Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Logic of 7/11s in Bangkok

Day 1 

The best thing about having a job is taking off from it. As soon as you buy your first ticket, a little butterfly breaks out of its cocoon, fluttering about from Tripadvisor to, going a little nutty looking at photographs of deluxe rooms and aqua-colored waters, then laying back to dream of a wide expanse of land with no office to go to…

I actually made a word document scheduling my vacation, and I’m only a little embarrassed about it. I did have Fahad with me, to slow down the planning and cut off sunsets that require 40minute bus rides and snorkeling trips that warrant a 7am wake up time, instead replacing it with slow walks down bright streets and swimming in the most amazing clear sea in Thailand.
The first thing I loved about our trip was not starting with a sleepless night. The flight was comfortably scheduled at 11:55 pm, giving us the whole day to relax, pack (who am I kidding, I was packed two days before) and have some chai before leaving for the airport.

The second thing I liked was the bright pink and purple décor of Thai airways (even the seatbelt was an inky indigo!). And the soft blanket and pillow waiting for us on our seats. Seriously, we know it is going to be freezing as soon as the seatbelt lights go off and then the awkward flagging down of an airhostess and requesting a blanket while five other people want water and headphones and chocolate milk for their screaming kid… putting the pillow and blanket saves us all that trouble.

We did have the customary screaming baby (the prolonged shrill crying that makes you vacillate between sympathy and murder) on our flight but the entertainment system had enough movies and TV shows to drown out most of the sound!

We landed feeling really sleepy, especially Fahad who had chosen his PC over practical sleep the night before, but all we needed was to step out of the plane into the humid warmth of Bangkok to feel alive again. Woohoo. The first breath in foreign air is always energizing, the thought of several days ahead with new sights, soft beds and colorful food, relaxes out my shoulders and puts a super cheesy grin on my face.

The efficient taxi-ticketing system of Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi) got us into a bright green taxi but didn’t solve the dilemma of trusting the taxi driver’s flat rate of 500baht or following the advice of traveling websites and asking for the meter rate. We went for the meter but there was definitely something wrong with it because it sped up faster than hail in a crazy Lahore hailstorm so we reverted to the flat rate.
We realized later that the meter was rigged or something because our other taxis had a much more calming rate of increasing!

 Bangkok is a brilliant city. It’s an eclectic mix of giant billboards, snazzy malls, temples, street vendors, dingy streets and speedy rickshaws. I loved the organized transport – clean trains and buses right on time, easy to hail a taxi or just walk around. I also admire how locals don’t really speak English that well, we had a grand old time at a 7/11 trying to buy our budget airline tickets. Speaking of 7/11, can someone explain why there are more 7/11s in Bangkok than allergic reactions in Karachi? And another mystery is that of Muslim showers in Thailand. And even Laos! The joy of finding a Muslim shower in foreign bathrooms is more than waking up at 6:00 am on a weekday to realize you have an hour and a half of sleep still left.

We got an early check-in at our hotel (only Thailand can give you fancy hotels for the price of less fancy ones) and set out to conquer the city. We managed one temple and decided to take a break – in our defense, it was hot and we were wearing jeans. And uncomfortable shoes.

Tip for fellow travelers: invest in comfortable shoes, if it’s a hot destination then go for those geeky but adventurous looking sandals.

St Louis has trained me well in the art of map-reading, otherwise Fahad and I are both prone to being lost. We bought some mango and corn on our way to the pier where ferries took you to all the temples and plazas and markets tourists need to visit. I don’t think it was the magic of being on holiday (which makes us look at everything – even rickshaws cutely called tuk tuks in a happy light. How quaint! A bazaar with carts set up with brightly colored purses and key chains! Chicken hearts on sticks next to the signpost! Wow!) – that corn was out of this world. It melted in our mouth, the perfect blend of salty and sweet, fresh as if the cornfields were a five minute walk away…

The ferry ride is nice, you can look at a lot of buildings on the side. I especially loved the ancient government houses and offices, and the brilliant green leaves budding in the cracks of dilapidated shacks, their wooden balconies broken, tilting, and a person here or there sitting casually smoking a cigarette, as if on a postcard.

