On a two-night and three day trip to Paris where each and every second was calculated...
By Ather Rizvi
"Atty, we're in a Paris underground!" said Abeer, which was not a reassurance of what we were doing but a decision to live for the day and not to worry about the dire consequences we shall have to face upon our return. No, we weren't eloping to Paris, neither was it a second honeymoon leaving toddlers home with their rheumatic grandparents. The pangs of guilt were due to our "poor students living and working abroad" status and the thought of looking at our bank statements at the month end.
But despite all odds we were there; experiencing French warmth, life, happiness and excitement, trying to make the most of the little time we had. The biggest relief was the warm weather, not sunny but warm enough to make you sweat and comfortably don summer stuff -- quite a relief from UK's grey skies and summer chills.
Thanks to low cost airlines and youth hostels where nineteen people can safely crash in one room, people with a financial status like mine can think of breathing Paris. Student travel is a booming industry in UK and Europe (haven't been to the US so don't know) and does promise fun moments to people like me. If you plan and book well in advance you can actually have a fun, fulfilling trip in money less than what you'd spend vacationing in any of the hill stations in Pakistan (provided you are stationed in UK already).
We had surprised our family, friends, foes and everyone who was aware of our financial crises and undone stubborn dissertations with our decision to go. The desperation was obviously because of the French charisma that we had heard all our lives, but more so because long ago, during our undergraduate days while whining of our workload and no-fun sullen lives we had decided that one fine day we'll sit in a gondola, reach the top of the Eifel tower, have Belgian chocolate in Belgium and get stoned in Amsterdam. One of our distant dreams was coming to life.
Yes, just like any and every travel experience almost everything under the sun had gone wrong with this trip: my head size for photos on the visa form was declared too big, I had booked the wrong travel insurance, I had not applied for visa in time, I had missed my accommodation refund claim by one hour! Other people on the trip had similar stories to tell. On a two-night and three day trip where each and every second was calculated, I couldn't afford by any means to waste time. So I reached the Notre Dame directly from the airport where my other friends were busy absorbing the place and clicking photos. Historic, an amazing peace of art and architecture, the Cathedral was buzzing with life. Unlike most tourist places in Paris, entry to the Notre Dame is free. We gave ourselves some time to walk through it, listened to one choir, took enough photos and it was time for lunch. Yes, being a practicing Muslim is one tough job when travelling but I was lucky to find Lebanese Halal restaurants not far from the place where we decided to have all the chicken we could. Food at these restaurants was good and inexpensive.
Next was Montmartre, an artist's delight, a must do. I enjoyed the very historic yet modern, alive and buzzing air. Summer season had invited tourists from all over the world which made the aura exciting and happening. Exhaustion from last night spent at the airport all vanished in excitement. There was non-stop walking, talking and photography -- all ingredients of a perfect holiday. I'd always remember Montmartre for its truly artistic cafes, artists sitting and painting and also because I got my first sketch made there -- which hardly looks like me but is a nice Paris memory now.
We had done enough walking for the day and the heat had begun to take a toll on us so it was time to head off to our hotel (calling it a hotel makes me feel better) for a break. Recharging our cell phones and we were back in action. It was evening time now and we couldn't wait to hit the roads. And this time, it was 'the road' to be experienced. Yes, we decided to walk on Champs-Elysees, which was an experience in itself. As crowded as Oxford street, equally multicultural and happening. Although it had more or less the same shopping stuff to offer, the street did have its distinct French personality oozing out from every nook and corner.
Walking and eating on Champs-Elysees took quite some time; we enjoyed the cool and the great atmosphere while talking about everything we could possibly think of.
Walking towards the Arc de Triomphe, we were surprised to find a group of men and women all dressed in white seated around formal dinner tables; out in the open along the busiest roads in town. As we walked closer, we realised it wasn't a group, there were a hundred, or two or three hundred of them. There were over a thousand French men and women, all formally dressed in white in that one area. Something was happening, and thanks to the language barrier we couldn't figure out what. It wasn't a wedding because there was no wedding couple and no sane soul would throw a wedding dinner for over a thousand people at around midnight on a roadside. It could be an official business dinner, or a political party meeting (a French jalsa). People, though formally dressed, were all in a causal mood. There was no central agenda under discussion and people sitting on different tables didn't seem to know each other either. What we figured out with help of a few English speaking people was that it was a one-off event, which had started from one person inviting one of his acquaintance, without letting them know who had invited and asking them to invite another person and this chain continued till it brought a thousand odd people to one place for a dinner -- all dressed in white. The idea sounds great but impossible to execute in our part of the world.
It was a real treat to the eyes. And soon, live music began to play and an African singer entertained the audience who all huddled around him and swayed in the best of their moods and manners. As we realised it was way past midnight and it was getting uncomfortably cold and the last thing we wanted was the underground to close so we decided to go to our hotel (yes, hotel!) to get some sleep.
The next day was reserved for Euro Disney, an obvious choice for a person like me who gets excited at the thought of Lahore's Joyland -- at an elderly age of twenty-two! Euro Disney was great fun. It reminded me of childhood days when we would sit and wait for cartoons and then wait to discuss them the next day at school. Having paid forty-six euros as entry fee, the long wait for rides was a little too much. Some of the rollercoaster rides were fun, and 'adult' enough to please people my age group.
After a good couple of hours at Euro Disney, it was time to head for Eifel tower. I realised that I had been in Paris for more than twenty-four hours, denying my presence to the tower which had stood there for centuries waiting for me (I'd like to believe!). Being at my hyper narcissist best, I couldn't stop from getting myself photographing as much as I could while waiting in the long queue to reach the top. And when I did, I really did feel on the top of the world.
