I wonder if anyone, especially any Westerner, has ever been so excited about a first trip to Pakistan as I was. Most Americans have only a hazy understanding of what Pakistan is, and no particular desire to travel there. But for me there could be no more desirable destination. And the experience I had during this three-week introduction to Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh fulfilled and exceeded all my expectations. There were surprises and wonders everywhere. I’ll try to bring as much of my experience to life in this blog, and perhaps if my compatriots take the the time to read it, they also will want to visit or at least learn more about my favorite country.
I’ll avoid any extensive explanation here of how I became interested in Pakistan and Sindh, since that can be found in earlier entries to my blog. Suffice it to say that, at the time of this first journey, I had been immersing myself in all things Pakistani for about three years. In a mental sense, I was already living in Sindh; this was the place where I felt my thoughts were at home. I was possessed of a great longing to travel there, a feeling much deeper than a simple interest or restlessness or urge for adventure. Somehow I had come to feel that this was the place where I would discover my own usefulness.
But I had not actually yet seen my Sindh or breathed its air or walked on its dusty soil. So I was bubbling with glee and anticipation throughout the long plane journey from New York City to Karachi on 23/24 December 2014.
It’s about 14 hours of in-flight time between those two points on the globe (with additional layover time in Dubai). Due to the timing of the flight and the crossing of so many time zones, the experience is that of an exceptionally long night. We had left New York a little before midnight, and it was still completely dark as our second plane approached Karachi, although a calendar day had passed in the meantime. As the plane started to lean into its descent, I set the screen in front of me to display the forward camera view. I watched the city lights, which glowed orange like embers, smoldering, arranged haphazardly against the coastline, as they grew larger in the frame until we touched down.
Karachi is the second-most populous city in the world (after Shanghai), home to as many as 24 million people. I was expecting its airport, Jinnah International, to be similarly vast, if not well-appointed -- perhaps a large but bare-bones warehouse of a place, filled elbow-to-elbow with world travelers. What I found instead was a small and sleepy airport, decorated in warm brown hues recalling the 1970s. I wondered how it was possible that this quaint place could serve such an enormous population. Though I don’t still know any official answer to that, I presume it must be because only a very small proportion of the population actually has the means or the opportunity to travel anywhere by air.
The mood in that airport was calm and friendly, despite the startling presence of policemen posted throughout the corridors with Kalashnikovs strapped across their chests. Over the next few weeks I would become quite used to the sight of such guards; you can spot them outside private homes, grocery stores, pharmacies, offices, and any other place whose occupant has the means to hire them. The Kalashnikov appears to be the weapon of choice among security forces, and it does make a big statement in its appearance. (By contrast, American cops typically carry only a handgun, which rests secure in its holster almost all the time.) I remain largely opposed to guns and gun culture, but I did develop a more nuanced attitude toward them over these few weeks, as I spent much of the time under the protection of such armed guards. My reaction to the sight of the big guns became far less visceral, mainly because I never felt that their bearers seemed trigger-happy. There seemed to be an unspoken sentiment among the cops and guards that their arms were a necessity and a reality for a country in turmoil, but none seemed eager to intimidate or frighten people with them. I have seen American cops who were far less heavily armed, yet far more intimidating in their attitudes to the general public than these Pakistani guards, who seemed alert but gentle at heart. Not once did I witness or hear the firing of one of these guns--except in celebratory fire (at New Year’s and later after a small-town wedding).
But enough of guns for the moment. The topic of security will arise again soon enough. The mood in the airport was a placid and friendly one.
Having read the government’s policies about customs, we had prepared ourselves for close examination of our bags and had resigned ourselves to paying duty on all the gifts we had brought. But as it turned out, there was no such ordeal, and in fact the entirely of our customs experience was a quick chat with a jocular officer who seemed excited about our arrival and not at all concerned with our luggage.
“Sir, what is your profession?” he asked my husband.
“I’m a musician,” Andrew answered, and he explained his job in just a few more words as the officer started smiling and his trimly bearded face took on a charming, impish expression.
“How wonderful!” said the officer with genuine delight. “And you, madam?”
I explained that I am a photographer, and that we were coming to Pakistan and particularly to the city of Larkana to visit many of my friends, including one who was getting married.
