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A Few Days in Karachi

After a 16 hour flight from San Diego to Dubai, a six hour layover in Dubai, and a close to two hours flight, we landed at the Jinnah International Airport at Karachi.  A little after 4 am, the airport was very much alive, with four flights having landed within a couple of hours of each other.  The immigration lines were very long, but if you are lucky enough to know someone who knows the right people, you can be escorted through the queues, as if breaking straight through the walls of a human maze.  It can be a little awkward and embarrassing, but such are the privileges available in some parts of the world.

The air outside was cool and fresh, with almost no traffic on the roads.  Drivers in Pakistan, like in most developing countries, rarely acknowledge the lane dividers, be it on a highway or a smaller street.  But in those early morning hours, the driver was truly the king of the road, weaving around the sporadic obstacles that materialized in the form of slow moving cars, or even slower moving two-wheeled buggies pulled by donkeys.

Young girls in the wedding hall dressed up to celebrate their cousin's wedding

Young girls in the wedding hall dressed up to celebrate their cousin’s wedding

Despite consistent rumors over the years (or is it the conventional wisdom of Karachi’ites?) about Karachi’s breakup into smaller pieces, Karachi is still a vibrant, thriving city of somewhere between 18 to 20 million, with all the headaches that go along any metropolis that continue to grow in a more unplanned than planned way.  Bad traffic, frequent electrical outages, and an infrastructure that seems to have been thought out, but whose execution and maintenance is at the mercy of the current political party is in control.  One could live with all this – after all over 20 million people do, but the lack of safety – frequent minor highway robberies of cell phones, cash and jewelry is what makes someone who is more familiar with the predictability of a western society think twice about visiting Karachi.  But sometimes there are commitments to be kept that trump security concerns, such as the wedding of a niece.

Kids enjoying bumper carts inside the mall's gaming area in Karachi

Kids enjoying bumper carts inside the mall’s gaming area in Karachi

When you go to Karachi, you go for the food, and for the shopping.  In addition to the already tantalizing and taste bud enhancing Pakistani cuisine, the localized versions of American (McDonalds, KFC, steaks), Mexican and Chinese fares are all worth tasting.  Everything is a little bit spicier, a little bit tastier and for Western tourists, dirt cheap, even in fancy restaurants.  Places like BBQ Tonite, Habib’s, Red Apple, and Kolachi not only give you a celebrity experience, they can also deliver everything right at your doorstep.  What more could you ask for?  Try the beef Nihari, the chicken Biryani, the mutton Karahi, and you will find yourself licking your fingers, maybe even the plate, after your meal.  If you dare, order the brain Masala, and you will not be disappointed.  Craving some sweet or savory snacks?  Try some at the upscale Butler’s Chocolate Cafe, or the famous and long-established Nimco’s, Sohni Sweets or United Bakery.  The Chicken patties, ground beef rolls and cheese sticks (not mozzarella) melt in your mouth, and you just cannot have one.

From the second floor seating area, the Kalochi restaurant alive and sparkling at night along the ocean

From the second floor seating area, the Kalochi restaurant alive and sparkling at night along the ocean

Add enough of the right spices to anything, and it will be transformed into a mouth-watering dish.  If that does not work, deep-fry it.  It would take a truly awful cook to create bad tasting food using these two techniques.  I am glad to say I have not found one yet.

Karachi is a study in contrasts.  Visit the posh Defense area at the edge of the Indian Ocean, and you feel secure, things are more organized (on a relative scale), restaurants’ decor and service are more refined, houses can stand on their own against any mansion in La Jolla and Beverly hills, and European and exotic cars can be seen.  You can go to the Dolmen Mall – the new one in Defense – and think you are in a US or European mall.  Children found the newer malls in Karachi to be more fun and exciting than the ones in the US because they got the best of both worlds – the rules are much more lax, so playing a game of tag was ok, the games and rides on the arcades were very inexpensive, and winning in the games was somehow much easier.  Oh, and they were much less crowded.  Other meeting spots of the city’s elite include the expensive grounds and world-class restaurants of the Karachi Golf Club, the Creek Club or the best of the best – the Gymkhana.  At any of these exclusive locales, you are taken away from Karachi, without ever leaving Karachi.

Children enjoying a ride in The Place mall in Karachi before a movie

Children enjoying a ride in The Place mall in Karachi before a movie

On the other hand, if you go to the North Nazimabad, Gulshan or Saddar areas, you will find the other Karachi.  I am not sure which one is real, but I would bet the latter truly represents Karachi and Pakistan.  Streets are bustling with people.  Residences, tuition centers, restaurants, repair shops are next to each other – zoning ordnances are defined, but loosely applied.  Take a stroll in Zainab market, and you will find all kinds of clothes, shoes, antiques, and electronic products – anything you can think of, at similar or better quality, but priced much lower than in China’s silk market.  And why not, compared to an exchange rate of 7 yuans for one US dollar, the US dollar is worth 98 Pakistani rupees, which is rumored to have been artificially strengthened – it used to be 110 or more rupees a few weeks ago.

While in the West V2V (Vehicle to Vehicle communication) still needs some time to develop, Karachi drivers have already implemented it using the technology they have.  It is called the horn.  Amazingly, it is used to convey anger, remorse, and who has the right of way.  Speaking of right of way, the generally accepted rule is that the larger and/or the newer car has the right of way.  In spite of the chaotic driving patterns – you should always be prepared for the car in front of you to back up if they missed a turn or an exit, as well as a car driving against traffic.  And you thought that only happened in Bourne or Bond movies.  In spite of all this, there are very few major accidents because you simply cannot drive more than 50 or 60 km/hour during heavy traffic, which is most of the day.

Try and guess which direction the traffic is supposed to go in

Try and guess which direction the traffic is supposed to go in

Karachi, a city of extremes.  Before planning a trip there, you think twice, and then twice again.  But once you are there, you are immersed in a unique sensory experience, and if you give in to it, you will enjoy a different pace and type of life where time does not pass as you would expect it to, where you can spend hours talking to friends and family, leisurely enjoying fragrant tea, ground beef samosas, and cumin cookies.  You should try it at least once.

One Response to “A Few Days in Karachi”

  1. zulfiqar says:

    This is a test of new anti-spam filters, I want to make sure that legit comments are making it through.

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