Karachi, Pakistan

In the fall of 1982, while living and teaching in Bahrain, I was asked to spend five days aboard the USS Coronado — the flagship of the Navy's Middle East fleet — teaching developmental English to crew members during what's called a "show the flag" run through the Persian Gulf to Pakistan, then return to Bahrain with the admiral and his wife on the admiral's plane. How could I say no?

The ocean voyage was a delight — I've written about it in one of my Mahboob Chaudri stories, "The Ivory Beast" — but the best part of the trip was Karachi itself. Seaman "Bear" Jensen (who appears in the story under his actual name) and I hired a horse-drawn Victoria carriage and driver and spent five days exploring the city.

karachi

I remember being impressed by the Tuba Mosque, the tomb of Moulay Ishmael, my camel ride at Sullivan's Beach, and the side trip a group of us took in a psychedelically decorated schoolbus out to the archeological site at Thatta, the fact that the ship's bursar changed my dollars into pads of rupees which had to be ripped free of their adhesive binding a bill at a time. But it's these three things which most stand out in my memory:

• One night, a group of officers from the ship invited me to join them on a bunder boat ride in Karachi Harbor. The small boat's Pakistani crew provided baited lines, and we four or five Americans sat there drinking beer and fishing for crabs, which the crew threw into cookpans the moment we hauled them out of the water. Delicious fresh-as-possible crab and cold beer on a starry night in Karachi harbor — you'll find this listed on the International Food page of this website as the most memorable meal I ever ate.

• Not an event but an ongoing reality: I was astonished at how much of Karachi's daily life happens outdoors, on the streets and sidewalks. I saw fruit and vegetable "stands" laid out on ragged blankets. I saw dentist's "offices" and barber "shops" which were nothing more than an old chair on the sidewalk. I bought a gorgeous camel saddle and cassette rack on long street lined on both sides by tiny open-air stalls occupied by men making gorgeous metal-inlaid rosewood furniture. And, to my astonishment, I saw a "hotel" which was a row of perhaps 20 cots standing side by side on a busy sidewalk. Meanwhile, water buffalos roamed freely up and down the roads, and a passerby might be balancing two cages of parakeets on the ends of a long pole slung across his shoulder, or walking along with a monkey on his head or a 12-foot snake wrapped around his neck. The entire city was like a Surrealist painting come to life.

• And, most of all, I remember the children. The moment they saw my camera, they crowded around me by the dozens, smiling brilliantly, clamoring to have their pictures taken. This was way before digital, so they knew they would never get to see my photos, but they were eager to be photographed, and not a one of them ever asked me to rip a rupee from my pad. I shot five or six rolls of film in the first couple of days and then, after I ran out, pretended to be taking pictures for the rest of my stay, just to see those children's faces light up with pleasure.

I understand that Karachi is a very different place today, a city often erupting into anger and violence. But I remember it as one of the most vibrant and friendly places I've ever visited.

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