I´ve always wondered what the -stan suffix means. It´s in the names of may central Asian countries, and I always assumed it means ´land´or ´area,´ but some argue it doesn´t refer to any geographical boundary. In Pakistan, someone told me it means ´race´ or ´nation,´ and ´Pak´ means ´pure,´ so I’m currently visiting the land of the pure race. The ironic thing is that this place is completely mixed up, not only the people, but their language, culture, religion and look are far from homogenous.
I arrived in Pakistan, a country wedged between Iran, Afghanistan, China and India, and felt, literally, like I was in the middle of the middle. Where east meets the west, the middle east meets the Orient, Islam meets Hinduism, and a minority of ex-pats and local Christians thrown in the mix. You can dress in jeans and a tshirt, a colourful sari, local Pakistani dress (pants with a matching long shirt and shoulder scarf) or a black burka covering everything but your eyes – and either way you´d fit in. Karachi is a sprawling town of 20 million, and feels a little like Dubai growing on top of Delhi. American fast food chains and European coffee shops squeeze in among the local food shops and bustling street food markets, and like everywhere else in central Asia, banks sit on every corner.
I met a lot of bankers in Karachi. I couchsurfed with one, and met a dozen others, and realized I had fallen into a circle of privileged friends. Similar to in India or Nepal, there´s a social stratification system which ensures good education for some, less for others, and none for the unlucky few. Health, religious freedom, and economic stability are of course affected by this, but strangely enough, arranged marriages were still a problem. I met woman who´s in love with a man engaged to his cousin since birth, and another who took years to finally divorce her ex-husband (from an arranged marriage) and now lives without him or her 18 year old daughter.
Still, my Pakistani friends had their freedom – not conforming to the rules of Islam and indulging in the same things any corporate slave would do, we drove around in their new cars, rode horses on the beach, visited the few tourist sights, drank sun-downers at the yacht club, shared beers at the British Embassy bar, and smoked cigars and cigarettes from their rooft-top patios. We ate home-cooked meals, fast-food-street-food, and dined at Karachi´s best restaurants. My couchsurfing host´s mother fed me breakfast and milk-tea every morning, and told me she loved me as her own daughter.
Being pure doesn´t mean the nation has to be similar – for me it meant a land of genuine people, a place where people made me feel welcome and they all took personal pride in being able to share their home with me. They were as friendly to guests and foreigners as they are to their own families, and if they could, they would have wanted to show me all of Pakistan first-hand. There were some unfortunate events that happened in Pakistan recently – a hotel fire and a fatal plane crash – but I can still say I felt very safe in Pakistan. Accidents happen everywhere, (as well as terrorism – but don’t indulge in any of the stereotypes you think you´ve heard about Pakistan) so I hope this doesn’t hurt Pakistan´s chance of receiving more travelers and them enjoying the same kind of hospitality extended to me. I´ve already promised to go back, and made plans to see the north with a local friend and backpack thru the countryside with another couchsurfer. I plan on keeping that promise very soon.