The Grand Tour

I’m in Nairobi, waiting for a plane to London and from there, home. A big old 747 just nosed up to the gate, it’s the first time I’ve flown in one of those in years. Unfortunately I’m pretty confident my ticket won’t get me a seat on the top tier! I remember going up those narrow stairs once, just to have a look at how the other half live, but that was back in the old days when you didn’t have to take your shoes off THREE TIMES at various security checks in a 30 metre span, before the pilots were locked away in their cockpits, before you had to leave your nail clippers (and now laptops) in the hold. Ah, memories! I’m sure they wouldn’t let me anywhere near the stairs now.

It’s been an interesting 10 days since I was sitting in the lounge in Istanbul. Since then I’ve had a week in Karachi, followed by five days in Nairobi, as the guest of the Aga Khan University. The AKU invited me to give a series of lectures at two of their campuses (they have six!) with time for visits built in. I was especially intrigued to meet the folks from the Institute for Educational Development – there is one in Karachi and one in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I visited the first and connected by Skype for the second. I remember when one of the founding lights of the IED in Tanzania (they really need to work on a better acronym, especially given all the issue outlined above) came to Calgary and spoke with us about his plans. I was doing all the Kosovo work at the time, so my friend and colleague Charlie Webber went out to help them get established. They remember his name with fondness, and I recall that he really enjoyed his time there. Perhaps one day I’ll add Tanzania to my list of countries.

But on this trip I added Pakistan, a country I had never been to before. I don’t suppose I’ve really been there now, having spent all the week in Karachi, which is a truly fascinating city. I was doing some research for my lectures and found out some mind boggling information about Karachi and Nairobi, something for us Islanders to think about when we’re next complaining about a tourist traffic jam holding us up on University Avenue. Here’s a screen shot from my talk.

Comparative Map

Imagine – twenty-seven and a half million people living in Kings and Queens counties!

Our arrival in Karachi at 0430 was marred only by the fact that our bags did not arrive with us. This wasn’t really unexpected, given our dash across Terminal 2 during our transit in London. I figured they had just not made the connection, and would be on the next flight. So we filled in all the forms and eventually, at close to six in the morning, emerged out in to the heat, dust, traffic and bustling humanity of Karachi. It is an almost psychedelic shock to the mind. The countless motorbikes buzzing in and out of traffic like angry wasps at a picnic, sometimes a lone wolf but more usually with a rider and a pillion passenger, sometimes, two, or three, and in notable case six people balanced around the fellow (always a man) who was nominally in control. Women sitting side-saddle, demurely holding their veils, children piled on laps and shoulders, sometimes bags and baskets and once four 8 foot lengths of 2×4 clutched on a shoulder. Quite mad. At traffic lights or junctions the bikes revved up near the front, waiting for a languid wave of the hand from the traffic policeman and off they went, darting inches from each other and then from the cars, trucks and buses that made up the rest of the street scape. Every so often someone would amble across the road, through the traffic, casually extending a palm to slow down the oncoming rush. Uncannily it seemed to work, but I wouldn’t recommend it for most constitutions.

Karachi Bikes

Karachi bikes – early morning

After a sleep we went out shopping to buy some clothes, just in case the suitcases didn’t arrive the next day. Which was a good plan, as they didn’t. So I now have a couple of Karachi shirts. Although the getting of them was not as easy as it sounds – it turns out that an XL in Pakistan is most definitely the same as an XL in Canada! Especially if it’s a ‘slim-fit XL’, which I personally think is not only an oxymoron but painful as well. Still, having found two that fit (following visits to about 6 stores), I bought them, disregarding that one is black and the other pink. They fit and that was enough.

The week flew by, as did the myriad kites which constantly circle the city, spiralling up on the heat thermals and plunging down whenever some juicy food source is located. The outside of the balcony was covered with a thin translucent screen of green fabric, apparently to keep them away from guests who might be sitting outside having a snack. Or just being a potential food source, I guess.

