New girl in the city

November 8, 2020

An unforeseen move to Islamabad from Karachi amidst Covid-19

Sunsets in Islamabad.

‘Islamabad – the most boring city in Pakistan.’

‘Islamabad – the most beautiful city in Pakistan.’

Two different sentiments that I had heard over the course of thirty years living in Karachi. I believed the city to be green and beautiful, but also dull and unapproachable. Other than the few times that I had managed to visit Islamabad earlier, to try my luck with the US visa, I had never felt the pull of this city that many in Pakistan inexplicably love.

Over the years I have realised how life doesn’t really go as planned, and kismet sometimes forces you to face the very thing you feel averse to. But that is when magically occurs, the expansion of our viewpoints.

A few days after I hit the big 3-0 this year, right when I was hoping to live a better life in my thirties than I had done in the previous decade, an unexpected opportunity showed up at my doorstep – a chance to work in Islamabad, the city that never intrigued me much.

But the somewhat non-existent attraction became a reality soon enough.

Being a travel enthusiast and (minor) Instagrammer with a penchant for sharing life experiences, the prospect of being in Islamabad on a more permanent basis brought me much closer to my next travel destination. 2019 was all about exploring parts of Hunza, Skardu, Deosai, Chitral, Kalash, and Kumrat. For 2020, the heart yearned to witness the lush, green valleys of Kashmir, quaint little cottages in Astore, and the surreal Fairy Meadows. Being in Islamabad has its perks if it is the mountains you seek. As compared to Karachi, the travel time and costs, both become significantly less if you begin the journey to the mountains from Islamabad.

And so, just like that, I decided to make the move to Islamabad, with a hunger for possible travel opportunities.

That was when the virus hit.

The day I flew to this city was the very day the first two Coronavirus cases in Pakistan surfaced. Three weeks later, the entire country went under lockdown, restaurants shut down, and so did transport services, airports, hotels, and shops. Life went topsy-turvy once again, but this time, I wasn’t the only one who suffered.

The Covid-19 pandemic has so far affected close to 44 million of the world’s population, while 1.1 million people have lost their lives at the hands of this deadly new disease. More have been impacted by the loss of livelihoods and businesses that resulted from lockdown measures on a global level. The tourism industry, in particular, was predicted to have a setback of $1 trillion in 2020. In Pakistan, while in the larger cities many businesses were able to digitally sustain themselves, smaller vendors in far off, remote areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan, and Kashmir among others weren’t fortunate enough. In the north of Pakistan, a huge percentage of their revenues are generated from travellers and hospitality, and with a 90 percent reduction in the expected arrival of foreign tourists, both were impacted massively.

Needless to say, my hopes of frequent travel went down the drain post-March 24, when the lockdown directives were issued in Pakistan. Kashmir, Astore, or Fairy Meadows were to remain unattainable, for the foreseeable future at least.

In retrospect now, I do realise how this break in travelling might have been for the good, at least for me. Moving cities, even if it is within your own country is not an easy task, and it was a task I wasn’t prepared for. The pandemic forced me to stay put, and with that, let myself take in the change in surroundings and come to terms with it. While people tell you about the clean and green streets of Islamabad, what they fail to make you aware of is the cultural shock you would have to face.

Views of Trail 5, Margalla Hills.

Being in Islamabad has its perks if it is the mountains you seek. As compared to Karachi, the travel time and costs, both become significantly less if you begin the journey to the mountains from Islamabad.

Funnily enough, you don’t really expect to receive this shock, since it’s the same country, where the same language is being spoken. But the difference between expectations and reality is vast. While I was used to sleeping to the sounds of trucks and buses honking at 1am in Karachi, the nights in Islamabad turned out to be dark and densely quiet. The Margalla Hills that took your breath away in the sunlight, would quickly turn menacing at night. Lightning streaks would be frequent and I soon developed a love-hate relationship with the chilly rains.

Islamabad, of course, is much cleaner and more organised than Karachi. Every sector has designated areas for their marketplaces, the markaz, and the city’s landscape and gorgeous skies aren’t marred by too many tall buildings. The sectors are properly demarcated and it seems like each sector has its own mini culture established.

What did come as a surprise was the unwelcoming vibe of the city. Eids in Karachi are incomplete without sharing luscious meals or the qurbani gosht with your neighbours, but you try doing the same in Islamabad and all you will receive are sceptical looks and awkward thank-yous. During my evening walks in Islamabad, I would often see a girl walking her dogs in the neighbourhood. Knowing that she’s a neighbour, I once decided to stop and tell her with a smile that she’s got beautiful dogs. What I got in return was… complete silence. A refusal to acknowledge my existence. Being a new girl in the city, it seems impossible to make new friends. Everyone seems to be operating in their own closed circles, carefully guarded by cold stares and haughty attitudes. While the holidays in Karachi were meant to arrange dawats and have a good meal and time together, holidays in Islamabad mean a deserted city, since there are not a lot of local Islamabadis and most of the residents choose to go back to their hometowns over the long weekend, or party within their own residences, looking away from the outside world.

More importantly, while I was told that the city is more liberal, I’ve had more than my share of uncomfortable stares, explicit comments, and disrespect from men in this city than I ever did in all the years in Karachi. The liberals apparently only exist in those same closed circles, while what you find out on the streets are unknown men calling you out, asking you either to cover your head or for your contact number.

All in all, while the absence of my loved ones in this city becomes more prominent every day, I don’t really regret the move. The wanderer and nature junkie in me chose to explore this city, and revel in all the beautiful seasons here, the purple Jacaranda trees in spring, yellow amaltaas flowers in the summer, roses growing along the street side, the dense forests surrounding Trail 5, the peaceful F9 park at 5 am, the temples at Saidpur village, pretty evenings with chai at the Secret Sky, and breathtakingly gorgeous sunsets, the likes of which I’ve never seen before.

In conclusion, from my personal experiences, I can easily describe the three major cities in Pakistan. Karachi’s core competency is its food, for Islamabad, it’s the greenery, and Lahore is all about our rich history.

2020 has probably become the toughest year that a majority of us has had to experience – starting from the wildfires in Australia, the helicopter crash that took down Kobe Bryant, the almost World War III, down to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is still ongoing. This year has probably been the most eye-opening one in recent times.

The writer is a PR professional, a former teacher, an aspiring writer, and a travel enthusiast.

An unforeseen move to Islamabad from Karachi amidst Covid-19