How is it to travel on a Pakistani passport, to be pulled to the side for a “random check” at almost every airport and why do people have a special soft spot in their heart for foreign travellers? Discover this and so much more in this beautifully written interview with NomadMania’s #3 ranked traveller from Pakistan Shueyb Gandapur. Not only that he loves to write, but it is also very noticeable when reading his words.
A stop within Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Shueyb, please introduce yourself. Where do you come from, where do you live now, what do you do in life…?
I was born in a dusty, far-flung town in north-western Pakistan, called Dera Ismail Khan. That’s where I spent most of my childhood and teenage years before moving to the capital, Islamabad, for higher studies. I studied to become a chartered accountant and entered the world of finance. I had never travelled outside Pakistan until the age of 25 when I was sent by the firm where I was receiving my audit training to the United Arab Emirates.
My first foreign trip left me astounded by the glitter and glamour that I came across. The cosmopolitan atmosphere with its multicultural feel was a far cry from the homogeneity of places I had known until then. After that, one opportunity led to another taking me to work in multiple countries across continents, eventually bringing me to my current home base in London, where I have been living for the past seven years.
Cuban women in traditional dresses in Havana
You come from Pakistan. How did this influence and shape you and your travels? It’s not so usual to find a Pakistani traveller out there..
I think it has been a defining feature of my overall travel experience. As I began visiting and then living in other countries, naturally, I compared and contrasted everything I observed against what I had seen back home. I learned a lot about the ways of the world and started to unlearn the ingrained simplistic perceptions about foreign cultures that I had harboured until then.
At the same time, I realised that the people I met in other countries often held stereotypical views about Pakistan. In several Latin American, Central Asian and North African countries, I got acquainted with locals who had never met anyone from Pakistan before, yet they were aware of my country’s unfortunate association with news reports of terror and violence.
I often found myself in the undesirable position of having to explain these matters in as balanced a way as I could. Most queries about my country have been about the state of its law and order, rather than about what attractions it offered to travellers and tourists. Due to the same reasons, most countries do not make it easy for Pakistani travellers to obtain tourist visas.
Pakistani passport is among the lowest ranked in the world in terms of ease of travel for its holders. That’s the primary reason that it’s rather unusual to find a Pakistani traveller out there. The other reason is the general lack of inclination towards travelling for leisure to unfamiliar places. Those who do travel, mostly go out in search of economic opportunities in destinations popular for that purpose.
A day trip to the Meteora monasteries in Greece
How did you start travelling in the first place? Where does this passion come from?
It was my employment in the finance sector that first gave me the opportunity to travel, but once I got the taste of it, I began travelling for leisure on my own. Of the 88 countries I have visited so far, 14 have been work-related trips.
While my international travelling began in my mid-to-late-twenties, my excessive interest in the world beyond borders had been quietly nurturing itself within me since my first vague understanding of the concepts of nations and nationalities developed. At the age of six or seven, I found a couple of foreign coins scattered in my school’s playground. Perhaps some kid had dropped them there. The unfamiliar inscriptions on those coins really captivated me and I spent hours examining them.
Around the same time, I took up the hobby of stamp collecting which soon turned into a passion. Each postage stamp with its unique image of a foreign symbol or person or event, represented for me a glimpse into a vast, mysterious, and infinitely fascinating world that I wanted to go out and explore. I used to browse through a borrowed copy of the world atlas for hours, memorising the names of irregularly-shaped countries and dots, denoting cities.
However, at the time, growing up in a remote and underdeveloped city as I was, the idea of ever venturing out to travel to all those places shown on the stamps and on the maps seemed too outlandish to ever take the form of a dream or a goal. I did however wish that I should be able to travel abroad at least once in my lifetime.
Batu Caves, Malaysia
Can you tell us about some of your experiences with travelling where you think that your passport was a disadvantage for you? Or quite the opposite – has it ever been a particular help?
I cannot think of a time when my passport proved to be an advantage. The number of times it has been a disadvantage is hard to count. The problems begin at the very outset.
There is a negligible number of countries that offer visa-on-arrival facilities to Pakistani passport holders. For all the others, visa requirements are often more stringent than for other nationalities and the processing times are longer. Even then, rejections are not very uncommon. The prolonged questioning and so-called random checks at immigration counters are on top of it.
