What did I think I was doing? What made me think I could make this trip by myself, a woman, in Pakistan, driving across the country on my own?
Mom died in January last year, suddenly and unexpectedly. After her death, I packed up the house and flew from Karachi back to Islamabad, where I lived and worked. I brought my cats back with me—Yoda, 15, Snickers, 15, and Samurai, 12; perhaps not the smartest move, but it was better than giving them away to someone else.
Neither my sister nor I could face packing up my mother’s things after her death, and waiting a year to do it afforded us some distance, some ability to control our emotions. So she took a month off work, and bought a ticket for 12 December. I took a month off work, and contemplated buying a ticket for 11 December.
Then Yoda fell seriously ill.
His illness upended my plans. I had to be in Karachi for a month, and I didn’t want to leave him with strangers for the whole month. I had to take him with me, but I wasn’t sure if a trip by air was something he could bear. From previous experience, they wouldn’t let him into the cabin. He’d be in the airport hangar, in his carrier, 3 hours before the flight. If they forgot to heat the cargo hold, he’d die of the cold once he was on board. When I brought the cats to Islamabad, it took PIA 2 hours after the flight landed to offload the animals, and I had to get them from the cargo terminal. A flight would mean at least 6 hours in the carrier for a sick cat. I couldn’t do that to him.
So I came up with the bright idea of taking Yoda with me by road. My friends and colleagues in Islamabad had something to say about that.
“You don’t have a car.”
I could rent one, but that was ridiculously expensive. So I thought I would buy one. That was a lightbulb moment. I talked to colleagues at work and vacillated for almost three weeks between cars and banks and where to break up the 16-hour journey (I would be driving alone, and handing over the wheel to my imaginary friend when I got sleepy was not on the cards).
Five days after I found a bank whose terms I liked and signed the agreement with them, five days after the car had been booked and orders sent to Karachi to have it shipped to Islamabad, Yoda died.
He’d been sleeping with me for three weeks, curled up under my comforter, his small head nestled on my pillow, and a paw on my shoulder or arm, as though contact was essential for his health. Then I came home from work on a Thursday and found his stiff body in a back room, hidden behind a box. Snickers and Samurai met me at the door that day. Unusual for them. It was normally Yoda’s job to greet me at the door and mewl at me until I refilled his food bowl, or picked him up and carried him around for a few minutes like a child.
He died on 21 November 2019, 10 months and 10 days after Mom died.
I began to rethink my adventure of a solitary 2-day drive across Pakistan. The whole point to the drive was to take Yoda with me, to keep him comfortable in an airconditioned car instead of cooped up in a cage in an airport hangar. I wanted him near me, as a source of comfort, and to take him home to the house he’d lived in for so many years, to let him die where he grew up. Instead, he’s buried somewhere off the Kashmir Highway in a dense forest of trees. Why would I need to do it anymore? I could catch a flight. Be there in two hours instead of two days…
Having a car in Karachi would be useful, however. And I had two more cats, one the same age as Yoda. Perhaps leaving them alone in Islamabad for a month wasn’t the best idea.
It took me a week to revive the plan. I decided to leave on 10 December. I was going to spend the night with friends in Multan and then travel to Karachi the next day. And I was taking two cats with me, in the back seat, in their carriers.
On the morning of 10 December, I drank a giant mug of tea in my rented apartment. I stood by the sink where my cats were hiding (they knew nothing good happened when their carriers and suitcases were in the hallway, so they scrambled as soon as they saw them) and I thought, what the hell am I doing? The voices of a couple of colleagues at work (well, just one, really. He knows who he is.) were in my head.
“What happens if the car breaks down?” (It was a brand new car. I was worried about taking it on a long trip without breaking it in first.)
“What if you get a flat tyre? Do you have a tyre repair kit? Do you even know how to change a tyre??” (As it happens, I do.)
“Don’t drive through Sindh at night. There are bandits, and other possible, vague dangers.”
“What if Google takes you down back roads, or your wi-fi cuts out and you get turned onto the wrong road. You could easily get lost.” (Off the motorway? There are signs.)