But it was clear from his expression that this explanation was not necessary, and I was just making conversation rather than being inspected. His arms had opened in a magnanimous gesture.
“Welcome to Pakistan!” he grinned. And that was the extent of the customs inspection.
Outside on the verandah the air was cool, but not wintry. The golden arches of a big MacDonald’s looked on from across the street, as if to shelter us Americans from any too-sudden culture shock. And soon we found my brother Faisal, who had been sent to pick us up.
I should quickly explain here about my family. I am lucky enough to have two families: the biologically-related one that raised me, very lovingly, in America, and the Sindhi family that adopted me in a spiritual sense, just a little more than a year ago. That adoption was led by Dr. Saeed Sangi, who, not long after meeting me on Facebook, proclaimed himself my papa. And the beautiful thing about this was that the feeling was mutual. Papa Saeed was sharing my communications also with his wife (known to him and many of our friends as “Boss,” though I have come to call her “Ammi” (mom) like the other Sangi kids), and she also seemed eager to have a parental role in my life. And within a few months from that first meeting with papa Saeed, I also came to know and love each of my five Sangi siblings -- Marvi, Moomal, Fawad, Faisal, and Mehak -- who welcomed me into the family with just as much love and warmth as Papa and Ammi. Marvi is three years younger than I am, so I became the eldest daughter of the family.
My Sangi family has been conscious of not trying to “steal” me too literally from my American family, but this informal adoption is no joke. The family treats me (and Andrew as well) with every bit as much love and care as they do the creations from their biological production line (papa’s term). And for my part I have felt a genuine member of the family for quite some time. So although I had not yet met Faisal in person, there was no doubt in my mind that I was meeting my true brother there at the airport.
And not just one brother, as it turned out. My experience in Sindh was that there was always more of a good thing than expected. So at the airport we were greeted not only by my brother Faisal, who had flown down from Larkana in order to accompany us back up, but also by two new Sangi faces: Fahad, a 14-year-old cousin, and Nisar, Fahad’s father. All three of them greeted us with warm smiles, even though it was 4:30 AM and the sky still completely dark. They helped us get our suitcases into the cab, and we waved goodbye to Nisar (whom we would get to see again soon, at the wedding).
Between us, Andrew and I had two big suitcases and one little one, which had fit comfortably in the trunk of our own small car. This taxi seemed comparable in size to our own car, but the trunk was much smaller, and we could only one of the big suitcases along with the little one in there. The other big suitcase had to come in the back seat, where Faisal, Fahad, and I squeezed ourselves alongside it.
I reached around blindly for the latch in which to buckle my seatbelt--an American habit which turned out to be completely out of synch with Pakistani attitudes. The only seatbelt rule in Pak applies to the driver, and only when he is out on a major highway. At all other times, seatbelts remain completely ignored, if not actively removed. In this cab, the reason I wasn’t finding the buckle latch was that it actually wasn’t there.
The reason for the smaller trunk also soon became clear, when we stopped outside of Karachi for fuel. This car, like many in Pakistan, was run not on gasoline but on CNG--Compressed Natural Gas, an environmentally-friendly and cost-effective alternative (though trunk space has to be sacrificed for the necessary converter). CNG was an entirely new concept for me, and I don’t yet know why it’s not a common alternative fuel in America. It seems to be the fuel of choice in Pakistan, and the filling stations that appear along the highway tend to have laudatory names like “Mashallah CNG” and “SubhanAllah CNG.” When we stopped at Mashallah CNG, a couple of cloaked men, draped completely against the night air such that only their eyes were visible, sprung up from the cot where they had been sitting and approached to fill the tank. They were fast-moving, shadowy figures, or at least, so they seemed to me on this first early morning in Pakistan.
