Photos

Pura Vida! – A Costa Rica Travelogue

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Last month, Z and I went on our very first vacation together. We desperately needed a break from skyscrapers, subways, sanitation trucks and drunken singing-at-3-in-the-morning below our apartment.

Costa Rica was just the prescription.

Hammock = Bliss

After weeks of poring over Lonely Planet and Fodor’s travel guides, we finalized an itinerary, squeezing in as many things-to-do as there were hours in the day and dollars in our budget. That was followed by days of necessity-shopping – boots, ponchos, sunblock, mosquito repellent, waterproof sandals, waterproof kohl – followed by days of outfit-picking, and somehow stuffing everything into two hiking packs on the day of our flight.

10 days in a backpack - didn't think I could do it!

We returned to New York 10 days later, considerably sore, scratched and sunburned, but with heads full of unforgettable memories, and hundreds of pictures to show for it!

Starting this Friday, I’m going to post a day-by-day photo diary of our trip, including what we did, where we stayed, what we ate, as well as some pieces of self-learnt travel advice (for e.g., never judge a hostel by its website!). So check back every week for a new Costa Rica post :)

First sight of Costa Rica - green as far as the eye can see!

My Top 8 Outdoor Adventures

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“I’m a synchronized-swimming, yoga-doing, horseback-riding, wall-climbing type of girl. My hand-eye coordination is zero.”

– Mia Thermopolis in “The Princess Diaries”

I was never very sporty as a kid. In fact, I dreaded Games period at school, when we’d be forced to wear those awful dust-blue track suits and pummel each other in Netball matches. I was also quite lazy, and always looked for opportunities to get by in a game of KhoKho or Cricket with the least amount of movement (hitting chaukas and chakkas was my specialty). Swimming was the only sport I enjoyed at school – maybe because I could do it solo, without depending on or being depended on by anyone. I suppose it’s not the kind of thing you’d mention in a job application, the apathy for competitive, coordinated team sports. But I just wasn’t into it.

Years after resigning to my regrettable un-athleticness, I discovered that there did exist physical activities that people like me were actually good at – “adventure sports”! I think it was that first rock climbing-cliff diving-caving trip to Khanpur with the LUMS Adventure Society in Pakistan that sparked it off – and, I’m happy to report, I’ve never looked back :)

Here’s a list of my 8 most memorable adventure sport experiences…hopefully many more to come!

  • Hiking / Camping
Hiking through Harriman State Park, New Jersey
Our campsite at Pine Meadow Lake, Harriman State Park
Our campsite at Pine Meadow Lake, Harriman State Park
  • Horseback Riding
Getting on my horse Mariposa in Arenal, Costa Rica
Riding 2 hours through Costa Rican countryside
  • Rock Climbing
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Rock climbing in the Adirondack Mountains, New York
Hi down there!
  • Skiing

(I don’t have any pictures of me actually skiing, but here’s the beautiful place we went to!)

Mallamjabba Ski Resort in Swat, Pakistan
Ski slope
  • Snorkeling
On the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica
Angelfish at the Cahuita coral reef, Costa Rica
  • Zip-lining 
Canopy Tour in Selvatura National Park, Costa Rica
Riding on a 1km-long cable 500 ft above the Monteverde Cloud Forest!
  • White Water Rafting
On the Pacuare River in Costa Rica
Class III-IV Rapids!
  • Skydiving
Parachuting down after the freefall at the Long Island Skydiving Center, New York
Strapped on to my instructor, with the whole of Long Island below us!

Egypt

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Without prognosticating, analyzing, rationalizing – irrespective of what happens next week, the next day, or the next hour – I think what’s happening in Egypt right now is beautiful.

