Having done my basic orientation to the new overpasses and underpasses of the Lahore streets, in the last few days I have plucked up my courage and been out on the motorbike! I found it is like they say about riding a bicycle! You can’t forget. It all came back easily. So I have been getting around to more places more quickly over the last few days. Here are some of the “scenes” that I have seen in my travels.
As I wend my way through the traffic, I have seen pedestrians on either side of the road – and sometimes crossing it at the most unexpected places. A good trick is to put one’s hand up to stop the oncoming traffic – a bit like Moses parting the Red Sea – and walk across boldly without looking, thus putting all the onus on the drivers! It seems to work most of the time.
Then there are bicycles, Vespa scooters, and other motor bikes. There seem to be more of the latter than previously. I actually feel reasonably safe on mine, perhaps because I am the driver and in control, but I can assure you that I try and keep alert. There can be surprises from any direction! I saw a pillion passenger carrying a safety helmet on his arm, where I thought it would do more harm than good! I hear that pillion passengers are banned in Karachi. While a driver has both arms occupied in driving a motorbike (when he’s not using a mobile phone!), but the pillion passenger has his arms free so might wield a Kalashnikov assault rifle!
Cars and four wheel drives are of course standard fare an any road anywhere in the world so hardly merit mention, except for their profusion and state of “battle-scarredness” to which I have referred in an earlier post.
In the world of people transport, off the main streets you will still find the occasional horse-drawn tongas. Then there are rickshaws of various sizes and makes. Some are original three wheelers with only one fully covered-in seat for two or three people at most. Others are the front end, seat and engine of a motor bike attached to a back axle, over which is an open double seat is fixed, which can carry up to six people back-to-back, three facing front and three facing back. Then there are the vans, wagons and 20 seater and 70 seater buses.
When I was travelling in an intercity van, the fellow passenger beside me was well-dressed and seemed well-off and “modern” as he was playing games on his smart phone. He noticed me watching and offered me one of his ear buds to listen to his music. It was pop music, quite different from the Islamic preaching being blared through the wagon. Then he showed me pictures on his phone. From our brief conversation, it turned out he is a gym junky and body builder. When he reached his destination he asked me for my phone number. Since I didn’t have one, he gave me his number and asked me earnestly to call him. A gay pick-up? Probably. Although flattered by the interest, I didn’t call!!
I have twice travelled on the metro bus. It is a great system, getting people from one side of the city to the other for a fixed fare of 20 rupees, with concession for students. But there is a great rush! People are really packed in. Even when I boarded at the starting depot, I still couldn’t get a seat. When I got on, more pushed on after me, and again at each subsequent stop, until we were so crammed that at some stops no one could get on. Someone asked me what the experience on the metro was like and I replied, “Had it not been for the fact that all the passengers were men [there is a separate section for women at the front], for conception to occur would not be beyond the bounds of possibility!”
Then there are the commercial transport vehicles. These include hand carts for vendors selling a variety of goods at local level, including vegetables, and other food stuffs and much more besides. Then there are donkey carts, horse carts, bullock carts and camel carts. I have also seen individual horses being walked along the road (they are sometimes used in Shia’ religious processions – the riderless horse a symbol of the fallen warrior [as in JFK’s funeral cortege]). I have also seen pack camels being led along the road. There are also tractor trolleys. Once I saw a tractor with a front end loader.
I saw a man wheeling a stone along the road. It was about a metre in diameter and 40 cms thick. I had no idea what it was. Someone asked. It was a millstone for grinding wheat flour.
I saw a man with a monkey on a collar, a local busking team. The monkey performs tricks for a crowd.
I saw a man begging at the side of the road. He had large fleshy growths on both sides of his head and face which distorted his features so badly he hardly seemed human. Quite distressing.
I saw another beggar with no arms who was soliciting from traffic stopped at the lights. I wondered how he collected alms. He must have had a pocket in his shirt front into which people placed their offerings.
I noticed that the beggars at some traffic lights were transvestites. In Pakistan, they live in a twilight zone. They live on the fringes of society. They are sometimes performers for hire for occasions. They are somewhat feared for being different. I was once told that they are paid to perform for the celebration of new-born infants, with some fear that they might recognise genital abnormality in the child and claim him for their own transvestite community.
The traffic fascinates me. Not just the variety of vehicles, but also how it flows. Yes, sometimes there is congestion where roads narrow or where construction is taking place and traffic comes to a halt. Even so, motor cycles sometimes weave through between the lanes and get pole position! But most times, it seems to work. Most interesting is how the traffic manages to weave through intersections or T-junctions without lights or police direction. It is a matter of one vehicle edging out until a lane is blocked, while other vehicles take protection beside that vehicle to make their move, then again with the next lane, or with turning traffic from the other lanes also eventually blocking, until one vehicle gets through, leaving a gap, which oncoming traffic from either direction immediately fills, claiming their move. And somehow it all works. I’ve even seen bikes and cars go through a red light and perform the same weaving manoeuvres through the traffic going through on the green! As for the orange light, it seems to signal a free go, for if the intersection is empty, anyone from anywhere is likely to seize the opportunity. As for roundabouts, why go all the way around clockwise to the right for 270 degrees when your desired exit is only 90 degrees to the left? And lights and roundabouts provide the opportunity for U-turns also.
A couple of simple rules suffice for most occasions:
Expect the unexpected!
I have often said, unlike many other countries which boast of freedom, Pakistan is a truly free country – drive where you like, as you like, when you like!!!
The traffic police are often castigated for booking traffic infractions (who would believe it possible?!) or for demanding bribes. But they did help me out some nights ago. I was coming back from a visit to a family about 10.30 at night when the engine sputtered to a halt. No petrol in the tank. No reserve. There were no petrol stations in sight. I pushed the bike up to the traffic lights and asked a fellow bike rider where the nearest petrol station was. He had no idea. Another suggested I try going right. I went a short distance but there was obviously nothing in that direction. I pushed the bike over to the police and asked them. They asked where I was going. “New Muslim Town.” They said, “The nearest station is New Muslim Town!” I thought it was still a long way off, and was reluctant to push the bike that far. The whole idea of a bike is for it to carry you, not you to carry it!! I said there had to be something nearer. They began to ask where I came from? (Australia); how long had I been here? (one week); how come I spoke Urdu so well? (I lived here before); for how long? (twenty years); with my family? (no); how long before I visited my family? (three or four years); very long to be away from wife and children! (I am not married); why not? (I am a Catholic priest and we don’t marry); why not? (we follow the example of Jesus Christ who did not marry, we give our whole lives to God and to the service of people) …. discussing the pros and cons of celibacy wasn’t going to get me petrol to get home!! But while this conversation was going on, one of the policeman found a styrofoam cup (but it leaked), then he found a plastic bag among the rubbish on the ground, drained off a cupful of petrol from his police bike, poured it into my tank, and said “that’ll be enough to get you to the petrol station”. Meanwhile, his buddies wanted to hear more about religious matters, but I was tired and cold, very grateful for the assistance I had been given and just wanted to get home, so I declined their invitation to a theological discussion, expressed my profound gratitude, and took my leave. I started the bike, took off, found a petrol station, filled the tank to the brim (it cost 1,000 rupees), and went home. Contrary to popular reputation, this particular police encounter was yet another example of Pakistani hospitality.