Sohaib is from Pakistan but grew up in Canada and the Middle East, and has traveled the world extensively. He recently returned to Karachi for a seminar (something his parents had to cajole him into), but it turned out to be a very memorable experience. Please enjoy this week-in-the-life of Sohaib as he has some unexpected experiences rediscovering his homeland.
This post was originally published in 2012. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
“You really need to go explore where you’re really from!” my mom explained as my heart sunk while I talked to her on the phone.
“I’m fine here, I’ll do an online course or something” I replied out of desperation, knowing it was a lost argument. Besides, there was something deep inside me that was actually pushing me to go. It’s like I wanted to go but didn’t. “There are tons of courses or seminars I can go to, right here mom.”
“But these are cheaper and you can meet your cousins you haven’t seen them in years.”
Long story short, I am a student and work as a part-time writer. I’m basically from everywhere—I am a third culture kid (TCK). A TCK is someone who has grown up somewhere other than their parent’s home country. My parents are Pakistani, but I’ve only been there two times, and that was over six years ago. I recently moved to England from Canada, and live in London.
In the winter of 2010, I went to Karachi, a seaport in the southwest of Pakistan. I was signed up for a seminar on website design and management. Before I left, I watched endless documentaries about Karachi, trying to understand what I was getting into—was it going to be fun? Was it going to be dangerous? What do I eat? I left those questions unanswered and packed my bags for a week in Karachi…
When I landed, I was greeted at the Jinnah International Airport by my cousins. They were much different since the last time I saw them—they looked older. Two boys and a girl; I didn’t know them that well because I’ve only ever seen them as a kid twice before. They told me right away that it won’t be boring. I planned to stay at theirs for the whole week. I hardly spoke any Urdu, and they hardly spoke any English. So communication was an obvious problem.
I was tired from a long flight and all I could think about was bed. We went to an area called Defence. It was apparently where all the rich folk lived. My jaw dropped when I saw their house. This wasn’t what I was expecting—three floors, two gardens, four cars, and a pool. It looked like a mansion. My mom had told me that their house was nice, but my god, nice wasn’t enough. Before I could appreciate the guest room to the fullest, I passed out on the bed.
I woke up feeling starved. I made my way into the kitchen where I found my aunt. I related most to her because she was the one I knew the best. Breakfast was ready—my cousins woke up earlier and ate already. I was surprised because I expected that traditionally, everyone would eat together in the morning. But I didn’t mind it—in fact, I preferred it. We had a traditional Punjabi and Lahori dish called halwa poori.
I had a shower after finishing what I thought was the best breakfast ever, even though it felt like a heart attack. I stepped outside to catch a glimpse of the sun. I bumped into one of the chaukidaars. There were three of them, and they guarded the house at different times of the day.
I realised that no one was ever safe in Karachi. I watched many documentaries about all the political violence that goes on. But that only made me more curious. I thought I’d step outside and go to the local corner store.
I ended up walking for hours. I had a drink from an ice-cream van that passed by; nothing too different from England or Canada. It was funny, though, because the music had a Pakistani touch to it. I couldn’t tell what the difference was but it amused me.
I kept walking on and on, looking at odd parts of the neighbourhood. There was no sign of any parks. Instead, there were different sized portions of sand and rock where kids played football and cricket barefoot. I wanted to join in but my lack of Urdu speaking skills stopped me.
I didn’t have a phone on me so I knew I should get back before people worried.
The third morning was the same—breakfast with my aunt, talking about home and how everyone is. I wanted to grab my cousins and go play some cricket. They promised that the trip won’t be boring but disappeared the day before, so they owed me. I found them and convinced them to get some exercise. My seminar wasn’t until the next day, anyway.
My cousins took me to another place instead of the one I saw the day before. I was keen on showing them how it’s done. I was planning on knocking the ball all over the city. It wasn’t until it was my turn to bat when I realized…they were INSANE. These rascals were unbelievably talented. And they weren’t trained in any academy or anything, they were just naturally good—it was in their blood.
It wasn’t until this day when I really started to like Karachi and appreciate the culture. I was glad I came.
We went for falooda afterwards, a South Asian dessert/drink. I don’t know how to describe it—it’s like ice cream with milk, ice, and jelly. Whatever it was, though, it tasted amazing.
I had a mini-bonding session with the ‘cricket kids,’ as I called them. They said that they played day and night since they could remember. Cricket was second nature for them. I really started getting more comfortable with my Urdu at this point. I was excited for the next day. The seminar tomorrow was in English, though.
The goal of my trip now was to make the most of my time in Karachi. My flight back was in three days.
I got dressed and my aunt had a wrap ready-to-go. She told me that a driver is waiting outside. I got into the one of their four cars parked in the parking lot. The chaukidaars slept in a shed right beside where all the cars were parked. They also knew how to drive, so one of them drove me to the seminar.