Horribly windy and obviously cold, the tower didn't approve of my decision to wear shorts and a T-shirt that day. The view of the city is spectacular, when just in one gaze you can see half the world, it seems. During the day, the tower bears resemblance to our beloved Minar-e-Pakistan and is a delight to the eye at night when it glows and stands proud of its history and French nationality. Nothing can stop me from visiting the place again because my financial position can't possibly get any worse than this.
I didn't leave the tower till I was practically starving and my other friends had lost their patience waiting for me over dinner. Dinner was at another magical place, another Halal restaurant somewhere near the Sorbonne College, University of Paris. We briefly visited the college from the outside because it was closed at that hour. Dating back to the early thirteenth century, almost every known French scholar has reportedly spent some part of their scholarly lives here, the thought of which obviously made me feel uneasy and out of place.
I had decided to spend my third and last day at the Louvre, because of its Da Vinci Code connection and also because it is huge and takes a good couple of hours to look through. In one place, you can witness and live through centuries of Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Islamic history and so much more that it's practically impossible for the human mind to absorb it in a couple of hours. Rather than a ticket, the museum should issue a weekly multiple-entry pass so one can go several times to understand the wealth that it houses. What more can you expect than the ever-enchanting original Mona Lisa standing near you and experiencing pieces of art and sculptor like the most celebrated armless Venus de Milo. The Louvre has enough to offer to art-illiterates like me, and is definitely a lifetime experience for those who read art and history. Yes, the Louvre's magnanimity baffles you for the first time for the museum is a universe in its own right.
In the little time that I had left after Louvre before catching my flight back home, I spent some admiring the centrality of the Concorde Square, holding the symbols of French identity: the Louvre, the Eifel Tower and the Champs-Elysees around it.
Back home in Scotland facing the same financial straits, the same stubborn unfinished dissertation, missed deadlines and unpaid leave, I plan a fun weekend in London in the next twenty-four hours.
The khokhas in the traditional bazaars of Gwadar and its tehsils like Pasni, Jiwani and Ormara sell fancy goods and even petrol at half the price
By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
Roasted nuts, canned tuna, Danish cheese, Swiss biscuits or Persian saffron. Think of anything and it's there, right in front of your eyes. The striking thing about these products is that they are available in sheer abundance and that also at very affordable rates. The setting is not a super store in Dubai as one would think; it's any general store in the traditional bazaars of ancient Gwadar town and its tehsils like Pasni, Jiwani and Ormara.
A first-time visitor like me to this area is stunned by the very sight of high-quality imported goods and packed food arranged symmetrically in showcases. The price tag attached is almost half of what's charged for these goods in Lahore or Karachi for that matter. The reason of this price differential is obvious; most of these goods have poured in illegally from Iran across the highly porous Pak-Iran border or reached the shore via launches coming from the Gulf region.
Quite interestingly, none of the shopkeepers selling these products thinks he is into illegal business. "Bringing products from other lands and selling them to people for modest profit is the cleanest of all trades. Why should anyone call our business illegal," says Khudadad, a shopkeeper in Gwadar. Khudadad has been into this business for years and has never been bothered by any government department. The indifference on part of Coast Guard, Pakistan Customs and district government officials has been seen as a tacit approval to this trade.
Qadir Khoso, a local, tells TNS that a few years back the Coast Guard raided a warehouse to confiscate smuggled goods. This act triggered a severe reaction in which local traders took to streets and burnt whatever came there way. It was only when the authorities intervened and gave assurances to the locals that they ended their violent protests.
The most commonly sold Iranian products in the area are flour, sugar, plastic goods, biscuits, blankets, clothing, saffron, tea, dried fruit, honey, poultry and petroleum products. Cosmetics, perfumeries, electronics, beverages however come from the Gulf states and have ready buyers. A view, though not confirmed officially, is that the concerned authorities have a two pronged strategy. They are strict with outsiders but give safe passage to the locals who bring these products for local consumption.
"This is the only option we have. It is not feasible for us to get supplies from Karachi and upcountry. Karachi is 700 kilometres away from us whereas Iranian border is only 70 kilometres from here," says Ali Mardan, a grocery store owner in Mardan. He says there were no road links with cities like Karachi for decades. A journey between these two cities could take days. "It's only after the construction of Makran Coastal Highway that we can think of getting supplies from Karachi. People also prefer Iranian products like ghee for their purity. Food laws are very strict in Iran whereas in Pakistan you can even feed poison to people."
The unique experience of Waqar Jaffar, General Manager of National Commission for Human Development (NCHD) in Gwadar can be mentioned here. He tells TNS that the commission had to revise its curriculum taught in adult literacy centres. "The locals could not recognise different vegetables printed in their books as they had never seen any of them. It has been only recently that these entities have reached bazaars here."
The dependence on smuggled goods has also resulted in limited industrial activity in the area. The only manufacturing units in the district are 16 ice factories, boat-making sheds, and a few furniture making workshops. The ice factories work throughout the year to supply ice to fishing boats.
Last but no the least, the availability of Iranian petrol at around Rs 30 per litre or is a blessing for the people. Initially available in border towns only, it's now on sale all over Balochistan. It was nothing less than a revelation for me that many vehicles from Karachi come to Hub (which is 30 kilometres from Karachi centre) everyday, early morning, get their tanks filled with Iranian petrol and return.