A strange paradise along Indus

After a week in Karachi I started to feel headache and sore throat. Pollution was entering my veins. Time to leave! Cityscape didn’t want to end, the next valley was covered in gray cloud, cycling with mask through foggy and dusty traffic wasn’t enjoyable at all. At lunch I caught up with Armin and Salome again. We spent the night camping on the carpet-covered platforms of the highway restaurant. I felt sick in the morning. Asking the truck drivers for a ride didn’t work. First time after leaving home I put my bicycle on the bus – to reach Hala, a small town 100 km ahead, where I was going to teach for next few weeks.

The bus ride was something to remember, as buses move crazily fast with a constant honking. Girl sitting next to me in the last line of fully packed local bus vomitted on the floor and over my foot. Brown liquid was dancing up and down for the next hour. When I finally exited, people were curiously gathering around me. A desperate boy was shouting, throwing samosas on the ground and stepping over them. Welcome to Hala, I thought.

I reached Focus institute, a school in Hala New. Students in the yard kindly welcomed me and introduced to sir Waqar, the founder of the institute, and madam Wurat, the teacher and organiser.

To my surprise I met there a French cyclist and architect Guillaume again, a month before we had a swim together in Chabahar, Iran. He is traveling with his grandfather’s vintage peugueot bicycle and analogue maps.

In following days it was weekend and religious holiday, school was closed. I could rest and prepare my workshops. I proposed teaching filmmaking & photography and juggling skills, beside having English conversation clasess.

In my recovery time I walked around the green wheat fields and maze of brickwalled streets. People were constantly stopping me, trying to talk to me, kids shouting after me how-are-you?, policeman invated me for cay, it was very intense as I didn’t feel at my best.

In high contrast with my rural surroundings I watched two wonderful contemporary Pakistani films from Lahore, both controverse and consequently forbidden or censored: Joyland (2022) and Zindagi Tamasha (Circus of Life, 2019).

Cows were eating plastic on the streets, rickshaws honking, black waste water moving slowly in the smelly open canals. I put up my tent in the room of the guesthouse, to escape mosquitos coming out in the evening. The city had constant and rhytmical electricity powercuts; two hours with lights, two hours without. I had to plan cooking and reading time accordingly.

Students at the institute were great; polite, curious and some of them spoke English surprisingly well. At Focus they could practise English and computer skills on daily basis, while occasionally travelers were welcomed to share knowledge of what they feel passion for.

During conversation lessons I was starting to understand Sindhi culture and views, as we exchanged opinions on various topics. Boys felt brave and easygoing to talk, while girls, their hair and faces covered, needed much more encouragement. I felt happy when girls started to ask me after lessons to stay with them a bit longer to talk more.

On 8th of March, a women’s day, we cooked a fish karahi with boys to surprise girls. During the lunch we had a touching conversation about living as a woman in local community. Girls spend their time mostly visiting their friends, using mobile, studying and watching movies. They have to walk the streets covered. Focus is the only place to meet outside homes. Very often young women feel trapped and depressed.

But when they visit a big city, Hyderabad or Karachi, they wear jeans and let their hair uncovered, enjoy restaurants and cinema, feel free …

A 17-year expressed she dreams to live alone in a city appartment. We realised Malala Yousafzai, from Swat valley in the North of Pakistan, won a Nobel Peace Prize for fighting girls’ rights for education, when she was their age.

The other day we were watching a sunset with students from the bank of wide Indus river. Only boys were allowed to come.

I kept on returning there as I found it my favourite place, reminding me of my hometown and everyday strolls to Sava river.

I could observe fishermen going out in their boats or building a new boat, birds flying over the waterlands or spend time with poor local kids running around dirty, running-noses and barefoot before returning home to the fireplaces in their tents set on the shore.

When the sun was going down, the mosquitos were rising in big clouds.

During the weekend there was a turnament in cricket, the most popular sport in the country. I was invited to comment in the microphone as a guest. Crowds of men were watching standing next to their motorbikes. For the first time I could take the bat and try to hit the ball. I managed!

Later on the street a ball came flying towards us landing directly in the smelly waste water canal with a splash. My friend automatically stepped back, but I got dirt on my feet. We entered the yard where children were finishing their game and joyfully celebrating.

Waqar, manager of the institute, invited me to various events. We cooked together for his friends, I will not forget putting in the karahi pot 1 kg of fresh chilly. We ate with hands.

I visited his home and his father’s milk farm with water buffalos. We were driving in the jeep along the green wheat fields and mango orchards, meeting farmers and their children working and collecting grass for animal feed. Waste water canals ran through the fields and I learned about corrupt politics and privatising public water for use in farming. Coming from rich and well established family Waqar had modern views. We built trust and he explained me his personal dilemma, as he got divorced but wanted to return to his wife and young son. His religious father couldn’t accept it and there was only one option left – to ask and pay scholars to write a specific document in Waqar’s favour.

