Yes, an abrupt end it is. Four weeks I spent at Anacostia Elementary School. The experiences of that time are enough to give me a taste of what it’s like to teach in a downtrodden urban neighborhood. And enough to realize I would not be able to teach there the whole year and make it out on the other end with my health and sanity in tact.
I wrote about the violence and the disrespect amongst students and both were very prominent. Fights continued to erupt in the classroom and the hallway, usually as a result of taunting between the students. One was so bad that desks, chairs and furniture went flying around my classroom. I herded students into the hallway while one member of our class whacked furniture in the classroom with a metal frame of free-standing white board. That student got taken away for the day, only to be babysat by a special education coordinator, who had no idea what the child had done. No one called his house. There was no follow up beyond me calling mother and trying to prepare the students for reintegrating him into the classroom the next day, requesting that they not call him “psychopath.”
We did have a nine day streak fight-free. According to observers familiar with the school, this was a record. Unfortunately, skirmishes continued in the following weeks, and I continued to feel unprepared for handling them and their fallout. Our school had no particular protocols in place for such situations. When I asked the principal, I was informed that I should not call upon the security guard to break up a fight, nor was I given any other alternate solutions. Trying to deescalate a fight between two impulsive, hyperactive ten year olds is nearly impossible. No time outs, talk with principal, detention or in-house suspension as a form of consequence was available. All these issues were to be handled by classroom teacher. The classroom teacher who is expected to teach rigorous academic material, for which the students are not, as one might imagine, prepared.
I am happy to say that in the four weeks I did notice a difference in each of my students. Even those most destructive, most unreasonable, the ones held back, the ones ostracized by the whole, responded to me by initiating unexpected conversations, showing concern about their behavior contracts, obeying my requests to “please sit down” even if it was after the seventh time, by raising hands and trying to participate and simply by making eye contact or saying hello. There were glimmers of hope with each one, and I felt proud to see their investment in their education. It was uplifting.
Unfortunately, these glimmers were not enough to uplift the colossally malfunctioning system into something manageable and forward moving. In the end it was not the children, as crazy as the stories about them are, that made me want to leave the job. The part that seemed far less likely to change was the administration, the top-down issuances of mandates, scripted curricula, required bulletin board displays, micromanaged time segments, and the constant threat that someone would come in to check teacher’s degree of compliance with all of the above and “write them up” was really too much to bear.
Ironically, teachers were treated in exactly the same way bad teachers teach their students: without listening, caring, explaining, providing rationale or getting their “buy in.” The administration was the sage on the stage, the very paradigm which effective teachers try to steer away from.
It is too bad really. After ”experts” spent years analyzing what makes a good teacher, and evaluating an effective teacher’s impact on the classroom, such teachers are making their ways into many underperforming classrooms that may have been neglected. This effort may still not yield the results its proponents are hoping for because it takes more than just a good teacher to reform a classroom, let alone a school. Good teachers may be the bricks of a successful school, but the administration and support services, the soundness of norms and expectations, the consistency of procedures, the caring and investment of and a collegial atmosphere among its adults are the mortar. Both are needed for the building to stand.
Teachers can not be, exceptional human beings who make extraordinary sacrifices at great personal cost for the good of society. Or at least this one can’t.
Week one of teaching in Anacostia. That is the southeast part of the city. The “bad” part of town. There is really no other way to say that.
I knew that, going in. I knew about the abysmal reading and math scores, only 15% of the children at grade level. I only vaguely sensed the ugly reputation such schools had and dared not imagine the reality on the ground. Even if I had dared, I don’t think I would have been able to imagine a real Anacostia school.
Our school has an almost entirely new teaching staff. Only three teachers from last year remain. All the students are black and so is most of the staff.
I wonder what it feels like for the kids to come back to a school full of new teachers. Right now it seems like a struggle between us and them. We are wrangling for authority over the turf. Who is winning?
Hard to say. By 2 pm, in my class, the kids have definitely won. They’ve outlasted, outscreamed, outcussed, outfought, and in some cases outrun me. Nothing would have prepared me for their tenacity for off task, off focus, and appallingly rude behavior.
Common forms of communicating, at least among the fifth graders, are slurs such as “you African bootie scratcher,” “crackhead”, “faggot”. “I’m gonna steal you!” is their favorite promise. “Penis” and “vagina” are some of the most commonly named body parts. “Shut up!” is their favorite command.
It’s a rough crowd. Day two was my first encounter with a fist fight. I have never seen a fist fight in real life before. Not amongst teenagers - if there ever was a fight in high school, I certainly had no interest in being a witness. And really, after that where would one see a fist fight? A bar? A party? I never had the privilege. Not until my second day at Anacostia Elementary. On the way back from lunch, two boys started to fight, for no apparent reason, right in front of me. I tried to hold each one by his arm, and separate them - since they are little twigs that come up to my waist. But they are squirly little guys, and kept pursuing each other. It didn’t help that about half of the class was shouting “fight! fight! fight!” with their hands cupped at their mouth. Once one of the boys broke loose, I had to let the other one go so he could defend himself, and I sent one kid to go get a security officer. In the meantime, a pile of punching and kicking scraggly arms and legs was wriggling on the floor. When the massive security officer heaved herself upstairs, each one of us was able to restrain one kid. I can’t quite describe how inwardly shocked I was at that incident. That night I had some doubts about this job. I didn’t sign up to be a correctional officer! I cried, and felt sick, and wondered what the hell I got myself into.