The dawning of this day brought with it a gradual immersion into the foreignness of this country. Of course I was prepared for many things; I’ve seen pictures, video footage, read books and poetry, heard songs about this land. But still I was surprised by beauty of the place. The vast expanses of sand and dust have a gentle and blurred quality, and dust merges with the road and the sky in a subtle palette of pink and beige and lavender and grey. Those sandy expanses seemed as foreign to me as the surface of the moon. But they were only certain stretches of the scenery. In other parts, especially as we traveled north toward Larkana, the land proved itself tremendously fertile. The roads were often flanked with large and neatly bordered green wheat fields, strewn with enormous mounds of threshed hay. And all the different trees -- shapes of trees that I never see in my home country. Beautiful date palms, rising high. Squat and jaunty banana trees. Strangely twisted and leaning trees (I don’t yet know what kind they were) that stand in lines and seem to be in a state of constant genuflection. And between these fields I could catch many glimpses of dirt roads that connect different farm plots, roads lined on each side with trees that form a graceful canopy. [I’ll insert photos here to illustrate these kinds of roads once I have sorted through all the hundreds I took during the trip.]
Throughout the drive, Faisli and Fahadi were helpfully explaining the scenery to us. It was a great relief to us that they both speak excellent English (as many young Sindhis do), and they seemed to know instinctively what things would surprise us and what wouldn’t. Meanwhile Faisli was often taking phone calls from papa Saeed and conferring about our schedule ahead. This schedule had been created completely without our knowing, and I was still unclear of the details, but it was clear from Faisli’s side of the conversation that we had a full day ahead of us.
“Don’t worry,” said Faisli in his friendly tone. “As long as you both cooperate, we’ll still get to Larkana by mid-afternoon.” I was charmed by this matter-of-fact exhortation to ‘cooperate,’ even though I had no idea what was about to happen.
But let me say a few more words about the scenery, which was so exciting to me on this first morning. The fancifully painted freight trucks on the highway were a surprise to Andrew, but I knew to expect them. Still they are a delight to the eye, if also something of a terror to the newly arrived American unused to seeing them barreling down the road towards you in a near head-on collision. (Traffic rules are nearly non-existent in Pakistan, and the general attitude of a driver is to pass slower vehicles from any direction possible, often including the oncoming traffic lane.) As we got further from Karachi, many other kinds of vehicles mixed in with the trucks and less exotic trucks and vans. Soon there were donkey carts, laden with enormous stacks of crops. There were tractor-like vehicles with open beds stacked to the sky with sacks of heavy grains, all looking like they might topple over at any moment, yet somehow maintaining balance. Often there were people riding aloft those sacks, not concerned about the speed on the highway or any potential of falling off. Soon there were also water buffaloes inhabiting the streets, though only as we passed by towns, where there were also a copious array of colorful motor rickshaws. There were shepherds leading goats and sheep. And my favorite of all -- the camels, leading carts of carrying passengers, the stately and eccentric “ship of the desert.”
But I am getting ahead of myself, because most of these are common sights in more inland Sindh, but relatively infrequent between Karachi and Hyderabad, which was our current destination on this early morning. We were scheduled to have breakfast at the Indus Hotel in Hyderabad, along with my dear adi (sister) Shagufta Shah and a few other friends who were ready to welcome us. (Adi Shagufta is another part of my extended Sindhi family, which includes not just Sangis, but many people who have brought me into their loving familial embrace.)
But we were about an hour ahead of schedule, and there was no point going to the hotel before it even opened. So someone, probably papa on the phone, had the idea of taking us to some place where we could see the Indus at sunrise. This seemed to me the perfect first location for my photography, so I eagerly agreed. Dawn had already broken by the time we made it to a bridge over the Indus near Jamshoro, but it wasn’t long past daybreak when we got out of the car at the side of the road.
The Indus itself was nearly dry at this part--dammed up for the winter, Faisli told me, but in the summer the waters are high. I snapped some quick photos of the river bank in the early morning light, and then Andrew and I followed Faisli and Fahadi who had started to wander down a narrow walkway on the bridge, beside the traffic of trucks and tractors. It felt a strange dream, on a narrow bridge over the Indus with my new brothers, in the chill of the morning.
That cool air had seemed tolerable at first, but it became windy within moments of our being outside, and soon we were chilled to the bone. Having ventured only a short distance across this bridge, the four of us quickly found ourselves rushing back to the car and shivering.
That was my first introduction to the land of the Indus. And it is only the tiniest piece of the story I have to tell. Next up: a brief but wonderful moment in Hyderabad, more road adventures, and visits to two sufi shrines, all before reaching my Sangi home in Larkana. (Coming soon.)
Image at top left is a digital
portrait by Pakistani artist
Imran Zaib, based on one of my own photographic self-portraits in Thari dress.