Sunday, August 2, 2009
Eleven Days in Karachi, Pakistan
Arrival in Karachi
My family and I arrived at Karachi's Jinnah International Airport on Tuesday in mid-July, 2009, after a short flight from Dubai in the afternoon. Our arrival was an hour later than scheduled. The disembarkation from the plane was fairly quick but the process of immigration and baggage claim was very slow, in clear contrast to our experience in Dubai. Even though it took more than a half hour to go through the immigration line where the passport numbers were being manually written down instead of being scanned, when we got to the baggage claim we had to wait another half hour to get our baggage. But we did go through the Customs green channel quickly without being stopped, and emerged to be greeted by a warm welcome by our family members in Pakistan.
As they did in Dubai, my daughters again found familiar symbols of American business presence as they saw a McDonald's restaurant right across from the exit at Karachi airport. We were driven to a suite at a private club where we stayed for the next eleven days. Because of my nephew's planned wedding two days after our arrival, I expected my sister's house to be quite full of people, and I chose to stay at the club rather than a hotel because of the relative security it offered from potential terror threats. In addition to a better security and lower daily rate than hotels, the club also offered more space and facilities, including room service, a gym, a jogging track, open lawns and assurance of uninterrupted supply of water and electricity that have become luxury for Karachi residents.
Karachi Weather and Traffic
Though it was a hot, humid and hazy summer day and the traffic was undisciplined, the drive from the airport was still fast and smooth, with all of the new infrastructure development consisting of many recently-built flyovers, underpasses, on-ramps and of-ramps to take us to the club in Defense Housing Authority (DHA) in Karachi.
After checking in at the club, we left for my sister's home which was a quick and short drive, in spite of the fact that a section of the road was torn up for repairs that delayed us slightly. As we sat down for lunch with my sister and her family, the power went out, but a small UPS unit kept some of the fans and lights still functioning. We enjoyed traditional Pakistani dishes of kofta, kebab and biryani, which were followed by delicious Pakistani mangoes in season in July. After lunch, one of my nephews bought a Warid SIM for my cell phone which was loaded with Rs. 500 worth of minutes ( at less than Rs. 3 per minutes) and it activated immediately upon installation. He also set up a Wi-Fi connection for us to start using our iPhones' email and browser functions and our notebook computers. On the way back to the club, we stopped at Makro, a Dutch-German warehouse-style supermarket like Costco, and picked up milk, tea bags, Splenda, orange juice, yogurt, croissants and Nestle water bottles to consume during our stay. Though the brand names were different, the shopping experience was similar to our grocery shopping trips in California. After returning to the club, we went to bed early to freshen up for the following full day of activities before my nephew's wedding day.
Garbage, Garbage Everywhere
On Wednesday morning we ate breakfast in our room. Then we ordered a Metro cab to take us to my sister's home, had lunch at my wife's sister's home and then on to the cemetery in North Nazimabad. We saw lots of heaps of stinking trash in several parts of the city along the roadside on our way. It seemed as though the Karachi garbage collectors were on strike, but my impressions proved to be incorrect, as I was told that this was normal in several parts of Karachi. The government owned and operated garbage collection systems pick up less than 50% of the solid waste generated and the remaining uncollected garbage rots on the streets, posing serious health risks for the growing population. The massive piles of garbage also plug up the already inadequate storm water drains resulting in serious flooding in the monsoon months of July and August every year. None of the major cities in Pakistan have an adequate solid waste management system, though Karachi city government has reportedly contracted with a Chinese firm to establish and operate such a system. The waste collection and management firm, Shanghai Shen Gong Environmental Protection Company Limited, will start its operations of collecting litter from across the city from August 14, 2009 - initially in only six of the eighteen towns of the city of Karachi. And, as expected, this service will not come free, nor should it. Karachi-ites will be required to pay Rs. 100 to 1,000 per month as public utility charges under six categories (according to lot size) on their residential units. Businesses built on 200 sq yards to 10,000 sq yards or more will have to pay Rs. 500 to Rs. 5,000 in garbage collection fees while industrial units covering an area of 1,000 sq yards to 5,000 sq yards and above will be billed Rs. 500 to Rs. 2,000 per month. There have already been howls of protests against these garbage collection fees and it will be interesting to see how effective CDGK (City District Government of Karachi) will be in ensuring payments.
