Travelling through Pakistan with my (fake) husband

Published: April 13, 2015

Matt and I at Shandura Pass. PHOTO: CHARLIE GROSSO

I am travelling to Pakistan with a stranger I met on a layover in Hong Kong. Within minutes of meeting each other, we knew we could travel together. We hatched a plan over lukewarm Tiger Beer while sitting on smurf-sized chairs in Hanoi. Out of respect for Islamic values, and as precaution, we decided to pretend to be husband and wife from elsewhere, anywhere but America.

We rendezvoused in Guangzhou and entered Pakistan from Western China down the Karakoram Highway. As I stood at the airport waiting, I thought,

Do I know what he looks like?

I wondered for the briefest moment if I would recognise this man I had met on a layover in Hong Kong four-months ago. I didn’t know anything about him and I was about to head deep into Pakistan with this stranger. I slowed my pace and looked at each sleepy-eyed passenger carefully. He was not at the gate. I turned around and saw a scruffy, tall, white man in a tan t-shirt tentatively waving at me from a corner.

Yes! Hello stranger!

Near Gulmit, Pakistan, on the Karakoram Highway, heading south. Photo: Charlie Grosso

On our flight to Kashgar, we worked out our cover story. He would be an environmental science schoolteacher from Latvia. I was to be Turkmen, Asian enough but not necessarily Chinese, skirting the political tension between China and Pakistan. This new me is a secretary for Doctors without Borders, not a journalist. My “husband”, Matt, and I met in Timbuktu five-years-ago. We don’t have any children and we live in Riga, Latvia. It was the perfect cover, carefully skirting all possible ideological and political land mines.

We travelled fast and never stayed anywhere for too long. Matt was concerned about security, with kidnappings and ransom at the top of the list. The lies and subterfuge turned us into characters in a spy thriller. We exited China through Tashkurgan, the last town in Xin’jin, and didn’t get stamped into Pakistan until Sost, some 120-miles later. We were country-less outlaws on an old Chinese sleeper bus crossing the Khunjerab Pass (15,397 feet) with a curious assemble of Pakistani and Chinese men.

In Sost, the first town we entered in Pakistan, while I arranged for further transport and exchanged money, a man came over, tapped Matt on the shoulder and asked him to follow. Ten minutes later, Matt came back and told me that the man was Pakistani intelligence and he wanted to know if we were CIA. We high-tailed it out of there before the real spy had any more questions for us.

We never got to tell our perfect cover story. Instead, the story we told changed as our journey progressed. We were Canadians, unless we had to hand over our passports for security checkpoints or hotel registrations. Sometimes we lived in British Columbia (when I headed up the narrative), sometimes we lived in Ontario or Thunder Bay (when he told the story). We were always teachers, but taught unspecified levels and subject matters. At one point, we were unemployed while at another, we were on sabbatical. Most of the time, the curious Pakistanis were less concerned with what I did for a living and more interested in Matt’s fictitious job – after all, he is the man.

Even though we said we are married, the reality of our single selves would flash through subliminally like a bright neon-sign telegraphing the lack of intimacy between us. The good Pakistanis would ask,

“Are you married?”

One of us would reply,

“Yes,” and point at the other.

The inquiring Pakistani would suffer an awkward pause of disbelief. The subtleties of couple-hood are hard to fake; we stood a little too far away from each other, and he would often hit me on the shoulder as if I was his college buddy. Our factitious marriage eventually spawned a fake child, a three-year-old boy named Marco (after Marco Polo of course). Being an American had become a liability; we told little white lies – married, Canadians, or more precisely, not American, to protect ourselves from anti-American sentiments. We meant no ill will in our deceit.

We quickly made our way through the providence of Gilgit–Baltistan, the land of 8,000 peaks, spending only a night in each town. We hired a driver in Gilgit to take us across the Shandur Pass (12,139 feet) into Chitral, aiming for the remote Kalash Valleys, less than a hundred kilometres from the Afghanistan boarder. The remote Kalash tribe was the centrepiece of this journey. Matt has a keen interest in remote native cultures and I wanted to do a story on them. I love the high altitude peaks and crystal blue glacial lakes along the Shandur Pass.

Shandur Pass. Photo: Charlie Grosso

Crossing Attabad Lake, Pakistan. Since the landslide in 2010, the only way to travel through Gilgit-Batistan Region is to cross Attabad Lake by boat. Photo: Charlie Grosso

Pakistan truly is an incredible country. These mountains are glorious. Matt got out of the car, took a deep inhale of the freezing air, with his love for these peaks vividly visible right there in his smile. I worried about his presence interfering with my work since I’m used to travelling and working alone, but it never did.

