Like most expeditions, the final week of preparation was a bit of a blur. Important documents scanned, uploaded and printed in triplicate, permissions confirmed, itinerary finalised and team in place.
A year ago, when we first mooted the idea of taking a team of students to explore this country and get beyond the media stereotypes, people said that it would never happen, that it was impossible and that we were wasting our time.
The reality that it might really be happening began to sink in, gradually at first with the last reassurances to worried family members at Heathrow, then increasingly with the buoyant enthusiasm and excitement during our layover at Abu Dhabi, and finally with the bump and squeak of our touchdown in Islamabad.
However much I know that the media portrayal of Pakistan was overblown, my responsibility for the team’s safety and security weighed heavy.
Everything went smoothly, fixers greeted us in the still humid night outside arrivals, minibuses were waiting, customs seemed unperturbed with all the filming equipment and most importantly all the hard work of the past months means that the team of young people could enjoy, relax and take in the atmosphere. And I could see this country afresh through new eyes.
The jangle and flash of trucks on the road from the airport, the smell, calm, bustle and hum of a Pakistan evening, the allure of a new country, life lived on the street in the open, vats of dye bubbling, rolls of cloth unfurled with a flourish, kind faces, warm greetings, hot tea, experience after experience, preconceptions jettisoned, thoughts shared, and so to sleep.
After a late, jet-lagged start, we go clothes shopping, Pakistan style.
In the UK, we are used to hearing about Pakistan from the media. Our view can be constructed by the messages we hear on a daily basis. The image above has been created using the most common words in the headlines from the most recent ten articles on BBC News about Pakistan.
How would I feel if my country were portrayed like this? Angered, embarrassed, afraid? I’m not sure. What impact will this barrage of negative words have on a UK audience?
Just before the expedition left, I asked ten friends what their views of Pakistan were and asked each of them to send me three words.
The result was far more positive than I had hoped. Of course some people mentioned the floods or conflict but those big stand out words of ‘stunning’, ‘welcoming’ and ‘hope’ were heart-warming. I’ve asked each of the students to collate words from ten friends and we’ll put all these up shortly.
What would your three words be?
Many thanks to the wonderful tagxedo for their great online tool for making the word clouds. I took their logo off the images as it distracted a bit, I hope they feel a link will make up for it!
All expeditions begins somewhere and this one started 15 years ago, with my over-long legs trying to fit in the back of a very small bus/truck in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. I had managed to secure a small grant to research the history of the area as part of my degree and so being a good student, headed up the Karakoram Highway from Lahore to the mountains of the Karakoram and the Pamir, bag packed with instant noodles, porridge and a jumble of ill-sorted clothes.
This was my first expedition and things like maps, local fixers, communications equipment and risk assessments were all forgotten in a whirl of enthusiasm, naivety and adventure. I wanted to investigate and explore the Shimshal Valley, the northernmost area of Pakistan before the border with China. My map was wholly inadequate, showing the red dotted line of a path, the solid blue of a river and two bold black ridges on either side.
It all seemed fairly simple. Follow the river and don’t attempt to climb the precipitous mountains on either side. My training was lengthy wanders into the Pakistani mountain was feeble to non-existent. A siesta was in order around lunchtime on day one.
I was woken about an hour later, by a rather bemused road builder. Why was there a lanky British student lying next to his little house? I was informed via much sign language, smatterings of English and my restricted Urdu that I needed to have a guide. Why did I need a guide, I could follow my excellent map? I needed a guide in case I fell of the red dotted line and died, because there would be an investigation and police and the army and pieces of paper to fill in and questions and bother.
Inayat would be my guide for the princely sum of 300 rupees a day (about £5 in 1996). Excellent. I didn’t have an extra £50 to spare. I would have to come back with the money later. Going to the next bank on my route would involve a 5 day / 700 mile round trip. No bother. That’s fine. Let’s go.
The next days, we danced round fires, taught each other English / Wakhi (the Wakhi for a toad is mukd – a highly useful word that has stayed with me beyond its usefulness, but not its amusement). We shared very little in background, cultural references or language, but it was an incredible journey of exploration, discovery and the shared bond between two people playing in the mountains.
We arrived in Central Shimshal, which sounds like it should be a sprawling metropolis, but is a collection of small fields of peas and barley, homesteads and the odd yak or three. I was offered a spare house that Inayat’s family had and was told to make myself at home and when I was ready to head back to the roadhead, just to let him know.
In the time I spent in Shimshal, I was invited into house and offered food and drink to bursting before any other family members would eat. I was treated as an honoured guest, which was humbling in many ways. Not wishing to sound ungrateful, but Shimshali cuisine leaves much to be desired. They have two main dishes - dildungi and chipendok. I didn’t write down the recipe, but it involves ripped up chappati, a paste made from dried yak cheese and a modest quantity of ghee or melted yak mutter. It’s not unenjoyable, but the yak whey to wash it all down was a step too far.
After a bucolic few days in and around Shimshal, we headed back to the road head. Ever since this experience in Shimshal, I wonder what would happen if a young Pakistani student fell asleep beside the road in Britain. Would they be offered guidance? Would they be trusted to go to the equivalent of Paris and back to get some money? Would they be offered a spare room or house and drowned in hospitality?
I wonder what the students will think of Pakistan during the expedition.
Digital Explorer expeditions started five years ago, when I realised that teachers in classrooms in the UK did not have the resources needed to teach their pupils about the world. Sure, they had text books with sketches of Samburu houses from Kenya or dry educational video and of course their own enthusiasm, professionalism and zest, but that wasn’t enough.
Young people in this country are forming their world view through so many different sources – television, internet, advertising, sport, their circle of friends and of course their education. We might hope that at school, we could offer an engaging alternative. I don’t think this is the case. In 2010, we teach about earthquakes with reference to San Francisco and Kobe, we look at sketch diagrams of mosques and wonder why a fear of Islam can persist.
We bother, because we think we can do better for teachers... up-to-date films, photographs and blogs by and with students from the world to the classroom. If I looked at the legacy that this expedition could have, I see joint creative projects between schools in Pakistan and the UK looking at culture and identity, deconstructing the media portrayal of these countries in English or Citizenship and showing a different and contemporary side to Islam for Religious Studies teachers.
I don’t think it’s a ridiculous vision for the kind of education the next generation deserve and I welcome you all to share and support young people wherever they are in understanding our wonderful, varied and fragile world.
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