Campus Press advisor Amy Herdy's Pakistan travel log

Categories: Media
amy_herdy_in_pakistan.jpg
Amy Herdy as she appeared in the Pakistani press.

The blog Denver Post and 9News vet Amy Herdy's Journalistic Mission to Pakistan provides an overview of a trip to Islamabad recently completed by Herdy, who currently serves as the advisor for The Campus Press, the daily online news source for the University of Colorado-Boulder. But plenty more went on during the visit, which journalists there found newsworthy in and of itself (the photo above is from a Pakistani newspaper). And there's no better source than Herdy, who penned an extensive travel log for the Press. Read part one, part two, part three and part four by clicking on the appropriate links -- or read Herdy's fascinating account in its entirety below. -- Michael Roberts

Part 1: Arrival

First of all, the obvious question: Why did I go to Pakistan?

A: I went to talk to journalists, government officials and education officials about developing media workshops there. So far, it's going very well. More on that in a bit.

But it almost didn't happen at all.

Officials at the Pakistani Embassy in New York sent my passport with their required visa stamp on it back to me last Tuesday...I was due to leave Friday. It should have arrived at my house on Wed. afternoon. It didn't, and I didn't discover that anxiety until I got home rather late Wed. night from work.

Thursday, at 7 a.m. Colorado time, I called the Embassy, and the panicked woman there gave me the tracking number, and I checked the FedEx Web site, which clearly showed my passport as having been delivered. A call to FedEx confirmed my fear: They delivered my passport to the wrong address, to a street that was across town. The customer service rep on the other end of the phone tried to reassure me that their driver would go back to that house and get it and re-deliver it...and I said, Please give me the address. And she said, Why, are you going to go get it? - the driver will pick it back up...and I hissed - give. Me. The. Address. So she did, and, still in my pajamas, I threw on a fleece and some shoes and jumped into my car, saying as I drove, Please be home...I rang the bell and after a few minutes the door opened, and there we were, two women in our pajamas, and with no preamble I said, Please tell me you got a FedEx package yesterday...the woman said Oh, yes, here it is...

So, obviously, I made the trip.

Fri: The flight is mind numbing--actually, it took three. The longest stretch was from Doha to Pakistan, and it took 12 hours. It was full of lots of families going home to India, and there were no less than four babies on my row, all under the age of six months. Before takeoff one of them began working up a good cry from a few hiccups to a full-throttle wail, like an old engine that catches slowly, and the rest of them joined in.

Into that mix one of the flight attendants brought a young guy, an American, to sit between two of the young mothers during takeoff because something was wrong with his first class seat. He was a big guy, and I took him for military. The women looked dismayed and he was clearly mortified. The crying increased and then he raised his hands in the air and pretended to be a conductor...everyone laughed. After takeoff, however, he fled back to first class.

It's a universal fact there are two kinds of mothers of young babies: Swayers or Jostlers. The young mother to my left, unfortunately, was a Jostler, so when her baby started to fuss, she would begin jiggling him with great energy, up and down, side to side, throwing her elbows out wildly. I ended up hugging the edge of my seat, putting in the earplugs I had brought, and going to sleep (oh, only after watching The Dark Knight again).

Travel tip: I've flown internationally before, and I know to bring earplugs, drink lots of water, and even though most airlines will give you travel slippers, wear comfy running shoes or the like. Here's one reason: When I got up around midnight or so after the movie to brush my teeth and wash my face before going to sleep, I picked my way down the aisle that was now littered with crumbs and remnants of dinner...and as I stepped into the tiny airplane bathroom and locked the door behind me, the smell and the realization hit me at the same time: Someone had simply peed all over the floor of the tiny cubicle. If I hadn't been wearing shoes, I would have catapulted out of there, shrieking.

Doha: I was only in that airport for a few minutes before having to catch my next flight. I went to the women's room to change clothes and try to wash up...and it was packed with women in various dress--some wore jeans, some wore the shalwar kameez--the long, flowing pants, long tunic and scarf--and some wore an abaya and hijab--the long, black dress and headpiece that many of the Shiite women wear.