I wish I could report that day three was better, but it really wasn’t. I had to restrain one of the boys again, from picking a fight with a different boy. At least I was reassured, that it wasn’t just me, since one actually pursued the other after school even in front of the pursued boy’s father. Father started to chase the enemy boy and fell down. Next day, pursued boy was transferred to another school.
Day four was a little better, largely because there were two of us in the room. A special education teacher comes one and a half days per week to assist with the five special education students in my class. That day we taught them compliments. The kids came up with a list of compliments they could give each other (and it couldn’t be “I like your hair” or “I like your shoes.”) Then we went around the room and each complimented someone, while the recipient said “thank you.” That was the most positive atmosphere we had in class yet.
Day five I had several kids join me for lunch in my room. They brought up their trays with their school lunches; we sat around a table and got to know each other. I found out that Marco has been going to Anacostia Elementary for 8 years, because he’s been held back twice. A very sweet kid. I found out three of them consider Redskins to be “their” team, while one considered herself a Steeler and another a Raven. We all found out that the reason why Marco’s right arm is shorter and limper than the left is because “they took a nervous from his shoulder” and put it in the lower part of his arm. When one of the girls sought clarification about the “nervous” part, wondering if perhaps it wasn’t a “nerve” that was replaced, Marco pointedly retorted “hey, is this your arm?” It was a very lovely lunch.
You see, many of them are sweet. And I think they like me. But the few that aren’t “sweet” have an amazing capacity for causing mayhem. It’s hard to imagine what they have been used to in a school. We have a looooong way to go. It would be great if students wouldn’t raise their hand and request to step outside to remove a wedgie (I didn’t even know how to spell that word!). It would be great if they didn’t chase each other inside the classroom at full speed, or walk out of the room without permission. It would be great if they would acquire the discipline of working on something, being successful and feeling good about themselves. It would be great if they would be kind to each other. It would be great if they would understand the purpose of school, of learning. And I think we can get there. But man, it’s going to be a loooong road.
I am sitting in home central, home base, quintessential home. I have lived in this house for eight years, four in high school, and four after college. The only place I've lived longer, was in our first home in Czechoslovakia, the first ten years of my life. In this house my room faces west, and always had wonderful afternoon light.
A pencil sketch of Tom Cruise which I drew in Junior High, hung my wall, later to be replaced by one of Jim Morrison. I built a life sized, paper and chicken wire tree in the corner of the room, and wallpapered one wall with National Geographic photos, and another with a snowy scene mural of Mt. Ranier. A desk was by the window, a bed in closet converted into an alcove, a garage sale bookshelf painted white, and a gifted wicker chest of drawers, which is still elsewhere in the house. It was home.
And yet it wasn’t. We moved into this house just before my 14th birthday. By then, five moves through three countries and two states, over the course of five years, made “home” somehow less meaningful. I had been uprooted so many times, that I had lost the will, or desire, or ability to grow roots. I had forgotten what home really means and I stopped looking for it.
Now the room is pink, a color I would never have chosen back then, and a light olive green. A lovely combination. A painting of a bowl of white peaches that my great grandfather did, hangs on the wall next to a solemn etching of Jesus’ face. There is also a pencil drawing of my mom which I did in high school. As a model I used a black and white photograph of my mom, which was taken in Czech Republic when I was young, and it was home. Mom is in her early twenties in the photo, her hair is short and permed. It’s a three quarter profile, and she looks at the camera with a smile and a sparkle in her eye, so characteristic of my mother. Her left hand supports her chin, with the index and middle fingers framing her Sophia Lauren lips. Her simple, gold wedding band shows.
There is a colored pencil drawing of a Mongolian horseman which I drew in college. He is riding through an Asian steppe, with right arm extended toward the sky, urging on his animal. Another painting is an oil canvas I started five or six years ago, based on a photo I took in Honduras. A beach scene on the island of Roanoke, where the slave ships landed, and a black community has lived ever since. There are no black folks in the scene. Instead, white laundry hangs between two palm trees and is lifted by the wind. I see it as unfinished but also surreal.
Three photograph collages also hang on the walls. These are not my product, rather that of my mom. A collage of black and white photos from the home we had in Czechoslovakia: great grand parents, grand parents, friends, vacation on the Balaton Lake (or Sea as we called it), me on my fourth birthday, and my ninth. The other two collages are much more recent - from the last ten years: birthdays, weddings, visits from the Czech Republic, mom, dad, grandma, friends, dogs, me. My parents’ recent divorce detracts from the happiness conveyed by those photos.
Next to the collages, and in contrast to their multitude of stories, is one large photograph. Two faces, two sets of shoulders, two pair of eyes looking into the camera lens. Tom and I on our wedding day. So content.
The furniture has been replaced with a more mature version of itself. The twin bed has become a queen. Across from it is a couch I purchased for my own house three or four years ago; the first real piece of furniture I bought at a real store, not a sidewalk. It, a chest, a cabinet and a coffee table remind me of another home, my home, the one I own, and lived in for four years. The one in which I metamorphosed into an adult.
