Karachi Memories

Last week I ran across an interesting slide show on the Foreign Policy website.  It is a collection of photos taken in Karachi, Pakistan during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The introduction to the slide show talks about how Karachi (population 13 million) has become one of the most dangerous cities in the world, but then goes on to describe what life was like in an earlier time:

But the Karachi of the 1960s and 1970s was a much different place. The city became a stop on the “Hippie Trail,” a popular route that led bohemians from Britain and the United States across Asia on their search for enlightenment. With the influx of Westerners before the country’s takeover by Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1977, Karachi enjoyed a period of relative permissiveness, with nightclubs, bars, cinemas, and restaurants hosting the city’s vibrant nightlife. Here’s a special collection of photographs from that time, courtesy of the Citizen’s Archive of Pakistan, a non-profit organization dedicated to cultural and historical preservation. 

Since I spent my childhood in Karachi during those years, as you can imagine, I savored every photo.

People often ask me what it was like growing up there. I tell them that since I was born there and lived there as a kid, I didn’t know anything else.

I do have great memories of growing up in Karachi during that time period and these photos got me thinking about some of them. Herewith are ten of those memories, in no particular order other than how they popped into my head!

1. Summers at the pool. Karachi in the summer is hot – mind-numbing, brain-cell-melting, skin-burning hot – so as soon as school was out our family (and other families my parents worked with) would sign up for pool memberships at the local hotels.  The Hotel Intercontinental.  The KLM Midway House at the airport. We pretty much spent every summer day at the pool, swimming and feasting on shrimp and french- fries. By the late 60’s our school, Karachi American School had its own pool so that was where we hung out.

2. Winter weekends at the beach. The organization my parents worked for owned a ‘beach hut’ at Hawkes Bay, where we usually spent our Saturdays. Keep in mind that a cold winter day would be one in which the temps dropped into the upper 70’s. Besides swimming and building sand castles,we always had time for a camel ride. During turtle season, we would stay late into the night to “go turtle hunting,” which wasn’t hunting at all but rather watching the giant green turtles come ashore to lay eggs (and sometimes helping them up the beach). Several weeks later we would be on hand as the eggs hatched, and then we’d help the babies get to the ocean.

3. Riding around town in blue-smoke-belching, white-knuckle-inducing three-wheeled rickshaws. How we survived I’ll never know.

4. Midnight runs to the airport with my dad. Most international flights in Karachi landed between midnight and 5AM because of the excessive heat. My folks believed that every visitor we had (and we had a lot) should be met and sent off, no matter what time of the night they were coming or going. For a kid to be able to get up in the middle of the night to go to the airport with her dad was a big deal!

5.   Eating chicken tikka at The Spot, a roadside eatery on the highway heading out to the airport. It  had the absolute best chicken tikka in town. I know that chicken tikka (succulent chicken marinated in spices and roasted over coals) is a common menu item in Indian and Pakistani restaurants worldwide, but I have come to the conclusion that this is one food item that simply cannot be replicated outside Pakistan. The Spot, with its tikka, naan, and greasy parathas was where we headed every Sunday night after church. When my family was preparing to leave Karachi n 1973 I remember being sad knowing I would probably never eat real chicken tikka again. I did eat real tikka again, on 3 trips back to Pakistan in 1980, 1985, and 1986. I haven’t had the real deal since then, unfortunately.

6. Crab fishing in Karachi harbor. Fishing boats in Karachi are called ‘bundar boats’ and a fun thing we used to do was hire them for an evening of crab-fishing. As we caught the crabs, the crew would cook them for us right there on the deck. I didn’t like crabs (and still don’t), but spending an evening on the boat with family and friends was great fun.

7.  Christmas caroling at the Hotel Intercontinental on Christmas Eve. This was something that our church did every year. We always felt sorry for the foreign businessmen who were stuck in the hotel on Christmas Eve, so this was our way of cheering them up.

8. The arrival of television in 1968. Broadcasts were only in the evenings and not on Mondays. At first we didn’t have one, so would hang out at our neighbor’s place to watch the one English program that aired each night.  Bewitched and Marcus Welby, MD were among our favorites.

9.  Skate-boarding on the roof of our house. The roofs of our cement houses were flat, with a wall around the perimeter. My mom used the space to hang laundry while my sister and I treated the flat surface as our own personal skate-boarding park.

10. Pot-luck dinners at church.  I remember Mrs. Patterson’s chicken curry as being exceptionally divine.

There are thousands more memories, of course, but I will stop.

Perhaps you, dear reader, grew up in Karachi as well.  What special memories do you have? Please leave a comment and share one.

Rickshaw photo: Karachi Digest

Chicken Tikka photo: Infokorners.com (click on the link for a recipe)