Travelogue: Pakistan 2004

Well, hell. A recent perusal of my goings on in PK (triggered by the Superb Blurb below) made me want to fix the broken links and add the missing photos but I can’t access it anymore. Who knows which of my myriad names and passwords I used to create the blog but before I completely forget the address too, I’m going to recreate the posts here. Please be patient while the reconstruction is occurring.

After suffering through middle-row syndrome on the entire twenty-two hour voyage from DC to Pakistan, LB and I reached Islamabad early Friday morning safe and sound, albeit quite disheveled and sleep-deprived. Upon arrival, our parents, my grandfather, and my uncle greeted us at the gate and as we had no checked-in luggage to wait for (carry-ons, zindabad!), whisked us home where we were met by the rest of the family. Stomachs rumbling from lack of food, we were treated to deliciously hot omelets (the healthy vegetables balance out the glistening oil and cheese, or so we try to convince ourselves) and strong tea (tooth-enamel-etchingly strong). Heads buzzing from lack of sleep, we napped for a few hours and rinsed the travel grime off using the good old fashioned, familiar pink plastic bucket with dipper that we have used for nigh on a decade or two.

Later that afternoon, more grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins came to visit and filled us in on all the family gossip and politics. The lounge could have doubled as a train station with so many people coming and going. Each person talked over the next, attempting to capture our bleary attention, to get his or her story told and voice heard, and to rush to share the latest news before someone beat them to it. We spent the whole day indoors, eating several meals at the huge Lazy Susan table in the dining room, meeting family and new friends (that’s when I met Abez and Owl) taking several naps in various beds, and trying and failing to make definite and substantive plans for the remainder of the visit. It was good to be back home.

Al Bariyah

I know. Not much to report for this day. But it gets better, trust me!

There were wolves baying at the moon and angry, I-mean-business barks and snarls piercing the night. A moment of disorientation and quiet descended and then was shattered by further yips and yaps and yelps. According to the Winnie-the-Pooh clock on the wall that had been keeping time with unsynchronized beats, it was 3:30 a.m. — there’s a 3:30 in the morning now? Several thoughts occurred to me: I was in Islamabad (even if my circadian rhythms were still in the U.S.); I was now fully awake with no possibility of sinking back to sleep; and the guard dogs next door were mighty upset about something (possibly intruders, possibly wild boars, possibly a threatening leaf on a tree branch) and wanted the whole neighborhood to know it. Apparently, the whole neighborhood (my sister included) successfully managed to ignore or block out the incessant barking as I was the only one creeping around the house looking for snacks and a comfortable place to read. On her way to medical school classes, by 6 a.m., Chai found Professor Baji, in the lounge, with a candlestick. Well, replace “candlestick” with “Into Thin Air by Krakauer” and you win.

After a hearty breakfast, it was immediately time for lunch. We went to my grandfather’s house where we were wildly entertained by my mother arguing with her father over the precise events that occurred on the day umpteen years ago when the principal of her school called my grandfather in for a discussion over my mother’s behavior. We lingered over lunch and pored over family photographs ranging from the early 1900s to the early 2000s.

Babuji's House 1933

I heard a strange buzzing coming from my bag and it wasn’t until I cautiously and with great trepidation opened it that I realized the sound was from my borrowed cell phone. My uncle had lent me a cell phone to call or ‘to text’ (a perfectly cromulent verb nowadays) our tech-savvy family in order to make plans, call ahead, and goof off. It was our first full day in town and I was already receiving phone calls! [2013 edit – OMG, how dated. Admittedly, I still don’t have a smart-phone (certainly not an international-compatible one and strenuously discourage text messages since I don’t have a data plan but still…]

The call was from my cousin who, cognizant of our limited time in town, offered her services to chauffeur us to the shops at F-7’s Jinnah Super, F-6’s Supermarket, and F-6’s Kohsar Market for some whirlwind browsing. Driving back and forth, we saw familiar friends (Mr. Books! Book Fair! I’ve missed you!) and hated enemies (although I can’t remember if the family ban was proclaimed against United Bakery or Prince Bakers – one disrespected my grandfather and one hired my cousin but which was which?). Mentally marking the my favorite clothing boutique Khaadi for a return visit, we returned home for dinner and half a game of Monopoly that involved quite a bit of yelling, cheating, fining, and shady transactions. I think I won.

