Monday, June 28, 2010

Pakistan Handmade Fashion Show and Expo

It's been a few days since the fashion show, but the participants are still buzzing and I'm hoping on a high from it. I thought the event was impressive! The place was standing room only - how I can remember all of the events I've put on both here and in Botswana that no one showed up for! And every Pakistan media outlet covered it along with some international press. I think that's amazing!
The show warranted attention and the organizers should be very proud of themselves. I for one, had a great time and couldn't wait to meet women that were featured on the runway (and I'm not talking about the Victoria's Secret model!)
The fashion show was actually the first day we arrive in Pakistan. We did have a chance to check in (at 3.30 am!) and relax. Some of the buyers slept. I was too excited, so I emailed, tried to reach Peter and the kids and unpacked.
We met in the lobby and got to go to a couple of stores. We were taken to two wonderful dress shops that carried the shalwar kameez. At one shop, I had a few in my hands and was wondering which one to buy. One of our "guides" on this trip, Colvin said, You know, they're $35. Why don't you get them both? So I did.
I had to buy a very large, unflatteringly huge size. Too embarrassed to tell you - but I heard Sue, another of the coordinators say that the dresses run two sizes smaller. OK. I'll go with that.
Most of us went in order to buy the traditional clothing to fit in, but we were all glad when we turned up at the fashion show looking supportive of the culture - AND we looked fabulous!
We were seated waiting for the show to begin when we were asked to go to the exhibition hall to meet the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson. She was entering the booths and at times (probably when the woman could speak better English) she was spending a long time with each participant. I was very impressed that she showed genuine interest and tried so hard to make the Pakistani women feel that their efforts were noticed.
She finally got to our "delegation" (like the sound of that, don't you?) and shook our hands, asked our names, then was going to leave when someone prompted us to tell her about our businesses and why were were here. She stood and talked to us for quite some time. She did say, "It's all well and good what you people are doing, but I was up in Boston trying to convince big business to come here to Pakistan. " Well, that says a lot about our dedication to Fair Trade and in this case women's empowerment, doesn't it, making us the ambassadors to US market you truly want?
I hope Pakistan Handmade uses the press generated to really force businesses to see that if a few small/medium businesses were willing to "risk their lives" to help a country in crisis, then maybe they should/could also. Because let me tell you people - we are being totally taken care of and while security is high, we don't feel a bit of anger toward us. Of course, it's only our first day here...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Flight to Pakistan

Finally arrived in Abu Dahbi and able to stretch my legs. Small, small seats, much tighter than going to Africa - or maybe just cramped because I couldn't relax for fear I'd bump the person next to me.
Perfectly nice young man from India who didn't snore, rest his head on my shoulder as he slept, hog both arm rests nor did he sit so that his leg touched mine. Very nice young man.
I should have slept for as long as he did, but no, I watched a movie (started with Invictus then thought Peter will want to see this, so I switched to another one) then another. Then they had technical difficulties and many of the screens around me were blank.
The most annoying thing was that some people had horrible sneezing fits but didn't couver their mouths. I saw the women later and I had to frown. I couldn't wait to douse myself in Vit.C and take a long hot shower, ew!
The funniest thing was a woman in traditional shalwar kameez who found me fascinating. She stared and stared openly, even smiling on occasion or crinkling her nose at me. but never attempted to communicate with me otherwise. She stared into my face - not up and down like she was evaluating my dress, not disapprovingly, not shyly. As if she were with me - you know what I mean. Even going to board the plane, she cut in front of me in line to give our tickets and then proceeded to stand next to me as if she were waiting for me. Of course, if she were in front or behind me, how could she watch me? No, she wasn't watching me, she was looking into my face. I don't really know why, so I pretended I didn't see her. She left the plane with a nod as if she was saying, I'll see you later. Oh well...
Still and all, a pleasant enough trip (so far).
I arrived at Abu Dahbi and while I suppose it's a big airport, it's not that big that you would have to walk miles to get to your gate. There were people with varying levels of western and eastern dress. I noticed the help desk had a woman with beautiful eyes shining behind her full black headpiece/veil and black gown. She said hello can I help you with a sweet sing song that made me smile she seemed so happy. I was early for the next flight. Just wait here, she said. I wandered around noticing how similar yet different things were. For example, there were actually chaise lounges, making it pleasant should you have a cancelled flight or a long layover. In JFK, they discourage you from even sitting, let alone lying down! There were large screen TV's to help while away the time. And - get this! There were computers with FREE internet connection. Not only that! No one on the computer stayed any longer than was necessary, gladly giving up their time so that others could use them. How long would those computers last in JFK - two weeks? maybe...
I sent my family another email, mainly coz I now had no cellphone coverage and I didn't know when I would. Besides, I thought it was so cool to email from the free internet cafe! And to be honest, I wanted my sister-in-law in particular not to worry. I called her and my nephew before I left JFK. I heard their answering machine go on and then burst into tears. I left a message that blubbered something like I'm at the airport on my way to wah! Islamabad, Pakistan, WAH! I'll call you when I get home in a week. Blubber, blubber. I'm not sure why I'm crying, but I can't stop...I finally just hung up.
I don't know what came over me. I hadn't cried like that since I met the San in the Kalahari. Sure, this trip was very similar. I was going on a trip without my husband or my children. I'm going on a journey that wouldn't be just far in distance, but in sentiment. I was going to Pakistan and I wasn't sure what I'd find there.
As I looked around the waiting room ready to board the plane for Islamabad, I picked out the other Fair Trade delegates. It wasn't hard. They were the tired, dirty, but upbeat conservatively dressed westerners - anxious, but eager, they were just like me.
Several of the 14 (one must have dropped out last minute), hadn't made the connecting flight due to a storm in Chicago (I believe) and so, there were only 10 of us here on this flight.
At Abu Dahbi, at this major crossroads, I waited with the others, waited to get on a plane to take us to a land we knew little about to work with women whom we'd never met.
And there it is, call for flight 100 to Islamabadand. As I got up to board the plane, a phrase came to mind.
"Here we goooo."
yup, here we go.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Packed for Pakistan

