Pakistan: Riding the Iron Chicken Bus

I dread travelling on buses, particularly in the third world. They invariably stop all the times you don’t need them to and never when you do. To make matters worse, many buses don’t have toilets on them, rest stops seemingly don’t have toilets, even though at times the ones they choose resemble a toilet. So when anything comes along to bring a little variety to a bus trip, one should presumably be grateful, even though this anything is often just grating.
Everyone seems to be in a rush on the roads of Pakistan, when they actually get going that is. To get to this stage one must endure many moments of false hope. For example, there is the hope that the perfume seller who has hopped aboard at the bus station in Lahore and who is rattling away his sales pitch about the “Paris” perfume he’s holding in his hand will be the only one on the trip. Or the seller of various colours of cloths that you have stopped on the side of the road for, will be dropped off very shortly, no-one taking his place to sell you drinks and food, all the way to Multan, six hours south.
Once you are actually travelling on the open road though, the driver must make up for lost time. To do this he has a handy weapon at his disposal: the hooter-box combo. Above, and to his right, on the inner frame of the bus, can usually be found a small metal panel with black buttons. Each button denotes a particular kind of hooter sound. The monotonous blaaaah is the most forceful sound at his disposal, followed by the wah-wah-wah, wah-wee-wah and the trusty old standard wah-wee-wah-wee. While to the untrained ear a wah-wee-wah-wee is just a wah-wee-wah-wee, to the driver, ten minutes of no wah-wee-wah-wee would be, for an Australian, like a test cricket match between Australia and England without England losing; life has become warped, empty and unrecognisable.

Any person in his way, about to be in the way, perhaps thinking that he may step in the way at some point, or just walking along humming a tune sounding remotely like I’ll do it my way, is reminded by the driver that while he might dare to act contrary to the driver’s wishes, he will not go unnoticed, whether he be a small kid on a bike, a pedestrian or an express bus; this principle being applied by every driver out on the road.
My particular bus had some saving graces: air-conditioning and entertainment. And besides, it advertised itself as “The Choice of Noble Personalities.” (It also stated on the ticket that it was “Faster and Safe Travelling” – although this had been crossed out for some reason.)

The entertainment in this case was an overly-lit movie on a television up the front. It didn’t take much of an educated guess to realise it was an Indian movie. While a bit of flesh can be seen on advertisments in English-language Pakistani media, exposed mid-riffs and, at times rather exotic dancing, could not possibly make it a homegrown effort. In this particular movie our hero was having tough time, having to choose between not only one gorgeous Indian woman, but two, with enough time and energy to break into a dance routine when love inevitably slapped him in the face; whilst an ordinary man such as myself would have been lying prostrate on the couch, drowning my sorrows over a beer and reading an article in a men’s magazine about how men don’t really need chicks for all that much. Luckily, for our hero, he got the good girl in the end and saw the bad girl for what she was. By the time I arrived in Multan, I just got a sore back, two bruised knees and little prospects of some tender loving care by any girl, let alone a gorgeous one.
Multan is said to be the oldest surviving city on the subcontinent, dating back about 4,000 years, not that it is that apparent without the use of tourist literature. More overt is the enormous influence that holy men and their followers have had on the city; Multan is grave-city, but with a smile. Before Muslims became the dominant residents in the area (the city was captured by the commander Mohammed bin Qasim in 711) Hindu shrines were the main religious attraction. Now it is a haven for Muslim pilgrims, particularly the mystically-inclined Sufis who stream in from all quarters to enthusiastically and emotionally seek out the resting places of their dead saints. There is one saint, Shams Tabrez, who it is said brought the sun closer to himself, making Multan one of the hottest places around in Pakistan. Gee, thanks.
I made my way the next morning through the town, passing an array of motor repair shops, spare part shops and some pretty swanky car dealerships, before approaching a prominent hill, the top of which houses Qasim Bagh Fort (now mostly in ruins), a mosque, a number of shrines and a sports stadium. I was joined by a steady stream of men on their way up the hill to Friday lunchtime prayers, the intense heat taking up the rear. I stopped at the entrance to the fort on the hill for a rest. Thankfully a cool breeze provided a brief interlude, also bringing out a plethora of beggars who congregate in the vicinity. As I sat on the roadside curb, wiping away the dust swirling in my face, and pretending not to notice the presence of a faceless woman tugging on my shirt, an old man shuffling around nearby, clad in a green shalwar qamiz, motioned me over.
To his right he indicated a rope and wood-framed mattress under the shade of an undernourished tree. Next to it were a few others tied to the tree. He indicated that I should sit on the mattress. As I took my place and took a sip of water, he nodded reassuringly, and then sat down next to me, facing the edge of a hill running down to some ramshackled buildings in the valley below.

As far as I could see there were more of these buildings, interrupted by dirty streets cluttered with makeshift stands selling fruit and newspapers. To my left I could see the bazaar area, a dilapidated mosque and a tall clock tower that had ceased working, framed by a large billboard advertising happy people during a happy moment.

As the old man, greying hair tucked under a once brightly decorated scarf, pottered out to scrape a square in the dusty ground, more men walked swiftly up the road to the summit of the hill, disappearing underneath the arch of the tall gateway; motorbikes and cars followed, weaving in between the human traffic. What seemed to be a public announcement rang out across the city centre, initally competing with the call to prayer emanating from several mosques, then slowly being subsumed.

The old man exchanged some words with a pair of tatty men emerging from their makeshift brick, scrap and dust homes, that hung onto the sides of a brick wall ringing the circumference of the hill, then returned to the bed and sat there with his back to me, staring into the ground. As emotions rose, echoing across the valley from minarets and loudspeakers, he lay down and rested his head on a large knot in the tree. Out of the corner of my eye I watched vagrants wandering aimlessly up and down the hill, unperturbed by what was unfolding across the mosques all around us. From time to time I glanced at the old man, but he didn’t seem to notice. Fingers twitching, feet still, he continued to stare into the ground. I hunched my shoulders down and looked ahead, for what I do not know, any movement on my part causing the mattress to creak. And there we stayed for nearly two hours, not saying a word, letting the sermons drift around and over us, deep in our thoughts; waiting.

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