Upon reaching the cemetery, my wife managed to find her parents' final resting place, but I was not so fortunate to find and pay my respect at my father's grave. I was told by my brother-in-law who accompanied us that the cemetery keepers have no qualms about reselling used burial plots to build fresh graves on top of existing ones when they realize no one has visited for a while. But I did find some consolation in praying for my father's soul and the souls of others at the cemetery.
Thursday was my nephew's wedding day and we were warned that weddings in Karachi are very late night affairs that last into the wee hours of the next morning. So we decided to sleep in late in the morning on Thursday, but unfortunately one of my daughters started complaining of an upset stomach in the middle of the night. The next morning I called one of my friends to help me find medications for her. I was pleasantly surprised to find that almost everything I was looking for was available at a nearby store, ranging from Imodium to Pedialyte and Gatorade.
In the evening, we gathered at my sister's house to form a wedding procession. One of my nephews took the groom's car to be adorned by a florist but, as he was returning from the florist's, he was robbed at gun point and relieved of his wallet, cash, driver's license, credit cards and mobile phone. He seemed still quite shaken up as the wedding party (barat) left at 11:00 PM for the wedding hall in Gulshan-e-Iqbal, where the bride's family had made arrangements for the nikah. When we arrived at our destination, everyone was there but the kazi who was supposed to solemnize the marriage. Apparently, he had car trouble along the way and had to make alternative arrangements. He showed up about a half hour late, but then promptly completed the religious ceremony and the dinner was served. It was a good occasion for me to see a lot of my relatives and friends who I hadn't met in years. Since my daughter was still not well, we decided to leave about 1:30 AM, well before the rukhsati.
Breakfast with Friends
Three of my friends, SM, FN and TS showed up Friday morning for breakfast with me at the club dining hall. All three are fellow NEDians who I met after at least eight years. SM is a member of the club and made arrangements for my stay there. He is in the carpet business which is currently very slow because of the ongoing economic crisis hurting consumer confidence in Pakistan. FN, who joined us is doing brisk business by selling UPS units and diesel/gas generators because of the erratic and unpredictable power situation in Pakistan. I suggested to him to consider adding solar panel units backed up with battery storage to his list of offerings to try and promote cleaner energy. He seemed a little skeptical because of the current higher costs of solar solutions per watt compared to the UPS devices and gas-burning generators. The third friend, TS, is in management consulting business and is the current president of the local chapter of the IEEE. We reminisced about the old times, talked politics and current affairs and had the traditional omelet-paratha breakfast with Pakistani chai.
Twelve Hour Power Outages
There is continuing and growing gap between the nation's power supply and demand. An aspect of the increasing power outages from just a few hours in 2007 to over twelve hours a day now is the fact that most power producers are operating 30-40% below capacity, generating only 12000 MW when the installed capacity is about 20,000 MW. Companies like PEPCO, WAPDA and KESC owe billions of rupees in unpaid bills to the various power producers who are not buying enough fuel to operate on full capacity. Part of the problem is the widespread power theft accounting for as much as 30-40% of the total power produced. Even the government departments and government ministers and officials are guilty of not paying their bills while demanding the continuation of power flow.
Lunch with Activist Friend
We were invited to lunch with a friend RD and his wife VD at Barbecue Tonight restaurant in Clifton on Friday. The couple picked us up at the club and took us to the restaurant by the sea where we had a very good lunch of Pakistani grilled meats and curries of various flavors.
