That Familiar Feeling

As soon as I get back to Pakistan, one of the first things that strikes me is always how normal it all feels. It’s been almost a year and a half since I last saw my parents, but the instant I’m here, it feels as though I never left. From the moment I saw my parents’ faces waiting outside the “Arrivals” door at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, everything has felt so familiar. At home in Hyderabad I flop onto my parents’ bed with a book, enjoying the fan, while I interrupt my dad at his desk now and then with a question, or whatever I happen to be contemplating at the time. Or I float in and out of the kitchen, talking to my mum, getting fruit from the fridge and making trips to the cooler to fill my yellow plastic KFC mug that each of us kids have had since early elementary. Everything is so familiar that I can hardly convince myself this is different, that it’s just a week of my year — a week I get to spend at home in the Sindh.

There’s something so strangely normal about finally getting where you’re going — finally sitting right there with the person you’ve waited months to spend time with, or sitting there in the car with your parents as you drive back from the airport, a year and a half later. I almost forget it wasn’t like this yesterday. And somehow I want being here to feel as foreign and special as it seemed during the months waiting to be here, but now that I’m here, it’s just not the way it is. It’s all too familiar.

But as I’ve spent these days enjoying the short time I have here in Pakistan, I’m realizing maybe unfamiliarity is overrated. The sense of exoticism, adventure and exploring new places is wonderful, but there’s something very ordinarily magical about the feeling of normal — of familiarity. To be around the people who you don’t have to be anyone with. To know and be known. To be somewhere where you just belong. That’s what home feels like.

I had to tell myself it’s okay to feel normal. While in the Sindh, I felt like I should be taking pictures or writing, to capture and communicate the beauty of the Sindh that I so enjoy, but I just couldn’t find the motivation. I wanted to share it with those who haven’t seen it or been here, but inwardly I resisted, because deep down, I didn’t want to document it. I wanted to just be. I wanted to be myself, at home — to enjoy going to visit with old friends, navigating through the crazy city traffic downtown with my dad, and lying under the dark sky of glow-in-the-dark stars that covers the roof of my room. I didn’t realize how much I just need to be sometimes — to just be thankful a place, people or a moment in silence. To let it wash over me and bask in the feeling of being home, finally.


I’m learning to enjoy the familiar. Of course, there will always be change and feelings of newness, even in a place that’s normal. Nothing stays the same forever. Even visiting a old place comes hand in hand with some of the pains of seeing it changed and different than I left it. But I’ve realized the value of feeling normal. I’ve realized that there’s a reason the word familiar begins with “family” (almost). Because there’s something so wonderfully refreshing about being back with family, and to embrace that familiar feeling of being around the ones you love, after months and months of being apart — to belong somewhere and to belong to someone.

Sindhi Sandals

Photo credit: Stephen Wiley (2014)
Photo credit: Stephen Wiley (2014)

I’ve been meaning to change the name of my blog for quite a while now. I only meant “Something Different” to be a kind of interim title until I could think of something better. I had been playing around with different possibilities for quite a while, but nothing really seemed to stick. Finally, while sitting in McDonalds at the Karachi airport with my parents, the new name came.

I have owned the same pair of sandals for as long as I can remember. Not the exact same pair, but the same style — I just buy a bigger size every time I grow out of them. They’ve gone with me everywhere. I’ve picked up huge thorns in them dozens of times, snapped the straps on some and worn other pairs right down till I could feel the road on my bare heel. I love them. They’re comfortable. After a number of years, my sandals (I actually call them chapals, as they’re called in Pakistan) have become even more significant to me. They bring back all kinds of memories from growing up.

