Pakistan: the highs and lows of local life

In transit to Pakistan to visit my girlfriend, I stumbled upon this article about gender equality. Although I knew that Pakistan dealt with terrorism, rape and honour killings, it wasn’t until I read this article that I gained full perspective about how fortunate my Pakistani girlfriend is to have been born into a family with the means to offer her a good education and the open mindedness to allow her to pursue a career.

I understand that many people are hesitant to visit Pakistan these days due to worries about safety and the issues mentioned above. It didn’t take me much convincing though, cause if my girlfriend feels safe and secure enough to live there, why shouldn’t I visit? When inviting me to stay with her, my girlfriend assured me that she would escort me to and from the airport which alleviated my number one concern and she would show me around so that I never went out alone which alleviated my Mom’s number one concern. It helped to know that my girlfriend had lived abroad for a few years before choosing to move back home.

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Workers at Lahore Fort

During my visit I sampled local life by living at my girlfriend’s house, shadowing her at work and partying with her social set. It was seeing how she lived at home that intrigued me the most. As Pakistan has one of the lowest costs of living in the world, it’s understandable that those who do well for themselves live very well. Her family employs one live-in housekeeper/cook, two maids, three drivers and too many security guards for me to count. (Her family employs more security guards and has stricter security protocols than most locals due to her family’s high profile media business.) This all added up to much more luxury than I’m used to in Canada. For example, the house was cleaned thoroughly each day and each bedroom has an ensuite bathroom, the drivers have been with her family for years and I felt very comfortable when we drove around the city, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed having the cook offer me a myriad of breakfast choices each day. I enjoyed eating the delicious food he made just as much as he enjoyed having an extra hungry mouth to feed. In short, I couldn’t have expected treatment this good at the best five star hotel.

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Stopping to smell the roses in Karachi

Whenever I had the opportunity, I pestered my girlfriend with questions about life in Pakistan. I learned that most people with cars hire drivers and although many drive around with security guards in Karachi, it’s much less common elsewhere in Pakistan. The extra security in Karachi is partly due to a past history of cell phone car muggings and even though the level of crime has decreased from what it was, the level of precautions taken by residents has not really dropped. I learned that the government has recently cracked down on street beggars who used to be found at every intersection. The poor have adapted to the new laws and now can be found selling things on the corners instead of begging. In Canada, squeegee kids are not looked upon favorably, but here their existence is an improvement. Some begging still exists and I was particularly saddened to witness women on the street asking for money while carrying drugged babies for extra sympathy. The worst part is that these babies usually don’t even belong to those women. I also learned about the local dress habits of women: leggings or loose pants with a kurta and usually a scarf are the norm in public. Jeans are not uncommon but not usually worn on the street and the keys to respectfulness are keeping shoulders and legs covered and having something loose draping below the hips.

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Courtyard in Lahore Fort

Staying with my girlfriend brought the unexpected perk of various social invitations. Pakistan is a generally a strictly religious country, but those who party do it well. I’m talking about a full outdoor club built in someone’s backyard for a one night party and house parties that run late and where the liquor is free flowing and only high-end. These are the kind of parties that see girls visiting the salon every weekend to keep their hair and nails on point and where outfits are not repeated. It’s not the kind of party life that I’m used to and it was great fun to live it for a few nights.

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Backyard Party in Karachi

Seeing how my girlfriend lives in Pakistan not only affirmed my respect for her as a woman in control of her destiny, it increased my pride in knowing such a wonderful woman. She balances her work and home responsibilities, treats those in her employ with professionalism and maintains the respect of her peers in a country that deals with terrorism, severe poverty and serious women’s issues on a regular basis.

Cheers to you, girl and thanks again!

Pakistan: the local foodie experience

One of the perks of being shown around a new city by local friends is that you get the inside scoop on the best restaurants. They know about and will insist you try all the unique local street foods, the hottest up and coming restaurants and the most popular greasy spoons.

I was so grateful to have friends show me around in Pakistan. Between Lahore and Karachi, I tried bun kebabs, kebab wraps, pani puri, helva puri, parantha, chapathi, BBQ skewers and more!

Don’t ask me to pick a favorite food because it was all amazing and I would go back to visit Pakistan again just for the food!

I do, however, have a favorite culinary experience from my time there. Amongst much hype, my friends took me to Baking Virsa in Lahore. This place can hardly be called a restaurant – it’s really more of a street side kitchen. The bare bones kitchen is in a roadside shop about the size of a one car garage where you sit on a bench in front of the special oven and beside the tap in the wall. This is all part of the charm and you will be so happy you came as the food is amazing.

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Kitchen and lamb chop at Baking Virsa

We had pre-ordered lamb chops, kebab skewers, half chickens and butter naan. After getting settled on the long bench each with a plastic stool for a table, we watched the meat courses come straight out of the oven one by one to be served up fresh and hot on our plates. The meat was deliciously spiced and tender and each piece was more succulent than the last. The naan was cooked last and it was my favorite dish: it had a crisp buttery crust and the middle was moist and flaky like my Mom’s tea biscuits. I will be dreaming about that naan for a while.

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The naan at Baking Virsa

Now that I’ve dazzled you with my mouth-watering descriptions – and no, I’m not exaggerating – you’ll want to know how to find the place. This is the tricky part. You will find no sign on the shop front and no ad in the paper. The only way to eat here is by calling the chef himself for directions and to make a reservation complete with pre-order and cash down payment! The shop can only seat three to four people comfortably and the chef only offers two seatings a night. Don’t even think of showing up late! We were warned that if we arrived late, he would be gone and our food would be cooked but not available to us.

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Baking Virsa chef making naan

Is all that hassle worth it? Yes! The food was delicious and the experience was second to none. It’s the kind of place you would see chefs rave about on travel shows.

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Chatting with the Baking Virsa chefs

For those of you living in or visiting Lahore – happy hunting!

Have you eaten here? Let me know how you liked it in the comments below.