Amy Herdy’s Pakistan travel diary

By Amy Herdy 

Editor’s note: Amy Herdy, a former Denver Post and Channel 9 journalist who’s currently the advisor for the University of Colorado at Boulder’ online newspaper, is in Pakistan under the auspices of the State Department. Her mission: to give students and professional journalists the tools they need to improve the media in their country. 

I am heading to Pakistan as part of the speaker program for the U.S. State Department. I am to give journalism workshops on the topics of advanced interviewing and trauma journalism.

To say you are going to Pakistan is to suddenly render people hard of hearing.
“Pakistan? PAKISTAN? You’re going to Pakistan?” is the reaction I’ve gotten from various people at least a half-dozen times this past week after being asked if I had any travel plans for the summer.

When I asked the young man behind the glass at the currency-exchange window at Denver International Airport if he had rupees, he smirked. “Of course, we have everything,” he said smoothly, and when I still hesitated, he asked impatiently, “Where are you going?” “I’m going to Pakistan,” I told him, and lo, there was the same reaction.

“Pakistan?” he repeated, staring at me, and when I simply nodded, he continued to stare. Finally, “I have no Pakistani rupees,” he said.

Nor did they have Pakistani rupees at London’s Heathrow Airport, a sprawling structure of chrome, glass and short ceilings where all the ticket and security personnel call you “Luv” or “dear.”

At my gate for Pakistan Air, I am the only woman among dozens who is not wearing shalwar kameez, the traditional garb of flowing and colorful tunics, pants and scarves. As a result, I get stare — and frowns. The woman sitting behind me turns completely around in her seat to glare at me. I’m wearing loose black pants and a long-sleeved white shirt, but clearly, it’s offensive.

The flight from Denver to London takes nine hours; the flight from London to Lahore takes eight. Despite a middle-aged drunk American male sitting next to me who spills his drink on me on the leg to London, I am able to get some sleep on both flights.

I am greeted in Lahore by a smiling man holding a sign with my name on it; he is with the U.S. Consulate and he quickly ushers me through immigration. Still, it takes nearly a half-hour for my baggage to show up, and as we exit the airport, security personnel actually check the tags against the luggage we are carting out.

Once we are out the door, things move very quickly. “Hi, I’m Traci,” says the public-affairs officer for the consulate here, and we quickly shake hands as I realize there are police all around us, and they are ushering us forward, waving away anyone who steps near. I count four of them, all wearing combat gear with black T-shirts that say “No Fear” on the back. They’re all holding semi-automatic rifles.

The time from the door of the airport to our vehicle is less than ten seconds. The door is heavy — it’s armored — and then we’re safely inside. Our police escort — they are Punjab police, Traci tells me — drive behind us in a modified Toyota truck. We go over the schedule — today is a rest-and-plan day — and we’ll go sightseeing and have lunch later, leaving me the evening to finish getting ready for tomorrow’s first workshop.

At the hotel, a large metal barrier prevents us from driving in until we are checked by the armed guards. Before walking in, my luggage is screened, and so am I — walking through a metal detector just like at the airport.

At check-in, the clerk proudly tells me that I am staying in a “lady’s room.” At my puzzled look, Traci explains that it’s a room in a wing reserved only for women.

My flight arrived at 5:30 a.m. It’s now 7:30. I’m going to take a nap, get some exercise and then Traci will pick me up at noon.

For security’s sake, do not leave the hotel grounds, she tells me. Call her if I have any questions or concerns.

“You have a scarf?” she asks me. “If you don’t, I can provide you one.” I assure her I have two, and the similarity to the Miranda warning cracks me up.

After my nap, I took a brisk stroll on hotel grounds (sunshine is a good cure for jet lag). No less than a half-dozen armed guards watched my walk with interest. Also, the largest crow I have ever seen, who hopped near me, turned his head sideways and regarded me in a very Poe way.

You know the hotel is in Pakistan when:

• The polite sign at the bathroom sink reminds you to not drink the water.

• There’s a prayer mat in the wardrobe.

• There’s a mosque in the hotel.

I have to again go through security screening before I’m allowed back inside after my walk.

We are escorted by the members of the Punjab police during our sightseeing. One of them walks ahead of us, waving away anyone who might be standing near. If we walk into a room, they clear it first, and no one protests. I wonder how much they silently resent our privilege.

On the news today, over and over, runs a clip of a protest in Lahore against Americans. The theme of the protest, reportedly attended by hundreds: “Go, Americans, go.” It’s apparently not meant in a nice way.

But I’m in Lahore, and even though local news coverage shows a crowd of hundreds, I never saw or heard them.

We eat lunch, and I beg off the rest of the sightseeing. I want to tweak my plans for tomorrow’s workshop, and besides, my eyes are burning, a common allergic reaction, I’m told. Or jet lag.