They make me think of the dust that would cover my feet while I played outside, until I would finally wash them off with a hose and see those strange white toes peeking out at me. They remind me of the intense heat in the summer, when wearing shoes is just plain silly. I always wished my sandals had been part of my school uniform when I was little, instead of the hot, stuffy shoes I had to wear. Besides, you never have to polish blue, rubber sandals. I would have probably been barefoot outside all the time if it wasn’t for the sharp rocks and bits of garbage that were everywhere outside. My sandals remind me of arguments with my mum over whether or not the floppy, blue things were really church-worthy attire. I tried so many times, but I always lost. After being in college in Canada for over a year, and with my parents on the other side of the world, I did actually wear them to church once, in an act of rebellious defiance and newfound freedom. I suppose that’s one of the privileges of being an adult.

While visiting my parents over Christmas, I remember being told the news that my younger brother, Stephen had recently bought a different pair of sandals — not the blue ones. I remember voicing all kids of complaints, pretending to be so crushed by this break in his loyalty to our blue sandals (it’s been a tradition for both of us). I wasn’t seriously heart-broken, but there was a little part of me that was genuinely disappointed. It was serious history. Thankfully when we picked him up that evening from the airport, we found out that he hadn’t actually bought a new pair. There had been a miscommunication. He had actually decided to wait and look for sandals in the Sindh, because he couldn’t find the blue ones up north. My faith in my little brother was restored.

The fact that both of us have always had the exact same pair of sandals has been a little bit of a problem at times, but we’ve always managed. It used to be that we could tell the difference because mine were always the bigger ones, but those days came to an end quite a few years ago. When in doubt, we could always tell them apart by putting a pair on. The rubber sandals have a way of forming to your feet, so putting on my brother’s would mean I could tell straight away that they weren’t mine — their strange surface feeling like a foreign species to my toes. Sometimes we would take each others on purpose, or wear one of each, just to hear the other shout, “Give me back my chapals now! Yours feel so weird!” This last time we were home, Stephen decided it would be easiest to just write his initials on his pair, since they were both fairly new and hadn’t had time to get worn-in.

So, after all these years of my love story with my blue sandals, I was all ready to get onto the plane at the end of my Christmas break and fly back to Canada wearing my blue sandals. I had put on a collared shirt, and a nice pair of pants, because wearing at least semi-formal clothing when travelling tends to gain you a little more respect and friendliness. It was then that my mum made the comment “You know Josh, you’d look like a normal foreigner if it wasn’t for those silly Sindhi chapals.” Finally I had my blog name. I really would look like any other foreign businessman if I had decided instead to wear a pair of nice dress shoes. But instead, my façade of being Western was destroyed with my blue sandals. They have a really hard time matching with any and everything I wear — though I try hard to ague that they do.

The sandals aren’t really Sindhi. I’m pretty sure they sell them all over Pakistan. But I’ve never actually bought them anywhere other than the Sindh. Not only that, but all the memories associated with them take me back to my years growing up in the Sindh, playing in the streets with friends and running around in my blue chapals. They’re just one little reminder of the fact that, although almost everything about me makes me look like I should be a Canadian, my silly blue sandals make sure that something about me is always a little different. I just hope they keep making these sandals, because if they ever stop, I’m not really sure what I’ll do.

Slimy, Stinky Fish

Though I’m not actually in Pakistan now, I had a number of posts which I wrote while I was there and didn’t have time to post. As a result, I will be writing about my time there for a few more posts, which might be interrupted by others in between. Thanks for reading!


Slimy, Stinky Fish

Wet covers the ground as men, wrapped in shawls, make their way around the piles of fish that lie everywhere. No one has time to stop and gawk at the three oddly-placed foreigners making their way around the press of people. All are busy doing their own business, rushing to buy their fish and get them out to the public. Carts make their way through the crowd, their pushers shouting at whoever stands in the way as they stop constantly for the men squeezing through the small gaps in the mass. One man makes a loud wailing sound, like a siren on an emergency vehicle, as he pushes though. It works for ambulances, so he figures it can’t hurt to put it to use for his fish cart. Others are almost ploughed over as they stand around the piles, only just dodging the carts as they check the mounds of fish. One wheelbarrow, left unattended, is knocked over in the hubbub, but thankfully manages to keep its fish from sliding out onto the ground.

