Near the end of November 1989, the call came that was to give me an adventure I could never have imagined...
"Martha Peterson? This is a Peace Corps recruiter. How would you like the assignment of English Teacher Trainer in the Balochistan Province of Pakistan?"
"Um...well...YES. What's the weather like?"
"You'll be at 5,500 feet in Quetta - very cold. Bring long underwear and a sleeping bag. See you in Washington, DC, January 1. Instructions will follow. "Valacum asalam" (Urdu greeting).
I'd spent two years in Sierra Leone, West Africa, a few years earlier, and now I was ready to leave the known for the unknown again. Pakistan...wasn't that partitioned off from India in l947? Let's see, this map shows it's surrounded by Iran, Afghanistan, China and India. I'd never even thought of those countries before!
Seven of us English teachers flew out of Washington, DC, on January 1 on schedule, landing after many hours to refuel at Frankfurt Airport, Germany. However, on the takeoff for Pakistan three tires exploded, the lighting system flickered on and off...and the pilot started babbling in Urdu. My seat mate interpreted into English:
TAKE OFF ALL JEWELRY...GLASSES...SHOES...LEAVE PURSES..IF EXIT DOOR IS ON FIRE USE THE OPPOSITE DOOR...BEND HEAD DOWN AND COVER WITH ARMS... PREPARE FOR CRASH LANDING ! ! !
It seemed like an eternity as our fated plane circled 'round and 'round, jettisoning fuel so the plane wouldn't blow up - if we landed. The Pakistanis prayed in Urdu to Allah, and the Christians prayed to the same God by the name of Father. As we finally neared the airport, we could see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles and ambulances that covered the landing field. We descended through dense fog, not knowing our fate. But the pilot managed to set us down perfectly on a foamed runway to the cheers and thanks of all aboard. Whew!
The next morning we took a different plane (good idea), flying over Austria - snow-capped mountains - Iran -Afghanistan - arriving safely in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. We Peace Corps Volunteers were put in a rather dumpy motel for the night - light bulbs were absent and toilets? Hmmm.
I was awakened several times during the night - calls from the minarets to worship Allah, accompanied by howling jackals. Say, this is different than home! The next day we were asked to take off our shoes as we visited the Faisal Mosque, perhaps the largest one in the world. Enough of dilly-dallying - off for an hour's flight by small plane - seated six across- to our training site in Quetta, where we seven trainees were to have our in-country training for ten weeks in Urdu, Islamic Culture and Teaching English as a Foreign language.
Our first meal was served to us on the floor - the tribal style welcome. Plates of lamb bones, spuds, peas, beets, tomatoes, yogurt, nan (bread) and tea were passed around while we tried to make ourselves comfortable on the colorful Persian-type rug. My legs didn't bend the right way, and it was impolite to point the sole of my foot in anyone's direction. I still have kinks! Where are the chairs! A rich rice pudding desert with tinfoil decorations helped dilute the HOT curry-red pepper sauce, and a local music group pounded and twanged away on home-made instruments to Pushtu, Sindhi and Baluchi folk tunes. Hey, mom, look at me in my native costume of baggy pants and tunic, watching twirling dancers and turbaned singers, in Balockistan Province, yet! (My Mom wouldn't let me out of the house).
Fakhara, our Pakistani Urdu teacher, accompanied us neophytes to the bazaar to show how to bargain for cloth and food. Men and children immediately gathered 'round to stare at us foreigners, and we stared right back! Few women were on the street, and then they were usually veiled with partial or complete body covering - maybe a net peekhole. The streets were occupied with a variety of activities - shepherds leading their sheep through the garbage dumps, goats going to market, carts full of turbaned men or veiled women, camels pulling brick loads, huge Brahmin bulls being led to the slaughter, bicycles with up to five family members perched upon the rails, motorized rickshaws driven by terrorists who knew no rules, huge "flying coaches" whose horns could blast any vehicle or animal out of its path, and don't forget the jeeps and cars that drove on the left side of the road - look out!