It’s all here in this room: many homes, changes, people and loves. Here they collide and coalesce, hang out together, the bits and pieces from my life: a testament to the constant metamorphosis of what home is, and its stillness too.
Almost four weeks I have been “home.” The use of quotation marks is warranted by the fact that the quest for home still continues, still being examined, still being defined, because home is not a static, geographic place.
In the most general sense, this is home: the place where my husband and I mostly live (when one or both of us isn’t away), where most of our mail arrives (sometimes it goes to our PO Box on L Street), where we have most of our stuff (some of it resides in storage on H street), where we cook familiar food, and know the exact position of the shower knob which determines the perfect water temperature for our bodies, where our closets smell like us. It is where we know the noises on the street, and feel comfortable going anywhere. Where we feel comfortable. This is home.
In recent days I’ve been waiting to hear from potential employers about job interviews I’ve had. I am hoping to hear from a school with an offer of a teaching position. While I wait, I feel anxious. I check e-mail, phone way too often, the way one does in an obsessive relationship. I keep waiting. Various mental deadlines I hopefully established, have passed with no words. Tom is still in Pakistan and I miss his physical presence helping me to feel grounded and normalized. The anxiety has pulled me out of myself, and therefore out of feeling comfortable. And even though I sit right in it, in these obsessive moments, home feels distant.
My Islamabad days coming to an end. This has very much been on my mind: the process of conclusion and preparing for the next phase. It seems that I am not the only person concerned with my departure; others are aware and want to talk about what this means.
My hairdresser, a foreigner who’s been working in Pakistan for five years, asked about my experience in Pakistan. After I shared he asked “but aren’t you going to miss having people do everything for you? The driver, the cook, the cleaners... When I go home, I really hate having to clear the dishes from the table.” When I explained we had someone come to clean our house twice a week he exclaimed in his hairdresser’s animated best “You did not have the full Pakistani experience! That’s the best thing about living here! You can have someone do everything for you!” Indeed you can.
Our guards found out that I am leaving. “I know it’s your last day in Pakistan, madam.” said Haider Rahman after he handed me the receipts from the laundry. “Madam, I have a request” he looked away in the manner of a 10 year old boy who got in trouble on the playground. He waited until I urged him to continue. Then pointing at the other guard seated a few feet away “Madam, me and my friend live in Pakistan.” Hmmm... where is this going? “We live below poverty line.” Again he looked at me, waiting for a cue. “Can you help us out Ma’am, so we can build better our family’s house or improve the education of our cousins?” Oh... I see. “No. I can not give you any money.” I did not apologize. “It’s OK, Madam, never mind” he said smiling bravely and backing away from me. Perhaps I was too abrupt.
The woman who comes to clean our house, is same age as I, has two children, drives a car and speaks English unusually well. Janniaz, one of the driver’s has observed that our “female servant is very rich.” Rehana knows our time in Pakistan is drawing to a close and has asked me several times to recommend her to other foreigners, “to anyone [ I ] know at the embassy.” Like most Pakistanis she overestimates my sphere of influence. She likes to share with me about the problems of her country. She told me about a disabled neighbor boy who can’t go to school. “Please, Barbora, tell people on your project that we need to get education for these people. He has not even a chance to be a sweeper. Nobody wants to take care of him.” When I expressed frustration about the frequency of loadshedding (power blackouts) she informed me that “this is the VIP area and loadshedding happens regularly. In area for normal people power goes off any time of day, for long periods.” Last week we had brown water coming out of our faucet, and again seeing my frustration she explained that at her house “now in the summer time there is very little water from CDA (capital development authority). So we call water truck and buy from him water for one week for 900 rupees (about $12, and about what Rehana makes in the 3 hours she cleans for us). This water is only for washing ourselves, our clothes and dishes. I have to be careful about using it. I don’t do laundry very much.” This week she shared about another “main problem in Pakistan” not related to education or power or water issues. I suggested that Rehana gives her phone number to the real estate agent who brings people here now to show the house. Maybe some of his clients could use her services. “No, Barbora, I do not want to give my phone number to any Pakistani man. Pakistani men are always bothering Pakistani women. Now you are leaving and I can tell you. Like that man next door who is always staring at me!” she pointed frustrated toward the house next door. I knew exactly whom she was referring to. The driver from next door, who aside from one or two errands a day, and the bi-daily car wash, does nothing except squat on a grassy lawn in front of the house, or loiter in front of our gate and stare into our windows. “Every time, I wash the dishes, he is always looking at me. When I get out of the car, he is always looking at me, and he bothers me when I walk by him. Pakistani men think they can treat women any way they want. I do not want to give my information to any Pakistani man. They would bother me and my family. That is the main problem in Pakistan.”
Right now, apparently, the biggest problem in Pakistan is Facebook. Protesters are out in front of the Parliament, not demanding clean drinking water, electricity for their homes, or education for their children. They are demonstrating against sacrilegious imagery on Facebook (which only 1% of Pakistan’s population uses). Perhaps this is the main problem in Pakistan.
Eight days left of my stay in Pakistan. In eight days, it will be exactly 5 months that I’ve been here with Tom, and it will also be when I will return to the US.
