September 30, 2022

Trucking in Technicolor on Pakistan’s Highways

HERE on the historic Grand Trunk Road, some 40 miles north of Lahore and a few hours south of the former Bin Laden hideout of Abbottabad, a mosque’s call to Friday afternoon prayers was overwhelmed by Pakistani pop music spilling from open-air markets. The barks of bus conductors calling out destinations added to the din.

The passing parade of motorized rickshaws, farm tractors, buses and highway cargo trucks looked as if a re-enactment of ’60s peaceniks making the pilgrimage to Woodstock might be under way. A panorama of red, yellow and green, mixed with plastic whirligigs, polished mahogany doors and gleaming stainless steel cover plates, was a magical sight for a visitor with a love for anything on wheels.

It was not only the variety of vehicles — all are common across South Asia — that elicited this reaction, or even their Partridge-Family-meets-Ken-Kesey color schemes. Rather, it was the fascinating quantity and surrealistic detail of their decoration, unlike anything I’d seen in my travels around the world.

A deeper understanding of the origins and meanings of the decoration craft was gained over days of mingling with the truck drivers and the owners of decorating shops in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar.

Karachi, situated on the Arabian Sea, is Pakistan’s major seaport. It is also the cargo hub of the country, and with 13 million people has a great many local and intercity buses. As such, the city supports a considerable customizing industry: when Saudi Aramco World magazine published an article about the trade in 2005, more than 50,000 people in Karachi were said to be employed decorating buses and trucks.

What I found at the Pakistani workshops was a pride of design and a willingness to answer questions — and to show off their creations to a former long-haul trucker. But my full beard may have helped in gaining their confidence and a look inside their truck cabs.

At a driver’s cafe near Karachi’s three-mile-long International Truck Yard (where I turned down an offer of boiled camel meat and cow-leg soup) workers took me by the hand to the shop of Masallah the truck decorator. My Dockers and Rockports were as out of place as their long-shirted, working-class shalwar kameez outfits and leather sandals, called chappals, would have been at Hunts Point in the Bronx.

Government safety agencies equivalent to OSHA were nowhere to be seen in the truck yards, and workers, many of whom were children of the owners, were being showered with sparks from their grinders and cutting torches.

Many of the trucks being outfitted at Masallah’s carried identification plates from Balochistan Province. Their owners were prospering thanks to a steady demand for hauling loaded sea containers from Karachi’s port to landlocked Afghanistan. Their cargo, typically including supplies for American and NATO military operations, make a trip of 500 miles by the southern route to Kandahar or 1,200 miles by a northern route to Kabul.

Pakistani truck owners can easily spend more on their trucks than on their homes. One driver from the Gwadar area of Balochistan told me he had just bought a Hino truck chassis for the equivalent of $35,000 and brought it straight to Masallah’s workshop. There he might spend another $25,000 for its body, paint and decoration. During the several weeks required to complete the work, he would sleep inside or under the truck, on his bedroll.

Adding decorative touches like ribbons, spinners, flags and polished steel cutouts in the shape of animals to a small bus costs an owner at least $800. This is considered an advertising expense; a highly decorated bus is usually the first choice of customers when there are several options.

Nissan and Hino tandem-axle trucks of the flat-front cabover design, many assembled in Pakistan, are the popular choices for cargo-haulers today, replacing the revered Vauxhall Bedford, a British model with a traditional cab. The Bedford was the mainstay of Pakistan’s cargo network since the early days of Pakistan’s independence.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=6d4ae19953da1fe60a506582e8e6a34f