Sunday, December 19, 2010

On a road to Islamabad

A while ago I made a decision to visit a somewhat alternative destination: Pakistan. My dear friend Kirsi is working as an English teacher in the country and she has had a fabulous time there. Kirsi keeps a blog called Kirsistan as well as a Facebook page where she posts updates and photos frequently.

Kirsi and I go way back. We first got to know each other while we were studying our undergrad course on International Trade and Marketing in Turku Polytechnic back in 2001. The following year we went off for an Erasmus year to Norwich. After our eventful year at Norwich was over, we went our separate ways with me drifting over to Newcastle where I started working at CISV International. CISV is a global community of dedicated volunteers, creating opportunities for all ages to experience the excitement and enrichment of cultural diversity through its educational programmes. The NGO was founded in 1951 by an American social psychologist named Doris Allen, who had studied with the likes of Margaret Mead, on the belief that peace is possible through friendship  and that the real difference can be made by starting with children.

While I ended up spending another three years in Newcastle and doing a Masters degree on Cross-Cultural Communication, Kirsi on the other hand pursued her interests in English language. While doing her Masters, she got involved with AIESEC and went on to do a work placement in India for six months through the student organization. Once she came back from India everyone thought she would settle back down in Finland, but little did she feel the need for staying put. Instead she was all obsessed about going to Pakistan. Nobody quite knew why, but I encouraged her to follow her dreams, as I believe these sorts of ideas are there to be pursued. No point sitting in that rocking chair in our retirement and thinking "what if..."

While me and Kirsi are good friends and I will be more than happy to see her again in yet another environment, I actually first got the idea of visiting Pakistan, and Islamabad to be more precise, over a year ago. Long before I knew I would have my own local guide on the ground. Once I learned Kirsi was going to be there I only felt it was my chance to follow my instincts too.

One of the questions I had to give answer for as part the visa application process was to state the purpose of my trip. I wrote down 'to visit my friends in Pakistan and learn about the culture'. While I thought it was the obvious thing to say, the person handling my visa application looked up and said somewhat surprised: "to learn about our culture, that's very nice!". As if I was the only one in ages to have shown any interest in making an effort to learn about the culture of Pakistan.

But we should show interest. Not only that but we should do that just with the intention of learning in an open-minded way. But all too often we just seek to impose our views on someone else and start with the premise of superiority just because our country of origin happens to be different. As if that's something anybody can choose. We tend to look at the map of the world and see other countries in the light of news headlines we have been bombarded with as opposed to human beings with families and friends with real feelings, dreams and aspirations. And if anyone has bothered to question anything about the realities behind all those news headlines, things are certainly not that black and white. As a rule of thumb those headlines never actually shed any light into what the local people are like and how they lead their lives. 'News' has become a way to dehumanize people and spread fear as opposed to focus on communicating that shared humanity that binds us all.

I have been lucky enough to have been able to travel the world extensively. In addition to my many travels, I have lived nearly a fourth of my life abroad including one year in the US, another one in Spain, four months in Central America and now five years in the UK. I have always made the similar observation how most people share similar hopes, dreams and aspirations regardless of their country of origin, race or religious background. When I was in Libya a while ago and hanging out with a bunch of guys, they were as hooked up on that TV screen showing a football match as were my Finnish friends and family back home.

During my trip, if I do ever manage to fly out due to the adverse weather conditions, I would like to visit the flooded areas too to get more of an understanding of the huge humanitarian disaster. The natural disaster of the floods in Pakistan has unfortunately fallen off most people's consciousness. However, I'm not sure whether I'll get a chance to do so as time is short. How about giving a 'soft' prezie to your loved ones this Christmas by saying that you have donated to your chosen charity to help the flood victims of Pakistan? Check out appeals by Oxfam, DEC, UNICEF, Save the Children, Christian Aid and Islamic Relief.

I will take my flip cam with me and do my best to show you what I see threw my own eyes. I want to come back thinking about those new best friends I would have made during my trip  as opposed to seeing Pakistan as an abstract place on the map. Hopefully that's something I will be successful in conveying. After the trip I hope to put together some sort of documentary containing my video diary entries.

Last week I was walking by my old flat on Old Street in London and saw this new colorful graffiti decorating the wall. Change indeed is what I think this world needs. I'm on a road to Islamabad to do my bit to try to find ways in which this world could come to recognize that shared humanity that I believe bind us all.