Only eight days left, to conclude one chapter in life, one chapter of our marriage. Such transitions are important, and should be commemorated, marked somehow. Sure, one can throw a party, but there must be other ways to prepare us for the end of one cycle and beginning of another? Without marking or acknowledging these transitions, our life would be like one long canal carrying water from point A to point B. But life is much richer and more complex, and hopefully in the process of getting from point A to point B we change and transform who we are; from a brook, to a stream, to river which merges with larger and larger rivers, until finally it becomes the ocean. I like this metaphor, because it implies that we get bigger. We get more expansive. As we navigate each life change, we are able to grow and expand. Also, like the water, we become deeper and more still.
In the eight days still left in Pakistan, while I continue to recover from typhoid fever, I shall mark the end of one chapter and prepare for the next.
“Allahu-akbar!” (God is Great!)
The call to prayer. Oddly, one of the things in Pakistan that have brought me comfort. “Oddly” because I am not Muslim, nor Christian, nor religious for that matter. But there is a certain quality to the call, the muezzin’s voice inviting and pleading at the same time.
It inspires a similar feeling to one I had years ago while in Oaxaca for a summer. Dealing there with bouts of illness, loneliness and various existential crises of the mid twenties, I sought solace in churches. The silent, cavernous structures, brought me peace and stillness. I had been brought up areligious, atheist, and this behavior, these experiences were incongruous with my upbringing. And yet they brought me solace.
There is, in the heartfelt call to prayer, in the solemnity of a church, something that grabs at me. Something that grabs, right at the center of my chest, and says: this is home. This is home. And the breath gets pulled inside by my lungs, almost involuntarily swirling right into my core, expanding and resting there. And for a brief moment, just before the exhale, I know: this is home.
Baba Nityananda, a holy man of India, once said: Heart is the the hub of all holy places. Go there and roam in it.
I can’t quite roam there yet. But I can steel glimpses.
The muezzin’s voice carries from an amplifier just a few feet from our windows. It is an invitation to pursue the breath into the center of my being, and there find home, just briefly catching the holiness of it. And then I exhale. It is an invitation I did not expect from Pakistan, the invitation to my own heart.
It feels like a long time ago since I felt happy. Really carelessly happy, about nothing in particular - the best kind of happy. It’s been so long, that I can’t really remember it. I mean my body can’t remember it.
It has also been weeks since the temperatures have been around 100F, with the unrelenting sun beating down from morning till night, with the occasional sweetness of rain as reprieve from its intensity. Knowing that this is only the beginning of summer, doesn’t help. There is no escape from the heat, not the air conditioned mall or movie theater, nor the breezy beach. Only turning on the wall mounted air conditioning units around our house cools of certain rooms.
It has been a long time since I felt well. Reliably, well. For weeks I have been like a slug: thick, slow and sad. The inside of my head feels hot and heavy. Sometimes there is a sharp pain behind my eyes. I’ve had fevers and chills and night sweats and cramps and bloody noses.
So many things in Pakistan have been so unfamiliar and so jarring, that even these symptoms I took as par for the course. When hearing my health woes people would even say “I felt like that the first six months I was here”. “Really?” I’d feel the urge to ask “because that sounds pathological!” I mean why do that to your self? For so long? For what? Because Pakistan needs you? Or because you need Pakistan? In the short amount of time I’ve been here, it has been very hard to understand people’s motives for being here. To help? To have a story to tell? To use their skills where they are needed? To have something to do? To have a Pakistan on their resume? To have a job? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes to all of the above. All legitimate and valid reasons. But put up with six months of illness for any of them? That’s pathological.
I just want to be better. That is all my sluggy brain can manage to wish for. I want to feel better. I want to feel well. I want to feel healthy again and remind myself again what it’s like to feel good.
I think I am on my way. A second round of testing of blood, urine, stool, and an ultrasound finally showed that I have typhoid fever. Though we suspected it, first blood and urine came back negative so we feared it might be something weirder. After first course of antibiotics I still had 102 fever, still the night sweats, cramping and chills. The typhoid diagnosis brought a relief of sorts - knowing what it is, that it is treatable and a specific antibiotic for it, all made me feel good. But still, it has been weeks since I’ve been well, since I’ve been happy and in that time feeling like a slug has worn on me.
It seems like it might take a while to slither my way out.
It has been several weeks since our midway point came and went. I wanted to take time to reflect on what has happened so far, and reassess the meaning of this journey. I thought I would have the perfect opportunity since we were heading to Chitral for several days. Chitral is one of the regions of northern Pakistan which is very mountainous and beautiful. I packed my computer, and imagined relaxing in our hotel room with sweeping views of the Mount Kalash and its valleys, or perhaps on the deck of the alpine style hotel where we would be staying and type away, having the distance and perspective required for that kind of reflection. It was to be our first trip outside of Islamabad in two months, and the words of my hairdresser definitely rang true “you’ll want to leave Islamabad every two months” as if it were somehow related to the color of my roots. Yes, it had been about 2 months since our trip to London, and we were definitely due for another getaway. We were ready.
