Sunday, February 26, 2017

Let’s Get Trippin’

First, it is just the thought, a fledging plan scribbled inside a notebook or a pastel image that reflects on the back of your eyelids when you close your eyes – toes digging into soft, warm sand … a deep breath in to inhale the fragrance of cold mountain air tinged with the scent of tea leaves … the tinkle of ice in a glass of pink lemonade as you sit on patchy grass watching the sun set behind a lake …

Then it’s actually living out your plans, stepping into museums you’ve read reviews about or getting lost on your way somewhere and stumbling into something new …
And finally, it’s the memories that make you smile on a gloomy Monday or while you stare out through the dusty blinds on your window, making you forget your itchy throat and your runny nose, dimming the fluey-head ache and making you think how fortunate you are to take time out for travel.

Travelling is definitely one of the best ways to spend your money –experiences are worth more and they last longer than material things that wear out or get ruined by puppies or sisters or errant washing machines.  

Planning trips while reading guides and browsing AirBnb homes to strike the perfect balance between a cosy yet artistic yet not-expensive home to spend time in, and then later reliving the trip make for the perfect buns to sandwich a trip in.  And there are so many different kinds of travelling – with family or friends or your significant other or just by yourself, and each kind has its own merit and I think must be experienced at least once in your life.

I went to Liverpool last week and since I was going by myself (Fahad to join later), I decided to get to the station early, picked up my tickets to ease my anxious heart and then walked down with my faithful trolley bag to pick out a coffee shop – there was a lovely one with ‘Coffee Shop’ scrawled on its window (no pretenses there), orange filament bulbs casting the perfect dreamy glow inside, stained glass windows, faint music and goat-cheese, rocket & beetroot sandwiches.

Travelling alone definitely gives you lots of time to people-watch – the perfectly-combed hair man with his Mac plugged in and his iPhone charging, an empty cup of coffee arranged as if somebody is going to snap a photograph of him and post it on Instagram immediately; the couple sitting next to the wall who appeared to be worried or fighting but then later were holding their hands over their cappuccino mugs; and the other older couple with huge backpacks and a chubby baby who nibbled on carrot cake the entire time they were in the café; and the man who snuck into the bathroom just when I wanted to go and spent enough time in there to convince me to try my luck at the toilets at the train station instead…

Liverpool was bigger than I had imagined it – with a bustling train station and all possible cuisines lined down the same road leading to a stereotypical China town with an ornate gateway, dragon statues and red paper lanterns swinging in the wind.

There are no words to describe the comforts of my cousin’s beautiful home – tucked away in a lovely neighborhood by a park and riverside walk.  Two days of utter laziness and rejuvenation in which I didn’t have to worry about doing the laundry or figuring out what to cook or whether I should empty the vacuum cleaner before running it over our tiny but confoundingly quick-to-dirty apartment floors…  Almost-10 year old Aleezay had generously donated her bedroom to me, complete with a selection of fuzzy stuffed toys huddled together in the middle of the bed.

Breakfast was the best part of the day – I would shuffle into the kitchen to find all three of them already there, the candle lit in the middle of the marble island sending out wafts of caramel cookies, surrounded by cereals, jams, laid out already with plates and cups. The pale morning light streamed in from large windows, the daffodils in their vase nodded a bright yellow hello to me, and then Hisham would whip up a frothy coffee from their fancy coffee machine.  We played I-Spy or watched cooking shows on the small TV in the kitchen and Sadaf baji would make something delicious – cheese, olive and green onion omelets one day, pancakes the next.  Afterwards, we would retire to the shaggy gray rug by the fireplace in the lounge, where the pink scrabble board was already laid out.


On Saturday, we picked up Fahad and Sharik from the train station and had a delicious dinner at the Turkish restaurant, then went to the docks.

