I'm back!!!

After a brief hiatus, I realize my mind races if I don't write my thoughts down. Its called my "Mind Dump". And you all know that if you don't empty out time to time, things can get really backed up. So I promise a weekly excerpt, even if it doesn't make sense. But does anything in life make sense when push comes to shove?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Pakistan - Day 15: Cinderella's Ball

Ok, to be selfish, I needed a party to liven up my spirits. Do you blame me? The shopping therapy helped but it was not done during the best of times. So, I needed a party to calm my nerves. I was born to pessimistic parents but I had taught myself to look at life in a positive way, no matter the circumstances, no matter what God threw my way. And let me tell you, He was watching over me the whole time. And the party was no exception.

We woke up on the Akikah day around 11am. The eletricity had just come back on so we ate breakfast in relative luxury but knew we had to wait at least until 5pm to get ready for the party because the 2-4pm loadshedding would render us sweaty all over again.

Our aunt had brought over her 17 year old servant to wash and iron all our clothes. I had a hard time getting used to the fact that a girl, who was about the same age as my eldest, had to wash and iron clothes for 15 people in the house. It broke my heart to watch her get up early in the morning, prepare breakfast with the cook, and then commence to wash, starch and iron our clothes BY HAND everyday. Again, my girls pulled me into the bedroom, closed the door and advocated for her release. "But Mom, she is only a little girl. Why is she doing this all our work?" I looked at them incredulously and asked flat out whether they would do it themselves? Of course not! The machine washed their clothes and mommmy dearest ironed their clothing back home. I explained to them that she was paid for her services and this was her way to earn a living for herself and her family.

Needless to say, I gave her more than her share and so did my motherinlaw. I would slip her money here and there and she would shake her head and refuse my offerings. This got to me even more. And what was worse was the fact that she would sleep in the same bedroom with my aunt and motherinlaw but on the carpeted floor. I walked in one day and gave my two cents to them both. My aunt explained that the hired help did not sleep on the beds (and there was no room for her to sleep on the bed anyways). My eldest daughter stood in the doorway listening, extremely quiet. We exchanged looks briefly and I knew what she was thinking. When I came out, I took her hand and gently said, "Ruby (the servant) would change places with you in a second. Never forget what you have today or take it for granted." She looked at me knowingly, unable to utter a single word.

Ruby ironed all our clothes for the party. I took out an outfit that belonged to one of the twins, who had only worn it once. I gave it to Ruby and asked her to wear it that night to the party. Her eyes welled up with tears and she thanked me profusely. I went back to my closet and dug out a relatively new pair of gold sandals and asked her to try them on. They fit perfectly and I announced that Cinderella was going to the ball tonite. Of course, she had no clue what I was talking about but my girls hugged her and she laughed anyways.

The hall where the party was being held was 10 minutes from the house. I refused to pile over five people in the car, given the fact that we were all dressed to the nines wearing spiky jewellery. I suggested we take three trips to transport the family. The girls were dressed in their favorite outfits and we had hired a hairdresser to come to the house and get the youngsters ready. It was really like we were going to the ball. Now I don't know about you but going to the ball with gunmen posted outside the doors was not my cup of Pakistani tea!

Squeeze me? We arrived at the hall and two gunmen opened the doors of the car and shuffled us into the hall. The girls eyeballs nearly popped out of their sockets as they looked over their shoulders at me. Did I mention that Cinderella could be a target if she attended the ball? Yes, since we were going to an expensive lavish hall that required a lot of rupees to rent, gunmen were hired to protect us in case we were robbed. LOVELY! Could the party get any stranger? I was hoping to have a nice evening out, protected by my gunmen with no disruptions. Was I asking for too much?

The time given for the party was 7pm. Add two hours and we were hunkering down for dinner at 9pm. Because of a new curfew in effect, Lahore halls were forced to shut down by 10pm. I asked why and was told in case there was a bomb threat or robbery. I smiled and almost choked on my samosa. The girls piled their plates with kabobs and scarfed down their food as they had not eaten since 4pm. The budding vet twin walked over to comment on the food. "Mom, are these kabobs chicken? They are amazing. I think I ate around four of them!" she exclaimed as the juice dripped off her chin and onto her outfit. I rolled my eyes and looked at my aunt. She walked over and nudged me, quite indiscreetly. "I don't know how to tell you this but the kabobs are not chicken." She walked away with a swagger and a huge grin on her face.