The fish are all so varied. Some of the piles are full of bright pink fish, with yellow streaks colouring their fins like an early sunrise. There are huge fish too —tuna maybe (I’m not very knowledgable when it comes to fish) that look like it would take the full strength of one man just to lug one of the slippery bodies to wherever it needed to go. There are sole, and other fish that look like they spent their lives lying flat on their side at the bottom of the ocean, staring up at the strange world above them. There are others that have large red balloon-like bulges sticking out of their mouths, as if their stomachs exploded out of their bodies on the way up from the water. There are long eels, brilliant blue parrot fish, and barrels of shrimp and prawn, with their tiny black eyes and long wispy appendages. My brother and I glance around at the different fish, having to constantly keep moving, for fear of being run over by the traffic of carts and wheelbarrows all around us. It’s like being in the Sea World of Pakistan.

I’ve never been to Sea World, and I won’t even pretend I know what it’s like. I know its nothing like the Karachi fish market, but all the same, it’s an amazing experience to see the display of sea life — dead. It’s kind of an oxymoron when you think about it. Dead sea life. This is the kind of fishing my dad likes, where everything is already caught for you, sorted in nice little piles. My brother seems to be the only one of us blessed with enough patience to enjoy fishing – though I’m not sure why that patience can’t be put to use in any other areas of his life. I really don’t mind fishing, just like I don’t mind sitting, with my feet in the water, watching and talking, while my brother does all the fishing. I think I would enjoy it even more if I could have a pot of chai with me as well.

While we walk through the market, a wheelbarrow of stingrays passes me on my side, just giving me a glimpse of their flat, grey bodies and long, thin tails. I remember the time we found a stingray on the beach —tired and half dead (or half alive, if you’re being optimistic). Scooping it up with a shovel, we waded into the water and tossed it into the waves, making sure we bravely screamed and ran the other way, so the all-but-lifeless stingray didn’t manage to get us while we stood there in the water.

In the fish market, everyone carries a slimy wicker basket — on carts, wheelbarrows, rickshaws and by hand. A man goes by us with a slimy basket in each hand, a giant tail sticking out of one end, as his shoulders droop with the weight of his fishy cargo. I wonder if there is a special supplier of these slimy fish baskets. I wonder if the fishermen are outraged when they get a new one, because it doesn’t come slick and slippery like all the ones they are used to having.

Stinky, slimy, noisy and busy, the fish market is a must-see for anyone wanting a display of ocean creatures. Roll up your jeans and slop your way through the a raw museum of the Indian Ocean’s dead sea life. For anyone security conscious, this is the place for you. No terrorist would ever look for foreigners there, or even follow you in, for that matter!

My brother, Stephen and I cleaning up the shrimp back at the hut
My brother Stephen and I cleaning up the shrimp back at the hut

A Night with Turtles

Photo credit: Stephen Wiley (2013)
Photo credit: Stephen Wiley (2013)

Every year my family goes to the beach near Karachi, for a week of rest and escape. We stay in a small and rustic beach hut with weathered and peeling blue and white paint. Away from the phone and doorbell, this week is a time for my parents to kickback, relax, and mostly to read. In the past, for us kids it has been almost a week of non-stop digging in the sand and getting seriously browned – or just sunburned. This year it was the first time, since my high school graduation, that I was able to join our family beach week. And though my sister couldn’t be with us this time, my brother and I did manage to keep ourselves busy.

Our very first night at the the hut, my brother, my dad and I decided we would take a walk after dark, up along the beach, to enjoy the waves and the stars, and hopefully to see some sea turtles. At this time of year female sea turtles, laden with eggs, will make their way out of the water, up onto the sand, and dig a nest for the eggs. With their strong flippers they will scoop sand out from around them till they are deep enough to lay their precious cargo.

