Friday night here in Hangu and all is quiet in the expat house. Even the streets are seemingly quiet; not even happy firing to be heard. Just the faint bark of dogs echoing through the valley. Sitting outside under the stars the temperature is perfect. The warm day has mellowed into a pleasant evening.
This time last week I was in Islamabad on my 'rest and relaxation' weekend, of which I would have to say, I did very little of either. It was exciting to be going on an adventure even if it was just in a yo-yo fashion back to where my journey began. Leaving my little world here in Hangu it was amazing to see outside the compound again, this time with different eyes. Over the last six weeks I have begun to learn a little of the people, the culture and the land through my daily interaction with the staff and patients, and was now able to contextualise this knowledge with the imagery that surrounded me.
When I first did this same journey there was no voice to the world I saw. This time however, driving down the single road that runs like an artery through Hangu I saw people climbing power poles with lengths of wiring in their arms, I saw little chai stalls with the row of tea pots hanging in anticipation of the days customers, Naan wallas stacking their freshly prepared bread, fruit and vegetable stands being set up for the days trade, donkeys and rickshaws, men and children. We drove through the police check-points and out through the rows and rows of fields. How much difference six weeks can make.
When I arrived, the fields were verdant and green. Now they were a patchwork of golden hay, and already the slashing and harvesting had begun. Men and women were out working in the fields whilst often it was children on wooden carts pulled by donkeys who shared the road with us to transport their bales. Other families were busy skilfully constructing 'busarras' - huts made of hay with dried mud for a roof to keep it from spoiling in the rains. We passed through Khoat and the warren of mud houses that I was told is were the Afghan refugees and internally displaced people live, and over the Indus River on a bridge over 100 years old. As we neared the capital the fields were replaced at first by brick kilns with their tall chimneys coughing thick black smoke and then gradually by the city suburbs themselves.
Islamabad was purposely designed as the capital city, and is relatively young and sparsely populated in comparison to its older siblings - Karachi and Lahore. We made our way straight to the MSF office and I was greeted by smiles and smirks at my scarf covered face. "You're not in Hangu any more Rhiannon". It's amazing how quickly one can become accustomed to these things and how strange it felt to be walking around not only without my face covered, but without a head scarf on at all!
It was great catching up with the crew and to share stories from the field. It was even better to say "I'm heading out for a walk" and feel the freedom of wandering through the tree lined streets and shopping at market stalls for myself. It did not take long however for the weekend to gain momentum, turning into a whirlwind of activities; from welcoming people back to the project (the Head of Mission and Paris desk representative) and new arrivals alike, getting lost on a walk in the Magalla hills and seeing monkeys in the process of doing so, visiting a day spa (I suppose I did a little relaxing after all), feeling like a child in Willy Wonka's Chocolate factory in the F7 Jenna Market Book Bank (most amazing book shop ever!), having an Afghan BBQ dinner, running in a fun run to raise money for a local orphanage followed by a much enjoyed swim, shopping for a new Salwar kameez and being shown the most phenomenal hospitality I could imagine by the family of a very close friend of mine, who took me into their home, fed me, and showed me their city and the amazing bazaars, as if I too was a member of their family.
Coming 'home' to Hangu was however, also just as exciting as going on a break. It was nice to be welcomed back by my team in the ER who were kind enough to say they'd missed me, and to bring welcomed treats for the expats and national staff alike.
And since being back, the pace of life continues to roll on, seemingly with ever increasing speed as one day melts into the next. This week I had the good pleasure of seeing the positive side of the Pakistani 'Jack of all trades' characteristic. I pulled a muscle in my neck, and without even asking, our house cleaner was pummelling away at my back soothing the knot that had decided to lodge itself there. On a daily basis our cook also wears another hat; that of resident mother - nurturing not only our bodies with her delicious food but also our spirits with her good cheer and warm hugs.
Recently, I have also been asked on a number of occasions what the world thinks of Pakistan. Is it all guns, violence and fear they wonder? Understandably so, this is not the reputation one would wish for their country, or their people. Unfortunately, I suppose this nation is better known for its conflicts and controversies rather than the hospitality and humility of her people, or the diversity of cultures and the landscape that has shaped them. However, since being here, I have experienced nothing but generosity, profound hospitality, incredible dedication and devotion to family and work, a willingness and thirst for learning and knowledge, and a delightful sense of humour and fun. People have less and yet share more; doing so with humble solidarity. This is the Pakistan I would like to share with you.