Unfortunately, our excitement was stilted, twice, as the flight was cancelled two days in a row. The second day we were completely duped, because the flight actually took off, with all passengers on board, and flew for the expected 45 minutes or so, through clouds and turbulence, although when we landed, the realization that we were in fact back in Islamabad, crept in very very slowly, culminating in a very blunt thud in my gut. The plane had turned around mid-flight, and which was not deemed necessary to share with the English speaking passengers. Living in a country so different from the one you consider your home, the one you are familiar with and think you understand, you come across these disappointments which catch you completely off guard.
So here we are. Still in Islamabad. Way past the midway point. To sum up, we’ve lived through several phases:
1) Serena: the many strange days at the hotel, our first set of sicknesses. At least 10 days it took to adjust to the time. 17 days at the hotel all together I think.
2) House: Moving into our house and settling into a routine of life and work in Pakistan.
Adjusting to the culture, language, climate, food, city... finding restaurants and stores we liked. Starting consulting work. Discovering our surroundings: the ZOO, Said-Pur Village, the Markets,
3) London: the first trip out of here, which was so good, so uplifting, and such a great reminder that in our “regular” life, we can walk in public and feel relaxed, hold hands, and wear jeans, and have our hair fly willy nilly free in the wind, and smile completely openly and be unabashedly happy. And see other men and women doing the same!
4) After London: coming back was much easier, as if London gave us a new perspective, a new light. And indeed there was new light in Islamabad. Spring had arrived after some weeks of rain. For the first time we saw clear skies, and crisp outlines of things, especially leaves and ridges. We started to go on the hiking trails in the Margalla hills.
But here I began to get sick sporadically, going through some sort of a diarrhea bout every two weeks or so, which ultimately has culminated in this (I say that with the hope of finality) whatever I have now.
Sickness apart, what has it been like so far? There have been many highlights, unexpected moments of wonder and appreciation. For example the first time we reached Ficus point on our hike into the Margallas and sat on the big boulder underneath the enormous ficus tree and listened to the brook and looked into the sunlit haze over Islamabad. Or when we hiked to the ridge thirsty, sunburned, cranky, and found the old man selling cold bottled water, then laid on the pine needles and looked up at the swaying pines. Or when Z took us to Khanpur for the first time, and later hiking there, and swimming in its cool blue water. Or when Tom and I danced together, for the first time ever, at a jazz club event at Majlis. Or the many mornings we’ve practiced yoga together in our yoga room.
There have been many difficult times too, not marked by such acute remembering, but worth noting as well. Chiefly for me, the frustration of feeling trapped. And the recurring illness.
What has this meant over all? It has given Tom and me a lot of time to spend together. Time without much distraction. Other than work hours, we are together all the time. There is no TV (except for the 2 dozen pirated movies we bought at Illusions), no constant stream of public radio (except for the podcasts we listen to occasionally to remind us of home and bring in the news), no friends and acquaintances to be inviting us to drinks, or dinner (except for the infrequent dinners we’ve had with folks here), nothing to fix or organize around the house, no piles of magazines to keep up with, no concerts or museums to go to... it’s just a very simple life, distilled down to its most basic: work, food, sleep. Although it might sound boring and oppressive, and in some ways maybe it has been that, what this simple life has also done is provide us with the opportunity to get to know each other in a way we did not have a chance to before we were married.
Before we came, Tom used to joke that Pakistan is our second honeymoon. In an unexpected way this has turned out to be true. Not in the way a honeymoon usually signifies: tropical drinks with umbrellas, wearing very little clothing and lots of sunscreen. But in a way where we just get to focus on spending time together, in a regular life, removed from our regular life. Tom still leaves for work, and sometimes I do too. When he comes home we hug and kiss and just spend the evening together. Doing what? I don’t even know, talking mostly. Getting to know each other. Not getting to know the neighborhood, or the latest new restaurant on P Street. But getting to know each other. That is the honeymoon of it. Sweet.
Living outside Pakistan, there isn’t really any reason one would hear of PIA, or know that Pakistan International Airlines exists. They are not known for their efficiency like Lufthansa, or for their extensive movie selection like Emirates. But if one were to hear about PIA, here are some of the things one might find out:
First, PIA is the only airline offering a direct flight between Islamabad and London. This fact alone is enough to ignore all others you might hear about the airline.
When purchasing your ticket, it is very helpful to be white, as you will most likely get whisked away from the indefinite queue in which all others are waiting, and have your own window opened up just for you. Oh, sorry, would that make you feel uncomfortable? You can always protest and insist that you will await your turn with everyone else.
The same characteristic helps when checking in at the airport: you get ushered into the person-less line labeled “business plus” regardless of what kind of a ticket you hold.
It helps to be a single (the technical term is “unaccompanied”) female because in the three subsequent security, immigration and baggage checks, you get to go to the “ladies” line, where... you guessed it, no one is in front of you! You dare not look back at the line of 50 + men and families who are shifting their weight from one foot to the other, waiting for their turn.
Once you’ve used up your “get out of queue for free” card, you can seat yourself in the lounge area along with all other travelers. There are no gates, no signs to indicate if you are in the right place, except one that says “Facilitator.” Hmmm...
