Search for mineral water leads to show of hospitality

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Editor's note: Ann Ostendorf, 24, of Cape Girardeau is taking a year to travel to Great Britain, Pakistan and Asia. This is the third in a series she is writing about her journey.

I made my way out of the front of the bus after wading through a sea of brightly dressed women and children. The fullness of their flowing garments made it hard not to step on their sandaled feet or the day's purchases from the market. Luckily, I had managed to position myself near a few chickens and avoided sitting with any not-so-freshly butchered meat slabs. As I emerged from the women's compartment, the fierce midday sun reminded me I had forgotten to bring along water.

So far, finding drinking water in Pakistan has not been a problem. The streets are lined with shops full of anything and everything, and it is only a matter of time before you stumble across something you need. Mineral water is common. It is probably a fairly lucrative product to carry because it is sold mainly to foreigners who can always afford a markup of a few rupees. On this day though, I had no such luck. The bus stop was barren, not a vendor in sight. The reason for this anomaly of a quiet Pakistani street corner was due to my being in Islamabad.

The capital city was built only 40 years ago with a logically organized grid pattern spreading far and wide. It hasn't had a chance to grow into endless winding market streets that some centuries-old trade centers like Rawalpendi and Lahore have gradually become. Because of this, I had no choice but to pick a direction and set off for the nearest pani (Urdu for water).

Invitation for tea

I wandered along for about five minutes. Still no water. But even more surprisingly, no one had stopped to ask if I needed anything. Pakistanis are notorious for their friendliness, and one usually can't walk in public without constantly being offered general assistance -- "Where are you going madam?" "Would you like a ride madam?" "Are you OK, madam?" These phrases continuously floated through my head as I roamed the streets. This time, though, I had to ask.

I saw a man in a dusty little field that seemed to be an office parking lot. On discovering he spoke some English, I asked the way to the nearest shop for water. "There is no shop," he said, "but would you like tea?" I agreed and followed him toward the office building.

By this time (about my third week in Pakistan), the whole tea thing had become routine. "Would you like some tea?" is always the third question after asking for my name and my country. I've had chai (tea) in stove shops, shoe shops, antique stores, hat maker shops and nut vendors just to name a few. Sometimes I think their invitation is a way to tell their neighbors, "Look! I have a foreigner in my store."

Many Pakistanis seem honored to make a foreign acquaintance while others are just glad to practice or possibly show off their English speaking abilities. Other times I think I'm offered tea because the merchants feel guilty for charging me way too much.

The best invitations I've had for tea are the ones that take me into people's homes. Going into a Pakistani home is a wonderfully interesting experience. In some cases I think I'm brought in as a novelty to show the rest of the family. I've enjoyed chai sitting on a dirt floor in a shepherd's stone hut with his only material possessions of a few blankets and cooking pots scattered around me. Here it was a challenge to sip tea while keeping the chickens and cows from ducking through the doorway. I've also enjoyed chai in a small farmhouse full of 10 or 15 staring and curious children. I was offered some fantastic bread baked by their mother who sat on the porch rocking the baby during my entire stay. The simplicity of their home sat in sharp contrast to the bounty of their garden. The only decorative items in their living/sleeping room were calendars from past years depicting the military glory of Pakistan.

Welcome company

I've even had tea in wealthy homes, sitting on a sofa while a cart is wheeled out filled with an array of tea, fruits, and cakes. In all my chai experiences though, the main reason for the invitations is the hospitable nature of the Pakistani people no matter how much or how little material wealth they have.

While the chai was delicious (always served strong with extra milk and sugar) the welcoming company of my hosts always made tea time a memorable experience. I have seen beautiful and heartfelt generosity from these Muslim people. As I learned from the man taking me into his office, Pakistanis have a saying, "If a man asks for water, offer him tea."

As I made my way to the office entrance I noticed a man wearing military-type clothing holding a giant gun. Occasionally I've seen these men in places like banks and embassies. Once, I even saw one guarding a shoe store. They are not regular police who are recognizable in their blue berets while carrying bamboo sticks, whistling and waving at traffic. They are not the military police who stand at random road junctions sometimes making foreigners sign a book and sometimes just watching the world go by. (I've had chai with some of them.) But this man with his huge gun and commanding presence, obviously belonged to an important sector of public service and was serious about protecting this office.