Albert docks were probably my favorite part of the city – right by the water, surrounded by museums for anyone and everyone – from art to local history to slavery to music to maritime, and around the corner you might run into statues of sailors or the Beatles.  The city may be more famous for being the Beatles’ hometown but there’s definitely more to it.  It has a beautiful, romantic, sweet feel to it.  Whether you want to have a cup of coffee by the pier, or just gaze at the ships and watch the sun set into a suffused golden pink sky, maybe whisper a secret and clasp on a lock on the chain-linked fenced by the bay … there is something for everyone.

Matthew Street is brilliant for a night out.  It is absolutely buzzing with lights and music.  And quite unlike other places, there is actually great quality music – from the 80s dance hits to soothing indie tracks in pizza shops. 

The Cavern Club (the original Cavern Club where the Beatles used to play was shut down in the 70s due to construction of a railway loop that was never really built but this one is reconstructed on 75% of the same space, using as much of the original material as possible.  The dingy slightly claustrophobic space was hopping with great music, including, of course, Beatles cover songs but more from the same decade and there was a diverse audience, including a younger crowd (and by younger I mean more around our age – late 20s, early 30s) to ladies with white hair braided down their backs and pot-bellied men nodding their heads along to music they must have been listening to since they were in their teens.
The last two nights were at an AirBnb, a garage/barn converted into a cozy, quaint apartment with a comfy yellow couch and one of our favorite parts about vacations –TV! After a long day out walking around, what better way to end the evening than curl up on the couch with cups of green tea, chocolate and Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

People in Liverpool were really friendly – if smiles were pennies I think I would have collected almost a dime in just one café (Leaf at Bold Street – what a scrumptious breakfast!) … the bus drivers seemed less enthusiastic than our Notts fellows but the taxi drivers were warm and friendly, or maybe it is just the singsong Liverpudlian (no, seriously, that’s what people from Liverpool call themselves!) accent which makes whatever comes out from their mouths, seem sweet.

One of our taxi drivers actually took a little detour on Sharik’s request and drove up to Strawberry Fields – which aren’t really beautiful green fields spotted with bright red fruit but instead red gates blocking entry to an overgrown yard with graffiti scribbled on the gate posts … 
It’s never about just positive experiences – like the grumpy uncle who woke Fahad up and made us move on the train because he “had a reservation” and really, nobody sits according to seat numbers on that train so we had other people sitting on our seats and had to sit separately while the Grinch rolled his giant suitcase and sat it next to himself on his ‘reserved’ seat.  But it is definitely an enriching experience, if you’re brave enough to take the public buses and get lost and ask others for help, or maybe trust that the taxi driver isn’t going to take you to a quiet corner and murder you but actually take you to the place that inspired the song ‘Strawberry Fields’, light a cigarette for himself and insist persistently to take a photograph of all three people smack in the middle of the red gate.

AirBnb has made travelling even more interesting, getting you to live in local homes decorated with personal touches and walk around in neighborhoods that you wouldn’t otherwise visit, and I’ve always found that sitting on a bus is a great way to see a city, its shops and people and traffic lights and corners, and a little planning never hurts as long as you’re willing to let go off the itinerary to veer into a different direction just because you like the song they’re playing on the radio…

And with that, I’m going to put my head back and visualize one of my favorite trips ever – scroll through the memories and settle on the one in which the four of us sat on the steps near the Vatican Museums on a path shaded by trees, the breeze had finally cooled a bit, and we sipped our freshly squeezed orange juice … oblivious to the next two hours that we would spend getting lost and walking uphill on a very warm day in Rome…

Travelling is definitely something to aspire to. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Did You Know You're On a Bandwagon?

The door opens and she slips in quietly, rubbing her cold hands together, then as the door closes behind her, she steps forward, walking past people sitting on small wooden tables and blowing her icy breath at them, chuckling to herself as they shiver and reach out to wrap their hands around teal cups of hot coffee.

At least that’s how I imagine it because every time the door opens, there is a short pause before the cold air reaches me, a languid passing by, almost distracted, like the smell of someone’s perfume as they pass by or the suspension of smoke in the afternoon light inside a dim room.

