Sunday, October 27, 2013

Day 2: Shame is of Zero Yuan

October 19

I’m not much of a shopper, most definitely a weak bargainer.  And that put me at a severe disadvantage for today’s mission: to shop.  Since uncle was gracious enough to spend his Saturday taking us to a few choice malls and markets, we started the day with some mild hustling at the Chinese sabzi mandi.  Once again the sad, cute strays, trudging amidst heaps of beautiful looking vegetables: bright purple eggplant, perfectly crafted Chinese cabbage (which looks like fancy lettuce) and gigantic squash type green vegetables that weighed as much as a baby whale.  Or at least a baby human.

We bought enough vegetables to set up a small mandi of our own and as we drove off, I saw a lady holding her adorable baby in her lap, his butt exposed to the world, and almost as disturbingly, to the vegetables all around her.  I hoped she was just airing his baby behind and not mistaking the middle of her cabbage stall for a bathroom cubicle.  

We passed more crumbling walls, dusty, potholed roads and bare shops on our way downtown but then the landscape changed.  It was as sudden as erasing an untidy drawing on an Etch-a-Sketch and replacing it with a lovely, completely different picture.  Beautiful architecture, shimmering skyscrapers we couldn’t see the tops of without craning our necks, clean highways, brighter colors everywhere.  Even the sun came out from behind clouds and we finally saw that the sky in Beijing too could be blue.  ‘If only Pakistan could be this developed too,’ my dad said wistfully.  I countered with my definition of development, reminded him of the neighborhood we walked into just yesterday, the pollution, the gap between the rich and the poor, and the overworked labor class.  I’d rather have a better education system than a skyline of shiny buildings, I told him.  Not that we have that either but we have to get our priorities right.  China’s bullet train we do not need; Kerala’s literacy rate, a much better goal to aspire towards.

I heard my first English words from the Chinese in the four-storey shopping center we went to.  From pearls to sneakers to more iPhone covers than the mind can comprehend – and the only words the salespeople can speak are to goad you into buying their wares. 

There is insane bargaining here, we had been forewarned in Pakistan and reminded by uncle.  You can get whatever you want, just let me negotiate the price, my dad said and I reluctantly agreed. 
But then we walked into the bag section and Abu went somewhere else …

If you so much as looked at something for longer than two seconds, the overzealous shopkeepers would wave it in your face, ‘you like?’ and if God forbid you asked how much, they would whip out their calculators, write down an arbitrary figure and then when I dutifully made the incredulous face of a diehard bargainer, they would slash it by 20% and if the incredulity increased, cut it down further.  The trouble with me is I start to feel bad.  At one of the stalls in the bag section, I asked the price of an impeccable Gucci copy.  ‘RNB1,230 but for you, RNB640!” the sweet looking salesgirl told me, automatically cutting the price down because she felt an instant, hard-to-deny kindred connection with me.  Follow the incredulous face and two reductions, then like everyone else, she handed me the calculator and asked me to name a price.  I consulted with mom who told me I should write down RNB50 but I was horrified.  The asking price had been like 13 times more than that (I had to use a calculator to figure this out and even now I’m not sure I did the math right)!  “I can’t mom, that’s just shameful,” and I typed 80 and showed it to mom and then the lady.  Her eyes nearly fell out in theatrical amazement.  Since we didn’t actually have any money with us and had to wait for dad to dish out the dough, we walked off.  But the lady actually followed us with the bag in her hand, shouted louder when we tried to ignore her and then took us by the arm and back to the shop.  ‘You take it, 80!’ she said.

I was incredibly proud of my feat till mom showed the bag to uncle and he confirmed her suspicions. ‘I would have gotten it for you for 40,’ he said and my joy deflated, but only a little bit, because I knew I was incapable of this high level skill.  My dad made it up on the second bag purchase which I happily told him to handle.  This was just too difficult. The salespeople were almost violent in their zeal to sell your something for an unethical profit and I could see too many amazing knockoffs to put my wallet in.
‘I can’t do this, I’m really stressed out,’ I told my parents, my mom agreed and my dad did too – at least then.  We went to two more shopping centers and by the end of it, my dad felt he had perfected the skill of striking the right deal.

‘You just have to write down the lowest number possible and start from there,’ he told us and I patted him on the back because I was extremely pleased with the black teapot I got.
We have decided, however, to not go shopping tomorrow.  Maybe some other day this week – I do want to get more deliciously cheap, great-looking, fake-branded bags.    

