MarySmith’sPlace ~ Pregnant in Pakistan

I’ll have to do this story over a couple of instalments.

Despite my delight at returning to Quetta, it didn’t long for me to miss being in Afghanistan.

By Beluchistan – Baluchistan, CC BY-SA 2.0,

I wrote in my diary a week after our return: ‘I wish I was back in Afghanistan. I have mixed emotions about my role there and I remember my despair and desperation in Lal (though by the end I did feel I was beginning to be able to do something).

Unlike in Afghanistan, we have electricity here – which goes off frequently for hours at a time. Here, we have flush loos – which get blocked and stop working. Telephones – usually out of order. The bazaars are full of consumer goods which make me feel an urge to buy stuff I don’t need for the sake of spending money. The traffic, which is nightmarish, with noise assaulting my eardrums, induces fear and diminishes dignity as I scuttle across roads. I feel frustrated and irritated at having to bargain in shops for everything, knowing prices are increased because foreigners have more money and can afford to line the pockets of already rich businessmen. Despite the problems in Afghanistan, I felt alive there.’

Quetta was never my favourite place in Pakistan. It is the provincial capital and largest city of the Province of Baluchistan. In 1935 it was largely destroyed in an earthquake, which killed around 40,000 people. When we lived there frequent tremors gave new meaning to ‘Did the earth move for you, too, darling?’ It’s a frontier town, not particularly pretty although it has lots of orchards around it which we visited sometimes to see the blossom.

I had work to do – reports to write, statistics to compile, funding applications to prepare and submit and endless meetings with other agencies. We moved into a house next door to the office, which gave us some privacy. I settled down for the winter.

The following spring (1990) we returned to Afghanistan for a two-month tour of the clinics. I may write something about the difficulties of travelling when snowmelt flooded the roads as I have found some photos of the Toyota having to be loaded onto a truck to be taken across the flood.

Later, that year Jon and I went home on leave – the first for two years. We returned to Pakistan married and pregnant.

One event which really took the shine from our time visiting family and friends and getting married was receiving the news of the murder of Moh’d Ali, the office cook. He was a lovely guy and he and our dog, George, were very fond of each other. He took on responsibility for feeding the dog and at night took him back to our house to stay with him. We never found out what exactly happened but in the morning, he was found dead with George lying guard over him. The most likely thing was that it was a robbery, which went wrong. The only things missing were two ashtrays; a little onyx one from Sr. Jeanine and a pottery one with a Pendle witch on the bottom, a gift from the Clitheroe Oxfam group. The dog would certainly have tried to defend his friend and territory and apparently wouldn’t eat for five days afterwards.

The police decided to arrest poor Abdul Hamid as being, being a stranger, the most likely suspect but had to let him go. First he was caught in a bombing raid, then found cockroaches in his dinner and then was wrongfully arrested.

We were by now preparing for the tour in Afghanistan. Medicines and medical supplies had to be purchased and packed and the budget for the winter months prepared. I was just under three months pregnant, tired and crabby much of the time, and desperate to be back across the border to the fresh clean air of Afghanistan.

It was not to be – various ex-pat medical workers started making worried faces about the trip – the road conditions, my age (36 – considered old in those days to be having a first baby), the lack of medical facilities if anything went wrong. Finally, Dr Pfau advised against the trip. “Plenty of work for you to be doing in Quetta,” she said. And so, Jon went off without me on October 22.

The beached whale – look at that double chin! This was later in the pregnancy. George trying to hide under the desk

On November 08 I received a long, newsy letter from him, which he’d written on October 28, telling me everything was going well. A postal service didn’t exist – letters were handed to someone, hopefully trustworthy, travelling to Pakistan.

On November 15, I heard he had been arrested/kidnapped by Nasre, the day after he had written to me.

Diary entry November 17: ‘I’m exhausted. Easily become tearful, especially if someone is kind. I feel so superstitious. I had planned to make Jon a picture collage to welcome him back but now feel I shouldn’t – it would be tempting fate, like writing Christmas cards from us both.

So stupid. Unfortunately the crazy Party which has him in jail is even more stupid. We know the only sensible thing is to release him but these people don’t use reason. OK, what can they do? They can shoot him, they can hold him for months or years – as they did with the Egyptian doctors – or they can release him.’

