Monday, June 26, 2006

Stream of Consciousness: McDonald’s

I walk in the door and there is music pumping through the speakers as if I’m at a rave party at 3am. Out the window behind me I can see Ronald McDonald’s life size figure sitting on a bench. We’re on Main Boulevard, Gulberg, across from the Nike Store and Levi’s Shop. Main Blvd is the place to be in Lahore. Skyscrapers are going up everywhere.

Proud workers seem to be all over the restaurant sporting their navy blue pants, shiny black shoes, red striped button down shirts, and of course navy blue hats with bright golden arches. Gotta represent. I choose a table and sit down as one worker is happily moppin’ away to the beat of Eminem. Another young man in his red striped shirt spins a brown tray on his finger as he brings it to its proper place.

This is one of the coolest places in town for a date. As opposed to the West, McDonald’s in the developing world is an upscale restaurant frequented by the well to do. I observe one couple sitting near me. Two milkshakes, hers strawberry, his chocolate, and a large fry. He is slightly overweight and showing it in a white t-shirt sporting Bath n’ Body and Victoria’s Secret logos on his back. She, being much more stylish as all Pakistani women are, is wearing loose bright orange shalwar with purple and green stripes. Her floral dupatta is effortlessly thrown over one shoulder of her cream colored short sleeved kameez with matching orange trim. Her hair is dyed with lighter brown streaks and held back in a big black scrunchie. Designer sunglasses are perched on her head and her black leather purse completes the outfit.

Ahh! Something does not fit in this picture. Behind her stands a blond western man wearing shorts, or ¾ length pants with his hiking boots. This is not American fashion….German maybe? They seem to be all over these parts in the summer and they have no problem showing their hairy legs much to the amusement, or distress, or the local population. Shorts do not exist here in Pakistan, and in neighboring Iran one of my friends was thrown in jail for wearing them. I turn my gaze away, horrified at the fashion statement.

A solitary balding man sits at the table across from me and places his shiny silver mobile phone on the table with his new looking car keys. He’s wearing a tan shalwar kameez and it seems as if he considers each of his remaining hairs as precious. This is a trend in Pakistani men. If a spot on their head is balding, they will let each of the remaining hairs grow wildly and as long as possible in hope that they can twirl them around, stick them onto the bald spot, and give the illusion that they still have hair. Unfortunately for Pakistan, India has been exporting the comb-over look as haut couture. This man is definitely a victim of thinking that comb-overs are attractive.

I wonder if I am really in Lahore when I see a Pakistani man wearing navy blue ¾ pants complete with track suit stripes and cargo pocket, chatting with a smartly dressed businessman in the parking lot. The businessman wears nicely fitted black pants, shined leather shoes, a mauve collared shirt, and a perfectly matching patterned tie. As they finish their conversation the ¾ pants man jumps into a metallic blue sports car while the businessman speeds off in a white company van.

Looking towards the ground, I see dark wide leg jeans. They are so wide they are nearly hiding the gray and black skater shoes underneath. “What, are you trying to hide a family of 12 in your pants?” (Meaghan King if you’re reading this is for you…..remember our trendy friend with the goggles in that movie we used to love?) I look up to see a young man, most likely in his early 20s, wearing a dark blue T. He has a nicely trimmed full beard and his shiny longish hair falls to conceal his thick square plastic glasses. He grins crazily at a small boy in jeans and a turquoise shirt and I make a conjecture that this is his son or his little brother. To my surprise, a woman in a burka joins the wide-leg jeans man. She’s got white Adidas sneakers and white shalwar on under her big black tent, and she momentarily lets her burka slip off and reveal her wavy hair held up in a clip. She looks young and I assume that she is the boy’s mother and the trendy man’s wife. As she dips her tea bag in hot water she carefully puts her burka back over her head.

