On the road and unafraid

Saba Akbar on the rooftop of Denso Hall, Karachi, a library built in the 1880’s Photograph: Alex Reynolds

 

Instagrammers changing the face of local travel share the impediments and joys of adventuring through Pakistan

By Maham Uzair

With travel restrictions easing, tourism in Pakistan is on the precipice of an extraordinary reinvention. The country has made it to the top of Conde Nast’s list of sought-after destinations for 2020 with the magazine’s writers labelling it as the ‘ultimate adventure travel destination’ for ‘intrepid’ travellers.

Long before the Conde Nast piece came out, however, the sands were shifting as international travel influencers, including Eva zu Beck, Mark Wiens and others flocked to the country. On a diplomatic front, the royal visit in October 2019 by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the return of British Airways to Pakistan and relaxation of travel advice by the UK foreign office reflect a changed global position and an altered country.

But while the growing tourism creds look great on paper, as women, in particular, we really can’t help but wonder if Pakistan is as safe and welcoming as it’s purported to be from a glossy, PR standpoint. Is it secure for female travellers? And if so, what of the tour de force, the local female traveller, traversing its lands? Because Pakistani women stepping out of their homes, untethered, unaccompanied, is where the patriarchy invariably tightens its grip.

Anam Hakeem in Hunza during cherry blossom season

The global growth in female travel

Around the world, female travel has seen a stratospheric rise and will only continue to grow.  In 2019, for example, a research-based think-tank identified young Muslim female travellers as the next big disruption to rock the tourism industry. Statistics published by a network of hostels across neighbouring India saw an 80% rise in the number of female lodgers over the past year. In 2018, the Travel Leaders Group, a global consortium of travel agencies, pointed to women-only journeys as one of the top niche travel trends.

There are a host of reasons why women are bracing for adventure now more than ever. For one, less is holding them back. Women are no longer financially dependent on spouses or parents and are in a position to book and pay for their own travel.

They’re also prioritising careers and independence and the ages of marriage and having children have both slowly been pushed from the twenties to the early thirties. And of course, social media has been supplying a steady stream of aspirational content from global influencers, capturing imaginations worldwide. Many of these trends have trickled their way into Pakistan, which has seen its own set of influencers making their mark and inspiring thousands of women.

One such Instagrammer, for example, is Anam Hakeem, an avid international traveller, best known as @GirlwithGreenPassport.  She found her sweet spot in the world of blogging by sharing her journey as a Pakistani passport holder: an unenviable place to be given the green passport is ranked one of the worst in the world in terms of global travel freedom.

Similarly, Khaula Jamil (khaula28) is a documentary photographer and photojournalist. She is also the visionary behind Humans of Karachi, a photoblog inspired by photographer Brandon Stanton’s blog, Humans of New York. As part of the project, Jamil captures Karachiites in their element, and in the process, unearths poignant and stirring tales of the resilient city’s populace.

Hakeem, and Jamil both rightly point to the growth in social media and content generated by other female travellers as a catalyst, fuelling the popularity of female travel amongst Pakistani millennials and Generation Z women.

However, Saba Akbar, an architect by profession and travelogger by passion, pauses and looks inward instead. On her Instagram page @thelocaltrails, she can be seen exploring heritage houses and hidden gems cloistered by sporadic traffic and commerce on the streets of Karachi. She has a knack for photographing ornate doors and jharokas (enclosed balconies) within period buildings, the residents often acquiescing – succumbing, no doubt, to her persuasiveness and enthusiasm.

While Akbar concurs that Facebook and Instagram have helped build travel communities, she shares moments in her life as a student and architect when she realised she could travel alone, without anyone’s help.

She was assigned documenting the outer facades of heritage buildings in the city. The first time she ventured around the metropolis on her own, she felt anxious about her safety and was gripped by fear someone would steal her phone or camera. When she finished her assignment, however, she realised she was craving an opportunity to venture out alone again. Her photowalks, which she holds for keen sightseers and photographers, further bolstered her confidence.

