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War and Nice People

"You are married?" It's always the second or third question we're asked. I'm not a very good liar and people often take answers from my eyes as well as my lips in Pakistan. This non-verbal dialogue has become increasingly important in India and Pakistan where words are often less than worthless.

Answering honestly invites a host of cultural conflict, the most common of which is the immediate assumption that Yumi is an unprincipled nymphomaniac and is likely to have sex with the man we're speaking to. It's always men.

We're in the cabin of a truck moving south along the Karakoram Highway which stretches from the icy Chinese border in the north to Islamabad in the baking, teracotta furnace of Pkistan's Punjab. A few minutes ago the bike's gearbox disintegrated (it had been threatening to do so for quite a while). Demonstrating the gruff hospitality endemic to this area, the first vehicle to pass stopped to solve our problem. The tyres and kickstart are completely locked. "If the heart is big, work is no problem," this huge man explains to me. With a full tank of fuel our 185kg bike is lifted to head height and strapped in to the back of the truck. Our Samson seems frustrated by my inability to give a simple answer to his simple question about our marital status.

"In my village," he's Patthan, speaks the Pashtu of his Afghan neighbours, "women are at home. If a man looks at my wife, I shoot him - KHATTAK!!" His beard flexes and the whites of his eyes widen against his dark skin. He feels uncomfortable sitting next to Yumi and later shifts to share the driver's seat with his partner to avoid the contact.

They stop twice to kneel towards Mecca and pray during our sixty kilometre journey. The driver returns to the vehicle to fill a cigarette with the wodge of chocolately hashish he keeps on the dash. He speaks Urdu, probably one of several languages in his repertoire, frequently returning to one of the few phrases I've memorised, "No problem." They've been hauling ammunition to the Line of Control. I ask what size and he indicates the space between his outstretched fingertips and the crease of his elbow. Each case weighs 85kg and I'm beginning to understand how we put the bike on the truck.

On arrival in Besham the bike is unloaded and we are escorted to the most expensive hotel in the small town on the (usually accurate) assumption that as foreigners we are completely free of financial worries. We'd planned on spending the night in the tent on the bike but they're anxious to see us properly settled. He refuses my first two attempts to make compensation for his kindness. "You have a son," I remember, "buy something for him." Street lights glint from a hearty smile and the truck is gone.

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