I sat down and it took a few minutes to register. I was more entranced with the three girls who showed up, dressed all in black, with thick, long black hair and overdone makeup. Then it dawned on me. The kabobs were not chicken, the kabobs were not chicken.... HOLY BUCKAA AND BUCKOO. I looked over at all the girls. They had finished dinner and were also staring at the three new arrivals. I racked my brain on how I was going to explain this to them but the scene unfolding before me didn't allow me to concoct a new story. It would have to be left for another day. But here is a pic for old times sake!

The music started and one of the girls in black got up and started to seductively dance. I looked over at my husband who was standing with his cousins. He, along with some of the older men, averted their gazes while the younger generation of boys and girls were laughing. It was until I took a closer look, I realized why this picture did not look right!

Pakistan - Day 14: Buckaa and Buckoo go to goat heaven

I awoke the next morning to loud braying. I took two pillows and covered my ears. And then instinctly, I got up and covered the ears of one twin with another pillow. I didn't want her drama in the morning but she was out like a light. No clue where the other two were. I sat on the edge of the bed and listened to the goats. Curiosity got the better of me. I opened the balcony doors and stepped out. As I looked down, I could see the side of the carpark. The local butcher, with a machete around his back and a belt full of carving knives, was leading each goat to the side. I looked over to the right and saw a scattering of small black pellets all over the front of the carpark. Great. The goats were literally sh*tt*ng themselves. I turned back and looked down. The butcher was looking straight up at me. I realized then that I did not have my head covered nor was I properly attired to be in public! I quickly took two steps back and hid behind the curtain.

The execution was about to take place. I grabbed a chador(large shawl) and with grotesque excitement, was ready to watch my first sacrifice. No one stirred inside the bedroom. I threw the chador over my head and around my body and bravely stepped out on the balcony again. Neighborhood cats were standing near the gate to the carpark. I imagined in animal world that the word was put out that Buckaa and Buckoo were about to meet their Maker. The butcher tied them both to a post and carefully took his machete out of its case. He looked up again. Great, he knew he had an audience. I wondered if he would put on a show like the neighbour did when my daughter was videotaping. Instinctively I stepped back again and then came back like it was some peep show. Now I will be the first to admit that I did not have the stomach to watch but somehow I was intrigued to see the Islamically humane practice of sacrifice. With the words of God invoked, the butcher took his knife and sliced into the jugular vein of, hmm...not sure if it was Buckaa or Buckoo. This practice allows the least amount of pain to the animal and immediately cuts off the supply of blood to the vital organs. The goat was incredibly quiet before and after the knife went in. I, on the other hand, let out a huge gasp. The butcher looked up, smiled and asked if he did a good job. I pulled the chador around my mouth and nose and quickly stepped back into the bedroom without replying. Ok, I realized I could not watch the whole thing.

I washed up and went downstairs. As I passed a window on the staircase, I saw the emptied carcass of one goat, with the head balancing precariously near the wall. I was about to puke. As I rounded the kitchen, the cook asked me if I wanted liver for breakfast!

Squeeze me?? I exclaimed to her, "Did you see what is going on outside?!" She smiled and replied, "Yes, and the goat's liver is for breakfast." She laughed and then went back into the kitchen. Again, and I don't know why, I returned back to the window and saw remnants of limbs, meat, and intestines spewn across a sheet on the carpark. Thank God the girls were still sleeping. But it was only an hour later when I heard my budding veternarian crying upstairs. She had seen the blood flowing down the carpark and realized then that the deed had been done.

Again, as the master storyteller, I lied and told them that all the meat was going to the poor. All the cousins had gathered around me in the foyer between the bedrooms. They looked like an angry mob. I ignored them and turned to my daughter asking her how could she be a vet if she couldn't see the sight of blood?

Little did they know that they would encounter Buckaa and Buckoo tomorrow, but in a completely different form...

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Pakistan - Day 13: Bucka and Buckoo know better

Buckaa and Buckoo were the names of the two goats the children came up with. The younger ones had no clue why they were here. The older ones knew better. They were tied up to the poles in the carpark, braying like there was no tomorrow. And ironically, there was not going to be a tomorrow. We took turns taking pictures with them and they looked wildly into the camera, their eyes glowing in the dark.

