Messing about on boats has never been my thing and when I went to work in a leprosy hospital in Pakistan sailing was not something in which I expected to participate. Karachi-ites, however, are proud of the wide range of water-based sports on offer and expect foreigners to make the most of the opportunities to try deep sea fishing, scuba diving or explorations of the mangrove swamps.
My first boating experience was not a happy one and left me with no desire to accept further invitations. Not even the prospect of sailing around the harbour to visit one of many deserted bays for a private swimming party held any appeal. Until, that is, my imagination was caught by an article on the delights of midnight crab fishing. The idea of drifting gently in the moonlight on the calm waters of the Arabian Sea in a traditionally built boat, its lateen sails billowing, while I reclined on silken cushions had a certain appeal. As did the thought of dining on freshly caught crab, cooked on board by the crew as we sailed leisurely homewards.
My new friend Zafar, a leprosy patient from Afghanistan, who within days of my arrival in Karachi had appointed himself my guide, chaperon and English student, was eager to share the experience. However, an Afghan refugee without papers and nervous of being out at night, he wanted an afternoon rather than an evening outing. Scratch the moonlight, then.
He rounded up some friends and we set out in my little Suzuki van which I drove with a combination of great pride and sheer terror through Karachi’s teeming streets. It seemed to me every one of the city’s ten million and rising residents were on the roads at the same time as I was, driving their trucks, buses, rickshaws, donkey carts and battered taxis in my direction.
Down on the old harbour front, Zafar indicated where I should park and within seconds of leaving the vehicle we were surrounded by swarthy, Baluchi fishermen sporting magnificent moustaches. Everyone was yelling at us. Thinking I must have pinched some VIP’s parking space I began to retreat. “No, no,” Zafar explained, “These are fishing boat men. First, we fix price.” Though proud of my bargaining skills in the bazaar, hearing two dozen prices quoted at the same time, at full volume, threw me completely and I left him to it.
When he told me to return to the van, I thought even Zafar, skilled negotiator though he was, had failed. The men followed, crowding us, still yelling. “Start the car,” commanded Zafar authoritatively. I turned the key in the ignition. The clamour increased.
“Off the engine. I have okay price,” he said, beaming happily.
As we followed our chosen crew towards their boat, memories of my earlier experience on a boat trip to the island of Manora floated into my consciousness. On that occasion, I’d stood at the foot of harbour steps gazing at the passenger ferry which lay on the far side of a dozen small bobbing boats. While I was still wondering how they were going to steer it up to the harbour wall my companions, Hameeda and her sister Razia began skipping nimbly from boat to boat, unconcerned by the vertigo inducing effect of the murky water slap slapping against each one. Fighting panic I’d clambered clumsily after them.
Within twenty minutes the ferry was full and we’d lost much of our seating space as everyone squashed up together. Ten minutes later, the boat was decidedly over-full and sitting impossibly low in the water. I was thinking perhaps a visit to Manora wasn’t really all that important when the engine roared into life and we headed out to sea. The voyage lasted barely twenty minutes – long enough for me to recall with frightening clarity every headline ever read about overloaded ferries capsizing on Asian waterways.
Did the sharks I had seen being unloaded at the fish market (fins to the Chinese restaurants, the remainder turned into fish fingers) come this close to the harbour?
Manora, which is a Pakistan Naval base, is all of 300 square acres and about 100 feet high. It was the starting point of the British conquest of Sind in February 1839. When the commander of the mud fort guarding the harbour entrance refused to surrender, Rear Admiral Sir Frederick Maitland in command of HMS Wellesley gave the order to fire. The fort was smashed to pieces. When the gallant British soldiers stormed over the walls they found the garrison comprised one old man, one young woman and a boy – all of whom instantly surrendered – hardly a glorious conquest for the British troops. Four years later, Charles Napier took possession of Sind, reputedly announcing his success to the world with the cryptic Latin comment: peccavi – meaning, ‘I have sinned.’
“Isn’t it beautiful?” demanded Hameeda, indicating Manora’s silvery white sands. It certainly was, but the thought of our return journey prevented me from appreciating our glorious surroundings. All the way back I fretted about having top repeat our earlier acrobatic performance but, to my relief, the boat nosed in close to the harbour.
I disembarked, lost my footing and fell face down, full length on the slippery steps. Feeling myself slither towards the soupy water below (Karachi’s harbour is one of the most polluted in the world) I clawed frantically at the sludge covered stones. Tearing every finger nail in the process, coated in a thick layer of foul smelling slime, I finally hauled myself to my feet. With a collective sigh – whether of disappointment or relief I wasn’t sure – the crowd of curious onlookers parted to allow me through. Razia and Hameeda, embarrassed by such unseemly behaviour and ashamed of my disreputable appearance and smell, walked stiffly on ahead, pretending they didn’t know me.
What made my misadventure all the more unbearable was learning Manora isn’t a real island at all. It’s a peninsula connected to the mainland by a 12 kilometre road.
Edging once more down those same treacherous steps, I was in no position to argue with Zafar about the craft he had hired. Ignorant as I am about boats I do know a motorised one when I see it. Scratch the lateen sails – and the silk cushions on which to lounge. Once on board he explained with a shrug: “Sail boats very high price and take long time to reach fishing place.”
The crew handed out lines and lumps of fish for bait then hovered, landing nets at the ready, to assist us haul our catch aboard. After a while, when it was apparent all we were going to catch was sunstroke, they pottered off to the other end of the boat to do their own fishing. One or other of us felt a tug an occasional on the line but the crab had always managed to disentangle itself by the time we hauled in the line. The sun beat ferociously down on us, the ice in a bucket to keep our drinks cold melted, leaving us with lukewarm Fanta and, knowing there wasn’t one, I started worrying about what to do if I needed to go to the loo.
An enticing aroma of frying onions and spices cheered me up. The boatmen generously shared their catch with us. It may not have been quite the outing I had anticipated – an overpowering smell of motor oil rather than a salt tang carried on the sea breeze, scorching sun instead of silvery moonlight – but those succulent, spicy crabs were delicious.
I resolved, though, to buy them at the fish market: messing about on boats – not my thing at all.