Delayed by announced timetables from airlines, 14 participants from 9 countries, i.e. Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, China, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal and Thailand had to take off from their home countries and via Bangkok International Airport on 5 January 2002, instead of the scheduled 4 January 2002.Told that the weather was too foggy at Lahore International Airport, which created difficulty in landing, we were both surprised and worried.
I remembered from Mr. Wasim Zafar, our Course Coordinator, who advised in his latest email that there would be 8 of us on the same plane-TG 505.I didn’t seem to see any of similar races. It might have been that all of us were too busy to pay attention to others. Yes, so likely…! The flight took 4 and a half hours, leaving Bangkok International Airport at 1010 hours and arrived at Lahore International Airport around 1430 hours. We had to take another flight from Lahore International Airport to Islamabad Airport at 1500 hours; something that was very unlikely. Mercilessly greeted by rather cool weather at the airport, we were transported in airport shuttle buses to the terminals to collect our luggage. On my observation, the airport itself was dim and filled with cigarette smoke, though signs were seen prohibiting smoking. As a smoker myself, I joined other passengers and the airport officials in creating sweet odor in the terminal while waiting for the luggage. It took unnecessarily long. We were sure to miss the plane to Islamabad, when Mr. Muhammad Yamin, the Assistant Postmaster General, Lahore, appeared complacently smiling with his team receiving us. He was so positive to keep us feel secure, telling that we would be driven by M-2 to Islamabad, not the plane as planned, due to foggy weather.
We were brought to Lahore Bus Terminal where we were sipping warm tea, trying to kill the outside shivers through our first trip in a country so diverse in climate and culture in the meeting lounge while waiting for the bus which would leave by 1700 hours. We were enjoying tea and talk with the postal staff taking care of us while time slipped by unknowingly, when we had to board the bus for Islamabad. It would take another 4 and a half-hours. Some of us exclaimed with surprise (for they were tired needing some rest).
Missing his unforeseeable hospitality, we exchanged an abrupt goodbye with Mr. Yamin at the bus terminal. He said we’d meet again in Lahore during the field study visit. We were trying to be positive, as I personally needed to see him: “A good man is hard to find”. He asked one of his team to escort us along the way. This nice fellow was very helpful, though a bit shy to speak. Some friends were too weary to view anything outside while some (including me) were too curious to. The weather outside changed so quickly that I could feel from the windowpanes, from which dense fog stuck. That was apparent. Houses were scattering here and there in barren fields. I wondered how the people weathered through this climate…!
Arriving at Rawalpindi Bus Terminal around 2200 hours from where we would be further transferred to the Postal Hostel in Islamabad passing the Zero Point, another 12 kms away.
Our dinner appetite was kindled by Mr. Wasim’s telling that the two Chinese friends, Si Hongliang and Zhang Jie who were waiting at a Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately the Postal Staff Coaster broke down. It lasted over an hour, during the time of which we were chatting, taking drinks by the roadside as well as having peanuts (sponsored by Mr. Wasim) from a street vendor, who weighed the peanuts on his old scale. It was a rare sight, after all. Sonam was having his good time having cold orange juice by a roadside shop while I was walking up and down the road aimlessly, smoking. I liked Mr. Wasim, in particular, for his optimism comforting us that it was a new experience that the coaster stopped dead on the road. Meanwhile he was busy phoning to get a mechanic to fix the coaster. A van was called for to take most friends while two of us-Sonam, and Tawat were left behind to be picked up in another half an hour by his own car, small but comfortable and equipped with some music. That was relieving prior to arriving at the hostel to join others by 2400 hours to have dinner made of muttons, salad and rice when we really needed to go to bed.
Waking up on a first cold Sunday morning, we met some new faces at the hostel-a nicely, well-kept one-storey building with well-trimmed front lawn on which stood lemon trees. The postal apartments (a.k.a. postal colonies) are at the back. On the other side small auto repair shops flanked. All of us were summoned to set up a mess committee. I would wish another name-like “hostel committee”-rather than “mess committee” were used instead, for fear that the “mess committee” would get messy…! After voting, we got Dhruba from Nepal as a mess manager who would work primarily in conjunction with Tawat, a class representative. We donated 500 rupees each for our weekly food. We were taken in the coaster to a market to get cooking ingredients. The market was small and rather unhygienic. Si himself shot a picture after another of a butcher skinning, slicing and chopping mutton adroitly using a long knife as well as both his hands and feet.! It was a strange sight for us. Still another scary one came up when we bought chickens. The way they did here was weighing the chickens to customers’ need and killing them right there before our eyes. I, having seen all this, would wish to be a vegetarian.
