The airline worker pulled me aside as I waited to check in to my flight. I stood out quite clearly as the only non-Pakistani waiting in line to fly from Dubai to Lahore. He had to ask me three different times to make sure he heard me right.
“You… are going to Pakistan?”
“Yes,” I confirmed yet again.
He took my visa and set me aside as he waited to confirm that all my paperwork was in order. By that, I mean he sent a picture of my visa to someone via WhatsApp. This must be the top-of-the-line Pakistani immigrations system that my friend warned me about. I waited for 20, then 30, then 40 minutes without any word. The line had dwindled down to the last few passengers, but there I remained.
Imagine, I’m meant to lead a group expedition to Pakistan and then I can’t even get on my flight. Eventually I just walked up to the check-in desk and no one stopped me and I got my boarding pass without any problems. She told me to go fast because the gate was quite far away. Wouldn’t have been a problem if y’all let me check in an hour ago, but we’re cruising.
I raced through security and immigration and sprinted all the way to my gate just minutes before the flight was meant to take off. There were no other passengers in sight and I was the last one on board, a little sweaty, but comfortably settled into my seat just in time for take off.
Until a couple dozen passengers leisurely made their way on to the plane over the next hour or so. That was my first introduction to Pakistani time. Flight leaves at 11 AM? Nah, flight leaves when everyone gets on the plane.
The doors finally closed, and within a few minutes, we were in the air.
Thankfully, it was a lot less eventful arriving in Pakistan than it was flying there. Aside from the least legit “testing on arrival” system that I’ve ever seen, I breezed through customs and immigration. Waiting for me at the airport were my two trip co-leaders, Will and Imran, both still recovering from a sleepless night out in Lahore. Here I thought the next few weeks would be a detox of sorts. Put Will and I together, though, and any mind-altering substance will find its way to us, whether it be moonshine or psychedelic toads.
It would be a few more hours before we’d need to make the next airport pick up. We dropped my stuff off at the hotel, picked up some traditional Pakistani garb, and then made our way to a restaurant for my first Pakistani meal and some Qawwali music.
The couple of hours spent at that restaurant were my only moments of peace during my first few days in Pakistan. Even going to the shop to pick up a shalwar kameez was an ordeal. The narrow alleyways of Anarkali Bazaar were shared by humans, motorbikes, and cars alike. Organized chaos is what some would call it, but for me, it was a game of survival. Having traveled solo for over five years, many parts of travel have become passive. I can turn my brain on auto-pilot and get from point A to point B without any issues.
Turning your brain off in Lahore is a death sentence, and I hadn’t had to be kept on my toes like that ever before. Not even in Vietnam where motorbikes outnumber people. Lahore was my first culture shock in a long time, and potentially my biggest ever. I started to second-guess why I had come here, let alone agreed to host a group expedition. My heart was racing, my anxiety was creeping, and I was retreating deep into my own head in a way that I never had before.
Too damn bad, because I’d be picking up the first batch of trip participants in just a few hours.
I’d have to put on a brave face to go along with my new shalwar kameez, and do every damn thing I could to keep spirits high. If the 50 countries under my belt and 5 years of nonstop solo travel couldn’t prepare me for Lahore, what hope do these wide-eyed 22-year old girls have? (Turns out everyone on this trip was a badass in their own right, but we’ll get to that later).
I had to set my own demons aside for a little bit and get everyone settled in to the country they’d be calling home for the next two weeks. Thus, my first night in Lahore had kicked off, a sleepless night as we made our rounds to and from the airport. The first batch brought us Leanna and Emily, two spunky American girls who’d known each other from college. Sweet and innocent was my first impression, but it took a grand total of one conversation for me to realize otherwise. With them was Clara, an absolute fire cracker of a human being from Ireland who would go on to provide approximately half of the trip’s laughs.
