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Travel and World Culture   
 Photo: Danish Khan
 Photo: Danish Khan

Conversations On A Pakistani Bus
By Joel Carillet

It was dusk now and the bus continued its rumble west on the Grand Trunk Road.  We were two hours out of Rawalpindi and still an hour from Peshawar.  It was about then that Mian, a policeman on his way home from work, leaned into me and delivered a question that caught me off guard:

“Do many people in Canada use heroin for sex?”

I was confused and ashamed.  Confused because in all my years of education nobody had told me about a relationship between heroin and sex.  Ashamed because thirty minutes earlier, in fear for my life, I lied to Mian and told him I was from Canada.  Now it was too awkward to tell him the truth, and so the charade continued.

“Why would a man inject heroin for sex?” I asked.

Mian was patient in his response, like a gentle teacher accustomed to students in need of remedial education.  “A normal man does sex for five or ten minutes,” he said.  “A man with heroin can do sex for five, maybe six hours.  Many in Saudi Arabia do this.  Many here too.”

I was making my second bus journey from Rawalpindi to Peshawar and felt much more comfortable this time around.  The first time, six days earlier, I had spent the morning with a bad stomach and debilitating fever.  In a traffic jam on the way to the station, my taxi got caught behind an open-cab truck filled to the gills with just-butchered cow carcasses.  The rotting flesh in late summer heat has the potency of a stun grenade. 

When I finally reached the station, so weak I could barely walk, a grandfatherly security guard asked my nationality.  His eyes nearly popped out of his beard when I said America.  He vigorously shook his head, either in denial or as a signal for me to try again.  I smiled and said Australia.  He nodded happily.

The Grand Trunk Road stretches from Calcutta to Kabul, the impressive creation of a sixteenth century Mogul ruler of India, and is now paved.  The route from Rawalpindi to Peshawar covers some 100 miles and is shared by buses, bullock carts, chauffeured luxury cars, and pedestrians. 

My driver was particularly wild, and it seemed fitting to enter Pakistan’s infamously unruly North West Frontier Province with such a man at the helm.  He sped and swerved with admirable fatalism.  He loved his horn like others loved their guns (the province is home to an estimated 7 million Kalashnikovs).

The passengers were a rugged lot; most of the men had beards and were Pashtun, the group of 12 million people who live along the Pakistan-Afghan border.  They sat or stood quietly, unmoved even when our driver careened around other vehicles and brought us to within a hairbreadth of meeting Allah.  Near-death was not an event to get ruffled over. 

Few men spoke at all; and as I looked into their furrowed faces, a young man gave his seat to an old man; it was done with a minimum of words, if with any at all.  As the bus charged on toward Peshawar, there was nothing to do but wait; and the men simply stared.  They looked not at a particular thing but rather beyond things, as if they were seeing their own thoughts and weighing them.

Several women sat toward the front of the bus, and children played on their laps.  The women were veiled—expressionless, faceless, and completely unapproachable. 

I remembered how on my first trip to Peshawar I had been more nervous than I was now.  The sense of danger I had days earlier had not disappeared, rather given way to familiarity. 

“Do you have many homosexuals in Canada?”  

Sex is a beloved topic of conversation in every part of the world, and Pakistan was no exception.  I guessed around 5 percent, and then I prepared for Mian’s moral chastisement.  But his reply caught me off guard. 

“That is all!  In Pakistan, we have 25 percent homosexuals.  And we have 5 percent female homosexuals.  We call them lesbians.”

“The graph is growing,” Mian continued with a sigh. As a policeman, Mian possessed an anthology of anecdotal evidence of the recent moral degradation of Pakistani society.  In the past week he had questioned a young man and woman caught having sex in a video store.  Everyone, he said, was having sex in his jurisdiction south of Islamabad—the pharmacist, the mechanic, the man who grills kebabs. 


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