My friend’s son tells me that “The city is completely safe anywhere. Unlike the US, where you cannot go into certain areas of a city, we do not have these problems here.” He pointed out how the road goes through both clean, well kept areas of the city and through run down, poor neighborhoods. “There are no areas of a city where you cannot go. We confuse poverty with crime,” he says, “but that is not the case. It is perfectly safe to walk anywhere at night.”
Buildings, like the bank and a shopping complex, all have private security guards. They look military and each carries a huge rifle. I’m not sure why because it is contradictory to what I keep getting told: there is no crime. But I guess thugs do exist everywhere.
We also talked about the ‘funny’ sight of women in long black robes and burka’s, who reach into the folds and come up with their cell phone. I noticed a street vendor on bare feet, squatted on his cart, talking on his cell phone. My friend says, wisely, “We think of modernization as westernization, but technology is equally used here.”
We drive to the main public library of Lahore, a huge white colonial building with arched, painted ceilings, dark wood paneling and rows and rows of bookcases. An Urdu sign in copper over each door said ‘Read, read, read’ – an order given by Mohammed himself.
Next we walk across a craft market where weavers and potters have their wares displayed, but the most amazing stuff was those well known round jars with lids, with very fine intricate designs on them. I always thought there were painted on, but it turns out that the (wooden) jars were painted in several layers of paint and then the design is scratched off. If you scratch lightly the dark blue gives way to light green, if you scratch harder, the red layer shows… It is amazing!
When we stepped outside (it was around 30º C) a group of colorful dancers was performing. As soon as they saw my pale face, they crowded around and danced for me. I am still the only westerner around.
There was also a camel behind the museum with a little baby camel which sucked on my fingers!I am starting to know my way around Lahore. Traffic remains mind boggling. I have figured out now that lines on the road are irrelevant. It is space you aim for. Whenever there is some space to the left or right, you veered towards it. Never mind the scooter or bicycle in that space, he who is strongest wins. If the open space happens to be on the wrong side of the road, that’s OK too. And when turning at an intersection it really doesn’t matter how you get across, you just go. The car you see most often is the Suzuki Mehran. It must be a special Pakistani edition: without signal lights.
I saw three donkeys in a row carrying huge loads of bricks. I don’t know how they stayed on: three layers of bricks right around both sides of the donkey. Perhaps each brick was held by a string. I can’t image the weight of that load. I saw donkeys carrying grass, bamboo, a bed, people, firewood, bananas, and much more.
At night we drove the same route in the dark as we had during the day. Now everything was lights. We would call them Christmas lights, here they are just lights. Tree trunks, buildings, rickshaws, everything hung with little lights in the dark. And the traffic was every bit as busy as during the day. We drove past the Government Buildings, the Lahore High Court, the Library, Museum, etc. Beautiful buildings along wide boulevards. Then we stopped in a very busy, narrow crowded street, parked and bought juice at a juice stand. I had strawberry juice: freshly squeezed strawberries. Wonderful! Then we decided to walk about. At a shoe stand, I bought a pair of Arabian Nights slippers… shiny bejeweled slippers made out of raw leather, hand stitched for less than 5.-
Here is my Pakistani vocabulary so far:
Ghee – yes, in a respectful way
Ghee? – what do you mean
Ti – yes
Achee – okay, alright
Dada – grandfather
Suckria – thank you
Salaam – hello
Inshallah – hopefully, God willing
Mashalla – thank God
Beda – son or daughter
Teekay – also ok, understood
Godahafis – good night, goodbye (God bless you)
Leila and I brainstormed our book idea for children, to encourage kids to read and to tell them about libraries. I wrote a story and read it to her. We both cried so I think it’s working.
A little while later we leave for a different part of town. The streets got narrower and narrower until we found a little parking spot. Each parking area, near shopping areas, a bank, etc. has a few men who sit around and as soon as a car drives up, one of them gets up and helps the driver to park. They get a few rupees for doing so.
The three of us women headed down the narrow street. On both sides were open stores, each one just a small square or long and narrow. Each store has its own specialty: embroidery, bags, table linens, kitchen items, shoes, food, etc. The street got so narrow it was maybe 1 1/2 meters wide and still rickshaws and mopeds came honking along it. It was packed with people yet no one bumped into another. I asked them if should be aware of pickpockets and was told that this does not happen here at all. In fact, Leila’s daughter said that she had often forgotten her purse in a shop and found it still sitting there much later.
Leila told me that once she was shopping in an area were the shopkeepers spoke no Urdu. She had made a purchase in a shop and a little while later a man came running and shouting after her. She didn’t know what he was calling and walked away faster. But the man kept chasing her. When he finally caught up, he said panted “For heaven’s sakes, don’t you want your change?!” and handed her some money back.
