Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Perception vs reality: Pakistan trip part 1
So I just returned from a fabulous, three-week trip to Pakistan. Considering the latest political developments, I realise that it is a rare sentence these days that includes "fabulous" and "pakistan" in the same breath.
Staying with relatives in the suburbs I was oblivious to the many suicide bombings, depositions of provincial governments and exchanges of gunfire that took place during the short time I was there -- and that was just what was happening in Sind and Punjab, I haven't bothered to mention the mayhem ensuing in the north and west of the country. I was even in Punjab during the lawyer's Long March from Karachi to Islamabad. While chaos engulfed the streets of Lahore, my cousins and I drove along Canal Road in Faisalabad, digesting our samosa's with a cool almond kulfi....
I don't know what I remembered of Pakistan before I went to visit but my latest trip was calm and fun and could not have been further from the scenes of shooting and chaos I had watched on CNN and Al Jazeera before I left. Life on the ground, for people just trying to do their shopping and going to work was business as usual. The feeling of "we're all in this together" was alive and well. The forces currently playing themselves out in the country were largely felt to be external.
People there see Pakistan as a pawn in someone else's game. They are living their lives the best they can until it passes -- after the dust settles, they all know that they'll have to live with each other.
The day before my return home, my cousin and I were crossing town to fulfill my husband's most heartfelt request: Sugar free Rabri from Dilpasand (it's basically a really fatty, artery-clogging rich cream dessert). The sun was blazing, the temperature in Karachi was in the mid 30s (celsius) and our car radiator ran out of water. We stopped at the side of the road and within minutes, three rickshaw drivers, a taxi driver and numerous by-standers pulled over to help us out (we looked quite pitiful: water was sputtering out of our hood at least 2-3 meters into the air as we gingerly tried to fill the over-heated radiator with our stash of cold mineral water.)
"Baji (sister) please step back! Let us take care of this, please stand in the shade, don't let your clothes get dirty. Don't worry, we'll fix it for you." And my favorite: "Don't take tension." Their efforts to help us were effusive and genuine and they worked together to get our car running again and waited for us to re-start the engine.
I waited for the rub -- just how much was this going to cost? I slipped my hand into my purse and whispered to my cousin, "How much should we give them?" She shushed me and shoved my bag away quickly, "Put that away! If you suggest giving money, they'll be VERY offended!"
They waited for us to get into the car and drive away, saying nothing to my blubbering thanks. After we'd driven off, my cousin turned to me and said that no matter what else is happening in Pakistan, it is common practice to help one another. We're all in this together.
Look, I'm not so naive that I am blind to the very many things that are completely dysfunctional in the place. It was just a surprise - a pleasant surprise - to see that this one thing that had been drilled into me throughout my life was alive in well in the country my parents left behind. While Pakistan is immersed in instability and poverty, it gives me hope that there are still some core values that endure and have withstood the pressures of those challenges.