We hopped in a tiny van that we endearingly referred to as a Lahori Lamborghini, and whisked them away to one of the only proper beds they’d be sleeping in for the next two weeks. We took advantage of two hours of downtime to get a restless lie-in before racing back to the airport to pick up Cora, a Swiss friend I had met while traveling in Sri Lanka, and Alexa, a Coloradan who had joined me on my group trip to Croatia a few months prior.
The last pick-up of the day was meant to be Chad. As would come to be the theme of the trip, it didn’t go smoothly. His flight was cancelled without warning, and he’d have to book the next flight out the following morning. And yet, somehow, his ordeal was only a fraction as harrowing as Kelli’s. Chad would arrive the next morning just in time for the day’s activities, and Kelli would eventually join us in Islamabad after a few pep talks.
And thus, we have the magnificent ten adventurers that would make up the cast of this epic expedition through Pakistan.
Day 1: Lahore
Intertwined between the airport pickups and long naps, we had our first forays into the chaos of hot and muggy Lahore. Our group was young, every participant thirty or below, but the life experiences were all over the place. Cora thrived in the chaos. We met in Sri Lanka, after all, and she was no stranger to mayhem after her time in India. Seeing her eyes grow wide as we weaved through Lahore’s bazaars gave me a sense of comfort that everything and everyone was going to be okay. I emphasized strongly that this was not going to be a glamorous experience, but even then, I was unsure how some newer travelers would fare in the maelstrom of Lahore.
Thankfully, everyone thrived, or at the very least, survived. I started to get to know each of my fellow group members individually, learning how their life experiences were helping them cope. From Port-Au-Prince to Dar-es-Salaam to Delhi, each traveler had a comparison to cling onto to help them adjust to the hustle of the world’s 26th largest city. Crossing those streets with ten foreigners in tow was no easy feat, but everyone did well enough.
The illusions of the next two weeks being a detox immediately went away as we were invited to our first underground party in this dry country. A chic apartment, tribal house music playing, vodka Red Bulls flowing, one could easily forget we were in Pakistan. That is, until you step out for a smoke break and the Lahori heat hits you like a dozen rickshaws. The vodka did wonders for loosening everyone up, and our group was starting to mesh. Another sleepless night was probably not what I needed, but when a party presents itself, duty calls. I rolled my hungover self out of bed early that morning to pick up Chad from the airport before the expedition’s itinerary would officially begin.
Day 2: Lahore
Our driver, Babar, pulled up in his big blue bus to transport us to the first of our many adventures of the day. Lahore is the second-largest city in Pakistan, but arguably the cultural and historical hub of the country. Home to some of the country’s most beautiful mosques and historical sites, today was meant to immerse us into the vibrant culture of Pakistan. And, immerse ourselves we did.
Mostly in sweat.
We adeptly tip-toed our way through cramped bazaar streets. Or, more accurately, the locals on motorbikes adeptly dodged the group of ten tourists fumbling around their home city. Today took us through beautiful Lahore Fort, Badshahi Mosque, and Wazir Khan Mosque before we scurried over to the Pakistan-India border for one of the most… interesting displays of nationalism I have ever seen.
Lahore Fort was a complete 180 from everything we had seen in Lahore so far. Calm, quiet, with vast green areas and not a vehicle in sight. The architecture was stunning, yet we were the main attraction. School kids and locals of all ages flocked to us for pictures. It was flattering at first, but I don’t think any of us actually got any information from our guided tour of Lahore Fort. The story was the same as we walked over to the grandiose Badshahi Mosque.
People would blurt out random countries to try and guess where I was from, and only when they finally guessed “Philippines” did they find themselves deserving enough for a photo. Chad, maybe one of the only Black people they’ve ever seen, was practically drowning in crowds like bread among pigeons. Thankfully, we had Imran to shoo them away. Once we got back out onto the chaotic streets of Lahore, people had other things to worry about besides snapping selfies with foreigners.
