It’s been already over three months since my last post and I don’t even know where to start! I also feel very guilty about allowing for this long break to happen despite being fairly regular prior to that, but trust me, there are numerous and very valid reasons for this delay. If I were to put it succinctly, I’d have to say that My Pakistani Dream Team, which obviously consists of myself and B., have been trying very hard to plan our next step, this time as a family. This has involved discussing and pursuing lots of different options (the world is your oyster, after all), which has been very interesting and we’re nearly there; I mean, we have nearly figured it out, so there’s some exciting news coming your way soon. On the other hand, it’s also been exhausting and quite stressful, particularly for a super highly strung me, but then again, I wouldn’t have it any other way – I’m certainly not the one to rest on my laurels!
Anyway, I ended my last text dated 15th February with a promise to talk about Pakistan as a country of contrasts. Since then I have actually made several attempts to write the post, but when out of curiosity I googled the phrase “country of contrast” just to see if Pakistan would be at the top of the list, it turned out that virtually every country could be called this. Go ahead, do a simple search! I personally got Brazil topping the results, followed by the USA (sic!), Malta, Iceland, Brazil again, Pakistan (sixth place is not too bad, I guess), Brazil AGAIN, India (dangerously close to Pakistan…just saying!), China… and this is only page one! Then I started thinking about the countries that I’m close to, i.e. Poland, the Basque Country and the UK and wondered if they could also be referred to as counties of contrast or lands of paradoxes. Poland – certainly! Traditionally an overwhelmingly religious country with Love for Others and Compassion being the centerpiece of Catholicism/Christianity, it’s now more ‘religious’ than ever and more than ever lacks the very Love for Others and Compassion it preaches. The UK – certainly! They pride themselves on their excellent customer service, for instance, a trap that I also got caught in when I first left Poland for GB 10 years ago. At first, I found it astonishing that it was possible to actually be treated according to the rule that “the customer is always right” until I realised that hanging on the phone for 45+ minutes, forced to listen to bad pop and all-too-familiar mantra Please, stay on the line. Your call is very important to us. is certainly not my idea of excellent customer service. The Basque Country is also referred as a country of contrasts, most violently experienced by me personally in terms of the weather, which may change dramatically several times in a single day. You may be enjoying a warm, sunny day when suddenly you get caught in a sand or any other storm for which you are completely unprepared, plus the temperature plummets by 10 degrees in two hours.
Back to Pakistan and its paradoxes. It’s amazing how long it takes for someone to start truly getting to know a place. I’ve been here for just over 8 months already, but feel I have barely started getting to know and/or understand how people think and how the country works. For this reason, I don’t really trust TV programmes which go to a particular country to make a feature about its issues without living there for at least a year to be able to understand the land and its people. Then they pride themselves on being experts in the problems of that particular country. I don’t buy it!
There are things that really amaze me here, there are things that shock me. A lot of the things still take me by surprise. My B. is a constant source of inspiration and a patient teacher, though I might just be the most difficult student ever. Have a look at the list, which may feel as a litany of complaints at times, but it wasn’t really my intention to judge anyone – it’s merely my observation.
- In a country where electricity is scarce and some villages are deprived of it for as long as 16 hours a day (in Islamabad it varies, 1-4 hours a day), it’s super super cheap! I’ve never used so much electricity in my life, but never paid such small bills. I’ve also never received such a clear electricity bill, with the picture of the meter and the reading, accessible online days before it’s actually delivered. The same with gas, but it’s not as astonishing, because we’ve never had a shortage of gas.
- Main roads in Islamabad and national roads are extremely good, very well signposted, often brand new. It’s a real pleasure to drive on them. However, local roads, like those in my neighbourhood are in a sorry state and to call them potholes would be an understatement.
- Islamabad is a fairly clean city, particularly the city centre. There is a fair number of signs and posters reminding people to keep clean, also in the mountains. Unfortunately, it’s evident that lots of effort needs to be made in order to educate people about littering, because as soon as you leave the city centre, it’s no longer so great. I’m not sure if there exists an organised rubbish collection system, but that’s not really the only issue. A lot of ordinary people don’t hesitate to drop litter, also in the mountains, which is the most shocking thing, because the nature here is really superb!