I wanted to change clothes, and there was hardly room, yet the stalls were taken. What to do? Would it be offensive? My flight was due...so I changed. And yes, apparently it was very offensive to some of the women, who threw me very dirty looks, one of them in particular glaring at me through the small slit of her hijab.

Pakistan: My contact picked me up at the airport. I was the only American standing in the "foreigners" line at immigration.

It was 2 a.m. as we drove from Rawalpindi, which is where the airport is, to my host's house in Islamabad. Just outside of the city, we encountered what would be the first of many police roadblocks. Since I've been here, we've been stopped probably a half dozen times at roadblocks. The police will ask us to pop the trunk; they'll glance inside and then wave us on our way.

Nearly every home here has an armed guard, including where I'm staying.

We arrived at 3:30 a.m. and I was asleep by 4...and woke up at 8. One of the best ways to combat jet lag is to get sunshine. My very gracious host, Constance Jones of the U.S. Embassy, took me to her balcony.

"It's lovely out there," Constance said, gesturing to the wide streets and the Margalla Hills in the distance, "but I can't go out.
You can...but I am forbidden by Embassy rules." As if to emphasize the point, her cat walked onto the balcony, looked out and mewed plaintively.

I decided to go for a run. Why? Because everywhere I've ever gone, I've gone for a run, and that's usually how I remember a place. So I put on my running shoes and Kabir, the houseman, took me to a local running spot. The only glitch, and one I had conferred about with Constance: I had to wear long pants, and I couldn't take off my shirt to run in just a running top, and it was about 85 degrees.

I got many curious looks, to say the least. One man, wearing shalwar kameez, spoke to me in English, and when I ignored him, tried Urdu, and when I still ignored him, finally said, Mashalla! (Which I'm told means good wishes).

So far I've gone for a run three mornings in a row...always varying the time of day. And yes, I am on guard and very aware of my environment the whole time, so it's hardly relaxing. At one point, I had been out a few minutes when a small group of men crossed a field in front of me. One of them jogged to catch up to the others, and when he did, he put his hand on his right hip in order to hold something in place under his shalwar kameez. My first thought was, "Gun..." and that was enough for me - I turned and ran back to the compound, glad to have the armed guard swinging the gate open for me. I don't know that I'll run outside here again.

Urdu of the day: "G" means "yes," and "acha" means "O.K."

Part 2: Around Islamabad

One interesting note on the plane I forgot to mention: After dinner, the flight attendants brought out bassinets, which they fastened to the wall, and the mothers put their babies to sleep in them. I've never seen that on a plane.

So Sunday after my first run I came back for breakfast, and then met my local contact, Farook, who picked me up with his driver, Abid. Islamabad is a fairly new city--it only started being populated in the last 40 or so years--and it's clean and very lush and green.

There are startling reminders everywhere of the difference of our countries: Men on donkeys, the animal's back laden with a stack of sticks, sharing the road with Toyota 4 Runners. Shalwar kameez everywhere. The signs are in Urdu and also English. The singsong voice of the call to prayer that is heard on loudspeakers everywhere five times a day. No one here walks around with cell phones. The plug for the hair dryer is a 240, not a 120, so I need an adaptor. At one point I was in the courtyard looking for Kabir, the houseman, to ask him a question, and at my tentative call of "Hello?" the armed guard came running down the drive.

Near construction sites, the workers pitch tent cities, and that's where they live during the entire construction project, cooking their food over a fire.

I have to remember to not drink the water, which includes using bottled water to brush my teeth.

We drove up a road called Damanekoh, which is Urdu for mountain--it went up the Margalla Hills. It was a sharply winding road, and was my introduction to the madness that is Pakistani driving. Cars zoom in and out of their lanes as they pass each other, careening headlong into another car before ducking back into their lane, and all of this was done on the steep curves of the hilly road. I've ridden shotgun for years with stressed out photographers who will put your stomach in your mouth in order to get to breaking news, but it was nothing compared to this.

I ended up crouched down in my seat, covering my eyes, muttering, "Aw, geez. Aw, geez" and thinking of the line in the first Predator movie, uttered by the character named Billy: "We're all gonna die."

My angst amused Farook very much. The trick to driving in Pakistan, he told me, is "don't look in the other driver's eyes. Just drive."

