Friday, April 17, 2009

Wanna take a bus?

Last weekend, having been a long one, had nothing much to offer but we decided to explore somewhat of an adventure by hopping on to a bus and go to where it would take us. Of course we were not crazy enough to do it all by ourselves, during the week we had requested Muneeb from AIESEC to accompany us which he gladly agreed to. He had a huge task of babysitting five foreigners on the public bus in Karachi. Now, naturally you would think that the public bus is a normal everyday means of transport for the average Karachite, but unfortunately or fortunately that is barely the case. The public buses are used by the really poor workers to move across town to places where the are employed which in many cases is from the poor slums to the rich suburbs. In Karachi buses there is some form of etiquette that is to be observed, first of all there are separate compartments for the men and the women. This is mainly to keep the men from harassing the women and Pakistan being a deeply Islamic state there is also unspoken rules of separation. The buses are highly colorful decorated with Persian style designs embossed on shiny metal. the inside is equally decorated with hanging beads on the roof and blaring Urdu music over terribly terribly sounding speakers.

Secondly, it is highly advised that you try and blend in as much as possible with the crowd in the bus otherwise you will be subjected to stares that would make you feel as if the people are boring holes into you. Blending in, in this case, meant that we either dress in the conventional traditional dress of shalwar Kameez or whatever you wear make sure it covers you up pretty much and do not forget to carry a veil or shawl in case the stares get to you- that's for the ladies. The guys have no choice but to be looked at :)

Well it was about 2pm we decided to hop onto the bus 19D. We did not have a route planned out but at least we knew that the bus would pass by the Central Business District of Saddar which was as far as we had actually gone even by private means. So us girls hobbled upon the bus into the women's compartment right at the front next to the driver and all the boys were at the back and there was a separation barrier between us. I was seated right at the windscreen so i was having a front row view of the way we were taking. It was sort of normal route up till where we passed the CBD and we entered unfamiliar territory. The women sitting in the bus were looking at us as if we had just landed from an unknown world and despite the language barrier some tried to make conversation. The punch line was when one asked if Jana and Katya were sisters.

The driver being well aware of our presence also seemed to want to give us a show by trying to display how good a driver he was by squeezing that huge bus into the tiniest of spaces left after the human traffic, parked cars, motorcycles carrying whole families and rickshaws all blended together and plastered smack in the middle of the road. At one point during the ride I could have almost sworn that we were going to have an accident and the fact that I was right there at the windscreen did not make matters any better because every time he would step hard on the brakes I would directly head bat the windscreen. Its a wonder I did not come out of that bus with a concussion. After about an hour and a half of being in the bus and in some random market the bus stopped and the driver got off. This did not mean much at the time, but when we were still on the same spot ten minutes later I brought myself to ask where the driver had gone and I was told that he was out to lunch. That super cracked me up. The route is so long that the driver has to take pee breaks, water breaks and in this case lunch breaks. Well at least he stopped right in front of the Arabic cushion market so we had quite a bit to fix our eyes on and gawk for a while before we even realized that he was gone.

After two and a half hours of being baked in that tin can we landed in one of the no go zones of Karachi, at least that is what the UN security briefing told us, which was Baldia town. I think because of the frequent security warnings to foreigners not to go there, it had been a while since those people last saw people of a different origin than theirs. We chose to get off the bus at this point because we seemed to be moving and moving and not coming to the end of the city or the end of the bus route for that matter. The moment we hit the ground we became an attraction to the locals. All the shopkeepers surrounded us and were trying to make conversation and find out where we are from and how long we are in Karachi and it was almost what I would call terrible. so we took a few photos to mark that we were at Baldia and stayed somewhere strategic so that we could catch the next bus out. Some random guys even whipped out their phones and started taking photos of us. This was our cue to unleash our shawls and cover up properly to get them to loose interest in taking photos of us. :-)

Coming back we took a smaller bus but just as eventful all the same. This one was kind of the same size as what we call 'manyangas'(mini vans - usually 25 seaters) back at home, originally meant for about 25-30 passengers but same thing here it had two separated compartments with a barrier in between. The people here value their women but also have a tendency to harass them so clearly the men have to be literally kept away. After a short while the bus began to fill up with people probably the industrial workers from the site area trying to get back home. Once the men's compartment was full and there was about two rows of people standing in the manner we used to call 'javelin'* back in the day, streams or rather hordes of people started climbing up to the roof rack carrier. Every time the bus would stop I would see more and more people fighting to climb up the roof rack carrier and we from the inside now had the view blocked by hanging feet from up above. We took a much shorter route back to familiar ground so I guess we were traveling in a curve on the previous bus.

We dropped off at boat basin at a few minutes past six and went for lunch cum dinner since we had not had much to eat on that trip. I always wondered if breakfast cum lunch is brunch what is lunch cum dinner? Now boat basin usually has the best local food you could imagine and at this time it was start of business so we got really tasty top layer kind of food :-) Definately something you would want to experience!!!! Of particular interest would be the best tropical blends of juices and shakes that they have. Trust me it has been more than one occassios when we have travelled distances just to have a tast of that awesome juice!!!

*Javelin - A term used as street slang in Kenya to mean travelling while standing on a bus holding the handles palced on the top of the buses as you would a javelin stick :-)