The cooks at the hostels were introduced to us. They are Altaf-an elderly good-humored Baba (I guess it’s equivalent to ‘father’ in English-which he deserves.), Naeem -a middle-sized man who’s an expert in making chapatis and a young guy by the name Wariss who was most dynamic and extremely helpful. We left all the raw material with them before being taken on a brief city tour along the Blue Area passing Faisal Avenue and government complex whose buildings are in combination of eastern and western architecture dominating the avenue, which, though short, was lined with sturdy trees. We were granted some 15 minutes to take pictures before coming back to the hostel. I say that the weather in Islamabad was capricious-fast changing- and rather foggy late in the evening. The city itself was insufficiently lit and quiet. Luckily, we had never experienced any pickpockets. Due to the cold, most houses were closed with few passers-by in either streets or alleys.
Dinner was not served till around 2000-2130 hours. Most of us agreed that it was quite late but had no other choice. Not yet knowing where to roam, we spent most time in the TV room downstairs which was comfortable and sufficiently heated. We had traditionally Pakistani chicken curry, salad and chapatis. This first day was about to be gone through the cold and windy night, whose strong wind was no mercy to anyone. The one best harbor was our individual rooms with gas heaters, which must be ignited by a light of a match. Mrs. Atifa Raffat, the hostel warden, instructed that they should be turned off every time before we went to bed, else a fire could be caused. Mrs. Deki Peldon- a soft speaking and very pleasant woman shared her Bhutanese experiences with a Myanmese roommate-San- an unyielding small teacher-like woman in room 7, Tawat-a tiny Thai guy with a friend from Brunei Darussalam- Ahmad in room 8, the next room accommodated Tekaraj and Dhruba –rather economical pairs from Nepal, whose country shares the famed Himalayan ranges as Pakistan does, room 10 was a sole haven for Sonam, a man with daily jokes from Bhutan, room 11 was reserved for an Indonesian friend by the name of a miss Dewi. Next to her room, Mr. Rashid, the Director of the Postal Staff College was staying. The first room on the other side was No. 13. It was to be used by two friends from Bangladesh-Syed Ali and Muhkter Ahmed-both of whom were particularly reserved and quiet. Kittisak-an expert cook from Thailand and a lean spectacled islander from Maldives occupied room 14. They were pretty good at computer, while Zhang and Si-another couple from China who were obviously big shots in computer area occupied room 15. It’s hard to argue for they both brought along notebooks…! Well, we’d better recover from jetlags. Tomorrow was another day.
In the morning 7 January 2002, we took a few minutes’ walk from the hostel to the Postal Staff College. It was 5-6 degrees C, cold enough for us. I thought we were too weakling compared to the Pakistani people sweeping the streets, working with their bare hands in the cold. Positively, we’d get used to. The registration being done, Mr. Zia-ul-Rahman, the additional Director General of Post gave a warm captivating welcoming address followed by Mr. A.R. Abid’s (Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Communications) Introduction to IT and E-Commerce. The latter wrote a book on “Basics to Computer”- available for sale at 250 Rs.per copy. I was starting my assignment assisting Mr. Wasim in class. I was assigned to give addresses on behalf of the participants. Every time they were purely improvised. Hopefully, the results would be all right. Another day was gone with a film on geography and culture of Pakistan in the TV room.
Class sessions were held in the computer room just opposite the seminar room. Our instructors were Miss Nadia Nazeer and Miss Amna Amjad, both of whom graduated in computer sciences from Fatima Jinnah Women University, Rawalpindi, a twin city of Islamabad. They had charming smile and were very helpful, though a bit fast in handing over the knowledge.30 minutes from 1000 hrs was allowed for tea break, during the time of which we were exchanging view on the course and experiences from our own countries. This had been routine. I must not forget to mention Mr. Fasi Uddin Siddiqui, an Adminstration Officer, who took care of all our travel arrangements and FOC calls back home. He was normally available in time of need. I appreciated him, personally. I’d love to always have him with us.
Dewi got a heart always set in fashion trend. She was easy-going with people and came to Pakistan for the fourth time. She got a number of acquaintances here. She was crazy for a karaoke and got dancing shoes…! One night we-Dewi, Ahmad and Tawat were taken in Mr. Rahim Khan’s small cozy car to the Marriott Hotel for a dance. The guards didn’t allow us in, for Mr. Khan was in his national Shalwar Kameez. We were too considerate for his kindness bringing us out at night to leave him behind alone waiting for us. So it was all right for us all not to be let in the”BASSMENT”, which, who knows, could be a”base-ment”! Well, nocturnal life was meant to be in bed and in prayer, not hunting like in the world’s other big cities like New York, Tokyo, Paris, and Bangkok.