My contact and the subject of my Kalash story arranged for a car to take us to Islamabad. The fastest route was through the Swat Valley, skirting just east of Peshawar. The private transport came with armed police escorts we assumed to be mandatory for foreign nationals. The driver drove at break-neck speed, closely following the police escorts, not stopping or slowing for school children or goats. We were informed that this procedure – travelling with armed men and driving on high speed – was all very necessary. We had become Bonnie and Clyde.

School boys playing soccer on the polo field during their lunch break in Gulmit, Pakistan. Photo: Charlie Grosso

At night, when we would be alone, we no longer needed to pretend that we are married. We would go over the day’s events and the logistics of what was next. We talked about where we each wanted to go next and where might be a good place to tackle together. Yemen, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, South Sudan – I was hungry for the next story and he was compelled by intense personal curiosity.

Our interests dovetailed one another perfectly. We would drift into our personal romantic lives once we had finally exhausted conversations on what the world has to offer. He would tell me about his long-term, serious girlfriend back in San Diego, and I would entertain him with my ridiculous Sex in the City style stories of dating in New York City, made more difficult by constant travel and work.

“You will find someone, someone who loves the road as much as you,” he mumbles just before he drifts off to sleep.

Our lies held up until we met Imran Khan, Babar Khan, and their entire extended family – a curve ball we could not have anticipated. Having heard through the grapevine of brothers, cousins, and neighbours in the tiny town of Uch Sharif that two foreigners were trying to get to a random corner of Punjab, Imran showed up at the bus depot offering assistance. He said he would take us to Darawar Fort as we wanted to camp under the stars near the old fort there, a change of pace from the intensity of being in the shadow of the Taliban, so close to the Afghanistan border. But there was no easy way to get there. Imran could not understand the appeal of camping.

“Why would you want to sleep outside? I like to sleep inside my house with my wife,” Imran says in disbelief.

Ruined Sufi tombs in Uch Sharif, Punjab, Pakistan. Photo: Charlie Grosso

Imran kept on trying to talk us out of the camping and we kept on telling him that it is what we would like to do. It took a while for him to get on board with our plan.

Then he started calling everyone he knew.

“It is not safe for you to sleep outside. You will need protection,” Imran insisted.

Matt and I looked at each other and decided not to ask too many questions, including the obvious – protection from what? Not too long after, Imran’s other cousin, Babar, joined us, bringing a parcel of food he picked up from Imran’s wife and a blanket. When we arrived at the fort, another friend of Imran’s was there waiting. Unintentionally, we had dragged three strangers into our desert camping plan, who claimed to protect us from the jinns (evil spirits). In a moment of fantasy, it occurred to me that Imran could be a spy, a real one – except his smile and exuberance made that an unlikely scenario.

View of Abbasi Mosque from Darawar Fort, Bahawalpur, Punjab, Pakistan. Photo: Charlie Grosso

A simple ride turned into two days of adventure, ending at Imran’s house with his extended family. By then, we were so far into our “married” lies that there was no way out. Spending hours in the kitchen with grandmothers, aunties, sisters and cousins, I prayed silently they didn’t ask to see photos of baby Marco.

Imran’s cousin preparing lunch. Photo: Charlie Grosso

“Where is your boy now?” They asked.

I reached for the simplest answer.

“He is with Matt’s mom.”

“Doesn’t he miss you?”

“We want our kid to be very independent,” I reply.

They must have thought us to be irresponsible parents.

Matt deflected all the questions he could not answer with sports. He played cricket on the roof with the men, while I sat in the kitchen with the sisters, trying hard to avoid more white lies and being unsuccessful,

“No, Matt and I do not use Facebook.”

Matt with Imran’s cousins and neighbors, playing cricket. Photo: Charlie Grosso

Our deceit haunted us long after we left. Imran and his family wouldn’t have cared whether we were Americans or Martians. The human-to-human connections transcend the implications of citizenship and any precautions a journalist and a traveller took. Their hospitality and generosity touched us deeply. You don’t lie to friends, but there was no way we could’ve known.

A version of this story originally appeared on Yahoo Travel.

Charlie Grosso

Charlie Grosso

Photographer, writer, brand consultant, world traveler, art gallery director who drove across the world in a tiny car. She tweets @charliegrosso (twitter.com/charliegrosso) and her work is visible at www.charliegrosso.com/

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Fareed Khan Afridi.

