Coming back to Karachi after a one year gap felt like rediscovering an old friend. I had never thought I would go to Karachi, let alone live there for a year. Due to work life circumstances, I found myself in Karachi in 2014. I would talk to myself every day and prepare myself for the shift. It was one of those decisions where you more or less close your eyes and jump – not knowing whether you would come back intact. One of my most comforting thoughts was if the population of 27 million can survive in Karachi, so can I.
I remember going to the Pakistani embassy in Kuwait, the place was filled with men. Men of all sizes and shapes in salwar kurta and some in western attire. There were very few women and I quickly gravitated toward them. The visa officer after going through some paperwork and websites told me that with my Nepali passport, I would not need a visa for Pakistan.
I remember very little of my first plane ride to Karachi except families clumped together at the boarding gate. Women in colorful salwar kurta and their men with three to four children in tow. There were a few single travelers, women foreign returnees in their tight pants and long tops.
I found myself at the Marriott in Karachi for the duration of my stay. At 4 am in the morning, I checked into the hotel, the hotel lobby was still very lively, a group of qawwali singers, entertaining the few guests that were lingering by. I would for the rest of my time be plagued by thoughts of doom and gloom, hotels being one of the easier targets.
For the first few weeks, I immersed myself in work. Hotel to work, work to hotel, with a break of 40 minutes on the treadmill in the all women gym. Slowly, I made friends at work. A bunch of girls took me out for lunch, my first outing in Karachi. It was a bakery café, cute and cozy, familiar food of nacho and sandwiches, and walls lined with books. I was instantly at home. Another outing, a fancy French restaurant, beautiful menu, and delicious dishes, and an ambience that can quickly make you forget that you are in Karachi.
Slowly, I began to explore Karachi one restaurant at a time. There were malls and there were movie theatres. And there was alliance francaise, the French school, where I took private lessons once a week to brush up on my French. There were pot luck lunches on Saturday where the expats came and you could get wine and whisky and indulge in the company of distinguished appointees at the various embassies. We would talk politics, travel, security, and food.
The food consisted of mostly homemade fare- the Egyptian meat dishes prepared with much thought and fanfare, the simple Italian delicacies, the sizzling Pakistani slightly tempered for the foreign palate, the exotic Russian platter, and the very familiar and homely American baked goodies.
I saw life mostly through my expat bubble. From my screened, AC car windows and cozy hotel rooms, I saw people on the street, families and children trying to piece together a daily meal. Security threats would filter in from time to time, death- kidnapping- suicide attacks, but despite all of this life continued in Karachi.
There is poverty, chaos, pollution, and crumbling yet beautiful infrastructure telling stories of the glorious past. And there are shiny malls, and million dollar houses and cars, and designer wares. Like any other mega metropolitan Karachi carries both ends of life with a quiet dignity.
What I found most endearing about this city were the inhabitants, the karachites, who despite the various stressors of life, know how to enjoy life. The sizzling, spicy and lavish food that makes you come alive; the women who despite the restrictions somehow come out looking like fashonistas; the quick warm and open gestures; the searing heat; the love for life and the good bad and ugly; the deeply entrenched history and stories that people have- are what make Karachi my favorite destination in the world. Every time I go back, it feels like I am home.