Eagles in Karachi’s skyline

In the dense traffic of motorbikes, rickshaws, decorated trucks, buses with passengers on the rooftop, taxis and donkey carts policeman waved goodbye. Entering the city door of colorful megalopolis we were finally free after 10 days of police escort following us through the remoteness of Balochistan. For last 60 km we were cycling with masks, black particles accumulating in our noses, we could see a giant black cloud covering the city from the distance. Welcome to Mordor, I thought.

After breakfast my dear companions Salome and Armin went their own way towards their couchsurfing host somewhere on the outskirts. I continued to the center, sucked into the big and steady flow of traffic. Cycling on the left edge, just the opposite as in my home country, all the rules needed to be mirrored. It happened quite often that I was automatically on the wrong side of the road in the first couple of days in Pakistan. No traffic lights, often milimeters away from the contact, I was carefully looking to cross roads sheltered by rickshaws or motorbikes slowly sliding towards the middle of the crossroad.

After the bridge over the wide river full of plastic and terrible smell suddenly the road got blocked. All the chaotic traffic turned into gigantic mess. I could reach the fence where I realised there were protests on the road, connected to recent elections. Only when an ambulance vehicle arrived with the siren on, the fence opened and they let it through. I had to turn back, along with the family on the donkey cart, who struggled as donkey was scared and confused in the dense traffic.

In next minutes, after I followed a friendly young local on a motorbike into the narrow side streets, I got shocked many times witnessing the conditions people live in. I encountered poor and skinny people, half dressed, going through piles of garbage in the river bank. There were groups of men sitting on the edge of a dirty street, heads covered with jacket they were taking drugs. Or they were just lying beside the road, tens of them, with empty and tired eyes.

In the following days I could see families with young children having breakfast on the sidewalk as they would be sitting in their living room. They were sleeping next to the busy road and begging. Around 20 million people live in Karachi, 12th largest city in the world, coming from all over the Pakistan not everybody finds luck here.

I visited Clifton, the modern and rich part of the city, to get a new book. I was surprised to find bookstore in a gigantic and perfectly clean shopping mall, full of modern Pakistanis wearing mostly western clothes. What a contrast! Once Karachi was a capital, but today stands as an industrial and financial center of the country. Behind the skyscrapers and parks there was ocean: at sunset crowds walked over the sandy beach, rode decorated horses and camels or just sat in the chairs with feet in the water.

Every morning I was awaked by piercing screams of numerous eagles circling the sky or sitting on the window shelf of Al Mustafa, a cheap hotel where many cyclists overnight. Sometimes I could see them dive fast and pick the meat from the street! Electricity cables seemed like neverending black fingers holding streets and buildings together, from old British colonial palaces to tin huts at the very edge of the city area. Powercuts were casual.

Wandering the endless bazaars, smelly, smoky, busy and loud, I observed how imaginative people needed to be to survive.

Pollution levels were very high, I was walking around mostly with mask. Karachi regularly hits among top ten most polluted cities in the world. Cycling was deffinitely not adviced.

Yousuf is a local cycle touring enthusiast. He treveled around Pakistan with his self-arranged bicycle and got interviewed by local televison. He came to my hotel to bring me new break pads. Firstly he didn’t recognise me as a foreigner when I waited for him on the street in my new shalwar kameez, traditional Pakistani dress. He thought I was Patan, a member of the ethnic group from the north, next to Afganistan. Due to great ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity of Karachi I could easily blend in!

In the hotel hall we mantained my bicycle. Thank you, Yousuf! When I visited a bicycle service at the bazaar earlier in the day, I couldn’t find proper break pads, only cheap Chinese stuff. Strange, on the way there my front break system without any obvious reason unexpectedly collapsed! For the first time my bicycle had to be welded, huh. I felt like holding a baby at the doctor, when sparkles of fire were flying around.

On Sundays local bicycle clubs organise group rides around the city. Yousuf invited me to join them on the way to Chinese port. I was happy to see hundred cyclists, men and women with helmets, pedalling through the empty streets in the early morning. Of course, I had to pose for countless selfies too.

We were meeting with Salome and Armin again, they were looking for traditional clothes too, and trying out delicious food Karachi is known for: chicken biryani, nihari, karahi, pani puri, dhaga kebabs wrapped in thread and tikkas on the famous Burns road … Yousuf asked us to write a note in his book, a rich collection of writings from cyclists from all over the world he had met in Karachi.

The easiest way to move around the city was taking rickshaw or using app as inDrive to order a cheaper motorbike. You can recognise drivers by green helmets. Have a good ride, my friends!

During the weekend streets were overtaken by cricket players. As a street performer I’m always curious about people playing on the street. Balls were flying towards distant balconies and windows. When a police car arrived, a guy was running with money in hand to bribe them. Play must go on!

I spent hours in the huge old building sitting behind the only narrow desk in the tiny computer shop (one of thousands around) with terribly slow wifi. While arranging and uploading photos from my camera, computer I was working on got sold! Sorry, can you please wait until the upload is finished? Maybe in two hours …? Yes, I could finish my work and slowly sip my cay (milk tea).

After five hours among fishermen in the old port of Karachi I smelled like fish. My clothes had to be washed right away. Men and boys were cutting fish amidst floods of waste water and carts loaded with white ice.

I made friends there, at the gray waters with floating plastic. Davood took me around on his motorbike, to the yards where they repair ships and into the poor suburbs of Bengali people.

We visited his English speaking friend who had imigrated from South Africa to work on mantaining ships. In 9 months living in Pakistan he had never left the port!

Later we entered a local school, where Davood occasionally worked as a teacher. Small concrete classrooms didn’t have windows neither door, young Bengali students in uniforms, who were lucky enough to have chance of getting educated, stood up to kindly greet me.

Children played on the sandy street with plastic bags being their kites. We reached the edge – where mangrove forest is cut, new barracks are built. City is growing, growing. Kites and eagles are flying.