Karachi Kite

Karachi kite

We got to see some of the city, and discovered odd factoids. For example, they don’t ride donkeys or horses on their beaches, they ride camels!

Beach Camels

Beach Camels by the Arabian Sea

After two days the bags arrived, for some reason full of sand. The tags showed that they were ‘rushed’ to us from Toronto, which made no sense as that city wasn’t actually on our itinerary. Then the penny dropped – they hadn’t missed the connection in London, they hadn’t left with us in the first place. Instead of going to Halifax, they must have gone on the Toronto flight which was in Charlottetown at the same time. Of course, such a mistake is understandable – the pressure of getting bags on to the correct plane when there are two to choose from must be an intense burden for an Air Canada baggage agent. Methinks a little chat will be in order when we get home.

The Karachi campus of the Aga Khan University is a wonderful little oasis in the midst of all that dust and noise, with gardens and green spaces as well as some lovely pools. My musings on education in a time of turbulent change seemed to be quite well received, and there were good questions afterwards. It was a new audience, so I also got to re-use some old jokes, which is always a pleasure.

Aga Khan

Aga Khan University, Karachi

The other interesting thing I noted was that just because things might have the same name, this doesn’t mean they are the same object. I’d already noticed this with the shirt sizes, but it was really brought home in a restaurant. A group of us went to a lovely place built next to the beach, with a view out over the Arabian Sea. The meal was a sort of mixed grill, with various courses served in sequence. There was fish, of course, a whole red snapper baked in a crust of spiced salt and just wonderful to the taste. And then there was a mutton dish, marinated in spices and served almost like a stew. This made sense, as mutton – or ‘useless old sheep’, as my grandfather used to call it – can be a bit tough and really does require a long slow cooking time. Sometimes it is sold in thin chops, giving the illusion of youth even when that time is past, hence the old saying ‘mutton dressed as lamb’. There was no such subterfuge here, and the meat was quite tender, but I couldn’t place the spices used in the marinade. I spoke to the lady next to me, who gleefully explained that in Pakistan they only ate the young sheep, or lamb, and that this was a different ruminant altogether. They just called it mutton.

Mutton Dressed as Goat

Mutton dressed as goat

Soon the time came to hop on another plane and make our way back across the Arabian Sea to Dubai, a short lay-over there and then down to Kenya. Nairobi is another busy city, and the traffic is even more insane than in Karachi if for no other reason than the roads are fewer and narrower. People spoke with nonchalance about trips between various points taking “about 20 minutes, an hour and a half in traffic”. I mentioned that in Charlottetown it took me 10 minutes to get to work, 12 in traffic, but nobody laughed.

Here the Aga Khan University isn’t really a campus, it is a series of programs located on random floors in various office towers around the city. There is a university hospital, though, with a lecture theatre, and it was there that I gave my talk. I was pleased that people fought the traffic and actually turned up, most of them on time! Walking over to the hospital took me past a sports field, and I like the symbolism of the cricket pitch and roller in this photograph. Vestiges of colonialism.

Aga Khan University Hospital Nairobi

Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi

Of course one cannot go to Nairobi without going on safari, even if it is only a Sunday morning visit to the national park which borders the city. Although not quite the scope of the Serengeti or the Masai Mara, places long on my bucket list, it is still a thrill to bounce along the tracks in an old van and suddenly come up on a herd of grazing impala. There are no elephant in this park, but we did see a lion, although he was too far away for a decent photograph. Ditto with four rhino, which kept to themselves up on a ridge, but an inquisitive zebra became the photo of the day.


“What the heck do you want?”

And so now the plane is getting ready to board. It’s a long haul to London, over 8 hours, and with luck I’ll get some sleep. Another five hours in Heathrow, which should make for a more leisurely transit than last time, and then over the pond to Halifax and home. Where hopefully it will be spring, and there will be daffodils. And I can complain about the six car traffic jam at the lights on the corner of North River Road!

Karachi carsNairobi carsKarachi                                                                                   Nairobi


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