Hell yes, I'm going!
Actually I'm here - but because I wasn't able to upload this blog post I wrote on the "road", I'll post it now. I think it's important to get it all down in chronological order. So here goes.

June 23, 2010
Ah, airport bars. Peter and I know them well - with and without kids in tow.
I'm sitting just before the departure gates in a branch of a restaurant I remember from my life at Random House many many years ago (mid-1980's). I'm waiting for my flight at 10.50pm, getting here usually takes nearly 3 hours, this driver took around 2 - smooth ride with no traffic - good sign.

Also a good sign is that I went straight through the Etihad check in. I did have to rearrange some things - my carry on was over the 50 lbs. limit. It turned out to be my laptop, so I just took it out at the check-in person's request. Easy remedy and because she was so pleasant, there was no stress involved in the transaction. Just goes to show you how a smile and a helpful attitude can alleviate any tense situation.

I also had a little laugh with her from the start. Where is your final destination, she asked me? I hesitated. Islamabad? I said, slowly. Are you sure, she said? We both laughed. I wasn't sure if she meant what country or what? She had my ticket in her hands, I thought she would read it. Maybe she was just checking to make sure the ticket was correct. Or maybe I wasn't sure where I was going, what I was doing. Maybe it all just starting to sink in?

I'm heading off to Pakistan (not on vacation, not to relax, not even to work in Botswana) but to a country portrayed in the media as dangerous and a country filled with people who hate us. I've spent the few weeks mulling that situation over in my head. As she handed me my ticket and I wheeled my bag to the loading area (more security measures, I suppose), I knew where I was going. I really did. What I would find there when I got there, not that's a different story.

Waiting in line to drop off my luggage, a couple I spied earlier sitting on their luggage to get it closed walked right in front of all of the people in line - well, not all of them. They cut in line right behind me, cutting off 15 or so "Middle Eastern" people behind me. The baggage handlers were not amused. They directed them to the end of the line scolding them all the way. Wow, just a glimpse of racism. The perception of Westerners toward Middle Easterners was evident right here, right now.

As the baggage handler returned, he very sweetlly took my bag and said, "I'm sorry for that interruption." As I stepped away, he said, "Have a wonderful trip." and he meant it.

I had been sitting in a car for several hours. I welcomed the hustle of the other travelers. I love shopping in the South African transit hall, I thought I'd wander, giving up some tempting seats that were probably rare to find open, but I didn't want to sit. As it turned out, I didn't want to shop, either. The mall choices are pretty crappy. Cheesey high-end and horrible low.

I decided to see where my gate was - I'm that kind of person that needs to see where they need to be. I hate to be late and tend more toward being realy really early so that I'm not rushed. I'm nearly two hours early for my flight, so I look for somewhere to sit and have a beer. The last one I'll have for a while since I'm going to be in a Muslim country. I found the perfect spot (well, it would be perfect if there were internet I could access, but the beer and my seat at the bar makes it damn close.)

The Palm (and Palm II) were THE publishing lunch places in NYC in the 80's. A see-and-be-seen scene for the top book editors and their authors. This was the chain, but it did bring back my younger days, straight out of college, with a dream of one day writing the great American novel. As a receptionist at Random House at the time, I believed in my future. One day I would be the toasted author, sitting at the Palm as everyone made a fuss around me.

OK, that dream has long died. But as I'm off to the next natural step in my career, I see the irony and the promise. I am far from that naive young woman who spent her entire paycheck at Ann Taylor, eatting out at trendy restaurants, getting her hair done at Bumble and Bumble and wanting to be somebody...

The only thing that hadn't changed over the years was being with somebody. And that somebody was Peter. No, I don't miss being 20, the confusion, the disappointment, the wishing, the wondering...No. At 47, I know what I want. And today, the only thing missing in this picture was Peter.

