Amy Herdy's Pakistan travel diary, volume two

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's CUIndependent.com 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. Below, find the second edition of her travel diary. Click here to read the first, and here to check out an account of her first visit to the region.

'm not getting enough sleep, so like the Energizer bunny, I have just so many hours before the tumblers close in my brain and I shut down. I can make it through the workshops fine -- I'm a morning person, plus the students' energy and enthusiasm is contagious. But back at the hotel each night is another story. I'll nap, then go over the next day's lesson plan -- I'm giving a three-day workshop to the same group of students at Beaconhouse University in Lahore -- trying to tweak it for issues from earlier in the day that I need to return to. I'm cramming sixteen weeks of curriculum into these workshops, and I fret that I'll inadvertently trim something important.

By the time I'm done doing that, as well as e-mailing everyone that I am indeed fine, it's midnight. To my body, it's noon. I take melatonin and usually fall asleep by two. Then I wake up at three, and again at four. Finally around five or six a.m., I get up -- I'd rather lose sleep than miss working out. It keeps me sane (relatively).

I'm running on the treadmill in the exercise room early Tuesday morning, watching the news, when suddenly the electricity goes out. The belt to the treadmill doesn't simply slow -- it comes to an abrupt halt, and I am catapulted forward, causing me to fall awkwardly into the console. I grab the armrests on the way down and let loose with some language that I'm sure some of the Pakistani men present don't often hear from a woman. One of them runs to me in great concern, "Are you okay?" I assure him I'm fine, it's mostly my pride that's hurt. I don't run on the treadmill again.

Walking up the polished marble stairs at Beaconhouse later that same day, my shoes slip and I literally fall up the stairs, dramatically crashing into a wall. The only thing that saves me from going down is a metal gate that I manage to grab.

"Well, that's two," I joke to Linda from the consulate, who accompanies me each day. Ten minutes later, I go to use the bathroom one last time before the workshop starts, and I trip on the raised marble step in the doorway, crashing forward into the small room. This time it's the sink that saves me.

The students are fantastic. Each day they're smiling and engaged. I'm sure the short amount of time has something to do with it, but unlike American students, you don't have to compete with them texting or twittering from their phones or checking their e-mail or using their laptops (there are none of these things present). I love to see the lights going on in their heads.

By the third day, I am the one challenging them with questions -- and they are answering them with enthusiasm.

Most of them are also fiercely political. I notice that some wear green ribbons--and I'm told it's their way of supporting their troops, a shift of sentiment that I find amazing -- because there has not been much obvious support in Pakistan of the offensive against the militants. Oh, no, I'm told when I inquire: Don't think this means they also support the U.S. involvement. The green ribbons are just for the Pakistani troops.

Politics are a constant topic, both from the students and everyone else. It bubbles out in some of the pointed questions I get, such as one from a local journalist: "After 9/11, the U.S. media censored itself. Do you think a journalist should always ask critical questions?" My response: I disagree with your word "censor." I don't believe it was censorship so much as the media simply falling down on the job and failing to be more questioning on matters, such as the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

Another young woman says to me, "The Western media portrays Muslims in a bad light. Don't you think so?"

It's the final day of the workshop, and the teacher, not the American, in me frowns at her question. She's just violated two of my Golden Rules of interviewing that I've been stressing to them: Do NOT insert your opinion in your questions (or your story), and don't ask yes or no questions, but instead focus on neutral, open-ended questions.

"Why don't you take a minute to rephrase your question without your opinion and in an open-ended way, and I'll come back to you," I tell her with a smile.

I walk away to take questions from students in another part of the room, and when I turn back to her, her head is lowered and she won't make eye contact. Her cheeks are flaming red.

"Do you want to try again with your question?" I ask her cheerfully, and she doesn't even speak. She just shakes her head and looks away.

Losing face is a terrible thing in this culture, and I'm mortified that I've embarrassed her. I walk over to her, crouch down and touch her arm. "Here, let's do it together," I say. "I think what you mean to ask me is, 'Some people would say' -- remember, if it's a critical question, ask it as a devil's advocate so you don't lose rapport -- 'that Western media are critical of Muslims. What do you think?'"

