Ditching the Guidebook: My First Trip to Northern Pakistan
Within minutes I’m surrounded by local women from the village. Usually I can hold my own in Urdu conversation, but many of these women speak Burushaski, a language that is unrelated to any other language in Pakistan. Linguists class it as a ‘language isolate,’ and there are estimated to be some 87,000 speakers living in Hunza Valley and the surrounding region.
The door to the screened porch swings open, and a freckled girl with waist length black hair brings in a large tray of tea and bread. A colorful cloth is spread on the floor, and the women pass out teacups and quarter plates. The tea has been brewed with milk and sugar, like most tea in Pakistan, but it surprises me that the women add a pinch of salt to their cups before taking a swig.
The thick, freshly baked bread is nothing like the flat chapattis of the Punjab, and our teatime is rounded out with a teeming plate of hot, hand cut fries.
After spending five months teaching in Lahore, I was ready to travel and see Pakistan’s Northern Areas. I had spent weeks marking up my guidebook, figuring out which hotels to stay in and budgeting for different treks. When I told my Pakistani friends that I planned to go up north, many of them voiced concern for my safety.
One of these friends, Rana, decided to use his connections to contact locals in Gilgit, the capital of the Northern Areas, and get the low-down. Rana ended up chatting with the manager of a bank in Gilgit, and the manager offered to meet me at the bus station and introduce me to his daughter, Rukhsana, who was also in her mid-twenties.
Rukshana’s dad met me at the station and assured me that the situation in the Northern Areas was calm and that I could travel freely on my own.
“If you’d like, I can take you to my village to stay with my family. But if you prefer, you can stay in town in a hotel. It’s up to you.”
I clutched my guidebook and thought about all the highlighted destinations and editors’ picks. All the sights I wanted to see and souvenirs I wanted to buy. I hesitated for a moment before loosening my grip on the guidebook and accepting his invitation.
Rukhsana gets my attention using my Urdu name, “So Mishal, tell us, are you married?”
The photo of my mehngator (fiancé) gains a round of approval, but one of the older women looks concerned. After a hushed conference in Burushaski, she asks in Urdu, “When is your wedding? Your hair is much too short to get married now!”
I learn that 15 inches of hair is just not enough for a bride. I eat pomegranates straight from the tree, get lost in cornfields and wade in glacial streams.
I don’t have any notes to write in my guidebook, but that’s more than okay with me.