Stay tuned for the next episode: Freezing in the Foothills of the Himalayas.

Damn those hellhounds! Damn them all to . . . well, hell, I suppose. With confirmed sightings of jackals and wild boars in the area, I was less surprised, but no less irritated, by the early morning doggie alarms coming from the house next door. Once again, I resigned myself to being fully awake and slid down the banister (it’s tradition!) to read until the rest of the family arose and prepared for our outing to Murree. Even though the sun was brightly shining and it was a pleasant spring-like day in Islamabad, we bundled up in warm layers. We boarded the coaster my uncle secured for the twelve of us and were on our way (fun fact: Pakistanis call the hybrid mini-van/bus a “coaster” which seemed more like a roller coaster than a smooth and steady vehicle by the time one reaches the twisted, treacherous, nausea-inducing, narrow roads to Murree).

Murree toll

Approximately 40 miles (or 60 km for you metric-heads) northeast of Islamabad and over 7000 feet (2100 meters) high at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains, the Queen of the Hills, as Murree is allegedly known (competing with India’s Darjeeling for the title), was once a 19th century hillstation, or resort, for British troops garrisoned on the Afghan frontier in Peshawar. Murree is now a popular domestic and international tourist destination for people seeking cooler climes, beautiful vistas of the forested hills, and the possibility of sneaky clouds slinking through the windows.

Murree hills

We wound our way up the slender streets and watched the birds of prey (hawks? vultures? kites?) tilt and wheel at eye-level. We made a brief stop in Bhurban, about 9 km beyond Murree, to stretch our legs, visit my uncle’s latest construction project, and take advantage of the panoramic view of the snow-capped mountains. After standing around and shivering for a while, we scrambled back into the coaster and returned to Murree to seek refuge and lunch at my aunt’s father’s summer house. Because most visitors come to Murree in the summer to escape the heat and dust and humidity of points south, the house had been unoccupied and therefore unheated by the time we reached it. Still donning our coats, hats, scarves, and the occasional gloves-sans-fingers, we alternated huddling around the free-standing heater and positioning ourselves to be in the path of the direct sunlight streaming in through the wide windows. We devoured the steaming prathas, curry chicken, and blessedly hot tea that we brought along. We took turns washing our hands in what must have been glacial water and then walked around outside to appreciate the eye-candy of the tall pine trees, the clear blue sky, and the Kashmiri mountain range nearby.

Murree trees

Murree hawks

By late-afternoon, we drove down to the “Mall” which is Murree’s popular strip of clothing stores, restaurants, and tourist shops. Half of our group ventured out to browse among the throng of people bustling along the sidewalks and main street while the other, more sensible, half remained cozily ensconced within the warm coaster. We raced the setting sun down the hills and reached Islamabad by nightfall.

Best Tree in Murree Murree landscape Murree Mall

Stay tuned for the next episode: Girls’ Day Out.

Nestled at the foot of the Margalla Hills, the capital city of Islamabad is neatly if not logically divided into eight zones: administrative, diplomatic, residential, educational, industrial, commercial, rural and green areas. I remember a cleaner, calmer, less traffic-snarl-ridden city but these days the population is up, the pollution is rampant, and the tension is high. “Islamabad, the Beautiful” but not everyone thinks so. This is not to say that the whole town has gone to the dogs . . . those maddening, barking, insane dogs. Each sector has its own thriving shopping area, some pretty public parks, and beautiful mosques.

My grandfather lives in the elite neighborhood of Sector E-7, home to the opulent, jaw-dropping, incredible Faisal Mosque which holds the title of the largest mosque in the world (Baghdad started one up, but, well, you know how things are going on there these days). My father, sister, and I took a long, early morning stroll around E-7, passing by several palatial residences – including one Abdul Qadeer Khan whose house was the only one with flowers growing across the street near the guard’s hut – on our way to Faisal Mosque.

