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  • Writer's pictureRogue Chemist

Mall rat

As maids swept and dusted my room and hung my clean laundry from the trek in a flurry of activity around me, I realized I would have a hard time getting used to this in my normal life.

It's common to have hired help (i.e., maids/servants, cooks, and drivers) in middle/upper class Pakistani households, and Maida's home was no exception. All I could do was smile and repeatedly say shukriya ("thank you" in Urdu—yes, I almost said "shakira" more than once).

Everything was peachy in my clean, climate-controlled bubble, but stepping outside was another matter.

"Smog season," the period from October to January during which air quality in Lahore is at its worst, was in full swing after I returned to the city from my adventure in the north.

The dangerously high levels of pollution have been attributed to a combination of factors, including crop burning in neighboring India, coal power plants, poor fuel quality, and environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, and rainfall.

Needless to say, I was hesitant to be frolicking around outside, but I also didn't want to squander the opportunity to see the city. Despite wearing a bandanna over my face most of the time, I still blew out blackened snot after my several excursions into the haze.

On the first of these outdoor excursions, Maida, her son, her driver, and I ventured into the oldest part of Lahore. Known as the "Walled City," several important historical sites lie within its six gates, including Lahore Fort (Shahi Qila), Badshahi Masjid (mosque), and pretty, Mughal-era gardens.

Interior of the Lahore Fort. The steps and corridors were made wide enough for elephants to pass through.

We wandered around the grounds of the fort and mosque for a while, but I didn't tour these sites in great depth and won't pretend to remember the historical facts (despite having a guide proficiently rattle them off in the background, I was too distracted by my own impressions to pay much attention). The meandering we did was just enough for me to visualize the past—these corridors and gardens were once the extravagant stomping grounds of royals.

Badshahi Masjid

My second excursion into the Walled City was a solo one. I hopped onto a rickshaw from a street corner near Maida's house towards the nearest Metrobus station. Lacking a subway system, Metrobus is Lahore's alternative means of public transport.

Metrobuses travel along their own raised, 27-km highway set apart from the dense traffic below. It's not as fast as a subway train, but it works. "Feeder routes" include a network of local buses that connect other parts of the city to the main Metrobus route. Route maps are available online. (Note: I'm only able to access the website from abroad by using my VPN and setting the connection to a server based in Pakistan.)

I climbed up the stairs onto the platform and picked up a Metrobus Card at the kiosk (for a deposit of Rs. 130), which I credited with a few hundred rupees. At the time of writing, the fare is Rs. 30/ride, and routes run between 6:15 am and 10:00 pm throughout the week.

The reloadable Metrobus card

Like you would do at a subway station, you scan the card before stepping through the turnstile and onto the platform. Female passengers have a separate section at the front of the bus, and there's also air-con, if that's extra incentive to ride it. Because the road is raised, the ride offers a view of the city from above (if you can see anything through the thick smog).

This outing was also a bit of a social experiment. Despite having bought a pretty kurta (a long, loose traditional shirt with three-quarter length or longer sleeves) when I arrived, I wore Western clothing as I rode the bus (t-shirt, capri pants that exposed my ankles, and sneakers, plus my usual cap and sunglasses).

As I stepped off the Metrobus at Azadi Chowk and into the view of the locals going about their business on the side of the street, I was feeling the burn of attention. But also as usual, I just sucked in my breath and got on with my own business (as in, looking like I had a destination in mind but really just aimlessly wandering around).

I found my way to Old Anarkali (a bazaar), where the crowds were dense and the traffic congested. Occasionally, a truck or bus carrying people chanting and waving flags passed by (protests were happening around the time of my visit, but I wasn't worried about it—the Canadian embassy didn't issue any security alerts for Lahore).

Police officers patrolled the streets with whistles in hand, and when I had trouble crossing the street at one intersection due to the volume of unpredictable traffic, one kind cop stepped into the middle of the street and stopped it for me. Some passersby also paused to ask if I needed help or directions.

All in all, I felt safe to be out and about and returned via the opposite Metrobus route without any issues (except for the black snot part). Also, when I was scouting for a rickshaw driver offering a reasonable fare to return to Maida's neighborhood from the Metrobus station, a group of young boys flash-mobbed me, offering to help me find the best bargain.

This was actually nice, and maybe they would've offered their help to any foreigner, but I find it slightly frustrating when males offer help under the assumption that because I'm a woman, I automatically need assistance. But I know this is just my self-sufficiency complex kicking in (or whatever you want to call it).

In order to fulfill my need to get outside without subjecting myself to the horrendous air pollution of the inner city, I came up with the idea to explore a large park near Maida's house.

But, according to Mawish, Model Town Park has a reputation as the "Amsterdam" of Lahore.

Although this locally known fact was unknown to me at the time, I did notice a number of couples strolling together hand in hand or discreetly cozying up to each other under the shade of the trees in the interior of the park, amid flowers, ponds, and birds strutting around.

And although some women wore t-shirts as they jogged around the track, I still didn't quite fit in. When teenaged boys caught a glimpse of me as I speed-walked past them, I pretended to be oblivious to the greetings they shouted after me, hoping to lose them by veering off the path.

But that didn't seem to be a strong enough cue, and of course they followed me, in hot pursuit of selfies with the foreigner. I wondered how many Instagram and Facebook photos I would star in that day as a pretend girlfriend (forget how old I was compared to these kids). I ended up turning down photo ops politely but firmly after my mood to go along with it all faded into frustration.

The paparazzi/celebrity treatment didn't stop there, though. A trip to the ultra-modern Emporium Mall with Maida also led to some unanticipated attention. While Maida indulged her children in other kid-friendly entertainment, I went on my own to the trampoline park on the top floor (yep, I like to act like a kid sometimes, too).

As I bounced around with a basketball in hand, sometimes tossing it into the net with a swoosh, a trio of pre-teen girls approached me and unloaded the compliments (this white girl ain't bad at shooting hoops, yo).

As my new girl crew and I sat together in the ball pit, they quizzed me on everything from my family and country to the topic of God. And when I stated my belief that someone doesn't have to be religious to be a good person, their eyes widened. Obviously this thought had never crossed their minds.

Their parents waved to me from the "observation deck" overhead, and I smiled and waved back as I resumed corrupting the minds of their innocent children.

On my last day in Lahore, Nic, the motorcycling German Mawish and I met in Skardu, happened to be in town. And so I spontaneously met him for brunch with Maida before I left the country and he crossed the Wagah border into India.

After scanning the menu at the restaurant, Nic and I each ordered our platter (thaal) of choice. Maida, on the other hand, decided differently. She asked the waiter for something off the menu—something not even offered at the restaurant (a bun kebab).

As the waiter scurried off to fetch Maida's meal from the restaurant next door, I was incredulous.

Deep into incredulous conversation. My lovely turquoise kurta is courtesy of Mawish and her mom!

I thought back to Mawish and the hand of "woman cards" she played on our travels in the north. Maida had just pulled out a similar card, further exemplifying the idea that women are able make certain requests/demands here that are fulfilled almost instantly.

This level of customer service would never fly back home—it would instead be met with a laugh (Canada) or probably a scowl (Germany).


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