Not A Snake in Sight
by Sarah Malik
A few crinkled, fuzzy photos, heaps of geographic documentaries, and an outline on a map. At age nine, this was the only recollection I had of Pakistan – the land of my ancestors, the country where a large majority of my extended family lived, but a place completely foreign to me. It was in February of 2013, when winter was drawing to an end, that my parents had planned a family vacation to Islamabad, Pakistan to visit both sets of grandparents. Excitement sparked through my nerves, yet simultaneously uncertainty and a trickle of fright peppered my thoughts at the news. I was not keen on sleeping on the ground in mud huts where skittering mice could make a snack of my toes and snakes could murder me in my sleep. I kept my concerns caged in my head.
Swaddled in a fluffy blanket on the living room couch, my seven-year-old, saucer-round eyes were locked intently on the screen as the rumbling voice of the National Geographic narrator introduced the red sand boa, native to Pakistan. Its ruddy, slick scales winked at the camera as it slithered into the scene of a young village boy deep in slumber on his reed mat on the earthen ground. The music swelled in tension as the snake coiled; Porcelain fangs flashed at lighting speed. A gasp of horror clawed up my throat and my nerves prickle. The narrator continued to explain how each year many children die from the fatal bite of this merciless predator, as a menacing tune grumbled in the background. I turned this scene repeatedly in my head. My mind wondered off for a moment as I pictured what life would have been like if I lived in Pakistan. I suppose we would own a dusty agricultural field, a few buffalo for labor and food, and some spunky chickens that would roam around our humble brick hut. My wardrobe would consist of a single pair of dusty pants and a tunic, my eyes smeared with kohl. I probably would not know a lick of English – at least that is what I had seen in the movies and documentaries. My mom was born in England and spent most of her childhood there. All her stories were about her troop of four sisters and her blonde-haired friend Sharron running wild within their RAF air force base. My dad on the other hand was born and raised in Pakistan. However, he had only shared two stories – one of being chased by a dog in the middle of the night on his way home, convinced the entire time that it was a ghost; the second of when he came home from school one day to find that his parents had cooked his “pet” chicken for some popup guests. With very little to go off of from my parents, according to the documentaries my make-believe image was quite accurate. I peeked over at my dad who is still wearing his suit pants and dress shirt from work, hair neatly gelled back, fingers eloquently pattering against his laptop. How in the world did he transform from a village boy into this?
Surprise struck me across the face as I gawked through the clouded window of the descending airplane. Slicing through the pitch black night, twinkling streetlights exposed busy highways, towering buildings, lively mosques, and cozy homes nestled into neat sectors. The sight below me was nowhere close to the vast, barren farmlands, dusty trails, and small clusters of villages which I had visualized. On the ground, pearl-white gleaming tiles smiled up at me as we near the exit of the airport. My eye sockets threatened to spit out my eyeballs as my head swiveled this way and that, trying to take in everything at once. People bustled about – men and women clad in vibrant shalwar kameez, the traditional south Asian garb – and a bouquet of the Urdu language muddled in with dialects of Punjabi and Pushto tickled my ears. It was overwhelming for my nine-year-old self to be encircled by so many people who looked like me and spoke the language I only spoke at home. Back in Minnesota, it was thrilling to see another Pakistani or Muslim family members when browsing the grocery store or the mall. “Try to spot your Uncle, Sarah.” My dad said from beside me as we inched through the crowd. Scanning the faces, I jumped slightly when I see a tall man’s chocolate brown eyes trained on me, a wide grin plastered on his face and his hand waving ecstatically over his head. I was momentarily hit with confusion – is that my uncle? It looks like him, but then again, all these people looked alike to me. I did a double take behind me to be sure he is not beckoning some one else. “There he is!” My mom exclaimed pointing directly at the man I had been puzzled over; embarrassment flushed through my body as we shuffled over to my uncle.
When one is told to picture a shark, what generally comes to mind? An enormous great white shark, with millions of jagged teeth and blood lust clouding its eyes? Or a playful weedy leopard shark who enjoys belly rubs? For as long as my memory serves me, I have been deathly afraid of sharks and consequently the ocean despite having zero interactions with either; the case is so for an overwhelming majority. This opinion is primarily built by Hollywood favorites such as the Jaws series, Sharknado, Deep Blue Sea, and The Shallows. This fear was so strong that I burst into tears when a Sharky The Shark mascot tried to give me a high-five when I was 5 years old, despite it having a happy appearance! It was not until a 9th grade English research assignment that my mindset would flip the switch. After a full week of researching on the controversy surrounding sharks, I learned that the image pinned on the big fish is false. In fact, more sharks die because of humans, than humans do because of shark attacks. A shark’s natural disposition is timid and curious. They attack humans due to their mistaking a person’s silhouette under water for a seal. In the case that a shark does take a bite out of a human, within a few hours they throw it all up. By doing research for myself, I was able to break away from the toxic, mainstream way of thinking, and recognized sharks for the beautiful creatures they are.