At this point I’m distracted from my people watching as one of my favorite salsa songs comes blaring through the speakers. Ok yes, I must confess that I loved the movie “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” which was based around Latin dancing, and this one song from the movie always makes me want to hop on the next plane to Cuba. In my mind, the McDonald’s is transformed into a Latin dance scene. I can see everyone, burkas and all, dancing on the tables. Letting their hair down. I’m teaching the steps as I grab the mic to sing along. 1, 2, 3. Back side together. 1 2 3. I imagine the workers standing in a line moving their hips to the beat, stepping in time to the music while they blow their trumpets. Their lips form huge smiles as they enjoy the music. They are feelin’ the beat. Blue pants, red striped shirts, and of course their navy blue hats. 1, 2, 3. Back Side Together. Come on ladies, let’s join together. Don’t be afraid to move. Don’t be afraid to dance!

My inner dance party is brought to an abrupt halt due to the interruption of Chris Isaac crooning an 80s love song. There’s no dance party here. No trumpets. No 1 2 3. No standing on the tables. Just cheeseburgers and fries. The young woman with the child has let her burka fall to her shoulders again as she finishes her last bite.

Next is Sting, “Every move you make, every breath you take…” at least it’s not Puffy’s version for the B.I.G. This is why people here think of McDonald’s as a romantic place. “Baby, baby…please… do do do.”

The romantic mood is gone as we enter into some Indian club mix. Whoever put together this rotation of music must have been a schizophrenic. I imagine we are in a Bollywood movie and I’m leading everyone is some bhangra hip hop line dance. A man in gray shalwar kameez and with a big belly walks in. Drum roll… he joins in my mental Bollywood number. Bust a move, ji, but first put on those cool black shades.

Reality: A little girl on skate shoes rolls by in a flowered skirt and bright pink tank top. I see one thin middle aged woman, a rare sight among the affluent, most of who are proud to be MOTI (fat). They are the only ones who can afford coming to hip places like McDonald’s. A man in dark denim jeans, a white button down shirt, and a tightly fitted navy blue turban strides in as he walks to the beat.

More Shaqira in the speakers and we are back to my mental Latin dance party. How bout the limbo this time? Ladies kick off those heels. I don’t know how you can walk in them anyway, especially if you have to dodge heaps of trash and open sewers in the streets. Wait, I forgot, this crowd doesn’t walk more than a few feet from their SUVs to their destination. I tap my foot against the table and think again of Cuba. Why do they have to be communist? As an American citizen I can’t even go there and search for my Latin dance party.

A big silver SUV picks up 4 stylish ladies in their bright shalwar kameez. Bounce with me, ji, bounce with me. The driver is a slender bearded man in tan shalwar kameez. I imagine him in a rap video carting the ladies around, zim zimma who’s got the keys to my bimma? Oh my….

Entering the stage, couple on a date #2. She wears big black chunky hells with her turquoise floral shalwar. Her wavy black hair is down, showing that she comes from a more liberal background, and her straight silver drop earrings make her look classy. A diamond sparkles on her left hand while she inspects her long manicured nails. Another small stone sparkles in her nose, yes this is the kind of nose ring that looks quite good for a small nose. She plays with her hair and straightens her shirt. She taps her feet to the beat of the now disco music and waits for her attractive young husband to come back with the tray of food. They sit close and lean in towards each other as they eat their fries. He bobs his head to the beat box rythym.

It seems Eminem is the cue for the sweeper, cause he’s out and moppin’ to da beat in the same exact place again. His shiny shoes slide over the floor as he mops. Back and forth. Swish. Swish.

A barefooted little girl in a jean skirt and purple t-shirt places her pink sandals on the table next to her happy meal. Her dad grabs the shoes and straps them back on her dangling feet as she sits at the table. She and her older brother enjoy their happy meals. “Happiness in a box” the cartons claim. Hmm…would that really comprise of burgers, fries, and a small toy? False advertising I think. The little girl turns around and stares at me with her inquisitive brown eyes. She innocently sits with her legs wide open and her diaper showing along with her chubby tanned thighs. She should enjoy this now, for little does she know what will befall her as a Pakistani woman. Her short hair is cut in a cute bob and part of it is tied up in a sprout with a red hair tie. Her thin bangs cover her wide forehead and she jumps down from the table and starts spinning without abandon. She sticks her tongue out in concentration as she spins and spins.