The former head of an NGO called Shehri, RD is a well-known Karachi engineering consultant and a prominent civic activist, who has often been a thorn in the side of the local developers and their friends in big places. Since he is not Muslim, he was particularly targeted with a fatwa against him by the unscrupulous mullahs in developers' pockets. He remained under police protection for a while until the fatwa against him was lifted. But he continues to be undaunted in his pursuit of a better Karachi for its citizens. His current campaign is aimed at significant modifications in the $43 billion Bundal and Buddo islands projects awarded to Emaar, a Dubai developer, in 2006. A bridge will be constructed at a cost of $50 million to link Karachi Defense Housing Society (DHA) Phase-8 with the two Islands. The islands are situated about a mile off the coast of Karachi. A major portion of one of the two islands has submerged beneath the sea and the Emaar Group will reclaim this land. According to the initial plan, about 15,000 houses are to be constructed and sold to the public. The construction on the islands has started in December, 2008, but the reports indicate a slowing of the planned effort due to the current economic slowdown in Emaar's Dubai home base and the weak real estate market in Karachi.
The Dreaded Monsoon
We woke up to heavy monsoon rains on Saturday morning, the day my sister and her husband had planned valima reception for their son. The rain did stop mid-day and we were able to go out and visit with my sister, but the situation got worse in the evening and the reception had to be abandoned. The temperature dropped several degrees and a pleasant breeze was in evidence, but the city streets were flooded and many drivers stranded, there was a massive and prolonged power outage hitting more than 90% of the city, and life essentially came to a standstill. The streets around our club were also flooded, but the water was quickly pumped out by large pumps by the next morning. Almost the entire city lost power. Even our club had trouble because an underground cable connecting with the emergency diesel generator was flooded. It took a few hours for the club to restore emergency power to our suite. There were reports of dozens of casualties from drownings to electrocutions to building collapses in different parts of the city. The problems were compounded by the loss of power at the city's main pumping station at Dhabeji that cut off water to the entire city for more than 24 hours. An estimated 700 million gallons of water could not be pumped over a period of about 40 hours. There were riots in the streets on Sunday as angry residents spilled out on to the streets and violent protests stopped traffic in many parts of the city.
Since I was stuck in my club suite for many hours, I sat in front of the TV and flipped through the channels. It seemed that there are multiple, competing channels catering to almost every niche, whim and taste---from news, sports, comedy and talk shows to channels dedicated to cooking, fashion, fitness, music, business, religion, local languages and cultures etc. There has been a big media revolution during the Musharraf era that I hadn't seen before. It seems that this media revolution has had a profound influence on how many young people talk, dress and behave, emulating the outspoken media personalities, actors, preachers, singers, sportsmen, celebrities and fashion models. In addition to a smorgasbord of TV channels born out of a surge in advertising spending, there are many newspapers and tabloids, and serious and glossy magazines, and many FM radio stations providing local news, sports, weather and traffic.
Visit to a Friend's House
We were invited to lunch at SQ's house in Defense on Sunday. SQ is the friend who let us use his apartment and driver in Dubai. This close friend of ours also has a special connection with us because he was my classmate at NED Engineering College and his sister and his wife were my wife's classmates at Dow Medical College in Karachi. He had invited several classmates from our common alma mater of NED Engineering College in Karachi. Several of them could not attend because of the widespread flooding and power outages, but seven or eight still showed up. The street in front of SQ's house was flooded and we had to tiptoe around the big water puddle to step into his nice house in an upscale neighborhood. The grid power was out when we entered and only a few lights and fans were running off of the UPS. The gas-fired generator could not be started because it would significantly reduce the gas pressure and shut down the cooking range in the kitchen. The choice was between cooking and air conditioning. Finally, when the signal came from the kitchen that the cooking was done, the generator and the air conditioning were turned on for the comfort of the hosts and the guests. The discomfort from the lack of air conditioning during cooking was more than amply compensated by the delicious food we ate for lunch at SQ's house.