“Do you have a weapon? Something that you can keep on you at all times? Perhaps a gun?”
I had a paper cutter. I put that in my bag the night before, as the voices in my head became relentless. In the morning, they were deafening. I reconsidered. What did I think I was doing? What made me think I could make this trip by myself, a woman, in Pakistan, driving across the country on my own? I knew how to change a tyre, but I really didn’t know what I would do if the car broke down.
The only thing was, I had spent a huge chunk of my savings on the down payment for the car. There was no way I was going to be able to afford a plane ticket at the last minute. And my sister was flying in and landing in Karachi on the 12th. She didn’t have keys to the house, so if I wasn’t in Karachi by the time she landed, she’d have nowhere to go.
I pulled myself together. The colleagues with the scary voices had never done this drive themselves (yes, you-know-who, I’m looking at you). They were fear mongering because this was unknown to them. Conventional wisdom tells us the country is dangerous, that a woman travelling alone is liable to be car-jacked, raped, or murdered. That she is helpless in the face of technological or mechanical failures. That people aren’t going to help, they’re more likely to steal your valuables and leave you in a ditch on the side of the road. This is wisdom passed down to us by our grandparents.
All of this is probably true. But, two generations later, this is a different country, and I’m not helpless.
I pulled the cats out of the cupboard under the sink, coaxed them into their carriers, and loaded them into the car.
Six months later, in June 2020, I did the trip again. With experience, I was better prepared. Back in December, I was relying on the second-hand experience of friends who had made the trip.
In December, I took the morning to settle my nerves before getting into the car. I left Islamabad at noon. I had two different wi-fi devices with me, the route programmed into my phone and Google’s American-accented voice giving me directions. Off Kashmir Highway towards Lahore, all the way to the Pindi Battian interchange, then down the M4 to Multan. I drove carefully. The roads were good, but I was unfamiliar with the car, and still a little superstitious of over-stretching a brand new engine. I had my playlist blaring, and and the heater was on because it was (for a Karachiite) freezing.
An hour outside of Islamabad and the voices of fear were tiny pinpricks in the rear-view mirror.
Sunara and Ali, my Karachi friends in Islamabad who had made the trip themselves several times, offered me advice. Yes, the motorway was now open up to Sukkur. The road, that is. Filling stations and rest stops were not. Ali suggested that I fill up the car’s tank in Sial before I got onto the M4 to Faisalabad. Sunara told me to start a WhatsApp group with a few friends and to share my live location on the group. I added my sister in Rochester, my cousin in Karachi, Sunara and Ali, and a couple of friends in Islamabad who were worried about my safety. This included one of the fear mongers from work.
I had an international following. My friend in Multan (my sister’s classmate from NCA) had sent me her location. “You should be here by six,” she said. She and her family routinely made the trip in less than six hours. I added her to the WhatsApp group so she could (literally) see me coming.
It took me seven and a half hours. I hadn’t counted on the fog. And in December, it gets dark by five-thirty. The road was excellent, but I kept my speed to a respectable 100 kmph, occasionally calling out to my cats to ensure they were still alive. I made two stops, one on the first rest stop out of Islamabad for some tea and to make sure my cats knew where the water and food was. The second was just before Pindi Battian to refill the tank.
There are mile (kilometre?) markers on the motorway, which I kept track of. If I had to call for help, I needed to know where I was at the time. I went over the Ravi and Sutlej rivers, and enjoyed rolling farmland unfolding around me. The M4 was practically deserted. The motorway to Multan was fairly new, so traffic was spotty, almost non-existent. But around four in the afternoon, the fog rolled in. It dropped over the green farmland like a soft grey blanket, and brought dusk with it. I could still see the road, but it was fuzzy, and I resisted the urge to take off my glasses and wipe them down. And when darkness fell, I was disoriented. The fog gave way to a different veil. I was driving through a tunnel, and the soft fields and lush greenery were now a blank, black wall. There are no street lights on the motorway, just reflectors that glare back at you with menace. My speed dropped to eighty. Cars travelling much faster than me whizzed by me on the right. On the motorway, at least, people followed road rules. They kept to their lanes, and indicated when overtaking. They ran their hazards when they were stopped on the side. Trucks stayed in the left lane, cars moved out of the fast lane when a car sped up behind them (up to Multan, the M4 is two lanes).
