Category Archives: tourism

Welcome to Pakistan

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It had been a very long day. Actually, it had been almost two days. I looked to my left and across the aisle I could see the twilight spreading across Multan below our airplane. It’s that hazy blue and orange, the light scattering from the dust in the air to create soft edges on everything, even the light itself. I don’t know if this dusk exists in other places too. I saw thousands of these dusks and never gave them a second thought until I couldn’t watch them on a whim any more.

An hour later, we’d arrived. The plane bumped onto the tarmac in the city where Alexander the Great is said to have met his fate with a poisoned arrow, and I turn to my kids who were prodding at the inflight entertainment screens and said “Welcome to Pakistan!”

The plan had come together spontaneously as most good plans do. I realised that my kids were now old enough for them to remember this trip, which happened at a time when I was getting really fed up with the kind of things I heard about Pakistan from the average Greek who had formed their opinions on the country based entirely on hysterical news reports and Europe’s growing Islamophobia.

Part of me wondered if it was me who was crazy and if I should go back and double check that the country really was so awful and I just didn’t know it. Faced with thoughtless comments about Pakistanis which were sometimes made in the presence of my children, I realised no matter what my own slightly confused relationship was with Pakistan, I alone was responsible for helping my children become acquainted with the other half of their heritage. “We’ll be gone for a couple of weeks,” I told my youngest son’s nursery teacher. “We’re going to Pakistan.”

She looked at me in alarm. Of course she would, Pakistan never makes it into Greek news unless something terrible happens there.

But she didn’t know about the winter evenings nestled under thick cotton blankets eating pine nuts still hot from the vendor’s cart, or the taste of sour village butter, or my hometown on the edge of a desert, the capital of a once-princely state ruled by nawabs, or the sticky, hot curls of jalebis that you couldn’t wait to taste as you peeled them off folds of newspaper.

It’s strange, because I’m not overly sentimental about the place I grew up. When my parents said we were moving to the UK, I was the only one of my sisters who was thrilled. I’ve moved countries twice now and don’t really feel like I belong anywhere, but having children and watching them reach an age where they ask their father about the places he went as a child and the things he did made me want to do the same. I found myself thinking of showing my own children the street where I used to play and the school I went to, so when the opportunity presented itself to take my kids to Pakistan, I took it.

What follows are some of the things we saw, experienced and tasted, because beyond the terrorism and the frightening geopolitics there is a country where people still live, where the people who knew me as a little girl now wait to see that little girl’s children, people who I remember as towering giants are now shorter than me. They clasp their hands and exclaim “Mashallah!” that the stubborn little girl who told everyone who would listen that she would become a journalist actually went through with her childhood plan, and is still just as stubborn.

A place where everything has changed and still nothing has changed. The hand-painted signs have been replaced with LED lights, but the hot jalebis still taste as good.

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Did you go to Pakistan? It only counts if you went to Pakistan

Last week, courtesy of one of the companies I’m currently freelancing with in Athens, I got to attend the Europe edition of TBEX 2014.

It was another event that made me feel my age and the fact that I was firmly on the wrong side of 25. Not so long ago, I was asked at an interview why I didn’t have an Instagram account. At the risk of shooting myself in the foot here in case the person who asked me this is reading (hi!) the real reason I didn’t have an Instagram account until recently is because I have no time. The average selfie takes 16 minutes to perfect. If I had 16 free minutes lying around, I can think of a lot of other things I would be doing with them.

Anyway, suitably chastened, I now have an Instagram account. What I don’t have is a MacBook. I was absolutely surrounded by these at TBEX, while I bashed away at my trusty old Toshiba. It’s nearly 10 years old now. It’s not stylish and weighs a lot, but it gets the job done.

 

Me and my lemon in an orchard of Apples

For those of you who don’t know, TBEX is the world’s largest travel blogger exchange. I admit, I had no idea it was beforehand. It was a strange experience finding myself among so many bloggers, and it had me wondering – at what point will the travel market become saturated? How many more accounts of twenty somethings travelling the globe does the blogosphere still have room for?

Plenty, it would seem. I’ve always loved talking to the well-travelled and picking their brains about their experiences. At TBEX, I met people who had been all over the world, and heard outlandish figures like 3o countries in two years, 100 countries before I turn 30, and so on.