She nods and smiles a very small smile and I walk away as I ponder the question. "Well, I think it's not fair to generalize all Western media," I tell her and the rest of the class. "Just like with any profession, where you have people who do their job well and some who don't, there are some journalists who are fair and unbiased, and some who aren't. And it's hard for Western journalists to accurately portray some parts of the Muslim world because we don't have access. But I'm sure there are some who do paint a different picture than what is fair and accurate."

She smiles. After the workshop, she walks up and squeezes my hand. "You will remember me," she says. "I'll be the one who asked you the bad question!"

The Western perception of Pakistan is a common topic, and I agree with them that many misperceptions abound. Too often, Pakistani people are portrayed as a whole to be religious extremists, and that's not the case. The entire country is considered by most Westerners to be dangerous, and that's not correct, either. Despite the security surrounding my visit, I have not felt threatened, and the overall atmosphere is calm. I've been far more nervous in high-crime neighborhoods back home than during my visit so far to Pakistan.

When the workshop is over, the students are all given certificates, and I am given an armful of flowers and two plaques -- one from the school officials, and one from the group of students. It's a bowl with an image of the Lahore Fort, the first place I visited with my consulate hosts on my first day there. "How did you know?" I tell them, obviously pleased, and they all laugh with delight.

Afterward, the students throng around me for photos. As we squish in together, I put my arms behind the back of the two on either side of me -- something I wouldn't hesitate to do in the U.S., but a gesture that made me pause for a split second here. Am I assuming a familiarity that might offend someone? But it was fine.

Back at the hotel, I am restless, and it takes me a few minutes to figure out what's wrong. I realize it's the letdown of the workshop being over, and that I'm going to miss them.

I have found a graciousness in the people here in Pakistan that is lacking in the U.S. It's reflected in the way they take time for extended greetings, instead of a cursory hello, or in the way they inquire about your well-being and truly seem to mean it, or in the way they celebrate things that we may dismiss as mundane. After the closing ceremony of the workshop where the Beaconhouse students received a certificate of completion, the atmosphere in the room erupted into a joyful mob scene of photo opportunities and handshaking and well-wishing. This would repeat at the end of every workshop.

On my final morning at the hotel, I eat from the breakfast buffet, as I always do. The wait staff in the hotel are the most solicitous I've ever seen. They carry my plate for me, as well as my glass. They offer items from the buffet, pull out my chair, and whisk away plates as soon as I'm done.

I've been discreetly taking meat from the hotel buffet to feed a Calico mother cat that I see on the grounds everyday. She's got four kittens, young enough that they still wobble when they walk. She looks like she's starving -- and I know that dogs and cats are not revered here as pets. At any rate, I've been sneaking out her food in a tissue, since the napkins are cloth. The final day, I have no tissue, and I'm in a huge hurry: I need to get packed up to leave. But I want to feed the cat one last time, and they don't do to-go containers. So I grab some meat, and as I leave, one of the wait staff is clearly bewildered by the crazy American woman who is rushing out with a handful of roast beef.

Back in my room, the last thing I do as I finish getting ready is reach for my jewelry -- and the bag containing my earrings is not there. I look again. And again. And even though I know it couldn't have ended up in my other suitcases -- I always pack my jewelry in my carry-on bag, because I'm that protective of it -- I open them up anyway and frantically search, despite the fact that I need to leave for the airport.

It's gone, and I am devastated. I think back to the day before, which was the last time I saw it. I had returned to my room after the workshop to find one of the maids inside, and my arrival seemed to make her nervous. At the time, I thought she was hovering because she wanted a tip, so I obliged. Was I wrong and she had stolen from me? I feel duped, which makes me angry.

Downstairs, Linda from the consulate meets me at the front desk, where I tell the manager that I believe a bag of my jewelry has been stolen. He is clearly shocked, and immediately calls security. I tell him that I just want it back. Linda is on the phone and also looking mortified.

On the way to the airport, we make an itemized list of the missing jewelry, which only serves to depress me more. Every item of jewelry I own reminds me of a place, an event, a belief or a person, so each piece I wear has deep significance. As I vacillate between being crushed and angry over its apparent loss, my eyes fill with tears at one point, which I desperately blink back. I have a workshop scheduled for as soon as I step off the plane in Karachi, and it won't do to have me arrive with puffy, red eyes.