It’s one of those moments, those rare historical moments that you read about in your classroom within the pages of a textbook,  and it all seems so distant, almost fictional, and as you memorize the facts for tomorrow’s quiz you believe quite firmly in your heart that nothing like that will happen in your lifetime. Because you were born too late, because  such grand, moving events just don’t happen anymore…

When rank and class and position, the neighbourhood you live in, the clothes you wear, the work you do, the dialect you speak,  everything that separates you from your fellow countryman or woman on any ordinary day suddenly melts away; when, for once, a system that is based on divisions and duties and somebody else’s rules breaks down, and people speak with one voice – not hundreds, not thousands, but millions. Then, there is no power, no number of tyrants, tanks or tear gas in the world that can silence them.

I’m not there in Tahrir Square in Cairo, but I can feel the thrill, the exhilaration that something momentous is unfolding before my very eyes.

It feels a little like the time when Obama became President in 2008. Irrespective of what came after, the broken promises, the disillusionment, that moment itself was pure magic; when a joy and a hope stronger than anything else swept over us at the I-house in Berkeley, and people from every corner of the world cried and cheered and celebrated in a unison that couldn’t be explained, only experienced.

Or the time when Pakistani students rose up against General Musharraf’s martial law in November 2007, abandoning their books and taking to the streets with a passion that nobody knew existed, and young people in Pakistan felt – even if only for those dramatic few weeks – that we actually had the power to change the society we lived in, for the better.

What ensues from such extraordinary moments isn’t always better, or different from before. But isn’t life more about the moments than the monotonous spaces between them?  The birthdays, the marriages, the revolutions and revelations, those precious fleeting moments of unadulerated emotion that you savor and look back to forever?

Egypt has had its moment. Egypt will never be the same. The Arab world will never be the same.

And Egyptians aren’t thinking, “What if Mubarak doesn’t step down after all? What if the constitution isn’t changed at all? What if another puppet dictator takes over in his place?”

These questions and speculations and eternally encumbering “what-ifs” don’t bother them, shouldn’t bother them. The Egyptian people have spoken. They have shown their courage, their humanity, their unity to the world, and to themselves. That is the power, that is the point. That is what matters.

Is there a Pakistan to go back to?

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Resting by the Kunhar River near Balakot, Kaghan

Published in The Express Tribune Blog, January 20th, 2011 

Last week, my husband and I finally booked our return tickets to Pakistan. It was a proud moment, a happy moment, not only because we had been saving to buy them for months, but because we had not been home in nearly two years.

Two years! It seemed like a lifetime. We had missed much: babies, engagements, weddings, new additions to the family and the passing of old, new restaurants and cafés, new TV channels, even the opening of Lahore’s first Go-Karting park. I could hardly contain my excitement.

Yet, my excitement was tainted by a very strange and disquieting thought – was there even a Pakistan to go back to?

My family and friends would be there, yes, and the house I grew up in, and my high school, and the neighborhood park, and the grocery store where my mother did the monthly shopping, and our favorite ice cream spot…

But what of the country? And I’m not talking about the poverty, and corruption, and crippling natural disasters – I’m talking about a place more sinister, much more frightening…

A place where two teenage boys can be beaten to death by a mob for a crime they didn’t commit, with passersby recording videos of the horrific scene on their cell phones…

A place where a woman can be sentenced to hang for something as equivocal as “blasphemy”…

A place where a governor can be assassinated because he defended the victim of an unjust law, and his killer hailed as a “hero” by religious extremists and educated lawyers alike…

This is not the Pakistan I know. This is not the Pakistan I grew up loving. This bigoted, bloodthirsty country is just as alien to me as it is to you.

The Pakistan I know was warm, bustling and infectious, like a big hug, a loud laugh – like chutney, bright and pungent, or sweet and tangy, like Anwar Ratol mangoes. It was generous. It was kind. It was the sort of place where a stranger would offer you his bed and himself sleep on the floor if you were a guest at his house; a place where every man, woman or child was assured a spot to rest and a plate of food at the local Sufi shrine. A place where leftovers were never tossed in the garbage, always given away, where tea flowed liked water and where a poor man could be a shoe-shiner one day, a balloon-seller the second, and a windshield-wiper the third, but there was always some work to do, some spontaneous job to be had, and so, he got by.

