My Uber Route Led to My Passport Being (Temporarily) Seized by Pakistani Soldiers

Jan 16, 2019

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Uber is a critical travel resource for so many travelers. Rather than having to play taxi roulette, maybe in cities they don’t know, travelers can use it to move around without having to worry about language barriers or payment. While we at TPG have certainly had our recent issues with Uber, it’s a resource that I find myself relying on often while traveling overseas, especially where Lyft isn’t available.

I was recently in Pakistan for my college freshman roommate’s wedding. I’ve used regional ride-hailing service Careem to get around Islamabad and Lahore, but Uber was notably cheaper for a ride to the Lahore airport, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

It started like any other Uber ride: I summoned the driver through the app and he showed up at the hotel. The trunk of the vehicle was a bit too small to handle both my wife’s and my Osprey packs. So, we loaded one into the trunk along with my daypack, and the other into the back seat while I climbed into the front seat.

Along the way, I periodically checked the routing to make sure everything was on track. Sure enough, the driver was following the route Uber was showing. After crossing a bridge over a train station, I noticed that the traffic came to a standstill. “Police checkpoint,” the driver explained.

By this point in the trip, we’d become accustomed to running across these checkpoints periodically around sensitive areas and didn’t think anything of it. However, I found it peculiar that a sign said “garrison security force.” What was that?

Unlike most checkpoints we’d seen up to that point, where security officers waved most cars through after only a quick visual once-over, soldiers were stopping each car. In Urdu, our driver explained to a well-armed soldier that we were we headed to the airport. The man asked for Katie’s and my passports. Katie had hers on hand, but mine was in my daypack in the trunk. He ordered us to pull over to the side of the road, whistling for others to join him.

With guards surrounding the car, I carefully stepped out and went to the trunk to retrieve my passport. The driver and I were asked to walk over to a guard station where my passport was taken and inspected… and then not handed back. After a discussion between the driver and the officers, the driver explained to me that we weren’t allowed to enter this area and that we had to exit before my passport would be returned.

We returned to the car and the driver continued down the road, looking for a turn-around point. Meanwhile, I frantically texted my Pakistani friend about the situation, dropping a pin where we were. The situation was quickly understood. “Your were entering the cantonment,” was his explanation: “Foreigners are not allowed there. The driver should have taken a different route.” (A cantonment is a military garrison area.)

After an excruciating few minutes, we reached a turn-around and the driver hurried back to the checkpoint. He stopped on the far side of the road and then scrambled across the busy street to retrieve my passport from the officer standing in the median. As the driver tried to find an alternative route to the airport, we got a notification that our flight was delayed by three hours. So, we re-routed to a friend’s house to wait out the delay with the rest of the wedding group.

At the house, I pulled out my passport to re-examine my visa. Sure enough, it was stamped “visa is not valid for cantt/restricted areas.” While I hadn’t assumed that this would be an issue, I now understood: “cantt” is the abbreviation for cantonment — and some of these military garrisons are inside some of Pakistan’s largest cities.

I’m not sure who is to blame for this situation. Should Uber be responsible for updating its routing algorithms to avoid restricted areas, particularly when there’s a rider with a foreign profile? Or should the driver, who’d already learned that we were from the US, have realized that the routing would’ve taken us through the cantonment? Either way, I should have researched the restricted areas stamped on my visa, and I certainly did so for the rest of my trip to Pakistan.

In the end, everything worked out fine. I was reunited with my passport after only a few minutes — and a few extra heartbeats — leaving us with another interesting story from a fascinating place.

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