MarySmiths’Place – Travels in Afghanistan (2)


Cocooned in my black nylon, slithery, stifling burqa I retreated into a review – it was certainly not planning – of what had brought me here. Adult life had begun in a dull, but safe job as a junior bank clerk in South West Scotland. Numerically dyslexic, it was highly improbable that I would have ever fulfilled my mother’s ambition to have a daughter become one of the first women bank managers and after a boring year I left to hitch hike around France and Italy with a boyfriend.

Back in Britain we settled in Blackburn, Lancashire where I tried a succession of jobs from being a nanny to making car components before landing a job with Oxfam. It was a job I loved and would probably never have left had not the mini-bus driver taking our pool team to a match in Blackpool not been going to Pakistan. Somehow during the course of the evening it was decided I should accompany the wife and sister of a friend of the mini-bus driver when they returned to Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, to see their family.

While there, I visited the Marie Adelaide Leprosy centre and was deeply impressed by the work I saw being done there. In conversation with Dr Pfau, the dynamic German sister who had worked for over 25 years on the leprosy programme she suggested I stay on for three years to set up a health education department. ‘But,’ I pointed out, ‘I don’t have any medical qualifications.’

‘We can teach you what you need to know about leprosy. If you are not a doctor, that’s all to the good. You won’t use incomprehensible jargon when you tell people leprosy is curable.’

‘I have a job in England,’ I ventured. Dr Pfau shrugged. She’d made the offer and saw no reason to discuss things further. I came home but couldn’t settle back into my previously much-enjoyed life and a few months later returned to Karachi, armed with a three-year contract, wondering what I’d let myself in for.

While I was working to establish the health education department Dr Pfau, galvanised by the number of leprosy patients coming from Afghanistan seeking treatment, was encouraging young Afghans, mainly from the central region of Hazara Jat to train as leprosy paramedics with the aim of setting up a sister organisation across the border. A number of the students, such as my ‘son’ Hussain, came to me for help with their English. Our lessons continued outside the classroom as we, all foreigners in Pakistan, explored the city, took camel rides on the beach at weekends, ate Baloch ice creams at Clifton, rode the bumper cars at the fairground and haggled for bargains in the bazaar.

When my three-year contract came to an end I signed on again, this time to work for the new project in Afghanistan. Hussain, newly qualified as a leprosy/tuberculosis technician had already returned to his district to start the process of opening a clinic. I’d been delighted to learn he was to meet me in Quetta to accompany me across the border. I hadn’t bargained on Moh’dullah being a second escort.

A slight, wiry little man, whose sharp-faced features reminded me of a weasel, he worked as a driver for a small field hospital close to the site of Hussain’s clinic. When the French doctors, and people who funded them, pulled out because of security issues the men who had worked as translators decided to continue and, through Dr Pfau, had received some interim funding. Moh’dullah had come to Pakistan with a list of medical supplies the hospital needed.

In the meantime, I kept meeting other foreigners who wanted to talk about cross border travel and work in Afghanistan. This was a big mistake. All expatriates in Quetta – regardless of how remotely connected with Afghanistan some of them were – had a compulsion to dwell on dangers and disasters. Talk, conducted in conspiratorial whispers, was of arrests at the border, robbers on the road, kidnappings, spy charges, inter-Party fighting and bombing raids. Discussion of departure dates, routes and destinations was taboo, which made me wonder just how anyone could ever organise a trip. Keeping the upper lip suitably stiff was not helped by Moh’dullah’s attitude. ‘Hussain,’ he informed me, ‘is too young for this work. He does not understand the dangers.’  He handed me the burqa.  ‘You will need to wear this for the journey. It is better if no one knows you are a foreigner.’

‘But,’ I protested, ‘Hussain says the same driver took Jon and Dr Pfau to the border earlier this year. Why do I have to pretend to be an Afghan woman? He knew Dr Pfau was a foreigner.’

‘The situation is different now,’ he replied. ’It’s more dangerous.’

Why had I been so feeble, not protested more strongly? The simple truth was that after listening to so many horror stories from other foreigners I was scared of what might be ahead. Once we left Quetta I would have to rely on this man I barely knew to escort me safely to my destination inside Afghanistan. Deciding it was better not to antagonise him I’d sulkily donned the odious garment. Instead of swirling to my ankles it stopped short mid-calf, the headpiece was too tight, constantly sliding round so that the net visor was inevitably around my ear. I did not look remotely like an Afghan woman.

