Posts Tagged 'Karachi'


Having stopped the explosive activity in my GI tract with horse pills, I was able to travel in peace from Karachi to Dubai to Amsterdam where I took my allowable rest stop.

I left Sheraton land for the airport earlier than the bell captain suggested, not wanting to add stress to my exit from Pakistan. I learned soon enough there was another reason to leave speedily: the young chief of one of the more active Al Qaida parties was mowed down by a drone in the northern region of Waziristan. This news was conveyed to me through a whole bank of newspapers neatly displayed in the airport lounge where I wiled away these extra hours before boarding time.

The lounge was the only one that ordinary mortals could join temporarily for small change, rather than requiring high bank or miles account balances. I was a cheap client, drinking only tea and coca cola.

The trip to Dubai was smooth and short, the trip to Amsterdam long and bumpy and the long walk between terminal 3 and 1 in Dubai endless and painful. Both flights had all seats filled, may be not surprising for a weekend flight.

In Amsterdam I arrived before 7 AM and, reluctant to call my hosts on a Sunday morning before 7 AM, I placed myself across from the opaque arrival doors at an airport café and watch family and friends cheer and cry as long or short lost relatives and friends appeared from behind the doors. At that hour of the day all the long haul flights come in from Asia, Africa and Latin America. It is wonderful to watch this reunion business. A large red machine next to the door allows one to print welcome home banners for a price, adding to the festivities.

I arrived in Holland in weather than can be seen or inferred from the Dutch masters, heavy and fast moving clouds, rain and a stiff wind. For the Dutch no reason to stay indoors–the large lake across S’s house was full of windsurfers racing at tremendous speeds across the lake. It is one way of making lemonade out of lemons – at least for a certain subset of the Dutch population.

The power of pan

One evening we ate in the Pakistani restaurant, one of about 4 choices we have to eat in the hotel. The Pakistani restaurant is the most lusciously decorated, not surprisingly. There is an open kitchen, probably not the usual thing for a fancy restaurant but to give foreigners a glimpse of what happens in the kitchen. You can peek at how naan is made for example.

The waiters are dressed with turbans and embroidered jackets. We are whisked to our seats as if we are royalty. We are both small eaters and ordered two dishes which came with twice as many accompanying dishes, including achar (lime and mango steen pickle, raita and plum chutney, plus shrimp chips and nuts).

After dinner we received a bracelet made from jasmine blossoms and rose petals strung on a metal band by the pan man. Pan is an after dinner concoction that you find all over South Asia. It consists of a leave rolled around various spices, supposedly as a digestive. I have eaten pan in Bangladesh and India and Nepal, so why not try the Pakistani variety.

My travel mate removed the mouthful of leaf and spices as soon as we were out of view but I bravely or stupidly chewed and swallowed everything, an act I came to regret. I have good reason to believe that this led to a serious 36 hour (maybe more) GI breakdown. For 24 hours I didn’t eat as my body expelled everything that went in. I had no appetite and lost my energy quickly. Our Pakistani colleague immediately went out and bought me Oral Rehydration Solution which is the only thing I took in, to replenish the lost electrolytes.

Despite my reduced energy, which put me a bit on the sidelines, we completed the workshop. Our participants were happy and appreciative, some because it was the best orientation they could have wanted as a new employee and others because they now have allies around specific topics or understand better some of the technical aspects of the organization’s work.

Our Pakistani colleague left first, returning to Islamabad a few hours after the completion of our work. The two of us remaining checked out the Lebanese restaurant for our last dinner. It is run by a real Lebanese cook. I spoke with him in a mixture of Lebanese and Dari but he understood me. He left 40 years ago when he saw the writing on the wall in his homeland. He appears to have done well, with his larger than life picture on the advertisements for the Sheraton’s cuisine. We must have disappointed him, ordering only 3 mezzeh dishes and not even finishing them. I am still pecking at food like a sparrow. We had the leftovers doggie-backed for my lunch today. If I had been in better shape I would have missed the Lebanese wine.

My Johns Hopkins colleague left in the middle of the night for Baltimore and now I am the only one left, tying up loose ends and reviewing the contents of my mailbox until my long transit begins in about 2 hours.

