17 August 2018, around noon.
A few kilometres down the road from Sost in Upper Hunza, Gilgit-Baltistan, we are on our way to Khunjerab Pass. As we reach the region of Khunjerab National Park, a smiling, uniformed official, let’s call him the Smiling Guy, standing next to an unassuming makeshift hut by the roadside signals us to stop.
I assume it is some kind of check post or a toll plaza, but something feels different. Our car pulls up near the Smiling Guy. Windows are rolled down. He peers into the window I’m sitting near and greets us. Before we can ask what is going on, he produces a plastic bag from somewhere and hands it over. I glance down at the bag which I am holding now. I can just make out the words ‘recyclable plastic’ at the bottom of the bag. I look back up.
“If you eat anything or want to get rid of any wrappers or stuff while you are up there, please put them in this bag and hand it over back to us on your way back“, the Smiling Guy explains.
Interesting! I nod slowly, thinking.
“We dispose them off in an environment friendly way“, he finishes before retreating. Windows are rolled back up. We start moving again. I am impressed.
Fast forward a couple of hours. We are on our way back to Karimabad where we had been staying. We have handed back the trash bags from earlier. I have more bags lined up to collect any further garbage.
We are traveling in two cars. I had been trying to enforce a garbage-in-bag-until-I-find-a-trashcan policy in our car even before we met Smiling Guy, but with little success. Since then, I had redoubled my efforts and expanded them to the second car too, asking them not to throw stuff on roadsides or out of car windows. There was absolute policy compliance in our car. The memory of the Smiling Guy was still fresh.
So yeah, we were on our way back…
It is now past midday. The sun has gone down a little. Weather is great. It is pretty outside. We stop by a roadside to take a break.
We are surrounded by green and golden fields on every side, with bare mountains encircling them. All of us are milling about, capturing photos, talking or just taking it all in.
I spy one guy, let’s call him the Garbage Guy, from the second car taking out the trash bag in their car and dumping it by the roadside. I am standing at some distance when this happens, and I yell to get his attention. Then I ask him to put the trash back in the car. Our next stop, last one before home, is Attabad Lake. We will be there soon. We can dispose the garbage in the bins near the lake.
The Garbage Guy takes the bag back from roadside. I go back to my wandering around, satisfied that all is well now. But it isn’t. The Garbage Guy just takes his trash a bit further off the road where I cannot see him, and leaves it there.
But other people can.
Two local men are walking past on opposite side of the road. One of them, who looks my own age, let’s call him Mr. Clean, spots Garbage Guy playing dirty. He cuts across the empty road, making a beeline for the Garbage Guy. This gets my attention, and I realise my earlier request had been ignored. Mr. Clean apparently tells the Garbage Guy to not litter as I watch from afar. This time, I keep watching until the trash is back inside the car. Mr. Clean thanks Garbage Guy and walks away.
Again, I am impressed. My respect for the people of Hunza just skyrocketed. And now, I understand something.
The town of Karimabad, and all other towns on way up to Khunjerab Pass, and the roadsides elsewhere, they always looked much too clean when compared to other tourist hotspots such as the Galiyat or Lake Saif al-Malook. I had always wondered, but now I realised why.
It all boils down to one word: Responsibility
The local people take it upon themselves to keep their surroundings clean. Instead of erecting billboards asking tourists not to litter, the people of Hunza take the lead. And the visitors have no choice but to fall in line.
This is what we need to do in our own cities. Instead of reverting to old habits as soon as we re-enter our natural habitats, we need to make some effort. We need to take charge. All of us!