As we made out way along the beach that night, we came across turtle after turtle (close to a dozen), coming up from the dark ocean. Some halfway up the sand, others having just made their way out of the the water. Each time my dad would tell us to be quiet and coax us past, trying not to scare them. And each time my brother and I would be desperate to stay and catch a better look at the turtles up close.

With sea turtles, it’s important to make sure you don’t scare the females as they come up to make their nests. Tired and heavy, the last thing they need is to be scared back into the ocean. We always try to stay out of their way until the eggs are laid, and only after they begin their trip back into the water, do we try to get close to them. When we made it back to the hut again, my brother and I decided to stay out, quietly watching two turtles nearby, only a few huts apart from each other. A couple times we had to throw stones, as the dark shapes of dogs moved along the sand, some below us toward the water, and others up further, almost attacking on of the poor mother turtles as she dug her nest. Each time, the turtle would move a few meters from where she had been been, frightened by the dogs, and would begin digging again in the new spot.

Back and forth, my brother and I would patrol, toward to the water, making sure the dogs stayed far away from both turtles. It was just after checking on one of the mothers that a dark mass further down the beach caught our attention. We stood, and squatted, trying to see in the moonless night. Between the black bunches of seaweed on the shore, we could see the silhouette of a head and shell, making its way down toward the water. Quietly we walked up, standing close behind it on either side. Softly we ran our hands along its large smooth shell — such a contrast to the small shells of the newborns, with their minute ridges. We felt the mother’s large flippers as well, thick and leathery beneath our fingers, whispering to each other in excitement as we followed her along. I wanted so badly to swim in with her — to see her in the water, but in the dark and with the water being so cold, going in deep seemed pointless. Instead we walked with her, resting our hands on her shell.

Soon we reached the wet sand, where the little waves washing up onto the sand began to catch the turtle’s body, pulling her as they washed in and out. Her slow and steady crawl continued as the water swirled its way around her. And then there was a moment — with one wave carrying a little more water than the last — where her body rose slightly, and her thick front flippers found the room they needed to swim. When a turtle gets into water, one quickly learns the difference between bodies made for the ocean and bodies made for the land.

My brother and I splashed into the dark surf, trying to keep our hands on her shell. But after that single moment, there was nothing holding her back. In seconds her dark, glossy shell disappeared beneath the surf and she was gone, leaving two boys grinning at each other in the dark, knee-deep in the water.


Home. There’s something refreshingly normal about being home. Within a few seconds of making my way out of the airport in Karachi and into my parents’ warm arms, everything became so very familiar. Sitting in the back of the car as we pulled out of the airport, I had to remind myself that this is not ‘normal’. You’ve waited to be here, Josh. Now enjoy it and appreciate it like you waited for it. But I do enjoy it. I do enjoy being home. I just enjoy the normalcy of it.

Somehow the familiarity of home adds to the enjoyment, or reflects it, at least. If I was constantly reminded how strange it was to be home, it wouldn’t really be home, would it? But instead, it’s in the places where everything is as expected that I often experience the most joy.

I do feel the shock of transition when it comes to driving here, as we slip though the gaps between trucks and cars, with motorcycles flying by on all sides. Driving feels more like a chase scene out of a James Bond movie – the only difference being that here most of it takes place between forty and fifty kilometers an hour. In these cases, speed and excitement do not necessarily correlate. What, in Canada, would be a slow residential speed turns into a breath-taking and white-knuckled death race amongst the streets of Karachi, dodging the potholes, pedestrians, fruit carts and animals.

However, the rest of my time is so very regular – sitting around the dinner table, or being in the kitchen. The smells, the sounds, and the tastes are all so beautifully familiar. Aching sides seems to be a fairly common ailment while with family, as we bring ourselves to tears laughing at each other’s expense, and usually without any real explainable reason. Already I’ve had to rub my sore cheeks from spells of smiling too long. In some ways I’m glad my time here is interspersed with the occasional argument with my brother, just to make sure my angry, frustrated and annoyed facial muscles get some exercise as well. But that’s all quite familiar too. Quite normal.

Home is normal. Normal is home.