Daily hotel life

I am travelling with a shopper. That has altered my behavior. I have tagged along and as a result contributed more to the Pakistani economy than if I had travelled alone. I thought I already had everything but according to the salesmen I need Kashmiri jackets, shawls, SWAT valley stoles, leather goods, fur coats and more.

Every day we eat wonderful food, accompanied by a salty lassi. My favorite lunchtime meal has been Peshawar mutton, spicy but not too. Fresh lime soda has become our cocktail of choice, best thing when there is no cold beer or a glass of wine to be had. We debrief and then go to the lobby pit and have our lime soda. For dinner we can choose from various Asian restaurants in a neighboring hotel, or here from Lebanese, Italian, Pakistani cuisines, or an ‘arab mezzeh’ served on a plate made for oysters.

At night, when not working on other jobs that 9-hour-behind-Cambrdige has on its to-do list (they start the day when I try to bring it to closure) I watch a Saudi TV channel which runs the Comedy Channel 24 hours a day. So I get to see Steven Colbert, Tina Fey or Jay Leno interrupted periodically by Saudi advertisements for perfume, life insurance, deodorant and chocolate.

And when I do neither I work on an embroidery project. One of the housekeeping ladies inquired about my embroidery style which is quite simple (cross stitching) compared to what Afghan and Pakistani women produce. I asked her to show me her embroidery, which she did the next day: a tiny pink dress (she is about 4 ft. in length) and a wrap – fine cotton with very fine embroidery, the kind I imagine only a machine can do. But it was hers.

And then of course, because I admired it, she offered the outfit to me. I quickly wrapped it back in its paper and pointed out we weren’t quite the same size. I was relieved that she got that and carried the package back to her home. After that, my project looked like kid’s work.

Work and play

We finished the first part of the workshop with the local reproductive health society named after a famous British RH advocate from the last century. If you pronounce her name fast enough it sounds like marry-stop. This gets confusing to Pakistanis who know some English. The Urdu name of the clinics has been adapted to talk about the good life rather than stopping marriage.

Monday and Tuesday we covered topics related to organizational management and leadership. We discussed things like mission, vision, values, strategies, systems and knowledge management. The organization scored high, which didn’t surprise us, after having met many members of the top leadership team and read its identity material.

Although originally planned more as a demo than as a real self-assessment, the participants became more than a bit engaged in determining where they were, as an organization, in each of 25 different areas we looked at. People discovered that some were more in the know than others, not surprisingly for a fast growing organization that is practically doubling in size, with much of the expansion far away from headquarters.

Although participation dwindled a bit between Monday morning and Tuesday afternoon, the group retained a hard core of people who followed the process through, from beginning to end. They identified a few topics for immediate attention and placed the others on the back burner.

We said goodbye to some who had other priorities or less to do with the topic of the next three days, social and behavior change communication. I was in the lead facilitator role until now and will play a supporting role for the rest of the week. The days seem to go faster and faster and the end of our trip is appearing on the horizon.

After everyone was gone L and I crossed the road to check out the other hotel, one of only three fancy business hotels in Karachi (Sheraton, Marriott and Pearl Continental). The latter (PC) is the one we had originally booked until we found out we’d be sitting an entire week in a windowless room. The Sheraton across the street could do better within the price range. We have indeed a wonderful room, with big windows letting in light and plenty of space to move around and the most attentive and well trained staff to provide anything we want.

The PC hotel is a little stiffer than hours but they had a small private outdoor area where we enjoyed a simple Lebanese meal. Across from us a gay couple displayed their affection rather openly which both surprised us and made us worry for their wellbeing. Being gay in this country is something to keep very private.

Back in the Sheraton we sat down in what looks a bit like a central holding pen – it is the place to watch and be watched. On Saturday night I marveled at the stream of celebrants for this and that wedding, as they made their way through the security checkpoint and metal detectors.