We walked around a park and then stopped in at a restaurant to eat lunch. I ordered a salad and palak paneer--spinach--and Farook said, How did you know that was Urdu for spinach? And I confessed that it's what I eat every day for lunch, with my Ethnic Gourmet frozen dinners. And as for salad dressing? - Farook said, They will have no idea what you are talking about in a small place like this.

After lunch we went to the Faisal Mosque. I wore the scarf I brought wrapped around my head; we took off our shoes and walked around. I was wearing a long tunic and the scarf...and I thought with my long, dark hair I would perhaps blend in, but NO. Everywhere we walked, people stopped and stared, to the point I felt like I was becoming a real disruption. One young man blushingly asked if he could have his picture taken with me, and I handed Farook my camera so that he would have a picture of that picture.

On the way down, a group of wild monkeys blocked the road, in no apparent hurry to move.

We then went to the Heritage Museum, a fascinating place detailing the history of the Pakistani culture. Outside, a man had a monkey on a long leash, and poked it with a stick as he encouraged it to do tricks and beg for tips. The monkey wore sunglasses and even disco danced. I crouched down and tried to see its eyes and it would only look away.

Farook bought our tickets, and we were about to enter the museum when one of the guards (there are always guards, everywhere) asked him if I was Pakistani, to which Farook replied no. Tickets for Pakistanis were 50 rupees, but for foreigners, they were 300 (the exchange rate is about 80 rupees to a dollar). They also said my purse was not allowed, and asked me to leave it in the office. No, I said. They insisted and I stood firm: I don't leave my purse anywhere. Farook then called his driver, who came and fetched my purse, and we proceeded inside.

A note about Abid, the driver: He's 24 years old and earns $100 a month as a driver, a salary that is considered pretty good in his village. Every month, he sends $80 home to his brother and sister. Part of that will go to his sister's dowry, as she is now 20 and yet unmarried, which is late for the women in his village. His parents are dead so it's his responsibility to take care of her. There is only one marriage season, which is now, as it immediately follows the harvest of crops and is the only time of year people in his village have money. His sister didn't have the dowry to get married this season, so she will have to wait until next year. Although now Abid is distressed: evidently there was a death in his village, so all marriages are delayed another year. So now his sister will now have to wait two years before she can marry.

Farook brings me back and by 6 p.m., I cannot keep my eyes open. I try to rest on the couch as dinner here is at 9:30 p.m., and I awaken to Constance and her friend Quatrina singing, "Wake up! You must wake up! You will be off schedule and miserable otherwise!" They feed me chocolate and keep me awake until dinner. Afterward, I collapse. I've never been this tired.

Part 3: The Media Situation

Along with everything else, the media situation here has been described as being in a state of emergency.

In 2002, then President Musharraf lifted government controls on the media, and everything mushroomed. There had been one television station - today, just 6 years later, there are 64, and that number is expected to rise to 80 in two to three years. There are about three-dozen major newspapers.

And there are few ways to train all these journalists. Therefore, most of them have no journalistic experience. They are winging it.

As a result, you see stories here you would never see in the U.S. They cover suicides, including telling details of the manner of death. They show grisly footage of wounded, dying and dead victims, to the point where viewers protest. Or they'll show video of a dog trying to cross the street in heavy traffic, one producer said, just because someone got the shots and it struck them as funny. They are in desperate need of journalism and trauma training, as well as training in regards to ethics, standards and responsibility.

It's very common to see or hear journalists insert their opinions in their stories, and I've seen many reports that are blatantly one-sided.

I've spent a good deal of time so far talking to local journalists, and have meetings set up with even more. For example, one television station, ATV, is government owned, and reaches the staggering number of 100 million people.

They have one live truck, but rarely use it. They do five minutes of news at the top of every hour, sometimes ten. They don't have news meetings--and all content is decided by one person, who is called the CNE, or Chief News Editor, so there is no healthy discourse about the top story of the day. Most of the staff come from print backgrounds. There is no dress code, or even consistent way of signing out of a story. The photographers do not know basic shots--such as wide, medium and tight--instead, they just point their camera and shoot.

The newsroom staff is separate from the production staff, so there is a huge disconnect between the scripted story and the edited video.