Helpful fact: One Yuan is roughly equal to 18.5 rupees.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Day 1: Laughing in Chinese

October 18

Who goes to China?
I suppose 26-year-old women about to lose their free PIA tickets (to the joys of marriage).  It was really my parents’ idea and I acquiesced to it (the most aptly I have ever used the word ‘acquiesced’!).  It is a seven-day affair and we are staying at my dad’s friend’s house.  He lives here alone while his family lives in Pakistan and therefore has plenty of space to spare.

According to my dad who is visiting after at least 20 years – and general knowledge around the world – Beijing has transformed drastically.  The airport was impeccable, systematic, quiet, neat.  The sweet immigration officer barely looked at our faces as he stamped us through.  Is it because he doesn’t know English or because he assumes we don’t? I wondered but gave him a ‘greatly satisfied’ rating.  There were Likert-scale rating buttons outside each cubicle! 

Stepping out into Beijing, even at the airport, it felt like I had suddenly lost the ability to read.  There was hardly any English anywhere and the Chinese script felt a bit like the strange symbols word documents sometimes inexplicably transform themselves into.  So this is how illiteracy feels, I mused, thinking about how prevalent English is on billboards and signs in Pakistan.  Since I can read both English and Urdu, I can’t be too sure, but I definitely recognized the blessings of having an education.  There is a deep confusion, a feeling of being lost and unsure when you can’t understand what is written around you (directions, menus, billboards, traffic signs).  How easily we forget daily benefits.

The tall snazzy buildings, highways crisscrossing more highways, and expensive cars yelled out modernization.  On an environmental note, the sky was weighed down with dense smog.  Drained of all color, a haze hung outside, isolating the sun and making it look lonely.  I saw people wearing masks and thought I would hate to live in a city where I had to wear a mask every time I stepped out of my house.  ‘When I came here (perhaps around 35 years ago) there were only bikes and bikes,’ my mom said, looking at the congested traffic.  There were still a lot of bikes – a variety of them, revamped to carry your groceries, a friend, a pet or a family of three, but definitely more four-wheel vehicles now. 

There are also a surprising number of stray dogs and cats here, which is also common in Pakistan but less so in other countries I have visited.  Strangely though, the stray dogs here are adorable and fluffy.  I am dubious of the breed but these are not the strays from Pakistani alleys.  They belong more to nice old ladies in apartments. 

Speaking of houses, the one where we are living in is in a secure, lovely complex. But just outside a different world trudges long.  Our first walk out was a bit of a disappointment.  Dust followed us like the smoke running after cars, the sidewalks were broken and often disappeared suddenly.  The traffic is rude and you are as likely to get run over here as you are in Karachi.  Except here the chances of being run over by a Benz or a BMW are much higher.  A general air of rundown poverty dulled all colors and made the air heavy.  We were in search of a grocery store but found none within a two kilometer radius.  We did, however, walk into a surreal neighborhood with street food vendors cooking all sorts of meat and vegetables on sticks.  There were strange shops selling clothes, beer, shoes, a dim and dank warehouse-turned-store where an old man sat on a child’s plastic car and a dog strolled comfortably down the aisles. 

Men played cards on squat chairs and I saw an adorable Chinese child on discarded sofas in a dusty lane.  I snapped a picture and he looked at me so I waved and smiled.  He got down from the chairs and took a menacing (as menacing as a three-year-old can be) step forward.  He uttered a Chinese word which I obviously did not understand but had a strong suspicion was a curse.  I tried smiling even wider and he scowled even deeper and said the same word again.  I gulped, looked around to make sure there weren’t any angry adults around and quickly walked off.

Which kid doesn’t like being photographed!? I have never met a child in Pakistan who did not love posing in front of a camera.  But lesson learned I guess.  No regrets though because I think it made for a good picture anyways!

My mom and I wandered past some more food carts and saw a bag of buns.  “Bread?” my adorable mother asked, pointing at the bag.  The woman behind said something in Chinese and we smiled the smile of incomprehension.  There was an exchange of amused Chinese words and then raucous laughter.  When you don’t know the language and people around you laugh, you always feel insecure and think you’re being made fun of.  And usually you are being made fun of.
Inwardly indignant we walked away and decided to head home.  Not coming this route again, we resolved.  Mean laughter in Chinese sounds the same as mean laughter in Urdu.

Another cute fact about this house is that there is no wireless internet.  Actually, so far there is no internet at all.  I don’t have a phone service here either so I am quite out of touch, digitally speaking.  Mostly I am enjoying the peace disconnection brings, but every now and then it feels like I am missing a body part.  Not something essential but something that is still integral to my existence … maybe like my left pinkie.  Or a toenail.