Culture Training included getting used to sleeping on a charpoy - a wooden frame bed with cloth or rope straps plus padded one-inch mattress; using a pit toilet (no toilet paper - use the water urns like the Pakistanis do), and relearning the metric system. It was ten degrees below zero Centigrade during the winter, so I got to know how cold it was ... oh, THAT cold.
The four young men of our group had fun jogging and meeting Afghan refugees and villagers. They did encounter some rock throwers ... oh, they don't like foreigners and needed permission from the tribal headman to go there ... We women had to be chaperoned around town or stay in the compound. Have you ever tried to keep an American girl behind an eight-foot wall?
After completing training, I was assigned to the Directorate of Education, Curriculum Bureau of Balochistan (their preferred spelling) and I found compatible, safe housing at St. Joseph's Convent on Zarghoon Street (written in Urdu-Arabic alphabet; I just happened to have taken a course in Hindi-Urdu previously). Being a Christian in a (97 percent) Muslim society was a very unusual experience. As the Muslims worshipped on Fridays, Christians also held services the same day. Then everyone worked on Sunday. The call to prayer was heard all over town from the various mosques five times during the 24 hours - electronically amplified. Only men attended the mosques; women prayed at home. During the Muslim month of Ramadan, the Peace Corps volunteers were told not to be seen eating or drinking during the day, as the Muslims were keeping a 30-day fast. The lack of food and water during intense heat caused many shopkeepers to be short-tempered. However, we learned that the Muslims started feasting after sundown and before dawn, waking the "unbelievers" during their celebrating! The Koran actually says that Christians and Jews are "people of the Book" and are to be respected, but tribal tradition has more sway. Christians have a hard time getting jobs; some drive crazy three-wheeled "rickshaws," and others sweep the streets, wrapping their faces in gauze to avoid recognition. Each political leader promises fairness to all-women, children, minority religions, but "By their fruits are they known" (Matthew 7:16).
As I was assigned to train Pakistani English teachers, I was very interested in touring several private and public schools to see the working conditions of the teachers and students. Boys and girls have separate schooling; the sexes are separated almost everywhere. Even at weddings, the men and women celebrate in different rooms. Back to school - some were in very good condition with lights, fans and seats for the students. Many poorer schools had "shelterless classrooms" (outside), or in rooms with poor lighting (daylight only), little air circulation and a cement floor for a seat. The scant libraries might have books on technical equipment donated from overseas, but these keys to a bigger world were locked up so "someone won't steal the equipment." The classes ranged from 40 to 110 students, so how could individual instruction take place? Rote learning was the common method, with the teacher's sturdy stick for reinforcement.
English is becoming compulsory throughout Pakistan, but most native teachers have had no training in teaching techniques and have not had the opportunity to speak with English speakers, so they translate the English lessons into Urdu, the lingua franca, and the children memorize the "correct" answers for the test. In villages, four percent literacy is quoted for women. Many men do not want their daughters or wives to be educated. These girls are kept at home, doing household and farm chores, then are married off (by arrangement) in their early teens. They'll continue to live in seclusion, doing needlepoint, obeying the in-laws, and producing many children - preferably males. Pakistanis live in extended families, including brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, grandparents and stray cousins. I was fortunate to be invited to have tea in many Pakistani homes, both rich and poor. Most of the women could not speak English, and so I sparred with them in Urdu, answering the standard questions:
How old are you? Where is your husband? How many children do you have? Why aren't your children taking care of you? Do you like Pakistani food? Do you like wearing the shalwar kameez (native dress of tunic and baggy pants)?
Both men and women were puzzled to see a white-haired (old!) woman running around alone in a foreign land. Family and tribal traditions are so deeply ingrained that they can't picture older people being free to rove the world as they please.
We pale-faced foreigners never ceased to draw crowds in Quetta and smaller towns. Adults as well as children would come up and poke us. I finally felt something was wrong when no one gawked at me! Well, I stared back, as everyone I met was like a picture from the National Geographic - men with beards and mustaches and colorful embroidered caps, fezzes or turbans according to tribe, women in beautiful fabrics and veils with lots of jewelry and makeup (when they could be seen in their homes), children with beautiful faces yelling fractured English at us.
