Pakistani transport is perhaps the most colourful and energetic looking in the world. I instantly smiled when hopping on board my first tinsel covered bus from Taftan to Quetta. Bright lights, streamers, metal charmlets and bright paint decorated it inside and out. Upon seeing a numerous quantities of these giant MAC trucks hurtling towards me throughout the night, I decided to find out a little more.
On the outskirts of Peshawar city in a rough mud and oil covered courtyard I met Mr. Shirani. He was smiling broadly from behind his large grey beard that flowed into a pristine white Shalwar Kameeze. Mr. Shirani was looking on as three workers measured, noted, and prepared a new wooden drivers cabin on a monstrous MAC truck. It was his latest purchase.
“Four hundred thousand rupees, and now five hundred thousand more,” he said to me in a business like professional manner.
He’d bought the ageing truck, for a bargain. Then had a reconditioned engine fitted. That was just the practical side. With a working truck to transport goods he'd rather not to discuss, Mr. Shirani was overseeing the most important element to any Pakistani vehicle. The transformation from metal monster into a rainbow coloured visual highlight of the road.
“It is good luck to decorate out trucks in such a manner,” Mr. Shirani said as we walked over to a row of young men. Each one clipping and beating out metal shapes. “And in this country, we need all the luck we can get!”
Colorful metal flowers, swirls and thin metal strips were all cut out of panels that would soon line the t rucks long body. It didn't just stop there. I caught a glimpse of a wooden lade from a shelter.
“He makes the décor.”
I looked on as the man used the pedal powered machine to carve out a long flowing pattern, and then with equal flow another, and another. Each one specific to the owner or decorator’s request. And each one made of wood.
“How much are they paid?” I asked out of curiosity.
Mr. Shirani frowned, then mumbled to his number one standing aside. “Enough for a day's food I believe.” He replied, “But, what is more important is that they are happy at the fine work they are doing.”
It was an unfair question on my behalf, Mr. Shirani would have paid a lump sum for the work as a whole. The young men working there were a part of team. I imagined they were just starting off in the trade compared to what I was being brought to next.
We walked back to his truck as an unpainted door to the driver’s cabin was being fitted. I reached out to the intr icate carving on the side panel. “It’s made of wood?”
Mr. Shirani laughed at my frown. “Yes of course. It’s easier to carve patterns from.”
In my month of Pakistani public transport I had not realised that most of the trucks had had their old rusty doors replaced with wooden ones. I had thought the carvings to be manufactured from metal moulds. But no, all the doors with their intricate patterns were hand carved from wood. Then hand painted in glossy patterns and colours that would make Gaudi smile. Each truck, a personalized work of art.
I looked on at another truck next to us as white coverall painters on makeshift scaffolding worked with perfectionist precision. They were adding life to an old body. Smiles of pride crept onto their faces as I asked permission to photograph. Gracefuly they noded as I complimented them on their artistry. Each man was given an area to work on, and each man worked as if a surgeon.
Blue on orange, flower petals on water, swooshes and swirls in harmony. Sometimes alone, more often side by side the painters would work in the rising heat. Each one designated a squared off panel to bring to life.
It would take a week to outfit Mr. Shirani’s truck with its new wooden housing. Another two weeks again for the decorating to finish. Once complete there would be a small ceremony, a feast and a prayer for the trucks safety on the road. Then it would hit the dry rough dusty roads of Pakistan with a heavy payload of one kind or another. A unique vision to Pakistan that prideful driver’s celebrate with blasts of personalised horns as they roar by. The truck painters job done, their work continues on in encouraging colorful pride and smiles for all to enjoy.
For more on Pakistan, check out my Pakistan travel guide