My girls came up to me later that night to ask the inevitable question: were the goats to be sacrified? I looked at the girls and kept quiet. The twin, whose aspiration was to become a vet, looked at me angrily. "Buckaa and Buckoo deserve better!" She stomped upstairs with her younger UK cousin copying her body language. They were not happy campers. My eldest daughter laughed and asked about the menu for the akikah. A la carte Buckaroos? Even I wasn't laughing. Our meat came packaged and cello wrapped in Canada. Meeting the livestock beforehand was not part of our protocol. I went to the front door to do my last video of the goats. They looked at me with fear in their eyes. "I know," I said out loud. "Who are you talking to?" my aunt asked. "To Buckaa and Buckoo", I sighed.

I acknowledged their names. Not good...

Pakistan - Day 12

After a day of shopping, we rested and sat around at home. The girls had gotten closer to their UK cousins and I knew at least they were being entertained.

Today we had to arrange the party. My mother in law had completed her pilgramage to Mecca back in Nov 09 and we wanted to celebrate this with both sides of the family. To organize such an event needed only two days notice in Pakistan.

Squeeze me? Yes, you heard right. Two days! We netted out that there would be 61 guests from both my husband's mother and father's side. We just needed to check out a few restaurants to do the party. Hubby went with his uncle and cousins to scour Lahore for the best location. They left at 2pm and I waited. And waited. Around 6pm, my imagination went wild concocting stories of their lateness. I stopped watching television because it was so depressing. The floods were still rampant and I had just heard that a domestic flight from Karachi to Islamabad had crashed because of inclement weather. All 160 people had died. They showed footage of the carnage which I conveniently switched off when the girls came downstairs to eat mangoes.

Oh, btw, one of the upsides of our trip was the food. It was the season for mangoes and I averaged 2 a day. They were amazing. We tried to eat mostly at home as I would not be able to ascertain the handling of food from bazaars off the street. Bottled water was delivered daily and then boiled before being placed in a large cooler for us to drink. And with the loadshedding, we were drinking more than eight glasses a day.

But I digress. The gang came back at 7pm with the announcement that in four days, the party would be held at a restaurant named Salt and Pepper, The Village situated five minutes from Gulberg main market. My head was spinning with minor details, like how everyone would show up given four days short notice. But it was a week day and if you invited people to eat dinner on you, trust me, they would come in droves! The Village was buffet style with an assortment of Pakistani, Chinese and Western cuisine. But again I digress. The first party to take place was to celebrate for our UK cousin's son. When a son or daughter is born, it is Islamic tradition to sacrifice a goat and serve half to your dinner guests and the rest as meals for charity. We call this party an "Akikah". For a boy, two goats are sacrificed. Enter Buckoo and Buckaa, the two goats who turned up at the doorstep when the gang returned. The akikah was to happen in two days.

The braying said it all...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pakistan - Day 10

We returned to Gulberg main market on Monday. The girls were rejuvenated and realized that the whole country was not like the congestion they felt at our "headquarters".

My older daughter was even willing to go with me and her cousins to the main market shopping area, ironically named Liberty. It was time to go clothes shopping. I had arranged months before our arrival to have our summer clothes stitched and ready for our arrival in July. My girls and I had no cotton outfits to wear in the heat. So, 80% of the shoppping was complete. But I knew I would have to venture out myself to buy the gifts and rest of the items I needed. We all packed into the Corolla - this time nine people. We were all sweaty and mashed up but tell eight women that they were going shopping and NOTHING would put a damper on our plans.

I was amazed at all the shops. Most of them in Liberty were high end. Our aunt and cousins knew exactly what we needed and where to navigate. They had a radar for these things. Screw GPS. I was shown so much variety that it left my head spinning. Again, the prices were phenomenal. Each trip to the market left my wallet screaming for a refill. I never carried a purse and strategically hid my wallet under a shawl near my chest. I also carried a pouch within my waistband.

Squeeze me? Yes. I dubbed it my "Plan B pouch". Before I left for the market, my husband caught me pinning the pouch, full of cash, inside my pants.
"I don't want to know" he exclaimed as he headed to the washroom to take his fourth shower of the day. I didn't care. I had to have a backup plan. If my wallet was stolen, at least the bulk of my assets were close to my other assets ;)

We completed the bulk of our shopping in two hours. It was like clock work. I would tell my aunt what I needed, she would direct me into the shop, I would select my items and she would do the bargaining. I could never imagine that she could save me more money with things already so cheap but she executed on this great service for me like it was second nature. By the time eight women returned from shopping, we had 20 bags amongst us. We had to make separate trips to the car to pack them in the trunk so not to direct any attention. Too many bags meant too much money. And despite our many tactics, I was still wary, looking over my shoulder and watching my surroundings for anything suspicious. But with so many people and cars in the street, you would never know what to look for anyways.

