Digging in the Roots

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April 30, 2010 by


I could see in Shahla that she was anxious to see if the Pakistan she knew from childhood was what was waiting for us across the border from Iran. I, however, was prepared to view Pakistan as objectively as possible. The moment we crossed into Pakistan Shahla breathed a sigh of relief and took off her headscarf. I couldn’t help but smile and think to myself that I just might like it here. The initial feeling I had as we made our way to the house of Shahla’s childhood was peaceful and relieving. Even though I had never been to the country before I felt somehow connected with its people.

They were kind and hospitable like in Iran but with different mannerisms. I heard Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan playing from a man’s mobile phone and welcomed the sound of music with a swelling heart. This was the beginning of a long stay here in Pakistan and I felt like I could enjoy calling it home for a year. As the time passed, I noticed the Pakistani people were regarding me with caution that could sometimes be mistaken for disdain. The feeling of relief was slowly slipping away from me. I once again began to feel like an outsider in a foreign land. I watched as people went about their everyday business and saw that they were not only looking at me with caution but also to their Pakistani brothers. After contemplating this for a while I came to the conclusion that it would not be easy for the Pakistanis to leave this caution behind them. They had fought with their brothers before in a bloody battle that separated families on two sides of a border that Gandhi fought so hard to keep down. If someone can feel mistrust and hatred for their brother, then they can feel this for anyone. I don’t blame them for their caution and can only try to imagine what they’re going through mentally and emotionally. I did eventually get used to living amongst the cautious Pakistanis and am grateful that their caution didn’t transfer itself to me. This is just one aspect of the people and of course there are many but I think now it’s time to address the environment that the people are living in. We didn’t visit the coast but what we did see of Pakistan was diverse. There are vast arid areas reminiscent of the African savannah, lush green fields and of course the awe inspiring Himalayan mountain range. To be in the beauty of the Himalayas is an experience that can never be forgotten. It is so serene and yet so ruthless and powerful. The mountains have claimed so many lives and have been the inspiration of many to fulfill their dreams. It’s almost as if they are portraying the duality of man. And man is just another animal. The wildlife of course is equally diverse, consisting of animals like monkeys, parrots, camels, vultures, leopards and wild boars. The domestic animals are mainly water buffaloes, cows, goats, sheep, chickens, dogs and cats. I especially like the water buffaloes because they remind me of hippos the way they bathe themselves in any available pools of water. They also have skin that looks shiny like hippo skin and they seem to have the same calm contentedness. Another favourite animal of mine is the monkey or more accurately the macaque. They can behave just like humans and always make me laugh they way the young ones play in the trees swinging and jumping from branch to branch. They are like Shahla and me, the way we are jumping from country to country and culture to culture. I am grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to jump into the country and culture of Pakistan and regard it as a valuable experience.

… The border was relatively straightforward and especially easy for me (yay) and we found ourselves sitting in a small restaurant/ shop sipping tea and waiting for a bus that wouldn’t arrive till the afternoon. When it did arrive, it was reminiscent of African buses in quality but we didn’t have much choice so we spent the night shifting uncomfortably and arrived, again in the wee hours, in Quetta. We camped out at the train station where we eventually got a foreigner’s concession for the train ticket and then got tossed from one window to the next in an attempt to actually get the tickets that we had the concession for. Finally they told us that there were no seats left, let alone sleepers but that we could get on anyway. So we did. We sat and made small talk with people on the train for most of the thirty-four hours, occasionally occupying a top bunk for a couple hours nap that we took in turn with each other as well as other passengers. Eventually people came who had reserved the seats we were sitting in but most of the people were nice enough to make room for us somewhere. We ended up sitting with the Kabuddi “world champion” from 1976 (I think) who was quite entertaining as well as some other nice men who chatted with us and bought us food and drink or gifted us cigarettes. At the end of the train ride it felt a little weird to be on solid ground again but we found a nice guy whose father changed ten US dollars into rupees for us. He found us a cab and we piled in and went straight to the house. My old house. I rang the doorbell and then walked in through the gate. It was kind of late but I wasn’t about to make it this far and not get in. Feroz (my cousin) opened the door and let us in…