We had left Quetta at four o’clock in the morning. Moh’dullah, as befitted his self-determined status, sitting in the front passenger seat of a Toyota pick-up while Hussain and I bounced around like rag dolls in the back. We were soon coated in thick, greyish white dust, which clung everywhere. ‘Are the roads in Afghanistan like this?’  I asked.

‘Oh, no, they are much worse,’ he replied, rolling his eyes expressively as his head collided with the roof. By the time the driver stopped to allow me to emerge for a much needed trip behind a bush I was able to play the part of Hussain’s old mother to perfection – cramped limbs refusing to straighten, forced me to adopt a shuffling gait.

The view had been mostly of desert and scrub, bleached colourless by the fierce sun. Climbing mountain passes we had gazed down corkscrew bends to dusty valleys where herds of sheep and goats grazed on goodness knows what. Apart from the small boys who herded the flocks we’d seen no other signs of life, except at the occasional police checkpoints. Each stop was a nightmare. I had no passport, no papers, and no permission to be roaming around so close to the Afghan border. Only once did the officials give more than a cursory glance into the back of the Toyota. I felt my heart stop as he indicated that Hussain and I should get out. In a flash Moh’dullah had leapt out of the passenger door, beckoning the policeman to one side. I had no idea what was being said but moments later I heard the door slam and the welcome sound of the engine start up. Hussain had shrugged. ‘Probably just wanted some money,’ he explained. ‘Don’t worry, that was the last checkpoint before Chirman.’

It was already dark when we reached the border. I was too exhausted to care our hotel room was a vegetable store and flopped thankfully onto a thin mattress on the mud floor amongst the sacks of potatoes. ‘Tomorrow night,’ Hussain assured me, ‘you will sleep comfortably in Jaghoray.’  If I had not been so tired I might have reminded him he’d forgotten to add the essential Insha’Allah – God willing – to his statement.

MarySmith’sPlace – Mountains, magic lakes and fairies

The remote Kaghan Valley, in northern Pakistan, is one of the country’s, if not the world’s, most beautiful valleys. The lush vegetation of the terraced lower slopes is superseded by great forests of pine and fir which, in turn, give way to magnificent mountain peaks.

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A morning’s steady driving from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, brings the traveller to the small village of Balakot. From here, the Kaghan Valley stretches ahead for 160 kilometres.  It was along this route the Moghul emperors travelled to their summer residence in Kashmir.  In 1898 the road became the main route to Gilgit, via Chilas on the far side of the Babusar Pass, 4146 metres above sea level.

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David’s first dandelion clock

The Pathans marched through here to their jihad (Holy War) in an attempt to save Kashmir from Indian rule in 1947. The construction of the mighty Karakoram Highway led to the Kaghan route falling into disuse – one reason for its continuing isolation.


Our journey took us along a narrow, twisting road with steep cliffs on one side, a hair-raising drop on the other. Far below, the Kunhar River – sometimes a brown, foaming torrent, sometimes a startling green, thunders along its rocky bed.

In the 1920s, the British, who never allowed postings to far flung corners of the Empire to interrupt their sporting pursuits, stocked three of the Kaghan Valley’s lakes – Dudupatsar, Lulusar and Saif-ul-Muluk – with eggs from Scotland’s best brown trout.

I had come to the valley with a friend from dry, dusty Karachi who had never ventured to this part of his country before. Drinking in the glorious views, he declared:  “This can’t be Pakistan, I must be in Switzerland.”

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There was a distinctly alpine feel about it. Surrounded by mountains, the high plateau’s meadows were strewn with wild flowers. No yodellers to be sure, but, on the still, clear air the distant tinkling of bells could be heard from goats, grazing on the rich pasture.

At the northern end of the valley, at an elevation of 3,224 m (10,578 feet) above sea level is the glorious, enchanted, magical Lake Saif-ul-Muluk.

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We hired a jeep as far as the glacier, which we crossed on foot (disappointingly dirty) rather than putting our trust in the rather thin, hungry looking horses for hire. On the far side, drivers wait to transport passengers up the final rough stretch – a bone shaking, spine jarring experience which made walking seem a delightful idea.

Saif-ul-Muluk was spectacularly beautiful.  At over 5000 metres, Malika Parbat – the Queen of Mountains – stood proudly above the circle of white peaks, their mirror image reflected in the brilliant blue waters.

