Could you take a family of four — including two teenagers — from a comfortable Canadian suburban existence and guide them through an experience of culture shock that was unnervingly different, and yet at the same time offered an invigorating, world-view-changing sense of life on the edge?
Most of us will never live through such an experience — but we can read about it, in armchair comfort, in Geckos & Guns: The Pakistan Years, Ocean Park author Sharon Bazant’s riveting memoir of five years in that country in the early 1990s.
While it’s a follow up to Bazant’s other memoir, Nine Years In Bangkok, published in 2019, the new book is actually a prequel, going back to the family’s first experience outside Canada.
When they first travelled to Pakistan some 30 years ago, they left behind life in St. Albert, just outside of Edmonton, Alta.
Bazant’s husband Wayne had risen from being an addictions counsellor to playing an administrative role in the Alberta Alcoholism and Drug Use Commission, while she, a theatre-arts teacher, had a hankering to “break out of the mould,” to travel and experience other cultures.
“I’ve always been very adventurous,” she said. “My husband is more cautious, but he was the one who came home with this possibility of a posting to Pakistan for the UN because he thought it sounded interesting.”
It was an opportunity for him to travel in the country, using his expertise to provide education and work toward drug-demand reduction, she said. Deciding to take up the challenge, they went through a year of setting up the posting, and selling their home.
Less entranced by the idea were their 16-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter (‘Jason’ and ‘Julie’ for the purposes of the memoir) who didn’t relish leaving behind their school and all their friends (they now view their time there as an irreplaceable formative experience, Bazant noted).
It was a ‘hardship’ posting, Bazant said – in which applicants know at the outset that they are going into a difficult situation where they may find difficulty obtaining such basics as food, water and electricity and may also face other dangers.
That they were facing even more than they bargained for became evident when, just before they were to travel, Bazant received a call from Wayne in New York – he had travelled ahead to finalize details of the posting – that the UN had cancelled the family’s flight to Pakistan.
“It was January of 1991 and the first Gulf War had just broken out – the situation was considered too dangerous for us to go there,” she said. “I’d taken the kids out of school, we’d sold the house and put everything in storage. We were living out of two suitcases in a motel.”
Fortunately, the situation amounted to only a six-week delay in their plans, although the Gulf War was still raging when they arrived in politically-volatile Pakistan.
“It wasn’t just the shock of a completely different culture,” Bazant said. “The war was still on and tensions were really high. For the first few months it was really hard.”
Their culture shock wasn’t just about encountering extreme poverty and buying groceries in open air markets far removed from the ultra-cleanliness of Canadian supermarkets, Bazant said.
There was also the realization that they were living in a Muslim culture in which women’s roles were extremely limited and Wayne was unquestioningly considered the only authority in the household.
To clean and maintain their 7,000-square-foot home, they also had to hire servants, she said, and that brought home the fact that the caste system was still entrenched in society – a lingering legacy from pre-1947 times when Pakistan was part of India.
Bazant’s richly detailed and evocative prose paints a picture of their time there that balances many positives against the negatives.
The family grew to like the temperate climate and the rugged countryside, and ultimately embraced the culture, she noted. Wayne travelled all over the country as part of his work, while she continued to teach and their teenagers adjusted to school life.
“We made some tremendous, lasting friendships, both with Pakistanis and ex-pats,” she added.
But readers can expect plenty of suspense in Geckos & Guns as well, she said – life was far from easy, and they always found themselves in a position of acknowledging “this or that dreadful thing that just happened.”
“I don’t want to spoil the book, but we went through some very dangerous times. There was some tragedy – and some family emergencies.”
Oddly, when they later moved to Thailand, it took them all a while to adjust to a life without danger, Bazant said. And, in retrospect, they feel nostalgic about their days in Pakistan.
“I think it was an experience that influenced our entire family,” Bazant said. “It shaped us and changed us and we became much closer as a family because we had to rely on each other. We learned we had to protect and take care of each other.
“But it also taught us a lot about other cultures, and about compassion.”
Geckos & Guns is available online in paperback, hardback, Kindle and e-book editions through such platforms as amazon.ca, Chapters Indigo and Barnes & Noble and Booklocker.com