Two o’ clock. My friend has arrived. Time for me to become part of the hip McDonald’s crowd and not merely an observer. Yes I’ll take a number six please, with a coke, and no please don’t supersize it. Shukriya ji, and may I ask, who is responsible for choosing your music?

Just pay me 30,000 rupees...

One of my friends has just been accepted for immigration to Canada. After five years of applications, language tests, waiting and a nerve racking interview, he was invited to become a Canadian citizen just a few weeks ago. The final step to be cleared was the medical exam.

Before going to the Canadian medical labs he decided to get his blood tested in a private lab. One of his close acquaintances works as a clerk in the lab that does the immigration medicals so he went there for a pretest. Upon submitting his sample, he was told that he would be called by 8pm that same evening.
8pm passed. No call. 9pm, my friend tried to call the clerk but there was no answer. 10pm. No answer. 11pm, the clerk shut off his phone. That night my friend didn’t sleep, worried that the news was that he somehow had contracted some deadly disease.

At 7am he called the clerk again and was told that he’d have his results by mid morning. The clerk called back. “Nothing too serious. You just have some symptoms of Hepatitis C. You know, Canadian immigration won’t accept you unless you have perfect health, so if you just pay me 35,000 rupees (~$600) by tomorrow we can clear your record.”

I receive an SMS, “THIS IS THE WORST MOMENT OF MY LIFE.” I write back, “What’s wrong? What is it?” but I receive no answer. I knew he had submitted his test, and since there is no education about health issues here, I think that he may have some form of Hepatitis and not know about it.

My friend is freaking out. Not only does he not know much about different forms of Hepatitis, but he fears that after his five years of waiting he won’t be able to go to Canada after all. He is told by the clerk that many of the young men applying for immigration have Hepatitis B, and that recently one young wife whose husband is waiting for her in the US has tested positive for HIV.
My friend submits his blood sample to two more private labs for a triple check. He waits. He talks to the clerk and bargains the bribe price to 30,000 rupees. The clerk says he needs at least of half of it that very night. My friend calls his brother and makes a plan to arrange the money. Finally in the afternoon he gets the results. They both come back clear and he is declared to be in perfect medical condition.

Something is fishy here. Clerk #1 has a nice big new car which should not be possible on his salary. Turns out nobody will be turned away from entering Canada for symptoms of Hepatitis C anyway, and my friend puts the pieces together. Clerk #1 can afford his flashy new car because he tells people that they have ailments that in fact they do not have. Then he demands that they pay him ludicrous amounts at short notice in order to “clear” their records. Most people don’t question him because they are so afraid that their immigration will be refused on the basis of the final step, the medical. Besides that they are scared because there is no public knowledge of basic things like how HIV or Hepatitis are transmitted and what their symptoms are. Clerk #1 is taking advantage of this dearth of knowledge in a big way.

After my friend has completed his immigration paperwork he plans to report this problem to the Canadian High Commission. Somebody has to know what’s going on, and this man needs to be brought to justice. But here the system is based on corruption and there is no justice. You can’t trust anyone, as this clerk would even lie to a close acquaintance with about a dozen mutual friends between them. He may see justice if he is persistent enough. This situation reminds me of a parable that Jesus told:

“In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.
For some time he refused. But finally, he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’
And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night. Will he keep putting them off? I tell you he will see that they get justice and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
Luke 18:1-8

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Clean Shaven Man

The Lonely Planet Guidebook (LPG) warns against spending a lot of time in Chilas, a town in the Northern Areas about five hours drive south of Gilgit Town. The authors say that most travellers will drive straight from Islamabad to Gilgit in order to avoid stopping in conservative areas along the way. I took their advice, taking the bus straight direct from Pindi to Gilgit Town with short rest stops along the way. We stopped in Chilas for breakfast shortly after the sun came up, but all I can remember is that I was ushered into one of those special "family rooms" while the men sat outside enjoying a view of mountains and waterfalls.

