This is the fifth instalment in this series. For the previous four instalments, go to “Across America & Canada by Road, Part-1”
(Published in Daily Times, 11 April 2012)
I had looked forward to being in Fargo in North Dakota, for the name itself (far-go) sounded attractive to the wanderer in me. North Dakota in America’s mid-north and Manitoba and Saskatchewan across the border on the Canadian side have always caught my fancy, perhaps for their remoteness. But my excitement after reaching Fargo was short-lived, for it was neither here nor there, if I may say so. It could be on account of the floods that had recently hit the area.
From Fargo the road runs straight north to the border at Pembina, passing 270 kilometres of a vast treeless expanse in the middle of which is the nice little town of Grand Forks. From Pembina it is a little over 100 km to Winnipeg in Manitoba. The drive is a much slower as the road isn’t half as good as the I-29 on the American side.
Exiting the US at the remote Pembina border I had expected minimal contact with American immigration and customs, even less than at the Niagara Falls crossing where we had been let through about a week earlier after a cursory look at our passports. In the event, I was surprised when about half a dozen US customs officers swooped down, waving us to stop, and then proceeded to inspect (politely and superficially I must say) our belongings, check the car’s rental agreement, ask a few probing questions before letting us through.
I surmised that the remote border crossing was so fiercely guarded precisely for its remoteness – to prevent terrorists from using it to infiltrate into the US. As we were travelling on Australian passports, which made our passage relatively painless, the officer wanted to how we had acquired them because we were “not born” in Australia. I should mention that American customs officers carry firearms, unlike their counterparts in every country which I have travelled to in five continents.
Winnipeg is a considerably larger city than I had expected. After a night here with an acquaintance, we were on the road again, on the Trans Canada Highway-1, which traverses the length of Canada, from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, over 8,000 km across.
We were headed to Calgary, the booming oil capital of Canada on the eastern fringe of the majestic Canadian Rockies, 1,370 km to the west of Winnipeg. The highway is a very good, two-way, four-lane road, though still inferior to the US Interstate system. Despite the Canadian preference for driving on the American side of the border, I chose to drive on Trans Canada-1 as my intention was to drive through its “prairie provinces”.
Amongst the many food and gas stops we made on the way, one was for breakfast at Tim Hortons, a popular Canadian coffee outlet, founded by and named after a famous Canadian ice hockey star.
Inside Tim Hortons, which was a bit crowded, we were unexpectedly greeted by a gentleman in Urdu. A bit surprised to be thus acknowledged in a remote part of Canada, I looked around to see the smiling face of a robust-looking Pakistani. After exchanging preliminary greetings, just enough to confirm our Pakistani origins, we lined up to order breakfast, this gentleman joining the queue behind me.
As I pulled out my wallet to pay, a powerful hand grabbed my wrist from behind. A bit startled, I looked back only to be told by my newly-introduced Pakistani “friend” in a commanding tone (in Urdu): “you will not pay, you are my guest”. I obligingly put my wallet back into my pocket, opting not to fight in full view of a Western public over the right to pay my bill. In any case, I choose my battles wisely. No-one will ever see me fight for the honour and privilege of paying, even if it’s my own bill!
We sat down to have our coffee and donuts together. Not surprisingly, he was a Punjabi from Lahore, a long distance truck owner-driver now based in Montreal. I should have known, for only Punjabis will fight for the right to pay for a meal they might have shared with friends and strangers.
Speaking of this generous trait of the Pakistani character, I would like to quote from a travel book on Pakistan (Pakistan Handbook) written by two westerners, Dave Winter and Ivan Mannheim: “You are far more likely to find yourself accepting endless invitations to stay or eat in people’s houses, or desperately trying to persuade someone you just met on the bus that there’s really no need for him to pay for your ticket, than reporting theft or mugging or trying to get rid of somebody who is after your money.”
And from a letter in the Sydney Morning Herald (16 Sept 2006): “We have travelled in South America, Africa, India and other parts of Asia, but nowhere have we experienced such friendliness and hospitality – frequently being invited into homes for chai (tea) or a meal.”
But before Pakistanis, in general, and Punjabis, in particular, get too pleased with themselves over such lavish praise from westerners, they would do well to reset their perspective by reflecting on some of the far less endearing aspects of life in Pakistan which, to their exasperation, are also frequently reported in the West.
To quote columnist Munir Ataullah, a proud Punjabi himself: “Don’t be too impressed . . . when [Punjabis] talk of Izzat, Ghairat or Wafadari [honour, self-dignity, loyalty] etc. etc. . . . they are realists without peer, with an unashamed and unadulterated preference to be on the winning side, be what that may, high moral principles be damned.” (“Punjabi and Punjabiat,” Daily Times, 12 May 2004).
It so happens that our new “friend” from Lahore was an Ahmadi. And being on the “losing” – I should say subjugated – side of the religious/sectarian divide in Punjab, surely he would have a very distressful story or two to tell from his personal experience.
But, to give credit where it is due, none can beat Punjabis for hospitality – it is genuine and generous like nowhere else in the world. And anywhere in this wide world, as my wife and I experienced in the middle of the Canadian prairie.