Meanwhile he arranged official invitation letter for me, signed by lawyer, to help me extend my visa. I got 3 extra months! And he didn’t inform the police I had arrived, as they would cause us only troubles … Later he got a warning letter from intelligence service for that. I truelly appreciated his courage, it was the basis for my future adventure.

On Thursday evening he took me with his car to the wonderfully decorated Shah Abdul Latif Bhattai shrine. They play music there, in front of the great sufi’s tomb, 24 hours a day.

Every Thursday a special dance takes place. After I made my way through the crowds, I got taken aback seeing women shaking wildly their heads and long hair as they were attending metal concert. Kids and men were jumping crazily and an old woman stand in the middle of the dancefloor as she was lost. They had something in common, I realised. All of them were disabled, phisycally or mentally. The drums were creating a trance atmosphere. They gathered here to calm down or heal from the evil spirits their families believed they were posessed by.

Waqar took me to various workshops to see craftmen at their work. Hala is famous for decorated wooden furniture and handcoloured textile. Men were waxing pieces of beds spinned by bows over the coal.

Colouring the textiles was made by natural components only, using even cow dung to cover the pattern that was later washed out and coloured differently at the end.

In my free time I wandered around Hala’s bazaars, communicated with people and made their portraits.

I drank cay in the dark canteen after buying daily groceries. I started to feel at home.

When I visited taylor to repair my shalwar kameez there was no electricity to run the sewing machines. I checked the time and realised electricity will come back in a minute. Taylors were amazed when I counted down the seconds jokingly and suddenly the lights went on. They repaired my clothes for free.

On my last Sunday in Hala students at Focus organised the art contest event open to public. Whole day children and youngsters were drawing and painting in every corner of the building. You could buy food at the improvised stalls on the rooftop and play boardgames. At the end of the day I surprised everybody performing Pocket juggling, first time in Pakistan. Still in my blue costume they asked me to award the best young artists, to congratulate and give them certificates. Earlier I took part in the team deciding about the best art pieces. I felt honoured and thankful.

After 3 memorable weeks the day arrived for me to move on. Our farawell was touching, the school team gifted me a few printed photos of my stay and we hugged in the hall. I started to pedal again.

At the edge of the town I ran into a camel fair. Punk is not dead! Hundreds of camels, decorated and shaved in amazing ways, with their owners sitting on the charpais (rope beds), were displayed in the wide green yard.

It was the last day before the holy month of ramadan. Village men were gathering around and curiously staring at me and my bicycle. While I was eating dahl & roti (lentils & bread) in the local canteen I counted more than 70 men standing on the street and just watching me eat. Sort of familiar situation for a street performer, I thought to myself.

It was first day of my independent travel through rural area between Hala and Sukkur, 350 km away. I managed to avoid police escort following small roads, irrigation canals, crossed Indus river 3 times and truelly enjoyed pristine culture of southern Pakistan.

It was lovely to share the roads with the huge, colorful and ringing creatures, decorated in a famous Pakistani truck-art fashion. Which planet are they coming from? Loaded with hay they seemed flying like baloons a bit above the ground. Hooonk, hooonk!

One of the most magical moments happened next to an uknown village while I was wildcamping. In the morning after the nightstorm men were standing still in the foggy wheatfields, waiting for me to come out of the tent. They had a cage with two birds captured. I felt like E. T. discovered.

They observed my moves putting the tent down and later helped me finding a hook in the grass. They set the birds free for me to see them closely. One flew to the tree, they cought them again. Their shouts passed over the muddy paths and water canals announcing they found me, a strange bird. They invited me for breakfast.

Children were gathering in the muddy school yard, when l passed by. In the fields a teacher on the motorbike invited me for a meal. I turned around and followed him back. We had a chat while hundred students were sitting around. After a while a boy with a cloth-package ran in and they served me omlette, paratha and tea. I felt uncomfortable to eat in the middle of the yard while children were watching me – many of them were fasting, it was ramadan! Meeting another teacher in the fields during the school time I learnt about the concept of ‘ghost teacher.’ Many times teachers don’t show up in the school, but get paid anyway having a government job. And there are ‘ghost schools’ too, not even built, just money flows … I was asking students about their families to practise some basic English, realising they have 7-11 sieblings. I took a look into their more ot less empty notebooks and asked them to sing. A girl sang alone first then everybody followed.

The road conditions were extremely bad, I traveled slowly, avoiding holes and herds of animals crossing my way. After a night of rain there was mud everywhere, parts of villages were flooded.

I got reheated samosas in the afternoon, a rare food available earlier through the day during ramadan. While I was eating hidden behind the food stall, I realised samosas were extremely oily and I dropped some remains on the ground. A young man came from the street and squatted down next to me without a word. He collected my pieces from the mud and ate them. I shared with him my last samosa, shocked.