Private Power and Co-generation
As the conversation turned to power problems and every one jumped in to express their anger and frustration, I asked them if they can do something about it rather than complain? My friend RD, the civic activist, joined in and got the rest of the group to acknowledge that they are indeed among the top 1% of Pakistan's elite in terms of their education, income and social status. That begged the question as to why they can not do something about a problem that affects their daily lives so profoundly? Since they all live in the same upscale neighborhood in Defense, is it possible for them to try and set up a private power plant which can fill their needs and still make surplus power available to the grid? RD mentioned that he was working with a client who has just 10MW extra power to connect the plant to the grid and sell the power to KESC, the local power utility. If there were a hundred private plants like it, each with ten surplus megawatts, it could easily add up to a thousand megawatts extra power for Karachi, closing the demand-supply gap significantly.
Meeting with Karachi's Elite
On Monday, my NGO friend RD and his wife invited me to lunch at the Sindh Club with Mr. Ardeshir Cowasjee, a popular Karachi columnist and commentator whose writings I have admired. Mr. Cowasjee has been a strong supporter of many of my friend's civic activities and written about the issues faced by Karachi-ites as their city is going through significant new development. After spending a few minutes with him, it became obvious that Mr. Cowasjee is far more articulate and effective as a writer than he is in a face-to-face one-on-one conversation. The most memorable part of the conversation was Mr. Cowasjee's mention of another Sindh club member who had complained against him for calling him a Charya. Following lunch, I was introduced to a number of people who are considered as the city elite in Karachi. Some of them were journalists and talk-show hosts on Cable TV, others were business executives, senior bureaucrats, artists and architects. I did not find my conversation with them particularly enlightening, stimulating or inspirational.
Tuesday was beach day when we headed out to Hawke's Bay in Karachi. One of my nephews, who works for British Petroleum, reserved a BP hut for the family to enjoy the hot summer day on the beach. When we left, my sister's home was without electricity or water, just as most of the other homes in the city. But the BP hut had the luxury of power and water. The access roads to the beach were very crowded after the pavements were badly damaged by the monsoon rains. The construction crews were out there repairing the edge of some sections of the road that had collapsed and the traffic in both directions was sharing only one side of the divided road. I saw more trucks, beautifully painted and adorned, than I have ever seen in my life, parked on both sides of the road. At the beach, the water was comfortably warm and nice and a pleasant breeze was blowing from the Arabian sea as we slowly stepped into the water, fearing the presence of jellyfish in July's warm waters. While the children enjoyed camel rides and frolicking on the sandy beach, I decided to take a walk along the beach. Later, we enjoyed a picnic style lunch and returned to the club by late afternoon using a different, less crowded route that our driver learned from other drivers.
Tuesday evening, my friend MK invited me and a number of other friends to dinner at the Club I was staying at. Several friends showed up and we had a good time talking politics, among other things. Passions ran high briefly as the topic of Musharraf's possible trial and the campaign against the Taliban came up. One of the friends showed strong emotional support for holding Musharraf to account for Lal Masjid which has become a rallying cry for many supporters of the right-wing religious parties in Pakistan. The polarization was quite obvious on the question of the performance of the current leadership in comparison with Musharraf, though almost all expressed reservations about the current leadership and the direction of the country.
The Upscale Crowd
My family and I spent most of Wednesday with FN and his family, starting with lunch at the Gymkhana Club. Karachi Gymkhana Club is one of the oldest private clubs in Karachi that was founded by the British colonial rulers and remained exclusive for them for a while. It was not until the early 1950s that a Pakistani became the president of the club. It's an old colonial style building on a large piece of prime real estate in the most expensive part of Karachi, located close to two five-star hotels and the American consulate. After a sumptuous lunch, my wife headed out for shopping with my friend's wife and their son showed me and my daughters around town, mostly the upscale area near the water front. We passed by the Creek Club, stopped at the Defense Golf Club and Resort, the Clifton beach and later stopped at the Emaar Crescent project to tour their tastefully decorated model units on display.