    Wow ! Triple Wow! What a trip! A true traveler. May the Gods of Travelers watch
    over you.Recommend

  • Javeria K

    Haha. I wish I could do something like that too. xD
    I hope you guys had a lot of fun!Recommend

  • https://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=8559594100366660134#allposts Supriya Arcot

    Wow , so much panache /romance/ intrigue/ passion / beauty all wrapped in one . Made me go all teary eyed. S n i f f f f f ff f f f .Recommend

  • Asadullah Chaudhary

    Welcome to Pakistan … :)Recommend

  • islooboy
  • woody

    Entertaining blog but I doubt your fake persona fooled anybody. American’s tend to stick out and no doubt the ISI had you tagged and monitored from the moment you stepped into Pakistan. Glad you weren’t kidnapped.Recommend

  • Adeel Sheikh

    i don’t understand why she had to lie so much! In Pakistan we welcome tourists and we love our customs too. If i ever go to a foreign country i would try my best not to go against any local traditions and customs but i surely wouldn’t lie and deceive anyone either… and the way she wrote the whole thing as if she enjoyed it all along.Recommend

  • Biased

    What “political tensions between China and Pakistan”?
    It would have been nice if the author had made more effort to contrast the “thumbs down narrative” raging in Western press with far more richer reality that is thriving among peoples of Pakistan-Land of mighty Indus among the mighty Karakorums.Recommend

  • https://www.facebook.com/ ather khan

    false story at bestRecommend

  • Zahir

    Liked everything about the article, except the heading. Pakistanis are hospitable and they accept people from every culture. Anyways, some fantastic photography !!Recommend

  • LearningDoesntHurt

    political tension between China and Pakistan?!?!? Gurllll you clearly don’t know about Pakistan’s bilateral relations; Pakistan and China are very close allies and Pakistanis love the Chinese, as for Turkmens, most of us don’t even know who they are, this hillarious, China’s “political tensions” are with India NOT Pakistan.Recommend

  • ot

    BS story but nice pics…Recommend

  • wb

    Photographs are very beautiful. I think, Pakistan has a lot of potential in tourism, provided it continues to exist.

    “Out of respect for Islamic values, and as precaution, we decided to
    pretend to be husband and wife from elsewhere, anywhere but America.”

    That is something that Michael Scott had said before. That in order to respect someone, you lie to them :)Recommend

  • anon0912

    I have to say these pics really caught my eye especially the way the colors are popping out.Sometimes we need to look through another persons eyes to appreciate the very beauty we are surrounded by and these pics do exactly that.Pity that these issues plague the tourists but on the bright side at least the writer had an adrenalin fueled adventure.Recommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    Really good. i especially liked the part about your visit to derawar fort. Matt holding the bat in the last photo is hilarious, no matter how much you try to tell a baseball fan that it is a cricket bat he will hold it like lumber and whack balls with strokes that can put afridi to shame.Recommend

  • [email protected]

    Nice story. Next one: she should travel through India pretending to be a man.Recommend

  • Asad

    Good read. Charlie this journey must be a memorable one!Recommend

  • RFD

    Exactly ! Would be too dangerous as a woman. Recommend

  • https://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=8559594100366660134#allposts Supriya Arcot

    Hmm the Sufi Tombs seem to be needing more than 2 eyes to feast .Recommend

  • Sarah

    Thank God, soemone noticed :DRecommend

  • Pro Truth

    Strange why even you have to lie? Pakistan is not KSA tourist can travel without being married!Recommend

  • sabundani

    “i don’t understand why she had to lie so much!”
    She’s American and Americans love creating drama out of nothing.Recommend

  • sabundani

    What “political tensions between China and Pakistan”?

    None. The writer was/is totally clueless about Pakistan, it’s culture and it’s relationships.Recommend

  • Xpecialist

    >>”political tensions b/w China and Pakistan” … on which planet?

