Perhaps the abundance of passengers contributed to the eventual flat tire that didn’t make it into this story.
GILGIT, Pakistan — Sometimes, no matter what you look like, how you dress or how little you say, outing yourself as a foreigner is inevitable.
In my defense, I wasn’t wearing my shalwar kameez because I wanted to fool anyone. There’s just no escaping the fact that they’re comfortable to travel in, especially when you’re set to spend a few hours packed into a minibus in Pakistan in the summer. And I was. Besides, there are enough boys and young men in Pakistan wearing jeans and T-shirts these days that a moderate tan and dark hair are the only requisites to being mistaken for a local. And I was.
After a few hours of waiting for the rest of the seats in the two-tone brick of a van to fill up, the man who sold me my ticket waved me over from where I was reading in the shade.
For whatever reason, people in this part of the world tend to hop into a vehicle as soon as possible — even if the departure of said vehicle is not at all imminent or known whatsoever. It could be 100 degrees Fahrenheit out and sunny, and people will still sit on plastic seats in a cramped, dirty minibus with the windows closed rather than wait outside in the dry breeze. Maybe they’re worried that the driver is going to jump in and take off without telling anyone, or hoping that their pitiful blank stares and wet-with-sweat clothes will convince the driver to give up his sloth-like attempt to fill the vehicle and to depart with only half a load. I don’t know.
After some rearrangement of the already seated passengers at the driver’s direction, it was my turn to duck in.
Now look, I’d been in country for more than a month at this point, and I learned early on that in Pakistan there is little to no regard for personal space between members of the same sex. But this was the first time I’d been in a long-haul — by which I mean more than 30-minute drive time — local transport vehicle smaller than a coach bus. Forget a NATCO bus’ dirty, cloth bucket seats, semi-functioning footrests and sticky, broken armrests that, unattractive as they are, clearly demark one seat from another. We’re talking three foldable, marginally-padded bench seats lined up parallel to and behind a slightly more cushy one where the driver sits with two lucky passengers who get to have their knees bruised by the gearstick every time he shifts into second, fourth and reverse. Remember the seats on a school bus when you were growing up? Now imagine if Maria Montessori had designed them.
I first stuck my head into the van, doing a quick recon. Three hairy guys occupied the row closest to the back door. They sat with their knees apart, trying to take up as much room as possible. The tactic worked, because the bench sure looked full to me. There were only two men in the second-to-last row, so I ducked the rest of the way into the vehicle, climbed over a row of seats, and took my place next to some sweaty dude whose forearms were as big as my thighs.
Quickly, a couple other passengers clambered onto the row in front of mine and directly behind the driver’s. Perhaps they were hoping to cash in on the gora-in-sheep-clothing’s ignorance, but it became clear very quickly that this was just not going to work. The van may have seemed full to me but, at that density, we would have left four very pissed off passengers in Gilgit, waiting for the next minibus to Hunza.
The driver pointed at me and said something in Urdu, motioned for me to get up, which I did obediently and exited the van. He put his hand on an elderly man’s shoulder and pointed him in the direction of the van. Slowly, the octogenarian made his way to the last row of seats and, after some compression of the three already seated there, sat next to the window. With a grumble that translated roughly to, “Alright, you silly bastard, now it’s your turn,” the driver let me back into the van, back onto the second to last row, back next to the Pakistani Paul Bunyan. Another geriatric soon filled the sliver of bench left between the window and me.
Moments (and a few more passengers) later, the driver deemed the van sufficiently overfull and we pulled out of the lot, eastbound for the Karakoram highway — just me, my camera, a backpack and fifteen other passengers.
Ah, the open road.