Thailand, Texas, Karachi

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It was a pleasant April night in Pai, a small bohemian hill town in Northern Thailand. The walk up the winding tree lined street leading to my guesthouse, reminded me of Kashmir Point in Murree. The serene and tranquil atmosphere of the sleepy little town was a blessing after days of noisy chaos during the Songkran festival in Bangkok. The guesthouse itself nestled in a jungle and separate wooden huts with a distinct Thai feel.

It was nearly midnight and I was really hungry after an entire day’s excursion. I started my motorbike; put on the helmet; and decided to look for a good, filling meal. It was my first full day on the bike and I was enjoying the feel of it; especially after having had a bloody accident a fortnight ago in Koh Samui when I forgot that I had never ridden a bike in my entire life yet revved it up like a dodgem car and crashed into the bike stand. The result was a pen-hole in the right leg, a completely bruised left leg and a determined resolve to master the bike.

“Everyone had been raving about the scenery; which was similar to the drive up to Daman-e-Koh at best and nowhere near the Murree/Nathiagali route.”

As I rode past the old camper vans, the little boho boutiques, and the spas all over, I wondered what was so special about Pai. The town which was unheard of 10 years ago had now become a rite of passage for foreign hobos, hippies and backpackers alike, and also a quaint holiday destination for middle class Thais. The previous day, while traveling in the minivan from Chiang Mai to Pai, everyone had been raving about the scenery; which was similar to the drive up to Daman-e-Koh at best and nowhere near the Murree/Nathiagali route. Yet all the foreign tourists seemed so impressed by the natural beauty. The tourist spots advertised all across Pai seemed like heavenly places on paper, yet the Pai Canyon was a joke in comparison to the Grand Canyon, and more like small hills in the Salt range. Barring a couple, the rest of the waterfalls were just little springs making their way down the hills. The much touted vantage point or the Pai Top gave a view that you would get from a six-storey building in F11.What they did have though, was recognition of the fact that tourism was the lifeline of the town and that recognition enabled them to provide peace and comfort to the tourists; and lend a relaxed feel to the entire area. The locals would carry on with their own business and not irritate the travelers and everyone was free to enjoy as long as they did not affect others around them. Though in the outskirts of Pai, much like Pakistan, laws were often openly flouted in collusion with the police with women openly luring the visitors to buy small amounts of marijuana, cannabis, and heroin; regardless of the fact that there is an official 65,000 baht fine and a five-year imprisonment for such activity. Yet lots of tourists would act naïve and indulge and then end up negotiating with the Police just across the road.

7-11-store-front

By the time I got round to searching for dinner most of the shops and restaurants had closed down while the bars were warming up to the night-timers. I saw a 7-Eleven, one of the most identifiable sights in Thailand, and stopped to get a can of coke. An old lady in rags, sitting outside the mart, looked up and gave me a smile. She was exactly in the same position as she had been eight hours earlier when I had made my last visit to this same 7-Eleven. She had unexpectedly half-pointed an empty bottle of milk towards me while I was coming out back then, so I asked her if she wanted one. She looked down and couldn’t understand anything so I asked the salesperson about her. He said her two sons had gone to Bangkok and left her homeless and she was just surviving on whatever she could find. I had then bought a bottle of milk for her. Once again I got her a milk bottle when I bought my coke can. She gave me a thank-you smile and I gave her a nod.

The hunger was building up and I was disappointed to see most of the proper restaurants close so early. I reached the main artery and spotted one, The Mexican Grill, which was still catering to a few diners. What attracted me to it was the 40-inch TV screens showing the FA Cup semi-final between Manchester City and Manchester United. I quickly went through what looked like a delicious menu and ordered a bean and cheese burrito with lots of vegetables, rice, and tomato salsa.

The restaurant was managed completely by a couple. The white guy in his sixties had a distinct Texan accent so I asked him if he was from Texas. He laughed and said “Sure! You can probably tell from a mile. I’m from San Antonio (Texas)”. His name was Guy Broughton and his wife Toom was a Thai from Chiang Mai. I struck a chord with them immediately as I was probably the only one there who spoke proper English. The rest of the 10-odd diners comprised of Russians and Germans with fewer words and broader smiles.

While Toom prepared my meal, Guy told me how he had moved to Thailand 25 years ago and instantly felt at home. He said he didn’t like what was happening to his own country. With stereotypical Texan conservatism he made a few remarks about ‘broken families’, sexually transmitted diseases, rampant drug abuse and psychologically troubled kids and him being fed-up of chasing the American Dream and ‘the trail of broken families and shattered lives it left behind’. And then there was this ever present issue of race, he went on, often unacknowledged in political and cultural debate, but there nevertheless; and every now and then something happened to remind him that race mattered in American life, that race relations remained fraught and painful, and that in many ways, black and white Americans were a long way from sharing common dreams and aspirations. He said he didn’t like any of it. It was not something he had envisaged as he grew up. His childhood was free from such issues.