I do of course have time to play cards with my parents.  And cook aaloo gobi.  And write.  But I don’t know if I can continue to cook aaloo gobi for the next six days. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013


October 4

I saw a fake nail in the gym today.  It was lying all alone by a yoga mat and two 4kg weights and although I am no expert, I am positive that the pink, plasticky-fingernail shaped object was a fake fingernail (at least I hope it was fake).  And it just really bummed me out.  And then it reminded me of how Myra and I didn’t get our Greece visa.  I’m not sure how my brain made the association between the fallen nail and our dashed hopes of bare feet burrowing in white sands and sneakered-treks to the Acropolis… maybe cause the nail bummed me out and not getting the visa bummed me out and all bummy thoughts are shoved together on the same shelf inside my mind? (Of course it is organized inside there.  I alphabetized my books for crying out loud.)

Or maybe the forlorn nail reminded of the word ‘rejection’.  Nobody likes that word.  In fact, we are terrified of it – it makes our stomach plunge, gives us nightmares, aims for our confidence and self-esteem like Mohammad Ali aiming for a knock-out.  There are so many ideas, so many paths we want to traverse but the fear of meeting the intimidating, demeaning, ego-shattering Rejection at the end – or midway – makes us baulk, shake our heads, quickly look over our shoulders to see if anybody noticed we were going to do something potentially crazy and awesome, no, safe to drop it all and turn away.  And so, there are dreams and ideas that we put away, fold into tiny, tiny squares and slip beneath our mattresses, pretending to forget till we eventually do.
Submit a story to a competition, float the idea for a quirky cafĂ© to a potential investor? Apply to the best university, to the fine arts program we salivated over months ago but now that the deadline approaches… nah, let’s do something doable and mundane, something that is expected, something that is less likely to push you into Rejection, which stands like a stony, silent wall, not even noticing when you collide into it and break into tiny pieces.

Relationships, jobs, schools – there are too many places where the word looms. 

And then there are things we rush into, cartwheeling and skipping merrily because the odds are stacked so high in our favor that we can’t even see the small pile of warnings meekly trying to attract our attention.

“You will get the visa, I am 99.9% sure!” my father and my uncle were both certain likely only men in our family can be certain.  And honestly, it made sense to me too; Myra and I are unthreatening females, have studied in the US and have successfully gotten visas to multiple countries – including Schengen which we were applying for to visit Greece; we had all the required documents, two cousins who wanted to chill out on a balcony in Athens and sip some juice, lay on the beach at Santorini and thank God for it all.  Our success rate with visas had been 100% and we were rationally arrogant, nonchalantly cocky.

Our plan started as a whim, dreamed up simultaneously by Myra and I, and then slowly pieced together logically: an eight-day getaway first in Athens and then Santorini, an island a few hours away by ferry.  I spent too many afternoons meticulously drawing up a day-by-day plan, browsing Tripadvisor, reading comments and sifting through photographs, typing up notes for the Best Trip Ever 2013.  It had headings. And subheadings. And hyperlinks to visual depictions of stated idea.   

Looking back, if there was a clue about the eventual disappointment this non-trip was going to be, it was the morning we went to the embassy to submit required documents.  Located on a main road in F6 with limited to no parking, the embassy is a hidden bungalow behind trees and gates.  The guards outside have the (legitimate or not) authority to send people away without ever letting them in past the gate.  And nobody gets to go inside the bungalow it seemed.  After being gruffly told to sit here, not there, stand further, not this, go there, breathe slower, wait – a lady pokes her head outside to take our documents.  She returns and asks us to separate the documents.  We separate the documents that we can – our travel bookings, tickets, hotels and sponsor letter can only be separated if we tear them into two pieces.  We are after all travelling together.  We explain the situation to her and she nods.
She returns. “They’re saying separate your documents.”  The first hints of frustration dot our skins and prick at our patience.  I repeat how we have already separated things we could.  “I explained but they said separate…” we haggle for a minute or so and then she finally goes in for another try. Why are there incompetent go-betweens, I wondered, why is the lady who checks our purses also performing the duty of an unnecessary messenger for the embassy officials? It was like we were forced into a game of Chinese Whispers, wondering if our messages were relayed properly.

When we finally got called in for the interview – one by one – I was told to walk up to a black screen and speak into a microphone.  I couldn’t see who I was talking to but she could see me as I answered her ridiculously long and winded questions (she also asked me how I knew Mr. Koltek, mispronouncing the name of my uncle’s company and mistaking it for his name.  Definitely a star employee, this lady behind the screen here).  Myra’s was shorter but she was asked to submit another unnecessary document and as we left we talked about the ridiculous setup. We’d both gone through some annoying embassies but this topped the list of inconveniences.