However, I wouldn’t recommend taking the ferry for each destination. It costs 40baht per person per trip and actually, if you go into the city from any one of the ports, you can just walk or hail a tuk tuk or even get a bus to most of the tourist spots.

We got off at the pier in search of the flower market I had read about, only to find lots of cool vegetables, fire red chilies, giant shiny ginger and rows and rows of onions. No flowers though.

Our walk to Wat Pho rendered me into a shiny lobster-face but the temple and its surrounding compound was beautiful. The golden Buddha lay stretched out languorously, leaning on one elbow, smiling beatifically into the distance. Wait for the full photo opportunity towards the end of the hallway, where you rotate among other tourists to snap a picture with all of Buddha.     

If it had been a cooler day, we might have sat at one of the fake waterfalls and had some juice. But the heat spotted our faces in dots of perspiration and my toes hurt so we google mapped our way back to Sukhumvit.

Oh, invest in a tourist SIM and use google maps to get anywhere in Bangkok! The public transit options are accurate and excellent.

The buses are a great way to see more of the city, passing through different neighborhoods, hurtling down wide streets and screeching to stops at the traffic lights. We got off randomly and found ourselves in front of a bar that had jazz music on Sunday afternoons. And it was a Sunday afternoon indeed! It was a cool, baroque bar, practically empty. The jazz ensemble included two old Americans and two young Thai boys – the bass player was really good. I pulled up my feet and had a strange lunch consisting of fish bites, baked potato and spring rolls.

Back to our hotel, a short siesta and then towards MBK center in search of Fahad’s electronicky things. What a lovely time of the day! The sun was resting up in the cloudy sky and the wind became cooler, breezing through our hair and clothes, cooling the humidity of the afternoon. Everything is bathed in a lovely yellow, early evening glow. MBK was not my cup of tea but the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center right across from it was AMAZING! Lit up, clean, airy, with three floors of art and literature. Cute shops, notebooks, tote bags, paintings, coffee – need I say more?

After the center we got a tuk tuk to Khao San Road. The tuk tuk driver seriously thought he was a Formula 1 racer. I’m from Karachi and I have been in some thrilling rickshaw rides but this guy reminded me I’m not 18 anymore!

Had the most delicious pad thai, sitting out on the patio of a restaurant. An interesting thing about Thailand is the number of dogs. Most of them look super cute, with curly hair and floppy ears, but in dire need of baths. People lounge about with their cats and dogs quite casually, and at our restaurant a tiny but dangerously nippy pup chased one of the waitresses, chewing on her ankles as she yelled and everybody around her laughed.

Quite a trippy street! Good for souvenirs and gifts for people back home. After the earlier tuk tuk, I suggested a bus ride home. It was rickety, fast, with no air conditioner but wide open windows. Absolutely loved zipping down the streets, passing lit up monuments and shops, with all the city life showing no signs of sleep, people crowded in restaurants over chopsticks and beer, walking up and down the sidewalks, laden with shopping bags.

What an accomplishment to get off at the right stop on our first day in Bangkok! 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Karachi Likes to Read

Karachi Scribbles VII

Well, not really. To quote Mohammad Hanif, “humein parhney likhnay ka shoq kum hai. Humein BBQ ka shoq hai.”

However, for most of the year we may prefer barbecued kabobs to books, but come the first weekend of February and we forget that for a couple of days. Instead we gather around to listen to writers, activists, politicians, showoffs, playwrights and more; we walk around blue, green, yellow, orange books laid out like bright candies across tabletops and stacked on shelves, the glistening dirty water of the creek by Beach Luxury Hotel catching the sun in the backdrop.

I remember the first Karachi Literature Festival, back in 2010, and how incredulous I was at the idea of walking in for free and listening to some of my favorite Pakistani authors and those I hadn’t ever read, of getting the chance to hear a heartthrob former instructor talk in that articulate way that makes you believe in things, going over a program to figure out if I wanted to hear views on politics or art or how fiction and drama intersect. Actually walk past these guys and discover which ones have an ego resting beneath their chin, propping it higher than necessary, and which ones are just cute and wear mismatched socks.