After 3 days of cycling I reached Mohenjo-Daro (Mound of the Dead Men), archaeological site in Larkana district. Built around 2500 BCE, it was the largest settlement of the ancient Indus valley civilisation and one of the world’s earliest major cities.

Today mostly bricks remain. I was amazed to see they built covered waste water canals and stone trash bins, something even nowadays Hala could envy their ancestors. It is a mistery, why ancient city decayed. Indus river was changing its flow and skeletons were found on the streets …

My bicycle was parked in front of the police station at the entrance of the archeological site. I knew my freedom was gone, I couldn’t avoid being escorted. After camping in the park next to the police building and comfortable oatmeal for breakfast, I packed and started to cycle slowly towards the exit. I passed police station and suddenly the entrance door opened as a car was arriving. What an opportunity! I speeded through the gap in the doorway, guards shouting after me, in a moment I was free! I knew in 1 km there was a crossroad and I was taking the small bumpy sideroad …

An old man stopped me and tried to convince the road was dangerous, leading through the jungle. I continued.

A motorbike stopped me again a few minutes later. Man gave me a phone to talk with police intelligence service. I told the officer on the line where I was going. He said thank you, and I continued. Days of paradise could last a bit longer.

Eagle was flying just next to me when I was crossing huge river. I knew freedom could end anytime.

On the small island amidst Indus pilgrims were devoting their prayers to deities of colourful Hindu temple.

Wandering around I was offered to eat rice under the old tree on the main square. It didn’t really bother me being escorted by the policeman as he was relaxed and friendly, not following me everywhere as a shadow, taking me around Sukkur on his motorbike (‘but the officers must not see us’).

I tried to reach Sadh Belo island in the morning on my own but they didn’t allow me to go on a boat due to ‘security reasons.’ After police knocked on my hotel door in the afternoon, a phone call was enough to let me enter this peaceful island.

From the old minaret I observed kites flying high above the city of Sukkur. Children were slowly pulling them down to their hands.

I followed policeman on motorbike crossing the landmark bridge over Indus to visit Sateen Jo Aastan, a tomb complex and shrine of Seven sisters. Police pick-up was waiting there to follow me too.

Suddenly I realised my little globe was lost from my bicycle! As it would feel what was coming: after months of cycling I will be forced to take public transport and skip part of the route. I felt defeated and desperate.

Following days I struggled trying my best to continue my own way, but was returned twice back to Sukkur. I didn’t want to cycle busy and dusty highway N-5 police insisted on. I had difficulties even breathing there. I asked them to bring me on minibus to Shikarpur, a town 40 km away on the other side of Indus. With my bicycle on the rooftop I asked the driver of minibus to drop me of earlier, at the sideroad. At that moment he received a phone call – police was informing him where to drop me! Their pick-up was waiting for me at the city’s entrance.

I entered Shikarpur with police motorbike in front and pick-up behind me, a cycling criminal with a mask over his face. An officer told me while finally leaving me in a hotel room, I caused him a headache. I thanked him for one too. Two policemen with riffles were guarding my door.

Later in the evening I experienced a strange visit of an old mosque, tragically bombed during the prayer time in 2015 and left in the same condition until now. I was escorted there by two policemen, sitting inbetween them on their motorbike. They led me over the ladder to the ruins.

Next day we started on another, less busy highway, but after 20 km they took me with the car back to Sukkur. Without explanation. I felt lost, for the first time since leaving home 8500 km away I was not allowed to cycle, due to ‘security reasons!’

This phrase was used by authorities as an excuse for everything (disorganisation, lack of resources, lazyness …) as though even a drop of rain could explode. ‘Pakistan is a very safe country!’ was another phrase from the same mouth. What do you believe?

Later I learned there were tribal conflicts and lack of police control in the border areas between Sindh and Punjab provinces. I gave up and decided to take train to Multan. At one of the following trainstations policeman with no English skills joined me in the compartment, sending other passangers out. It ran me mad.

I could wander bazaars and holy shrines in dusty Multan freely for a day, as I left hotel early enough, before police could arrive. Only few hotels are registered and allowed to accept foreigners. When I wanted to leave by bicycle, the hotel guard asked me to wait for police. Enough! I decided to take direct bus to Islamabad, I didn’t want contact with police anymore.

Along long carpets in front of the block of flats with hostel I was staying in, people were gathering for a free meal in the evening, after the prayer call. It was a feast at the end of the everyday fasting during ramadan.

When I was contemplating in the peaceful shrine nearby, suddenly a huge explosion resounded! I got scared, collecting my shoes, but people around acted just normally. It made me confused. Later a friend told me boom happens every day at namaz time, a strange way to tell people they can break the fast and start eating. We had a crazy dinner time that night, celebrating a fictional wedding, with a groom pretending he was from Afganistan and a bride was from London (she could secretly understand Urdu). At one point everybody had a ketchup mark on our foreheads and we were dying of laughing. It was Pakistani humour at its best.