Winner of Charles Darwin University Travel Short Story Award 2016
‘So you want to visit Pakistan?’
The two men are looking at me across a desk with expressions of polite interest. I am lucky to have got to the embassy while it’s still open, the rickshaw driver taking an aimless route through the city with a blank expression, before pulling up outside and pointing to the sign. In the waiting room a German guy spoke to me. I admitted that I decided on the detour only yesterday and he said drily, ‘You’ll have to wear a scarf.’
‘Yes, I want to visit Pakistan,’ I say. ‘I have heard it is a beautiful country.’
‘You have no husband, no boyfriend?’
I have Sharn, who will be waiting for me in Beijing in July, but I do not try to explain this. ‘I have been travelling with a friend,’ I say instead. ‘She wants to stay longer in India. I want to go to Pakistan. We will meet up in China next month.’
‘Ah, you have made a good decision. Everyone goes to India. You have spent three months there already and you spend only few weeks in Pakistan! Well, better than nothing. What work do you do in Australia?’
‘I’m a teacher.’
‘And what religion you are?’
‘No religion,’ I say.
The two men look at each other and then at me.
‘Are you Christian? Most people in Australia Christian I think.’
‘No, I’m not Christian.’
‘Then you are Jewish?’
‘No, I’m not anything. I’m not religious.’
‘But you believe in God?’
The two men burst into peals of riotous laughter. One of them slaps his thigh and gasps for breath. He says to me, as to someone failing to perceive an obvious truth, ‘But you believe in Adam and Eva? The first man and woman.’
It’s too late to change my tack so I just say, ‘No.’
The man takes a deep breath and then says, as if to a very dim child, ‘Who created you?’
‘Who are you responsible to for your good and bad deeds?’
I hesitate and say, ‘To myself.’
‘But who will judge you, at the end of your life?’
The men are looking at me with trepidation. The first man asks, looking thoughtful, ‘Are there other people like you?’
Most of the modern world, I think, but say only, ‘Yes, there are a lot of others.’
‘And is there a name for someone like you?’
I tell him, self-consciously, and he asks me to write it down. On a scrap of paper I print neatly ATHEIST and hand it to him. He rolls the word around in his mouth. Then he prints my visa and sticks it into my passport. He tells me I can stay for up to three months but after that I will need to leave the country and re-enter. They both wish me a safe and pleasant trip and as I am getting up to leave the one who has done most of the talking says, ‘Thank you. That was very interesting.’
It is 46 degrees in Lahore. The city festers under a merciless sun which reflects off the cement buildings and the off-white shalwar kameezes of the men. There are no street signs, and I say as much to the manager of the hostel as he checks me in. ‘Yes. They have been talking about putting some up,’ he says with a shrug.
The air in the dormitory is stagnant; the fan moves around with a dull creak. I go out and eat a bowl of noodle soup at a crowded little café. When I turn to leave, I notice a row of eight men seated with their backs to me have all turned to stare over their shoulders.
Back at the hostel, a group of travellers gathers on the deck and a joint is passed around. Most people have come to Pakistan for the trekking. I am conscious of my accidental presence in this country; my lack of plans or direction. I lie back and look up at the night sky; nothingness stretching out forever. A crescent moon is visible above the buildings with a single star beside it. ‘It looks like the flag,’ a dreadlocked young guy murmurs.
The next day, I learn that the dreadlocked young man is an Austrian student on a year-long budget trip through Asia. His name is Michael, and after wandering through the bazaars in the stifling heat, we agree to travel to Islamabad together, and then head further North.
We ask the hotel man to direct us to the local bus depot but on arrival discover he has told us the way to the luxury bus station. The bus seats are wide and a fan is mounted on the wall, beside, of all things, a television.
Michael asks me about my work back home and I tell him I have worked as a teacher ever since I graduated.
‘You don’t have military service in Australia?’
‘We have in Austria.’
I ask him if he has done it and he says imperturbably, ‘I got exemption because I tried suicide. That’s the one good thing about suicide. You don’t have to go to the army.’
The bus starts up again and for a time we sit side by side in awkward silence.
Faisal Mosque looms in front of us, shockingly modern against the background of the sprawling capital. Michael takes a photo of me standing in front of it with my scarf draped around my face and I take one of him.
We take off our shoes and try to walk in together but a guard stops Michael and gestures that he cannot go in with shorts on.
‘You go in, I’ll wait here,’ he says and I go in alone. When I come back, he asks me for my scarf and wraps it around his legs. The guard lets him pass and he shuffles in holding it in place.
He comes back out looking sombre.
‘Do you have religion?’ he asks me as we put our shoes back on.
‘No,’ I say. ‘I grew up atheist.’
A memory comes to me of Sharn, in the early days of us, scoffing at that word.
‘But how can you know there isn’t a God?’ she had asked.