When we came home, I packed all my shopping in the suitcases. When we first arrived, I was instructed to empty out our suitcases and hang the clothes in the closet. For some reason, I could not bring myself to do this. Instead, we lived out of the suitcases. There were four of them lined up around the wall. Our UK cousins would walk in and ask why I hadn't put them away. I would make some lame excuse. But deep down inside, it was in case I needed to make a quick getaway. And to leave the suitcases open, kept my sanity in check...

Pakistan - Day 8

Everyone knows in Canada, or at least the Pakistani-Canadians, that one advantage of travelling to Pakistan is the shopping. Our cousin, promised me Saturday night that he would wake up early to take me shopping. My husband had no urge to leave the house nor spend money. Typical. But I had saved up for this moment. A part of me was nervous because no matter how safe someone told me a location was, I would not believe it. I was told to come visit Pakistan because everything was safe! I realized after my arrival, it was only a ruse to get us to come. After 17 years, I knew my relatives would be sorely disappointed if I elected not to come if they told me the truth. It was selfish on their part but selfish for me too. We all had inner motives to see one another but at the end of the day, the experience, good or bad, would be etched in our memory forever.

I woke up, showered, ate breakfast and waited for our cousin in the family room at 10am. He said he would be ready by then to drive me into town. 10am came and went. 11am came and went. I looked from the television to the clock. It was now 1pm. Now in Pakistan, when someone gives you a time, don't take their word for it. Just add about three hours to get the RIGHT time. The same goes for Pakistanis living in Canada. If you tell them to come at 6pm, they will ring your doorbell at 8pm. Some things never change.

He awoke and we were out the door by 2:30pm. I took all three girls because our first item on the agenda was shoe shopping. As we walked into the BATA shoe store, the place was nearly empty. He explained that many did not shop in the middle of the day when the heat was at its worst. Good. I had the shop to myself. Two hours and fifteen pairs of shoes later, we walked out and hit a jewellery store. The girls selected artificial earrings, bracelets and necklaces. Each time they selected something of their choice, they looked at me. I would nod and they would smile sheepishly. With items costing less than $5 (that would normally cost $50 in Canada) I did not attempt to deter their shopping. I still felt guilty. The vacation I promised to them was more than they could handle. It started out as a trip for them to rediscover their roots, their culture, relatives and heritage. Instead, it was a trip that opened up their eyes to things that they never imagined and brought fear into their hearts.

But here we were, in the thick of things and we had to grin and bear it for two more weeks. I needed the girls to debrief and have some fun. Every trip we made shopping (and there were only a few) I took from the country but gave back. I would normally spend an equivalent of $50 giving money to the poor despite our cousin's protests. At one point, I wondered if he rather me give him the money. $50 amounted to 5000 rupees -- consider that like $5000 to the natives.

So the excel spreadsheet the hubby created for me before we left for Pakistan, mysteriously went missing. Budget? Squeeze me? What budget?

If I was going to get out of this country alive, I better pump some money into their lagging economy and damn well look good leaving!

Pakistan - Day 7 Evening in NFC

The minute we entered the Wapta town district that housed the new development of NFC, I could see why our uncle had moved his family there. Even the girls had shifted in the back seats of the Corolla to press their noses against the window.

The area was less congested and more 'north american' looking. As soon as we entered the neighborhood, we encountered cleaner streets, less traffic, more greenery and something, I hate to point out, civilization. I immediately sensed a change in the girls demeanor. I could have sworn I heard one twin turn to the other and say, "Finally..."

The house was beautiful. And modern. And clean. And something that made the girls more homesick - but in a good way. As we drove into the carpark, the girls practically lept out of the car. It was like entering a safe haven apart from the crime, dirt, pollution, congestion and corruption of the outer world that existed outside of Wapta town. Our uncle informed us that it was safer here to walk outside the neighborhood and that loadshedding only happened once a day for half an hour. I turned to my husband and gave him the "I will stay here for the rest of my trip" look. He nodded back in agreement.

We all sat down in their luxurious living room. It was about 8pm by that time and his dutiful children brought tray after tray of samosas, cake, chicken patties and an assortment of pastries. I looked over at the girls who were smiling from ear to ear. Jackpot. It was the first time I saw peace in their eyes. To make them feel even more at home, our uncle decided to get pizza delivered to the house for dinner. For me, it was just like we were back home. And that night, in the spacious master bedroom in full air conditioning, with the electricity ON the entire night and full day on Sunday, I slept an entire night.

