Islamabad—It’s a wonder to me that there are not more people killed in car accidents along the winding, mountainous road that takes me into Islamabad. This is often what I think as I drive the scenic two-lane highway from my valley home north of the city where, each day, I see broken windshield glass in one or two places along the 10-mile stretch. On this road people often pass at high speeds on blind turns with oncoming traffic. It seems like Pakistanis have nerves of steel, which I, a foreigner, do not. Although I am Pakistani by ethnicity, I grew up in the USA forming many Western concepts about driving and safety in those 36 years. It has taken me some time since I moved to Pakistan to understand many things, especially about commuting.
I can still vividly remember the first thing I saw upon exiting the Islamabad Airport with my parents; a crowd of thousands of people, men, women, and children like an undulating sea of color, waiting for their family members to arrive from abroad. For me who was used to calm, organization, and strict security measures, the sight of so many people right outside the airport was overwhelming. I was told that traditionally, for every passenger coming from abroad, a whole group of people from his or her village comes to greet them. The villagers pile into two or three small vehicles like sardines and come to the airport.
Driving away along the newly built, black highway that takes passengers to and from the airport, I had the impression that I was in a developed country. As we sped down the highway that impression was whisked away when we had to break suddenly for some cows to cross or for pedestrians to scurry across the highway at intermittent spots.
I remember being terrified while driving, half the time I would close my eyes and the other half I would be gasping and grabbing the car seat in front of me. Traffic was chaotic and cars shared the road with motorcycles, trucks, and mule carts, with cows and pedestrians crossing most busy highways and streets at random points. No one wore seat belts; especially not the passengers hanging from the backs of public transport vehicles.
The day after I arrived in Pakistan we drove near a market where I saw rows of compact to mid-sized cars parked along the front of the market area. As I gazed out the car window, looking at things and passersby with amazement, my people watching was interrupted by beggars knocking on the car window to ask for money. The first was a teenage boy, then an old man, then a 7-year old girl, after about 10 minutes of this constant barrage my feeling of peace was challenged. It seemed that no matter where we stopped the car or for how long, there would be beggars at the car window, even at busy intersections.
Finally, when we drove away from the market, I was told that this is very common and that I should just ignore the beggars. I wondered how I could learn to do that. As I was digesting this bit of culture, I saw a couple with a small baby sandwiched between them riding a motorcycle, and I was shocked. Later, when I saw a family of five on one motorcycle, I was left without a word. I could only think that my perspective from living in the West was so inclined to safety and rules. For most people in Pakistan, basic survival is paramount, and here, truly, ignorance is bliss; generally people do not have a sense that there is anything wrong with their way of travel.
Pakistan does have driving laws but in general they are very rarely enforced. In the last three years however, traffic police in Islamabad have been relatively vigilant about enforcing seat belt use for front seat passengers in cars. They have also been enforcing most other common traffic rules. Outside the capital where I live (and almost everywhere else in the country) however, what one might encounter is a lot less certain. Some examples of this unpredictability are vehicles that come at high speeds against one-way traffic morning, noon, and night. Cars, vans, buses, and trucks often stop and back up in heavy traffic if they miss a turn. Over-sized loads, like 20-foot iron poles, are carried on small compact cars with no warning flags. Driving is dangerous and done at your own risk because the majority of drivers do not have legal licenses or car insurance.
After much deliberation and firsthand experience, I think fate is the reason that more people are not killed on that winding road near my house, and more people are not hurt in car accidents in Pakistan. Living and driving here has given me many opportunities to see and experience near misses, and the opportunity to understand why I believe in fate, and why people in Pakistan don’t have such a great need to ensure safety like a foreigner would. Pakistan is in between new and traditional ways of commuting and living, just as people’s thinking here is in between faith and science.