Due to lack of training, the staff tells me, they struggle to determine what is newsworthy.

"I get so low sometimes," one producer told me. "They need to understand what is news."

In meeting after meeting, those same sentiments are echoed, time and time again.

At another television station, privately owned Express TV, which is based in Lahore, their advanced technology is stunning.

They have state-of-the-art studio sets, 12 live trucks and a breaking news graphics team that can produce a graphic within 60 seconds--they practice and time it--but the theoretical concerns of content are still the same, especially to management.

"The role that television (news) is playing is unprecedented in terms of impact on society," the news director tells me. "These young people are influencing how people think."

They already have a 24-hour Urdu news channel, and are preparing to begin a similar enterprise in English. They've done most of the hiring for it, the news director tells me, and those young people as a whole do not have journalism experience.

"They're raw," he says. "The only thing they have in common is that they're bright." They intend to embed them with the Urdu crew for a month or two, he said, and then get them started.

Meanwhile, he said, they grapple with the answers to essential questions.

"What does it mean to be a journalist? What is right? What is our responsibility? Answering those questions is very important," he said. "And we are failing at that."

He gives us nearly two hours of his time, and I am grateful for that as well as his candor.

Note: Pakistanis are very gracious people. I have learned a great deal from Farook even with simple phone conversations - we Americans tend to do away with cursory greetings, and I admit that if I'm calling someone I know, I often start the conversation with a hurried, "Hey."

Not here. "Hello, Amy. How are you? How was your rest? How is your family?" We slow down and spend a few minutes exchanging pleasantries. Not a bad way to start a conversation.

And then there's tea. What's a non - coffee drinking, non-tea drinking vegan who avoids processed sugar, fried food, dairy and wheat to do?

Well, when in Rome...

During my first meeting on Monday morning, we were served tea. That included traditional tea with cream and sugar, cookies, fried oval-shaped pieces of bread, and small meat sandwiches on white bread cut into triangles.

I politely declined, and the young man holding the platter simply continued to stand there. My host looked at me expectantly. So I ended up sipping tea with cream and sugar, taking a couple of bites of fried dough and nibbling on the corner of the meat sandwich.

Repeat this scenario three, four times a day....my stomach began making strange noises. I protested to Farook, who now at the start of every meeting simply says, Please do not serve her anything, she doesn't drink tea.

One interesting note, however: As polite as they are, I've noticed that in nearly every meeting we have, if our host's phone or cell phone rings, they will answer it. And they won't say, "Pardon me while I take this call" - they'll just take the call and start chatting away.

Another note, this one about driving: It's a common sight to see a driver with a young child, toddler age, in his lap as he drives. Also, women often ride on the back of motorcycles behind their husbands, their scarves fluttering in the wind, clutching their babies in one arm, a different bundle in the other.

There are hay trucks that take up nearly two lanes with their load, and if you look up to the top of the 15-foot stack of swaying hay, you'll see a few people sitting calmly.

Nearly every truck and bus here is brightly painted in a wide variety of designs, including flowers, and the murals cover every inch. Farook tells me it's because the people spend so much time on these trucks and buses that they want them to be cheerful.

Urdu of the day: assalam o alaikum. It's a greeting of respect that means, How are you?

And khuda hafis means goodbye.

As we drove to Lahore, my fear of driving in Pakistan increased tenfold. There are no lanes on the way to Lahore, and as a result, cars and trucks madly jockey for position. Once in the city, it got worse. I kid you not, at one point today, we were forced to stop because no less than five vehicles converged on the same corner, their noses all pointed toward each other. Farook laughed. I threw my scarf over my eyes.

Just as Islamabad is new, merely a few decades old, Lahore is rich with history, about a thousand years old. It is dusty and a bit foggy, and appears to overall be cast in a shade of gray.

There is a canal that runs through much of the city, and you could see people bathing in it, or washing their clothes.

Everywhere you look, there are donkeys and horses pulling carts, as well as enormous oxen that stand by the side of the road, waiting to work. Motorized rickshaws dart in and out of traffic, and they are noisy and their exhaust really smells.

