TRAVEL in PAKISTAN
Giving Money To The Poor
Excuse us or rational thinking
16 March 2017
We drove away from Multan, the city of shrines and mosques, to go to the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad. We were in Pakistan for over a week now, but still had to adapt to the hectic traffic and we were happy once we had reached the new motorway. Here we even found a Total gas station where we were able to get a cup of coffee. Admittedly, it was instant coffee from a machine, but it was the first cup of coffee at a service station since we had left Europe. Good enough.
The trip from Multan to Islamabad took ten hours. Both Josephine and I had divided the time of driving equally, which doesn’t always happen. I think I enjoy driving more than Josephine, while she relaxes more and likes watching the world go by. I get bored doing that for hours. However, today, on the new motorway, even I relaxed and looked around at all that happened (not much happened).
In Islamabad we had found a place to stay via Couchsurfing, a website that makes it possible, amongst others, to stay for free at someone’s house. Imran, our host, invited us when he saw our request online. In perfect English he wrote us a very honest message saying that we were welcome to stay at his place, because he needed reviews for his upcoming hostel. He told us it would be like sleeping in a hostel, since the bunk beds were there already, the rooms had private showers and the kitchen was for everyone to use. To our question whether we could park the car safely and for free, we also got the confirmation that we were looking for.
We arrived in Islamabad late in the evening, around 9 o’clock, and during the day I kept Imran up to date about our status. As we got closer to Islamabad, I texted him to say we were almost there, but I warned him that we still had to get through the city and we expected the worst because of the traffic. But, as it turned out, driving in Islamabad is different than anywhere else in Pakistan. It is organized. The main reason for this is that Islamabad is an artificial city. Only in the 50’s the construction work for this meant-to-be-capital started and the city was ready for official use in the 60’s. Islamabad is divided into different sectors, in a grid-like shape, with each sector having names such as F, G, H, etc. The city is still expanding, but it is clean, not too crowded, no rickshaws are allowed in the city, there is little honking and in general it is very spacious.
Without getting stuck in a traffic jam once, we arrived at Imran’s sector. He came out of the house, on his flip-flops, green sweatpants, easy t-shirt and a cigarette in his mouth, and told us to park the car in the garage. The car was too high, we tried, almost succeeded, but failed and our tent cover got a small rip. He said we could park our car on the street too, but we were still assuming that Pakistan is not safe. We asked Imran about the safety, he was stunned by our car and our fixation on safety, but he said it would be okay.
We parked our car (why the hack did we try to get in the garage if it was safe any way?), we got our stuff out, walked with him to the apartment and didn’t really know what to expect. All we knew, after a long day of travelling and not having a propper meal, was that we were hungry. Very hungry. We dropped our stuff at his place, sat down a bit, and soon asked him if he wanted to eat something. He told us he just woke up, was hungry indeed, and that he would lead us to his local restaurant.
We sat down, had a short talk, got a menu and ordered some water. We looked at the menu, but the menu was in Urdu and besides that there were too many options! Josephine decided to pick dahl, a simple, but safe choice and always on the menu. When I asked Imran what to take, he said I should try the special kebab.
Hold on: I’m not much of a meat eater, neither is Josephine. We both find it terrible what happens to the environment and therefor minimize the meat we eat. We also agreed that we do like the taste of meat once in a while and therefor don’t want to go vegetarian all the way. I don’t think I have to defend myself here, nor do I have to defend Josephine her choices, but I do feel that eating meat just to eat meat won’t do good for the world. Balance is the thing these days, I s’pose.
After ordering our food, we chit-chatted a bit more at the table. Soon we realized that our host is one of those people who are really intelligent. The kind of intelligence that as soon as he would hear something or look something up, he would remember it. To every fact question we asked him, he had an accurate answer. And that made these first conversations, mainly about Pakistan, even more interesting.
The food arrived. It smelled delicious. We also got bread, nan and roti. Both white dough bread, made in an oven, but slightly different. Nan is a bit softer, thicker, fluffy almost, whereas roti is thin and crispy. And then there was the kebab. The smell, the way it looked. Even now, while I write this months later, I’m starting to drool when I think of this food.
When I took my first bite, the world around me stopped. Josephine and I decided beforehand to share our plates, as we often do, but I can’t remember if we did it this time too. Probably we did, because Josephine fell in love as well and immediately regretted her choice. The combination of the smell, our hungriness, the amazingly baked bread, the spices, the texture… it was overwhelmingly good. I tasted spices I had never tasted before and yet it felt so familiar. And it made sense: every kebab shop tries to get it like this, so I do taste some familiarities, but they never get it quite right like they did here.
It was here, in sector E11/3 in Islamabad, where I experienced the first bite of the best kebab I’ve ever eaten. Not one food magazine or food critic would say the best kebab comes from Pakistan, let alone Islamabad, but yet here I was. Wasn’t this suppose to happen in Turkey, or Iran?
But this wasn’t the only magic thing about this place, as I would find out later.