Fahad and I have divergent views on civil protests and demonstrations – while thousands of people, friends and strangers, gathering together to speak out for human (or animal) rights tugs at my heart strings and pokes at my tear ducts (enough for 2-4 tear drops), Fahad scoffs at what he calls ‘idiots getting together for something they have no idea about’ or more succinctly - ‘hypocrites’! He says that too many people join a popular social movement not because they have researched the underlying principles of the protest or read up on the opposing side to make sure they actually do believe in what they are holding up a witty sign for.  Too many people join in for other reasons – their friends are posting about it, everyone in the office is doing it, they’re bored, they want to brag about being rebellious, or they’re frustrated about something else and standing next to other people and shouting really loudly is therapeutic.  I say that it doesn’t matter (too much) if people are part of a large movement for different and sometimes not so noble reasons, because if only a puritan group was out there waving banners and demanding justice, it would not have such an impact.  There is strength in numbers and if a little hypocrisy needs to be stirred into the mix to make sure that something happens, then so be it.

But both Fahad and I agree on one thing – these days too many of us do too many things we don’t really put much thought behind.

It is understandable  - we’re busy folks.  From the minute our eyes open and then close back to wait for the alarm to ring, to scrolling our newsfeed before finally rolling ourselves out of bed, from our days filled with work and coffee, social media and TV shows, lunch breaks and emails, and ending with sleep, the blue-white screens of our phones lulling us to restless sleep; from our carefully planned ‘getaways’ to tightly scheduled solitude at the edge of a magnificent cliff – we are constantly on the go.  So a lot of what we do has become routine, is influenced by what most people around us are doing and doesn’t necessarily come out of a real need or belief in its utility, rightness nor a consideration of any indirect impacts that our actions might have.

Wiping aside the vague words (like a wide sweeping arc on a table littered with crumbs), I’m specifically referring to our life on social media.  From our obsession with frothy cappuccinos to brightly colored breakfast to our declarations of love for our husbands (who for many of us reside in the same house and not a thousand miles away holed up in an igloo in Alaska), to our birthday wishes commemorated by cute photographs, to long, personal messages for mothers-in-law shared with the world, from videos of our babies smiling their first smiles to polaroids of our brand new cars or very expensive bags…

I try to practice tolerance and pacifism, I try to stem judgmental thoughts and criticism because I do believe that we need to be positive and angle ourselves in the position that is best suited to see the sun.  Everyone is entitled to their life and their actions as long as it doesn’t impinge on another’s freedom – I do believe that.  But a lot of our social media lives are not as innocuous as we might think.

I’ve been pondering over it for a while, especially when impulse tells me to post a photograph for my sister’s birthday or a status update about how cute it is that my husband got me dark chocolate (actually I’ve fortunately never gotten an impulse for the latter), I pause and think about it – why should I?

There should be some reason for why we do things.  Even if it’s something really  straightforward and base/basic – I’m having a cup of coffee because I enjoy drinking coffee.  I’m taking a nap because I’m sleepy and gloomy.  I’m buying a book because I like to read and I also like to just look at my collection of books.

I am posting a photograph of the really expensive perfume my husband got me because …? At worst, it could be a half-acknowledged need to brag and prove that you have something other people don’t; at best it could be an effusion of your joy that you can’t stem and you think it won’t have any negative effects on other people.  Most likely, you don’t really think about why you’re doing it and how it will impact those who see it.
I am going to write a really long message about how much I love my sister because…? That’s what most people do now? Because a private message just isn’t good enough? A public declaration makes it more true? Because I want other people to know I love my sister, because that makes my sister fluff up like a sparrow in winter?

I do think that the current culture has negative effects that may outweigh the positive ones. 

People are inclined to draw comparisons, and to make comparisons while turned in the direction that is usually going to make them feel worse off.  (Another one of God’s little jokes, I think, slipping in this urge to gloominess, to see the neighbor’s grass as greener than ours, to always look at the bigger houses on the street and the prettier ladies on the street).  And social media perpetuates the myth of perfect lives.  It doesn’t matter if rationality dictates that the photographs are exactly that – snapshots of moments in time.  We’re naturally inclined to compare our present to the frozen pieces of time shared forever online.