I have been with him for longer than I've been without him. He has been there to share in my greatest moments and been there to hold me in my greatest defeats. And as I sit there, at the bar, drinking my most excellent Palm ale, I can't help feeling that he was very much there with me. I raised my glass to him and his constant support and appreciate all that he does for me, all that he gives me. I can't help but wonder what he and the kids are doing at home.

On this trip, I have only myself to take care of - no kids whining about waiting, no double-checking on Peter to make sure he had our passports, no overloaded bags carrying things for the kids to do on the long flight, no wondering how the dogs were at home...none of that.

I had only me to take care of. I was going on this trip alone - well, not totally alone. No matter where I go and what I do, I always have Peter there to cheer and to lend an ear (ooh, that was bad). As I go off to Pakistan, he's home taking care of the kids, the inlaw (and her sister, my mom and aunt live with us!), the dogs, the home. While I go off for Women's Work, he's home doing it.

Thanks Peter (and my wonderful self sufficient, understanding, encouraging kids!). Thanks for giving me the courage and the conviction to go on THIS buying trip and being with me in spirit. "Cheers" I toast my husband as I finish my beer and head off to the final security check. Cheers.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Passport to Pakistan

I've got a dilemma. I was invited to attend a women's expo and fashion show in Pakistan to help the women to create products marketable in the USA and possibly to develop a long term business relationship.
I read the invitation and jumped at the chance. Everything in my being accepted this as a natural course, an eventual progression for my business, my career.
All has been going smoothly, although slowly on my part. I misplaced my passport, was unable to print and thus sign the agreement, the visa application and last night, had difficulty taking and printing a profile photo in order to move on the paperwork. No big deals. No frustrations. Just a slowing of the process. I have all of the paperwork now and shortly will make copies of everything before I send it off later today.
And with each moment I delay, I have to wonder. Is this the right thing to do?
Sure, I want to work with women who NEED the income, NEED to elevate their status to gain respect from men, to gain some leverage in their lives. I want to work with THOSE women. I want to find a worthwhile producer group. To share my now seven years of experience in developing products with another group with other skills/talents. I want to take this opportunity to experience a different culture, afterall, I'm a writer/journalist first and foremost. How can I pass it up!?!
Because of my kids, that's how. I participated in the security briefing for the trip. I have never had a security briefing before, not even when then President Bush came to Mokolodi in 2003. We were told that the country is considered high risk with pockets of violence. Islamabad is where the government resides and so has some dangers but is pretty well protected. The fashion show and expo will all take place in the very nice hotel where we will be staying. I've stayed in 5 star accommodations thanks to my travel writing so staying in a very nice hotel is not a draw for me. I started to shake at the thought of armed security accompanying us everywhere we went, out of necessity, not vanity or protocol. I started noticing my breathing and my heart racing as she told us that should we be evacuated or if there is a problem, the security team was not to be questioned but their instructions followed to the letter. That it's hard to plan the itinerary since daily actions hinged on whether or not we would be safe. Site-visits were being planned, but not to be too disappointed if they did not happen depending on the threats we may have that day. All sobering thoughts.
I went to college, worked and lived in Manhattan. When you travel the world - hell, when you travel outside of the East Coast, the thought of gun violence is synonymous with Manhattan. But I never saw any in the 12 years I was there. I am a journalist and I am fully aware that violence sells newspapers and that is what is covered on the news. Does that mean it is as prevelant as it appears? Apparently in Pakistan, it is.
As each hour ticks away from the moment I decided for myself that I would go, I hear those "rational" voices in my head. I also hear the voices of concerned friends and relatives. My father-in-law, who had been in Pakistan many years ago, told me that the morning they arrived, he picked up the newspaper. The headline was of Americans who were killed while visiting Islamabad. My mother-in-law asked him what was in the news. He folded up the paper and said, "Nothing. Nothing at all." and they attended their conference, required to stay in the hotel unless the group traveled outside of it, were escorted by armed security details and each day, they went a different route to the school they were accrediting. But do you think I should go? I asked him. I would go, he said. Do I think you should go, I can't tell you that, was his response.
In times of indecision, I fall into fear-mode. I relinquish my inner voices and look to the outer ones, which seldom serve me well. I am questioning whether this trip is necessary. If the invitation, perhaps, was a wake up call to me, to get me to act on something I wanted, but didn't know how to achieve. Sometimes, opportunities are just that - cues and clues to what you really want but didn't know you wanted it or how to get it.
What if something does happen? Would my children understand that this is something I HAD to do? Or would they feel as if I abandoned them, chose my NEEDS over theirs? Would they question my loyalty to them, my devotion, my love? I know that every day we face these questions, sure, with more mundane situations, but they are posed to us, each and ever moment of each and every day. What to do, what to do?
I will do what was clearest to me to do. I will send in my passport, my signed contract, visa application and send it all off today. I will wait to see how things unfold. I think that our course in life is changeable (we do have free will), but I also think we have a course in life and there are higher beings that set us on our way. I have been very well taken care of thus far. I trust I will be during this trip as well. I will see how things go.
And today, I will be excited about going to Pakistan. (...and should it be cancelled, I'm sure I will breath that sigh of relief...but today, I'm going to Pakistan!)