The family I was staying with in Sultanabad shared with me story about Chilas. Shahid, the head of the family, had spent a few years as a branch manager living there. Shahid himself is Ismaili and is quite concerned with the sway of the fanatics in the Northern Areas. He does not have a beard like the mullahs (religious leaders/zealots) do, but only a neatly trimmed moustache.

One day his nephew was driving down from Gilgit town to visit him in Chilas. For whatever reason, high speed, or landslides lessening the integrity of the road, his nephew's car went off the road which resulted in his death. Some men from Chilas saw the accident and went down to investigate. They saw the broken bleeding body in the car. What did they do? Well, they looked at his face and saw that he did not have a beard. His face was clean shaven. They came to the conclusion that he was not a Muslim and had deserved his fate. They left his body there in the car.

The next day the men in the bank were relating the story to Shahid. They shared proudly how they had judged this man to be a Muslim because he didn't have a beard and so they had left him there. He may have been alive. Shahid had found out about the demise of his nephew by this point. He said to the men, "This was my nephew that you saw." The men didn't know how to respond and they left the bank.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Arms Bazaar

Check out this BBC article about the arms market in Pakistan

Room to roll over is not enough

An Australian friend of mine recently attended a funeral here in Lahore for one of our friend's fathers. Only men are allowed to attend, so I can only retell the event through what he's told me since I am denied to witness it firsthand.

Bodies here are not kept in a morgue, but in the home until the day of burial. You can imagine how this is in the heat that I've been endlessly complaining about. And the flies - machia- everywhere. When they finally go to bury the body, they cannot put it in a coffin. Why not? Because it is believed that the body must sit up in its tomb in order to be judged by God. If the body does not have room to sit up, then the person will be judged and will be denied entry into paradise if that's where he was on his way to. You know in English we have the expression, "to roll over in one's grave," but here apparently a little room to roll over is not enough.

The holes are six feet down, but the wooden boxes for entombing the body are four to five feet high. The bodies must be placed down into these boxes by hand, and my friend witnesses one of the pallbearers as we might call them, getting stuck down in the tomb with the dead body and unable to get back out without further assistance. Once all those who helped put the body in have successfully gotten out and away from the body, the box is closed and a small amount of dirt is put on top. The stench of the bodies is everywhere in the cemetary, and there is no regard for stepping on the tombs of others. Actually, there's not anywhere else to stand, so you spend your whole time trodding over graves of people unbeknowst to you. My friend almost panicked when the funeral procession ran off to respond to the call to prayer and left him "in charge" of watching the body, which had not yet been buried.

With all that said, I'm not terribly upset women aren't allowed to go to funerals, although would like to be a fly on the wall sometime just to observe the goings on in those forbidden cemetaries.

In the Absence of Lawnmowers

The gardner, mali, is a tall slender man with an aged face and a timeless smile. He is darkened and wrinkled from long days in the unrelenting sun, but he his face is shadowed by a bright blue hat with a wide brim all around. I don't know his name, but I know his smile and I always make sure to say a "Salaam Alaikum" as I walk by. If he sees me coming from the distance, I can tell that his smile and his words of greeting are just waiting to come out as soon as I get close enough to hear.

This morning I saw the mali in the hostel yard, crouched near to the ground eastern style and holding a short blade. He was dressed in his usual light brown shalwar kameez. We said our customary greetings and I made my way to my morning class. A few hours later I returned to the hostel, seeing him again in the position but about five feet from where he had been. The third time I walked by him, was about four or five hours from when I had first seen him, and by this time he had proceded to the other side of our small garden. This time as I approached him from behind, I was wondering, what has he been doing out here all this time. He's in the middle of the grass and it doesn't seem like he is pulling up weeds or anything.