She explained that in the Muslim faith they prepare in this life for the afterlife and how you treat others is very important. They also said that it is considered inappropriate to charge too much for an item. They is no bartering and no one bothers you. It is a very safe and pleasant feeling.
We walked and walked along the narrow streets, in one alley and down another. We got lost a few times in the labyrinth of shops. The sky got darker and lights came on. Women wearing shawls of all colors, men in long tunics, some with turbans. I totally felt like I had a part in a play of Arabian Nights. We saw a coconut vendor who sold both slices of coconut and coconut juice. There was a strawberry vendor. A man who dyed cloth, and we went inside a wool shop where the walls were lined in colors of wool. A knitter’s paradise! I bought several skeins of cotton. These were placed into an old scale and copper weights balanced the scale and then the vendor told me how much it was. I felt like I was shopping in the Middle Ages!
We all bought jewelry: necklaces and earrings and rings. Amazing stuff.
I bought more gifts for everyone – my suitcase will be full!
The girls found fabrics for their outfits and we still dropped them with a seamstress to have them stitched for the wedding.
As soon as we got home we had to leave for the wedding party, so a quick shower and change of clothes. At home my idea of dressing up is a clean pair of jeans. Here I wore a bright blue silk outfit with dainty shoes, new jewelry and a white shawl with seashells on it. Fun to dress up!
The women of the family all came and were dressed gorgeously in silks and shawls. They had their hair braided with dangles with mirrors in it. When we got to the house of the groom’s parents, the driveway was lined with rose petals and candles. In the living room we all found a spot to sit on colorful silk pillows on the floor or on low benches along the walls. There were mostly women but also a few men. Two musicians sat on the carpet and played a large stone pot and round drums. People sang songs, typical Oriental singsongy chants. We all clapped along. Sometimes somebody got up and danced with arms swaying in the air. People dropped money in the circle on the floor. Every time someone got up they would urge others for more money and to dance more elaborately. I asked what the money was for and was told that it was to be given to the poor.
After an hour or so of singing songs, we all got up and went outside in the huge garden. Long tables lined the back of the house, under the palms trees, and were laden with food. There was meat being roasted and bread being baked on fires. We loaded up plates with rice, baked fish, lentils, potatoes, all sorts of other weird concoctions.
As we ate I realized that the families here visited and gossiped just like people everywhere…
Had an interesting talk today. I am learning, bit by bit, many interesting facts about life in Pakistan: there is medical care here for everyone. You can get insurance but many people have none and don’t need it. It costs nothing to have babies in hospital. Poor people will get free care from doctors. My friend knew of a previous employee of the family who had retired. They met him recently and he had received a triple bypass operation free of charge.
Most families here live with different generations in one house, like this family. It is more economical, they say, and it allows the grandparents to teach the little ones. Education is very important. The grandparents teach the little ones to be kind, to speak in kind voices, to be disciplined, to study hard.
Everywhere around the city are tall skinny towers. Five times a day there is a long chant broadcasted that is a call to people to pray and to stay “on the straight path”. Leila says ‘God does not ask us to pray for him, but for ourselves. It is a time to reflect on what we are doing”. While the chant is sounded, women cover their hair and so I do, too.
Around lunch time they have ‘tea’ here, which is just tea with milk and sugar and some fruit, yogurt or a cheese sandwich. Then around 3 PM they eat lunch of hot meat dishes, lentils, rice and round flatbread. Then at 5-6 they have tea again and don’t eat dinner until around 9 PM. I am careful to find dishes I can eat without getting too many digestive problems. When they tell me “take this, it’s not spicy” I have learned that it will merely clear my sinuses. Anything stronger and I have smoke coming out of my ears.
I am especially grateful to be staying with this semi-western family since they supply toilet paper (sometimes). Any other toilets (in offices and other homes) have none. Each toilet has a low, ‘hand-held shower’ of which you squeeze the handle to cleanse yourself. But how to dry yourself without paper or towel? In older bathrooms there is no shower but a jug of water sitting on the floor. With a ladle. Don’t ask…
Around dark we all got dressed and were busy ironing silk outfits, brushing and braiding hair etc. The children were also coming this time so they had to be bathed and dressed in little white shalwar and long tunics.
I wore my plain blue silk shalwar and a nice kameez with gold design in the blue.