Air conditioning reprieve

After a brief discussion in Urdu in which I did not participate, I was taken into the building. On discovering the building was air-conditioned, I was glad I had forgotten my water and was forced to rely on the goodwill and electricity of others. Air conditioning is a luxury in Pakistan, where summer temperatures often reach 100 degrees and include high humidity. The only other places I had been in with air conditioning were shoe stores, so you can imagine how many pairs of sandals I've tried on. I sometimes wonder if the guards with the big guns are only assigned places with air conditioning to protect.

When I reached the destination of our tea drinking session I was pleasantly surprised to discover I was in the main office of "The Nation," Pakistan's largest English-language newspaper. The room consisted of folding tables holding about 10 computers and a sports thermos full of water. I was handed yesterday's paper to skim while the man dispatched a boy to get my mineral water and some tea. The whole concept of sending boys here has taken some getting used to (but not as much as getting used to squat toilets). It seems that most men in Pakistan, no matter what their occupation, have a boy who just hangs around until something needs fetched, washed up or carried away, then off they go.

As the boy was fetching and I was reading, a woman sitting at the computer next to me introduced herself! This merits an exclamatory. Just let me reiterate. There was a woman sitting next to me. In Pakistan, I have seen few women anywhere. In some places, like a specific market during certain times of the day or in the fields outside of town, I have seen some women. But on average there are about 99 men to every woman visible in public. Most women stay in their homes leaving only on rare occasions. In some places you literally see no women.

I was also surprised because I was witnessing a Pakistani woman at work outside the home. So far, outside of working on their farms, I've only seen a woman working in an Internet shop and the American Express office. The town I am currently in, Skardu, has a purdah market, meaning no women (foreigners excluded) are allowed here. Only occasionally have I seen a few scurrying across from one side street to another. Purdah is also the word used for the full veil worn by some Muslin women of orthodox families. This veil covers them from head to toe with only a small slit or some mesh to see through. I've seen these women occasionally, but they are not the norm.

Conversation in English

The other reason I was so amazed was this woman was speaking to me in English. Of the adult Pakistani women I have encountered almost none speak English. (Most men seem to know a few words and phrases at least.) This trend may be changing though, based on my observations of the bands of children who follow me around shouting. Both boys and girls under the age of 10 know all the same English phrases including the very important ones of how to ask for sweets, pens and rupees.

This woman was the exact opposite of 51 other Pakistani women I have seen. She wore a traditional shalwar kameez (loose-fitting pants and a long, loose-fitting top). Her dupatta (head scarf) that all Pakistani women wear was small and sheer and hung around her neck. She had a perm, wore bright blue eye shadow, mascara and smoked. She even interacted with the other men in the office so much as to have a philosophical conversation on the differences of reporting and writing. (She is a writer, I discovered.)

She began explaining to me about an article she wrote for yesterday's paper. It detailed the increase/decrease of the goat, donkey, cow and camel population in Pakistan and how this paralleled the political atmosphere over the past few years. I read the article and completely agreed with her that these animal populations were on the rise. They appear to me at times to be taking over the country. In the cities donkeys haul huge loads and cows just wander up and down the streets, Goats and sheep eat their way around the markets or climb to rooftops searching for trash or other edibles. I never saw even the faintest glimpse of a political sway in the article, but once I did see a goat eating the political posters hung for the up-coming elections. Maybe there was some connection between the goats and politics after all.

The boy returned with the chai, and after splashing a bit of water and rubbing his fingers around the rim to clean the cups, we were served. I noticed on the wall a map of the northern areas of Pakistan. From just north of Islamabad, the Karakoran highway winds its way through the mountains all the way to China. Since a major reason why I came to Pakistan was to hike, I steered the conversation toward my interest.

The man who invited me in turned out to be a trekker himself. After showing me his hiking boots, he proceeded to tell me stories about him and his army buddies making their way through the mountains of the north. I started to get excited to be able to leave the smelly, noisy cities and head for the cool, green mountain valleys. Little did I know how rugged, hot, and rough Pakistan's mountains are. After finishing my tea, the woman handed me her card and reminded me that it's a small world. Then I left with my water.

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