He was holding the blade and meticulously cutting the longer blades of grass. The grass behind him was neat and even, while the grass in front was in need of a trim. He was doing the entire yard by hand! I then asked myself, "Have i ever seen a lawnmower here?" and I couldn't remember seeing one. So in the absence of lawnmowers, this is how they get it done.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Five floors of what?

Yesterday I stumbled upon a five floor air conditioned shopping mall. It was full of designer clothes shops, shoes, purses, a giant supermarket, people selling necklaces at little stands in the middle, and not one but TWO Dunkin' Donuts. The place was inundated with crowds of cool young people wearing jeans, shopping, and chatting with their friends. I could walk around without any guys hitting on me or asking for my number. The only thing missing was a full fledged food court with tables to sit down and relax, or benches where you can sit and make a hobby of people watching. As soon as they add benches I'll be there with my a notebook and pen in hand...until then I'll walk the shops aimlessly pretending I'm interested in shoes and designer bags. I can't wait to see what Lahore will be like in five years time...

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Destination: Gilgit Duration: 27 Hours

After spending three weeks of my one month vacation working on my visa and failing to accomplish much, I finally got on a bus and headed for the hills. Or hills wouldn't actually be the correct word here, more like towering giants of 7000m and above!

Getting There and Away: I hopped on a bus, the luxurious Daewoo complete with bus hostess and sandwiches, heading to Rawalpindi. Departure Time: 8am. I arrived in Pindi around 1pm after a noneventful ride, now the adventure begins. I took a taxi to the Pir Wadahi general bus stand to catch the NATCO (Northern Areas Transport Company) bus to Gilgit. I had made a reservation, but there was some problem because there were not many other ladies travelling on the bus. Seating in gender segregated, and for good reason. They tried to give me the VIP seat, which I have renamed as the "xatarna" seat (danger seat). It is the seat next to the bus driver which has no place to put your feet, no safety bar, and while you get a nice view you will also go straight through the windshield (seatbelts are non existant) if the bus stops quickly. Besides that it is right above the stairs and the 40 men on the bus are jumping on and off for the 20 hour ride and all through the night hours. Yeah no thanks.
I got on the bus and it was just like old times, all you Akhawayn folks know what I'm talking about. Preachers and beggars riding the bus til the last minute trying to collect donations, luggage strapped to the roof, broken seats, blaring indian music through bad speakers. Since I insisted on sitting with a lady I ended up with this one young woman Shugufta and her 10 month old baby Mahnoor. I was thinking, well there's no way I would sleep on this bus anyway, so I might as well be social. Shugufta spoke Urdu well so we talked a lot, and whenever the bus stopped I would hang out with her and her grandfather. The weird thing is, when the bus stopped every four or five hours, we would eat at hotels with "special" rooms for women. Ie this area is really conservative and they keep their women in seclusion. The VIP women's rooms were dingy dirty rooms with cement walls and bare metal beds. Interesting. The women also seemed to like being in these rooms. At least they have some privacy. I was thinking why do the men get to sit outside and enjoy the scenery while we are confined to these nasty little rooms. Oh well, when in Rome....

The other thing that made the 20 hour bus ride exciting was that Shugufta was sick. Puking all over the bus sick. This meant I got to feed the baby and hold it while she was vomiting in the aisle. Unlike in Morocco, the other passengers were concerned with the cleanliness of bus and the bus driver would always clean up the mess whenever we stopped. I didnt' sleep a minute due to the constant turning on rocky dirt roads all through the night.

