I fly in and out of Karachi like a whirlwind. The Pakistani International Airways flight is full to bursting, and I try to stamp down my claustrophobia as I take my seat, thankfully in the aisle. A man seated behind me chants in Arabic for most of the flight and then, on the shaky and somewhat dramatic descent, nonchalantly chats with his friend, as I clasp my hands together and consider life’s fragility.
We touch down uneventfully, and within twenty minutes I’m seated in the cool air conditioning of the car as the driver rushes me around the city. With just two days and a night, I fill my schedule beyond the bounds of time and space. And that’s when I first plan to arrive at 6am on a 3am flight. A few days before leaving, my original flight is cancelled and I have eight less hours in the trip. Travel in Pakistan can be unpredictable. I get it done all the while trying to soak up as much of this new place as I can.
My rush and bustle matches the frenetic pace of the traffic outside my car window. Busy streets lined with buildings of varied shapes, sizes, and state of completion. Motorbikes, tuktuks, bedazzled truck art trucks, SUVs, sedans, tiny yellow taxis, donkey-drawn carts fill the streets with their hurry-up-and-wait, stop and start. A group of women covered up to the eyes in black fill the back of a pickup truck. They laugh and talk and adjust their scarves around their faces in the wind of too much traffic. I consider snapping a photo, but remember how little I like being photographed by strangers out and about.
Karachi is hot, far south along the coast. It retains high temperatures that have already disappeared in Islamabad. The capital city I call home is closer to Kabul than to Karachi. Here there is a perpetual stink of sewage from the perennial flooding that clogs up the old city due to lack of drainage; it hangs in the air and seems strongest in the morning and at night.
What can I possibly tell you about a place I see for an instant? Everything is quick impressions. For one meeting, I’m driven down a dusty alleyway filled with cars and people struggling to get through. We reach a tall building with a strange and slow elevator that eventually takes us up to a dynamic, modern co-working space that could be in DC, New York, San Francisco. It is filled with young entrepreneurs creating companies at buzzing work stations, along lengthy wooden tables, among funky furniture, in well-equipped conference rooms. 64% of Pakistan’s population is under age 30. It is a fact that haunts all conversations. Here that fact feels like an opportunity, as even numbers of young men and women put their heads together and solve problems.
Karachi is known for being a dynamic place, a relatively progressive city. It is the economic center of the country; a port city; the capital of Sindh province where Urdu is the native tongue along with Sindhi. I have been told many times by different people that Urdu in Karachi is the purest form of the language. Flashbacks to China where Mandarin is a transplant everywhere except Beijing/the North. I sit quietly in some meetings, waiting for the translation to come, and thankful that so many people speak English.
At dinner with Pakistani colleagues, we laugh, talk, and share delicious barbecue that I fear I’ll regret later but for now fills up my plate. I down it all with a large, sweet lassi- the stomach bug cure, the spicy food balm. At my end of the table, we chat about language; culture; what it’s like to be a working woman in Pakistan, in America; moving in and out of careers; balancing life, work, and family. Pakistan is a small country filled with an incredible number of different cultures, traditions, ethnicities. It has its majority Muslim faith, but also many other minority religions (as termed in Pakistan). My friends, who come from different places, compare notes on how to pronounce certain words based on where they’re from. They discuss the differences among Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Saraiki. And, of course, we talk about food- the ever easy topic- and the differences in dishes across regions down to the hundreds of types of sticky, sweet halwa.
My notebook and brain fill with information, as I try to maximize the short time I’m there. Always a little behind schedule. All too soon, I’m getting into the car to head back to the airport. The sun casts a golden glow on the traffic, sometimes heavy and sometimes opening up, allowing the driver to speed past smaller vehicles and bikes as he tries to get me to my flight in-time.
At the airport, I have just enough time to buy some Karachi halwa from a shop my Pakistani friends insist I must try. The Karachi Airport is much smaller than the Islamabad one and more local. English signs are a bit more limited, and I find myself pulling out my halting Urdu more than usual. A short wait, and I’m on the flight. The sun has just set outside, and the call to prayer comes on over the speakers just ahead of take-off. Without much thought, I pull my scarf up to cover my head and close my eyes.
The trip is far too short to truly experience Karachi, but it lingers in my mind in short impressions, quick flashes of color, glimpses of people living out their stories. I feel grateful for the time, however fleeting, to make Karachi a short part of my time in Pakistan.