Faisal Mosque

Completed in 1986, King Faisal Mosque (named after Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal) features a large prayer hall, a small mausoleum for Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and four sky-scraping minarets (which, if memory serves me correctly, sports real gold crescents on each minaret). We turned the corner and saw a sheep grazing on a grassy slope. We turned another corner and saw an enormous banyan tree that had been sorely abused and burnt up by some ignorant youths.

Burnt up Banyan Sheep & Bird Pak Post

We had a pleasant walk and followed it up with a pleasant trip to my aunt’s beauty salon DePilex. My sister and I were treated to soothing, cleansing facials and when we were glowing and refreshed, my cousin picked us up and took us shopping. Eight khussas, three chappals, and one antique collection of tiles later, we came home and relaxed. In fact, we relaxed so much that some of us fell asleep while I was recounting the storyline of The House of Sand and Fog. [2013 edit – really? What possessed me to recap that movie? How very odd]. The rest of us eventually followed suit and we all napped the remainder of the afternoon away. We rounded off the evening with Abez and Owl at the allegedly hip, funky “CJ’s” (short for Civil Junction) in Sector F-7, sipping cappuccinos, savoring ice creams, and snickering over their humorous menu entries.

Cafe menu

“Wake up, baby dolls,” my dad sang to us. It was still dark outside and I was disoriented simply by the fact that it was my father’s voice waking me up rather than those rabid, flea-bitten mongrels next door. The ancient routine was followed as Dad hovered in the doorway to see if there was any movement forthcoming and when the only observable motion was us burrowing deeper under the covers, he would repeat the wake-up call until one of us (me) got up. Today was the day we were going to visit “the village” which is really a misnomer because it covers several villages but the sun was not even out yet and it was too early in the day to debate semantics.

We had stick-to-your-ribs porridge (liberally sprinkled with sugar and full-fat milk) and some chai (equally sweet and fatty) for breakfast to carry us through the drive to Lala Musa, about 90 miles southeast of Islamabad. The drive was smooth and pleasant with my uncle as pilot and tour guide and me as co-pilot (with no map, no directions, and no sense of where we were) to provide the questions and the chatter. Along the way, we passed Pajeros, Mehrans, Margallas, and brightly decorated jingle trucks and buses that are commonly seen trundling down the streets.

Paki Bus Paki Sweeper Paki Train

Occasionally, we would see a line of goats being lavishly treated to a buffet of rich, leafy greens – little did they know that Eid Ul Adha was right around the corner and that their V.I.P. treatment was going to end in an R.I.P. ceremony! Poor kids. When we arrived in Lala Musa to pick up my aunt, we were treated to our second breakfast and had more chai, roasted chilgozas (pinenuts), and these delicious sesame-themed, brown sugar-sweetened, cracker-like thingies (can you guess that I don’t know the name?).

We drove through the district of Gujrat which, despite its dusty roads and equally dusty children, is incredibly lush and green thanks to the irrigation provided by the Jhelum River and Chenab River, two of the five rivers of the Punjab which merge to flow into the Indus. My uncle deftly navigated the car down the roads that were becoming less paved and more ditch-laden until we reached Ladian, the Bhatti family’s ancestral village. We paid our respects at Uncle Aziz Bhatti’s grave, Inna lillahi wa inna ileihi rajioon (We are from God and to Him we are returning). Uncle Aziz, my grandfather’s brother, was honored with the highest military award in Pakistan, the Nishan-e-Haider, for his part in the 1965 war with India (here‘s a detailed account).

Aunty Zerina Uncle Aziz Aziz Bhatti

We strolled around my great-grandfather’s house where my father and aunt shared their memories of the place: there’s where Baooji used to sit us down and teach us; this room was shared by two families; all of the cousins would line up and sleep here on the rooftop during the summer. I waved hello to the neighbors – Madame Water Buffalo and Donkey Sahib.