I listened with interest, and the question I found myself asking again and again was “So have you been to Pakistan?” The reply I kept getting again and again was “No”. The only person who responded in the affirmative was a Turkish doctor who had not only been to Pakistan, but had spent a month in my God forsaken hometown of Bahawalpur in 1990. By even more freakish odds, he had studied medicine at Nishtar college, Multan, the very same college that my own father studied at. I couldn’t get over it. There are seven billion of us on this planet, but sometimes it feels so small.

Back to my question, I was sitting at one point with Laurence of Finding the Universe fame, and I asked my standard question. He hadn’t been to Pakistan either. He asked me “Is it beautiful?” I answered truthfully “It’s stunning. It’s one of the most beautiful places I have ever lived in.” Because terrorism, corruption and general misery aside, I honestly have not lived anywhere more beautiful than Pakistan.

Then he asked me “Is it safe?” I tried to reassure him that if you stick to the right places, it’s perfectly safe. Someone with blue eyes and waist length blonde dreadlocks would be best off avoiding the less well-trodden tracks of the land. Did I succeed in convincing him? I’m not sure, though he did say he likes a challenge, in answer to which I told him to Google the Kalash tribe of Pakistan. Not only are they a photographer’s dream come true, they are located in an area that is hard enough to get to even for Pakistanis, let alone foreigners. So, you want a challenge? There you go.

Here, I did it for you

It is a little sad. Back in the day, Pakistan formed a trinity of countries that had to be visited along the hippie trail – Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. At TBEX, practically everyone had been to India, and no one had been to Pakistan, at least no one I met.

I’m not saying you’re not a true traveller if you haven’t been to Pakistan. I’d place the country somewhere in between North Korea and Syria. Travellers get major brownie points for having a North Korean stamp in their passport, but you would have to be mad to want to visit Syria at the moment. Somewhere along this compass of major street cred and absolute insanity would lie a visit to Pakistan.

There’s a Greek presenter called Mayia Tsokli. She used to present a travel show on the now-defunct ERT TV channel. She used to go absolutely everywhere – she even did one show from Afghanistan. A travel show. For Afghanistan. Who does that? No one except her, probably. But even she didn’t go to Pakistan. We’re like the South Asian travel arc’s booby prize – nobody wants us.

If travel is all about broadening horizons and pushing boundaries, then travel bloggers reading this, you should go to Pakistan. Seriously, email me if you want to find out more. If you can get past the hell of getting a visa, it’s totally worth it.

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10 Things not to say to someone from Pakistan

Road in Pakistan. Not photoshopped

Highway in Pakistan. Not photoshopped

I grew up in Pakistan. In my travels across the world, I have encountered many a misconception about my home-country. We’re everyone’s favourite friendly neighbourhood failed state if Fox News is to believed, and I was amazed at how shocked people were that an actual living, breathing product of the dark side of the moon was stood there talking to them. Here are some of the weirdest things people have said when they learn where I come from.

1)   Wow! Your English is really good?

This is the commonest comment anyone from Pakistan will hear the first time they have a conversation with someone. People are astonished that anyone from Pakistan, let alone a woman, can speak, read and write completely fluent English. The world expects us to either be the frothy-mouthed zealots or mini mart owners they see on TV.

English schooling systems are the main setup in Pakistan where almost the entire curriculum is taught in English and this has created generations of Pakistanis who navigate English with complete ease.

I’ll level with you, my first language is English, but I have Pakistani friends whose English is so dazzlingly competent that they make my musings sound like the workings of an epileptic monkey at a typewriter.

2)   Do you guys have TV/the internet/cell phones over there?

Even I ended up guilty of this one when I went over on a trip last year after a 6 year gap and left my smartphone behind thinking there was no point taking it.

Cue all of my cousins constantly uploading selfies on Facebook and updating their Twitter accounts like there’s no tomorrow. Meanwhile I felt like a total idiot with my trusty old regular cell phone that didn’t even have a camera. And I’m not even talking the big cities either. This was in my good old dusty village.

So yes, shocking as it may seem, we do have TV, cell phones and the internet over there. We have roads too, as well as high rise buildings and highways.

3)    Pakistani girls are so innocent.

