PAKISTAN - The man steering a donkey cart on the highway was not what caught my eye. By that point in a recent trip to Pakistan, I had grown accustomed to the sight of donkeys in traffic — ambling alongside rickshaws, tattoo-painted buses and motorbikes carrying entire families.

What stood out were the white ear buds dangling from the donkey driver’s ears.

It was just one of many split images of old and new realities colliding and commingling in this still-budding South Asian country.

The last time I was in Pakistan was 1988. Benazir Bhutto had just been elected Pakistan’s first female prime minister — the first female leader of any Muslim nation and so far the only one. Her victory energized the masses, stirring optimism about the country’s future.

Twenty-five years later, I returned to find pictures of the late Bhutto plastered everywhere — often with the title “shaheed,” or “martyr,” next to her name. Even the airport in Islamabad, the nation’s capital, was named for her after she was assassinated while campaigning in 2007.

I toured Pakistan as part of a seven-member delegation of American journalists on a trip organized by the Washington D.C.-based International Center for Journalists and funded by the U.S. State Department.

It was a rare chance to get an up-close view of a country that has long been a strategic U.S. ally and has become even more significant since 9/11. A nuclear power in a tough neighborhood, Pakistan has the sixth-largest population in the world and is projected to have the fourth-largest in just a few decades.

Though my visit was professional, the experience was also deeply personal. I longed to reconnect with the land my parents left in the late 1960s to pursue the American dream — the place that held fond memories for me from childhood visits there. I was eager and nervous at the same time to see how the passing years had changed us both.

The portrait that emerged from my whirlwind tour of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad was vibrant, and filled with stark contrasts that reflect a resilient young country still trying to find its way 66 years after gaining independence.

“Pakistan,” as one political leader we met put it, “is a country that is striving to become a nation.”

Here are some of the images that stay with me:

Twice a day, on the eastern border between India and Pakistan just outside the city of Lahore, a ceremony unfolds that is part pep rally, part pro wrestling cage match.

Pakistani and Indian soldiers face off in front of the iron gates that separate the two nations, strutting and staring with intimidating zeal.

On the Pakistani side, hundreds of onlookers wave green-and-white flags and chant, “PAKISTAN, ZINDABAD!” or “Long live Pakistan!” On the Indian side, an equally boisterous crowd cheers for “Hindustan.”

Tensions had flared again between India and Pakistan in the weeks before we visited, as soldiers clashed over the disputed territory in the Kashmir region. But at the border ceremony, the confrontation between turban-clad troops was only theatrical bravado. Extending one leg above their heads, the soldiers marched toward one another, high-kicking and stomping like bulls preparing to charge a matador. They stopped in front of the gate and raised their arms, flexing their muscles. The crowd screamed.

I wanted to scream, too. I felt myself getting worked up inside and wanted to join the chorus of voices cheering for the home team. But I refrained from getting too carried away, remembering my role as a journalist. I scanned the stands full of faces that resembled my own, smiling at the sight of all those Pakistani flags waving in unison.

As the sun began to set, the soldiers untied their respective national flags, taking them down for the night.

 

Wired when the lights go out

The use of social-networking sites is becoming ever more popular in Pakistan, fueled by a proliferating number of smartphones and a burgeoning youth population. Facebook is by far the most popular site, with 8 million users currently in Pakistan, ranking the country 28th in the world.

Yet, Pakistan remains a place where the lights go out without warning every now and then, the result of regular power outages.

 

Tradition meets the runway

On a tour of Pakistan’s Fashion and Design Institute in Lahore, I met students designing couture clothes, precious gemstone jewelry and high-end furniture lines. Mahwish Naeem, a fourth-year student at the prestigious school, was busy sketching her latest creations one afternoon.

Her inspiration: Beyoncé.

Naeem herself was dressed modestly in the national Pakistani dress of shalwar and kameez — a loose-fitting tunic and baggy pants, with a long scarf draped over one shoulder. The model in her sketches wore a short, snug-fitting dress and a fur collar.

Started by the government in 1994 in recognition of Pakistan’s robust textile industry, the school now has campuses in several cities across the country and has forged partnerships with acclaimed design schools in New York and Paris.

This, too, I realized, is Pakistan.

 

Fragile alliance

Three out of four Pakistanis consider the United States an enemy, according to a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. That was up from 69 percent in 2011 and from 64 percent in 2009.

And less than half said it is important to improve relations with the United States.

Relations between our two countries were especially strained after May 2, 2011, when U.S. Navy Seals entered Pakistan and conducted the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Pakistani officials were incensed that U.S. forces had entered Pakistan, a sovereign country, to conduct the operation. U.S. officials were equally displeased that the Al-Qaida leader had been living in a suburb of Islamabad, raising questions about whether some Pakistani officials knew he was there. Some Americans question whether Pakistan has done as much as it should to suppress terrorist cells in the remote northwest provinces.

Also adding tension to U.S.-Pakistan ties has been the U.S. government’s increased use of drones in Pakistan to combat terrorism. The vast majority of Pakistanis disapprove of U.S. drone strikes and believe that too many innocent people have been killed, according to the Pew survey.