Now I know what you are thinking. I just came from a car ride, viewing the poverty in the country to a upper middle class neighborhood with all the enemities. But knowing what we were used to back in Canada only heightened our sense of what we took for granted on a day to day basis. The lesson was being learned very quickly by all of us. But like all women, I needed some retail therapy after a stressful week in the main market.

Sunday was the day the stores would not forget my face!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Pakistan - Cont'd Day 7: Sights You Never Forget

To travel to NFC, seven of us piled into a five seater Toyota Corolla. One twin on hubby's lap and the other on mine. As we passed people on the streets, we saw the strangest sights. Our back windows were equipped with mesh so we could look out but outsiders could not look in. It was a good thing because the look on our children's faces would single us out.

Sights You Never Forget

-Monkeys being pulled on a leash, wearing sunglasses and a skirt, doing tricks so their owner could make money

-Women with malnourished babies crying and banging on our car window

-A family of eight piled on a motorbike with a five month old on the handlebars winding throughout traffic

-Transvestites begging for money with their makeup running down their faces in the heat of the day

-Men walking down the street, holding each other by their pinky finger

...these were just a few examples that caused awe and mixed emotions within the girls.

At one point, they would shut down and remain speechless. The environment was overwhelming. But despite the shock factor, we had the urge to give money whenever we deemed it necessary. We learned to pull down the window only a crack to pass small bills to the needy. The caveat was that if you opened your entire window or door, you risked having your purse stolen or robbed at gunpoint. All our relatives advised us not to give anything because street begging was an organized business.

Squeeze me? Yes, rich business men would cripple the poor and send them to the streets to make money and take a portion for their profits. We saw many maimed people from old men, to small children. Knowing that if we gave to one they would all come in hoards did not stop us. I could not drive past them, especially the women with small children. A part of me refused to believe the story and I went with my gut and good intentions. We asked about charitable organizations and did see some lineups outside reputable businesses where the owners would give out meals to the poor. Our 10 suitcases were filled with old clothing and shoes on our arrival and we consulted relatives where to donate it all. One revelation that perturbed me the most was that the majority of the aid sent to Pakistan during the earthquake was never received. The tents and warm clothing were diverted and sold on the black market.

It was no wonder that the rich became richer during that time period. Figures. Corruption had always been at the core of all levels of government since I had visited in the late 80s. My relatives complained about it then and even more now. We passed by Modeltown, a suburb where many of the govt ministers and officials owned property. And damn, was their property a sight to see. Thousands of square feet, lush gardens, high walls and luxury cars in the car park, all guarded by the local police and gunmen. It burned my blood driving by the deputy, minister and government official estates. And only across the street, would we see the dichotomy in the country. Slums, mudhuts and children by the side of the road, begging for money, food or clothing. I swallowed back tears and sat back in my seat, feeling helpless and guilty. Here I complained daily about the heat and loadshedding while these poor, small children braved the daily heat, with no clothes on their backs, let alone food in their belly. I looked at the girls. Their glum faces said it all.

I tried to divert my attention. What would this new development NFC be like? Where were we going to? Another posh city with poverty at the fringes? Again, safety was my priority and I just wanted to make sure we got there in one piece....

Pakistan - Day 7

Weekends are meant to go out at your leisure. It is meant to take in the activities of the week and recuperate or complete unfinished tasks during the week. Not in Pakistan. It was just another day of the week, promising more events than one person could handle.

The electricity went out Saturday morning at 6am. I noticed this because the air conditioning switched off and I was only being cooled by the ceiling fan. After two hours of sleep, my eyes flew open to check the time.

Squeeze me? Why the hell was the electricity off? This was not the normal timing. I got up and looked around. One child was in the middle of the king size bed snoring. The other was on the ground on a mattress curled up in a fetal position. Hubby was at one end of tbe bed. One daughter was missing. Perhaps sleeping with her cousins in another room. I stepped over everyone and went downstairs.

No one was awake and I sat in the sitting room alone. I listened to the rooster's call, the distance noise of a bell and cars driving through the street. After an hour of contemplation,I walked back upstairs, hot and bothered. I couldn't sleep, had no appetite and the loadshedding was a royal pain in the a**. So I pulled out a book and read. By 11am, everyone started to awake. The electricity was still out. It had been more than five hours. At meal time, the elders in the house made an executive decision. Half of them were going to a nearby aunt's house around the corner and we were going to hubby's uncle's house half an hour away. Apparently he lived in a new development in Lahore called NFC where the traffic and congestion was considerably less. The family raved that he bought a brand new house in a relatively posh area. I needed to move. In lightning speed, I was already packing for the overnight stay the minute the plans were made.