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There was an ethereal quality to such startling beauty, conjuring up images of magical fairy tales. Indeed, there is a legend that Prince Saif-ul-Muluk fell in love with a fairy bathing in the lake. To tease her, he stole her clothes and she, to preserve her modesty, agreed to marry the handsome prince. The fairy’s demon lover, enraged at seeing his beloved happily wed a mortal, wreaked revenge by flooding the valley. The fairies still visit at night, when the moon is full, dancing on the flower spangled meadow and bathing in the lake.

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When I was putting this blog post together I Googled Lake Saif-ul-Muluk and found many entries on TripAdvisor, which hadn’t been invented when I visited the Kaghan Valley. It sounds as though my beautiful, magical place has become commercialised with eating places,  (though no toilets), touts offering horse rides and boat trips, and polluted by the crowds who leave their rubbish behind. At least I have happy memories of my visit. And, given the chance, I would go again.




MarySmith’sPlace – Sibi Mela, Pakistan

Here in Scotland we are in the middle of the agricultural show season. The Royal Highland Show, the flagship event of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, starts things off in June when over four days the finest livestock is shown off and judged. There’s also show jumping, countryside pursuits, entertainment (one year I was invited to read poetry in a yurt!), shopping and much more.

I thought, though, I’d take you to Pakistan to experience the amazing Sibi Mela. Usually a nondescript, rural backwater in Baluchistan province, Sibi bursts into colourful, noisy life for five days every year with thousands of farmers and traders bringing their livestock.

Sibi -01 (Custom)Assuming the livestock would provide a familiar point of reference, we headed firstly towards the cattle area. Chewing the cud with bovine nonchalance, coats gleaming like silk – in lines as far as the eye could see – they were ignoring the fussing of their grooms. One farmer, delighted at the interest being shown in his beast, prodded the dozing animal, causing everyone to step back hurriedly, as several tons of prime beef lumbered to its feet. “He is champion,” he exclaimed, pointing proudly to the red rosette.

So far, so familiar: however, major differences soon became apparent. For a start, it is difficult to imagine Scottish farmers painting their prize stock with henna (though maybe some talcum powder for the sheep?) as is dressing them in colourful, silk coats and beaded headdresses. Sibi-03

Nor are we likely to see, next to the cattle, countless oxen, buffalo and strings of camels. My delighted cooing at the baby camels – ungainly bundles of fluff, still practising their sneers – brought astonished looks from their owners.

We were swept along towards an exhibition area where at least some sights were familiar. The shiny new tractors and other agricultural implements were admired by crowds of men and small boys. Families came along to enjoy the carnival atmosphere of the fair. Just like their Scottish counterparts, children gleefully collected freebies from display stands promoting everything from artificial insemination to hybrid seeds. Also on offer for entertainment are folk dancers, tent pegging, camel races, handicrafts and tribal dresses and jewellery, fairground and circus.

Suddenly, an instantly recognisable sound tugged the heart strings, bringing a wave of homesickness as a Pakistani pipe band marched through the crowds, playing of all things, Scotland the Brave. Instead of Highland dancers, though, groups practised traditional folk dances to be performed later in the main stadium. A five-man team, stunning in bright, candy pink shalwar kameez, their leader in a contrasting outfit of startling canary yellow waved gaily coloured pompons as they rehearsed.


A strange looking troupe appeared. One gaunt old man, stripped to the waist, whirled in circles to a pulsating, hypnotic drumming which built into a deafening crescendo, before abruptly stopping. The crowd watched intently as another man slowly, methodically, pierced the dancer’s naked flesh with sharp metal spikes. The drumming began again, softly. The man – seemingly entranced – resumed his dance, whirling ever faster as the beat quickened, the embedded skewers quivering from his sides and neck.IMG_0007 (Custom)

As the drums reached a crescendo, the leader moved forward, caught and steadied the dancer. He blew – puff! – on the pierced flesh, removed the skewers, holding them aloft. Not a drop of blood to be seen. With gasps of wonder, spectators dug into their pockets for rupees.

From a row of makeshift huts – palm leaf mats lashed together – enticing cooking aromas caused hunger pangs. When the clientele had recovered from the shock of a foreign family joining them, they laughingly made room for us.

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The restaurant kitchen

As we sat cross-legged on the mat, tearing off chunks of hot, fresh chapatti with which to scoop up our meat stew and spicy lentils, they nodded approval. After a fight with the proprietor over the bill – “You are guests in Baluchistan. Baluchis do not take money from guests” – we headed for the stadium.