Our next destination was Wazir Khan Mosque, which required us to yet again dodge mayhem and motorbike through the tight bazaar streets. How anyone can safely window shop without getting hit by a car is beyond me. After having done this a few times now without injury, I decided to walk a little slower and gaze a little longer. Instead of staring at my feet, my eyes were actually lingering above ground long enough to make eye contact. With carpet salesmen, tailors, street food vendors, and so on, those meetings of eyes spoke a thousand words.
Despite the run-and-gun vibe of Lahore, the Pakistani people were welcoming and gentle, and our presence in their country led to genuine intrigue and curiosity. I’ve been a foreigner in many countries, and often times it feels like a target put on your back that says “make me spend money”. In Pakistan, I never felt that way. Nearly every person I made eye contact with beamed a huge smile. I’ve been told many times about Pakistani hospitality, but I was finally experiencing it firsthand.
Pakistanis take a lot of pride in their country, and I truly think it means a lot to them when a traveler makes their way to this off-the-beaten-path part of the world.
Speaking of Pakistani pride…
Our last stop of the day took us to a ceremony at the India-Pakistan border about an hour outside of Lahore. Aside from Will and Imran, none of us had any idea what to expect. The journey to get to the arena was reminiscent of many a border crossing in Asia: getting off the bus, walking endlessly in punishing heat, and a lot of random security searches. After what felt like a dozen security checkpoints, we were finally able to settle down in our seats and chill out.
Well, except for all the selfies and the occasional baby being handed to us for photos. We truly were celebrities out here. The border ceremony began, a nationalistic display of harmless force between India and Pakistan. It was basically a competition to see who could march angrier, stomp harder, and kick higher. Loud music blared over the speakers as hype men ran around the arena waving flags and telling the crowd to scream. Kids had their faces painted in the stands. Vendors were selling popcorn and sodas. It was a sporting event where nothing was at stake, but if you didn’t cheer your damned loudest for Pakistan, you were a traitor to the country.
We capped off day two with a night out that turned out to be much more than we bargained for. The word club had been thrown around all day, and none of us really knew what to expect. The “club” was set in a mansion with a few different rooms, and at its peak, probably hosted about 20 people, including our group of ten. It shouldn’t have been a wild night.
But this blog isn’t called The Partying Traveler because it’s home to tales of staying in and being sober. I’ll spare you the details, as steamy as they were. Maybe when I start my OnlyFans. But yet again, sleep was out of the picture. Before I knew it, 5:45 AM rolled around and the alarm I had set to walk Kelli through Dubai’s airport was going off. Normally, every person was responsible for getting themselves to Pakistan, but this was literally Kelli’s first time out of the country.
I remember catching a glimpse of her area code, a Missouri phone number from an area that I’d gone to school for a couple of years. If this crazy human from Missouri trusted an online stranger like me enough to just up and book a trip to Pakistan for their first time abroad, then I was doing whatever it takes to get her here.
Thankfully, she had no issues getting on her flight to Pakistan, and it seemed like everything was set for our group to finally be united. Murphy’s Law, though.
Day 3: Islamabad
Day three was a slow day, as can be expected after a surprisingly crazy night out. Half of us didn’t sleep, and the other half were exhausted from a number of factors. Diving into Lahore was trial by fire. Taking jet-lagged, sleep-deprived, and relatively inexperienced travelers and dropping them off into the throes of one of the world’s most chaotic cities was inevitably going to be draining. The simple act of walking around anywhere else in the world was an active mental and physical workout in Lahore. Even for myself, who made it a lot more difficult by not sleeping whatsoever those first few nights.
We hopped in the big blue bus headed by our big bear of a driver, Babar, and slowly chugged our way along to Islamabad in peace.
Were you expecting the bus ride to be uneventful?
I did everything I could to doze off, and all things considered, the road from Lahore to Islamabad should have been smooth sailing. Unfortunately, one of our participants got a bit overenthusiastic at dinner last night. Who can blame them? Pakistani food is absolutely mouthwatering.
