Next Stop: Dubai

Dear Friends and Family,

The last time you heard from me was a little over a month ago. Let me assure you, I’ve spared you. I do not think you would have much enjoyed my reports from the swamplands of Florida where I went to visit my mother (for the record, she’s doing well and sends her regards). The weather may be nice down there, but the pace of life is a bit too slow for me.

Now, however, I have some exciting news. You may have heard already, but I’m rejoining the Pepsi company. The opportunity I was seeking with Pepsi Dubai came through, and I’m shipping out this Saturday night. I’m very excited about what this means for my professional growth. There’s a lot going on in that region, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it. Of course, the fact that my fiance is only a 2-hour flight away from Dubai only sweetens the deal 😉

Thank you for your help, support, and kind emails throughout my “epic world tour.” It has been an incredible experience. I’ve seen some amazing places and made many lasting friendships. And the most gratifying part is knowing that I’ve changed for the better because of it. I plan to continue traveling and writing whenever I can make the time. Thank you so much for your encouragement, which has been the single most important motivation for me to keep up my writing. In case you’re wondering, I still intend to update my blog with my experiences from the rest of my travels, but it may take longer than expected. In the meantime, I plan to start a new segment with the Dubai move.

If you decide to drop by Dubai, please look me up.

And by the way, if you happen to be listening to Marketplace on NPR next Tuesday, don’t be surprised if you hear my voice… 😉

All’s Well

Dear Friends and Family,

Just to put everyone at ease, things appear to have returned to “normal” here in Karachi — for the most part. I say for the most part because I almost found myself in the middle of a shootout earlier today when I was out doing some shopping. Apparently a nearby jewelry store had just been held up, and the fleeing robbers started shooting at the security guards. The owner of the store I was in pulled the shutters down, and we waited for things to calm down. Thirty minutes later it was back to business as usual.

So, no worries. National elections have been postponed until mid-February, and all is well. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful emails.

A New Day

Dear Friends and Family,

I awoke this morning to a surprise: I had to push-start my uncle’s truck to get to the gym. Luckily, I got my cousin to help. We got the truck going and arrived at the gym to find, fortunately, that it was open. I expected this to be the most eventful part of my day. I was wrong.

I was jarred awake from my late-morning nap by the ringing of the telephone. It was my aunt, and she sounded agitated. Stores were shutting down again, she informed me, and there was gunfire in parts of the city. Apparently another politician — this time a representative of the MQM, the most popular party in Karachi — had been assassinated. This was bad news. As per Pakistani politics, when the party whose stronghold you’re in goes on strike, the place shuts down immediately and can stay shut for weeks. An aunt and I rushed to the nearby market to stock up on supplies and phone cards. Word had spread fast, and people were out in full force to replenish their supplies after three days of being holed up. Gas stations were closed again. Stores were shutting down even as we arrived at the market. News came eventually that the assassination was just a rumor; the politician spoke on live television to confirm that he was indeed alive. But the damage had been done. The news of his death was akin to yelling fire in a crowded theater. People’s nerves are shot, and they are prone to panicking at the slightest hint of trouble. There were reports that a bus was burned and that two rioters were shot dead in another part of the city. We got what we needed after checking out a few stores and returned home.

I ventured out with a cousin later in the day and though most stores were still closed, the panic seemed to have dissipated. Kids were out on the streets playing cricket. There were more cars on the roads, even a few buses. More Rangers appear to be patrolling the city, and the police presence has increased significantly as well.

Thus Karachi ushers in the New Year. A cacophony of gunshots exploded five minutes prior to midnight. It sounded like they came from every street. There were a few fireworks as well, but the gunshots far outnumbered them. It’s been a one-of-a-kind New Year’s for me, one that I will not soon forget.

I wish you a happy, memorable, and peaceful New Year. God bless.

Aftermath of Bhutto Assassination: Day 3

Today was the third and final day of national mourning for Benazir Bhutto. Most stores are still closed, and the ones that are open are running short on supplies. Fortunately, we have enough food supplies on hand for now, but without new phone cards to replenish our depleted prepaid phones, we have limited phone service. Buses are still not running. Gas stations are opening only for short intervals again, leading to long lines of cars and motorcycles. People are still fearful, and most are staying indoors. There are reports that some groups are still throwing rocks at vehicles and passersby in parts of the city. However, I didn’t see anything when I took a tour of the area earlier today. There is a certain calm on the roads that I think I will miss when the chaotic Karachi traffic kicks back into gear.

Thank you for keeping us in your thoughts and prayers.