A first field study visit was made to Murree/Patriata Hills on 11 January. We were told that there might be snow there. San was always clinging to Deki Peldon, her roommate. Dhruba was extra careful taking his briefcase (full of money?) along. Syed Ali and Muhkter were particularly careful taking the hostel’s blankets, just in case the cold up the hills would be extreme. Majid, Kitty (=Kittisak), Jack (=Zhang), Henry (=Si) were enjoying between themselves. Jack was being taught Thai by Kitty, probably his next visit would Thailand. Our man of jokes-Sonam and a beautiful lady of the band were dozing off while Ahmad and Tawat were trying to capture nice scenic views along the way. We arrived there shivering, though no snow was seen, which was disappointing to us. However, we spent some time taking pictures the best we could, thinking that this would be the only chance. I cried myself a river not seeing snow…..! By 1730 hrs we began our trip back. We arrived at the hostel weary, wishes unfulfilled.
On Sunday 13 January 2002 we left for Taxila-an ancient metropolis of Gandhara. This city is situated 32 km north-west of Islamabad. There was a museum housing artifacts of Buddha and utensils used in the old times. We spent time adoring all the good old things before leaving for Sirkap-another destroyed city, which is one of the world’s heritage sites. Yes, of course, we took a lot of pictures…, just to revive memories. Si was to be most appreciated in photography. He got a digital camera and was more than addicted to it. We were brought to visit Julian-a Buddhist University-which was not far away. We were told that this place served as a university in old times. Buddha images abound; remains of study rooms, lecture rooms, and cooking rooms exist. All of us were here strolling back in history while Dewi was spending her time at the hostel. Well, she had been here before.
The following week was mostly devoted to Advanced HTML. It was interesting and some of us even joked between ourselves with the language learned from the class, i.e. in HTML formats. Whatever programs/schedules I noted on the board in the dinning room were normally in the HTML format:
<html> <head> <title> </title> </head> <body>
18 Jan 02 Trip to Murree. Please be ready at 1030 and take thick clothes.</body> </html>
Graciously allowed by Mr. Wasim to repeat a visit to Murree, we were more than eager to. The trip took about 1 and a half hours along the winding hill. We read from today’s newspaper that there was a 2-foot snow in Murree. This time we were accompanied by our instructors- Ms Nadia Nazeer and Ms Amna Amjad. Despite the sun, it was not very warm. Well, the excitement to touch and play with the snow dissipated this lethargy. We made our first stop by a refreshment kiosk by the roadside below an old steel bridge, from where we lazed about a small stream that was pretty dry. Amna said no fish was normally found here. A lone cow was grazing. We rehearsed taking pictures to arouse an even more intense appetite. When back on the road, Riaz, our professional driver drove us further uphill passing frequent sharp curves. We had a glimpse of snow along the road. Then more and more was seen on both sides. Exhilarated, we were granted a stop at an army post. We rushed out trying to make pictures. That spot was a real picture-postcard vista with Kashmir in the background. By the time we reached the top of Murree which was ca 8000 feet high we were rewarded with snow covered hills surrounded by small hotels. We were warmly welcomed by the Deputy Postmaster General of Rawalpindi Region –Mr. Agha Anwar Gul- a man of letters writing a number of books (unfortunately only in Urdu) He took along his wife and daughter. The pressmen from the “Dawn Newspaper”, the most circulated English newspaper in Pakistan came to take pictures for the press release. We had a hearty lunch when it was already 1500 hours. Snow melted, pathways got slippery and it was nicely cold out there among Pakistani tourists. Every nook and cranny was stuffed with souvenir shops. Mr. Wasim said we should meet back at the GPO by 1730 hours, else it would be risky going down the hills. We de-gathered in small groups exploring the whole place. Over 2 hours passed by without us realizing. We were too overwhelmed. Getting back to the meeting point at the GPO, we were reluctant to say adieu to beautiful Murree. Like any day, late evening was foggy and suddenly cold. Lights were lit in shops and hotels. The place was still vibrant when we left, taking the same route. Snow-covered pine trees majestically standing on sloping hills with houses scattering here and there. When lit, these houses were shimmering fireflies, which added romantic atmosphere to the place itself.
