Adventure on a Karachi Market

‘Do you really have to go to Pakistan?’ Not only my mother was worried, almost everybody I spoke to advised me not to go to this place where terrorist attacks were a daily routine. ‘Yes, I really have to.’ I told them. ‘It will probably be okay, you just have to know the right places.’ But I cannot deny I was a bit nervous while on my flight from Dubai to Karachi. Outside Karachi airport I saw mostly men in the traditional Shalwar Kameez, almost no one was wearing jeans and t-shirt. At a MacDonalds missing most of its letters, I waited for Muzzammil, my first contact in Karachi, to take me to his house.

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Eagles circling above a market

The roads were awash with plastic trash, cripples and beggars. There were street vendors selling food every metre. Cars, rickshaws, motorbikes and decorated buses with people on the roof were all slaloming freely. The city smelled like a combination of petrol, fruit, spices and death. Exactly what I longed for after the clean, well-organized, boring Dubai. I was happy. This is real life, I thought. No air conditioning, no fancy cars, no structure. Later that day I met Sohail, my CouchSurf host. He had an empty apartment I could use while in Karachi. He wanted to show me his window blinds company. It was a twenty minute walk, situated near a slum. We passed many food vendors, we crossed a bridge where it smelled like deceased people, we walked through a market with fruit and chicken for sale. There would be cages stuffed with frightened chickens, on top of the cages men cut and peeled the less fortunately chickens. It looked and smelled horrible. One guy sat cross-legged holding a chicken with both hands and with a knife between his toes cleaning the chicken.

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Sohail was nervous something would happen to me. He was apologizing that he could not take me with his motorbike. Since yesterday ‘pillow riding’ was not allowed because all robberies were done by motor bike. When I wanted to take a picture of the slum Sohail told me to put my camera away immediately and not to take expensive stuff with me. He was robbed 4 times. One time a guy asked for directions. When he was explaining to him the way, he got a gun to his belly and was told to hand over his phone and money. Sohail did as he was told and walked away. The guy called him back: ‘hey! I still need to know how to get to the empress market.’ Later that weekend Sohail took me to a deserted beach. The villas were abandoned because of the many armed robberies. At one time they were robbed once. I was excited to know how it happened. ‘It’s not like in films where they are shouting “Put your motherfucking hands up, to the ground go go!! Give me your money!!” One of Sohail’s friends explained. ‘It’s very peaceful. They just say: “hey guys, sorry to interrupt your evening, but it’s us. We feel really bad about this, but you know…” and then you just hand over your phone and stuff, and then they leave.’

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So this was the place where I would do my second Pancake Adventure: on a busy market, right behind a big slum, where people got killed for a mobile phone. Locals advised me not to do it in a market. I could get in trouble because I didn’t have a license. The thing was: nobody had a license. Every fruit stand payed bribes to the police or the local mafia. Sohail assured me it was gonna be okay; he knew people from the market and they would be happy to help. He arranged an extra stove and a place next to a banana seller.

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While I was making the batter, people looked on with suspicious curiosity. The place was not too crowded, but there would be a constant stream of new curious people. Some people were very enthusiastic, especially the Afghani mute guy. He came back with a bouquet of carved vegetables, to show his gratitude. Some people, when I offered them pancakes stared at me as if I was trying to poison them. But most people were happy. The guy from the Pakistani newspaper The News wrote an article about the adventure. If it was in his power he would have nominated me for the Nobel price for peace. In the end most of all, I was happy that the Pakistanis are such great people. I didn’t get shot, there was no bombing, and I had to bribe the police officer only with pancakes.

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