- It appears to me that a lot of Islamabadis are, on the whole, fairly well-off. There are a lot of really massive houses (people also rent ‘portions’ of their houses, which have been turned into independent flats, like the one we live in), a great number of good cars (predominantly white coloured cars which the streets are peppered with; apparently, they are much more expensive than other colours) and an abundance of very expensive (by the look of it) weddings parties (we live in a neighbourhood of wedding halls). At the same time, virtually every time you stop at traffic lights, there are people, who come up to cars begging for money (but also people selling various things, such as pens, flowers, etc.), including often very young children who roam the roads fearlessly manoeuvering between cars, also, or particularly, on busy roads. This is truly heart-breaking and I don’t ever know how to cope with the guilt and helplessness when I see this. The worst thing is that I have personally witnessed a situation in which these children were dropped off at a place by a van driven obviously by adults, then scattered around the area and started begging as soon as they were let out.
- I’ve written about this before, but I still kind of can’t get over the fact that public display of affection between a husband and a wife is frowned upon, but it’s perfectly normal for male friends to be walking hand in hand without anyone batting an eyelid. Not that it offends me personally, but I do think a married couple should be allowed to at least hold hands!
- Contrary to a very popular belief, women are not covered from head to toe here. Women’s outfits must be the most diverse I’ve ever seen, actually. Yes, there are women wearing black gowns, which cover their whole body, head and face (apart from the eyes), but they are definitely in minority. There are very very few women who wear burqas covering their whole bodies, including the face, with a little net-like ‘window’ for the eyes. In fact, I have only seen this once and not in Islamabad. Most women wear traditional kurtas with a matching dupatta, a long scarf, which they might use to cover their heads, but not necessarily; more often it’s wrapped around the shoulders. A lot of the women wear European clothes with their head (not face) covered completely or uncovered. It really varies from woman to woman and it seems to me that there is far better choice for women in terms of clothes here than anywhere I’ve lived, to be honest, because in Europe most women follow certain trends and look the same as a result.
- For such a conservative country, it’s extraordinary that for instance the morning after pill is extremely cheap here and available over the counter without a presciption. This is particularly interesting in view of the fact that in Poland it’s not so easy to get hold of it anymore, i.e. as fas as I know it’s only available on prescription now and very expensive.
- Also, just over three months ago in Poland a new law was introduced according to which all sim cards, whether pay-as-you-go or with traditional contracts, have to be registered. This could potentially help to tract stalkers and help to solve domestic disputes, for instance, and a lot of various experts approved of this idea calling it progress and catching up with the European Union. I found it amusing to listen to this, because it’s been several years now since this law was introduced in Pakiskan and not only that – in Poland you still don’t need to show your ID when you register a sim card, but here not only do you have to prove your identiy, but also provide your thumb impression. It’s turned out helpful to me personally. On a couple of occassions I’ve received messages from random men asking to chat with me (some people just send a message to a made-up phone number and hope to get lucky). B. called them straightaway and threatened to report if they didn’t stop bothering me, which they did immediately.
- Drinking alcohol is banned in Islam, which obviously means that it’s not widely available and/or consumed. Apparenlty, it’s not forbidden to produce it, but I haven’t come across anyone who would be drinking. When they meet up, boys will simply have their national drink…the tea! We’ve never had alcohol at home either. I personally think it’s great because alcoholism is a serious problem in many Polish families, for instance, and both in the UK and the Basque Country a lot of young people get drunk on a regular basis. However, people here smoke more weed than I’ve seen it happen in Poland or the UK, for that matter , but perhaps no more than in the Basque Country, where you can often smell it in the streets, like here in the mountains or parks (see the featured image, one of the most favourite signs I’ve seen in my life).
The list is by no means exhaustive; it’s work in progress, I guess. I also realise it’d be nice to document some of these points with pictures, but I must admit that I have a problem taking pictures of random people without their consent. I fear that they might think I’m treating them like exhibits and use to satisfy my curiosity, which in my mind equals lack of respect.
There is still so much to write about. I will perhaps write a text about how Islamabad is represented on silver screen, i.e. in films/series, and definitely how I’m coping with my very first Ramadan, which starts in about 4 days!