The girls were another story. They did not want to be separated from their cousins. I told them to consider this move as part of an adventure. All of them stopped what they were doing and gave me side-long glances. Ok, I tried to embellish each moment but could you blame me knowing what I knew? I became the master storyteller in order to shield them from the reality of our situation. In my morning contemplation, I realized I had to put on the brave face and lead the family. Of course, our safety was my number one priority so I wary of that.

One thing I never overlooked - at all times, was that one parent had to be with the three girls. I never allowed them to go out without one of us. This golden rule was challenged at many points and my insistence was deemed as being too particular. But I didn't care. It was my way or the highway and everyone knew not to mess with that.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Pakistan - Day 5

I awoke Friday morning to the sound of rain. It had rained consistently for four days since our arrival. Our relatives joked that we brought the rain from Canada as a gift to them. With the rains came a period of cooling to the heat wave that preceded our visit. But the next day after a rain brought humidity and problem hair. No hair product or styling tool could tame any of our locks. My girls have very thick hair and I would hear daily complaints about how the country was ruining their hair. Forget the immense poverty and lack of life's basic necessities. I remember sitting them down at least once a day to remind them where they were and what they had at home. It didn't take much to change their way of thinking!

At 2pm, dutifully, the electricity went out for two hours. I imagined a small brown man sitting behind a large lever in the electrical station just counting down the minutes before shutting down the city's only energy source. And when the electricity was turned off, everyone's mood shifted. People went to take naps, cry about no tv, or just sit motionless with their eyes rolling to the backs of their head.

I walked upstairs and lay down in my bed. There was an adjoining balcony to our bedroom. My husband and the younger twin elected to open the door and stand on the balcony. At this point it was raining hard but the balcony had a canopy situated above. My daughter had her camera and began videotaping. Father and daughter were talking about the rain when I then heard the hubby speaking Urdu and a strange voice respond.

"Who are you talking to?" I shouted from inside. My husband said that the neighbor was outside in the street enjoying the rain.

I sat upright in the bed. "Don't talk to anyone. They do not need to know why you are outside."

My daughter explained that she was videotaping the rain and the neighbor. I closed my eyes and clenched my jaw. "Do not videotape or talk to anyone!"

The next thing I knew, I heard a gunshot. I jumped ten feet off the bed. Not a second later, my husband, with daughter in tow, leapt back into the bedroom, frantically shutting the door, pulling the drapes and flying onto the bed. I stood with my jaw hanging.

"Did the neighbor just shoot a gun?" I asked with trepidation. My husband nodded with fear in his eyes while my daughter offered an explanation."I think he was trying to shoot a bird in the other direction."

I swallowed my heart back down my throat and wondered out loud why they were talking to him in the first place. Before they could answer, we heard the second gunshot. I lay down and pulled the covers over my head, cursing and yelling at everyone to keep quiet and go to sleep.

Squeeze me? Who could sleep knowing a crazed neighbour dancing in the rain was shooting at random birds? Was this to show off for the sake of providing footage for my daughter's video!?

I walked downstairs after the electricity came on, cool as a cucumber. The aunt and uncle asked me if I heard the gunshots and I replied yes and that we were the instigators. Puzzled, they probed further and I recounted the entire story from beginning to end as they stared back without blinking. That night, our Dubai cousin walked over to the neighbour's house and politely asked him to refrain from shooting his gun as the incident upset his visiting family. VERY REASSURING. Now the neighbours knew we were visitors. Lovely.

Later that day, the girls visited the chickens living upstairs in the servant's quarters. They came down, excited to tell me their experience about handling livestock. The term, sitting duck, came back to me just then and I wished to start moving, in a car, outside. Don't ask me why.

But I think I had to confront my fears, HEAD ON, in order to move forward.

And that is just what I did.

Pakistan - Day 4

I remember standing at the top of the stairs and feeling dizzy. Coupled with the heat and jetlag, I knew I wasn't fully functioning. My mind would race each night while my body would slump into bed. I was already exhausted mapping out who to visit, when to visit and what to give them. I had written it all down. Hell, we even had a budget on our handy printed excel sheet, but I was more interested in executing then planning.