The place is open 24/7. Here we sit to have coffee, check our mail for free when the (paid for) room internet doesn’t work and where we drink our fresh lime and soda and try out a new flavor of the pricey but very yummy Movenpick ice-cream. It is also a place where people come to smoke the shi-sha or cigarettes, both of which fill our lungs with very fragrant and breathtaking second-hand smoke.

If you really want a drink here, that is, a real drink, you have to go to the cigar bar at the top floor – lots of gentlemen disappear there for after they return from their work day. It’s probably the only way to retain the business of businessmen who expect their drink at the cocktail hour. We haven’t ventured out into the place, the cigar part discouraging us.

At one point we naively thought that the green bottles we could see through the glass door of the Mamma Mia Restaurant, and the wine and champagne glasses hanging from a rack above the bar, meant a glass of red wine could be had there. As it turned out, the bottles were empty and the glasses for decoration only. So we sat down at the red and white checkered table and drank dark red pomegranate juice out of wineglasses. We were only a few of a handful of diners – most preferring the sub-continental food in the main restaurant. We gave the waiters something to do and they rewarded us with free ice cream – for which we rewarded them in turn with an outrageous tip.

Sunday outing

On Sunday we visited a lovely old palace which is now used as a museum, bought by the municipality and brought back from the brink of decrepitude, the Mohatta Palace Museum. The special exhibit was ‘Labyrinth of Reflections,’ displaying the art of Rashid Rana in the period from 1992-2012. It was a productive period for him with very significant developments. My favorites were an elegant life size carpet that, on closer scrutiny was made up of thousands of tiny photographs of gore and blood; another, a full wall sized bookcase full of old tomes. At closer scrutiny this too was something else, made up from tiny images of modern day Pakistanis – many of his works portraying the sharp contrasts that make up modern Pakistan.

Afterwards we drove eastwards out of town towards the famous Sunday Bazar. We drove along gridlines with ever fewer houses on them, the city making way for the dessert – the infrastructure in place but few people with the money to buy the expensive land. The people who could may have moved their money to Dubai or other safer havens. A large development project stood sadly by itself, promising a Dubai like skyline but the image a mirage as the work had stopped.

At the Sunday Bazar you can find anything second hand (and some new). There are toys, housewares, shoes, clothing, bedding and stuff that has, I imagine, has fallen off military trucks, especially in Afghanistan. Many of the decorative textiles I recognized from the kind that I bought on Chicken Street for four times the price. So this is where the Afghans get their stuff!

My colleague found an old quilt, probably from the period between the world wars, in pristine condition. We wondered how it had gotten there – probably packed up as part of the closing down of grandma or grandpa’s house, somewhere in the US – stuck between clothes and bedding in a container shipped to Pakistan. We haggled with eager salesmen about Kashmiri shawls and rugs. I gave in too quickly, knowing only Kabul and Dubai prices.

We completed this third and probably last escapade with a return to the mall as we managed to want lunch in the dead period between brunch and high tea. We knew the food court to always be open. We lined up with lots of other cars to enter the parking garage. The place was filled with families. On Sundays the mall organizes family events, characterized by much franticness and loud thumping music.

I noticed that Burger King was the most popular place, even more popular than McDonalds at the other end of the fast food line up. This time we tried out Turkish fast food. We had lahmacun, shish tavuk, chicken kofta and ayran (somewhat like lassi). It was quite tasty. We sat amidst hundreds of families, no one paying us any attention, even though I believe we were the only ones visibly not from around here. I marveled at the freedom, especially of women – it is a bit like Dubai, anything goes: tee shirts, jeans, fully veiled black clad-women, unveiled women in long flowery shalwar kameezes and men in all sorts of outfits. No one blinked an eye – everyone living and letting live. I can now see why Afghan women who lived in Pakistan have a hard time adjusting to the restrictions in their homeland.

Our host saw to it that we left with good impressions of Karachi and Pakistanis. He succeeded so well that we requested a bumper sticker ‘I Love Pakistan.’ Of course then we thought where we’d put it back home. Once I started to think about it, the sticker wasn’t really what I wanted. What we did want was an experience with ordinary Pakistanis. And that’s exactly what we got.