Babuji's House Water Buffalos Donkey

We visited a nearby school and were allowed to peek into several classes where the uber-obedient, neatly-uniformed children would leap to their feet and stand quietly at attention while the principal introduced us (even though it was time for recess and they were itching to run outside). The school was very well-run, had a strict curriculum, and even had its own mascot seen here in repose.

Monkey on Wheelbarrow Principal & Eskool Schoolkids some chick

At lunch at our relatives’ house, we listened to the on-going debate over whether the village of Ladian (site of the famous Aziz Bhatti’s grave, access to a major roadway, near a good school) or the village of Bhurch (bigger population, on the route from Lala Musa to Ladian, large mosque and good school, no wiki page) was better. We then called on more relatives and friends in Bhurch where we were running from house to house, poking our heads in to say hello, and taking a quick tour of the public school (Fun Fact: in Pakistani/British terms, a private school is a private or fee-paying school and a public school can also be a private school. Whaaa?). The sun was starting to set and we did not relish the idea of our fragile car swerving in the dark to avoid a barreling truck and then falling into one of the massive craters on the dirt road that led back to Lala Musa, so we said our goodbyes, I got a quick motorcycle ride out of the village, and we headed back through Kharian.

Burch Mosque Dad & Eid Dinner

Stay tuned for the next episode: Well, not much, but wasn’t today’s entry enough to satisfy you?! Honestly!

To make up for yesterday’s full day, we did little to nothing on this rainy, windy Wednesday. My grandmother loves making dresses, socks, baby clothes, you name it. She is a sewing machine! Well, not literally. Anyway, the morning was spent dashing off to the Naval Market, the Naval Headquarters’ shopping area where family members of the Pakistani Navy can conveniently pick up anything from fresh chicken to kitchen supplies to buttons. My grandmother’s agenda that day was to allow us to choose the color of yarn we preferred for the wool hats she was going to knit for us. My sister and I chose two colors each because skilled seamstress and knitter that she is, my grandmother intended not only to make multicolored, winter hats, but to make them reversible!

The next outing through the drizzle was planned by my aunt and my cousin who took us to Jinnah Super and Supermarket where we picked out some traditional souvenirs, some buttery-soft pashmina scarves, and some pirated CDs and DVDs. We came home for lunch and then went to visit various family members around town, like this guy, the newest of 32 cousins.

hip hop pants

By evening, we were enjoying one of my absolute favorite dishes – haleem
– at my grandfather’s house when the following exchange took place:

My grandfather began, “So, Baji, have you ever been to London?”

“Yes,” I replied, “many times. Although, I am going to Scotland and Ireland soon with my friend and I’ve never been there.”

He nodded his head absently, not really paying attention, and posed the question, “Have you ever been to Wales?”

With a stunned look on my face and after a long pause, I replied, “Uh, yes.”

He cleared his throat and asked in a booming voice, “Baji, have you ever heard of a town called Merthyr Tydfil?”

The stunned look turned to shock, the pause lengthened, and then I burst out laughing, “Uh, yes. I was BORN there!”

Totally ignoring me, he continued, “It’s got one of the strangest spellings of a name I have ever come across. I learned about it a long time ago. M-e-r-t-h-y-r T-y-d-f-i-l.” He noted my look of total disbelief. “Seriously! I can show you where it is on my atlas.”

My mother cut in as she gasped for breath after laughing so hard, “The only reason you know about that town is because I wrote letters to you from there when I lived there and your granddaughter was born there! You didn’t learn about it from school or reading about it. It has nothing distinguishing or extraordinary about it!”

He smiled contently, “Yes, it has quite an odd spelling.”


While the city’s layers of pollution washed away in the heavy rain, we spent the morning looking out of the windows, longing to be outside ala the kids in “The Cat in the Hat”. The Cat finally arrived in the form of one of my closest cousins and her crew. The decibel level increased proportionally and the marble floors did nothing to cushion the sound. Someone suggested we continue our lovely reunion somewhere else. Braving the now deluge of rain, we stopped by my shopaholic cousin’s place where we were offered tea and a thick layer of frosting with a little bit of cookie underneath with which to rot our teeth.