Along the way, we stop at a gas station, and I ask if it's Ok if I get out of the car to use the bathroom. Farook hesitates, then scans the place, and determines it's not too crowded. Still, he drives me to the back of the building where the restrooms are, and parks the car close to the door. Since then, every time we stop, I tease him: "Aren't you going to pull up a few feet more so that I don't have to walk at all?"

Out of habit, I still often walk to the right side of the car, the passenger side of an American car, but the location of the driver here. Farook laughs every time, saying, "Left side, left side!"

Our driver accompanied us on this trip, but as Farook wanted to drive, he sits quietly in the back and never says a word.

We get to the hotel where I'm going to stay - Farook is going to stay with relatives - and before we are allowed to drive into the parking lot, armed guards search both the trunk and the engine. Once inside the hotel, we must pass through a metal detector and my bags must be x-rayed. At the front desk, Farook hesitates to leave me there by myself, and I turn to him and firmly say, "I've got it from here."

It's a lovely hotel. The next morning I run on the treadmill in the exercise room, and even though I'm the only person in there, I still wear long pants and long sleeves.

Farook picks me up and as we leave the parking lot, there is a large concrete barrier that blocks our exit until the guards push a button. The ground opens, the barrier lowers into the hole, and we leave.

During our last meeting of the day (at Express TV), my host, Constance, calls my cell phone to say she's worried. A U.S. aid worker and his driver have been shot and killed in Peshewar, which is near the Afghan border. It's a good distance from where we are, but still distressing. "Be careful," Constance said.

We drive the five hours back, and I fall asleep in the front of the car, not even waking for the police stops. Farook tells me that when the police see me sleeping in the car, they wave him on and don't ask him to pop the trunk.

Part 4: A Message to My Students

I've been asked to talk to university mass communication students about being a journalist in the U.S., and I realize that many of the significant stories I've done are sensitive topics for anyone, but especially for some in the Muslim culture.

During a meeting earlier with a former newspaper reporter who now teaches, she told me how she had done a story about rape, and how it was difficult to get the story approved. Then her bosses told her to be careful to not show the victim too closely (although she was willing to be identified) and to not portray her as being upset.

I don't want to offend anyone, so Farook and I debate which of the more interesting stories I've done would be appropriate for me to talk about: The military investigation, called "Betrayal in the Ranks" - that exposed how the U.S. military mishandled sexual assault and domestic violence cases, and triggered reforms in Congress as well as the Uniform Code of Military Justice? Maybe.

Ted Haggard, and the interview where he told me he bought meth and massages from a gay male escort? Absolutely not.

Former Chief Federal Judge Edward Nottingham, who resigned after stories I helped produce of allegations of strip clubs and prostitutes? NO.

The stories I wrote after corresponding with the serial rapist Brent Brents? NO.

Finally we decide on the military story, and we agree that I should watch the audience closely. If the reactions are largely negative, I am to back out of the story in a hurry.

The days and the meetings are starting to blur. The morning of my first student talk, I turn to Farook in the car and ask, Oh, when is the talk at the university--is that today?

Farook answers yes and then looks at me strangely. I later discover that with my question, he is panic stricken. Evidently I didn't prepare for the talk, and he is shocked and filled with anxiety. Losing face is a very bad thing in this culture.

"I almost cancelled it," he told me later.

On the drive there, I am not consulting notes, he notices, and once inside the auditorium, he sits on the front row and I take the stage. The place is packed with a few hundred students.

I glance at Farook, who looks stricken.

I am shown to a podium and asked to stand at the mic, but I shake my head. Do you have a hand-held? I ask. I like to pace when I talk.

They find one, I switch it on, and greet the crowd in Urdu. "Assalam o alaikum!" I say, and they erupt with big smiles and laughter, calling out greetings to me in return.

How many of you want to be a journalist? I ask, and most of them raise their hand.

I've been asked to talk about interviewing techniques, trauma reporting, and investigative reporting, and to spend ten minutes on each topic. I've talked about and taught this so many times, I know it by heart. There is no clock, so I put my cell phone on the podium and check it once in a while as I walk up and down the stage.

About ten minutes into my talk, I glance at Farook, and he is smiling and looks very happy.