We were led to excellent seats and it was only when handed cups of tea by a uniformed orderly, I understood we had been mistaken for VIPs. Horses plumed and bedecked in finery, high-stepped in time to martial music. We feared causing a diplomatic incident by leaving mid-performance and cringed in our seats, hating the sight of this unnatural parody of dance achieved by the painful application of an electric prod.

When we finally escaped the stadium, we discovered the fairground. Instead of bouncy castles there were manually operated, gaudily painted wooden roundabouts. In a sawdust strewn circus ring, we saw a tightrope walking goat, a monkey pedalling a tricycle and a lady vanishing in a puff of smoke.

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IMG_0016 (Custom) IMG_0015 (Custom)We joined a long queue to see the Snake Woman, whose body was rather obviously a length of poorly disguised hosepipe. No-one seemed to mind this in the slightest.

We clambered up the perilous stairs of the Wall of Death. Peering down from the rickety viewing platform, our astonished gaze fell, not on a motor cyclist, but on a group of made-up transvestites, gyrating seductively to Indian film music.

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They pouted, blew kisses and winked enticingly to encourage the men in the audience to throw rupees down to them. When the music stopped, the ‘girls’ collected their money, making way at last for the stunt man. Dressed in leathers, he zoomed his bike around the walls making the structure shudder alarmingly. He collected fewer rupees than the dancers. IMG_0012 (Custom)

Later, we watched dazzling displays of horsemanship as wild looking tribesmen showed off their horses’ paces in tent pegging competitions and trotting races.

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When the cattle were bedded down for the night, their attendants curled up beside them. A haze of smoke from cooking fires hovered in the air and it was, sadly, time for us to leave.

MarySmith’sPlace – Turtle watching

“Come quietly,” hissed the man with the flashlight. It was one o’clock on a moonless night and as we stumbled after him in the dark our feet sank in soft sand.

The sight of the huge creature provoked various reactions. Three-year-old-child already over-excited by being out of bed and on the beach so late, let out a piercing shriek of terror as the monster from the deep moved towards him. Abdul Ali, a refugee from landlocked Afghanistan, where the most exotic aquatic creature to be seen is a fresh water crab, launched into a wild jig, whooping enthusiastically. The guide, forgetting, in his fury, to whisper, yelled at us to be quiet.


Green turtle

It takes at least an hour for a turtle, using her strong front flippers, to dig a thirty centimetre deep, circular pit. Sitting in this depression she then, with her back flippers, creates a cylindrical shaft, with sides so smooth it is difficult to believe a precision engineering tool was not used. While engaged in this digging work, however, turtles are easily distracted. Our particular turtle, alarmed by the sudden cacophony of noise turned around and trundled off back to the sea. In the gleam of the torchlight as she turned away I imagined I saw an expression of quiet resignation on her wrinkled leathery face.Consumed with guilt at having interrupted an ancient ritual – pre-dating the extinction of the dinosaurs – we returned to the vehicle to gag child and admonish a sulky Abdul Ali. Our guide, Hamid, after giving us a short, pointed lecture on the need for silence, disappeared on reconnaissance.

Once the egg laying begins, nothing – neither screaming children, nor flashing lights – will disturb the turtle or stop the process. I’d even heard of people standing on a turtle’s enormous hard-shelled back (the creatures can weigh up to 180 kilos while the carapace can measure three and a half feet in length) while she laboured to lay over a hundred, ping pong ball-shaped eggs.  After covering the clutch with sand, she makes a dummy depression next to it to confuse predators.

All the while, silent ‘tears’ trickle down her wrinkled, pre-historic face. They are not, of course, real tears but a design of nature which allows sand to be washed from her eyes. Despite this scientific, rather prosaic explanation, however, there seems to be something ineffably sad about the whole business for, after all her efforts, the mother turtle returns to the ocean – never to see her off-spring.


Back in the 1970s the Green Turtles and the smaller Olive Ridley species were on the verge of extinction. Sindh’s Wildlife Management Board established a project to protect the Karachi turtles and their eggs in 1979. Gangs of students can now no longer find the buried eggs – stealing them for their supposed aphrodisiac properties – by following the tell-tale, five foot wide ‘caterpillar’ tracks on the sand. The Wildlife Board employs local people to dig up and re-bury eggs in protected hatching grounds. Karachi bakeries can no longer use turtle eggs as a cheap substitute for poultry eggs and the export of turtle meat to Southeast Asia, particularly Japan, has also been stopped.

