It’s my first trip to Pakistan, and every time I see a giant truck rumble by, I can’t help but photograph it.
Each truck is a work of art. Most are flamboyant, covered top to bottom in vivid images of landscapes, birds of all kinds (there’s no shortage of peacocks), and poetry.
These trucks are definitely hard to miss, especially because most have a long array of bells hanging off their rear bumpers.
I’m on a mission to find a truck driver who will spare a few minutes to talk.
While driving around Rawalpindi, just outside Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad, I spot a large truck parked in front of a small, muddy shopping center. I approach one of the drivers standing outside on his short tea break.
Shakeel Khan, from Abbottabad, tells me he has been driving trucks for 20 years. He agrees to an interview, and to his surprise, I hop into the passenger seat of the truck with all my gear.
The worn seats are ripped and covered in dust. But Khan has jazzed up the dashboard with giant bouquets of fabric flowers. Sparkling beads and a hand-embroidered lantern cover hang from the rearview mirror. This really put fuzzy dice to shame.
“We’ve made this truck like our own home,” Khan says. “We’ve decorated it because we only get to go home one day after every two months.”
It can take five to six people up to a month to fully decorate a truck. Khan and his two fellow drivers say they spent $5,000 outfitting their truck. That’s a huge investment; they only make about $30 a month.
“Without a beautiful truck, we won’t even drive it,” Khan says. “After putting all the decorations on, then we’ll drive it. The way people wear nice clothes, that’s how we decorate our trucks. It’s so people notice our truck.
I ask him in Urdu what he gets out of all these decorations, and he immediately replies, “We get love! Other than love from the people, there’s nothing else.”
Khan also wrote the poetry that’s on the front and back of the vehicle. He reads a rhyming verse to me in Urdu that translates as, “Don’t make friends with rich people because you can’t trust them.”
“There’s lots of poetry verses all over the truck,” he says. “We drive around everywhere, and people notice it.”
When I ask him if the people who see his truck say anything to him, he answers without a pause, “Of course! They say you’ve done good work. It gives us respect.”
Soon, his co-driver beckons to him. He says they have to get back on the road, since they have a long drive ahead. They pull out of the truck stop and the bells on the back of the truck jingle loudly as they take off.
A couple days later, I visit a street lined with workshops, where artists create ornate truck decorations. Inside these shops, kids cut out stickers for wheels, bumpers, and side view mirrors. Near the front, shopkeepers and drivers are making deals.
I meet shop owner Mohammed Nadeem, a third-generation truck art designer, who says there are lots of people involved in decorating one truck.
“We get a steel sheet, and we cut it to make designs, like peacocks, tigers and fish,” Nadeem says. “After that, we cover it with colorful stickers. Everything is made by hand.”
When I ask him why drivers want beautiful trucks, he tells me, they're proud and happy showing off their trucks. "They say to their friends, look, I just got this new truck decorated, I made it look very nice,” he says.
“All the drivers want their truck to look better than the other’s. That’s what they strive for,” he continues.
Then, Nadeem goes back to work, carefully applying small, bright green stickers to a multi-colored design in the shape of a horse.
Sonia Narang reported from Pakistan with support from the East-West Center.