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Reporter’s Notebook: Karachi Residents Experience Extremes

August 29, 2007 at 2:10 PM EDT

SIMON MARKS: Hello once again from Pakistan. I’m NewsHour producer Simon Marks with senior correspondent Margaret Warner. And we are in Karachi, the business capital of Pakistan, bringing to an end two days of shooting here as part of our reporting trip to this fascinating country.

And Margaret, what a contrast flying into Karachi from the political capital Islamabad.

MARGARET WARNER: Amazingly so, Simon. I mean, we felt it the minute we stepped out of the airport. The tropical air, the date palm trees, the hustle and flow of people. And right in front of the terminal, a huge golden arches — McDonald’s open 24 hours a day.

SIMON MARKS: And it really was the mix of all of those things. The sheer sense of the speed of the city that hit you the minute you walked out of the airport and saw porters all over the place with carts and taxi drivers. Plus the palm trees. I mean, I think I said at the time it almost felt like Miami.

MARGARET WARNER: And in more ways than one. This is a port city, on the Arabian Sea, with beautiful beaches, this go-go economy, as you said. Its 16 million people are just 10 percent of Pakistan’s population, but they generate more than 50 percent of its GDP.

But it’s also like Miami in that there’s an undercurrent of menace here. Crime is rampant. Petty street crime, kidnappings for ransom, a flourish in drug trade, terrorist-inspired suicide bombings. This city’s got them all.

And the lid is kept on, just barely, by the elected officials, the local police, and a political party some call it the mafia that uses violence itself to enforce this sort of rough justice as part of its overall control of the city.

SIMON MARKS: And we have witnessed astonishing extremes of wealth and poverty wherever we’ve gone. The wealth being generated here is based largely on shipping, of course. And we’ve driven past just some enormous areas where you can see containers stacked high, looking out over the city.

But there’s also high finance here, commodities, telecoms, banking and textiles. No gleaming American-style skyline, but you do see blocks upon blocks of multi-million dollar homes and big plans, we’re told, for luxury beachfront condominiums.

MARGARET WARNER: And yet in the middle of the posh neighborhoods, you find desperately poor ones like the one where we were this morning. A jumble of filthy, narrow streets, and on this open lot strewn with trash and garbage, with herds of goats grazing on the garbage. And in the very midst of the garbage, small children spinning on a broken-down merry-go-round. And on the corner right in front of them, a boy no more than 13 openly giving himself a shot of heroin.

SIMON MARKS: An incredible symbol of hopelessness there. And yet this country has at its disposal, all the tools of the modern age. Everybody seems to have a cell phone. There’s Internet penetration, Internet access all over the place. I mean, in a way we wouldn’t be able to bring you this podcast without our easy ability to access the Web.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s so true. This is a country of 160 million people, only 60 million of them are over 21, yet it has 63 million cell phones in use, we’re told — a higher percentage of cell phone usage than booming India next door. And wireless Internet, too, seems more widespread here than any of the developing countries we’ve been in. Not just in the luxury hotels, but in the domestic airport lounge or hotspots along the street, all against considerable odds.

SIMON MARKS: And sometimes those odds are not entirely in the Internet user’s favor. Like, last night we had a real adventure as we tried to send our podcast. We’d been promised an Internet caf├⌐ with the fastest Internet connection in Karachi, but it didn’t entirely pan out that way, did it?

MARGARET WARNER: (Laughing) No, as we trudged up four flights of stairs, in the dark — and it’s one of the periodic electricity blackouts here — I kept waiting for the cafe part. But let’s just say, Starbucks has nothing to worry about.

What we did find was a pitch dark office with a warren of cubicles, with a young to middle-aged Pakistani sitting at each one, waiting for the power to come back on. Our arrival prompted the owner to head off in search of a generator, and 12 to 15 minutes later, we heard a rumble and knew we were in business.

It was a perfect metaphor for the resiliency of Pakistanis.

SIMON MARKS: And also just amazing that this kind of globalized tools of the trade could flourish amidst squalor and disorder.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet it is this lousy infrastructure that really bugs people. We ended our day of filming at a tiny place called the Club Havana — a perfect replica of a British cigar bar, created by a British-educated 30-something Pakistani, as a haven, he told us, for the lovers of Cuban cigars, where they can sit and smoke top-line Cubans and listen to jazz in a cozy wood-paneled room.

One retired gentleman from an old, local family said to me, “I live in a $15 million house, yet there are mounds of rubbish in front of my house. I have to have a generator and I have to cook and bathe with bottled water because I don’t trust the city water. We’re living like animals,” he said.

“Like animals?” I said.

“Like animals. An apocalypse.”

A little dramatic, certainly. But it did give you a sense of the incongruities of life here.

SIMON MARKS: And we are going to leave Karachi and head on to the city of Lahore, essentially Pakistan’s cultural capital to see whether we encounter similar incongruities there, or whether we find an entirely different picture presents itself.

Our daily opportunity, Margaret, to remind people that they can see what we’ve been talking about on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer next week.

MARGARET WARNER: And we hope they’ll join us.

SIMON MARKS: Absolutely. A new story every night from Pakistan all next week. But that’s all from Karachi for now. I’m Simon Marks with Margaret Warner. Good-bye from Pakistan.