I’m often asked for a download after I return from Pakistan. It’s difficult to give a simple soundbite. On one hand it’s amazing, inspiring, and surprising. On the other, it can be tiring, frustrating, and unreal. In an attempt to better define the experience, and for those of you interested in reading on…Pakistan is not what a lot of you might expect.
First off, Pakistanis are known for their gracious hospitality. They don’t want terrorists in their country any more than we want random shooters in ours. Weddings are open invites and even the poorest family would give you the shirt off their back. Secondly, it’s not a wasteland. Most people think desert when they think of Pakistan. The drive through Pakistan Administred Kashmir is rivers, lakes, and mountains. The road and drop offs are white knuckling scary. The area between Islamabad and Lahore includes miles and miles of orchards and agricultural fields. The further south you go, the more humid. Lahore is downright lush. Although dirt roads may be common on the outskirts of cities or in the smaller towns, they have well paved streets and highways. Islamabad is a fairly new city with wide lane roads and highways.
Imaginations tend to be tainted by the media, so many images of gun toting men in traditional attire near the Afghanistan border easily come to mind. There is a plethora of guards in front of schools and buildings, sometimes gun toting, sometimes not…certainly not the frequently pictured men everywhere with their AK-47s. There’s a growing middle class in Pakistan and on any given day people are going about their business shopping, running errands, and heading to/from work and school just like anywhere else. Roads in Lahore are full of tuk tuks, the occasional donkey pulled cart, scooters, and motorbikes all fighting for the right away. People sometimes wear the traditional and colorful shalwar kameez, sometimes sport clothes that you’d find anyone wearing in any urban center, perhaps looking like they stepped out of the 80s, 90s or any other decade of choice. Pakistani’s, like their neighbor India, favor the bling which can easily be adorned on apparel, footwear, jewelry, and more. Foreigners aren’t very common unless you go to specific districts or restaurants, but with light hair, eyes, and skin, we veil when we’re in areas that might draw a lot of stares (and by veil I mean use a pashmina or scarf loosely wrapped over the head).
We have trusted staff who help us from the moment we arrive and thank goodness for that since it is a long, tedious series of flights (especially if in economy). Combine that with a 12+ time difference and it’s a brutal transition. Caffine and sleep aids are my friends, at least those first few days. All staff in Pakistan are locals and arrange accommodations, transportation, and are usually with us throughout the entire trip of sight seeing, shopping, and visiting schools. I usually go to Pakistan for a week and hit up Islamabad and Lahore where our schools are on the outskirts of. Fortunately Islamabad and Lahore also hold a myriad of fun things to do.
This year I was joined by a teacher from Colorado who previously facilitated our Global Kid Connect modern day pen pal program with her students. It was a good excuse to explore. In Islamabad we went to Saidpur Village at the base of the Margalla Hills, a preserved town, home to an old temple, and a gallery of photos from the capital development. The area attracts domestic and foreign visitors and the highlight is a great restaurant with pretty views, traditional lounge outdoor seating, and delicious pakistani food. Just up the windy mountain road is a national park, Daman-e-Koh, with great vistas of the city. Our view was obscured by haze, but we enjoyed hanging out with students on field trips, and couldn’t resist watching the dancing monkeys doing tricks. Islamabad is a relatively new city and has diplomats and foreigners, along with a country club and golf courses. We looked high and low to find truck art for purchase, to no avail. Side note – the mack daddy semis in Pakistan tend to be adorned with the most beautiful, colorful, metal art tiles! We did, however, find an old train station with a small museum and permanently docked cars. The still operational station involved a very informed station agent who was thankfully translated by Moqah’s miss Farida.
One of my personal Islamabad favorites is the huge bookstore and Behbud, a store that sells traditional clothing made by local women that proceeds go to support. Their rooftop restaurant has wonderful food and service and traditional and non-traditional food. We hit up a sweet shop and drank rose colored milk tea. If you want comforts of home there are cafes that you can find a decent mocha and finger sandwiches, I tend to stick to the Pakistani fare thank you very much! Note, feminine supplies should always be brought from home because finding, let alone purchasing pads (anything other – good luck) is a totally strange experience and involves back room deals and departing with small paper bags rung up separately.
Lahore has a lot to offer – museums, bazaars, historical sites, and the old walled city. We checked out the Wazir Khan Mosque as well as the restored Shahi Hammam inside the walled city. The tight spiral staircase that goes to the roof affords a great view of the bustling activities at all the small stalls and shopfronts below. We loved the Lahore Fort and bought tunics, bags, and gifts at Khaadi (no bargaining needed)!
Getting to do surprise visits of the MDF supported schools is always a highlight. Pakistan has faced challenge after challenge in the aftermath of a bloody and brutal partition over sixty years ago. Every progressive step has involved several steps backwards in large part due to dictators (often backed by the US to protect interests in the region). The result is a fractured society largely governed by an ineffective feudal system, where the majority live in poverty and don’t trust the government to protect or advance their interests. Over half the female population is illiterate and over 25 million school aged children are not in school. Pakistan spends half of its inadequate tax collecting funds on the military due to their unease with neighboring India, among other issues, and little is left over for quality education or healthcare.
In the aftermath of 9/11 the founder of Marshall Direct Fund noticed inadequate humanitarian efforts in the region and mobilized her contacts to assess and support educational efforts to ensure a future generation of critical thinkers with the skills to become meaningful economically contributing citizens. The impact of the last ten years of efforts can be seen and felt in the classrooms and on the face of those students. They look crammed and are in dilapidated buildings by western standards, but they’re solid and no one seems to mind having overflowing classrooms, they’re just grateful for the access to free education and the hope afforded to break cycles of poverty. In comparison to previous visits I notice some students sitting taller in their chairs, straighter, with more confidence, bright eyes, smiles, and stories that reflect hope that was not there before. We brought gifts, talked with the students in each of the classes, played with them at recess, and spoke with teachers. I leave the schools with soul filling joy and pride that will last me a lifetime.
Now if being able to go out boozing and dancing is a priority while on vacation, then Pakistan is not for you. If going somewhere with an interesting culture, sites, delicious flavorful food, and warm hospitable people, then strap on the patience panties and come join us on a future trip! It’s a hefty $192 visa fee and there are routine tasks we take for granted like being able to easily pull funds from any ATM, expecting toilet paper in public restrooms, and getting weird things like tennis balls confiscated from luggage, but it’s SO worth it!