I nap for three hours, and trying to wake up feels like swimming through thick goo. Desperate for energy, I go to the “fitness room” to work out. I wear long pants and a shirt with sleeves.

There are no other women in the room. I’ve been there only a few minutes when a young man walks up and demands the mat I am sitting on while doing situps. When I politely but firmly tell him that he can have it when I finished, he doesn’t say a word in response but simply turns on his heel and leaves the facility.

Even though English is spoken here by just about everyone, there are still communication problems. I brought protein powder with me (being vegan, getting protein here is a problem, since it seems everyone eats meat except me), and I asked the concierge if they have soy milk in any of the restaurants here (I drink rice milk, but I’m not even going to bother to ask for that). He replied, “Yes, we have a swimming pool.”

There are American men in my hotel — I’ve seen about a half dozen, but no other American women. I’m getting used to the curious stares.

Monday morning, I wake up early to go for another walk (I’m rehabbing a hamstring and can’t run until Tuesday, per orders from my excellent sports chiropractor, Jeremy Rodgers). There’s a dead crow. I can’t help but wonder if it’s my guy from the day before.

Monday is my first day for the first workshop, to be held at Beaconhouse University. I’m a bit nervous about what to expect until I see the students. Except for the fact that some of the young women wear shalwar kameez, they remind me of my students at CU. They’re wearing jeans and T-shirts, carrying backpacks and have that same friendly, curious high energy. They crack me up. I love working with students in general and journalism students in particular. They are full of optimism and hope and ambition; in short, they’re not jaded and cynical yet, as so many veterans of the industry are. I am always careful to never dampen that ardor.

Whenever I can, I try to watch the news here and read the papers. The difference of the journalism is staggering. At a tea on Monday afternoon, a group of Pakistani educators, members of the consulate and myself debate theories as to why. Pakistan media is carrying on the practice of heavy criticism begun during British colonialism, some believe, which now influences their highly opinionated media coverage. Also, restrictions of the media were only lifted by the government in 2002. So the dozens of television stations and newspaper stations that have arrived since then are still very young. I likened them to teenagers being given the keys to the car and not really understanding the responsibility of driving.

Whatever the reason, Pakistani journalists:

• Cover suicides when only one person dies and it doesn’t affect the general public, a practice other media eschew due to the possibility of copycats.

• Show shocking video or images with no warning or context.

• Infuse bias and opinion in their stories.

• Have “stories” that are really public relations vehicles — such as a “Mother’s Day” story that was really a promotional piece for a local restaurant.

Other stories show glaring lack of judgment, including a television package I saw on Dawn TV this morning that was about Taliban recruiting videos. The story included lengthy clips of these recruiting videos, effectively spreading the message. The video also included clips of floggings and one shot of a man about to be beheaded by the machete raised above him — images the Taliban use to instill fear. There was no warning to the viewer of the content about to be shown.

When the students ask me, “How can we change this?,” I tell them it’s up to them. That they need to question these decisions, educate themselves as to what are internationally accepted best practices of journalism and do their best to follow them. In the same breath, I tell them that I understand they face pressures here we can’t fathom — of being imprisoned, or beaten or even killed over a story.

Make your choices day by day, I tell them, and bring others into your process. It seems daunting, I say, but you can make a difference. Think baby steps. I passionately believe in the power of journalism to enact change. Or I wouldn’t be here.

My family and friends are all worried about me being in Pakistan, but I try to explain that so far — at least for the day-to-day here in Lahore — there is no violence. It’s all closer to the Afghan border. For now, there is no chaos, other than the goings-on of a city of about eight million people who apparently all try to be on the street at the same time using cars, trucks, bicycles, donkeys, their own two legs and motorized carts.

The city is enveloped in a constant haze, an apparent combination of dust and pollution.

The heat rolls off the pavement in scorching gusts, like someone opened a giant oven door.

I’m trying to get used to the electricity shutting off throughout the day, but it’s unsettling to be in conversation with someone or climbing up a flight of stairs (it’s happened three times that way) and be suddenly immersed in darkness. In the summer, the rolling blackouts can run up eight hours a day in the major cities, my consulate hosts say, and those in the rural areas can go without power for up to twelve.

Still, all those things pale compared to the fact that Lahore has existed for thousands of years, and you can see remnants of how life has been lived for many of these generations. Its architecture is rich and stunningly detailed, and the people here, young and old, rich and poor alike, seem to carry themselves with a certain sense of pride. Lahore is like a regal, wizened elder that makes other cities look like awkward middle-school kids.

2 responses to “Amy Herdy’s Pakistan travel diary

  1. I pity the Americans. How ill informed they are about the world. And this is coming from a “journalist”. They look at the world other than America as if they have just landed on Mars.

  2. And I am amazed why they act like they are going through a thrilling, life risking adventure the moment the put their feet on foreign lands while their own cities are much more dangerous than Baghdad. Try going to the south side in LA and there are only 15 % chances that you will come back in one peice.

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