I would lay awake each night with the ceiling fan whirling above me. The girls would go to the other room where their female cousins romped around until the wee hours of the morning. They were told that they would sleep during the day (due to heat and loadshedding) and remain awake all night. At first, they were all quiet around each other. Our cousin's 13 year old was not happy to be in Pakistan. She wore a scowl everytime I saw her and I would just smile in return but I soon became her trusted advisor. Our commonality? Shopping. That was the only thing that brought a smile to her face.

She didn't like the country, the heat, the boys staring and whistling at her and she didn't back down. Instead, she defiantly stared at everyone despite advice not to garner any attention. My girls, on the other hand, were instructed not to speak English outdoors, return anyone's stares and look down. And they listened - so much so that I had to remind them to 'act human' outside! The least attention we drove to ourselves the better because after hearing disturbing news, I realized we were sitting ducks.

I noticed everytime I entered the room, a hush would follow. The elder relatives would suddenly stop talking and smile at me. Although I was tired, I was sure something was being concealed. The children left to go upstairs and then I saw them move in for the kill. They seated me down and the hubby's aunt turned to me to say, "Just wanted to let you know that one week before your arrival, your uncle was shot in Defense (a secure suburb in Lahore, noted for posh inhabitants and military surveillance) while working outside in his home. They do not know who shot him but he is in the hospital now. He was not doing too well in the beginning but he is expected to survive and travel with his sons to Dubai to remove the bullet from his pelvis."

My worst fear was confirmed. The so-called Pakistani street violence I had heard about in Canada was now a reality. And even worse, a family member.

That night, my hubby and his mom went to visit the injured uncle in the hospital. I walked upstairs in a zombie state and lay down in the bed. I could hear the girls giggling in the other room. Great, just when they were starting to adjust. There was no way I could tell them about this shooting. They were already scared as it was. I bit my lip and started the justification again. I am here to visit my relatives, not to sightsee or go visit irrelevant places. I have a job to do and three weeks to do it in. My mind was racing. Again, three nights and no sleep. My biological clock refused to swtich from Canadian to Pakistan time. Nine hours difference.

Squeeze me? It more like night and day difference from the life that I knew to the life I had now entered.

And it was then when it dawned on me that we were two large foreign families living under the same roof. If word got out on the street that we were from abroad, there was no telling what would or could happen. Home invasions were rampant and we already had one family flee the country to Canada due to a gunpoint robbery.

I looked out the window at the unfamiliar sky and prayed uncertainly to a certain higher power. And I am telling you, from that night, He was with me until I returned back to Canada...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Pakistan - Day 3

Loadshedding. I had no clue what that word meant prior to my trip but it became a phrase that was a source of anger for the natives and visitors alike.

Squeeze me?

Loadshedding: when the electricity shuts down to conserve energy in the city

Does not help to be behind a main market - the worst consumers of electricity. Hence, ours went out three times a day, two hours at a time. That also meant that the water stopped because the motor carrying water to the bathrooms was run by electricity. So we bathed in our own sweat most of the day. Our cousins were very generous so they implemented three back up generators to compensate for the loadshedding. But this only turned on ceiling fans and back up lights. I would sit immbolized under a ceiling fan, cooled only by the beads of sweat on my forehead. And the humidity did not help - I swore I had African hair the whole trip. Even my relatives were asking if I had permed my hair prior to coming.

I warned the girls that many backhanded compliments would fly their way and they needed to ignore them. They discovered the meaning of blunt: I was told that I was too dark and my daughter had gained too much weight. I said that tans were the latest fad in Canada and my daughter only smiled and shifted unconsciously in her chair while throwing me 'that' look. The twins were crying that there was no internet and that their iPod charger adapter fell out of the socket. So much for that!

Day 3 and we were stuck to the chairs with blood, sweat and tears.

No wait! The blood story comes Day 4.

Pakistan - Day 2

We came home to a house full of people at 5am in the morning. 12 cars and 50 relatives met us at the airport like it was some party. It was nice to sit in the air conditioned Range Rover with my husband's cousin who now claims his residence is in Dubai. I was too tired to ask why he was wearing sunglasses in the night. But I am sure it was all part of the outfit - designer clothes, nice car and pakistani pop tunes playing in the background. The hubby was escorted into another waiting car so we were separated, much to the dismay of the girls who were wondering if they would ever see their father again. They were extremely quiet in the backseat, taking in all the sights as we drove past military checkpoints, slums, commercial buildings and crammed neighborhoods. I tried joking with them to settle their uncertainty but only my uber-cool cousin laughed at my lame jokes and then proceeded to crank the tunes.