The building commotion of the morning bled through the house walls – spritely parrots, vendors calling out in streets, children’s sandals drumming against the road as they chase after one another, giggling. This was a new kind of wake-up call for me, as mornings at home were typically signified with my alarm clock or mom’s shrill voice. After a delectable breakfast of buttery paratha – a savory flatbread, made of layers of dough and butter, then fried to crispy perfection -and a rich cup of chai, we drove over to my maternal grandparents’ home only a few minutes away. Peeping out the car window, I was starstruck at the beauty and culture I found. There were towering buses heavily adorned with golden bells, tinsel, and immaculate paintings, each one telling a unique story and specific to each bus. I would later find out that these vehicles are called ‘disco buses’ – a fitting name! Even the taxies had some sort of personal marks by their drivers, either with small paintings or stickers. I saw multiple street food stalls with vendors happily chatting with their customers, their hands eagerly offering mouthwatering traditional snacks such as fiery red tandoori chicken, woks of spicy rice adorned with juicy kabobs, and golden pretzel shaped jalebi dripping in heavenly sugary syrup. I also caught sight of bakeries and a few familiar eateries from the US. Looming on the horizon, the emerald green Margalla Hills stood regally basking in the morning sun. Finally arriving at my grandparent’s house, my little heart swelled with happiness to see family, especially my cousins. The next few weeks were overflowing with attending tea parties with extended family, visiting various amusement parks with my troop of cousins, taking a day trip to the hilltops to dine at a famous restaurant, and just spending quality time at home. We even attended a wedding! Unlike the weddings I was accustom to in the US, Pakistani weddings last a full three days. Every day called for a unique dress for the bride, each more beautiful, colorful, and bejeweled than the last. I myself got the opportunity to wear a dazzling set of shalwar kameez with intricate gold embroidery, beads and lace – more fancy than any of the formal wear I had ever worn in my life.
Towards the end of our trip, my dad had decided that we should visit our ancestral village in the province of Punjab, where his extended family live. Over the course of a few hours, I saw the city landscape outside the car window blend into vast fields and clusters of fluffy trees. A flicker of nervousness that I had felt at the beginning of this vacation returned. I did not know any of the relatives we were going to visit. My Urdu was extremely poor; how would we talk with each other? Would there be snakes and scorpions lurking in every corner like the documentaries? What If their water was not filtered properly, and I got infected? Once we arrived, I was yet again in for a surprise upon seeing the house. The homes were constructed such that each had their own courtyard, something I had never seen before. The courtyard was decorated with trees heavy with a variety of fruits, such as scarlet pomegranates, perfectly round oranges, sunny lemons, and best of all fragrant mangoes. The wooden doors for each room had the most intricate carvings of swirls, flowers, and geometric patterns. My great uncle come through the door with a hearty laugh and arms spread out invitingly. For lunch I wolfed down two servings of pulao,a warmly spiced, savory rice dish with chicken; yet my great aunt eagerly offered me a third. After, we took a stroll through the village, visiting each house. Not red sand boa in sight.
The day came all too soon when our five-week vacation in Pakistan had come to an end. A few tears were shed as we said our goodbyes and promises to stay in touch were made. I expected myself to be weighed down by homesickness by the end of this trip but felt quite the opposite. I was ready to live in Pakistan! The beauty I had witnessed was like no other. Setting out on the journey homewards, I felt a significant change in my character. Pervious to our travel, my mindset and understanding of other cultures and people was solely led by lowly depictions fed to me by the media. Despite being raised in a household where culture was given a fair amount of importance, media had significantly tainted my opinion of countries outside of the western hemisphere – even seemingly factual, unbiased programs like National Geo Graphic. Through my experience, I have become more welcoming towards others who are different from myself, and more eager to understand their cultures to experience their unique beauty. I am consciously striving to find out information for myself to formulate my own views and personality as I develop into an adult and a member of society.