It was a line of turning trucks that made me slow down at Shorkot. There are barriers across the road there that force you to turn into Shorkot’s toll plaza. I paid a hefty Rs. 670 toll at Shorkot, drove through the plaza, took a u-turn about 100 metres down and got myself another toll ticket to get back onto the motorway. I’m not sure why they’ve done this. Perhaps Shorkot is short of funds?
Whatever the reason, the Shorkot municipality needs to substitute those barricades for ones that have reflectors on them because I didn’t see them. If I hadn’t slowed down to cope with the darkness, I would have run straight into them. Six months later, in June, I was ready for them, and it wasn’t dark. They were still, however, rerouting all motorway traffic through Shorkot and collecting tolls from us.
I don’t remember how long it took me, from Shorkot, to get to Multan. I do know that Google pulled me off the motorway at some point and onto the National Highway on the way to Multan. Suddenly, the road was uneven and motorcycles—which I hadn’t seen in seven hours—were weaving in and out of a line of cars that hadn’t been with me on the motorway. Multan itself, when I eventually got into the city proper, was confusing. Narrow roads were squeezed further by a city-wide flyover which, I am assuming is an orange, blue, green, or yellow bus line—the PML-N’s pet transportation project (I have to tell you about that, but in another article)—that hangs over the entire city, or at least, the part I was in. I took several wrong turns on roads bustling with pedestrians, motorcycles, rickshaws (which I hadn’t seen since the last time I was in Karachi), buses (also not found in Islamabad), and bicycles.
When I finally pulled into my friend’s driveway, it was closer to eight than seven. I was tired and stiff, and worried about the cats, so I pulled them out first, letting them out of their carriers into the sumptuous room prepared for me. I put down food and water for them, set up their litter tray, and then, went to meet my host.
Departure at seven am in Multan was much easier than my arrival. The streets were empty, clean of the mayhem that I drove through the night before. With dawn and good night’s rest, I was prepared for the day-long trip I was about to embark upon. I filled the tank, because, just like the stretch from Pindi Battian to Multan, Multan to Sukkur had no rest stops or fuelling stations. If I emptied the tank before Sukkur, I would have to get off the motorway and into a city to refuel.
Petrol, however, wasn’t my problem. An hour out of Multan, I saw a car pulled up on the shoulder. Three men were dragging an animal off the motorway. The ground underneath was smeared with blood, and in my rear view mirror, as I sped past them, I saw the remnants of the accident on the car’s front grill. Roadkill. The motorway was new, and animals were not yet aware that crossing it meant likely death for them. I instantly slowed down. Killing an animal would be horrific by itself, but damage to my car would mean I could be stranded on the motorway. I started keeping note of the mile markers again, and vigilantly watching the edges of the motorway for movement.
By eleven am, I was succumbing to highway hypnosis. After miles of unrelenting undulating tarmac and only one or two vehicles on the road, my eyes began to close. Over-vigilance didn’t help, it just strained my eyes and made me sleepier. So at the first chance I got, I pulled into a newly-constructed, but as yet unpopulated, rest stop where I saw some signs of life. A construction crew to one side, a couple of cars with men and women sitting outside, enjoying the warm sun on a cold day, some trucks taking a much-needed rest; the buildings were empty, but the parking lot was bustling.
I parked near the rest rooms, leaned back a little and closed my eyes. Just a twenty minute nap, I thought. Then I’ll be back on the road.
Somebody knocked on the window, jerking me out of almost-sleep. A man stood outside, holding a cup up.
“Tea?” he asked when I rolled down the window. I nodded gratefully. He brought me, for Rs. 40, a hot sweet cup of tea. It woke me up, energised me enough to get back on the road and drive for another hour before, again, I was forced to stop. This time, I pulled over into a small shed-like enclave that they’d set up every 10 kilometres. This time, I slept.
