Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Pakistan: first months, first thoughts

By Laura Jungmann

With the cusp of my first month behind me, I think it is about time to tell you all of my recent experiences in Pakistan. Upon my tardy arrival in Lahore, a cheerful crowd of AIESEC’ers, who welcomed me with posters declaring my arrival, open arms and cheerful faces, thankfully greeted me. The fact that I was almost 4 hours late, had me experiencing moments of panic during my flight- thoughts of arriving in Pakistan alone without any idea of where to turn, kept me occupied during the 2.5 hour flight from Dubai to Lahore.

As AIESEC Lahore, is based in the elite Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), I spent my first days within the LUMS bubble of a well kept campus, continuous electricity, air conditioning, and highly educated people. This time gave me ample opportunity to slowly acclimatize to the idea that I was now living in Pakistan (something which probably, even now, hasn’t quite sunk in yet).
Lahore is a city of atleast 10 million inhabitants, divided thoroughly into areas based very much upon socio-economic factors. LUMS, and our current apartment, are located in the Defence Housing Authority (DHA), possibly the most prestigious place to live in all of Pakistan. With armed guards on each corner, wide streets, green grass, large homes, and neighbourhoods named after letters of the alphabet (ie A-block, B-block, C-block, etc…) it is easy to forget that poverty, lack of education, and gender inequality make up the majority of Pakistan’s some 172 million inhabitants. The reason I mention this, is because it is surprisingly easy to forget that one is in Pakistan at all, if one keeps well within the limits of the DHA…

Although it may sound rather ridiculous, my first important order of business upon arrival in Pakistan was a trip to the ‘H-block’ textile market. With clusters of stores filled with a heart racing overabundance of colourful fabrics, these stores cater solely to the female shopper, on her quest to find the perfect material for the newest addition to her collection of shalwar kameez. Once in these stores, it is difficult to subdue the feeling of complete sensory overload, as store attendants shove fabrics covered in multi-coloured stripes, flowers and patterns into one’s face, all the while attempting to outbid each other with prices and names. Thankfully, I had a trusted female companion, who knew the process of shopping for the perfect fabrics all too well. After 45 minutes, filled with picking, choosing, looking, locating and finally bargaining, we headed to the nearest tailor. He then turns these swaths of fabric (3 pieces for each shalwar kameez) into proper shalwar, kameez, and dopatta. Within a week, a great sense of pride filled me, as I sauntered down the lane, in my very own, outrageously multicoloured and patterned shalwar kameez.

As a women living in this Muslim country, it is not compulsory to cover my hair. It is however, highly recommended, or even completely necessary in some instances. When visiting a mosque it is expected that women cover their hair, and remove their shoes (just as it is completely necessary that men uncover their hair). I also find it a form of protection from the stares of some, to cover my hair in certain situations- especially when leaving the protection of the DHA or in rural areas. And I always carry my dopatta, or long rectangular piece of fabric, for the instances when I do feel it necessary to cover hair, or skin.

I suppose I should address the principal reason for my trip to Pakistan; work.
As a ‘media affairs and public relations’ intern for the nationalized Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Ltd (SNGPL), I am solely responsible for the creation of the monthly newsletter, and partially responsible for the creation of this years’ Natural Gas Conservation Campaign. I work in a small team of about 7 people, all are open, friendly, helpful and extremely curious about my culture, upbringing and whether I am the ‘biased, xenophobic, violent, heretical and taboo- filled, archetypical American’ as the Pakistani’s see it. They have quickly come to identify me, simply as, ‘the German’.

Even with an apartment in ‘T-Block’, DHA, we are not protected from the electrical load shedding, heat, mosquitoes and smells of Pakistan. With an average of 16 hours of electricity per day (give or take), I find that the electricity continuously goes out at precisely those moments when one would need it most. This, I suppose, is nothing more, than the common ‘Murphy’s law’.
In Pakistan, in the summer months (which means March to November), it is HOT. Hot, as in, 45 Degrees C in the SHADE. Maybe you can imagine how hot it is inside our (as of yet) non-air-conditioned home. The only adjectives I could use to define this ever-increasing heat are ‘stifling’, ‘suffocating’ and ‘seething’- the alliteration was unintentional, I swear. Although everyone here tells me, that the long sleeves and pants covering one’s body ‘help’ with the heat, I am inclined to disagree completely, vehemently even, and often have the feeling of actually melting while walking down the street. I have become prejudiced against any sort of outdoor physical activity between the hours of 9:00 and 22:00, unless, of course, it is for a trip to the ice cream store. I even find myself dreading weekends, as we have air-conditioning at work.

With our first trip outside of Lahore, Matthias (Austrian housemate) and I, had the opportunity to go to Kasur, considered a ‘small town’ despite its 1 million inhabitants, located on the Indo-Pakistani border where Sufism, and Matt’s boss, were born. Before entering Kasur, we went to the outer-laying village where Matt’s boss has some family, we visited their home, made of mud, greeting their children with 'Asalamalaikum', a greeting from God, and drank the hot, sweet, milky chai so common to Pakistan.
Kasur proved to be a swelling city, full of people, motorcycles, rickshaws, bikes, cars, peddlers, beggars, small shops, beautiful mosques, and delicious eateries. After savouring the area’s delicatessen, fried fresh-water fish, I covered my hair, removed my shoes and entered the hot open spaces of the local mosque. I am again, and again, surprised by human kindness, not only having been permitted, but actually invited to enter the ‘male-only’ portion of the Mosque, to view the institution's pride and joy, some 1,000 year-old articles of its founder. Upon leaving, I was gifted a beautiful deep green wall hanging, with Quranic verses, written in beautiful, and colourful calligraphy.

With continuous speak about the Taleban’s threats, the PPP’s inefficiencies, murders, rapes, and inequalities, it may be hard for some to believe that I have only encountered kindness, curiosity, and heart warming welcomes during my time here. I look forward to experiencing more and more of this rich culture, these wonderful people, and Urdu, a language which I hope to learn in the coming months.
Also, a special thank you goes out to Kiki, for making this all possible!


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