The longest it has ever taken me to obtain a visa was for the United States. I received it after one whole year of submitting my application. I had pretty much given up hope of ever getting it. I was the happiest on receiving my Indian visa, restricted though it was to just four cities because it can be the hardest to get for people of Pakistani origin.
I had a funnily strange experience at the Ethiopian embassy in Riyadh once, where I had gone to apply for a visa. The visa officer handed me the application form. As I was walking away with it, he called back to ask about my nationality. When I told him where I was from, he told me to give him the form back. Perplexed, I asked him what the matter was. He said I shouldn’t bother with filling out the visa application because I wouldn’t be granted one anyway, due to my nationality.
Visiting the seaside town of Whitby in Yorkshire
Do you have any specific travel goals and if yes, what are they? What inspired you to have them?
My goal is to continue exploring more and more new countries at my own pace, as long as it continues to stimulate me. I don’t have the specific objective of visiting all the countries or regions of the world. I wish to go on longer multi-country trips so that I can immerse myself into the way of life of the places I visit, which is not possible at the moment due to being in full-time employment. I also wish to document all of my travel experiences in writing.
Against the skyline of Panama City
You are our 3rd rated traveller from Pakistan. Do you think that more Pakistani people would travel if they could? Is the bad passport the only thing preventing them from doing so?
I will not say that a bad passport is the only thing preventing them, but it is a pretty significant factor. Most of the travellers one meets on one’s journeys are from rich developed countries with higher disposable incomes. They enjoy the perks of economic safety nets in their home countries. Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, yet it produces very few outbound world tourists.
That’s because it’s a low-income country, where the general mindset of the populace is to use one’s savings to acquire tangible assets for long-term economic security rather than squandering them on such activities as travel, which they consider wasteful. Having said that, a lot of my countrymen do express their desire to travel the world when they hear my story.
Posing with the statue of Tamerlane, Samarkand
Where do you find inspiration for your travels? How do you decide where to go next?
When you have a passion for travel, you often look for travel-related content and make note of places to visit, even when you don’t know when that would materialise. When I find out about a charming village or an island with breathtaking views or some architecture of note, I make a mental note and save the place on Google Maps.
Despite having been to so many countries, I am still occasionally surprised on finding out about new destinations that I hadn’t heard of before. For example, I saw a picture of Olympos village on the Greek island of Karpathos in an airline magazine and visited it two years later. I came across a captivating picture of an Algerian village near Bordj Bou Arreridj on Instagram and altered my itinerary to visit it.
The night before I was supposed to travel to Nepal nine years ago, by pure coincidence I met an American woman in Islamabad, who had recently been there. She said that I must visit the hilltop settlement of Bandipur, which later turned out to be my fondest experience of that country.
View from the fortress at Hvar, Croatia
What were some of the biggest surprises – good or bad, that you encountered on your travels so far?
I have been very pleasantly surprised by the warmth strangers have shown me in unexpected places. I think there’s a special kind of kindness hidden inside most people that only comes out in front of foreigners.
The vulnerability we feel when we go to an unfamiliar place where we don’t know our way, where we can’t speak the language, where we are likely to get lost in the kind of vulnerability that can sometimes awaken the exploiters, and at other times, galvanise helpful souls. Luckily, the latter is still in the majority.
Of course, I have had some bad experiences as well, but those have been minuscule considering the number of times I have placed my trust in strangers. I think most of my unpleasant surprises have been at the passport and immigration counters, where I have been subjected to unnecessary interrogations for no reason other than on the basis of my national, ethnic or religious identity. I do not know at which airport that might happen next.
Colossi at Memnon – giant statues in Luxor, Egypt
How do you explain your travel passion to someone who doesn’t quite get it?
I won’t explain it to those who don’t get it. My interest in travelling is something that I can’t help anymore. It keeps me going. However, I do understand that it is a self-serving passion. Those who don’t want to travel are probably having other rewarding experiences that I am missing out by travelling. Yes, travel can broaden your horizons and deepen your perspectives, but only if you are willing to let that happen to you. There are other ways of breaking one’s mental barriers too, for example by reading.
The famous Bull of Wall Street, New York City
The Ottoman city of Berat in Albania
What is your biggest passion apart from travelling and how do you combine the two?
My other passions are creative in nature. I like to write, paint and take photos. While photography goes hand in hand with travel, the other two passions often suffer because of my nomadic spirit. I do try to find time for them whenever I can. I hope to do a better job of combining them with my travels because those activities can be really enriched if performed during my travels and can, in turn, enrich my travelling experience too.