The motorway is barred at the Sukkur Rohri interchange. You have to get off the motorway and join the rest of the traffic on the National Highway. It takes you past the city of Sukkur, which is just across the Lansdowne Bridge, and then on a rough, weaving trail filled with slow-moving trucks; through fields and fields of date palms.
The National Highway
It’s not the motorway, that’s for sure. And there are parts of the road that look like it routinely rains jackhammers in small patches. But I still managed to maintain a good speed. I followed other cars’ paths, swerving away from potholes and ditches, and comfortably overtaking large convoys of trucks. Even on the National Highway, and especially if there are smaller cars on the road, trucks will stick to the left lane, allowing us to pass them by at fairly good clips.
Unlike the motorway, however, there are motorcycles and rickshaws on the National Highway. The road cuts through small towns and almost every hour, a sign warning me that there was a town ahead (slow down, people around) would flash by me. These edges of small towns were usually littered with ramshackle shops, mechanics, donkey carts, and people on bicycles, kids playing with animals, and lots, lots, lots of animals.
The contrast to the motorway was stark. Petrol stations were aplenty, usually flanked by a ramshackle truck stop—a cafe or “hotel”, as they’re known here. In December, I sped past them like a blur, concerned about getting to Hyderabad before dark. Back then, I had packed a meal that, in the colder weather, was still edible the next day. In June, I stopped for lunch when I realised the chicken in the sandwiches had wilted in the day’s heat. So, I pulled into a shed-like structure next to a beautifully-decorated but faded truck, pulled on my mask, and found a corner table in the shade, but out in the open. The small restaurant wasn’t heavily populated. There were barely any people there. There were no other women. It didn’t much faze the proprietor, though. I asked for daal, naan, a soft drink, and distance, and he provided all of that without blinking an eye.
There were some eyes sliding into corners from other tables, and a little boy—the proprietor’s son, maybe—hovered with a slight look of awe in his eyes. His father asked me where I was coming from and the news that I had travelled from Islamabad raised the awe a notch.
The food was delicious. They brought me some aloo qeema as well, though I hadn’t asked for it. I still ate it, because it smelled irresistible. The drink was cold, the food filling; the road was quiet too, and there were a surprising number of trees in the area. Surprising because there was also sand, almost desert-type sand that blew with the wind through the verandah of the restaurant where I was eating. The whole meal cost me Rs. 200. I cleaned the plates, wiping down the daal and qeema with toasty-warm naan.
Afterwards, I casually washed my hands from a tap in the front of the restaurant, waved to the little boy, and got back into the car. This was a better meal than six months ago, when I had parked the car in a shady spot off the road, and eaten my sandwiches in the back seat with the cats. There was a lot more traffic back then—with no Coronavirus to disrupt our lives, trucks and cars lumbered down the National Highway in droves.
Perhaps that’s why, about halfway to Hyderabad, Google pulled me off the National Highway onto the Indus Highway. Advertising less traffic, and an estimated 30 minutes faster, the road to the Indus Highway was single-lane. The detour was long by itself, but almost deserted, and after the rush of the National Highway, I was feeling gleeful about my clever use of technology to help me find the fastest route to Karachi.
An hour later, I was cursing that Google bitch who had taken me off the National Highway. The Indus Highway is still under construction, so one side of the road is dug up and cordoned off. Instead, all traffic uses the one side that is open, making it a single-lane road again. Unlike as advertised, there was plenty of traffic on this road, and because it was single-lane, I regularly got stuck behind giant trucks carrying loads too big for their containers. They looked like giant moving trees, with cargo packaged horizontally above the container, spilling out and threatening to fall on anyone who gets too close. My speed vacillated wildly down this road from a sedate 60 kmph to the occasional burst of 100 kmph on clear stretches.
I had turned off the National Highway around 3 in the afternoon. By the time I got to Hyderabad, it was close to 6 in the evening, and it was getting dark. Far from shaving off time, I’d lost an hour. I should have been in Hyderabad well before dark; instead, by the time I navigated through the city to the Karachi-Hyderabad motorway, darkness had fallen.