We left the house around 9. The party, tonight, was at the home of the groom were we had already been last weekend but I didn’t recognize it. I thought we were at some very fancy hotel. The house is enormous, all one level and very Mediterranean with palm trees. There was an huge tent sent up behind the house, made of beautiful cloth with gold print. It had a large carpeted sitting area with colorful pillows. And rows and rows of comfortable chairs, all draped with white cloths and tied with ribbons and bows. There was a ‘stage’ platform on which a man and (blind) woman sang lovely songs. The backdrop for the stage consisted of a long bamboo pole hanging horizontally draped with long straight garlands of fresh flowers: small white flowers and soft orange roses. (roses are very inexpensive here: I bought my friend 5 DOZEN fresh red roses from a street vendor for $1.25).
Some young men gave a lovely concert on guitars and the traditional sitar (a cross between a cat and a guitar!). They had composed a medley of Arabian music crossed with Spanish guitar. Very nice.
After an hour of sitting and listening to the singing, we all got up and lined up at long tables with food. There was even green salad and fruit salad. And squares of fried cheese, fish, lots of meat and lentil dishes, rice and more. Dessert consisted of chocolate cake, strawberry puffs, and sweet noodles made from a flour paste, squeezed from a piping bag on to a hot surface into a thin long zigzag ribbon and slowly fried like that. They turn a soft pink and are very, very sweet.
After dinner there was tea. And we all sat down in the chairs again for about 4 hours of listening to very traditional singing. I think this was called the Qawali. A group of about 12 men in sober brown tunics sat cross legged on the stage (for some 4 hours with getting up!!). Two lead men wearing small caps sang and played the harmonium. The songs they did were apparently thousands of years old, folk songs which really sounded nice. Very happy, slow, chant like. The men formed the back ground choir and clapped hands while sitting very straight and without resting their elbows…. The crowd kept nodding or shaking and sometimes men moved their hands, turning it in the air and nodding. I had no idea what the songs were about – they are in Urdu, Persian and all sorts of other languages and dialects.
At some point baskets of candy were passed around, and also something of which I didn’t know what it was: paper points looking like little icecream cones. I thought they were melting because they were all sticky and runny. Inside the paper was leaf (of the betel tree) with betel nuts (not sure what they are) soaked with rose water and other flavors. I licked it and tasted it but didn’t eat it. If you take some tree leaves and soak them with an entire perfume bottle, then you have what this resembled… More tea and soft drinks. It’s strange not to see any alcohol at parties like these. But having no alcohol may well have saved the country.
The next morning we had a meeting at Alif Laila with a lday who came from Islamabad and who is in charge of Save The Children in Pakistan. We went to the library and saw the mobile library that is run by Leila’s project.
Most of the school children who come here are girls. The girls are incredible kind and nice, very polite and sweet. At age 13, very different from North American girls who wear make-up and cool clothes. These kids giggle and shyly smile ‘hello’, then giggle again. They are eager to have their pictures taken and love to learn.
Tonight we had a good discussion about education. My friend’s son said that he was fortunate to get his university education in the USA because he was so self motivated. He said that within the first semester he was offered a full scholarship and even a stipend. “The US is incredibly rich where educational institutions are concerned,” he said, “As a student I worked on a multimillion dollar super computer and in a library with millions of books.” He said that he probably took 20% of his lectures and for the rest worked and studied on his own. He also said that 90% of his fellow students were totally not motivated and most joined fraternities and didn’t study much at all, taking all the resources at their fingertips for granted.
At our library meeting, we shared what we have done and planned and read our story to the Save the Children rep. She loved it and thinks they will be able to publish it here. We hope to give a free book to all Pakistani schoolchildren. The story I wrote with Leila is a fictional tale about the power of libraries and reading. It really did turn out nicely. I’ll also be doing a day of workshops with students and teachers.
At Alif Laila, the girls who work there called me into a room and said it was time for mehndi. I had no idea what that was… They brought out henna and decorated the insides of my hands for the wedding. All ladies, girls, at a wedding do henna. It is a big deal here. They all get together and do each others hands. Henna is an ancient tradition, a paste made from leaves of the henna tree. It comes in a very pointy tube. They cut the point off and applied it to my hands making all sorts of intricate designs. It sits on the hand in a dark brown paste. Then it has to dry for an hour so you can’t do anything… just waves your hands in the air to dry.
After a long hour I got to scratch off the dried muck and the design was on my hand in a bright orange. That gets darker as time goes by and will eventually wear off after about a week.
On our drive home we suddenly spotted a carpet salesman. We had seen one earlier and I had said that I wouldn’t mind buying a small rug. I told them how much I wanted to spend. This one had rugs that were actually larger and very nice. So now that has to fit in the suitcase too…