if I put my mind to it. I need to have conversations at home; I have more power than I think. Maybe I can help her figure out how to go back to school, to access the education that she needs but be a mom at the same time.
Throughout this all, I feel the same feelings I felt at BBH and Moria – what if she was me, and I were her? Would I be this strong? – likely not. But, her strength inspires me and reminds that I have all the graces and facilities to be just as resilient.
Khan Beig is Starra’s father-in-law. He is immediately open and embracing, and enchants me with stories of his travels, time as a soldier, and even time working elsewhere outside of Pakistan in Tajikistan and China. He says he is living his happiest life, which are words that I think all of us would aspire to. His family does not have much, but there is always food on the table. This was not always the case; in more difficult times, they barely had enough to eat and have had to fight health issues on-and-off. He loves his wife, his children and his grandchildren. He treats me like I am his daughter immediately. We go hiking together around the region – across suspension bridges, to see dramatic landscapes like the Passu Cones, glaciers, and expansive valleys. I look forward everyday to seeing the twinkle in his eye, and linking his arm as we explore together, literally like father and daughter. His strength too is so admirable. Him and his wife build these rock enclosures protecting their crops, trees and animals. It is backbreaking work, but they climb up and down the hill everyday to take care of their property.
He never learned English in school. He picked up the language through his children, grandchildren and subsequently the tourism business. He is the most enchanting storyteller I have met though in most of my journeys. I only knew him for two days, but because we spent so much time together, I cried the day we said goodbye. He felt like a father to me, and in some ways, he made me miss my father back at home. And it’s not that I did not miss my family while I was away, but being away allowed me to put up a decent-sized wall against everyone I know. For a split second there, Khan Beig broke it all down, and I felt like a happy child again. I felt like a happy child just spending time with her father. And, some of my happiest moments as a child were spent – just me and my dad – riding my bike, walking through forests, holding hands in church, reading together at the community library, and randomly driving through nowhere. While my mother pushed me to become an adult as fast as possible in the most mentally and physically abusive of ways; my dad allowed me to be a carefree child who learned and embraced knowledge and life with natural curiosity. And sometimes, we are happiest in our child-like states; even it feels like we are running away. We become carefree, and we forget for a split second, all the realities and traumas that hurt us.
I felt deeply connected to most of the people I met in homestays. I met and stayed with another family in Tarishing near Nanga Parbat. In speaing with locals, I learn that Tarishing has about 300 families, and they speak the ethnic dialect Shina along with Urdu. The families - here and in neighbouring Rupal, which I hike to - are mixed – they are either Shia or Sunni. This area saw a lot of ethnic conflict before 9/11, but that has subsided and everyone lives together in unity.
During this time, the winter conditions are tough. There is heavy snow everywhere, and it is very cold especially in the evenings. Zamroot is the mother in this family. The moment I enter the house, a bunch of woman - her daughters and sisters - shuffle me to their chimney stove and cover me in blankets. They take off my hat, kind of tousle my hair with kind smiles and proceed to braid it and put it up in clips. I feel kind of like a doll, but the soft, human interaction and touch feels comforting after having travelled alone for so long. No one speaks English except for the father – Koshar Iqbal. But, we make do with facial expressions and body language. I show them pictures I have taken in Pakistan, and they smile overwhelmingly. The one daughter, Musserat laughs devilishly all evening, and stares at me with these really intense eyes. At one point, we engage in a prolonged stare for what feels like over five minutes. I feel myself almost blushing at one point because she is so intensely beautiful. I am not sure if I have ever seen a girl with more beautiful eyes.
Me and Koshar Iqbal talk frankly about wages and education. Wages are even lower here than in Ghulkin. Children go to school, but they are not as English literate as more progressive places like Hunza. I do manage to visit a school, and because it is a sunnier day, classes take place outside in the snow. According to him, most people do not leave these villages, no matter how hard life is. When I leave, I end up giving Musserat my right finger ring as a memento. It does not fit her exactly, but I try to tell her to wear it as a necklace. I hope I can make it back to see her one day. I also hope though deep down that she leaves. She speaks more English than her father describes at first, so I hope she will continue with that learning.
Flash forward a week or so, to my time spent in the Kalash valley. I visited the Kalasha people in Bumborate near Chitral for their seasonal winter festival – Chawmos. I learn from locals that their people are a minority non-Islamic pagan community in Pakistan with their own distinct culture, religious practices, rituals and language. While they have a rich cultural footprint and identity, only about 4000 of their people remain tied to their roots, due to conversion practices. That being said, within the community resides Kalasha and converts living in unity. While I was there (with my friends from Inertia Network), I learned as much as I could about their life and spirit. The people who remain are vivacious individuals who are fiercely proud about being Kalash and working hard to preserve their history and traditions, so their people and legacy will continue on into the future. Every family I ended up speaking to wanted the world to know about them and their stories.
We spent some time with a young Kalasha girl named Zarkima. Zarkima has 7 sisters and 1 brother. She works on social media and tourism for the Kalash people. She exudes strength, confidence and a kind of vibrado that I remember having when I too was 21. I hope she keeps that momentum, as I truly believe she will create strides and break barriers for her people, and especially as a woman. I loved spending time with and speaking to her. There are minor communication barriers, but I get the sense that she wants to travel, seek education outside of Pakistan and just learn. She is not eager to get married or be tied down to a man. She does not want the Kalash to leave their traditions behind, so preservation is also part of the work that she does for community tourism.
That evening, we all go to watch some dancing in the ritual hall. Zarkima says something to me that sticks, and I can re-imagine her saying it to me even now – “Dancing is what they do often, it makes them happy. [She] is not rich, nor is [she] poor, but [she] loves her life and is happy”.
When you hear those types of powerful words, you cannot help but reposition yourself and how you think. I mean, if I think back even to some conversations I had in Aleppo about starting over, I have to remind myself that I need to look at life sometimes more simply.
And maybe that’s it. I have to let go of the wild expectations. I cannot save the world right away. I cannot make everyone happy. I cannot even maybe make myself fully happy. But, maybe taking small steps will get me somewhere. So fine, I am dealing with the trauma of packing up my old life and having to re-start over. A vast majority of the world's population has had to start over and re-invent their lives. If they have the strength and resilience to do it, so can I. I don't have to be a construct of my mental health issues.
Two days to 2020, and despite having spent the last few days in a cloud of misery at times, I feel a slight spark of optimism. Who knows, maybe this will be the year. Maybe this will be the decade where I finally do everything for myself and not for others. I say that every year because I am cliché, but seriously who knows. Maybe by the end of 2020, I will have finally done something in this life that makes me love myself again. I have more to say on Pakistan, but I need to take a pause for now. I’ll write again in 2020.