    Clearly, you two were thinking way too much about yourselves as some kind of celebrity figures that you thought you need to cook up stories to hide your “real identities”Recommend

  • sabundani

    Agree. It’s a BS story. The only explanation for acting this way is that either you’re under powerful medication or you really are a spy. What these two did sure qualifies as classic spy behaviour. I am sure the intelligence guys were on to them because they couldn’t even keep their stories straight.Recommend

  • sabundani

    “as for Turkmens, most of us don’t even know who they are”

    She would’ve done better if she had called herself Martian instead of Turkmen. What is a “Turkmen”? I’m really not sure, never having seen one!Recommend

  • Parvez

    That was a fast paced read……..and a good one as well.
    Why did you’ll not just go with the truth from the beginning ?…..I doubt anyone would have really bothered and it would have saved you’ll the mental turmoil…….but this way I suppose, it gave the whole affair a sense of cloak-and-dagger intrigue.Recommend

  • Najeeb

    Turkmen is a tribe of central asian countries, mainly living in Turkmenistan. Iqbal mentioned Turkmen in one of his verses, i cann’t recall. Emperor Babar was a Turkmen as well.Recommend

  • Mughal

    babur was UzbekRecommend

  • Javaid Mughal

    Mughal, dont disgrace Babur please, it is not good to disgrace our own ancestors, he was Turk.Recommend

  • http://thoughtsandotherthing.blogspot.fr/2015/09/vegetarianism-ritual-killings-et-al.html Supriya Arcot

    Whats KSA ?Recommend

  • Nida

    I wish the writer knew a bit of geo-politics of the country before travelling. And for lying, it was totally unnecessary. I guess the media has been quite unsuccessful in projecting an image truer to reality.Recommend

  • Omar

    I agree with LearningDoesntHurt. In fact you should visit Gawadar it will be an eye opening experience.Recommend

  • liberal-lubna-fromLahore

    oh no poor you. Must be a traumatizing and fearful experience to pretend to have a husband in a place that does not require you to do so in the first place but to give into the fear mongering agenda from your country of origin and the negative image you have of my country, you decided to be “Brave” and venture into the ruthless, extremist, barbaric country called Pakistan. Hope you win a noble peace prize and a bravery medal for doing such a brave act especially as a woman for no one woman should be ever stopped and asked if the guy she is with happens to be her husband. Thats just sign of extremism and intolerance right there.

    No seriously, how dare you label my beautiful country with such a negative headline. Me and my girlfriends travel up North all the time and the men there have been nothing but courteous and respectful towards us women. The reason why it seems they intervene is for our safety and just be of help for us.

    Dont make everything about Pakistan a “East vs West” “Extremism vs tolerance” kind of a thing and put some actual effort into understanding a country’s unique culture, step outside the box, broaden your horizons instead of always giving into the propaganda machines.Recommend

  • anon0912

    this maybe a little childish but i cant believe her name is gross….haha.on a sidenote when i first skimmed through the article…i thought the whole making up the stories thing was sarcasm cause the article ended with we are all human beings and stuff…lol…but she actually meant every word.Recommend

  • A Humayun

    Hai, dramay-baz! What a fevered imagination (bordering on the delusional) these young ‘uns have. Chalo, it gave them a long tale to tell to other credulous westerners (for starters, as others have pointed out China and Pakistan have no political tensions). I feel bad for the hospitality and warmth of the Pakistani family this deceitful couple used and betrayed. Next time travel like normal people.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.Recommend

  • Afat Qiamat

    ..Why they had to lie ..?..or why did they lie…?? I could not understandRecommend

  • Sane

    Charlie Grosso!

    Photographer, writer, brand consultant, world traveler and gallery director. Directionless in professions and knowledge-less about the relationship between Pakistan and China rather world affairs. Full of contradictions and per-conceived ideas and fake perceptions.Recommend

  • Sane

    It looks journey was never done.Recommend

  • Gul Zaman Ghorgasht.

    Babar was a descendant of Ghenghis Khan. A Mongol.
    The Mongols, they intermarried with Turkomans, Persians,
    Uzbegs, Afghans when they conquered these territories.
    And produced a Babar.Recommend

  • RFD

    No need to fly off the handle and go ballistic. Would you not
    research and take the general reputation of a country into account
    before you go visit it as a tourist? It is definitely NOT recommended
    for women, desi or otherwise to travel alone or even in a group in the
    Northern Areas. These are very beautiful and very dangerous areas..
    With ethnic, sectarian, regional and political strife rampant. The men
    are courteous and polite, on the other hand uncourteous and unpolite
    men can also kidnap you, do nasty things to you and sell you as a bride
    to a Kazakh, or Uzbeg or in the Wakhan Corridor. For as little as $50.
    They killed 14 FOREIGN mountain climbers there, 3 years ago. Reaching
    the base camp, to kill them, after climbing for 9 hours! K-2 [Godwin Austen]
    Your claim that you and your girl friends travel North all the time has to be
    taken with a grain of salt. Make that a bag of salt. Say,..would you travel
    alone in Myanmar? A beautiful country. [they don’t like Muslims] Or say
    Mexico? Very beautiful there. [Drug culture, and drug trafficking].
    Might be better if you snap out of your patriotic reverie.Recommend

  • Swaadhin

    Just imagine if she had indeed been caught by an intelligence officer, life would have been miserable not just in Pakistan but in any country. I also did not understand why did she have to hide the fact that she was Chinese, there is a lot of good will for the Chinese in Pakistan.