When the sun came up, I was rewarded with a view of the Indus river surrounded by rocky mountains. The Karakoram Highway truly is one of the most beautiful drives in the world, and I agree with the builders when they call it the "8th Wonder." I would never have thought a road could be built in such a way! It was amazing. After a few minutes of admiring the mountains I realized the bus was driving dangerously close the side of the road which was a sheer drop to the raging Indus river below. I started thinking, oh my, what if the bus goes off the road into the river. I looked up. No emergency hammer to break the glass. My imagination started running away with me. I thought, ok if the bus goes down, the bus doors will close and trap us inside. Nobody in Pakistan knows how to swim and they will all panic. There's no hammer to break the glass. If the bus goes in the water I should at least have my passport on me for identification if I survive the accident. I reach down and grab my passport. Check. Passport in my pocket. I could probably break the glass with my leatherman. Should I reach down and hold that too? Or am I being a bit too crazy about all this? No I will leave my knife in my bag. I can grab it quickly if we are going down. Now if I can break the glass I can probably grab the baby and swim to safety. Then I will be left in the middle of the mountains with a baby and no mobile phone reception....ok ok I need to stop.

These bus drivers go on these roads every day. They are used to it. To make a long story short, after several checkpoints for Northern Areas, a flat tire at 2am, and continued blaring on Indian music at random hours, we rolled into Gilgit at time 27 hours.

To be continued.....

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Blog is Back!

After a long hiatus, the blog is back! I haven’t had anywhere to live for the past month so I’ve been between houses, villages, and net cafes with extremely slow connections. Things haven’t been TOO exciting, or well maybe they have been which is why I’ve been so busy. Currently I’m settling into a girls’ hostel in Lahore and running teacher training workshops 2-4 hours a day on weekdays. I spent 10 days in the Northern Areas which was amazing and I’ll be sure to post photos of soon. Actually I’m trying to post them now but the speed is slow and it keeps timing out before uploading one photo, so it might take another week or so until I get a fast connection. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to update you on the past month or so. And make sure to check the other blog as well for some more details...

May 12, 2006
Basically my former employer was supposed to take care of my work visa but failed to do so, and so now my visa is overstayed which means I could be deported and I can't even leave the country on my own will. It is a pretty serious issue, and I have been trying for a month to get my passport back from my employer but by the time they finally gave it back (as I was about to call the police) it was already two weeks over. The police and government officials aren't necessarily helpful here, and many rapes are committed by police so they cannot help you or at least I'm not planning to ask them for any help.

As soon as I got my passport I was advised to go straight to the US Embassy to try to get some help. After an all night bus and four hours of long lines, where I was the ONLY Am Citizen, I received a tiny slip of paper with an address that I already knew and no advice. I went to the Ministry of Interior by myself to apply, and it is this one guy who is there for only 45 min a day and is so full of himself. Anyway, I waited in the office because I was the only lady, gender segregation but good protection for me, and the ministry dude was SO rude to me, telling me why don't you have this paper and that paper and that it's illegal for me to work here. He basically said I have to go back to the US in order to apply, but there is no process in the US to apply for the work permit either. I've been calling government offices and receiving no answer or no help for days. Even information gives you the wrong number. Anyway, so there I was sitting in the hot sun (it's over 110 every day here) just crying outside the ministry (which is this tiny building with Afghan refugees lined up down the block trying to get in). Turns out some believers came to help me and they helped me fill out the form and after three tries they at least said they'd look at it and not arrest me or deport me. So then the believers, one guy who escaped from Ir-n with his family after coming to faith and having a death warrant issued by the government and another guy, took me a church for a bit. Then I finally got in touch with some friends to stay with.

In Lahore, I was staying with a friend whose mother confided in me (in Urdu/Panjabi) that her husband has another wife and he is only with her every other day. She said - translation, "For women life is nothing in Pakistan." It broke my heart and made me want to improve my language skills so I can share a message of hope with these women.

Current Update on Visa (June 14, 2006) : It took one month for a paper to get mailed from Islamabad to Lahore. Today I picked up my paper and tomorrow I need to go to the National Bank, pay the overstay fine of about $20, and return to the passport office where they will extend my tourist visa until July 15th. Then I need to get working on contacting the board of investment to apply for a work visa. Inshallah I can get something in the works before July 15th. Just in case, I’ll be applying for a visa to India in case I need to leave the country and apply for a new visa from outside the country.