We had to get an early night on Saturday 19 January 2002 as the next day we would be taken on a tour to the Khyber Pass and Peshawar at 0630 hours. I myself made sure I had enough films: I was fond of photography, even though I was not professional. It was a long journey to Peshawar, a capital of NWFP (North West Frontier Province). We made an official visit to the Office of Postmaster General, taking warm tea and biscuits before heading off. This time the Assistant Postmaster General of Peshawar Mr. Aslam Khan Niazi came along in the coaster.
On entering the Khyber Pass, we were guarded by police & para-military vans-one in front and another behind, making sure we would be completely safe. In spite of worries about unstable political situation near the Pak-Afghan border, we were too adamant. We stopped en route to take pictures of scenic Khyber Pass.
Peshawar was arid with noticeably treeless mountains. Strong wind brought us back to face reality of this historic Pass, which was traveled by the world’s great prominent figures. Alexander the Great was one of them. I felt honored to travel this famous route. We were briefed at the Michni Post, a strategic post overlooking the Hindu Kush in the distance. But we were not sure whether we viewed the Tirich Mir, its highest peak. Along the way to the border I saw some graffiti on the mountains -“Go back, America”. I thought I understood what kind of sentiment the Pakistani people had. At least I was in their shoes. Small, shabby mud houses were seen. I wondered how the people in Peshawar survived long years of drought. They must be very brave, proud and adamant. However, I saw a number of starving and malnourished children and adults. Perhaps their resistance and endurance were due to their strong faith, which remains unshaken in spite of the miseries. I read from the papers saying that the Pakistan government was now on the way to complete poverty and growth facility program. As a result of structural, monetary and social reforms introduced by the government, the economy would improve and have the desired effect on the population living especially in rural areas. Coming back to the rest house, which was taken care of by the assistant political agent, we enjoyed our afternoon tea in a nice garden prior to moving inside the rest house for lunch which was very deliberately prepared. The house itself was used to welcome prominent figures from other countries paying a visit to Peshawar and Khyber Pass. Their pictures hung on the walls were incontestable testimonies.
Mr. Wasim said the college would host us dinner on 24 January 2002. Actually he would like all of us to show their culinary arts, but all agreed to cook Thai food. (This time was the third time, really) Tawat was the chef with a number of assistants like Deki, San, Sonam, Ahmad, Dhruba and Kitty. Dhruba was extracting lemon juice from rather thin, unhealthy lemon got from the market. Ahmad was busy slicing onion, pausing from time to time for the onion smell was pungent and irritating to the eyes. San was pounding red onion and garlic for the soup and fried mixed vegetable while Sonam was expertly slicing cabbages. Kitty was very exact, measuring portions of seasoning in the soup ensuring that the food would be delectable for all. Of course all of our three cooks were there giving a big hand. Nadia and Amna came early to say ‘hi” to us in the kitchen when we were very busy. It was supposed to be a grand dinner for over 20 people. We made clear Thai soup (though, when done, not so clear, lacking needed herbs like bergamot leaves, galingale and fish sauce), fried mixed vegetables, and fried chickens. Nadia was helping deep frying the chickens. It took us nearly 2 hours before everything was ready to be served. Ali was particularly well groomed. The dining room was set in a buffet style. Sweets and drinks were brought by Mr. Wasim. Friends from the “Management Course” were also invited, though some of them missed. We took a lot of pictures. All applauded Thai food. We did enjoy this farewell evening. Well, we had to get packed tonight. We would be leaving for Lahore tomorrow. This was something we were reluctant to do.
Friday 25 January 2002 all of us were busy preparing for the course project on HTML language. Divided into 3 groups of 5, 5 and 4, we had 20 minutes for a presentation on our selected topic. Nadia and Amna as well as the course coordinator, Mr. Wasim Zafar our Coordinator expected us to put what we learned, i.e. tags, attributes and image hyperlinking into practice. Our assignments being done, we were told to be back at the hostel to have an early lunch (1230 hrs) as we would be leaving for Lahore by 1345 hrs. Time had wings. We didn’t seem to have a hearty lunch. Instead, we were in a rush getting our luggage in the coaster. While waiting, some were relaxing in the TV room watching programs on HBO channel. Some said goodbye to Wariss , Naeem and Altaf. We regretted not being able to find a small token for our cooks in time, but I managed to get everybody’s consent to collect some money to present to them as a gift of appreciation. The sun was shiny outside, we took some group photos, so that they would make momentos of the good old times spent together. It was hard to leave, but it was very much harder to stay.