There were a few people standing outside who had travelled from outside of Islamabad to come here, probably not really dying to see Athena the goddess but having more imperative reasons like family and employment waiting for them in Greece.  It was frustrating even to watch the treatment meted out to them.  I can only imagine how they must have felt.  The forms are in English, complicated, and they require you to book your tickets in advance, have hotel reservations and traveler insurance.  Is there really nobody designated to help people less-versed in English with the application process?   
“But I don’t know what is wrong with my paperwork…” a man says in bewilderment, his smile turned upside down by his short excursion into the embassy, the guard looks at the documents and together they guess at what the issue could be.    

After Myra submitted the extra paperwork, our wait began.  After two weeks ended we started to panic because our travel date was coming up fast, and we realized we might not get our visas in time.  Myra called, I called, she visited the embassy and faced the same frustration with the less-than-literate messengers that scurry back and forth between the black screen lady to people outside in what seemed to be a mind bogglingly inefficient system.

And then finally the Thursday before our flight (embassy closes early on Friday and stays shut till Monday. Flight is on Monday night) we visited again and were told the Greek embassy officials had forwarded our request about urgent travel dates but they hadn’t heard anything and frankly, they couldn’t give a damn.  Okay, so they didn’t really use those words but it didn’t take a genius to figure out nobody really cares whether you’re losing thousands of rupees over mismanagement and lack of support in a needlessly complicated procedure.  Doesn’t Greece need our touristy money?  I thought their economy wasn’t doing so well!

After Friday we both decided to come to terms with the fact that we couldn’t go.  Of course a little tendril of hope remained suspended in our hearts, like an annoying child who keeps tugging at your shirt for more candy even though you yelled at him a minute ago, incorrigibly silly.  And then Monday played out like a Bollywood/Lollywood depiction of a cricket match.  When Myra called the embassy they told her we could pick up our passports on Tuesday, 9:30 am.  Our flight was four hours earlier! The thought of missing our dream vacation by a thread was too painful and Myra started making some phone calls.  Our two-pronged strategy was to try and get the passports that same day or push our tickets back a little without incurring too much additional cost.  Finally Myra told me she was going to go pick up our passports.  I was – to use a North American white girl expression – super excited.  I did a little bhangra for mum (who of course was not super excited that I was going to Greece with just my cousin) and started laying out my outfits for the eight days, checking the weather in Athens and Santorini.  And then as I walked into my room with my pink pants, my phone rang again. 

“Our visas were rejected.”  Oh that awful word.  “We didn’t get them!”

It was like I had been unexpectedly tossed on to cloud nine and then a few minutes later the cloud evaporated.  Not only was it terribly disappointing, it was also kind of embarrassing.  Who was going to put away all these colorful jeans and shirts!

I eventually got over it, just like we get over our other First World/Third World Elite problems – sitcoms and McDonalds.  But other than the disappointment, we were also really angry.  It didn’t seem fair.  If complete paperwork like we had submitted received a rejection, what of all the people waiting outside, barely able to understand the idiosyncrasies of visa forms, accidentally ticking the wrong answer?  And the guard who kept sending people away, the safety-check lady who lost messages in translation like water in a sieve, the embassy official who couldn’t differentiate between the name of a man and his company?  The people who spent thousands of rupees to visit the embassy only to be told to ‘come later’ for no conclusive reason?  “I took a day off from work, I live a 100 kilometers away from here,” one man had argued.   

It makes me sad.  This world has so much to offer –craggy cliffs, sprawling glaciers, whales in the deep blue ocean arching gracefully like silky black rainbows in the water, deserts, forests, cable cars that carry you to the top of the mountain where lounge chairs sit at the edge, looking out at the tops of beautiful mountains… amazing feats of architecture, incredible natural treasures, so much diversity, so much that can help expand our minds, create peace and love and surround us with the fleeting gift of happiness.  Whenever I see something amazing a part of me is always sad at this person or that friend not sharing it with me, and I would think of the kids in small city schools, in Pakistan and in America, that I worked with, and I would wish they could see this.  They would be bowled over with excitement and awe…

If only there was a train that anyone who wanted could board and then travel anywhere in the world.  A universal express that cost nothing and went up mountains, through hills, over bridges and in ferries, creating connections, writing cheesy, cheery messages in the blue sky with its old world locomotive smoke…

Instead we have borders and restrictions and stupid visa regulations that separate families and reject spontaneous happy plans.  Sigh.  

Rejection.  Such an ugly word.