A simple list of the things I was given by locals in one day of walking on the streets of Multan in the Punjab, Pakistan will give you a very clear insight into the generosity at the heart of its culture.
1 Fruit juice
1 Bag of pickles
2 Cups of tea (several more refused due to risk of overdose)
1 Gigantic poppadom
1 Chicken Biryani
1 Bottle of Coke
1 Veggie Samosa (obliged to turn down a second due to being completely stuffed by this point)
2 Tours by motorbike
1 Lift to the railway station
All of the above were provided with smiles and enthusiasm, without the slightest hint of a request on my part.
I’ve been to a lot of friendly places in the world but in Pakistan the friendliness is accompanied by a level of generosity unparalleled in my experience. Hospitality to strangers is seen as an obligation in Islam as well as in the indigenous culture and one that is performed most willingly throughout the country.
People are very aware of what a shit reputation their country has and this adds an extra impetus to the culture of hospitality but should only be seen as an icing on the cake, rather than an explanation for the welcome to strangers. Countless times I’ve been given phone numbers with the sincere plea to call if I had any problems at all. In six weeks I barely paid for a cup of tea as I only had to stop and talk with anyone for one to be provided. On occasion, in places such as Peshawar, I deliberately had to keep walking, offering only a cheery response to numerous greetings in order to avoid having to drink yet another cup.
Couchsurfers reported that it was impossible to make even the slightest contribution for the overwhelming hospitality, in fact it’s an insult to that hospitality to offer to pay for anything. To be honest I encountered such a welcome on the streets that I didn’t feel the need to try Couchsurfing.
Even the rickshaw drivers were relatively honest, for God’s sake! Can you believe that? I often made a point of getting in without asking the price just to see how much they would overcharge and no one ever totally took the piss and most of the time it was either the going rate or well within modest tourist tax rates. No rickshaw/tuk tuk driver in the world is living the highlife, snorting coke off porn star’s boobs on the basis of overcharging a few foreigners and Pakistani drivers work long days for basic wages so I am not one to begrudge them a bit of a bonus, especially when the prices are a pittance compared with western rates. On trips to tourist spots or places like Lahore where the concept of a foreign tourist is not quite so alien it was worth haggling but even then this was only ever a brief and painless process.
Some areas of the country with what they refer to as security concerns you may be obliged to have a policeman accompany you. For us independently minded travellers this can seem restrictive and unnecessary but more often than not it was more motivated by the obligations of hospitality than significant concerns about security. Even the very minor risk of something untoward happening to a guest in the country would be a slight on the police’s duty of care. In any event they were always polite and when they spoke enough English it was like having a free guide. Being locals themselves they didn’t inhibit my interactions as people were generally quite happy to chat with them. It wasn’t like having to drag around some government security thug with you that scared everyone off. Admittedly in Multan I did sneak out of the hotel while no one was looking to avoid being provided with security. On the couple of occasions that policemen said I should go back to the hotel to arrange a guard, I replied, “of course I’ll go back right away and sort it out”, then just wandered off to continue chatting to all and sundry in the street which had proved so rewarding. Any unlikely security risk was far outweighed by the health risks posed by the largely open access sewage system in the gloriously ramshackle old city.
No one is going to deny that Pakistan has its problems, least of all Pakistanis themselves, although there is a tendency among some to attribute the blame to outside powers rather than reflect a bit more deeply on home-grown sources. If anything a tourist is more protected from much of the corruption that affects the average person by virtue of being a guest, though I’m not going to say you can trust absolutely everybody to charge you a fair price. What I can promise you is that the majority of your experiences with people will be characterised by the kind of warmth and generosity I have given above, which is a sound basis for the kind of tourist industry the country deserves as it gradually overcomes the kind of problems that have been deemed more newsworthy in recent times, even if there is a serious risk of tea overdose.