We continued north on the highway into the heart of Sindh, past water buffaloes soaking in muddy canals and camels resting in the shade of mango trees. About an hour later, my phone rang. The caller ID displayed the same number as the call that had supposedly come from the Interior Ministry Secretariat.
"I am a reporter from the Daily Express newspaper. I want to meet you to talk about the current political situation. When can we meet? Where are you? I can come right now."
"Can I call you back?" I said, and hung up.
My heart raced. Images of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and beheaded by Islamic militants in Karachi in 2002, flashed through my mind. Pearl's last meeting had been with a terrorist pretending to be a fixer and translator. Many people believe that the Pakistani intelligence agencies were involved in Pearl's killing, as he was researching a possible link between the ISI and a jihadi leader with ties to Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber.
My phone rang again. An Associated Press reporter I knew told me that her sources in Karachi said the intelligence agencies were searching for me. I had assumed as much. But what did they want? And why would they request a meeting by pretending to be people who didn't exist?
The car fell silent. My translator made a few calls to senior politicians, bureaucrats and police officers in Sindh. They said they were treating the two phone calls as a kidnapping threat and would provide us with an armed escort for the rest of our trip. Within an hour, two police trucks arrived. In the lead truck, a man armed with a machine gun stood in the bed.
Another phone call, this time from a friend in Islamabad.
"Man, it's good to hear your voice," he said.
"Local TV stations are reporting that you've been kidnapped in Karachi."
Who was planting these stories? And why? With no shortage of conspiracy theories about fatal "car accidents" involving people in the bad graces of the intelligence agencies, I took the planted stories as serious warnings. But the urs beckoned. The four of us collectively decided that since we had traveled halfway around the world to see the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, we would do our damndest to get there, even if under police protection. After all, we could use Qalandar's blessings.
That evening, as the setting sun burned the color of a Creamsicle as it lit the sugar-cane fields on the horizon, I turned to the translator, hoping to lighten the mood.
"It's really beautiful here," I said.
He nodded, but his eyes stayed glued to the road. "Unfortunately, the fear factor spoils the whole fun of it," he said.