This part of town could be easily mistaken for resort communities in California or Florida. The first release of the Emaar Crescent project offered one, two and three bedroom world-class, beach-front luxury apartments ranging in price from $300,000 to $500,000 sold out quickly last year. The Crescent community will be a self-contained community with its own gyms, tracks, water, power, schools, parks, libraries and shopping etc. A lot of the speculators probably bought these units in the expectation of rising real estate prices to make a quick profit. But the real estate bubble burst in Karachi as it did elsewhere. The second release is now underway but the prices have not gone up as some expected, nor has this release been sold out like the last one.
Hospital Emergency Room Visit
As we prepared to attend the wedding of my cousin's daughter on Wednesday evening, my younger daughter complained of fever and stiff neck that sent alarm bells ringing in my physician wife's head. She suspected the worst, forcing us to make an emergency room visit around 10PM. The Agha Khan University Hospital emergency room is where our driver took us. FN volunteered to join us there to help us guide through the process. Fortunately for us, the hospital procedures and staff were quite comparable to what we have seen in California. Without filling out any paperwork, the triage nurse and doctor examined my daughter and quickly concluded that it is not the horrible ailment that my wife feared. But they still went ahead and ordered blood tests to confirm their conclusion. The whole thing cost under Rs. 2000, a far cry from emergency room bills in the US. The prescription drugs were even cheaper, just under Rs. 150 for a full course of antibiotics. It turned out to be a relatively quick and painless process because of the procedures, the equipment and the skilled and friendly staff at the emergency room. On our way back from the emergency room at 1AM, I stopped at a McDonald's restaurant to pick up a couple of big macs and I was astonished to see customers waiting in lines at such late hour. It seemed to me that most Karachi-ites never sleep or sleep very little.
Our Alma Maters
On Thursday, my activist friend RD's wife gave us a tour of both NED Engineering University's old campus in the city which now houses the Department of Architecture headed by Professor Noman Ahmed, and Dow Medical College now known as Dow University of Health Sciences. The visits brought back many fond memories for both of us as we walked on the hallowed grounds of our alma maters and took many pictures. Our daughters were particularly interested in seeing their parents colleges and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity. Professor Noman Ahmed explained to us the work he is doing in restoring the old colonial NED building to preserve its grand, historical edifice, complete with its tall stone masonry chimney that has symbolized NED for generations. Their passion and commitment came through loud and clear as he and one of his female lieutenants talked about their efforts. Later in the day, I went to visit the NED University's new campus near Karachi University, about 20 miles from the downtown campus. There I had lunch with Professor MN of Electrical Engineering department. MN and I both graduated from NED in 1974 and he chose to serve his alma mater, after attending graduate school at Duke, while I decided to stay and work in the United States. MN gave me a tour of the campus and I met several students who recognized me because of PakAlumni social network which has hundreds of NEDians as members. MN talked about his successes and frustrations in his teaching career in particular, and the politics in general. MN has the distinction of being well remembered and highly regarded by many of his past students who have now become quite successful in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. By all accounts, he is indeed a very dedicated teacher and mentor of many successful NEDians. In many ways, MN shares the idealism of my other activist friend RD in Karachi, and he is an activist in his own right and fights for the causes he believes in.
We spent most of the day Friday saying goodbyes, packing up and getting ready for our departure to Beijing on Friday night.
I Am Optimistic
Overall, we had a good time in Pakistan. It offered me and my wife a great opportunity to renew contacts with many good friends and close relatives, and for my daughters to get a closer look at their parent's culture and country of origin. We immensely enjoyed the extraordinary hospitality extended to us by all of our family and friends. In spite of all their current difficulties and multiple crises they are facing, I have faith in Pakistanis' abilities to deal with their problems. I felt their pain, but I remain optimistic about Pakistan's future.
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