Pakistan - The sleek air-conditioned Daewoo bus leaves the Lahore station right on time. I'm embarking on a 10-hour ride to Peshawar, a stone's throw from the Afghan border. This is the first really comfortable bus trip I've indulged in since arriving in Pakistan. Our crew consists of a driver and a hostess in a chador whose job appears to be making mellow announcements.
From here to Rawalpindi, Daewoo runs the whole show. It not only manufactures the buses but operates the bus line, roadside restaurants and gift shops. Later I'm told Daewoo even built the swanky 400-kilometre highway.
After a few minutes we're cruising through a flat, dusty countryside dotted with bulbous mango trees. There's absolutely no traffic here except for our bus and occasional lorries, some covered with incredibly ornate decoration.
Painted in lurid yellows, reds and blues, the trucks sport flower or bird motifs and Urdu calligraphy on their metal segments. Many have a pair of eyes staring weirdly from the tailgate. I wonder if they have competitions for the best paint job.
Sometimes we whiz by a bus with no windows, its side panels taken down so that the passengers - men in white salwar kameez, their knees bent and bare feet on the seats, pyjama bottoms billowing in the wind - are entirely exposed, the poor man's A/C. Under every overpass or bridge a police cruiser sits parked in the shade, the constables, I imagine, fast asleep.
Toward Rawalpindi we ascend a kind of escarpment or chain of hills. This is a blasted, desert-like, shattered-looking landscape. What little vegetation I can detect consists of pale green bushes like sage. Stark, reddish outcroppings rise steeply from the side of the road. Low brown cubic houses are built out of mud or clay. Every few kilometres we pass a mosque, its minarets bedecked with four megaphones pointing in four directions, like a backdrop for a CNN report.
In Rawalpindi, I run a hectic, stressful race to my connecting bus to Peshawar, which I basically have to flag down. The passengers are all bearded men wearing embroidered cylindrical caps. They seem very phlegmatic about my mega-backpack stationed inconveniently in the aisle. Nobody complains - they just step over it.
These are the fabled Pathans, the tribesmen of the northwest frontier: striking men with high foreheads, prominent noses and strong chins who look like they don't take any shit from anybody. I can feel their eyes burning into me. I attempt a halting conversation with my sullenly silent neighbour. We finally manage to get going, thanks to my four words of Urdu.
Me: Canada. Canada. (I want to be very clear about this.)
He: George Bush?
Me: Nahin!!! Jean Chretien.
I trace an invisible map with my finger on the seat in front of us - two squares, one on top of the other. The lower square is the United States, the upper Canada.
Me: Yahan Canada hai. Yahan America hai. (This is Canada. This is America.)
He: Atchaaaaaaa!! Canada.... George Bush?
Me: Kharab admi. Kharab!! (Bad man. Bad!!)
He: Atchaa!!! (Yes!!)
By now he is smiling. At the next rest stop he insists on treating me to a soft drink. I've made a friend.