Our impromptu guide in Lahore's Old City

My Pakistan was a variegated puzzle – it was a middle-aged shopkeeper in shalwar kameez riding to work on his bicycle, a 10-year old boy selling roses at the curbside, a high-heeled woman with a transparent pink dupatta over her head tip-tapping to college, with a lanky, slick-haired, lovelorn teenager trailing behind her.

A Michael Jackson-lookalike doing pelvic thrusts at the traffic signals for five rupees, a drag queen chasing a group of truant schoolboys in khaki pants and white button-down shirts. Dimpled women with bangled arms and bulging handbags haggling with cloth vendors, jean-clad girls smoking sheesha at a sidewalk café, and serene old men in white prayer caps emerging from the neighborhood mosque, falling in step with the endless crowd as the minarets gleamed above with the last rays of the sun in the dusty orange Lahore sky.

Badshahi Mosque, Lahore

My parents were practicing Muslims, and religion was always an important part of my life. Like most Pakistani children, my sister and I learnt our obligatory Arabic prayers at the age of 7; I kept my first Ramadan fast when I was 10, bolting out of bed before dawn for a sublime sehri of parathas, spicy omelettes, and jalebi soaked in milk.  By the time I was 13, I had read the Holy Qur’an twice over in Arabic, with Marmduke Pickthall’s beautifully gilded English translation.

Freshly fried, sticky hot delicious jalebi

But beyond that – beyond and before the ritual, or maddhab, as they say in Sufism, came the deen, the heart, the spirit of religion, which my parents instilled in us almost vehemently, and which to me was the true message of Islam – compassion, honesty, dignity and respect for our fellow human beings, and for every living creature on the planet.

So, while we as Pakistanis had our differences, and practiced our faith with varying tenor – some were more “conservative” than others, some more “liberal”, some women did hijab while others didn’t, some never touched alcohol while others were “social drinkers” – we were all Muslim, and nobody had the right or authority to judge the other, no red-bearded cleric or ranting mullah. There were no Taliban or mullahs back then; if they existed, we never saw them. Not on TV, not in the newspapers, not on the streets, in posters or banners or fearsome processions.

It wasn’t a perfect society – far from it. Inequality and abuses were rampant, and daily life for a poor person could be unbearable. But they were the kind of problems that every young, developing, post-colonial nation faced,  and the worst thing that could happen to you when you stepped out of the house was a petty mugging or a road accident, not a suicide blast.  It was chaotic, but it was sane.

Then 9/11 happened, and society as my generation knew it began to unravel.

It started as a reaction to the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the “clandestine” war in Pakistan – a reaction shared by Pakistanis across the social spectrum.  But somewhere along the way, the anger and grief mutated into a suicidal monster of hatred, robed in religion and rooted in General Zia’s pseudo-Islamic dictatorship of the 1980’s and the U.S.-funded Afghan jihad. Pakistan was engulfed by a frenzy, an unspeakable frustration, not only at the neighboring war that had expanded into its heartland, but at everything that was wrong with the country itself. And, like the hysteria that fueled the Crusades or the 17th-cenutry Salem witch-hunt, religion was the most convenient metaphor.

I don’t claim to understand it all, or be able to explain it.  But what I do know is that, alongside the two purported targets of the “War on Terror”, there is no greater victim of 9/11 than America’s indispensable, ever-“loyal” ally and doormat, Pakistan itself. 

Maybe I’m romanticizing a little. Maybe I’m being over-nostalgic about the past, and the Pakistan of my childhood. But that’s the only way I can retain some affection for my country, the only way I can sustain the desire to go back and live there – if I know and remember in my heart, that it has been better. That it was not always like this.  That it was once rich, multifaceted, beautiful, tolerant, sane – and can be again.

Winds

Published in Sanctum!