Travel: Just as I never tired of looking at these exotic people, I never tired of looking at the scenery. Quetta is surrounded with barren mountains and desert. The rock and mud formations that have oozed or been thrust out of the center of the earth take many unusual configurations - a geologist's dream. I got so used to the beauty of the desert that on a trip to Multan I found the greenery rather vulgar!
The Peace Corps leader took us on a train ride through the Bolan Pass, where we sighted a caravan of camels traveling in the river bed. Camels, stop so I can take your picture! We traveled on to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border at Chaman, where armed guards or "levis" (leh-vees), protected us foreigners. Just two months ago, refugees had been pouring over the border here due to shelling in nearby Kabul. Boom...boom could be heard in the distance. We took a van ride to Sibi to see the Mela entertainment - camels dancing, horse racing, and an agricultural fair (men and women attending at different times). On the way home, the bridge washed out, so we took the train - a beautiful ride passing through snow-covered mountains.
My biggest adventure was a ride by van, flying coach, minibus and Jeep to the Chinese border. I went with another Peace Corps volunteer. We were the only women on each vehicle, surrounded by tough-looking men who spoke no English. My side-kick whispered, "They look like a bunch of killers!" However, we didn't let appearances daunt our adventure. The roads were hazardous - sometimes obstructed with students on strike (had to wait an hour for permission to move on), landslides, fallen bridges or broken down vehicles, but we wended our way over mountainous ranges from Quetta ... Multan ... Rawalpindi ... Swat Valley ... Gilgit ... Hunza ... to the Chinese border. (See a map. This is Kashmir country being disputed by India and Pakistan). We rode the Karakoram Highway, which lines the Indus River most of the way. My camera could not take in the magnificent panoramic views of gorges, rivers, snowy mountains, glaciers and huge rock formations. Nature is so grand! At the Chinese border, my friend ane I stared at all the other trekkers, travelers, and Chinese who hovered around the border (you needed a passport to go into China).
Coming back to Rawalpindi on an all-night ride was scary, as the driver "took no thought for his life" (see Matthew 6:25) - or ours - barreling around the twisty road where slides and rocks and erosion had their way; remains of crashed vehicles or those that didn't make it around the curves hung over cliffs. At four in the morning, we stopped for tea (and a tree stop). Besides cricket, tea drinking is the national sport.
At Rawalpindi I took the train alone to Quetta. My compartment was besieged by an extended family who proceeded to ask me the usual questions, take my picture and stare at me. The women wanted to keep the door closed to observe purdah (no male viewing), but I wanted it open as it was BOILING HOT! I was the only woman who got off at each station for refreshments of tea or coke. Let the males view a woman! I was perspiring so much, I thought I'd dehydrate and blow away. The ride was s-o s-l-o-w and l-o-n-g.
After many hours of creeping forward, the train stopped and went in reverse! Why? To pick up the body of an electrocuted passenger who had fallen on the tracks after touching a loose wire. Thirty-four hours later - an eternity for me - the train pulled into Quetta. I was so grateful to get back to my convent room with my "oobla hua pani" (boiled water). I later visited Lahore and Karachi by plane on Peace Corps business. I was always glad to be back in Quetta, the city surrounded by stark mountains, eroded land, nomad and refugee tents (of four million Afghanis dotting the outskirts), and the colorful street scenes of milling people and animals.
Our plans for more travel and work projects were cut off on January 12, when all Peace Corps volunteers were forced to evacuate the country due to the imminent Gulf War. Travel over Europe was not permitted, so we returned via New Delhi, Bangkok, Taipei, and Los Angeles to Washington, DC. Forty-five volunteers from Pakistan, Morocco, the Phillippines and other countries were closed out of service. We were disappointed our assignments were cut short a year, but thankful to the Peace Corps for the experience of living in a foreign land. We had many good experiences among the Balochis, Pathans, Afghans and other tribes, as well as meeting Europeans such as Turks, Poles,Canadians, Brits, Germans and Dutch.
I've been home for ten years now and still miss the sights and sounds of Balochistan. I'm grateful for all the pictures and lovely fabrics I brought back to remind me it wasn't just a dream.