MarySmith’sPlace – Karachi driving

I went to work in Karachi, in the headquarters of the Pakistan leprosy programme, in 1986. My job was to set up a health education department. The work of this department had several aims: informing the public that leprosy is curable, encouraging them to come for treatment at the earliest opportunity and that leprosy did not automatically lead to deformities. It was also to help the paramedics trained in leprosy control find ways of encouraging their patients to take their medication regularly and not stop the treatment just because they felt well. Telling patients they would go to jail or end up becoming totally deformed having proved to be not a particularly motivational method.

As well as working from the base in Saddar, in the heart of Karachi I often had to visit clinic in various far-flung districts of the city. When I was told there was some funding available to purchase a small Suzuki van for me I was delighted because it would mean no more death-defying journeys perched on the back of a motorbike.

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Note that men can sit astride a motorbike. Only we women who have to be cherished and kept safe are allowed to risk life and limb riding side saddle

Sitting side-saddle. Clutching my handbag and files. With nothing to grab hold of and, this being a Muslim country, forbidden to fling my arms round the man who was trying to shave seconds off his previous best time between clinic and centre. My hair blowing in my eyes, my scarf flying about risking being caught in the wheels a la Isadora Duncan. Eye-balling donkeys at traffic lights. Being looked down on by camels.

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Camels feel they are a superior race.

I beamed at Mr Fernandez the head administrator. He beamed back as he handed me the keys.

“Em, I will have a driver, won’t I?”

“No, there’s nothing in the budget for a driver. You have a driving licence, don’t you?”

I stopped beaming and tried for a beseeching look but he was having none of it. “All you have to remember is to watch the car in front. We drive on the same side of the road as you and follow your Highway Code. After the first couple of dents you’ll be fine. Maybe don’t go near Empress Market at first. When I’d just passed my test I found myself there by mistake. All the buses, the cars, the horns blaring – total gridlock.” He shuddered at the memory. “I stopped the engine and walked away. Went back for the car when it was quieter.”

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Outside Empress Market

I took the keys in my now sweaty hand and went outside to admire ‘my’ new vehicle. I sought out Zafar and asked if he’d sit with me a few times – like maybe a hundred – until I gained a little confidence. Could he think of somewhere quiet to practise? He decided we’d drive to the sea front at Clifton a place favoured by Karachi-ites for ice creams, pizzas, catching the sea breezes.IMG_0007 (Small)

I seem to remember it was about 10 o’clock at night. Zafar drove at first explaining the rules of the road. There was one more than the one Mr Fernandez told me about. The only other rule, Zafar told me was that if the vehicle approaching is bigger than you, you give way, otherwise you go. We swapped places and I started driving, very, very slowly. Zafar urged me to go a little bit faster and eventually I was in third gear. By the time I’d driven to Clifton and back three or four times Zafar declared himself satisfied with my progress and we returned to the hospital.

“Just one thing,” he said, “it would be best if you kept your eyes open when you go round a roundabout.”

I learned to keep my eyes open. I learned to be a pretty confident driver but I never, ever learned to keep my hand on the horn – at all times.

53 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – Karachi driving

    • Thank you, Lynn. Doubly brave indeed! Couldn’t do it now. The population when I was there was ten million. I used to wander about thinking the population of the whole of Scotland is half that of this one city. Karachi’s population has more than doubled since then.

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  1. I drove an emergency ambulance in central London for most of my working life, but that doesn’t compare to Pakistan, I am sure. Though driving your van in that traffic had to be better than perching on the back of a moped, sitting sideways. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

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    • That must have been pretty hair-raising, Pete. I won’t even drive in Edinburgh now, let alone London. I suppose because of the sheer volume of traffic it was slower moving. Of course, that’s why sitting on a motor bike was so scary because they didn’t slow down but zipped in and out of everything.

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  2. in Sir Lanka, I was fascinated by the range of of horn sounds and their meaning, as explained by our guide. It was an education in a totally different kind of driving from London, which as a regular I don’t find scary at all but I understand why others might. Good on you, Mary.

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  3. Oh, I didn’t learn anything about the range of horn sounds. I did have to learn to sound the horn when overtaking on the highway – for some reason using the indicator wasn’t considered enough. I would find driving in London much more frightening.

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  4. Great story Mary and I can relate to much re driving here…funny enough they don’t even use horns very much at all, or indicators or get in the right lane and express total surprise when you utter a few expletives when with the whole family on the bike…come here to see how much you get on a bike..amazing…When they are on your left but turning right and you by way have that thing we call indicator indicating we are turning left..It all makes for a good story doesn’t it Mary?…I won’t go into negotiating a roundabout here except to say…I shut my eyes as well…lol…I also walk a lot…lol

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    • Hi Carol, I visited Vietnam four years ago and imagine the traffic is similar. I did see entire families on motorbikes in Karachi but until Vietnam I’d never seen so many bikes on the road. In Hanoi it was a just like a tidal waves of bikes coming at you. Walking across the road was an adventure. I take my hat off to you for driving in Thailand.

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      • You can put it back on Mary as I don’t any more I walk or catch a bus which I like as the locals are friendly and they always give me a seat…But yes the bikes it is like tidal wave and of course many also take shortcuts where they can and it’s the norm to see a bike or a car coming towards you on your side of the road..which is why they have the highest mortality rate for drivers I believe…

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  5. Oh my goodness, Mary! Now that’s something I would never have done. Takes me all my time to drive around Pembrokeshire. We only had traffic lights here twenty years ago – and that was because Tesco arrived in a nearby town. A great post!!

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  6. Pingback: MarySmith’sPlace – Karachi driving – The Militant Negro™

  7. LOL what a story Mary! Kudos to you girl, you couldn’t have paid me to to drive there! Had to laugh at closing eyes on roundabout. Reminded me of my dear aunt who was always afraid of driving and struggled on round ramps threatening always she’d close her eyes while on them too. 🙂

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    • Thanks, Debby. Sidesaddle on a motorbike with nothing to hang on to or get behind the wheel of my own vehicle – it was a tough call but probably safer!
      By the way I found comments you left on other posts in my trash so apologies for not replying to them. GladWP has accepted you are not a spammer and they are coming through now.

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      • Oh wow, you found me in trash, sheesh, you aren’t the only one who has found me there. Thanks for checking. And really, given the choices you had Mary I too would have sucked it up and drove. Even as a child I had a phobia about riding on the back of a bicycle so a motor bike would be out of the question. 🙂

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    • It’s fairly new, Lucinda. My New Year Resolution (only one I’ve managed) was to start a non-dementia blog. I’m keeping on the Goldfish one but wanted somewhare to post other more random things. I’m glad you’ve found it.

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  8. I love the comment, You should keep your eyes open when going around the roundabout. I don’t drive very far in Spain and I don’t go anywhere there is a large roundabout. I find them very scary. I loved this post, Mary! You were very brave.

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  9. Thanks, Darlene. I think I’d find driving in Spain and otehr European countries even more scary because everyone drives on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. At least in Pakistan they drive on the same side as we do!

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    • Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment, Sarah. I am no longer living in Karachi but back in Scotland – where the traffic is not so bad. I think I’d be too nervous to drive in Karachi nowadays! Do you drive there?

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