Should you go?
Terrorist attacks. Suicide bombings. Taliban madrasses. Unfortunately, all we hear about Pakistan in the Western media are horrific stories of a war torn nation. Although there are some regions of Pakistan that are extremely unsafe and officially off-limits for tourists, there are several regions that are regarded as just as safe as neighboring India. Many travelers can’t fathom stepping one foot on Pakistani soil and stay clear of the Islamic country after categorizing it as an off-limit zone. According to the research I conducted before making the decision to travel to Pakistan, the probability for being a victim of a suicide bombing as a traveler in Pakistan is about the same as being struck by lightening in a thunderstorm. As a free spirited man whose favorite past time is jogging in summer rain storms, I made the decision to explore this mysterious country. Honestly speaking, as a Western traveler in Pakistan you do run the risk of becoming a target as your surroundings have the potential to become volatile at any moment. During my travels in this mysterious land I was accused of being a CIA spy, found myself in the middle of anti-West political rallies, was scolded by the police for revealing to a group of unassuming locals that I am a citizen of the United States of America and was escorted through at risk areas with five AK-47 armed police officers. Despite all of these potentially threatening situations, I was able to escape Pakistan unscathed and have incredible stories that I will never forget until the day I leave this earth. My goal for this article is to share with you some tips on safe travel if you do make the decision to travel into this extremely charismatic and addicting country.
1. Invest in a Shalwar Kameez
This should be the first thing you do when entering the country. In case you are ever in doubt about how revealing your clothes are in this conservative Muslim country, simply dressing in a shalwar kameez will solve all of your worries. It also makes a nice souvenir to take home with you at the end of your trip. With the exception of your hands and face, it covers all of your exposed skin to provide comfortable skin protection in the summer months. Upon seeing a traveler dressed in traditional Pakistani clothing it automatically shows the local people that you are acceptant of their culture before you even open your mouth.
2. When in Doubt Don’t Open Your Mouth
Once you have purchased your shalwar kameez it will be easy for locals to mistaken you for a Pakistani at first glance. If you ever find yourself in a potentially volatile area the next way people will figure out you are from foreign territory is when you begin to speak. Unless you have native fluency in Urdu or Pashto this will be a big factor regarding your personal safety. Have someone write down the place you want to go in Urdu and pretend that you are mute or deaf. This tip came in handy when I visited the “smuggler’s bazaar” on the Pakistan- Afghanistan border. Despite receiving many warnings from locals not to visit the bazaar where smuggled items and assault weapons are sold on the black market, my adrenaline addiction got the best of me and I made use of this tip while simply observing my surrounding environment.
3. Leave your bag, glasses and other accessories behind.
If you are in for a Pakistani adventure the best tip I can give you is to leave your belongings in your hotel or accommodation. Most locals do not wear glasses, carry travel backpacks or sport unnecessary accessories. You will draw more attention to yourself if you are carrying any of these personal items with you. If traveling between cities, this may be unavoidable, but try to minimize what you bring with you whenever possible. I always recommend traveling with a minimalists’ mindset anyway. In Pakistan it is of paramount importance.
4. Walk and Act with Confidence Despite Any Hardships
If you find yourself in the middle of an anti-West political rally or any other threatening situation, assuming you have followed the above advice it will be nearly impossible for anyone to identify you as a tourist. The last thing you want to do is give yourself away by your nervous body language. Remember communication is more than eighty percent non-verbal. Always keep you vision ahead of you, stand up straight and avoid looking around with quick, tense movements. This shows you are scanning the environment for danger and people might become skeptical of your purpose in Pakistan. Do not let your non-verbal communication blow your cover and get you in serious trouble. If you find yourself nervous or frightened, do not label your emotions as negative or positive. Just think to yourself “this feeling will go away soon” and take some deep breaths to calm yourself down. You need your mind clear to escape a potentially threatening situation.
5. Learn some Pashto and Urdu
“If you speak to a man in his native language you are communicating with his heart. If you speak to a man in his second language your are communicating with his brain.” This is one of my favorite quotes from Nelson Mandela. Despite all I have mentioned in this article, Pakistani people are extremely hospitable and warm-hearted. One of the most important tips for travel in any country is to learn the local language. This is just as important in Pakistan. The first words I learned in Urdu and Pashto were “Pakistan zindabad” and “Pakistan zama kkwakday” or “long live Pakistan.” Whenever encountering someone on the street for the first time I would always say hello first with the traditional Muslim greeting of “assalam alaikum” followed by one of the phrases mentioned above and I would receive a warm welcome. Street vendors often did not charge me for food after repeating these phrases with a large grin on my face.
If you follow the above travel advice, you should have no issues during your adventure in Pakistan. During the course of my time in this misunderstood nation, I experienced great local hospitality over and over again and obtained a new outlook on life and the world. Pakistan is a rewarding travel destination to explore and you will have the entire country all to yourself without the tourist crowds of neighboring India. Lahore, Peshawar, Chital- there are so many beautiful places to explore. Pakistan zindabad!