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“Heaven on Earth”
There was rain, there was dense fog, and deep forests and mountains but it was something else that made me nervous. This day had it all, a nerve-racking combination of fun and fear. I remember seeing landslides and small waterfalls, deep valleys and dense forests. I remember seeing buses fallen off the side of the road caught on the trees. What was fearful was that war could break out here any minute. This slightest sound of gunfire could set off bombs and grenades and this extraordinarily beautiful place could be washed in blood, innocent blood. But this wasn't anything new; we were used to it by now. This place is Pakistan's shattered dream, a place once known as ‘Heaven on Earth'.
We set out early in the morning from our hotel. We could see the big, beautiful mountains in the distance. Just the night before, I had seen the sun set in that horizon. Beneath the light of dawn was a magnificent mosque. We were looking for adventure, a nice vacation and I had heard that there was no place better than those mountains I held within my gaze. The dawn began to breathe away the darkness and the sun immediately followed her. As our car entered into the thick of the forest, there was no sound but chirping birds, singing cuckoos, and peacocks with their feathers open walking around like beautiful scattered pearls. We kept moving and soon we saw hills that later evolved into mountains. I remember it as being so wonderful. The sun kissed the leaves of trees and when the wind blew, the forest would into its own howling paradise. But there was danger, real danger. The road we were driving on was barely the width of the car; there were no railings or safety barriers to stop our car from falling into the valleys. There were certain points on the road where if I opened the door, I would fall thousands of feet below.
We made a stop near a small city to eat lunch. It was amazing that the entire city was built on the mountain side. The street was at an angle as were the farms, homes, and shops. On a small gawky shop on the side of the road, there was a cafe. The tables were set in the middle of a shallow river, and there were small hills on both sides, it almost looked like a small canyon. We took off our shoes, sat down, and had lunch.
When we arrived at our destination at night, we were over 15 000 feet above sea level. It was cold and wet here. Sometimes, the clouds were below us and other times, if we opened our windows, clouds would rush in. It was midnight and I decided to roam around. I was walking around the market place when I came across a girl. She was different from the others. She looked innocent, rare, and fragile. The way she looked at the world, she felt as if she didn't need anyone. I adored her, and then I moved on.
At night, my friends and I would go on top of the roof of the hotel, grab something to drink, and play cards until 2:00 a.m. When our loud laughter and rash tone of voice disturbed the tourists, we would go in our rooms and sleep. This city was neither modern nor special in any way. The homes and shops were small and old. The locals looked nothing more than uneducated villagers. The entire city was on one street. It started, and after a ten minute walk, it ended.
For some tourism the next day, we decided to go higher into the mountains. Only two things can take you further into the mountains, a horse or a local driver whose truck's engines was probably larger than a Hummer's. We decided to take the truck. Our entire way up the mountain, one of the wheels of the truck would constantly slide off the side of the road giving us an overview of how deep and dangerous our death can be below. Accidents were common here, a hundred people dead was no news to startle the town. As we progressed, the area was getting more sensitive. There was the border of India on the east where a secret war has been raging for over 60 years, and Afghanistan on the west where we can confront the Taliban or Al-Qaeda at anytime. We were safe in the centre. A bit to the right and we could be robbed, beaten, or forced to change religions, or a bit to the left and our own religion would overtake us. But we kept going anyway so I guess you can tell how beautiful this place was. We reached one of the highest lakes on the planet. If you doubt my astonished eyes, you can search “Lake Saif ul Malook” on the internet. I am sure you will be astounded.
This lake has a story behind it, long ago a Persian prince came here and rescued a princess from an evil ghost, and it's named after him. It's also said, on a moonlit night, fairies come here to bathe and the reflection of the moon in the water is magical. This is no other than the famous silk route the Arabian Caliphates ruled over. It is the same silk route that Alexander the Great discovered, it is the one Buddha used, the one that held Marco Polo as a witness. It has long been known as a trading route. It is the one called ‘Heaven on Earth' because of its immense beauty and rich history. But, it was something else now.
We found a place to sit and started playing cards; soon a bunch of tribal men joined us. They were carrying guns but that was common here. Our game lasted over two hours and we had one heck of a time. We joked, laughed, offered each other food and coffee. We even told each other our stories. There was one thing I learned from these card games, that between the hope of winning and the fear of losing, there is a time, and take my word for it, it is amazing.
Some of these men were religious, one of them told me that long ago the Islamic Prophet Muhammad said, “Within the body, there is a lump of flesh, if it is pure, then the whole body is pure, and if it is diseased, then the whole body is diseased. And listen it is the heart, and listen it is the heart, and listen it is the heart.”
