Pakistan – First Impressions

Roads

My first impression was that the roads in Karachi were not as bad as I had feared, especially after the many new multi-lane divided carriageways of Dubai, nor as dirty as I had expected.  But maybe that was because we were on a main road from the airport to the city.  Once in the city centre, there were many more intersections, potholes and much more rubbish, much as I had expected.

A major contrast with Dubai is that in Karachi, Hyderabad and Badin, there are hundreds more motorbikes and bicycles, hardly seen in Dubai.  Also, there were many, many more pedestrians.  The rich Emiratis drive huge four-wheel drive vehicles.  The poor Pakistanis walk or ride bicycles or motorbikes if they are lucky.  In the city centre, the footpaths were quite congested.  People dodging around roadside stalls and between bikes and cars.  And lots of rubbish on the ground, papers, plastic, broken roadwork.  One has to be very careful when walking!

The intercity roads can be challenging!  Although the superhighway between Karachi and Hyderabad is double carriageway, which helps avoid head-on crashes, there are no marked lanes.  Since the road is quite broad, there can be one, two or three lanes of traffic, depending on avoiding potholes and who is overtaking what and where.  The driving can be an exercise in creativity! Sometimes when there was a shoulder on the outside left, my colleague would use that to overtake lumbering trucks.  With these flexible lanes and creative driving, alertness is required at all times and in all directions. 

At night, even more alertness is required.  Some vehicles don’t have rear lights, or have such big overhanging loads that any existing lights are out of sight, so can’t be seen until you almost on top of them.  Likewise, pedestrians and cyclists can be virtually invisible (I saw one man wearing a black shalwar/cameez strolling almost invisible alongside the highway within inches of passing traffic!). Sometimes you might see a shadow crossing in front of the headlights of oncoming traffic which alerts you to something to be avoided.  But caution is required at all times.

At the entrance to towns and villages there are large speed bumps to slow the traffic down, presumably for the sake of the greater likelihood of pedestrians and other traffic coming onto the road at those places.  If you don’t see the speed bumps in time, your vehicle is launched into low orbit before bouncing down again onto the roadway.  A bone-shaking experience!  As the road progresses through towns and villages, or where there are habitations or shops or service stations along the road, another speed trap to slow the traffic and make it safer for pedestrians is to dig out a shallow trench across the road, several centimetres deep and as many wide.  This too can be a bone-rattling experience for the unwary driver/passenger!  Good suspension is a must for all road vehicles.      

I admit that on one occasion my heart did come into my mouth.  There were two headlights coming straight towards us.  I expected them to veer back to the other side of the road to avoid us, but no, they kept on coming straight at us.  I was sure that we were about to have a head on collision with a heavy vehicle.  Involuntarily, my hands reached out to the dashboard to stave off the impending impact and a cry issued from my mouth.  One headlight flashed by on our left; the other headlight passed by on our right.  It wasn’t a single vehicle coming straight at us at all, but a motorcycle coming up towards on the outside left shoulder and a car in the oncoming right lane!  The two sets of lights coming together out of the darkness had given the impression of a single vehicle bearing down on us.  Sigh of relief!  And a curse for the motorcyclist who had nearly given me a heart attack!! 

Church

A sign of the growth of the local church:  When I first arrived in Lahore thirty-five years ago, all the Capuchin priests were Belgians.  The first Punjabi Capuchin was ordained that year.  Now all but one of the Belgian Capuchins have either died or retired to Belgium. Apart from that one exception, now all the Capuchins are Pakistanis.  The ethnic composition of that community is the exact reverse of thirty-five years ago. 

Along with my Columban confreres, I attended the interdiocesan tribal meeting of the three dioceses of Hyderabad, Karachi and Multan.  There were about 50 people attending, including two bishops, secular and religious priests (local and missionary), sisters and lay people.  Somewhat to my surprise, I knew or had at least met about half of them during my years in Pakistan.  I was an invited guest, the only outsider, but I was made to feel very welcome.  I was impressed that my Columban confreres were leading and actively participating in the discussions and were very well regarded by all those present.  It made me proud to be a Columban.

It was a privilege to attend the interdiocesan tribal meeting, to be welcomed into the inner sanctuary of a church struggling to articulate its mission.  It was part of Pakistani hospitality, the welcome extended to a stranger.  Of course, as already mentioned, I am not totally a stranger.  I knew some of the participants, and could follow most of the Urdu and Punjabi comments, but I have virtually no experience of the mission to various tribal groups, nor their languages, customs and rituals.  Given my visitor status, it was quite touching to be invited into this intimate space where the church is seeking to find its identity and role.  The topic of the meeting was inculturation.  There were very important issues discussed.  To what extent should Christians adapt rituals and colours and symbols of other cultures and religions?  While it may make new converts feel at home, how is this seen by the existing Christian community which has left those other cultures and religions long ago?  How is it seen by the existing members of those other communities?  Is it a type of cultural, religious theft?  Also, some of the customs and rituals have meanings and implications within their own religious systems that may be incompatible with Christianity e.g. placating evil spirits.  How to incorporate the good and avoid the negatives?  These are very important questions that demand study, reflection, discernment, practice, interpretation, conversation and ongoing review.  It was a privilege to be invited to listen to the discussion. 

It was very interesting to meet fellow missionaries to Pakistan again, some after many years.  A word that crossed my mind – we missionaries are “mis-fits”.  No matter how fluent we are in the local language(s), how much we adapt to local customs and that we dress in local costumes, despite all our efforts we never fully belong in the host society; we are always strangers, outsiders.  Yet precisely to the degree that we do belong to the host society, we never again fit fully in our home societies either.  We have been changed by our intercultural experience.  Accordingly, we are “stateless” citizens.  We live in a no-man’s land between cultures.  Ours is a liminal existence, ever on the threshold, looking in, seeking more, desiring for ourselves and others that plenitude of true belonging which can only ever be given by God.  Our mis-fittingness is both our cross and our gift to the local churches here and at home.  We are an entry point for God’s grace which can flow only through our not belonging to this world, our hungering and thirsting for the world to come.

Technology

The parish jeep in which my Columban confrere collected me from the Karachi airport and brought me to interior Sindh has a satellite tracking device against theft. This was a condition of the insurance.  If the car is stolen, the company that monitors the device can track and locate the car.  Moreover, when the car leaves its designated city, the driver receives a call on his mobile phone. He has to give the password and declare his intended destination.  If he does not, the device will stop the engine by remote control.  It can only be started again if the driver rings and gives the password.  While this security device shows astonishingly clever use of technology of which I had never heard before, it also highlights the insecurity that prevails in the country, with kidnappings and hi-jackings not being uncommon!

To transfer money from one city to another, one can pay the cash into a financial company along with a mobile number and identity card number of the intended recipient.  When the recipient receives notification of the deposit on his mobile phone, he can take that notice along with his identity card to the office of that same company in the other location and receive the cash payment instantly.

More to come as I continue the journey into Pakistan in the days ahead.   

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