Despite the intervention of the turtle conservation project the survival odds are not great. Crabs, crows and stray dogs forage for eggs on the shore, the hatchlings get picked off on their way to the ocean and once there fish and other sea creatures find them tasty. Then there is the danger of fishing nets. The mother swims thousands of miles, digs for hours, pops out 100 ping pong balls – only one of which might survive to become a grown up turtle – a bit more digging then back to the sea for thousands more miles of swimming. Perhaps they are real tears, after all.

As we waited for another turtle to choose a quiet spot I wondered if this, my second attempt to see the egg-laying was also doomed. The first occasion was when friend Firasat obtained his company’s beach hut for a day. A dozen of us, including children, squashed ourselves into a Suzuki van. Wedged in beside us and under our feet were water coolers and thermoses, pots and pans and mysterious cloth-wrapped bundles from which wafted appetising aromas of biryani, chicken korma and still-warm nan bread. There’s none of your cling-film wrapped, soggy tomato sandwiches and a packet of crisps when a Karachi family goes on a picnic.

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Sunset at the beach, Karachi

In the evening, we dined in style by candlelight, which was when the trouble started. Attracted by our candles hundreds of moths – some very big – came swooping out of the dark. Firasat’s sister flapped at them with a towel but when a huge, black, unidentified winged creature whirred past her head she let out a piercing shriek. We blew out the candles. The beach was full of strange night sounds which, despite Firasat’s assurances, unsettled his sister further. “When will the turtles come?” she quavered.

Her school teacher sister, Ferzana, sighed. “Oh, for goodness sake, Shabanna, be patient.  They don’t appear before midnight.”

Shabanna checked her watch. “It’s only nine o’clock, now,” she moaned. She suddenly clutched my arm making pitiful squeaking sounds of fright. “Oh, my God, what’s that?”

“Well, hey,” I muttered as I peered in the direction she was staring, “I’m the foreigner here, no good asking me.” Something very large and very tall was loping silently along the beach. Definitely not a turtle.

Firasat soothed her. “It’s only a camel.”

Twenty minutes later, as yet another huge flying beetle sort of thing dive bombed her – deliberately, she maintained – Shabanna, we led her back to the safety of the van and abandoned our turtle watch.

Now, it was looking as if my second attempt to see a turtle was not going to be any more successful. Habib returned. He’d found another turtle further along the beach and was prepared to take us in pairs to see her digging her nest but then, so we would not disturb her – a glare in Abdul Ali’s direction – we should remain in the van until she began to lay the eggs. This might be after one, maybe two hours.

Child, finding himself being led away from the safety of other humans towards the great, dark unknown became almost as hysterical as Shabanna had been with the beetles. Sadly, we decided to give up.

Hamid, though clearly relieved by the decision, took pity on our disappointment. He disappeared again returning after half an hour carrying two buckets from the turtle nursing centre. They contained hundreds of hatchlings, each the size of a ten pence piece. Excitedly, we crowded round. It was clearly the closest we were going to get to the famed, giant turtles on this occasion. Sadly, an exhausted child and fed up Abdul Ali missed them – both were sound asleep.



Mary Smith’s Place – Karachi crocodiles

I apologise for the lack of decent photos to accompany this post. I visited Manghopir several times, taking many photos of the crocodiles and of the shrine, the busy shops around it and of the hot springs but I can’t find them. I suspect they were in the albums thrown out after our previous cat sprayed on them. He had a tendency, after a stray kitten tried to take up residence, to mark everything in the house as his.

The legendary crocodiles that guard the shrine of Saint Mangho (ManghoPir) were piled in a heap, under a tree. They looked very muddy, and suspiciously lifeless. The shrine, or mazar, lies to the north of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. There are two springs beside it, one hot, and one cold. Bathing tanks have been provided, for the water is reputed to cure all manner of ailments – from rheumatism through frigidity to skin diseases.

When Mangho arrived, in the middle of the thirteenth century from Iraq, in true hermit fashion, he chose a patch of arid desert in which to pray for grace. Making the cold water trickle from a rock was his doing. Producing his drinking water, however, seems to have exhausted Mangho’s miraculous powers, for no more are mentioned. Fortunately, he had some friends who turned up to lend a hand. The most famous of these, Qalander Lal Shah Baz of Sehwan, provided the hot spring.

