Trucking in Technicolor


A mosque’s call to Friday afternoon prayers was overwhelmed by pop music spilling from open-air markets. The barks of bus conductors calling out destinations added to the din, according to a feature published in the New York Times.
The passing parade of motorised rickshaws, farm tractors, buses and highway cargo trucks looked as if a re-enactment of the 60s peaceniks making the pilgrimage to Woodstock might be under way. A panorama of red, yellow and green, mixed with plastic whirligigs, polished mahogany doors and gleaming stainless steel cover plates, was a magical sight for a visitor with a love for anything on wheels. It was not only the variety of vehicles—all are common across South Asia—that elicited this reaction, or even their Partridge-Family-meets-Ken-Kesey colour schemes. Rather, it was the fascinating quantity and surrealistic detail of their decoration, unlike anything I’d seen in my travels around the world.
From Peshawar to Karachi via
Lahore: A deeper understanding of the origins and meanings of the decoration craft was gained over days of mingling with the truck drivers and the owners of decorating shops in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar. Karachi, situated on the Arabian Sea, is a major seaport. It is also the cargo hub of the country and with 13 million people has a great many local and inter-city buses. As such, the city supports a considerable customising industry: when Saudi Aramco World Magazine published an article about the trade in 2005, more than 50,000 people in Karachi were said to be employed decorating buses and trucks.
What I found at the workshops was a pride of design and a willingness to answer questions—and to show off their creations to a former long-haul trucker. But my full beard may have helped in gaining their confidence and a look inside their truck cabs. At a driver’s cafe near Karachi’s three-mile-long International Truck Yard, where I turned down an offer of boiled camel meat and cow-leg soup, workers took me by the hand to the shop of Masallah, the truck decorator. My Dockers and Rockports were as out of place as their long-shirted, working-class shalwar kameez outfits and leather sandals, called chappals, would have been at Hunts Point in the Bronx.
Government safety agencies equivalent to OSHA were nowhere to be seen in the truck yards and workers, many of whom were children of the owners, were being showered with sparks from their grinders and cutting torches. Many of the trucks being outfitted at Masallah’s carried identification plates from Balochistan. Their owners were prospering thanks to a steady demand for hauling loaded sea containers from Karachi’s port to landlocked Afghanistan. Their cargo, typically including supplies for American and NATO military operations, make a trip of 500 miles by the southern route to Kandahar or 1,200 miles by a northern route to Kabul.
Spending more on trucks: Truck owners can easily spend more on their trucks than on their homes. One driver from the Gwadar area of Balochistan told me he had just bought a Hino truck chassis for the equivalent of $35,000 and brought it straight to Masallah’s workshop. There he might spend another $25,000 for its body, paint and decoration. During the several weeks required to complete the work, he would sleep inside or under the truck, on his bedroll. Adding decorative touches like ribbons, spinners, flags and polished steel cutouts in the shape of animals to a small bus costs an owner at least $800. This is considered an advertising expense; a highly-decorated bus is usually the first choice of customers when there are several options.
Nissan and Hino tandem-axle trucks of the flat-front cabover design, many assembled in Pakistan, are the popular choices for cargo-haulers today, replacing the revered Vauxhall Bedford, a British model with a traditional cab. The Bedford was the mainstay of Pakistan’s cargo network since the early days of independence. The Bedford is still prized for its sturdy chassis and ability to continuously haul outsize loads. Many have bodywork with a high-crowned front prow, which lends itself to decoration and gives the truck the look of a sailing ship.
As is the case in the US, offering a sharply-decorated truck can be a powerful incentive for recruiting drivers. Pakistani bus and truck owners usually allow their drivers to work out their own designs in conjunction with the owner of the decoration shop. Predictably, mass production has changed the business over the years. Adornments are no longer exclusively handmade.
“Pakistani buses were originally decorated using carved woodwork and individual paintings,” said Kurram Awan, the owner of a small shop of truck-decorating supplies in Lahore. “Now, my shop sells over 1,000 different items, including braids, reflectors, flashing lights and antennas,” he said. Durriya Kazi, an artist and teacher in Karachi, has long been a proponent of Pakistan’s folk art. She sees bus and truck decorating as an integral part of that tradition, noting the importance of distinguishing between sculpture as defined by the art gallery and the rich activity of actually making things that exists all over Pakistan.
Going down under: In 2006, Kazi was instrumental in a programme intended to spread Pakistan’s bus decoration skills to Melbourne, Australia, where a tram was transformed into a replica of a minibus used on Karachi’s W-11 route, resplendent in all its finery. Another Pakistani with expertise in the subject is Professor Jamal J Elias of the University of Pennsylvania, the author of “On Wings of Diesel: Trucks, Identity and Culture in Pakistan” (Oneworld, 2011). His book explores the tradition of Pakistani truck decoration and looks into the “nature of response to religious imagery in popular Islamic culture.”
In an e-mail, Professor Elias said that the creative inputs of decorators included several major themes, which could be combined across the cab and body of the truck or bus. These include Islamic religious images like the horse of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and depictions of the mosques at Mecca. Other possibilities include images of a fish, representing good fortune, or the elegant eyes of a woman, representing beauty. This contrasts greatly with another theme, which he described as elements of modern life.
Themes from culture: These are paintings of the Pakistani flag, or a military ruler, a Pakistan International Airlines jet or even a favourite singer. By tradition, each of these designs is placed in specific areas of a truck or bus. Though the differences are not apparent to the untrained eye, drivers can tell what part of Pakistan a vehicle is from based on its decorations.
The bus fleet of Korea’s Sammi Daewoo Express is the major exception to the bus decorating tradition in Pakistan. The company’s higher ticket prices are intended to appeal to the middle-class market. Painted in corporate colours, the modern Daewoo buses have a comparatively boring appearance, but they are air-conditioned and operate on schedule.
American long-haul drivers, especially those who own their trucks, have much in common with their Pakistani counterparts. The desire for individuality and pizazz in the appearance of their Peterbilts and Freightliners takes a somewhat different form, but in place of painted designs, chrome is the attraction for American truckers. This can be verified in a visit to the Empire Chrome Shop in West Memphis, Arkansas, US, one of the largest providers in the country. On display and included in the shop’s Internet Chrome Blog are hundreds of chrome-plated items, including air-operated train horns, mudflap weights in the profile of a shapely woman and unmuffled exhaust stacks. Here, an early-morning survey is likely to find the parking lot full of shiny trucks that camped overnight, waiting to buy new chrome-covered gadgets—not so different from the scene at Masallah’s Shop for Decoration in Karachi, some 8,000 miles away.