We walked around the lake once and headed down the mountain. My entire way down, I was thinking of those men. They weren't from that area. I could tell by their accent, and their clothing was Afghani. I understood now, those men were Taliban. It was funny how they were exactly the opposite of what the media portrays them as. Were they not human? Did they not have families, or a heart? They had all that, and more. They showed love, brotherhood, and compassion to each other.
We made it to our hotel back in the city, my friends and I decided to play cards again. Some local boys joined us. These boys were not good, I could tell. Every town has that trouble-making group of boys who are not really respected in the society. Well, these boys were it for this down. I would win every now and then in the games because I took risks, my confidence in my calculations and senses was astonishing to the other players. The boys then asked me to play for them. They meant for me to play on their behalf against another group for money. All of a sudden, there was a dramatic silence in the room. These boys are not the ones who take no for an answer.
I tried reasoning with them but they said in a fairly humorous manner that they can force me to do this at gunpoint. In the end, they convinced me to one game, and I agreed. So, they took me to a building where all the gamblers were. I went to the washroom and washed my face. I looked in the mirror and said, “Its only one game.” I knew in my heart I had to win. I heard a voice telling me to hurry up. The door creaked as I opened it slowly. A man outside was waiting for me. I followed him as he led me down the dark stairs. As I crept down the stairs, I saw men sitting around a table starring at me, waiting for me. As I approached them, they handed over a deck of cards in my hand. I bet some money and started playing with them and before I knew it, I was actually having fun. I was winning by a landslide and the group of boys who bought me here were sharing their laughter with me.
Then, news came that it has began to rain and landslides could start anytime now which might close the roads and we might be stuck here for the entire rain season. In the middle of cheering and rejoicing, this news struck me with edginess. I was scared that if I don't end this game fast, the rain would get worst making our risk of not getting off this mountain higher. I won the first round of games and requested a talk with the boys I was playing for. I had already won them so much money because every time it was my turn, I would raise the stakes, a strategy only used by me. I hoped they would agree but I didn't expect it from them. They denied me. I went back to the game room and did what I should have done a long time ago. I gathered my belongings, my jacket, some money, and ran outside. As I was going up the stairs, the leader of the group asked me, “Where do you think you are going?” I pushed him aside and kept running. I saw my friends outside and in high spirits I told them to run!
Our hearts were racing faster than us as we sped through the market place. Because of the crowd, we were forced to split up, but that didn't matter because we all knew where the car was. The boys were coming after me because it was me with their money; my talent in the game was their money. They were getting closer, for every two steps of mine were four of theirs. It's funny how when you run for your life, you can't seem to stop or feel tired. Thinking this, I was smiling to myself. I still can't forget the exhilarating thrills of that day. It was like my heart was beating in a whole new way. In a situation like this, I find myself lost in my own world, a world that seduces me, its harsh; it makes my heart go numb. Caught up in this excitement, I bumped into that same girl I saw a few days ago. She gave me a place to hide inside her shop; I think she read my eyes, often people in that area are gifted with this talent, so I've heard. When I looked at her up close, I couldn't help but ask God for forgiveness for all my sins in my heart. That is how I felt about her, because she was as rare as a pearl in a clam. Just think about it, out of a thousand drops of rain, one falls upon a clam's mouth in the ocean and it bears a pearl.
Her father was one of the men I talked with earlier on the mountain top. He recognized me as he came into the shop, I related to him my story of the boys and he said he can help me get off the mountain safely, he grabbed his gun and as he was walking down the street, no one dared stand up to him. He escorted me to our car where my friends were desperately waiting for me. I sat in and thanked the man, and then we sped off into the mist of the rain.
It was a day worth remembering; we were laughing and cheering making jokes about this day our whole way down the mountain. The modern boys who receive education treated us like hostages while the fraction of men whom the world thinks are terrorists did it all, made us laugh, smile, got me back to the car safely. And that girl, she still has a place for herself in my heart. I always thought there were two kinds of men in this world, ones who face their problems crying and screaming and ones who face them in silence. That was until I met the third kind, ones who cheer, smile, and do it all with their problems. You see, the world doesn't know much about that area or the people I introduced to you, but I pray you meet them one day, they will make you realize that the hearts of men are worst than rocks because there are some rocks that if they are stricken, water gushes forth and steam follows. Those rocks are called geysers. In this case, the media is the pathetic rock that carries no water; it portrays my entire nation as terrorists when only some can be blamed. Sure my country is not the greatest, but look into history and I'm sure you'll find that all civilizations were built on disaster.