We reached our UK cousin's house in a suburb called Gulberg and when we entered, the table was full of food and more relatives came to receive us. I just wanted to throw myself on a bed but they insisted we sit down and eat. Five kids followed me into the bathroom where I went to wash my hands. I realized then that I would have an entourage everywhere I went. The girls were hot and bothered and didn't refrain from showing their pouty faces. I could understand - the last thing we all wanted was to be smothered by food, affection and people.

The house we stayed in was a summer vacation home owned by our UK cousins. They came every summer to relax. So there were eight of them, grandparents, parents and kids and our whole family along with my motherinlaw. We were situated behind a main market and commercial area. The house was beautiful and big. More than enough room for all of us and these relatives were well known since we stayed with them in the UK back in 2004 so we were very happy in their company. And I didn't think anything of it until Day 3.

That's when I realized we were just a bunch of sitting ducks.

Pakistan - Day 1 on July 19th

After travelling a combined 22 hours: 14 hours to Abu Dhabi, a three hour stop over there and another 4 hours to Lahore, I was about to kill someone when we arrived early Monday morning on July 19th.

It was 3am when Eithad airways touched down in Lahore. The airport looked different after 17 years. Last time, I literally walked off the plane and onto the tarmac with gunmen posted at all four points of the plane. This time I walked off the plane, through the gate and into a mass of gunmen protecting every point towards customs. We were told to look for the sign with my husband's name on it. Luckily I had learned to read and write Urdu as a child because there was no way he could read the sign even if it hit him in the face!

Yes, we had VIP connection - or so I thought. My impression of the 'protocol' service was that we would bypass customs and get our luggage at the exit door to the airport. Protocol service got us to the front of the custom line with an officer rolling his eyes and demanding I fill out everyone's form. Then we all had to eyeball some camera and then move forward to the luggage carousel to collect all 10 suitcases.

My husband's cousins were there to greet us and helped collect the luggage. I took the younger twin to the washroom and met a poor cleaning woman in the less-than-clean looking bathroom. My daughter was eyeing the woman, dressed in rags but smiling a toothless smile. She was extremely sweet by asking us if we wanted the raised toilet or the potty on the ground. I waited for my daughter while the woman gave me her blessings and told me how lovely we both were. I dug into my pocket and remembered I had no rupees. I pulled out an American dollar bill (worth 85 rupees) and gave it to her, apologizing that I did not carry their currency. She almost jumped me with joy.

When we came out, our cousins laughed and slapped my back (NEVER touch a jetlagged woman!) when I told them how much I gave her. I didn't care...I arrived safely and that was all that mattered to me. Safety being the operative word for the entire trip, or lack thereof that is.

When we walked out of the airport into the parking lot, we were all hit by the heat wave. Over 40 celcius heat at 4am in the morning, fogging up my video camera and the girls' glasses. They looked over at me in horror and I just shook my head.

And this was only...the beginning.

Squeeze me?

It was a trip, not a vacation!

Wow, just checked the date stamp on the last post and realized I had so much to talk about but didn't write it down for the last two months. Shame on me. That is what a blog is about, isn't it?

Well if I don't tell you about my trip to Pakistan, it would be a tragedy. More like the country itself is a tragedy. I went after 17 years and was just as shell-shocked as my girls. They had never been and everything threw them for a loop. Monkeys dressed in skirts wearing sunglasses for money, transvestites looming everywhere for money, gunpoint robberies for money, the best shopping that money can buy -- ok you catch my drift. Like for any woman, shopping was my only therapy.

We tried to find a time to visit when sh*t wasn't happening. I could not have picked a better time: flooding to the North, domestic plane crash to the West, political assasination and rioting in Karachi and in Lahore, where we stayed, this city was the last to experience a suicide bombing. I justified the trip in my mind weeks before we left. There was a court case in my head with the defense stating only the positives about going whereas the prosecution stated the obvious: Canadian Govt warning was TRAVEL AT YOUR OWN RISK.

When we arrived in Pakistan, I inhaled and pretty much held my breath until three weeks later on our return. At the stopover in Abu Dhabi, I totally lost it. I told the hubby and girls that I was going to check out the shops in the airport and ended up bawling in Jimmy Choos. The saleswoman thought I was crying over the prices. It was then I realized that I had just exhaled.

Stay tuned to learn the entire day by day, blog by blog story of my trip into the country that left me helpless, weak and exasperated!