You sit and a tea boy comes around and ask you “coffeetea?” which is pretty much a compound word here. When you say tea, he arrives 15 minutes later with a silver tray, containing your beverage and a selection of saran-wrapped white bread sandwich and sponge-looking thing ominously named “yellow cake” neither of which you should dare to eat. You sit and wait for your 10:35 departure while the lounge swells with hundreds of people. At 10:25 the “facilitator” announces it’s time to board, whereupon all 300 passengers, strollers, wheelchairs, crying babies and children, grandmothers who are actually trying to fly to Karachi or Birmingham form a massive herd at the facilitators’ desk.
You funnel your way down the ramp onto the tarmac where your passport and ticket, is checked for the fifth time, and those going to other destinations are sorted out and sent back upstairs through the herd. Nothing but a small inconvenience.
You board a bus which screeches up to your plane. As you exit the bus your ticket and passport get checked one more time, and 10 meters later, as you ascend the stairway to your plane, a guy with a black beret, gray beard and aviator glasses gives them another once over. He shakes his head “no” and hopefully by this time you’ve realized that in Pakistan that actually means yes, and you don’t panic.
Finally, you’ve made it on board. You are the 10th person or so (thanks to your unaccompanied white female status), and because you’ve heard the horror stories about the toilets on PIA flights, you might hurry to use a clean one and prepare your bladder for the trip.
In the toilet there is no soap, but there is a huge sign over the toilet imploring that you not throw metals, glass, razor blades, cloth or plastic bottles into the toilet. Sanitary napkins are apparently fine.
Later on you will discover that smoking in the lavatories, is in fact still tolerated and practiced on PIA flights, despite the typical red-strike over a smoking cigarette picture on the mirrors and side panels.
Some other air travel norms you may have taken for granted also do not apply on PIA. For example, you are welcome to stroll about the cabin about 10 seconds after take off. You are also allowed to keep piles of stuff right in front of your feet, and your neighbors’ feet. You are not required to sit and buckle up until the wheels have been prepared for landing, and even though you will most likely stand at the luggage carousel for two hours, it’s frowned upon (literally) to get out of your seat while the plane is still taxiing and start rummaging through the overhead bin, but no one will try to stop you.
After a Koran recitation the plane ascends smoothly commencing the 8 hour trip to London. Heading northwest over Afghanistan, the pilot speaks lengthily in Urdu, of which you only understand “In-Sh-Allah” and “Maharbani” and “Shukria” (“god willing”, “please” and “thank you,” respectively). In the English translation you learn that the captain gave very detailed explantation about the winds, weather, turbulence and adjustments he prepares to make and how that will effect our trip. Very nice. He peppers his lecture with announcements of how many more miles you have until the Afghan airspace has been traversed. You imagine in Urdu that went something like: gentlemen (not ladies) we are about 300 km from Ashkhabad and Inshallah will make it over the airspace of Afghanistan. Not too reassuring.
The cabin crew is pretty much male. And not gay either. Also not too reassuring.
Children of pre-school age are allowed to sit on your lap. Or your neighbor’s lap.
Lunch is served and, you are offered choices. “Vegetarian, please”. You are delighted to receive a tray of steamed jasmine rice with curried peas and potatoes and perhaps one green bean gingerly laid across the top. You dig in. Oh shit! Not a green bean! That was a chili pepper! Whatever they say about PIA, they can’t say that the food is bland.
Crowds of people outside the airport entrance not only await loved ones, but also have come to bid them farewell. It turns out crowds showed up to bid me farewell also. A group of young women keep waving and smiling in my direction as I wait in my first line of the morning to enter the Benezir Bhutto Terminal at Islamabad International Airport. The crowd of young women keep waving enthusiastically, even though there seems to be no movement in my vicinity. Feeling awkward, I smile at them. Their waving grows more zealous and my smile widens as I understand, they are waving at me, if for no other reason than just to exchange smiles and mutual attention. It is strange to be treated like an exotic species or obscure celebrity. I feel embarrassed and happy at the same time, thankful to be distracted from the drabness of the airport.
For all the glares, stares, scowls that I get from men, I seem to be a magnet for women. It often happens when I walk around the markets, especially on a Saturday night, as they gain the atmosphere of a southern california mall, crawling with giggly teenage girls clad in fake gold jewelry, that these young women get very excited about my presence. It is hard to image how they would react if I were a heartthrob male movie star, because in my presence they get fluttery, giggly, bashful, and they steel glances at me and look away timidly if I meet their eyes. Eventually, a brave one in the group will toss a bold “hello!” in my direction, and keep her eyes locked on mine, to see what I will do. When I greet her back, her friends flutter and giggle even more, like small birds bathing at the edge of a puddle. And then more of them call out “hello!” and even “how are you?” and before I have a chance to say anything - “I am fine!” they call with much amusement and delight.
The women I’ve encountered at conferences seem awestruck by my height, and probably my uncovered light brown hair. Whatever they are amazed by, often they have no qualms voicing their awe. “I have been watching you all morning. You are so smart and so pretty,” they share with me by afternoon tea break. We exchange long friendly smiles and nods of respect. My favorite though, is when they compare me to Princess Diana. I am usually very embarrassed, blushing and surely trying to grow shorter, so I can be at least at a more reasonable level to have a conversation, human to human, not towering like the Eiffel over radio antenna. These encounters are very sweet and full of mutual affinity. I compliment them on their colorful clothes, their charm and their smartness as well.