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A story I wrote as a senior at LUMS for a class on Islamic Spirituality was just published in the Fall 2010 issue of Columbia University’s bi-annual Journal of Religion, Sanctum. The story, titled “The Scholar, The Philosopher & The Soldier“, is set in the Golden Age of Islamic civilization, sometime during the Abbasid Caliphate (between the 9th and 12th centuries), and is a parable for three different approaches to Allah, The Divine Being, in classical Islamic tradition.  

It is a simple story; but it illustrates a large part of what I took away from that class (taught by Columbia alumnus Shaykh Kamaluddin Ahmed). Click here to read the story, and here to read the “sequel”, titled “Salar & The Sufi“.

Knock, and you shall enter

Travel Slideshows

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Achelya, friend!

Here are some of the slidehsows I’ve been working on since I joined the Huffington Post as a Travel intern. No traveling myself yet – at least physically! – but I have been learning a whole lot about the world, and getting a million more ideas about places to go and things to do. Oh, world, you’re just too vast and beautiful and interesting for one lifetime!

Deep in the Hindu Kush mountains of northwest Pakistan lies the remote and picturesque Chitral Valley – home of Tirich Mir, the 14th-highest peak in the world (25,550 ft), and of the legendary pagan tribe Kalash.

With more than 110 peaks that rise over roughly 22,965 feet, the Himalayas are the longest, highest mountain range on earth. They straddle a mighty 1,500 mile-long swath across Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, India and Pakistan, and are home to 9 of the world’s tallest peaks, including Mount Everest.

We love places of worship – their grandeur, their peacefulness, their architectural beauty. We especially admire mosques. Here’s our pick of 24 beautiful mosques, from Morocco to Malaysia, which reflect the great cultural diversity of the Muslim world.

Monasticism is an important institution in many religions, especially Buddhism and Christianity. In part for defense, and in part to facilitate the process of detachment from worldly concerns, monasteries were often built in highly remote and inaccessible areas.

On the dusty, noisy, chicken-crossing streets outside Accra, the capital of the English-speaking West African country of Ghana, a tribe called the Ga is making its name in the business of coffins. The coffins come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from cars to Coke bottles and cell phones.

Imagine a time and place when a yellow cab, car or train wasn’t the only way you could get from point A to point B… Bikes in Beijing, gondolas in Venice. But outdoor elevators in Chile? Giant plastic balls in New Zealand, art-on-wheels in Pakistan?

Living in New York City, with its endless jungle of gray skyscrapers, even a patch of blue sky from the office window is enough to make our day. Imagine living in one of these 15 stunning towns and cities, where at every turn you’re met with a wondrous explosion of color!

The world is full of breathtaking mountains, pristine valleys, thundering rivers and waterfalls – and what better way to explore these scenic locales than on a raft?

Which one of us hasn’t dreamed of living in a castle, a tree-house or a hobbit hole as a child? We dream of it still! And though many of us eventually settle for regular (rectangular) homes and condos, some adventurous people out there just go ahead and build what they dream.

Ever wonder how it would feel to jump from a plane 13,000 feet in the air?Terrifying, yes – but also inexplicably exhilarating, tiny and powerful at the same time. And the vision: you couldn’t be the same person after diving down the highest peaks in the world, or beholding a bird’s-eye view of the Great Barrier Reef.


Photo Win – almost!

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Yay! One of my photos made it as a finalist in the the Photographer’s Forum Annual College Photography Contest! It’ll be published in the hardcover coffee-table book Best of College Photography 2010

Meat shop in San Francisco's Chinatown, Feb 2009

It’s an itsy step-up from last year, when the photo below (one of my personal favourites) made it to the semi-finals of the same contest.  

Truck transporting building materials in Balakot, Pakistan, Aug 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, I’m no longer eligible for Student Photography contests (who knows what could’ve happened next year?), nor can I afford those beautiful glossy coffee-table books! For the moment, though, I’m happy with the growing stack of gold-embossed congratulatory letters :)