Plitvice waterfalls in Croatia
What are some hidden gems that most of the travellers miss when travelling to your home country – Pakistan? What are your favourite places to see there?
Despite the exhilarating and adventurous experiences that Pakistan can offer, it has not received enough attention from most travellers. The reasons do not need to be repeated as we have already touched upon them in this discussion. Once travellers feel confident about their safety in Pakistan, I am sure more people will come and they will find plenty of hitherto undiscovered places to explore.
There is no dearth of culture, nature, history and hospitality in Pakistan. I am really keen on exploring the lush mountainous region of Waziristan, the Tirah Valley, the remote towns of Balochistan with their arid beauty and Thatta, the medieval capital of Sindh. The old city of Peshawar is among my favourite places in Pakistan, that I go back to again and again.
Co-travellers on a safari to Serengeti, Tanzania
With local friends in the village El-Klia, Algeria
Can you share some memorable travel stories with us?
There are many, but let me narrate two stories here. I was looking to travel from the Moroccan city of Chefchaouen to Fez, waiting for the shared taxi to fill up with passengers. There was supposed to be a change of vehicles in the city of Ouezzane en route. By the time we left Chefchaouen, I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it to Fez the same night.
A fellow passenger, a young boy hailing from Ouezzane, sensing my situation, offered to let me stay at his house. The manner in which he made that offer was very disarming. He couldn’t speak a word of English, so he used hand gestures to convey his proposition. When we reached Ouezzane, he overcame my reluctance with his insistence and took me to his home.
His mother served us a simple but scrumptious dinner, after which he took me around his neighbourhood and introduced me to all his friends and neighbours. Only one of his friends could speak English, whom he brought along to his house after our tour of the neighbourhood was completed. That friend served as my interpreter for the whole night and till midday the next day when they finally sent me off to Fez with some drinks and snacks for the journey.
I was travelling in a bus from the Colombian capital of Bogotá to the city of Zipaquirá, famous for its subterranean salt cathedral. On the bus, I started chatting with a schoolgirl sitting next to me. Unlike most of her countrymen, she spoke very good English.
She was super interested in South Asian culture due to the influence of Bollywood films that she had been seeing in Colombia of all places! When we reached Zipaquirá, she offered to accompany me to the salt cathedral, to which I happily agreed. However, her shoe broke as soon as she got off the bus. She said she would change her shoes at home, which was on the way.
When we reached her home, she invited me in. I wondered how she would introduce me to her family – a foreign guest that she had just met on the bus half an hour ago! Inside her house, I met her large family – her father, nine sisters and a couple of nieces. None of them could speak any English. Her father – a poet and painter – spoke to me about the influence of Arab rule on Spanish culture that the colonialists brought with them to the shores of Colombia.
As he was speaking in Spanish, I could barely understand the gist of what he was saying but appreciated his effort to break the ice by referencing cultural common ground. It was unreal to experience the welcoming nature and openness of a traditional Colombian family with which they greeted a complete stranger into their house. After visiting the salt cathedral, my trip to Zipaquirá was concluded by singing aloud Bollywood duets in the streets of the city with the girl I had met on the bus.
How did your general view of the world change with travelling?
The beauty that I have found in the world has inspired me so much that I believe paradise is nowhere else but here on Earth. I think one needs several lifetimes to truly appreciate the loveliness of this world. At the same time, there is so much misery in the form of poverty, violence, exploitation and bigotry of man towards man that it looks like humans have turned this world into an ugly place. That’s the paradoxical view of the world I have developed over time.
With co-travellers on a Nile cruise
At Petra, Jordan
We have a signature question that we ask all of our guests: if you could invite 4 people from any era to dinner, who would your guests and why?
Due to the limit on the number of guests, one would be the founder of one of the four major religions of the world chosen by a draw. I would like to ask them what they think of all that has been done in their name over the past couple of millennia.
One would be the Pharaoh Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza. I would like to ask him whether the pyramids were really the handiwork of humans alone or whether some supernatural forces were employed by him as well.
One would be Michelangelo, from whom I would like to understand how so much divine creativity could be possessed by the mind and hands of a single person.
And one would be Ustad Ahmad Lahori, who was the main architect of the Taj Mahal, remembered by very few today because everyone associates that wonder of the world with emperor Shah Jahan who commissioned it.
The pretty town of Cefalu in Sicily
The magnificent amphitheatre at El Jem, Tunisia