We had a two-for-one birthday lunch at my aunt’s house later that afternoon. Having lived in various countries around the world (and conveniently feeding my voracious appetite to travel by providing me with a place to stay), my aunt has picked up an eclectic array of recipes. The buffet-style feast she prepared for us this time came from Myanmar/Burma. The Ohn-no-kauk-swey, or Burmese Noodles in Coconut and Chicken Broth, was served along with several small dishes of garnishes from which one may pick and choose. I loaded mine up with cilantro, lime wedges, and fried noodles. De. Lish.

That evening, my sister and I had intended to spend the night with my cousin’s in-laws in Rawalpindi. Tooling along Faisal Avenue (a.k.a. the “Islamabad Highway”), we neared Islamabad’s entry intersection “Zero Point” when my sister announced that she didn’t feel well. Apparently, she had caught my mother’s 24-hour bug and despite the nap earlier, she felt queasy and tired. We debated turning around but could not seem to move fast enough. Although the SAARC convention had ended a few weeks prior, traffic in this area remained at a near stand-still this evening. My sister’s groaning and warnings of nausea increased in urgency and frequency until they culminated in her rolling the window down and decorating the side of the car with bits of dahi baras, birthday cake, and assorted goodies. Silence descended over the car as we took turns patting her back, handing her tissues and water, and concentrating on an opening, any opening, in the traffic to allow us to make a movie-worthy, tires-squealing, 180-degree turn.

We finally made the turn, crawled along, and stopped at a light. One of the city’s many little beggar children approached us, knocked on the door to get our attention, and began her spiel. The girl pressed her “sad hands” against the car and my sister gasped,

“Be careful! Be careful!”

Not understanding the English warnings, the girl plowed on. My sister tried to explain again in Urdu,

“Ulti hai!”

The light bulb popped over the girl’s head, she looked down at the vomit-stained door, and a sneer of disgust to beat all sneers formed on her face. Oh, man. That look. I wish I had my camera. She backed away rapidly, sneer still in place, wiping her hands on her clothes as we drove off in a burst of shrieking and manic laughter.

It was quiet. Too quiet. I woke up in a strange bed and lay there for a moment to think. Faint recollection of Chinese food personally prepared by a Bangladeshi chef the night before. Blurry images of playing Battleship. KK giving me an insider’s tour guide commentary by pointing out the spots where the would-be assassins laid in wait for Musharraf. Ah, yes! Rawalpindi, the more crowded, busier, bossier sister of Islamabad. I was staying with my family in Pindi that day and the room was blessedly quiet. My cousin and I wanted to talk in some relative peace and quiet so we caught up late into the night and again early that morning. We had an amazing breakfast of puris and chanas (with a squirt of lemon/orange from the lemon/orange tree outside) and more puris and chana. My cousin came by to pick me up a few minutes later and since tradition dictated that we offer anyone coming through the front door some food, we happily joined her in eating a little bit of chana and only a few more puris. Gotta love the elastic waistbands of the shalwar and the belly-concealing flow of the kameez.

Back in Islamabad, my father, my cousin, and I braved the rain to hit the shops. We inadvertently swindled one store owner out of the proper price of some papiermâché  boxes. See, we had negotiated and bargained and finally bought some boxes from him the day before. This day, we insisted that he sold the boxes to us for one (lower) price when we later found out he actually sold them to us for another (higher) price. “It’s okay,” my cousin later consoled us, “he’ll just overcharge the next guy and make it up.”

We bought some more copyright-scoffing DVDs and some Fruittella for my still-recovering sister before returning home. After many hours of planning, re-planning, canceling plans, and reinstating plans, we had a cousins consortium at my aunt’s house with the singular purpose of putting away as much ice cream, nuts, and assorted goodies as we could. Mission Accomplished.


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