Aftermath of Bhutto Assassination: Day 2

Dear Family and Friends,

Today, the second day of mourning for Benazir Bhutto, brought some encouraging signs of a return to normalcy. Buses are still not running, but there are more vehicles on the roads. The burned cars and trucks that blocked several roads are in the process of being removed.

Gas stations also opened up today, although only for a short time. I accompanied a neighbor to fill up his car and experienced firsthand the mad rush at the gas station as people scrambled to store up as much fuel as they were allowed. It occurred to me that such a scenario — long lines at gas stations for rationed fuel — strikes great fear in us Americans. We shudder at the thought that it could happen to us. I realize today that as unfortunate as such an incident is and would be, it’s not the end of the world. Life goes on.

Most stores are still closed. However, a few have opened under tight security while others have opened with their shutters half-way down, ready to close at the first sign of trouble.

There are policeman and Rangers posted around the city, and it is rumored that they have been authorized to shoot anyone causing trouble.

The general sentiment seems to be that we need to make the best of the current situation. Although there are signs of recovery, there exists an underlying fear that the situation can still get bad as we near elections, which are currently scheduled for January 8th. There is, however, discussion of postponing the elections, which seems like the right thing to do. Hopefully, the finger-pointing for the death of Benazir Bhutto won’t turn violent in the coming days.

All is well otherwise. Please don’t worry. I have no intention of leaving anytime soon; things really aren’t that bad.

Thank you for your emails and for your prayers.

Yours truly,
Khalid

Aftermath of Bhutto Assassination: Day 1

Dear Friends and Family,

Today was the first day of mourning for Benazir Bhutto here in Karachi. I set out with my uncle this morning to take a tour of the neighborhood and to see for myself the carnage we’ve been seeing on television. As expected, stores and offices are closed. There are burned cars and trucks blocking the roads. Patches of black soot mark areas where tires were burned last night. Large rocks, sticks, and tree branches — all used most likely to smash cars and pummel motorists — litter the roads. Gas stations are closed. Save for a random auto rickshaw or two, the roads are deserted of vehicles, when usually on a weekday like today there would be no end to them. Pedestrians can be seen making their way along the empty roads. There are no buses running, so those who were caught out of their homes last night will have to walk, or, if they’re lucky, hitchhike back. The latter is going to be difficult because 1) there are hardly any vehicles on the road and 2) there is a sense of deep fear and mistrust amongst the people; they’re not in a frame of mind to help each other.

Even as we heard news of buses being emptied and set on fire last night, there were reports that men on motorcycles took the opportunity to rob the hapless passengers of their money, jewelry, and cell phones. A cousin of mine was caught in another part of the city. He tried to return home only to have his way blocked by lines of burning cars and buses. In other areas traffic had come to a standstill. In the mass hysteria that followed the first sparks of chaos, people found themselves trapped on the roads without any law enforcement around to direct the flow of traffic. Those who could, holed up with friends, relatives, and even strangers wherever they could.

Today, there are reports of numerous deaths and millions of Rupees worth of damage in Karachi alone.

As shocked as the international community must be at these turn of events, the locals are just as much — if not more — appalled by what’s happening. How could the city change so drastically within a few hours?

It’s not clear who the perpetrators are or what their motive is. Who could possibly benefit from all this death and destruction? Is it really due to outrage over the assassination? Or is much of it the opportunistic settlement of personal enmities?

There’s a feeling of helplessness: There’s already been one tragedy — why prolong it by killing more innocent bystanders and by destroying the livelihood of others?

And there’s anger, too: Where are the police and the Rangers – those who have been sworn to protect the city’s residents?

Amid all this chaos, it’s the commoners who suffer. It is wedding season in Pakistan, and brides-to-be spent last night at beauty parlors, their weddings postponed indefinitely. For days people who don’t have supplies at home will have to scrounge for food because stores are closed. Auto rickshaw, taxi, and bus drivers — among others who survive on their day-to-day incomes — will be hard pressed to make ends meet.

At the moment, there is a profound silence outside as we wait — seemingly with collectively held breath — to see what tomorrow will bring.

Yours truly,
Khalid

Status Update

Dear Friends and Family,
Thank you for the outpour of support and for your prayers during this turbulent time. I’m happy to report that telephones are working again. It is rumored that the next three days will be official mourning days, as is standard. During this time offices and stores will be closed. Otherwise, all is well.

Best,
Khalid

Benazir Bhutto Assassinated!

Dear Family and Friends,

When I sent the update email earlier, I had no idea what was happening further north in Pakistan. As you may have heard by now, Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, was assassinated earlier this evening. Various groups have taken to the streets here in Karachi to protest the assassination. Their methods are often violent. A group of my relatives just came to stay with us because of the conditions on the roads. They report seeing burning cars and men with clubs attacking motorists. As I write this, I can hear gunshots. Most phones are dead. The power went out earlier, but fortunately, it is back again.