I started eating the wrap and it was spicier than anything I’ve had before. The last thing I needed was a throat screaming for water early in the morning. I asked the chaukidaar if we could stop to get a drink. He warned me that we would be late, but stopped anyway.
My cousin was telling me earlier that the chaukidaars were meant to obey everything you said—no matter what the case is. I felt pretty spoiled, but I’ve never had anything like a chaukidaar before, so I went with it.
I bought a mango lassi—I’ve had this before because it’s so famous outside of Pakistan, too. It’s like mango-flavoured yogurt and water. I got one for the chaukidaar as well.
After the fire in my mouth was cooled down, I realized how late we were getting and told the chaukidaar to step on it. He insisted to stay in the parking lot waiting for me while I was gone, but I told him to go. Who would actually make someone wait that long? Apparently, though, people do it every time.
Seeing as I was 15 minutes late, I prepared myself for an embarrassing walk into the room. To my surprise, though, I was one of the few people there. Apparently everyone was late.
I met Oscar while we waited for the rest. Oscar worked as a salesman in Karachi and came to the seminar to learn some advanced website design techniques for a personal project. He told me how being late was normal here—in fact, more people are late than on time. So in reality, we were early, but on time. Which didn’t make sense to me—but again, nothing about Pakistani culture made sense to me, which was why it was so fun.
The seminar flew by and the chaukidaar was outside waiting for me. I wondered if he ever went home, but I couldn’t be bothered to ask him. I was really tired.
Before I left, I got Oscar’s number and he promised to take me around Karachi showing me cool stuff. I thought I’d call him up the next day.
It was Saturday and my aunt planned to visit some family friends that day. I thought I would go along and see another house in Karachi—I mean, they all can’t be mansions, can they? We got ready and left after noon to have lunch and hang out. Six of us jammed into a five-seater car.
During the uncomfortable drive, I asked my cousins if this is normal. They said yeah. They told me that the police are easily bribed here, as well. So if you’re breaking any laws, just pay them 200 rupees or so and you’ll be off. 200 rupees is only two dollars! I noticed how families fit onto motorcycles in Karachi as well. Safety, apparently, is not a priority.
We got there and we were greeted with drinks and snacks. Everything seemed to revolve around snacking in Karachi. They talked more and I observed. The house was much smaller than my cousins’. This one was more medium sized like my own.
Nothing special happened that day—we just played some cards and watched a bit of T.V. The day seemed wasted to me, so I looked forward to Sunday.
My last full day in Karachi and I wanted to make the most of it.
I woke up early and excited and went outside. I talked with a chaukidaar. He told me how he worked here and sent the money he made back to his Gaon. Gaons were farm lands where a lot of the lower-class lived. I really wanted to visit one but they were hours away and I didn’t have the time.
Oscar picked me up and we drove for a good 40 minutes across the city. I saw the real areas of town now—the one’s I saw in pictures and documentaries. Cows walking on the road, sheep scattered around fruit markets. It was amazing.
We went to Saddar Bazar, meaning ‘Main Bazaar.’ You could find anything and everything here for less than half the price compared to London. I bought souvenirs to take back home. I also bought a lot of electronics that were surprisingly cheap.
The sun was going down so Oscar suggested we get a quick glimpse of Quaid-e-Azam ki mazar, meaning Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s tomb. Muhammad Ali Jinnah was the founder of Pakistan, and the mazar was an iconic part of the city. Oscar said that it was a typical tourist spot, and I didn’t go to too many in the Karachi trip.
The sun was completely down at this point and I felt like I’d seen the whole city. Experiencing the lower-middle class side of Karachi was exciting. I ended up wishing that my week was two weeks. Maybe even a month.
My flight was in the afternoon so I got up early and started to pack. Just before leaving, my aunt insisted that I try some paan. I had been avoiding it the whole trip, but there was no other option, now. Bought exclusively from street vendors, paan is prepared in betel leaf and chewed until you spit the end out.
The one I had was a meetha paan, meaning ‘sweet paan,’ which had coconut, fruit, and gulquand in the betel leaf. I didn’t know this at the time, but I searched it up later on. It tasted weird; nothing that I would have again.
I ended up getting some McDonalds just beside Jinnah Airport. Why not end a cultural trip with some good old American cuisine? I said my goodbyes and headed to the check-in. It was a good last few days. What I thought would be a boring, dangerous trip turned into an experience I would love to have again.
Sohaib is settling into life in London now, and is about to visit Holland. He writes for Hotel Club, reviewing the best of London and Manchester hotels. When he isn’t around and about, you’ll find him pushing the limits on his bike or stuffing his face with his food obsession.