15 Dec Roots & Branches
I had never visited a developing country, that’s what they called them now as opposed to the much more offensive term ‘third world’. The truth is i had no idea what to expect. I was on my way to the second largest city in Pakistan, Lahore. When I hear the word city, I think of the overcrowded trains at 9-5, the strong smell of morning coffee wafting through the air, people in cars cursing red buses as they blocked their way and buildings so tall that they reached the heavens, but I knew they would not be waiting for me there. Four thousand miles away was a world completely different to my own in every way. Anxious, excited and miserable are words that come to mind when I remember how I felt the morning I left for the airport. I was upset I was missing the month of December, I loved Christmas time. My mum makes a mean roast dinner and its always a joy watching my two little brothers try and fail to rip open a cracker. It would’ve been my first one with my boyfriend, i didn’t realize how much I would miss him. I had always wanted to go, to taste the local cuisine, meet my father’s family and see a side to my heritage I didn’t know anything about.
On the way to the airport the car ride seemed to take forever, only now I wish it had. I’m making it sound very horrible aren’t I, my stay. Perhaps it is because 10 minutes before I began writing this I had just spotted a cockroach in my bedroom. I cannot believe I spent 10 hours between planes and transit for this. Oh it was horrible, I despise flights. The itty bitty space, rubbery food and lack of sleep. I cried twice, first because I was unwell and second because of my ‘Ear Barotrauma’. The change in air pressure during landing always causes me severe discomfort. I had to check I wasn’t going crazy because people were certainly looking at me with like I was. My brother even called me a drama queen. I can only wish that he experiences pain as I did that day.
My first taste of this new world happened in Muscat, Oman, where I was to board another flight. People stared and whispered, I think it was my knee high boots. Some people even sat on the floor of the bus that took us to the plane. My dad told me they were villagers. They all pushed past and walked into the bus, even before the business class passengers. One man complained and I remember thinking it was very funny. People were already defying rules and order. The sun was out in full force, I was hungry, weak and covered from head to toe. At this point I was ready to slit my wrists to be back home on my favourite couch. I remember my legs feeling like they could not bear the weight of another step and as I stumbled onto the plane, I realized what a bad decision I had made coming along. It didn’t help that we had 3 bursting carry on’s, a laptop and bulky pieces of reading material to carry. Why did we have to give them gifts? They’d never given us any gifts. 2 hours and another ear trauma later, our journey came to a standstill so to speak. This was just the beginning of course.
I wheeled my way outside and was suddenly embraced by a smiling woman in pink. ‘Emma!’ she exclaimed taking me by surprise. Almost instantly an elderly man took hold of my suitcase and said ‘Don’t worry child, I’ll handle it’, ‘That’s nice of him’ I thought. I was handed a bouquet of pretty flowers wrapped in net and ribbon. I felt so welcome and loved, my aforementioned distresses faded away. It was then I noticed the nice man steadily walking away with my suitcase, so I followed him and walked in on a debate between him and my father. As it turns out, he was not my relative nor a gentleman, he was a self-employed porter. I was shocked! I couldn’t believe these men just took our bags and now expected payment. ‘No way’ said my father, ‘I thought you were with my family.’ As the reasoning continued, one man decided to approach me and my utterly confused brother. ‘Give me pounds’ he kept saying in Urdu. It was then that I should’ve turned around and caught the next plane out to wherever life would take me but I didn’t. While they all chattered away in Punjabi, I took a seat on a kerb and tried to cool down. All I wanted to do was sleep. We hopped in their car and started our lengthy journey to their home where we would be staying for the next 3 weeks. We were staying with my dad’s older sister and her husband, my pupho and pupha. She had two sons called Ali & Sunny, two daughters called Taira & Rabbi and an adorable granddaughter. My niece, Aman. I can only say that if it wasn’t for her chubby cheeks, endless efforts to talk and multi colored outfits, it would’ve been much more difficult to spend my days in a house that made me feel physically sick.
They lived in an area called Sazazar. We were surrounded by dirt, street vendors and a huge (unsafe) construction site. They were building overground trains for the first time in Lahore. At least they’re developing I thought. We stepped out of the car and were ushered into an unbolted black gate. Beyond this gate was an open space featuring their front and back doors. They were a faded white and the design on them reminded me of a doily. We walked in and sat down in their living room which also had a bed in it or rather two single beds pushed together. My aunt told us this was where my father and brother would be sleeping. It was just like I had seen in Bollywood movies. Everything looked worn out but still had it’s charms. Behind the sliding glass doors was another room and another bed. There was also a small fridge, a sink, a wooden coffee table, seating to match and a tiny tv. Seated in front of what was apparently still classed as a television was an elderly man, whom we were supposed to call Dada-abu. He was gingerly dipping his roti into a potato and pea curry. He didn’t even notice we had walked in. I gave him my salaam which is considered a sign of respect and he patted me on the top of my head. He was my aunties husbands father. They had been neighbour’s when they were young and my father had even been good friends with his now brother in law. When I found out I asked ‘Who gets their sister married to their neighbor?”