I try to tell myself that it's just jewelry, despite the sentimental value I have for it. I'm angry at myself for leaving it out the day before because I'd been in a hurry; the safe in my room didn't work, and I had not bothered to ask someone to fix it. I'm outraged that it's been taken. I tell myself that if someone did take it, they needed it more than I do. Let it go, I tell myself.

At the airport, I open my carry-on bag one last time and rummage through, at one point entreating Linda, Do you see it in here? She shakes her head.

I check in my luggage and trudge through security. I feel deflated and flat. I'm so distracted that at first I forget that I still have my briefcase on my arm, until the man on the other side of the metal detector says, "Please, miss."

I set my case on the conveyor belt and get in line behind a couple of businessmen. When it's my turn, I look at the airport security worker expectantly for the go-ahead.

Instead, he shakes his head. "Please, miss," he says again, and I frown in confusion. There is no one else in line.

Then he points to the side, and I suddenly understand. He wants me to go through the "Ladies Security Area."

At airports in Pakistan, you walk through an initial metal detector, but without taking off your shoes or belts or jewelry, so that the alarm sounds. They waive you on, and then the men walk through a second metal detector, but not the women. There are separate lines for the women that lead you to a small curtained area, not much bigger than a phone booth, where a female airport security member can pat you down in relative privacy. This is to protect the honor and privacy of women.

But there's a line in front of the Ladies Security Area, and I'm in a hurry. I shake my head at the security guard and say, "I don't mind, I'll just use this one" and I take a step toward the metal detector.

Again, he shakes his head at me. "Please, miss," he says for the third time, and irritated, I throw up my hands.

"Oh, for crying out loud," I grumble, and I stride over to stand in line at the curtains. My mood darkens.

Inside the small area, the staff woman pats me down from head to foot, then waves me out. I wonder, as I always do, about the lack of security of this practice.

At the ticket counter, the airline representative glances at my paper ticket and hands it back to me.

"The flight is closed," he says firmly.

I am stunned. "What do you mean?" I sputter. "I'm here on time."

"No, the flight is closed," he says dismissively and starts to turn away. "It is too late."

And with that, I snap. The aggressive, don't-mess-with-me reporter side suddenly shows up. Buddhist leanings be damned, diplomacy be damned. If I miss this flight, the entire Karachi workshop will have to be rescheduled. There is going to be roomful of people waiting for me an hour after my scheduled arrival, and I am not going to stand them up.

"ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME???" I yell at the attendant, who freezes in shock. Everyone within a hundred yards of us stares.

The attendant steps out from behind the counter (to flee, perhaps?), and I erupt again. "I AM NOT LATE. I WAS HERE ON TIME!!!"

He turns back toward me, and I lock eyes with him. "Get me on that plane," I said.

Within ten minutes, I am on the plane.

Later, I find out that the airline had changed the time of the flight at the last minute, failing to tell half the passengers, including the folks at the consulate who had booked my ticket.

Upon my arrival, there is no time for lunch: We'll have that later in the afternoon. We go straight to a security briefing, then the workshop, which goes surprisingly well (more on that in a bit). That night, after the five-hour workshop, I make an evening appearance at the Karachi Press Club, where I speak about trauma journalism. I'm given an ajrak, a type of lovely shawl that is tied to a tradition that is thousands of years old. I'm also grilled as to why the Western media is so biased -- to the point where Traci, the public-affairs counselor from the consulate, firmly but graciously protests. We then have tea, but what I desperately need is dinner.

I return to my hotel room and collapse. I feel drained, sick and discouraged. After seven hours straight of talking, my voice is gone. I'm hungry. I'm also getting what feels like a mild stomach flu. I work the room and pace when I teach, so my feet ache. My throat hurts.

I reach into my carry-on bag to find some of the vitamins I brought with me -- I could really use some vitamin C and zinc. There, inside my vitamin pouch, is my missing jewelry.

Additional editor's note: Previous comments about this blog have been removed, and future comments have been disabled, at the request of the author due to concerns unique to her ongoing mission in Pakistan. If you'd like to e-mail us about this decision, feel free to do so at editorial@westword.com.

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