When Tom and I have been at the ZOO or at a museum, places where many local tourist come for a Sunday outing, dressed in their crispest, brightest clothes, much jewelry, flashy handbags, children with kohl eyeliner, often we get asked to pose for pictures. There is always a lot of excitement about this, and arranging of people. Recently, I even had a kid shoved in my arms, he and I looking at each other in surprise, not really knowing what to do. “No, not in that arm, this one...” a young woman rearranged the kid from my left right arm to my left. The often want to know how we like Pakistan, and how we find the people, clearly aware of the reputation their country has in the world. They seem deeply satisfied when we nod and confirm that Pakistanis are “really really nice people.”
But what would we find beyond this contact. That is still a mystery to me. Often when I have conversations with women at the conferences, I find their accents hard to understand, their reasoning hard to follow, sometimes the conversation is completely incomprehensible. When we talk about basic things, like how to cook yellow dal, or how many children they have, and how their husbands feel about them working (husbands I hear about are always “cooperative”) I understand them, and presumably vice versa. But beyond that, we seldom venture. And the few times we have, I became lost, confused, losing the thread of clarity that brought us to this point. It is much easier to talk with women. They are much more accessible to me, and relating to each other is easy via food, children and husbands. With men, there is always a sizing up of sorts, a determining of where one is on the hierarchy of a grade pay scale (the determinant of your pay and position in society based on your education). When they realize I am not “Dr.” of anything, they dismiss me with a sigh of relief.
What always surprises me about conversations here, is the forwardness about religion. Often people ask out right “are you a Christian?” Which always completely stumps me, as I have no idea what the “correct” answer is. I feel like either way it’s a losing proposition. I have also been asked “What’s your method of prayer” by a crusty old chancellor from an Islamic University. I did my best to evade the question by saying “it’s kind of personal.” He nodded dismissively and asked about which language I pray in. I mumbled “not in English.” He continued his line of questioning with “how many times a day?” at which point I almost cried “Uncle!”
For the most part, Pakistani people, the roles of male and female, the role of religion, the relationships among the classes, are still a mystery to me. All three aspects plus the added obstacle of language, form barriers to understanding this country and its people. I glimpse as much as I can from the brief interactions and conversations I have, and from the outsider’s view I am afforded by living here, but this is still only a very small window through which to view a culture.
There are many reasons why living in Pakistan really bites. The most biting reason for me personally is the feeling of being trapped, of not having freedom to go wherever whenever one pleases. The annoyance of always being driven somewhere by people you don’t really know, and sometimes people you may not like. Once you actually get to where you are going, you can’t really relax either, because... well, in short, because you are an American in Pakistan.
So, imagine my delight when we were invited by our friend Z to Sunday lunch at his house on the lake. We loaded up into his land cruiser along with various baggage, six cartons of Quaker Oats, and a Pakistani man introduced to us as James, who was dressed for a safari in multi-pocketed khaki attire. I imagined that for lunch we might have tandoor cheetah with a bowl of porridge.
We headed west out of Islamabad along the Grand Trunk Highway, which used to be the main road from Kabul to Delhi and is the oldest road in the region. The major highways have no lanes, and cars swerve freely like schools of fish in the pond. Despite the seeming chaos of it Tom pointed out that this is indeed the latest theory on traffic control: makes people pay attention to what’s happening, and not get complacent while driving in the safety of their white lines.
We drove through many miles of undeveloped Islamabad suburbs into an increasingly industrial area. We passed stone quarries, and turned off the major road at a railroad crossing. Pakistan is generally a dusty and gray landscape (at least what I’ve seen of it so far), but there are several areas where one can see a symphony of brilliant colors: women’s clothes, flower stands, produce stands and the jingle trucks (see Tom’s picassa photos from Pakistan trip in April). These are very heavy and tall trucks which transport most goods in Pakistan. They are covered with small painted metal plates forming colored mosaics of art: a tiger, a woman’s eyes, fishes, winged horse, fighter jets.
We slowed as we drove through the town of Taxila, which reminded me of Mexico, with its llantaras on the side of the road, and armies of colorful statues for sale outside some craft stores, disco tigers (imagine disco ball, only reincarnated as a tiger sentinel). This was the town of industry, especially stone cutters. They used local stones to carve anything from grave stones to mortar pestles, to statues.
The road narrowed and turned north. Z pointed to turn-offs leading to various Buddhist stupas dating back to King Ashoka’s power in 250 BCE. In general, people here do not know pre-Islamic history, as it has been erased from textbooks, from memory, especially in the last 30 years. I was proud to share with our friend that such knowledge, about King Ashoka the Mauryan Emperor who renounced violence and became a Buddhist (conveniently) after gaining power, is taught to all sixth graders in California. Yay! It’s nice to feel proud of what education can do well!
We veered onto an unpaved road, which turned and twisted along the foot of a mountain and dipped into river beds. This really reminded Tom and me of Mexico, specifically, Baja California. Complete with glimpses of flat silvery water to the East.