Our host took us on a grand tour of Karachi, which included a bazar that wasn’t all that different from the bazar in Kabul or Mazar, no surprise of course, since much of what is being sold in Afghanistan comes from Pakistan or China.

Shopkeepers were only mildly inclined to negotiate, which was surprising given that the place is not exactly overrun by tourists. My colleague bought some silver and we all bought tiny decorated leather mules (think Aladdin) for small relatives. I bought Faro a model of a Pakistani oil tanker, decorated just like the real thing we see everywhere on the roads. They used to ply the Afghan highways when we travelled there in the late 70s but many have disappeared and now I know where they went. They are all here.

I am sure I will have to hide the oil tanker until he is 3, no doubt painted with lead paint and the many dangly decorations that can easily be bitten off. And the little mules look very uncomfortable, so both will be out on a shelf, decorative items.

We visited the popular beach where families gather to wade into the ocean, make sand castles, look for shells and pick nick just like they would elsewhere in the world. The only thing that made this Pakistan were the outfits, the decorated camels, the decorated buses and trucks, the dancing monkeys and snake charmers. The sand sculpture of a well apportioned mermaid was the only thing that seemed a little out of place.

We ended our tour with a kebab, raita and lassi lunch at BBQ Tonight. When we discovered BBQ tonight in Kabul we didn’t know it was an unauthorized version of a chain that extends all the way to Nairobi. Kabul was not on the display of BBQ Tonight restaurants that flanked its entrance. But the food was in the same league, excellent. Our host counseled against getting the Afghan part of the menu, “everything is cooked in lamb fat!” Oh how true I knew that to be!







Out and about in Pakistan

Yesterday we finally made it out of Sheratonland into Karachi and Pakistan, modern Pakistan that is. Modern Pakistan feels a bit like Dubai. We went to the mall which was as fancy but not as filled as the minor malls in Dubai – the same stores, many even the same as in the US. The only local touch was provided by the countless shalwar kameez and fabric stores. Pakistan is a major textile producer and processor. The designs and colors are blinding, extravagant and original.

We had lunch at the food court which could have been anywhere. We ignored the western chains and drifted towards the subcontinental ones. Chowpatty served me a vegetable thali with a lassi – at least it felt as if I was on the subcontinent.

This evening we went to a brand new park called Port Grand, according to a plaque, created by a leisure corporation and opened by two important functionaries in May 2011. It is landscaped around the harbor and under the freeways, prettied up with candelabras dangling from the freeway concrete and with small entertainment kiosks along the walk ways. Entertainment includes Tarot readings and astrologers who promise to turn your bad times into good times. Food stalls and medium fast food restaurants line the water’s edge on a pier with Yanni music blaring loud into our ears. Only the fancy shalwar kameezes of the women and girls and a few men in traditional garb gave away that we were in Pakistan.

I am learning that the shalwar kameez fashion is very long again, ankle length. When I wore my long bangladeshi outfit in 2008 local girls snickered about how out of fashion I was – the tunics then being very short. So here too the hemline goes up and down, except this has no bearing on what is revealed of the legs, since underneath are always the pants, baggy or tight.

We ate at a kebab place overlooking the harbor and taking in the harbor smells (mostly kerosene). We tried a variety of kebabs, fish, mutton, beef and chicken. Except for the naan it was an all animal protein dinner – I have drifted far away from my mainly vegetarian diet in the US. We finished our dinner with kulfi (local ice-cream) on a stick that came out of a wooden box, and masala chai variations cooked on small burners by Paxtuns who didn’t speak a word of English. All the while we shook hands with giggling girls on an evening stroll with grandma. We often forget in the US that terrorist-producing places like Pakistan have grandmas on evening strolls with their granddaughters, licking fast melting ice-cream from a stick.

Earlier in the morning we met the senior staff of the organization we are having a workshop with next week and aligned expectations. In the middle of that I had a coughing fit – I am still recovering from a nasty cold that either came from fellow travelers or from my grandson.

Afternoon naps are still a must – the long trip and the cold really took a bite out of me. And then of course I stay up till long past midnight, trying to get back in a rhythm. It is good that we have some slack time.

April 2019
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