It was crazy seeing the relatives again. Almost immediately after saying hello for the first time in fourteen years, it was just like I had never left. I was eating the same home cooked meals at the same table as when I was ten years old. I was flooded with the memories of everything I had loved and loathed about the country. So much had changed yet so much had stayed the same. The city of Islamabad was almost unrecognizable, but my relatives were just as I remembered them. In fact almost everything about the Pakistani people was as I remembered it. They were still hospitable and curious but at the same time quietly judgmental. I felt that it was a shame that a people that I felt so connected to were still so distant. It is almost the exact opposite to Western culture. In the West, you need to crack the outer shell of people to find that they are really warm underneath, but here people are warm at first and reserved underneath. There seems to be a fear pervading every aspect of Pakistani life. If people can’t immediately relate to you, they will smile but hold you at arms length as though they are afraid to bring you closer. It’s like a second shell to crack underneath the smiles and hospitality. My relatives were bold enough to tell me what they really thought of us but I am sure that they have the same double shell when dealing with other people.

As for the city, almost everything was changed. All the things I remembered from childhood were either gone or totally different. The house was much the same except for the fourteen years worth of dust and lizard crap, and it was here that I remembered the little memories that make up a life. Most of my time had been spent within these walls and every room had another story. I can’t say that I had enjoyed living here, so the reminiscing was somewhat melancholy but it was an amazing experience to come back. I felt like I was uncovering something ancient, not from my own life but from some distant, long-forgotten past.

    I guess overall I don’t feel as connected as I thought I would. Everything and everyone seems far away, as on the other side of a canyon with only my memories reaching across to bridge the gap.


    … The day before the Holi festival there were lots of street vendors selling water guns, balloons, dye powder and other various paraphernalia used in the festival. Shahla and I armed ourselves with a water pistol each, a bag full of balloons filled with coloured water, and a bag of dye powder. There was a posse of about seven or eight of us going up the streets doing battle with the local kids. I had a blast and am going to try to keep my shirt and pants as a souvenir. After we were covered in colour we jumped into the sea and around us was an aura of colour that looked a lot like an oil tanker sinking to release an oil slick. Shahla said that it’s common to use salt water to set the dye into fabric so we’ll see if mine stays in. So far so good. There was an old town carved into the island that fell apart except for a small area and now they are considered caves and can be explored for free. It was a nice place to spend time in the heat of the day and great for playing my Mosquito. Sitting inside one of the numerous rooms gave rise to thoughts of how prosperous a civilization must have been to have such a town in such a good location. Was it the destructive hand of man or nature that spelled the downfall of such a magnificent cave town? I tried to imagine the people going about their day buying, selling, working or playing in the streets of cave town. What it must have been like to be looking at earth in every direction, all day. There were some sky-holes cut in most of the rooms so it was very well lit up. I wonder if mankind will eventually follow the predictions of “The Time Machine” and begin colonies of people under the surface of the earth. I guess it’s already begun with underground shopping centres, laboratories, transport systems, etc…

… We arrived in Varanasi in the rain and after being totally disgusted by rickshaw drivers and their greed, we decided to walk to the Shanti guesthouse. We made it to the Ganges at Manikarnika Ghat where we found a nice couple enjoying the view and sat and chatted for a while. The Ganges was dirty, of course, but not full of garbage or floating corpses. In fact, I am sure I have seen several dirtier looking rivers. It was also much smaller than I expected. The far shore was sandy and stretched quite far away so I guess the river must double or even triple in size in the rainy season. We eventually made it to the guesthouse and spent the next few days mostly sheltering in the shade of the rooftop restaurant and watching an old Frenchman smoke joint after chillum after joint, and drink bang lassis all day. We made time to walk along the river and watched almost an entire cremation (2-3 hours). We encountered an interesting argument about respect – a local was yelling at an Italian tourist for taking photos of the burning ghat while the Italian was yelling at the local man for trying to sell him stuff at such a sacred place. Neither one, according to the other had any respect for death. Either way, I thought it was odd that people who got the proper permission (from Delhi) would get up close and personal with their cameras. And also the fact that there was any solemnity at all, seeing as dying in Varanasi allows you release from reincarnation and entrance into Nirvana. If these people had respect, shouldn’t they have been celebrating? …

If Pakistan and India was the introduction to Asia then it was a good one and now we are ready for China…

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