    If the author had kept things simple, we would not have been reading this blog.Recommend

  • ak

    Ancestors?
    How are you so sure Babar was your ancestor?
    #HonestQuestionRecommend

  • Noman Ansari

    Debra Lobo was just shot in the head a few hours ago in Karachi. She was Vice Princi­pal Jinnah Medica­l and Dental Colleg­e.

    Yes, we love foreigners. Love to shoot them.Recommend

  • ajeet

    Pakistan has lots to worry about and any rape wouldn’t even make it to the news channels as four male witnesses are required.Recommend

  • ajeet

    Isn’t Pakistan a state in KSA?Recommend

  • RFD

    Nope. Wrong. KSA, is,…Klingons of Sotomoto Arbhakistan.
    Recommend

  • liberal-lubna-fromLahore

    Again, you are the kind who let their perceptions shape by media gibberish. I would not “research” about “reputation” of a country because there is nothing to it. Only a media propaganda enslaved mind would do something like. I, however, am free from such brainwashing tools and mechanisms, I am above that and can think for myself. Unlike you, I would gladly comment on every point you have made and not the just ones I feel comfortable answering. It is definitely not recommended…says the paranoid guy who has probably never stepped out of his safe and secure room to venture into the dangerous world. Oh men can kidnap me, sure, but only in the northern areas? where there is hardly any reported crime for us to even make such a ground breaking conclusion that its dangerous and scary to label it as a no go zone? You can even get kidnapped in New York and Mexico. Does this mean I better cut off those on my list of beautiful places I wish to visit? You can, since you are so paranoid and deeply concerned about human rights, only in the East, that is. but dont stamp your fears on everyone else. Some people happen to be brave and being a man if you can digest the fact that a woman is brave enough to venture into these places but u r not, then u need to fix your own insecurities and reply to my comments. Okay, moving on you say Kazakh, or Uzbeg or in the Wakhan Corridor. What is this? are these even places that exist or just some names you heard from fox news? Show me proof u can get kidnap here or is it just stemming from your fear and hate for Pakistan? For as little as $50? yeah right, someone seems to have been there and done it all. Were u present there when this kidnapping was taking place and did u get chance to interview those kidnappers? No! so stop stating your opinions as facts. I have to go now but I’ll be back to finish answering to all of your points. Watch out for part 2 of this comment.Recommend

  • mushkishtash

    This could be made into a movie !!Recommend

  • Muhammad Shehwar

    A very well written article portraying the landscapes and the heritage we have. And at the end the hospitality towards the stranger shown by our people.Recommend

  • saad

    Debra lobo is a foreigner living in Pak for 20 whole years! So I shouldn’t call her one.Recommend

  • Citizen of the world

    If it was , it’s army would be in Yemen by now ..DaaaaRecommend

  • fze

    are you talking about India where tourists are raped at the drop of a hat and warnings had to be issued to be careful? Ha,ha,ha I can see the smoke rising as somebody is fuming now.Recommend

  • [email protected]

    Not really. Get your facts right.Recommend

  • Haris

    I think she still portrait better picture than many other writers do,

    But I appreciate your Love for Pakistan, Actually our education system needs drastic changes on emergency basis,

    Our education system does not teach patriotism and the purpose of life,

    Our Current politicians are so illiterate they only know the benefits of making Roads but they dont understand the benefit of Education,,

    I wish more and more Foriegn Universities open their campuses in Pakistan,

    Education plzz anyone listening, plz do something politicians,Recommend

  • fze

    Poor geography knowledge evident.Recommend

  • Adrian Colaco

    Hi Charlie.. Your article was simply a good read…. My people get a little “excited” when you label Pakistan as a “non hospitable” country… It is true however… the hospitality of Pakistani can differ from person to person.. Regarding your point about women travelling alone in Pakistan.. im not ashamed to say that I would’nt let my wife travel alone to the Market because there is the odd “crackpot” always around…We often like to ignore the Elephant in the room…but in any case.. dont let that stop you from coming over… terrorism and fanatacism hasn’t got to all of us… yet…Recommend