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Friday, April 5, 2013

Inside Pakistan (2)

 We reach Fort Lahore by driving through old downtown. Narrow dirt roads that get more and more crowded. The roads are lined on both sides by roadside stands and merchants. Amazing things are for sale - I didn't have enough eyes to take it all in. I spotted a boy pushing a wooden cart which had a small fire burning inside. On top he roasted nuts or popping corn. I saw cages and cages of life chickens, and hanging dead chickens. There were entire goat markets where men in long robes were selling small goats. Oxen resting along the side of the road. A stand with sugar cane stems piled high and a man cranking a metal wheel on the side of a machine to crush the cane into juice, which he sold.

Amazingly, the chauffeur maneuvered through walls of people and animals and drove us right to the gates of the historic park. There, women came to the car before we even got out, to sell us woven grass baskets and fans decorated with colored feathers. Women don't handle money in public here so Leila's chauffeur pays for the things we want to buy. He also guarded our shoes while we entered the mosque.
The entire day, I was the only westerner and people goggled at me everywhere. Even with a shawl around my head I stood out. Kids gaped at me and an entire school class swarmed around us (school girls all wear light blue kameez and white shawls) and giggled, saying hi! When I asked if I could take their picture, they were delighted. Their teacher told them "This visitor wants your picture. Show her how happy you are to live in Pakistan." They all crowded around and wanted to touch me.
We walked around the grounds, saw the hall of mirrors which UNESCO is restoring. Saw the balcony where the Moghul emperor used to address the people. Blooming bougainvillea cascading over brick walls.
On the way back I noticed donkey carts loaded with golden, round milk jugs. Trucks and tractors are incredibly beautifully painted with intricate designs and bright colors. Motorbikes with at least three but often five people on them. A horse drawn wagon loaded with bags (potatoes?). And dust and people walking on bare feet. Carts loaded with piles of bright oranges and grapefruits. It seemed a medieval scene until a vendor whipped a cell phone out of a pocket of his robes.

Behind broken brick walls I saw small squares with open doorways. Many people live in very poor conditions. Buildings look like they are broken but I'm realizing they are so old that the bricks are breaking away. They simply re-use old bricks to pile into new walls and so everything looks like it is being demolished.

When we got home, Leila and I worked on our book plan: a picture book for Pakistani children to show them how libraries work and the joy of reading. Leila is working with schools, running a library program and working with Safe The Children UK on bringing literacy standards up for all children in Pakistan. "We have an oral history, not one of books," she explained and is looking for help to show people the importance of books and reading.
As soon as we head out for the day, the sights and sounds assault us and never cease to amaze me. Honking cars and everything else that drives, is hilarious. I'm never scared because their cars are spotless and dent free. But at each intersection, three rows of traffic from four directions gets together. Whoever is boldest (and they all think they are) inches forward without hitting the bicycles, mopeds or other cars although you could not fit a sheet of paper between the bumpers. The funny thing is that all these people honk like crazy but no one raise a finger or shakes a fist. The second they get out of the car they are polite and friendly. So the honking, somehow, is not meant to ‘scorn’ the others on the road. It is simply a "watch out - I'm coming" kind of honk.

We race toward the city and see the usual donkey carts, laden with firewood, freshly cut grass, sugar cane, building supplies and anything else. Women sit on their bare feet and hunches along the dark red (silt) canal and beat their laundry with stones. Trees are hung with baseball caps for sale, towels and t-shirts.  Today Leila asked the chauffeur to stop near a corner and he handed a beggar a small package. I asked why (when I arrived I warned her that I would ask explanations of everything I did not understand and she always answers me patiently). "This week our grandson was ill. Allah made him better, so now we give thanks by sharing with this man. The package contains food which he can take home and cook." She also gives out money at some times. The few beggars there are, hang around intersections and knock on car windows. He who drives a car has money. No sense in begging elsewhere.
We reach Alif Laila, Leila's library project: an inner-city library building which is absolutely lovely. The round building is painted with scenes from Tales of 1001 Nights (which is what 'Alif Laila' means). It is in a lovely park like setting. A painted bus with sayings like "Readers are Leaders" etc., picks up children from different schools. These schools have no libraries and no books other than text books. At home these children are not exposed to reading either. Most come from very poor families. In the library they are read to, and can take books home. One class consists of about 60 children here and 2 classes come at a time. The half size school bus is thus loaded with 100-120 children! 
After stories, the children go to another building which houses the offices of the Alif Laila project and has art rooms and a computer lab (with 3 languages on the keyboard!).
This is the only opportunity the children ever have to learn typing and using the internet. My friend says "Like Sheherazade of Arabian Nights, who had to save her life by finding stories, so we have to save our life all the time by finding funding and sponsors." Save The Children from the UK is the largest sponsor of almost all projects. I wonder if learning the skills of reading and typing might not also save the lives of some of these girls.

In the library I read Emma's Cold Day to about 120 children. Leila translated into Urdu because these are young kids just learning English, still being taught in Urdu.
We had lunch at an adobe building with palm trees in front and a man with turban and pointy shoes opening the door. One one side of the door was the seating area. On the other side was a large 'village' area with different food stations as you would see in small towns: a wooden cart with copper pots, a large charcoal grill with all sorts of shish kebabs. Bowls and bowls of stuff - a large orange press for juice, etc. We ate the strangest things (to me!) starting with a shredded salad with lots of chick peas, with runny yogurt poured over it. Then paper maché type, very light balls with a hole in them. Inside rattled chick peas. You had to dip them into a jar of brown liquid. They are called gol gappa. Then rice and meat. The cook, beaming with a huge smile, asked if I would like chicken kebabs without spices and proceeded to barbecue meat just for me.
Then very unusual desserts: a small flat stone bowl with rice pudding in it. It had what looked like a piece of tinfoil in it. That was real ground silver for minerals... called chandika warq.
Then there were small warm balls (looking a bit like cocktail sausages) made of a sweet rice paste and dripping in a sugar sauce, called meetha pakora. While we ate, two musicians played on small drums and a painted harmonium. The website for the restaurant says 'five star, top in Lahore, all meals under 10.- US). On the way out there was a cart with green leaves with tiny spices, balls of anise the size of colored beads, and herbs that help with the digestive system. I should have taken some because of stomach started to rumble a bit by now...

Next we drove to the silk market where Leila tried about six stores in vain to buy wedding material for the daughters' outfits. Each store is a small square space. Walls are lined floor to ceiling with colorful bolts of fabric. On the floor is a row of chairs facing a meter high platform that runs the length of the store. The salesmen are sitting on their hunches and bare feet on this platform. The customer sits on a chair and points at colors. He pulls the bolts down and unrolls the three that go together (pants, shirt and shawl). This goes on until there is about four feet of fabric piled high onto the platform, the salesman walking across all of it on his bare feet. And then the lady shakes her head and walks out....  After this we stopped at an Artist Cooperative. Amazing. Wooden furniture, copper pots, onyx carvings, colorful shawls and bags, carved statues of camel bone (looking just like ivory). Some things are so cheap that I don't think they even register on the dollar scale: 20 rupee cents for a small carving. I bought gifts to take home, feeling like I was supporting the local economy. The suitcase which I had planned to leave behind, will be coming back! Tomorrow is another day! Inshallah (= God willing)!

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