Driving through Karachi, I spotted some graffiti on a building with the words: “Down with USA.” But I never felt any hostility from ordinary Pakistanis. In fact, people often approached us when we were out and about and wanted their photos taken with us. They knew we were Americans and they were fascinated, curious. Some even asked to stay in touch on Facebook.

 

Women leaders, abandoned girls

Bhutto’s legacy may very well have inspired other women to take up the leadership mantle.

Pakistan has had a number of women active in politics, including Hina Rabbani Khar, the country’s former foreign minister, and Sherry Rehman, the current ambassador to the United States.

More women are going to college and entering the workforce, especially in the urban centers.

But Pakistan society remains traditional, with distinct and often confining gender roles. One young woman we met at a dinner party was college-educated, but her training was not complete without attending finishing school. She explained all that she’d learned, from knowing which fork to use at a formal dinner to how to prepare a home-cooked meal.

At the Bilquis Edhi Female Child Home in Karachi, an orphanage and girls’ school, the rooms are full of girls given up by their families, either because they were born out of wedlock or because their parents could not afford to raise them. The Bilquis Edhi Foundation has many sites and serves all children, but the vast majority of the abandoned babies left in the steel cribs set up outside each site are girls.

 

Going green, breathing smog

Just outside of Lahore, lush green fields dot the landscape. Here, we met an information technology professional turned farmer who led our group around his property dressed in a cowboy hat, a denim shirt and boots. He proudly pointed to rows of mustard plants and the fresh eggs produced in his chicken coops.

“There is a strong case for organic products in Pakistan,” he said, explaining that there are no national food safety standards and organic foods are an emerging market among the country’s upper middle class.

Signs promoting a “Green Pakistan” cover walls and billboards along the streets. According to newspaper reports while we were there, at least one large city government was moving to ban plastic bags.

Despite evidence of a green movement taking root, the task is challenging. In Karachi, birds swooped overhead constantly — scanning for food among the trash heaps on the streets. In Lahore, thick smog hung perpetually over the otherwise beautiful city.

 

Resilience amid violence

Getting around Pakistan wasn’t easy, especially for a group of American journalists.

Pakistan is one of the world’s deadliest places for journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders, and recent months have proved especially perilous.

Just a couple weeks before we arrived, a succession of bomb blasts killed reporters and emergency responders arriving at the scene. Targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom in Karachi have led many people to hire personal bodyguards. Metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs greeted us at every hotel; an armed guard traveled with us wherever we went. On the day we visited the U.S. Embassy, we rode in a bulletproof van.

On a national holiday to celebrate the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, the government shut down cell service all day to prevent possible violence. (Cellphones have been used by terrorists to detonate bombs, and large processions are a part of the holiday festivities.)

Yet in Karachi and elsewhere, people moved freely about, on their way to work, to school, and to attend the numerous weddings that were going on in the winter months, a popular time to get married.

 

Historic elections

“You’ve come to Pakistan at an interesting time,” Chris Rich, first secretary for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, told us.

Elections scheduled for May 11 would mark the first time in Pakistan’s 66-year history that there has been a peaceful transition from one democratically elected government to another — without the military having to step in.

Many young people are throwing their support behind a new party, led by an ex-cricket star running on a message that sounded a lot like the “Change” slogan from Obama’s 2008 campaign. Young Pakistanis comprise a critical demographic, with roughly two-thirds of the population under age 30.

Many young people we encountered in official meetings spoke openly about their dissatisfaction with the old guard’s grip on power, of their hunger to see corruption end. I also met ordinary Pakistanis on the street whose mood about the elections and the country’s future was mixed.

Ishratali Khan, assistant manager at a gas station in Islamabad, told me he has doubts that the elections will happen because he believes the current president wants to hold onto power. Khan, 55, has lived most of his life in the capital city, where the main roads are wide and well-maintained and the government buildings are well-protected and majestic with the mountains as backdrop.

But the people are suffering, Khan says. Many have no water, no gas, no electricity. Some are even committing suicide because they’re in such distressing poverty, he said.

“I haven’t seen such kind of situation in Pakistan before. But the current government created so much difficulties for the people, so I want to see a new face,” he said of the upcoming elections. This time, he’s supporting Imran Khan’s party, which calls itself the “Movement for Justice” and vows to end corruption in politics by refusing foreign aid. So much is riding on this election, he suggested. “It is the last solution.”

Outside a busy shopping district in Islamabad, a retired Pakistan Army major sat in his car bouncing his 2-month-old son on his lap while waiting for his wife to return with her purchases. The economic situation inside the country is very grim, said Khalid Saeed, and there is no strong national leader. He said he comes from the middle class, yet even his family has struggled to make ends meet.

Fifteen years ago, he said, they were able to buy anything they needed. Milk, gas, eggs. “Now we have to think twice,” he said. Across the country, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown wider.

Pakistan needs a strong leader, probably a technocrat type, he suggested — someone who has run a company — to navigate these troubled economic waters. He will cast a vote in the elections, and said he has not yet decided whom he will support.

“My only concern is the survival of this country,” he said, “because I want to live here. I want to die here.”

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Allie Shah is a Star Tribune reporter.