Thunder cracked above me as I rolled through the toll gates for the motorway. I was glad to be back on a three-lane road that wasn’t under construction, but the thunder morphed into a full-blown storm, the skies opening up in a devastating parody of the monsoons. The rain was thick and hard, and even with the wipers at the fastest setting, I could barely see ten feet ahead of me. My speed dropped to a crawl, because there was a disturbing amount of traffic on the road, and because, after spending almost the whole day under the back seat, my cats decided to come out and enjoy the view.
The younger of the two cats, Samurai, hates storms, and all she wanted to do was to crawl into my lap. After trying to keep her at bay for several anxious minutes, I finally pulled her to me. She was happy enough after that, and even Snickers came to the front seat, leaning up against the window to stare outside at the blurry lights passing by on my left. I stuck to the middle lane—the left lane was crowded with slow-moving trucks, and on the right, cars whizzed by me as though there was no rainstorm and no visibility issues.
Maybe there weren’t for them. For me, the drive was nerve-wracking. I had been driving, by that time, for more than 12 hours. I was stiff, and my right leg was beginning to cramp. I was dreaming of my bed back home in Karachi, of the joy of stretching out my legs and letting my arms fall to my sides. And I was praying, fervently praying. Please God, I JUST bought this car. Don’t let me wreck it, don’t let me drive it into a ditch and ruin the suspension. Prevent me from crashing into the car in front of me, because I can barely see its taillights, and what happens if it comes to a sudden stop?
The drive to Karachi from Hyderabad is barely two hours. It took me three; the longest three hours of my life. The rain eventually stopped, and several times, as light glittered in clusters ahead of me, I thought I had finally reached Karachi. Several times, I was completely wrong. I don’t remember what I passed, but there are mini-towns on the outskirts of the city that I have never known about.
I saw the glow from a distance, the collective luminescence of millions of lights across a vast stretch of urban sprawl that keeps growing and growing. I saw the glow almost 20 minutes before I reached Toll Plaza, what is most certainly the outermost edge of this massive city.
Finally, there were street lights. I was energised, overwhelmed, and deeply drained at the same time. I lived by the sea. I had to cross the whole city before I reached home. Driving across the city without traffic used to take me an hour. With traffic, it could take upwards of two. Unsurprisingly, once I’d crossed the toll gates, I slowed to a crawl. Along with the glow came a rush of rickshaws, motorcycles, pedestrians, and various carts being pulled by livestock.
This area was unfamiliar, so I let Google do the talking. Despite the Indus Highway debacle, when it pulled me onto a ramp off Super Highway, I followed.
The Lyari Expressway
You pay a Rs. 30 toll on the ramp, and because of that, the expressway is practically empty. It’s a winding elevated road that follows the generously-named Lyari ‘River’ through the slums of the city. Bypassing major arteries and congested areas, the expressway shaves hours off your travel time, and for the well-to-do residents of the city familiar with the grind of daily traffic in a city of 22 million people, it’s a godsend. For the slum dwellers, perhaps, not so much. Small, unfinished brick houses crowd up against its barriers, overlooking the twinkling lights of cars zipping by. The roar of engines must be deafeningly close to them, however. Another reason for the slums to remain slums.
At night, I couldn’t see below the barriers to my right, but when I returned in daylight, I saw the dry trench of the river, now loaded with garbage and slowly turning into a landfill. Google pulled me off the expressway at Garden, and I drove off the ramp and into familiar territory. I was a few minutes away from M A Jinnah Road, and on the other side of that lay Saddar. Home was tantalisingly close.
I think I reached home at nine pm. Whatever time it was, I had made it.
My cats had made it, who are proudly among the most well-travelled cats in the country. They’ve made this trip with me three times now; December 2019, January 2020, and finally, in June 2020. It’s a devastatingly exhausting drive, and I would probably enjoy it a lot more if I had a driver to share it with me. But it’s equally exhilarating, and I want to do more.
My next trip, after this pandemic passes, will be to Mohenjo Daro. I haven’t been there since college, and I’d like to try a long trip without any cats to worry about.