We became closer with Imran the longer we stayed at his place, and in the end we stayed there for over two weeks divided over two time periods. Since Islamabad is an artificial city, not much history and old buildings, we soon had checked out all the things we could do and see in the city. What was left was to hang out in the apartment with Imran and a fellow overlander called Jan (he joined our small group in our second week), while we played cards, watched TV shows and chilled out. We kind of moved our sofa from Amsterdam to Islamabad. And our rhythm got totally disturbed. We went to bed late and woke up when it was noon. Imran went to bed in the morning and woke up even later. It explained why he got up so late the evening we met him. A truly chilled-out place, maybe a bit too much sometimes. But it was just what we needed after travelling continuously for four months. Dox, by the way, couldn’t be any safer.
As I wrote earlier, Imran is intelligent, but he also has a nice sense of life. He has been travelling around the world, which is hard for Pakistani passport-holders, so has also seen bits of the ‘Western’ world. He defends his culture, but criticises parts of it too. I can go on trying to explain Imran’s personality, but it would not do the job, as you simply need to meet people to fully understand. Sometimes you meet people and you have the right vibe, as was here with the four of us.
Many nights we sat together at the restaurant and beggars always came around to ask for money. Imran isn’t a big talker when there are more people around, but once he speaks and gives his opinion, he has thought of it properly. He strongly disagreed with giving money to beggars. He explained us that the Islam states that giving money to the poor is a virtue. A good Muslim is supposed to help people who are less fortunate, with something small, most of the time this means giving some money. Many people, however, are not aware that often there is an organisation behind these beggars. The organisation gets most of the money, the beggars only receive food and shelter in return. A classic explanation, seen in movies (Slumdog Millionaire), and we don’t know how much of it is true. But we did see some real pain on the street. People with one arm: was the other one chopped off? People with terrible skin conditions: was acidic thrown over them? People with no eyes: … You get what we have seen. And I won’t start with giving examples of those poor children. But besides these organisations, he also told us why people keep on begging: they earn a lot with it. A lot. More money than regular people working in shops or working in restaurants.
Maybe it is a way to give myself reason why not to support these people, I mean, it is a nice option not to feel guilty about not giving money away. But at the same time I strongly believe that there is no point in giving money. The system in itself is wrong. Begging can’t be good. If I give money, I’m part of the reason why there are still people begging on the street (‘What other options do these people have?’, a development researcher would ask. ‘Do these people know that there are other ways than begging?’). By giving money, I don’t really ‘save’ the people. At least I don’t see it happening. And I can’t save all the beggars, nor do I want to give all my money away. Maybe it is just the easiest option to ignore it with valid reasoning.
Of course being a beggar is a way to live (if this decision was made by oneself), like a job, and it is for each and everyone their own decision to participate in the system or not. There are always exceptions when you can or should give money, also for me, and I am well aware off that. But in general I prefer to give some of my money away to a different cause.
Therefor we have to go back to the restaurant that I don’t know the name of.
Every day we sat outside of the restaurant. Here there were two waiters serving the cars go by and the people sitting at one of the four tables. One waiter was in his mid forties, had a good moustache and looked a bit like Super Mario. The red t-shirt of the restaurant fitted him perfectly. The other one, small guy, friendly eyes, early twenties or maybe even younger, was running around all the time, with the biggest smile on his face you can imagine. He took the order, ran inside, via the stairs, to hand it over to the chef. If we asked for more nan and roti, he would do the same thing, and be back within no time with a big smile on his face. Both waiters didn’t speak English, but we understood each other perfectly.
Seeing our fast running guy for about two weeks, we have never seen him not smile. And it was not the fake kind of smile. It was a true smile. His whole body language was smiling. It was service you would like to get everywhere you go.
Super Mario and Super Happy guy started here early in the morning and worked until late in the evening. Always working hard. And for a shitty, low, wage. A wage supporting probably a whole family. Imran told us, so it is true. No, it is true because it is generally like that in restaurants like this. These guys live from their tips. We wouldn’t tip extremely high, but we always did tip them. And we always tip the waiter, as long as he or she treats us decently, wherever we go. Even India, when the restaurant is ripping you off, we leave a small tip behind for the waiter. We prefer to give some money to the people working their asses off for a shitty salary, than the people begging on the street. Although, again, you could see begging also as a form of working.
We are happy we have the chance to go back to this restaurant in April, once we will cross Pakistan again. Although Imran lives in a different sector now, we will drive to our restaurant with our super waiters to get the best kebab in the world. And I won’t make the mistake I made after one week being there: I ordered something new. How could I?
I ordered a vegetable curry. No complaining, it was a good curry, but when I saw Josephine eating her kebab and I smelled the flavours, I immediately regretted my choice. Desperately, like a crack addict, I asked for a bite. And I got it.
No, when I get back to Islamabad I will eat meat for a few days. Just for a few days I’ll let my principals be for what they are. And meanwhile we keep on tipping the waiters.
One last note: In general people in Pakistan and India work hard for little money. More than in the other countries we have visited. Or different any way. Maybe it is a bit too much to say that I dedicate this article to those hard-working people, but I’ve chosen the photos for a reason. It is not just the waiter working 18 hours a day, it also goes for the butcher, the tuk-tuk driver and all those other people we dealt with on a daily base!