The four of us (Andrew, Faisli, Fahadi, and I) stuffed ourselves back into the car, chilled from the wind over the Indus river bed. The sun blurred its way upward in those dusty skies and soon it was a bright winter morning.
We were approaching Hyderabad, where we were scheduled to stop for breakfast at the Indus Hotel with my friend and adi (sister) Shagufta Shah. It is perhaps because the ideas of “food” and “hospitality” are so closely linked in Sindh that restaurants seem to occur most frequently in hotel settings. Many times my Sindhi friends have referred to eating “hotel food,” which I have taken to be roughly the same as when an American says he’s “eating out” (or “ordering in,” if the food is coming to you).
In any case, the Indus Hotel was our current destination. My impressions of Hyderabad from that first morning are at once vivid and unreliable, since I was tremendously underslept and dizzy with the newness of my surroundings. But what I recall seeing as we entered the city was a multi-layered infrastructure of beautiful, dusty-clay colored slums. “Beautiful slums” is not a phrase I would have expected possible before coming to Pakistan. And I write now with caution, knowing this is a sensitive topic. I never wish to glorify the inhumane conditions in which so many people live in Pakistan. This has to remain an active tension throughout my writings here, and I don’t expect it to be resolved. There is miserable poverty, and there is joy and beauty, and these separate forces coexist in the most peculiar and fascinating ways.
And yet these slums are beautiful. There is something in the way the buildings rise out of the earth, many of them crumbling to the state of ruin, though they are in continuous use. The topography of the city, despite walled areas, seems more open than a western city. More fluidity between interiors and exteriors. And there is something lovely in the way the colorful signs on shop windows have been worn and faded by the bright sun and dust storms. The same faded colors, especially the green and red of the Pakistan People’s Party, are visible in thousands of political ads painted on buildings or posted on pillars. Vivid colors are also there, however, in the form of laundry hanging on lines from balconies--the marvelous spectrum of bold colors that are worn by Sindhi women.
Some of my readers will object to such a dreamy account of my impressions of Hyderabad, but I have already admitted a certain unreliability due to my sleepless brain upon arrival. Still I am being honest: beauty was my first impression. But the second impression, which overlapped with the first, was of garbage. This is another theme to which I will return later in this travelogue. Trash removal is nearly non-existent in much of Sindh. Garbage litters most streets and alleys, garbage of all sorts. Stagnant waste-water filled with garbage pools up in many open spaces. Hovering around these pools are always dozens of birds, hawks and scavengers, circling in on the refuse in swarms. This preponderance of waste products is one of the main blemishes on the beautiful face of Sindh.
At this early hour -- it wasn’t quite 7 AM -- most of the city had not yet awoken. The streets, which would soon be teeming with carts and rickshaws and cars and water buffaloes, were still mostly empty. We entered the city via a tree-lined street as the first of the morning’s traffic was starting to move. Though it was probably one of Hyderabad’s major thoroughfares, the road felt quite narrow to me, perhaps because the buildings on our left side were situated so close to the road, and many of them guarded from by high walls.
The Indus Hotel, it turned out, was one of these buildings, and it seemed to appear out of nowhere. It was protected by a heavy iron gate, outside of which there stood two uniformed and heavily bearded guards, with their rifles strapped across their chests. This is a far cry from American hotels, which are typically surrounded by enormous open parking lots, or else direct visitors to a publicly accessible garage, which will open for anyone at the press of a button. But this was Pakistan.
Our driver nudged the car up on the pavement in front of the gate, and Faisli dutifully sprung out of the car to talk to the guards. He told them that we were expected, and named some people who would be meeting us for breakfast. The guards seemed suspicious, or perhaps just curious in a muted way, but in any case they opened the gates for us with no argument.
Inside the gate was a small parking lot and a courtyard, with many more notes of comfort, if not luxury, than I had seen thus far. Potted plants, scrolled ironwork, whimsical sculptures and a fountain marked this as a place of relative privilege. The interior was ornate, in old-world European style. We were led to the dining room, where two of papa Saeed’s friends, smiling gentlemen both, were ready to receive us. It was an odd meeting because we did not know them and they knew almost nothing about us, and furthermore they couldn't speak much more English than I could Sindhi. But such things seemed irrelevant to them. They welcomed us not only with smiles but with two large bouquets of roses. And we all sat down around the large table, drinking mango juice and attempting conversation, usually requiring Faisli’s skills as translator, until adi Shagufta arrived.
And after a short wait, she did arrive, wearing a dark dress with a silky sea-green dupatta. With her was also our mutual friend Asma. Both greeted me with warm hugs, which, as is the tradition in Sindh, are followed by handshakes. (It took me quite some time to get used to that order of operations, since a handshake seems so much less personal than a hug, so it is rather anti-climactic. But soon I became accustomed to it.) The hug-and-handshake is the typical greeting, but only between members of the same sex. Men and women do not hug one another in Sindh, and indeed in many cases they do not even shake hands. My Sindhi friends are often shocked to learn that a light hug is a very typical greeting and farewell in America, regardless of gender. Fortunately I was well prepared for this, and had fairly effectively programmed my American habits out of myself.