Earlier, while at university inJamshoro, she had braved it out and taken a bus back to her hometown, Khairpur – an unthinkable five-hour road journey for a young girl from her family and community. Akbar felt intimidated and paranoid at every juncture on the road: booking a rickshaw to take her to the bus depot; chai breaks at the local dhaba; the bus journey across interior Sindh.

“I wouldn’t consider myself brave, “she says, earnestly. “But I would consider some other girl repeating the same steps as mine to be very brave.”

Khaula Jamil on assignment in Bumburet, Kalash

Photograph: Areesh Zubair

 

Travelling solo versus travelling in groups

 Unlike the other influencers I spoke with, Akbar is the only one who has in fact travelled alone within Pakistan.

Speaking to notable influencers, it appears a trend does emerge amongst Pakistani female travellers: not many travel alone within the country and most have journeyed with friends, family or in groups. Solo female travel within the confines of Pakistan’s borders seems far off from present reality. Hakeem, for instance, has had many women get in touch with her to explore group travel with family and friends, but she receives very few queries about solo female travel.

When asked why she hasn’t planned a solo trip, Hakeem reflects for a moment and candidly says, “I’ve never thought of travelling alone in Pakistan because there are so many groups to travel with. And whenever I have planned a trip within Pakistan, it somehow always felt convenient to join a trip.”

She spends some more time contemplating why and adds, “I think I might be a little uncomfortable [planning a solo trip]. I wouldn’t worry much about the destination, I’d worry about the travel to that destination, especially if it involves me travelling alone in a bus or hitchhiking. Having said that, if I really wanted to go, I’d risk it out.”

Amna Zuberi (@amnazuberi) is a published photographer and intrepid traveller. She’s also the author of Finding Lahore, a pictorial book that offers readers a visual narrative of the city’s streets and crannies.

When I point out I haven’t really seen her travelling alone either, she says, “You’ve rightly noticed, I am still not that comfortable or you might say confident to travel absolutely alone to remote places in Pakistan. If it isn’t a work colleague or support on an assignment, I am travelling with other female friends.

“Road distances can be long; routes, remote; at times male-dominant environments, where you are staying, or where you are traversing can be a little daunting.”

Group travel appears to be the safer choice for women travelling within Pakistan, at least for now. All-female excursions, or even tours with both men and women elicited a positive response from all the interviewees. Adventure Travel Pakistan, TacTack, and Cube EduTours are some established and up and coming operators that sprung up in conversations with the influencers.

The Mad Hatters, is a female-run platform for adventure-seekers across Pakistan. On seeing a real market gap for female travel, Aneeqa Ali, the founder of The Mad Hatters, teamed up with blogger Alex Reynolds to organise women-only tours across Pakistan, which run in Spring and Autumn every year. So far, it’s the only one of its kind.

A quintessentially brown girl experience

What makes Pakistani travel influencers relatable to other Pakistani women bracing for travel is how they lend a local context to their experiences.

As a Pakistani girl attempting to travel, permission, it seems, is the first roadblock to planning or even contemplating an excursion. The way to navigate this major hurdle isn’t something a 21-year-old college student can learn from following a global travel influencer, for instance. It’s a quintessential Pakistani experience only desi girls can understand and empathise with.

Hakeem, for example, gets a lot of questions from young girls on how to seek permission from parents; in fact, she was recently featured in Dawn with a list of pointers for younger people to get approval to travel. She suggests going on a shorter trip first or booking a holiday destination close to relatives’ homes.

Sorting out permission is the first step; facing the male gaze is another. “There are still places where a woman can’t sit and eat where a man does. Or they aren’t used to women in public spaces on their own, in which case they don’t know how to deal with you,” says Zuberi.

She gets a lot of people reaching out to her, and feels responsibility in rightly guiding them. “I can’t over glorify things and present a super rosy picture,” she says of her local travels.