As we got our first peek of the lake, several aspects of it remind us of the lakes in southwest United States: the arid high desert landscape and the pathetically low water level. It seems to me wherever I’ve travelled in recent years, (Central America, Hawaii, Southern California or South Asia) in the countryside the evidence of water shortages is everywhere: low water levels in wells, rainfall below the normal levels, dried up rivers and streams. Those who know about the land speak sadly about dry seasons, and the threat to crops. I wonder if the sadness does not point to something deeper, not just a temporary drought. If we don’t intuitively know that we are witnessing climate change right in front of our eyes. If we do, we don’t say it. It’s easier to talk about droughts. In our collective consciousness we know and hope that droughts pass. But we don’ know about the passing of climate change, or if hoping for it is futile. As we pass over far reaching fingers of the reservoir, it’s clear that the water is 30 or 40 feet below what its regular level. What might normally be lagoons of water, have become cricket grounds, and pathways for women carrying hardwood atop their heads.
We arrived at a small green gate and drove along Z’s property on a gravel road. When we climbed over a hill away from the main road, we saw the roof of his house, and span of the reservoir. What’s most striking about the view is the simplicity Z’s house, and the flat span of terraced lawns in front. The openness of the landscape feels especially refreshing compared to the usual state of being trapped. It’s all I can do to wait a few polite minutes before removing my shoes and walking on the stubby grass barefoot. We get acquainted with the local caretake and the caretaker dog. Z shows us the house, which he has designed and built. What I love is the straightforwardness of the structure: cooking area, eating area, sitting area, all open to face the marvelous view of rural Pakistan. What Tom loves are the solid materials: wood, steel, leather, and the thoughtfulness with which they were utilized.
It is spacious and quite. Falcons and kites glide on invisible gusts of wind. Voices of people on the other shores are carried effortlessly over the surface of the water.
Tom and I take a walk around one drying finger of the reservoir, toward the brightness of mustard fields. A family of peasants is collecting mustard greens on the other side of the lake. We hear voices of women talking and children bantering. At the water’s edge, I notice the kids have climbed on rocks on the other side, and quieted, watching us. I wave. One of them looks away and the other half hides in the shadow of a boulder. We watch each other across the water. I wave again. One of them reflexively lifts his arm, in what’s not quite a wave. Even from here, they seem bashful, but curious. I wave one more time, before walking away from the water’s edge. I hear a loud splash and when I turn around to see what kind of fish might make so much noise, I realize one of them had thrown a rock into the water to regain my attention. Now they were motionless again, waiting to see what I would do. I walked toward Tom who was taking pictures of the mustard field trying to capture it’s bee-buzzing, goat-herding, central Asia-feeling wonder.
When we returned to the house, carpets and pillows had been laid out on the grass terrace, waiting for the arrival of small sized harem. While we wait to find out who the harem will be composed of, we admire the handmade furniture, the free standing fireplace, the most delicious blood oranges, and the Quaker Oats installation art. One would confidently bet that Z was maybe born in Argentina, or had lived for 15 years in the US, but to our surprise we find out that he’s never taken more than a month’s vacation abroad, that he misses Pakistan on long sojourns away. One suspects there might be more to this story, but the overwhelming impression of Z is of a good natured teddy bear, who wants to host people he finds endearing or interesting, in truest Pakistani hospitality.
When the other guests arrive, the silence of the landscape is broken. Several vehicles pull up almost simultaneously, and out pour a dozen or so people, loud as only a group of city slickers arriving in the country can be. They include some of Zs Pakistani friends, and three Ambassadors of certain Latin American countries, their wives, kids, and nephews. They all introduce themselves to us, not by title, but by name, it is up to us to match the ambassador with his respective country. ￼
The picnickers brought not only cheer and noise, but also delicious food: homemade pizza, empanadas, fresh tossed salad. Zulfikar had Pakistani food made by a local woman, and James made the most delicious quiche (much preferred to roasted cheetah). There was wine and beer and cigars, and lots of chatters and laughing, and story telling.
Here is my favorite, told by a flirtatious Brazilian woman (imagine a buzzed Portuguese accent), now living in Pakistan, which is where the story takes place:
My father died and we needed to prepare the church for his funeral. But there were still Christmas decorations up. I told them they have to take the decorations down, because it’s after January 6th, and having them up after the Three Kings would bring bad luck to my father's funeral. But they didn’t do it. So I sent my guys down there to clean up. When they arrived at the church they all took off their shoes, and I had to convince them that it’s OK to wear shoes inside. So they come into the church, and they just kind of stop and stare at the crucifix with Jesus, with their mouths open. At the service we sang Catholic hymns and it was shocking because all the Pakistanis there knew the words! It turns out they had all be educated at missionary schools or convents, so they knew how to sing in Latin!
To appreciate this story you have really pull yourself out of the Christian culture, and imagine that in your religion depiction of God in any form is forbidden. Shoes are removed before entering mosques. Showing bare arms in public is improper. And here you are faced with not only a crucifix, but Jesus, nailed on it, probably bleeding brownish blood from his open wounds, wearing nothing but a ribbon over his privates. I would stop and stare with my mouth open, and someone would have to do more than snap their fingers to get my attention on cleaning the Christmas decorations.
The afternoon passed, and I took advantage of the free flowing, self-sustaining conversations to sit on the carpets and draw. Being barefoot, and bare-shouldered for the first time in months, felt so good and freeing, it was easy to enjoy the simple pleasure of drawing the land scape. There are many moments of brightness and delight in Pakistan, and one has to really suck the marrow of them.