Driven to Lahore by M-2, taking 4 and a half-hours, we still couldn’t get over the thought of Islamabad, Murree and Peshawar. Lahore was a bigger and livelier city. Mr. Rashid, the director has a house here, not far from the Alliance Francaise institute. We were put in Hotel National. Surrounded by 4 or 5 cinemas, it was located right in the heart of the city. Streets were insufficiently lit and traveled by old small cars, showy, decorated tricycles, bicycles and horse-and donkey-drawn carriages, they were actually smoggy and congested, unbelievably…! The weather was cooler than in Islamabad, though at night it became cold. Dinner on 26 January 2002 was joined by Messrs. Yamin and Malik. After dinner, though cold and tired, we accepted Mr.Yamin’s invitation to ride in his white jeep for a first evening tour in Lahore. We were crammed in the jeep, but warmly cuddled. On the way back, we dropped by an ice-cream parlor recommended by Mr. Yamin in the Royal Plaza. The time was 2400 hrs when we had our ice cream. It tasted wonderful in chilly night like this.
Our programs were tight in Lahore, with visits to Lahore GPO, Postal Life Insurance and Postal Information Technology Center (PITC). These three units were housed in the British colonial style building and were over 100 years old. It’s one of Lahore’s real landmarks. The next day we were taken on a recreational visit to the Museum, a place par excellence for priceless artifacts, Lahore Fort, old walled city, Badshahi Mosque and Shalamar Gardens, in the latter of which we met some university students who would like to make use of their English with foreigners. Here, I lost sight of friend, they must be busy running here and there making pictures. I must accept that they spoke excellent English. I myself had pictures taken with them, exchanging email addresses. It was a nice experience making acquaintance in a foreign country, wasn’t it? All these places were invaluable historical and archaeological sites with long stories to tell. Personally I was moved by the rich cultures and civilization. I couldn’t help taking a lot of pictures, being convinced that they’d make indisputable witnesses.
On 28 January 2002 we headed for Pak-India Border called Wagah Border to witness the Flag Lowering Ceremony. Mr. Rashid, an optimist and born poet, accompanied us, reciting places while en route to the border. By the time we arrived there the ceremony was about to begin. Mr. Wasim made a perfect arrangement for this visit. We were sipping tea with cookies while waiting for that important moment. Ovation of melodious Pakistani and Indian music was heard from both sides of the border. Around 1600 hrs Pakistani and Indian guards were marching before lowering the flag. Not allowed to cross the border, we were trying to take memorable pictures of the guards performing their majestic duty, while taking care that we were not in their way. Ahmad-my roommate whom I called”Abang-meaning ‘brother” had a friendly talk with some of the Pakistani guards who used to work in his country. I thought we couldn’t thank Mr. Wasim enough for this once-in-a-life-time experience.
Our first round of frenetic shopping was at the Anarkali Bazar. Located opposite the Museum and old colonial buildings serving as groceries selling paraphernalia, it offered nice shopping sprees for all. It was fun bargaining from shop to shop. Some of us would like to complete their shopping list in Lahore and have their luggage tightly locked, but some would prefer till we were in Karachi. On 29 January 2002 we were hosted by the Director in a place called ‘Gawalmandi” –a very well preserved area full of colonial buildings. He took along his wife and daughter. We were honored. I regretted not taking my ‘ reporter’s-like” camera with. The food was of fish, chicken and fried rice and very meticulously prepared. We enjoyed the food as well as the beautiful place. We even tried certain Pakistani sweets normally kept cold (the reason of which I didn’t understand). It tasted nice; anyway, We were encouraged to try sweets wrapped by betel leaf. It tasted really strange. The locally made-milked tea was rather unusual. Mr. Director, we were appreciative. Tomorrow we were to leave for Karachi.
We stayed at Hotel Sarawan, located right in the shopping areas. Mr. Sheikh Qamar Afzal-ul-Jamil, an elderly well-dressed guy, who was the Postmaster General of Sindh in Karachi, awarded us certificates. Karachi was a city that was most bustling and rather hot. Once directed where to shop, we tried to make every second count in choosing souvenirs for families and friends back home. It was too difficult to be able to make good choices when in a rush. So we had to trust our first thought. Well, well… Pakistan should have been happy for all of us didn’t want to take a rupee back, except good memories and unforgettable experiences.
The course being completed, I strongly believe that all vivid memories will always bring us back to Pakistan, an exotic country with fascinating people. There must be more explorations of ancient cities, vast mountainous places and scenic snow-covered terrains.
E-Commerce Course 5 Jan-2 Feb 2002
Venue: Islamabad, Pakistan
Travelogue teller: Tawat Tripipat
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