This means there are times, when Zuberi has to veer towards conservatism in how she dresses and travels. Taking a private car instead of public transport, for example, taints the authenticity of experiencing a destination like a local, but parameters such as these lend her the freedom to explore and travel safely.

Amna Zuberi on assignment in Mitti-Tharparkar Photograph: Kohi Marri

Having journeyed through Sindh, a province the Instagrammers collectively acknowledged as male-dominated and risky for female travel, Akbar had to face the brunt of the perceptions a lone woman presents. As a Sindhi and a local, she articulates exactly what a lot of men – and women – must have been thinking on seeing her on her own, that she must be a wanton woman; characterless; a runaway; or someone without a family or loved ones to support her. She recalls an instance travelling within the heartlands of Sindh where during a chai break she had to rush to the bathroom. She pleaded a local couple to hold on to her notebooks, only to be met with iciness and an explicit refusal to engage or help in any way. She wasn’t fazed, however.

“People need to get into the habit of seeing women outdoors and in public spaces,” she says, undeterred.

Akbar also recalls instances such as when she found real gems tucked away in Karachi during her city walks: libraries under maintenance, warehouses. She felt at the time that getting permission wouldn’t have been difficult, but women walking into these spaces felt like an affront to the men working there. She sensed she had to do a lot more explaining in order to see some hidden, heritage buildings simply because she was a woman. The librarians, clergymen gatekeepers at these institutions would almost always peer beyond her, looking for a man to take the lead in the conversation. The look of surprise at not finding a male figure with a bunch of women often turned into that of frustration.

While Akbar’s travels have been peppered with certain negative experiences, her stories were overwhelmingly those of kindness, goodness and acceptability. But while Akbar has had to face, at times, the ire of the patriarchy, Jamil has seen its more benevolent, chivalrous veneer. “Women have a lot more access. My male travel photographers will agree to this, “Jamil says.

“When I was in Lahore, there’s a gurdwara close to the Lahore fort where only Sikhs could go and no male friend or traveller had ever managed to venture inside.  I had a day off from an assignment when I stopped at the gurdwara gate.

“The caretaker asked where I was from. When I showed him my documentation and told him I was from Karachi, he personally took me in to see the place. When I told my male colleagues and traveller friends about this grand tour they said they’ve never been given permission!”

Jamil feels it’s because women generally come across as non-threatening. This isn’t the first time she’s been able to access locations closed to the public and has been granted access to distant shrines, mosques, private rooftops and churches.

Safety precautions and travelling alone for the first time – a starter pack

When travelling locally, the resounding advice is to start with either the tourist trails or a major city.

“Key urban cities and tourist destinations are safe, “says Hakeem. “Your first starter trip can be to Lahore.” She feels the cultural richness and familiarity make it a top destination for beginners’ local travel.

“After Lahore, you can go to Nathiagali near Islamabad, which is less commercial then Murree, but you wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb,” says Hakeem. “My third would be Hunza, because it has become a commercial tourist destination. People are friendly and educated and you can see women on the streets. “Zuberi also feels you should start closer to home, in your own city or the Northern side. For the inexperienced female traveller, Balochistan is best saved for group travel. “I’ve covered Balochistan as a travel writer and travel photographer and would suggest having a liaison, security and a local with you.”

The trip to Balochistan, however, was a life-altering experience for Zuberi. On her extensive travels through the province, Zuberi trekked across meadows outside Quetta, and discovered hidden juniper forests, the bulbous blossoms of Urak Valley and the cascading turquoise waterfalls of Wali Thangi and Pir Ghaib.

“Start with places that have a bit of a buzz and population. Consider Multan, Bahawalpur and places where you’d be able to access the Daewoo and hotels,” she says.

Jamil also concurs with Zuberi and fondly recalls travelling to Bahawalpur, and driving to Uch Sharif and Derawar Fort, visiting shrines peppered along the route.