I hate to burst your bubble but this one isn’t true either. What with all the TV, magazines, fluent English and books, life in the West isn’t a total shock. As for innocent, we get Cosmo there too, you know, and just because there is officially no dating doesn’t mean there aren’t ways around that. Go to any Pakistani university and you’ll find a dating culture to rival anything in the West.

And we have some pretty kick-ass sex education in places you’d least expect it.

4)   Did you come over in a boat?

When I’d tell people I had actually flown to the UK, their next question was what it felt like to fly for the first time, at which point I’d gently break it to them that I’ve been flying since I was little. That’s not because I’m ridiculously rich. It’s because Pakistan is quite a big country and flying, especially these days, is quite affordable and often the most trouble-free option for travel.

5)   You’re from Pakistan? I love palak paneer!

A Pakistani friend who studied in America shared this one with me. When did palak paneer become Pakistan’s official culinary mascot? That’s like meeting someone from the UK and saying “I love jellied eels!” Firstly, you’d have to be out of your mind to love jellied eels, and secondly it’s not a dish that actually features in regular daily British dining.

Pakistani cuisine is hugely diverse because the country is so diverse. Go find your local Pakistani restaurant, it probably has a name like Lahore This or Karachi Something or the Other and try a few things there. I recommend haleem and nihari as starting points.

6)   Did you parents disown you for marrying of your own choice?

I married outside of my culture, and my parents didn’t simultaneously combust into balls of fiery wrath. You’d be surprised how many of my peers back in Pakistan are now marrying of their own choice with the support of their parents.

7)   Did you ever see Osama Bin Ladin?

When you come from a crackpot nuclear nation and hot-bed of terrorism, you get asked this more often than you’d realize. The answer is no. We have a huge home-grown terrorism problem in Pakistan, that’s true, but Taliban heads don’t go on whistle-stop tours of the country like some sort of jihad loving Mick Jagger.

8)   Did you used to live in a mud hut/shanty town?

No. I used to live in an actual house made of bricks and cement. A lot of people in Pakistan do, and if you happen to know the upper Middle classes, their houses are absolutely palatial. In fact, a lot of people moving from Pakistan to the UK take one look at that country’s row upon row of cramped, badly lit cookie cutter houses and wail “How can these poor people live like this!”

9)   How come you don’t wear that dot on your forehead?

That little dot is called a bindi and you’re thinking of India, pal. Pakistani girls do wear these at weddings and parties, but for their decorative value rather than any association with chakras or the sacred third eye.

10)I’d love to visit Pakistan, but I’m too scared.

Let me be honest here. You should be scared. Because trying to get a visa from the Pakistani embassy is such a Kafkaesque nightmare that even I left the building screaming “I’m not doing this again!” after trying to arrange paperwork for my foreign husband and child.

The line of questioning involved such valuable information towards my application as whether my husband had converted to Islam or not, and what sort of religious environment my child was exposed to at home, the answer to which is of course “None of your God damned business”.They made it so hard and complicated that you’d think Pakistan was the world’s premier holiday destination and therefore only the truly dedicated should be allowed to go.

Then once we got there, because we had foreigners in our party, my family got daily phone calls from the local police to make sure said foreigners were still in our possession and weren’t being given an impromptu tour of Waziristan courtesy of our good friends in the Taliban.

But seriously, if you can get past the hellish ordeal of actually securing yourself a visa, tourists in Pakistan are such a rarity that they are treated like royalty. If you keep a low key and observe the customs, you’ll experience a beautiful country as yet untouched by mass tourism.

UPDATE: I’ve changed the pic to one which I own since this post is soon to be featured in Freshly Pressed!

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June 19, 2014 · 2:37 pm

The world outside Athens

Spring time countryside in North Greece

This weekend I took a trip with my family outside of Athens, to the city of Larissa.

Larissa lies about 350 kilometers north of Athens, about 3 and a half hours by car. It’s where my husband’s grandmother grew up and where he spent most of his childhood summers. Incidentally, Larissa has a rather scandalous reputation. The housewives of the city are rumoured to have voracious sexual appetites, to the point of tragedy when a couple of years ago a young soldier stationed in the city is said to have died of exhaustion during a threesome with the city’s famous cougars. I can’t establish if there is any truth to this, though my husband is adamant that it happened.