I got a text asking to stop at the nearest restroom. A few minutes later, I got another one saying to stop the damn bus. The bus was still screeching to a halt when Chad opened the door and unloaded the contents of last nights’ dinner on the highway.
Welcome to Pakistan. He would only be the first of many casualties to Pakistani cuisine. The food? Delicious. The hygiene? For my Westerners out there, questionable at best. Our local Pakistani guide and my Filipino self were the only ones who avoided food poisoning for the entirety of the trip. For everyone else, it was a literal shit show.
We all got very familiar with each others’ bowel movements throughout the trip. For this group of strangers, everything was laid bare quite quickly. A few more bathroom stops were made along the way, pushing our schedule back a little bit. Poor Chad. Even as he was coming back from vomiting in the bathroom, he couldn’t walk ten feet without a local asking for a selfie. A good sport to the end, he never turned them down.
We arrived in Islamabad and immediately found ourselves at one of the world’s top calligraphists’ studios. Will might be one of the most connected guys in Pakistan, judging from how he got the ambassador to approve our visas within hours instead of the usual month-long ordeal. And now, here we were, nonchalantly getting our names written in Urdu by Pakistan’s most famous calligraphist. Tea was passed around and a musician pulled out his guitar to serenade us. Just another day of that overwhelming Pakistani hospitality.
We wrapped up our time with the calligraphist just in time for a horrific thunderstorm that ended up pushing my anxiety over the edge. It didn’t help that I’d accumulated maybe three hours of sleep over the last three nights, and that our final group member was literally in the air right now set to land in Islamabad within the hour. Imran headed to Islamabad’s airport to pick her up as the rest of us huddled indoors for a late lunch. Outside, it was dark and gloomy, aside from the frequent flashes of lightning.
Inside, they were playing the same Ava Max pop song on repeat while the fluorescent lights blinded the absolute living shit out of me. I put my headphones in and closed my eyes just reminding myself to breathe, before being shaken awake by Will. The look on his face was somber, and I took an AirPod out. In my spiraling anxiety, my mind immediately went to “Eli, the plane has crashed and you have led a young woman to her death”.
Inshallah, that was not the case. Kelli’s flight had been redirected to Lahore, and while significantly better than a plane crash, this poor girl could not catch a break. I texted her on WhatsApp, and she was as upbeat as ever. Whether someone has been to 200 countries or two, there is always something to learn and absorb from them. Kelli would teach and inspire me a lot over the next two weeks, but for now, a little of her optimism rubbing off on me was what I needed most.
She lost her passport a few weeks before the trip, and by some miracle, was able to get an appointment for a new one just days before the trip. We were able to get her visa approved just before she was set to fly, only for her to find out that her PCR test was not valid for her to fly. She wasn’t able to make her flight, and we exchanged texts where she lamented that “it was not meant to be this time”. I spent an hour looking for alternate flights and searching for rapid PCR tests in the LA area for her. A pep talk from the other girls on the trip convinced her to book the flight, one that would take her through Paris, Dubai, and Karachi before landing in Islamabad in time for us to pick her up.
Kelli, I promise that international travel is never going to be this much of an ordeal ever again.
I couldn’t even eat anything at lunch, and as soon as we made it to our cushy guesthouse in Islamabad, I was completely passed out. Last thing I remember before going to bed was Imran coming back and telling us the news in person that Kelli’s flight had been redirected for an unknown amount of time. Immediately after he got back, we got the call that the flight was back on its way to Islamabad, and he was off to the airport yet again.
I woke up half asleep around 8:30 that evening, just before the group was meant to met with a local family for a cozy dinner experience. A good night’s sleep seemed infinitely more important to me at the time, but not before I jumped out of bed to finally, finally, finally give Kelli the world’s most-deserved hug in the history of embraces.
to be continued…
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