‘It’s not about knowledge,’ I said. ‘It’s about belief. People who believe in God don’t know there’s a God. They believe there is and I believe there isn’t.’
In our first year, Sharn took me with her to church at Christmas and Easter and introduced me to everyone as ‘a friend’. Later I started staying home. ‘What is the point of me coming?’ I had asked her. ‘If you don’t even tell people I’m your girlfriend.’
The bus trip North is terribly uncomfortable, the narrow road winding mercilessly around the mountains, the vehicle jerking from side to side. I sit by the window and my head is smashed against the glass as we take sudden turns. Almost twenty-four hours of this sort of travel leaves us aching, stiff and weary.
It is now a week since I have spoken to Sharn. In the months leading up to our trip, we worked hard and lived modestly, and life shrank to a dull routine which we thought travel would erase. Instead we found ourselves sinking into another routine. Arriving in a town; packing up; our lives crammed into a single room, with nowhere to retreat.
‘I’m going to go and check out Pakistan,’ I finally declared, making the decision only as the words came out. ‘We’ll travel separately for a few weeks. Give each other some space.’
A sudden violent jolt interrupts my memories. I look out the window to find I am looking straight over the edge of a cliff and the bus is hanging on a dangerous angle; one wheel has gone over the edge.
The driver is turning the wheel frantically and muttering what sound like curses. Men in front and behind us have their eyes closed and their hands clasped and are praying to God in eerie unity. For a moment the world seems to stand still, hanging on the edge of a prayer I can’t understand.
Then the wheels gain traction and the bus slides forward and once again we are on the road, winding up the side of the mountain. People breathe again, look at each other, smile.
‘Why are we here then?’
Sharn thrust the words at me. I turned to the tiny motel kitchen bench and swept up an armful of cans, tossing them into a bag.
‘Would you keep the noise down,’ she snarled. ‘We’ve got neighbours.’
Like you care, I thought, stumbling in drunk at all hours of the night.
I placed my copy of The Grapes of Wrath inside my bag, thinking of the peaceful morning I could be having with it.
‘Why are we here?’ she repeated.
There is one more village before the Chinese border.
The minibus to Passu stops for us but there is no space inside, with people jammed into seats and standing up. The driver looks at us and gestures the roof, where there is a luggage rack loaded with suitcases. Michael climbs the step ladder and sits down on top of the luggage. I climb up and sit beside him. The bags are fastened to the bus with tightly tied ropes, and as we grab hold of them, the bus starts moving. Soon we are taxiing around the side of the mountain with the wind in our faces, clutching the ropes as the bus rattles from side to side. We grin at each other like children.
Passu is a tiny village with only one guesthouse and everyone there is heading to China. In the communal area, travellers share stories about the trekking they have done in the previous days and plans for the next ones. We decide to do a single day trek the following day, and a young Japanese man suggests one. The trail is not well marked, he says. None of them are. You have to look for the travellers cairns that tell you which path to take. It passes the glacier and crosses the Hunza River. You can do it in a day if you leave early.
At breakfast the guesthouse owner gives us a map with the trail roughly sketched out. He serves us eggs and toast and tea, and tells us he has been here for fifteen years.
‘You have wife?’ Michael asks.
‘I had. And one boy.’ He pulls a faded photograph from his wallet of a smiling woman in a shalwar and hijab and a young boy. ‘She has gone to God now.’ He pats his heart. ‘Many tourists coming here now. Everyone coming here for trekking. Some people they cross the glacier with guide. Have to carry lot of supplies, food, drink.’ He shows us again the route we need to take on the hand drawn map and says, ‘I will see you tonight, God willing.’
We pass the glacier. It lies inert and green-tinged in the crevasse between mountain peaks and a chill wind comes off it. We find the trail that leads past it by the stone pyramids piled up on its side and follow its sketchy path through the hills in companionable silence.
At the top of a ridge we hear a woman’s cry and look up to see an elderly couple waving at us from beside a simple hut. The woman beckons us to approach and as we draw close she mimes drinking. She gestures at the ground outside the hut where a thin rug is spread out and hastens inside. We sit down cross-legged and she emerges with a pot of tea and some cups. She pours us a cup each and she and the man sit down. She beckons us to drink. She points to our feet and then raises her hand to her forehead. We are tired. She smiles and points to the tea.
We smile back and drink.
The woman gestures from me to Michael and back again. I realise she is asking if we are married and Michael realised this at the same time and nods. We smile at each other.
The old woman walks with us to where the land starts to descend. She points into the middle distance. I squint into the sun and eventually I can make out the jagged trail down the mountain side.
The old woman looks at me and mimes a question, her palms turned upwards. What now? I gesture the trail back down towards the village; the road ahead leads to China, where Sharn will be waiting for me.
We start off down the trail, the ground hard beneath our feet and above us only sky.