She too believes certain areas best reserved for the intrepid traveller: “It’s tougher to travel in Balochistan and interior parts of Sindh. I wouldn’t go to Balochistan alone. I’m very confident I’d be happy to travel alone in the Northern Areas.

“Lahore is quite doable alone. For Karachi, a lot of people are getting in touch with @mystapaki or @potentialpakistan to show them around. Get a local guide, get a local perspective.”

As a Karachi girl, Hakeem has her favourite spots off the beaten track as well, one of which is Bhit Khori. Bhit Khori is a cove within Mubarak Village, a fishermen’s village two hours from Karachi. It’s a largely private space, flanked by ridges. On her last trip to Bhit Khori, she saw bioluminescence – light emitted by living organisms – in the lagoon. Glowing waters, she says, are something she’d read about in travel magazines and are often seen on the beaches of Puerto Rico and various locations in South America, but she was thrilled to discover one could experience something similar in her hometown.

Hunza and Kalash stand out as popular destinations for the starter traveller as well. Kareem points to Rumbur in Kalash as a highlight from her local sojourns. Jamil fondly recalls walking through Kalash and the unforgettable hospitality of the villagers inviting her to have walnut bread in their homes.

There is unanimous agreement that female travellers should post on social media later on and immerse themselves in the moment instead. It’s best to avoid posting in real-time for safety reasons. Kareem suggests female travellers should share their itinerary and contact details with close family and friends so their whereabouts are known at all times.

When in an uncomfortable situation, it’s best to try and extract oneself as soon as possible, or alert people around. Zuberi states, “Where I do have a gut feeling, I just get out of that situation. I had one earlier in my travel experiences, I managed to escape it.”

Clothing is always a topic of contentious debate, but there also appears to be a consensus that modest-wear is the better pick for safety and understanding of local culture. Instagrammers have learned suggesting modest wear to followers and the wider world comes with its own baggage because in an ideal world, the harassers or perpetrators of violence would be the ones altering their behaviours, not the other way round.

Though her city walks, Akbar has consistently promoted a strong message on owning the streets, but also advocates modest-wear. She recently received a message from a frustrated follower who retorted that the only way she’d truly feel she could own the streets was when she could wear whatever she chose to, not what’s dictated by societal norms.  While Akbar concurs and states she would never tell another woman what to wear, she does feel dressing modestly has abetted her travels.

“When we do certain things, we violate local culture and society. They’re not used to it,” agrees Zuberi. “You don’t have to wear a shalwar kurta, but keep a dupatta. Why do you want to make people uncomfortable?”

“It’s best to dress modestly when travelling to places where the culture is conservative,” concurs Jamil.

The penultimate thread of commonality amongst the instragrammers appears to be how the women are able to travel and discover sites, culture and stories off the beaten path. For Zuberi, her work as a photographer, author and journalist has propelled her to venture to various corners of the country. It was a recent assignment, for example, that took her to Balochistan, a gripping and unforgettable journey to what many would consider to be a forgotten province. Jamil, similarly, is a photojournalist and enjoys access to landmarks, heritage sites, shrines and places of religion others may not be able to enter. She works through local contacts and fixers. Many a time, she has been able to take time out after an assignment to visit a place she considers inspiring. Therein lies another tip for women aspiring to travel: why not break away from a work assignment, conference, or a visit to friends and family and see something on your own and on your own terms.

A final, overwhelming theme in the instagrammers’ journey is this: none of the cultural constraints, safety issues have deterred any of the women I spoke to from travelling. Brimming with choice, Pakistan has far too many treasures for travel enthusiasts, they say: Sufi shrines and fishing villages dotting the Gwadar coast; Fairy Meadows ensconced by lush alpine forests; winding streets of the walled city of Lahore, frozen in time; turquoise waters of Firoza Lake in Naltar Valley; the British built railway winding through Bolan.

“Trust me, Pakistan is unbelievable, “enunciates Zuberi.

And it lies in wait for the intrepid, homegrown female traveller.