Five years later, the festival has become much bigger with over 70,000 people (the stats from 2014) walking in through the metal scanners over the spread of three days and although I don’t quite like having to push through people for my free water bottle (seriously, sometimes I like corporations because they arrange for free things at already free festivals) and have uncles trip over my feet in their excitement to shake a famous person’s ordinary hand, I can take a step back and appreciate it.

It was a bright blue sky with a smattering of white clouds, the palm trees looked taller, more like we were at a beach in Florida, and the breeze wafted sweetly, moving the canopy over main garden and softening the heat of the sun, making people sitting in the shade glad they had their shawls and light jackets.

I didn’t get a chance to sit in on more than two sessions (to tell you the truth the speakers and topics this year weren’t very exciting to me) but I enjoyed both. The first was in the open area under the abovementioned canopy with the abovementioned Mohammad Hanif. Seriously, there are few men who can pull off light pink pants and a white shirt with a matching pink print of thankfully tiny polka dots, but M.H is definitely one of them.

I like listening to him because he’s funny, witty and disarmingly honest. There are no airs about him at all. He admits to making things up on the spot (rather than give a convoluted abstract reasoning that people can only slightly tell they kind of don’t really understand but like the sound of). He told his audience how he actually hates the process of writing. While other authors would extol the painful but rewarding process of penning their lofty thoughts down, about how they can see themselves do nothing but write and it just comes to them like dryness to ankles in the winter, M.H. said he procrastinates for ages when it comes to writing. I like the finished products though, he had added. (So do we.) He talked about his son who overthinks the act of getting his dad a glass of water, and he shared his thoughts about how hard it is to be a journalist, and the responsibility of media, so forth.

The moderator was a funny lady if a little self-involved (I mean why do you need to read so many things written by a writer who is actually sitting there cross-legged in his pink pants next to you?). She was theatrical though and I did enjoy M.H’s discomfort when she brought up his description of female anatomy. “I think a writer always regrets having written things like that,” he had mumbled and tried to shift her attention elsewhere, mentioning the kids in the audience.

And the audience! Whenever the discussion shifts to the question answer part, I wait for a few minutes. There are certain kinds of people who stand up and ask for the mic. Some have interesting questions but most say things like: “Writers don’t make too much money … blah blah… you must have made quite a lot of money with your bestsellers!” and since that wasn’t direct enough, the kind lady went on to ask M.H. about how much he really made.

Then there are the ones who just want to complain and say things that don’t really need a reply, and to that M.H. would say: “I guess I’ll try harder next time.” Almost all of these questioners love to hear themselves talk, sometimes losing track of what they had wanted to ask in their useless comments aired aloud (things like: I love coming here to the literature festival.)

The next session had an Indian theater person as well as a British writer along with three Pakistani literati. The moderator lady, however, really shouldn’t have. Been a moderator, I mean. She kept forgetting she was in a large hall with a lot of people sitting far from the stage and so instead of eliciting responses from the panelists in clear, loud tones she would start mumbling away from the mic, an incomprehensible accented muttering of words as annoying as the buzz of mosquitoes that tickles our ears when we’re trying to fall asleep at night. The speakers though were better and they brought the theater scene in Bangalore and that in England in comparison with the experiences in Pakistan, highlighting a lot that we lack here but some things that can take pride in too.

Another thing worth mentioning about KLF is that unlike the other festivals (Creative Karachi and Karachi Eats), you don’t see the same class of people milling about. The free entry, a location with grass, water and some not-too-pricey food options, it allows a lot of people to come in and listen to talks about tolerance, poetry and politics or even just walk around. Students from colleges and public schools browsed books and ate biryani from Styrofoam plates, there were jeans and scarves and shalwar kameezes and just a lot of Karachi. Maybe a few years from now, the food festival will be able to break down the barriers just a little bit too.

The late afternoon sun was beautiful, orange and mellow, making it hard to take selfies without squinting (unless you were cool and wearing sunglasses like all cool people do), and casting the entire place in a golden glow, with the wind and an occasional rower out in the water, hot tea and bun kababs, books and writers, and perhaps a friend or two, it really was a lovely time to be in Karachi.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pulling the Reins on 2015

Karachi Scribbles VI

Many, many years ago, time used to be slow. Like an old goods train that ran on coal, chugging forward at an agreeable pace and sometimes breaking down, creaking to a stop, catching its breath, letting everyone else pause for a bit too.