It also corrupts – it merges personal spaces with the public realm and blurs the line between something that is special because it exists between two people rather than on our third cousin’s newsfeed.  Messages that six years ago we would have scribbled on a card and slipped into the snug privacy of an envelope are now skimmed by hundreds of eyes, by people as they sip their coffee or sit on the toilet or stumble over a step on their way down the stairs to catch a train to work.  Photographs that make a woman whose husband hasn’t remembered their anniversary for the last four years sigh with longing, that squeeze in between a couple who has just been told by the doctor that they can’t have a baby and push them further apart, that rile a young man who can never save enough money to visit beautiful white and blue islands.  Media that perpetuates consumerism and materialism, that perpetuates the belief that money buys happiness, that life is a continuum of blue skies and white mountain tops rather than a trek up the hill interspersed with times when there is a perfect grassy slope and you can roll down it in a flurry of joy.

And more simply, it just shows that there is something we do without wondering about its purpose. 

If you think about it and there is an objective and you’re happy about moving towards that objective, I guess that’s okay.  Go for it – it could be an artistic expression, the need to get more people to read what you’re writing, or look at your photographs because you spent a lot of time taking them, it could be because you’re reaching out to connect with someone or trying to state what you truly believe in.

I don’t think social media is horrible or frivolous in its entirety.  But what I am trying to say is, it might be good to pause once in a while, step off the moving walkway that doesn’t stop even when we’re asleep, and think about why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Dare You Ask Why?

The vocabulary box given to young girls born in the late 1980s in Pakistan had many words to play with – dolls, sleep, cry, eat, pink, white, Ami, Baba, hello, bye.

And as they would grow, more words would be plopped into the box or sometimes slipped into it when they were sleepy or too busy to notice – work, kitchen, care, compromise, weak, patience, strength, clean, sacrifice.

Why - a word that I only realized is essential to grow and develop and learn and understand was really discovered in university, and I am forever thankful to LUMS for teaching it to me.  The skill and art of questioning.

We aren’t encouraged to question, generally, and the more check boxes ticked against your name, the further they put the word away from you – female? Two rungs up the ladder; Pakistani – three rungs higher; young? Two rungs up. Wait, did you say female? Let’s just put it up where you can’t even see it so it’s more comfortable for all of us. 

We were taught it is rude, almost unacceptable, to question your parents (no, you can’t go to your friend’s house, don’t keep your door locked, no, you cannot wear that, you have to pray, work hard in school, Math is important, don’t watch dirty movies, you can’t read a love story with such pictures on its cover…) – they know better and even more obvious, you just are not supposed to.  There were seldom any explanations offered with requests and orders and prohibitions, and the thought that we might ask for any was never an option because we didn’t see or hear about it – it was the era before social media, before the internet and cable TV and before cell phones became our natural born right.  So there is only one way and the way is to never ask why.

You can’t question religion or any of the religious teachings because that indicates weak faith, and you cannot ever admit to weak faith even if it is common and prevalent and natural.  You should not even ask too many questions in school, especially ones that have difficult answers, especially ones that invite confusion over ideologies and beliefs, customs and rituals.  You can’t argue over why older siblings deserve to be respected even if they’re being unreasonable, you can’t wonder if there is more to a woman’s life than being married and having children, you can definitely not think that brothers and fathers and husbands and sons have to make the same amount of effort in taking care of the house or your feelings or their children, or perhaps sometimes venture into the kitchen to fetch a glass of water, if not for their sisters or wives or children, then at least for themselves.  Just because we weren’t allowed to, just because the word ‘why’ wasn’t granted to us.  Just because “because I said so” was supposed to be all the reason anyone needed.

And then slowly, times started changing.