Half of Greece’s population lives in Athens. It’s easy to get caught up in Athenian life and to forget that outside of this sprawling city lies the rest of Greece. This is the biggest mistake that the Troika make too. They don’t take the time to see what’s going on in the rest of Greece, and this is important, because the rest of Greece is nothing like Athens.

Mainland Greece a few hours out of Athens is like a different world. People are more insular here, though still friendly enough. If Athenians like a good conspiracy theory, then the rest of the country not only indulges in these theories, they actively believe them. That’s not because they are stupid. It’s because outside of Athens, an information vacuum exists, and Greeks here feel that they have been forgotten by the bigshots in Athens. They’re not exactly wrong.

Some of the more fantastical ideas I have heard is that the authorities have been spraying the atmosphere with a chemical that pacifies the Greeks so they don’t cause trouble. This has obviously not worked. The other one was that a political party was going over the areas with a helicopter and throwing snakes into the fields. I can’t remember what justification was given for this one. The evidence was that certain breeds of snake didn’t exist in certain areas, and after a few flyovers by mysterious helicopters, they started appearing.

As we were leaving Larissa, an old neighbour who has known my husband since he was a little boy came to say goodbye. “So you’re leaving then. Back to the city of 5 million thieves and liars” he said. And that’s what it seems the crisis has done to Greece, created an atmosphere of Athens and the rest of the country. When the Troika swan into Athens, demanding this and that, they have no idea what is going on in the rest of the country, how different the pace of life is there. Greece’s much lauded return to the bond market is good news, but I’m afraid it will most likely only be good news for Athens.

Beyond the metropolis, the country is a riot of colours and sprawling countryside. Balconies overflow with flowers and greenery in contrast to Athens, where no one has time to tend to their plants. My husband’s uncle asked him about his work “12 hours a day? You don’t come home for lunch? And you work most weekends? You people in Athens are crazy.” he said. Outside of Athens the cities and villages are suffering from a lack of new life. The young have abandoned the rest of Greece either for the capital or for foreign shores. It’s a pitiful reflection on the country’s government that they pumped so much investment into Athens to the detriment of the rest of the country.

As we drove past the cherry groves outside Agiakombo, I watched property owners working on their seafront buildings and cafes, getting them into shape for the summer. Most of Greece makes its money in the tourist season, and they have to make enough in one summer to get by for the rest of the year. Such a pity, considering the resources, the ski resorts, the hiking trails, climbing trails and brilliant countryside that could so easily be marketed to the outside world.

There are unique cities with unique resources spread throughout the country. It’s a pity that they have, for decade upon decade, just been left to go to seed.

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Greece Expecting Record Tourism in 2013

It’s not often that you hear good news coming out of Greece, so it’s nice to hear that the country is this year expecting a record 17 million tourists. This could be the kiss of life so desperately needed in a country where roughly 20% of the economy relies on tourism.

Each year, Greece receives an estimated 10 million tourists, thus temporarily doubling the country’s population. The last few years, however, have seen a drop due to the unstable economy, the media image of Greece portrayed overseas and of course the strikes, some of which heavily impacted the tourist industry when port employees took part.

Strikes are so common in Greece that there is even a dedicated online portal letting users know who is striking where and on what day.

But the recent crisis seems to be forcing the tourist industry to up its game. Greece has long been famous as a sun and sea destination, opening a tiny 3 month window of opportunity for the tourism industry in the summer months, but then leaving the same tourist destinations empty and bereft of income once all the tourists pour back out.

Not only has Greece needed to reformulate its tourist industry for a long time now, but the country also needs to start promoting itself as an all-year destination. For example, few outside of Greece know of the country’s many and beautiful mountain resorts that provide a refreshing alternative for locals in the summer. Fewer still know of Greece’s ski resorts.

Yes, that’s right. You can go skiing in Greece. And there is much more to Greek cuisine than souvlaki and moussaka – Samonthraki island’s stuffed goat, for example, or Astypalia’s lobsters that are small but packed with flavour. With a local cuisine that is immensely varied, abundant wildlife and an enormous variety of types of holiday to be had in Greece, here’s hoping that the Ministry of Tourism takes advantage of this year’s renewed interest in the country and secures visitors that will be back for more long after the sun has set on the summer season.

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