The next morning, I woke up completely unaware of where I was. My mood instantly dropped. I had retired to my room the night before around 6 in the evening and what a truly amazing sleep it was. What I would usually do after an event like that at home is find something to stuff my face with. Preferably microwaveable. I didn’t even know if they had a microwave here, but the good news is I’ve lost at least 2 inches on my waist since my arrival here. Moving on, today was a very special day. It was my adorable aunties birthday and seeing as she was making such an effort to make us feel comfortable, we decided we were going to celebrate her special day with an impromptu family dinner. We drove to a supermarket and bought a cream cake from the bakery as well as other necessities, like snacks. Lots of snacks. On the way back from the supermarket we spotted a man selling balloons on the street, and for some wacky reason my father bought the whole bunch, but now we had a dilemma on our hands. How were we going to get them back to the house in one piece? The solution apparently was to tie them to my cousin’s hand whilst they sat outside the passenger window and drive VERY slowly so the fragile threads didn’t give way to the wind. Did we look ridiculous? Of course we did, but the people here drove around with 4 people on one motorcycle, baby in hand. Besides, it wasn’t like we were going to be stopped by the police, so we took full advantage of our situation.
Over the next couple of days we visited the homes of several relatives. Each with their own stories of childhood dalliances with my father. My father’s Appi, meaning his older sister lives in a private residency called Bahria Town. It might as well have been bloody London because it seemed to take about 4000 miles and then some to get there. It was so quiet all you could hear was the sound of my heels and there was not a dirty or unclean object in sight. My cousin brother Mohsin, suggested we should go sightseeing. Apparently this town had a lot to offer. As we drove down the road I spotted one monument after the other. Like mini replica’s of landmarks all over the world. From Egypt’s pillars covered in hieroglyphs to Istanbul’s Suleymaniye Mosque, they had it all. I was then told that Pakistan now had its very own Eiffel Tower and as somebody who has seen the real thing in Paris, you can only imagine my bafflement. It was magnificent and a damn good copy, but I remember thinking who’s idea it was to steal and copy one of the wonders of the world. Maybe originality just wasn’t in anymore. Pakistan had such a beautiful, rich culture, it’s a shame it’s own people wanted to get away from it as opposed to celebrating it.
On the way home from my aunt’s house, we decided to try some authentic Pakistani street food. We stopped at a busy road with about 4 or 5 street vendors cooking away on hot stoves. A medley of spices lingered in the smoke that surrounded me and I strode on over with an empty stomach and heaving appetite. Dad ordered 9 mini burgers which contained a kebab coated in an egg omelette, covered in salad, ketchup and sandwiched between two yolky buns. The anticipation was killing me. While we loomed over the chef, mesmerized at his work I felt a tap on my lower back and turned around to find a young boy standing in front of me with his hand out. He couldn’t have been more than 10 years old, just like my little brother. I just froze, I had no idea how to react. My dad gave me money to give to the boy and he hurried away. As I watched him go, I wondered what kind of a life a child had to have to be asking strangers for money. I hoped he would see better days soon enough.
I’ve been in Pakistan for 10 days now and with 10 more days to go, I’m not so sure how much longer I can hold out. I miss London, I miss public transport, I even miss my annoying little brothers and lord knows how much I miss the glorious food. Even so, I can’t say I regret making this trip because I have learnt so much from the people here. It’s inspiring to see so much joy in a life that I don’t even understand. My aunties husband for example is very strict. My brother and I were shocked when we found out our cousins had never been to the cinema or a bowling alley. So we did all these things together. I saw a lot of hope for the future in my cousin Rabbi and the enjoyment she felt in everything she did. She was so happy that we had begun to call her sunshine. Rabbi was 21 and a trainee teacher. It turns out an undergrads degree is plenty for you to qualify to teach there. She told me she chose this career because it was the only job her father would allow and it was better to do it rather than sit at home. This was because people believed a young girl working amongst men in an office space at undue times was all kinds of wrong.
I just found it fascinating how she was content with making the most of what society was telling her was within her reach, despite my brothers many efforts to persuade her to shun her upcoming marriage. I am so grateful for all the hardships I don’t have to endure, for if I think I had to live like this I would indeed go mad. But it is her who has to endure this life, because i’m only a guest here, a tourist on a sightsee. The truth is we will both have to go back to our own existence once our paths are no longer intertwined. I don’t even know if I’ll ever see her again but I pray to god to give her strength if he exists, because I need all mine to fight my own battles.