One of my Freshman year classes runs like a 15-second snippet from a black-and-white film (slightly faded, like on an old film reel in a shabby cinema) in my mind.  “You must always question things – you must do it for everything.  It doesn’t matter who is giving you the information.  You must even question me – where did you get this information from, Professor? What is the reason for your statements? The most important question of all – why?
I remember thinking that’s pretty cool, if a little tedious because it would mean a lot of research and reading and thinking.  But back then, I didn’t realize the full meaning of that lecture, or the countless other Social Sciences courses I took which always focused on providing more than one point of view, more than one school of thought, there was discourse and debate and conflict, and evidence and research and reason behind all the diverse perspectives and it could be confusing, but usually, one school of thought would make more sense than the other, it would, so to say, speak to my common sense and my heart.  Question, seek answers, and then perhaps choose the one that strikes a balance between your heart and mind.

It was much later, post-college, when I looked at other young men and women around me and the lives they led, that I realized what was different for me.  While my Social Sciences degree taught me to question and think and understand and think some more, my Master’s in Social Work taught me to empathize and learn to hold your judgments and beliefs to no one else but yourself (and perhaps, to a lesser level, your immediate family – well actually that’s not my degree but my own rule...).  You would think these are all skills readily available in society but actually, not really.  It can be very hard work learning to empathize and you need to be very careful if you want to practice tolerance, and you need to be self-aware and that requires mindfulness, and mindfulness can be tiring.

And when you question things and ways of life, it can lead to realization and understanding but too often it makes you uncomfortable, sad, angry, anxious and dissatisfied – because you may decide that you do not agree with the current status quo and that there might be better, more balanced, more egalitarian ways of life, but you cannot wave a magic wand and create equality and diversity.  It is one thing to realize your lack of privilege – it is another thing for the one with the privilege to let go.  They don’t want to let go, and they have less reason to fight their years of socialization and conditioning only to step down from their comfy pedestals.  We all play a part in it – so the women of today might want to divide household chores equally or even in a 60-40 proportion in favor of men, but it doesn’t generally happen so smoothly.  Men have grown up in a society where women around them have been more than happy (or if not happy then definitely eager) to serve them the biggest piece of chicken, or pour the first glass of water, boys are seldom asked to wipe down the dinner table or serve the guests some juice.  They have seen their fathers, their brothers, their cousins and friends the same way and it is difficult to unlearn – so the claims might become egalitarian a lot more easily than actions do.  And you can either accept things as they are and just swallow it, or you can grumble and argue and fight, and generally create an air of unhappiness and negativity.  Or you can agree on a slower course of action and celebrate small achievements while at the same time still wriggling your foot slowly and steadily to continue making further inroads. 

It is definitely a thin tightrope to walk.

Times are continuing to change, though.

I think the young women born in the late 1980s were placed precariously at the edge – and if they were lucky and brave enough, they rolled into a field with more than just two colors – and as they sat up to look, they saw more options slowly unfurling like tiny brightly colored flowers around them.

Slowly, higher education and career options are being plucked and arranged in vibrant bouquets for women (to be more accurate, a very small percentage of women in Pakistan but it is a start), the word ‘why’ is being brought down from the high ladder as women start wielding their axes to chuck away at the rungs.  Even the decision of why, who and when to marry is being slid closer to some women, almost within their grasp if they are unruly enough to reach out and grab it, some taking it a step further and questioning the whys and whens of giving birth (one of the more interesting generation gaps is around this question – or rather, the perception that it is actually a question – a decision – rather than as undeniable as the growth of nails or hair, or Ryan Gosling’s good looks).

I think the ability to ask questions – and seek answers – makes you a better person.  It definitely does not make you a happier person, but it gives you something that you never want to give up.  It made me realize that perhaps the purpose of life isn’t just happiness.  That perhaps the purpose of life is more varied, diverse.  Like a jigsaw puzzle, with different sized pieces sort of coming together to make a picture – a picture just for me.   Peace, happiness, reasoning, thought, wonder, awe, adventure, love, sacrifice.

And if I’m brave enough, I can arrange them in any way I want.