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Pakistan welcomed traveling Americans with open arms — and tea, lots of tea

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

— Marcel Proust

While traveling in central Pakistan recently, I talked to my dad back in the U.S.A., and he told me of bombing in nearby Syria. He was obviously concerned. I thought of the AK-47-carrying young man assigned to protect our group.

Then my mind turned to the reception we received wherever we went: We were literally showered, Punjabi-style, with rose-petal welcome lines. Even our gun-toting guard was soft at heart.

“This was first a duty, but now it is a privilege and blessing,” he said of his assignment; his joyous spirit radiating through his camo-uniform. “It is providence for us to be together.”

Our country’s relationship with Pakistan is complicated, as is its position in international affairs and Taliban connections. Yet, on my journey, the wonderful Pakistani natives we met blanketed us continuously with overwhelming joy, respect and love.

My own pre-trip worries abated immediately as we arrived in Lahore airport and a security official welcomed us into his office. He let us five travelers pass through customs without checks, and even gave us customary chai tea and desserts.

We traveled on an aid trip visiting soup kitchens, outreach centers, churches and educational places. The clients of these venues and others welcomed us like majestic astronauts returning triumphantly to earth. Their consistent welcome released me from my Pakistani preconceptions, and I realized that most people — of any country and this one in particular — are humans willing to greet and receive decent strangers as newfound friends no matter their politics and problems.

Many opened their homes to us and fed us great feasts, with even the poorest among them offering to share what little they had.

Our host family in the town of Toba-Tek Singh cleared their humble home, all seven of them cramming into a small bedroom with cots to give us their best rooms for our stay. Two young men, one of whom had a wedding coming up in days, traveled 15 hours by train to meet and help us.

We travelers all received many gifts along the way, including traditional Pakistani men’s clothing. Various police, security and governmental officials were courteous and even complemented us on our dress and visit.

Yes, there is enslavement, drugs and sex-trafficking in Pakistan, as we learned from our concerned contacts. We even visited a migrant slum, so offputting and depressing. But our Pakistani hosts bought drink and food for the residents as we visited in outreach.

A new friend, Zouhaib, the young man getting married, looked at my balding head gleaming in the hot sun in the Gypsy camp and gave me his hat. He then physically ran to catch a nearby train to meet his future bride, after having delayed his departure to be with us longer and serve as a crucial translator.

Steve Coll, author of “Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret War in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” wrote in The New York Times that the United State’s current administration “is withholding as much as $1.3 billion worth of annual aid to Pakistan,” and that “there is a limit to how much outside pressure can be brought to bear on that country” to keep it stable and its nuclear arms under control.

Yet so many Pakistanis commended us for visiting and showing American outreach. There was no animus to us for being American or westerners. We were treated like royalty — often, as per Pakistani ritual, seated on a dais in front of zealous audiences.

While riding on a motorcycle through town before flying out, I waved to those on the frenzied-fun streets and many waved back, somewhat aghast and definitely smiling at this American flailing in native Punjabi dress, hanging on to my driver.

In this geo-political, complicated world, we all can be emissaries, as we begin to “see with new eyes.” When we leave our normal land and constricting mental silos to meet others, we learn and receive far much more than staying in our so-called home.

John J. Lombardi (jlombardi7@verizon.net) is pastor of St. Peter Catholic church in western Maryland, and the author of “Thirty Breaths: A Little Book on Meditation” (Cathedral Foundation).

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