Mangho’s other three friends – there is no general consensus as to who they were, everyone cites the names of their personal favourites – joined in the miracle making. One produced, from the twig with which Mangho cleaned his teeth, a date palm oasis. Another provided honey and melted butter which rained from the trees. According to some versions of the story, the fourth friend caused a wilting flower to change into a giant crocodile to guard Mangho and the shrine.

There are various legends to explain the existence of the crocodiles. My favourite is the one in which Mangho was terribly troubled by lice. These – as they do – made his head itch dreadfully. One day, driven mad by the itching, Mangho, in an unsaintly display of temper, stamped his feet. This dislodged a great number of lice – which turned into sacred crocodiles.

They are mugger crocodiles, looking rather like alligators but definitely a true crocodile. One more scientific explanation is that these crocodiles were carried through some heavy floods, during ancient times and gathered here. Archaeologists believe there was a Bronze Age community near Manghopir, which worshipped crocodiles.

Joining the other observers, I peered over the wall of the enclosure. As far as living legends go, they were a bit of a disappointment.

Staring at a bunch of crocodiles who only wanted to cuddle up to each other, wasn’t what I expected. Eventually, one, small and sluggish disengaged himself and waddled towards the pool, slipped smoothly into the murky water and promptly disguised himself as a partially sunken log. IMG_0009 (Small)

Perhaps the crocodiles expected something more from the pilgrims? It used to be customary for supplicants to provide a sacrificial goat. Indeed, in the old days it must have been much more exciting. Then, the devotees of the saint, both reptile and human, shared the same bathing facilities. The humans, however, took exception to the crocodiles’ occasional tendency to eat them, and a separate enclosure was erected. Perhaps that was when the crocodiles began to tire of their role. Or perhaps that came later, in the days of the Raj – as suggested by none other than Sir Richard Burton, diplomat, explorer and translator of erotic literature.

According to his account in Sindh Revisited, the alligators, as he insists on calling them, were “once jolly as monks.” Their lives took a dramatic downturn when young subalterns from Karachi’s camps found it entertaining to pit their bull terriers against them. Should a crocodile, in defending itself, kill a dog, the men “would salute the murderer’s eyes and mouth with two ounces of shot” causing the creature to plunge into the water, “grunting as if it had a grievance.” I should think it did have a grievance and the subalterns’ behaviour didn’t do much for our reputation. All in all, it is not surprising the crocodiles show a marked inclination to ignore visitors and cuddle up to each other.

Worse was to come. The crocodiles began to die off. However much the British subalterns may have demoralised them, they were still breeding successfully in those days. In the 1950s, someone estimated there were over a hundred – although terror, at being in the actual enclosure with the reptiles may have led him to exaggerate. In fact, the cause of the alarming decline was down to nothing more sinister than Pakistani Government bureaucracy.

Traditionally, the custodianship of the crocodiles was handed down, father to son, through the centuries. A Government body – the Auqaf Department – responsible for Muslim shrines, decided to dispense with the services of the family. At that time there were twenty seven crocodiles. Within a couple of years, there were only two left. In 1972, Khan Mohammed was hastily re-appointed in an effort to save the sacred reptiles. Happily, it was a successful move. Crocodile numbers began to increase. The biggest one is called – and was even in Burton’s day – Mor Sahib, or Mr. Peacock.

There are two annual festivals, one of which marks the death anniversary of Mangho Pir. The other, the Sheedi Mela is to celebrate the crocodiles. The Sheedi are a minority group in Pakistan, said to have been African slaves belonging to Arab traders. Settling first along the Makran coast of Baluchistan, they later spread throughout the province and into neighbouring Sind. The Sheedi Mela was put on hold for seven years because of the political tensions around Manghopir and other parts of the city but it took place again in 2017.

During the Mela, Mor Sahib is covered in vermilion and given a goat by the devotees. When the disciples dance, day and night to the sound of drums, it is to an African rhythm. Quite what the crocodiles make of it is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it cheers them up a little. They look like they need a bit of revelry.

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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.

Messing about on boats – Pakistan style

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.

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This is the kind of boat I thought I’d be going on

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.

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Three of the dozen of so fishermen who bargained to take us out crab fishing.


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.

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Part of the fishing fleet at Karachi

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.

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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.

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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.