The fascinating Empress Market, known for its hustle and bustle and availability of exotic ingredients, too has history to it, albeit, a dark one. This was the site where a number of Indian sepoys were executed post the mutiny of 1857. The market, which commemorated Queen Victoria, was constructed to encourage people to forget about that terrible event. Not sure how that would have helped soothe the pain of the families though.
Karachi has a vibrant Hindu and Sikh community, and has several century-old churches, one which has also been 'heritage-listed'. Architectural marvels aside, there are many other layers to Karachi, facets of its history which have remained unexplored and perhaps buried underneath the tag of Pakistan's 'most violent city.'
But Super Karachi Express (SKE), a unique tour of the city, is hoping to change that, one bus ride at a time.
SKE was started by a group of diverse individuals, the owner manages a travel agency, the main tour guide is a doctor, with the support guide being an architect. But what unites all of them is their overwhelming love for the 'city of lights', which is visible in the passionate way they talk about the metropolis, the way they interact with the locals, and their enthusiasm in ensuring that we enjoy each and every part of the journey.
In the words of Atif bin Arif, the owner of this venture, "We are always sending people abroad for city tours, so why not do something for our own city, our own nation. Take a group of people, and show them the real essence of Karachi beyond the high-end restaurants and VIP protocols."
Their aim from this journey: give the love back to Karachi. And what better way to tour the city then our most famous cultural icons, the public bus. That essential mode of transportation used every single day by the masses for travelling from home to work and elsewhere. Though basic in its usage, this humble vehicle boasts a painstakingly hand-crafted exterior, with every bus being unique its own way. We are told on the tour that this 'truck art' is a visual representation for the bus-walla's of their brides.
Travelling primarily around the Saddar area, the tour starts off early morning with a walk around the historical buildings from the British era. The stops on the tour vary with every trip, but it is usually a mix of both religious and historical. Some of the stops so far have included Empress Market, Bohri Jamaatkhana, Parsi Fire Temple, Hindu Temples, Mosques and Churches. There's a pit stop in between, and a traditional breakfast of anda paratha and karak chai.
SKE is an eye-opener into what truly makes Karachi a cosmopolitan city. The different communities and religions that used to be an integral part of the city have left an indelible mark on the culture here. From Parsi’s migrating all the way from Iran, to Bohri’s, to Hindu’s who used to be the merchant class in earlier times, to Memon’s famous for their business endeavours, the influence of all these unique cultures can be seen in the architecture, institutions, and even the eating habits of Karachites. Though low-key in the presence now, the diversity they all bring must be appreciated.
While the sights and places visited on the tour have their own fascination, the best part about this tour is the change that it brings about in the travellers. A group of friends who are in various places now, but came together for this were shocked at what they didn't know about their own city.
"We have spent our entire lives in this city, and we haven't done anything of this sort. We see a different side of the city, as opposed to what we see in the news," one of them said.
"I din't feel like I am in Karachi, and that was the highlight of the trip. That they transformed the city, and took us outside of what we know in Karachi."
Starting off with a group of six people, SKE now takes an average of 40 people a day, so around 100 people for the weekend. People taking the tour have been from all demographics and ethnicities, and nationalities.
"Already we have taken Malaysians, Indonesians, Colombians, French and Germans on this tour. To have someone from abroad appreciate our own city is a great feeling," Atif bin Arif says.
This tour may probably elicit comments of ‘travelling on a bus, what’s so great about that?" That's true because the person travelling in a bus every day will never appreciate the hand-painted illustrations inside the bus; the person roaming around the streets of Saddar being exposed to all the trash in the city will not appreciate the historic beauty of the buildings around him.
However, what it evokes among the travellers are feelings of awe, surprise, nostalgia, amazement and most of all understanding. Just a small glimpse into the mosaic of cultures that is the sprawling metropolis, and how all these completely unique traditions coexisted, is the realisation one leaves with.
It also spurs one to scratch the surface a little bit and learn more of the city we've called home but know very little about.