“Every now and then something happened to remind him that race mattered in American life, that race relations remained fraught and painful”

We moved on to discuss politics and the US debt crisis and how Obama was worse than Bush since he was two-faced and according to him, also towed the line of the big conglomerates. We talked about the US government’s adventures in other parts of the world and the fact that it was busy engaging itself in so many wars while there were pressing issues back home; such as record unemployment and the severe economic crisis. We talked about the negative image of Americans because of Guantanamo Bay and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There was a pause in the conversation as Toom arrived with my hefty burrito. It looked really good and smelled awesome. As I was about to take the first bite, Guy asked from behind the counter, “Which state are you from”? I realized that it had been a good 40 minutes and we were so busy discussing the US that he had forgotten to ask me where I was from. Maybe he thought I was a central Asian living in the US since I knew so much about the county. I smiled and thought to myself that this was it for the discussion and as soon as I would tell him I was from Pakistan, he would look at me from head to toe, conjure up a mental image of dank caves, automatic rifles and Osama Bin Laden, and then get on with his work without talking much. It had happened to me a couple of times on the trip.

“Pakistan”, I said it aloud to make sure the rest of the diners also heard it. I just wanted to see their reactions as well.

“Paaakistaaan!!? Did you say Paakistan!!!?” He questioned with utmost surprise

““Paaakistaaan!!? Did you say Paakistan!!!?” He questioned with utmost surprise and a strange smile

“Yeah I’m from Pakistan” I replied with an elaborate nod of the head and a smile, just to make sure he didn’t think I was joking.

Upon hearing this he jumped up from his stool behind the counter; made his way in front of the counter and stood in a straight, upright, attention position, a couple of feet away from my table and started singing on top of his voice:

“Pak sarzameen shadbad, kishwar-e-haseen shadbad, tu nishan-e-azme-aalishan, arze-Pakistan, markaz-e-yaqeen shadbad……”

He did not stop before he had sung the entire national anthem. I got the surprise of my life and was speechless for a moment.  A Texan in a remote Thai town had sung the entire national anthem, which most of us would have trouble recalling these days. Moreover, his distinct Texan accent had disappeared and he was totally at ease with it! I looked around to see everyone’s reaction. They were all clapping and applauding. His wife was totally surprised as well. By this time I was out of my chair and thinking what to ask him. Just as I was about to ask him how he knew it, he went:

“I spent my childhood in Karachi. I studied in Karachi American School from 1954 to 1963, while my dad worked there. We used to sing it every morning”

For the next one hour, Guy Broughton sat across my table and shared all his childhood memories, his love for the city, and his desire to visit it. He tried his Urdu vocabulary and narrated his stories:

“This burrito you’re having is so much similar to the Karachi chapati we used to have. Our chowkidar’s kid, Javed, used to work at a food stall after his school, and he used to treat us once a week to the chapatis and daal cutlets. Those were very good days” His excitement was uncontrollable as he continued:

“We used to watch movies at the Palace cinema and have dinner at a local restaurant on Sundays. Sometimes we would take a stroll to the Frere Hall. Is it still there!?”

“Sometimes we would take a stroll to the Frere Hall. Is it still there!?””

I smiled and nodded as he went on. He told me how baseball was similar to cricket; and that he saw a test match between Pakistan and Australia in 1956 and got an autographed ball from Fazal Mahmood who, in his words, was “One of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever met”.

He asked me if the Empress Market was still there; if the book fairs were still held, if the tongas were still plying on the roads, if Keamari was still the same, if the Drig Road, where he used to live, was still a sleepy road. I responded to all his questions as best as I could.

All this while he offered me free drinks and cocktails and said anything I wanted was on the house. He didn’t charge me for the meal either. When I was about to leave after dinner he said “You guys are lucky. I really love the way you guys live together and share with each other; and the way you people are so happy, content, and helpful towards everyone. I had the time of my life in Karachi. It hurts me when they present a negative picture of you on TV. I know it’s not true”

I smiled a bit as I didn’t want to destroy his perception by saying that a lot had changed in the last fifty years, thanked him for his hospitality and promised him the Karachi postcard he had asked for.

Comments
7 Responses to “Thailand, Texas, Karachi”
  1. Ali says:

    Zeeshan

    I live in Thailand, and really like what have you written.

  2. Shahzad Ghaffar says:

    Great work!!! Was awesome to go through this experience. Keep it up Malik sb!!

  3. Imran Khan says:

    Great. Reminds me of a German ship Captain I met in Houston when I went to inspect his ship 6 years ago. As as student he had traveled to Pakistan with his girl friend and stayed in Balakot for 3 weeks amongst other places back packing. He had towards in his eyes when he talked about the earthquake and destruction. He said that in his home town in Germany he collected almost Euro 10000 and sent it to the embassy in Berlin. It would pain him to read all the negative stuff about Pakistan and its people. He said that he tells the people in his town that Pakistan is not like it is being portrayed. We certainly need as many friends that we can find. May Allah keep all the Pakistanis united and strong.

  4. malik says:

    In Los Angeles, I got the surprise of life. We attended a friends marriage in a fancy Chinese restaurant and soon came across the owner who was barking orders in Chinese to waiters and workers of the restaurant. Sooner, he knew that I am from Pakistan, and Punjab, he started talking in chaste Punjabi. There was no trace of accent. Mesmerized, I asked him how come he speaks fluent Punjabi? He told me that his family was one of the few Chinese immigrant to Pakistan as he was born in Punjab, and his elder brother was a Air Commodore in Pakistan Air Force. He like most of us immigrated to USA and now owns a Chinese restaurant.

  5. Restaurants says:

    Very nice post here i just describe about the restaurants in Karachi are struggling to introduce out side food including thai food and much more international cuisine…
    So the foreigners don’t worry about the food that they like every cuisine is in Pakistan available for them……..

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