I can still recall the phrase “I’m bored” – but barely; a time when when computer applications were restricted to Paint and that mines game which I never understood but continued to play; when the summer days would stretch in front of us in languid luxury, the total number of TV channels under the count of five, when there was actually so much time that I would do my summer vacation homework: which was to buy stickers of fruits and vegetables and paste them neatly in ‘scrapbooks’ (the term scrapbook had a different meaning then – multicolored pages inside an ugly cover of a thin notebook), not exactly an exercise of critical thinking. I mean seriously. Fruit stickers?

We had so much time we would make up races like the Titanic race (in which two people are required to run while observing the Jack-and-Rose at the helm of the ship pose) and the Kaho na Pyar Hai race (doing the dance step that became so famous back in the day).

The days when nobody ever used the phrase: “I just don’t have the time for it…” but still managed to do so much more.

When a year would end and the next would come up all bright and shiny, it would take several weeks to get the date right on our notebooks. Now when I think back to how old I am, it takes me a minute to remember, or when I’m talking about my graduation day I pause and wonder, was it 2012 or 2011? It was one thing when days would pass by so quickly they would start to merge into one slightly longer period than individual periods of time, to be spent and felt individually. Now years pass by at the same speed, blending together, making it difficult to remember how old nephews and nieces are at present, what really, he’s three! It feels like yesterday that you put up pictures of his first birthday…! When did we get married, what year did Grandpa die, how many wait its been two years already?

When we do so much in one year – get new jobs, promotions, travel to Thailand five times, meet up with friends over endless cups of tea and wedding celebrations (wait did Azeem get married this year or last? Do you know Bina actually has a baby now! What, didn’t she get married six months ago… oh wait, we don’t have time to actually pause and think back now, let’s watch a movie instead.), eat too many nachos, spend too many hours being stationary and watching TV – but since there’s so much to do we forget to pause and take it in. And which is why we forget.

On the last day of 2014, I was driving back and the idea of a new year was bringing me down. It had been a sad December for all Pakistanis, but there was also a stirring panic about how quickly it had ended. I like to be prepared, and I love making to-do lists so new year’s resolutions are always fun for me. Just another opportunity to pen down bullet points on a cute piece of paper. But nothing was coming to mind. The sky was so pale, the buildings shrouded in a strange, surreal mist.

That night, however, the sky cleared up. Bright stars and twinkling lights all over buildings, marking weddings, the new year, and Rabi-ul Awwal, while the distant sounds of sirens pre-empting raucous revelries echoed in the cold winter air. A calmness settled slowly, the airy feeling of having reached a decision. This year, my resolution is to slow down time.

I’m going to try and really live each day, but more than that, at the end of the day I’ll take out a few minutes to think about it. How’d it go? What was fun? What was kinda not fun at all? Just a few lines in my journal about what made this day different from the one before, so that they don’t all just merge into one another like ink stains, indistinguishable and messy, easily tossed into the dust of yesterdays.  

And so far it seems to be working. I’m on Day 22 and I can remember that I sang along to Wonderwall on the first day of the year as I drove to work. That yesterday, I met Dija over a cupcake and Belgian Chocolate coffee on a noisy café terrace. And last Thursday, I went to my Zumba class against all willpower odds. That the weekend before last, Fahad and I went out for breakfast then watched too many movies all day.

I’m not saying I’ve developed a photographic memory and each day is a clear snapshot in my mind, but at least I somewhat feel the passing of days, the recognition of dates, like I flip a calendar page every day (if calendar pages were of days instead of months). It also brings into perspective what I’m spending more time on– am I brawling too much over late dinners? Do we need to eat out more? Less? Watch more TV shows instead of movies? Do I like my work? How long will it take me to take out time and watch the sun rise?

I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep this up but so far, it feels good to have some sort of a grip on this new year.  Maybe this year while living it I’ll actually remember it. You know, just take some time out of our busy schedules to realize what the heck are we so busy with anyways.