Sunday, April 3, 2011


By Rabia Ahmed | InpaperMagzine

Villages on the way south from Punjab are squalid mud or twig huts abutting dirty pools of water; the N5 Highway itself is smooth, except for the stretch bypassing Multan to Bahawalpur.
Mercifully, I have a fuel-efficient car, as CNG was unavailable when we left Lahore for Karachi early one December morning.
Pit stops though available at most fuel stations, are filthy, mosquito ridden, and without water. It’s a good idea to take along dry and wet tissues.
The Khanewal to Bahawalpur Road is rutted, and crowded with trucks with extra wide loads that threaten to tip over. After half an hour behind one that said ‘Naa dekh hiqarat say kisi ko, naa janay kaun kab vazeer ho jai’ (don’t be contemptuous of any one, for who knows when someone might become a minister?), the road suddenly turned near Lodhran and became clearer, more prosperous, with well marked fields, sturdier homes, date palm groves, and piles of sesame wood waiting to be threshed for the seed.
Nine hours after leaving Lahore, we stopped for the night at Sadiqabad, midway between Lahore and Karachi where life centres on the Jamal Din Wali (JDW) sugar mills, and trucks laden with sugar cane clog the streets.
Mist still shrouded the fields, and the road was deserted when we hit the N5 again the next morning. Truck drivers drive better than those driving private cars, adhering to the speed limit on their side, even indicating a turn or change of lane. In an attempt to hitch a ride in the truck’s slipstream, a motorcycle runs about a foot or two behind the rear bumper of each truck like a crow on a cow’s rump. What if the truck stops suddenly? Their utter disregard to safety is mind boggling.
At the Sindh border we had our first encounter with the Sindh police who asked for third party insurance documents that we did not possess. They blatantly demanded Rs 200 for ‘chai pani’, our national cuisine.
Pitiful living conditions once again in Sakrand. Pakistan is a desperately poor country, yet somewhere behind all this poverty lies a nuclear arsenal. Frightening? Yes. We passed some colourful rallis being sold by the roadside at extraordinarily low prices. How much was the artisan paid given that retail?
Hala was disappointing, the few handicrafts shops ill stocked, the pottery, otherwise so beautiful, chipped and carelessly painted. Over the parched Mehran river are some UNICEF sponsored tents for internally displaced persons (IDPs), which remain long after the floods and rivers run dry.
Huge PPP banners started at the Sindh border: Z.A Bhutto, a hopeful Bilawal, the shaheed BB, and Zardari grinning toothily behind them with the local PPP candidate. Once in Karachi, we lost our way, reaching home 12 hours after leaving Sadiqabad. Karachi reinvents itself on every visit with new flyovers, and buildings.
We stayed opposite Bilawal House. To the left of the apartment, half the dual carriageway including the service lane was permanently closed to traffic forcing residents to find their way as best as they could.
We left after 12 days amidst dire warnings of fog in Punjab, and retraced our steps, past a bustling sabzi mandi to another police check post 102km before Hyderabad where another rapacious member of the police demanded Rs1500 because we were without a Highway Code book, and a No Objection Certificate (NOC). Do we need permission to move around the country, or did Jinnah have it wrong when he said, ‘One Nation, One Road,’ which slogan is plastered every few miles on the Highway?
There’s plenty of water logging and salinity along the way, and the ubiquitous ‘Lakki Marwat Hotel’ crops up frequently with its charpoys and water coolers catering to truckies. At Sadiqabad after nightfall our guide to the farm loomed out of the dark carrying a Kalashnikov; the day before, some people were kidnapped in that area.
A car behind a truck loaded with sugar cane
The sugar cane trucks are a hazard by night. They have headlights, but the wide load on either side is not visible until you’re almost hit by it. The following day there was a light mist all the way to Lahore and we reached Multan Road by 5pm, where the traffic became heavy. We reached home two hours later, very glad to be home again.
We spent a total of Rs650 on road toll on the journey, Rs3,600 for petrol and Rs4,400 on CNG.
We learnt to resent the presence of Bilawal House, to stay away from the police, and to keep away from trucks laden with sugar cane at night. Drive when days are longer and there is no fog, and keep a handful of Rs20 notes handy throughout the trip for toll. Above all, drive carefully.

Not one of my favourites since its been mercilessly chopped to shorten it by the editor. Anyway, this was printed on the 3rd of April 2011, in the Dawn Magazine

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