So Shagufta and Asma greeted me with hugs and Andrew with warm smiles, and then they also presented us with beautiful bouquets of roses. We piled the bouquets on the table in a giant mound of fragrant colors. And then it was time to eat.
We were not yet hungry. Our stomachs were confused, of course, due to the new time zone and the lack of sleep and very strange meal schedule on the planes before. But it was again time to eat, so we dutifully approached the buffet and filled our plates with Sindhi breakfast foods. I will need to have Shagufta remind me of the names of some of these dishes -- one was qeema, which I involved some finely minced meat in a flavorful and oily sauce. The flatbread, which I believe is called paratha, was also a rich and oily affair. I was intimidated by the richness of these foods on my feeble appetite -- but still I savored every bite that I ate that morning. In fact, this particular breakfast may have been the most delicious meal out of many delicious meals that I enjoyed during the trip. I long to return there with a better appetite. The flavors still linger in my memory, though I am not yet able to name them precisely.
And then we were brought tea. This would be the first of hundreds of times throughout my three weeks that I would be served tea. Tea in Pakistan is the essential ingredient of hospitality, and I will return later to the social meaning that it has. In a restaurant setting, of course, the social value is less pronounced. But this first Pakistani tea still made a deep impression on me, simply because it was so delicious. Knowing that Pakistan was a land of tea, I had been preparing myself mentally for a life without coffee for three weeks, expecting that I would miss it very much. In America I’m always a coffee drinker, and I like my coffee to be strong and dark and mixed with rich cream. So typically I scoff at the kind of tea that we drink here, which is not much more exciting than hot flavored water (though those flavors may be quite varied and nuanced), and almost always taken without milk.
But Pakistani tea! This is a different matter. Pakistani tea is every bit as rich and indulgent as my coffee, especially when it is made the old-fashioned way, as it was this morning in the Indus Hotel. It was brewed strong and boiled with some very rich kind of milk, producing a dense orange-brown color in the teacup. It is no weak or watery affair. Never has a cup of tea been a more welcome boost to my nervous system than on this morning, when the lack of sleep was threatening to make me quite grouchy. Drinking my rich tea, I was suddenly content.
And at this time we were all enjoying conversation about the exchange of our cultures, the miracle of social media, and special joys and challenges of the Sindhi language. Adi Shagufta is a well-known writer in Sindhi (among many other talents), so it was a joy to get to chat to her in person about all this, though briefly, on this morning. Fortified by my tea, I felt I could have stayed there for hours among my friends.
But this is where the “being good and cooperating” thing came in. Faisli was eyeing his watch. It was time to get moving. The stop in Hyderabad, it turned out, was only the first of three stops we would be making before reaching our home in Larkana. I had been hoping that we could skip the other two stops and go straight home, not sure how much longer I could make it without sleep. (I am, admittedly, rather delicate in this way.) But now I was feeling reinvigorated, and the adventurous spirit was rekindled.
There was one more surprise in store for me, though, before even leaving the hotel parking lot. That was the arrival of our security detail. (!!) Papa had mentioned something to me about security in his communications before the trip, but I hadn’t known what he meant. But now I found that he meant serious security. An armed police escort. On this first day, papa had arranged with our friend Jamal Mustafa Syed (who is the Commissioner of Shaheed Benazirabad, and who will reappear later in my travelogue) for Jamal Mustafa’s own guards--no less than five of them!-- to meet us in Hyderabad and take us as far as Bhit Shah, which was to be our first stop.
“Do you want to say hello to them?” Faisli asked Andrew, and the two of them went outside the hotel gates for a moment. Andrew returned wide-eyed but smiling, telling me that he had managed to greet them in Urdu, but the language barrier had prevented any other communication apart from smiles and handshakes. Still I think the guards were charmed by Andrew, and he was charmed by them as well. “But wait till you see them in their vehicle!” he told me.
As we bade farewell to Shagufta and Asma, and our taxi driver was stuffing the four bouquets of roses in the space behind the back seat of the car, against the windshield.
And we piled back into the car and left the hotel, now following behind the narrow black police jeep that was our new escort. One of the guards, wearing a black helmet, emerged from the sunroof of the vehicle and stood imposingly with his gun, signalling with his hands for the other traffic to get out of our way. Two of the others remained outside the jeep at first, preferring to climb in through the open back of the car when it was already moving, in action-movie style. Those two then took their posts at the back of the jeep, pointing their Kalashnikovs out almost directly at us in our taxi. This became a routine sight for me in Pakistan, but on this first day I was flabbergasted. So much show of force, all in the name of protecting us. “I feel less safe now,” Fahadi quipped from the seat beside me.
After that initial surprise, though--and I did watch these guys in utter astonishment for the next hour or so--I felt deeply honored that these five men had been charged with the task of protecting us.
That is where I will end this second installment, though only a couple more hours have been covered in all this text. The next installment will bring us finally to the shrines of the great poet-saints Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai and Qalander before we finally reach our home in Larkana.
I do wish I could offer you a cup of tea.
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.