At the moment we are keeping indoors and waiting to see how things pan out. I expect that things will heat up in the next few days as various groups protest and strike. However, I don’t fear personal injury as I am safe with relatives. I will continue to update you if the internet connection stays.

All the best,
Khalid

Happy Holidays!

Dear Family and Friends,
Eid Mubarak, Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, and Happy New Year! Sorry to be late for most and early for the last, but due to internet limitations, I have to economize my emails. I hope you are well, and I wish you a blessed holiday season.

When you last heard from me, I was on my way to Karachi, Pakistan. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been here now for over a month. I hope you didn’t take my incommunicado status as a sign of trouble. As expected, things are very quiet here. Street crime is prevalent, unfortunately, but thankfully, I’ve had no issues. With nothing major to report to you, I’ve been using my time to catch up on my journal and blog. If you’ve visited my site recently, you will see that I’ve uploaded more entries and pictures. At the moment I’m working on a video of the recent Eid celebrations in Karachi. I will post that online soon as well.

A fellow traveler in Istanbul predicted that the age of 26 would bring immense change in my life. Given how things are panning out, I’m beginning to think that the “Oracle” – as I endearingly refer to her – may have been on to something. Suddenly there is much afoot in my life — but more on that in future emails. In the meantime, I’m pretty much wrapping up my journey, and I’ve begun planning my re-entry into the ranks of the gainfully employed. I’m giving serious thought to my longer-term plans as well. I’ll let you know where I end up.

There are still many stories to tell about my journey. Please feel free to check my site for updates as I will be posting more entries shortly. Your support and encouragement has been instrumental in keeping me writing, and I thank you for it.

I’m beginning to feel like I’ve been gone for “too long.” I would love to hear from you. Please let me know how things are with you when you get a chance.

With warmest regards,
Khalid

Now Dubai, Pakistan Next

Dear Family and Friends,
Marhaba from Dubai! It’s been far too long since I sent an update. I was in India for the past month, and one thing after another seemed to interfere with my plans to send a comprehensive update. In any case, here’s the low down:

First off, you probably recall that I was only supposed to be in India for 15 days. Well, at the 11th hour, we discovered another “personal contact” who was placed high enough within the elite Hyderabad police force to recommend a second extension for my visa. This time I got a 30-day extension. I had already visited Delhi, Agra (Taj Mahal), and Jaipur by then, so I decided to see Bombay and Goa as well. The rest of the time I spent in Hyderabad. Over all, I had an amazing time, and I met some incredible people, whom I dearly miss already.

I arrived in Dubai on Monday to find a sprawling city with a fledgling public transportation network and traffic-clogged roads. Taxis are quite expensive and hard to find. Nevertheless, I like Dubai. The place appears to be pretty modern and progressive. I just returned from a run at the Dubai indoor skiing place that we’ve all read or heard about. It’s really just a kiddy hill, but I had a good time nonetheless. Tomorrow I’m scheduled for a “Desert Safari” which includes a ride through some sand dunes in a Landcruiser. It’s supposed to be the thing to do in Dubai. If the ride doesn’t turn out to be very exciting, there’s always the belly dancer at the end of the day to look forward to.

On Sunday, I am heading to Karachi, Pakistan. This may come as a surprise to many of you given the current political situation there. We’ve all heard and read about the state of emergency President Musharraf has declared, and the images of plainclothes policemen beating up protestors on the streets of Islamabad are commonplace on all news channels (except the state-owned Pakistan Television, of course). However, after discussing the situation with my father who arrived in Karachi yesterday, I have decided to continue my trip to Pakistan. The fact of the matter is that such strife is not unusual in Pakistan, and the local people continue to live their lives despite the instability. It’s business as usual for most. Moreover, things often appear a lot worse on television than they may be in reality. This is not to say that I’m dismissing the possibility of real danger. I will, of course, take all necessary precautions during my stay there. And of course, I will send an update as soon as possible to give you a first-hand assessment of the situation.

So that’s the update for now. As you may have noticed, I’ve fallen quite a bit behind in my blog. Some of it is, yes, due to laziness and slow computers, but much of it is due to a perceived lack of interest on the part of my audience! Except Carlos F and Kamran Bhai — thanks, guys! If you’re still reading, let me know, folks. Leave some comments! 🙂 Pictures, by the way, have been updated. I’m not all the way through yet, but there are enough up since the last email to keep you busy for some time.