I start by talking about all of you, the student media, and the work that you do, and I tell them I am so proud of all of you and the efforts you put in, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I tell them I am your coach, and that I have realized that the best way for you to learn is to not give you the answers, but help you find them.

I tell them how when it's time to cover interviewing techniques, I bring my dog to class that day, and put him at the front of the room, and then ask the class why they think I've brought my dog, and what in the world could he have to do with interviewing?

I ask this audience that same question, and I hold my breath--will they get it, or will they just think I am a crazy American?

They get it. "It's to emphasize communicating without words?" one young man calls out.

I exhale. "EXACTLY," I tell him, and he smiles broadly. "Non-verbal communication. Eighty-five percent of all communication is non-verbal, and often whether or not you get an interview can be decided in only a few seconds, and it's decided by your body language and how you are presenting yourself, and you may not even be aware of it."

You guys have heard this talk...so you know how it goes. But it was clear they understood. And then I talked about the best kinds of questions to ask, and how to build rapport, and then I talked about trauma reporting and our responsibilities as journalists to do no harm. I topped it off with investigative reporting. I realize the public record laws here are very different, I told them, but you do have them (I researched) and you do have journalists who make requests and have been successful in having them filled -sometimes (again, I had researched).

But at the same time, I told them, I recognize that journalists in Pakistan face challenges that we in the U.S. do not, in terms of intimidation and fear for security. And for that, I told them, I have the upmost respect for them, and that I would never dare to presume to encourage someone to work on a story that puts them at risk.

So how do you get started doing investigative stories? one young man asked me.

And at this talk and one I gave two days later, I told them, Go out and talk to the people. Ask questions. And then listen, really listen - one of the most underrated skills a journalist can have. Educate yourselves as to what the public record laws are here, and use them. And then support each other in that effort - so that it's not simply one journalist or one news organization who is making the request.

I've noticed that here in Pakistan, there are usually several news conferences a day, about various topics. So I tell them, Just because someone is holding a news conference doesn't mean that what they are saying is newsworthy - and they look at me in surprise.

Use small examples to tell the story of a larger injustice - invite your audience or your readers into someone's life as you tell their story, I tell them, and they will resonate and identify with that story much more strongly than if you had simply presented a statistic.

And then I tell them about the military sexual assault story, and I watch their faces, and they are rapt. So I keep going. I tell them about Sharon Mixon, a former combat medic who was gang raped by fellow soldiers, and how she called me a couple of weeks ago to tell me she is now preparing to take the entrance exam for law school, and how she credits my telling her story of her assault in the military so many years ago with giving her her power back. After that story ran, Sharon became an advocate, and over the years - we've stayed in touch - I have watched her move from a traumatized person who could not speak of her experience without tears to a confident, strongly assured woman who now wants to fight for others.

And I tell them how I had responded to Sharon by saying, No, the credit goes to you, for having the courage to stand up and be heard.

And I tell the students that journalism, more than any other profession, has the power to enact change and leave people's lives for the better, and that's why I believe in it so strongly.

And how moments like the one of Sharons' call are some of the most gratifying of my life, and that if they want to become journalists, I sincerely wish them that kind of success.

A woman on the front row began clapping, and everyone else joined in.

I then took questions for more than 30 minutes, and with the exception of their dress and their accents, it could have been any one of my students sitting there, asking me about stories, and decision-making processes, and about how to deal with situations such as editors who disagree with you (pick your battles, but then stick to your guns), and ethics and trauma reporting (ex: How do you know when you're going too far with someone who has suffered a trauma - how do you keep from being sensationalistic? one student asked - good question! I told her, It's a case-by-case basis, but the guiding question I ask my students is, What purpose does it serve? And, can this interview wait? - that you must weigh your need for the story versus their need for privacy and compassion. And that if you do the interview, you need to be very present and aware during it of how this person is doing).

One young man asked if I had ever debated to, or actually ever quit a job because of ideological differences with an employer (yes to both, but that I recognize that's a freedom not everyone has, and that if you quit every time you strongly disagree with your editor, you'll never have a job), and others raised their hands with many such questions that were enthusiastic, thoughtful, intelligent and asked by someone who burned with an intensity to know.

Just like you.


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