british pakistani sisters

A tale of two British-Pakistani sisters in Peru

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This is about my sister. My big, little sister. Big, because she’s older than me by 14 years. Little, because she comes up to my shoulders, making her pint-sized and rather cute.

She and I have a special relationship. As a child she was very much the surrogate mother to me.

She bathed me, wiped my bottom and my runny nose. She fed me and tested her baking skills on me (I was her Chief Cake Taster with the chipmunk cheeks to prove it).

She was (and still is) my special friend and I loved it most when I snuggled up to her in her bed and when she put me on the back of her bike for rides down the railway track.

I looked up to her. She was beyond my equal and still is. A woman, though diminutive in height, who can pack a punch both literally and metaphorically.

She is fearless, happily dodging bullets to drive her helper home during the heady days of Karachi’s lawlessness.

And she’s smart. Smarter than my brother and I.

She has a strong moral compass, and will never shy of telling me when I’ve done something questionable.

When she married (as I’ve previously written, it was a traumatic event for me) our relationship shifted a little, but we still spoke regularly, we still wrote to each other and she remained firmly my big sister.

And then when she had children, the dynamic between us shifted once more, but she was still very much there for me.

And when she and her family moved permanently to Pakistan, I was devastated (a second trauma in my life), but we didn’t drift apart.

I kept the letters she wrote to me, and I remember the excitement of travelling on my own from England to Karachi to see her.

The journey was all the more memorable because a student wanted to sit next to his girlfriend who happened to be sitting next to me.

He must have really loved her because he sent me packing to first class to take up his seat.

My sister and her family visited every summer and it was the highlight of my year, but it was clear her attentions were focused on her children, which, as a teenager, I didn’t quite understand.

But I made do, and so did her children putting up with their bossy aunt. Yes, they were very much a part of her life, but I never really acknowledged that they were her universe.

Read next: How my love for the mountains took me from Hyderabad all the way to Everest Base Camp

Roll forward the years, and my sister and I were able to carve out time to spend together. Just the two of us. Two adults.

And on occasion, we went away on holiday for two weeks at a time. Two weeks away. And not to somewhere close by, but to places a little remote, a little off the beaten track.

These trips were memorable because we were less mother and daughter; more like close friends carrying a vague resemblance to one another.

Although in character we are opposites, my sister and I. She’s calm, whereas I’m a little hyper, a little prone to flying off the handle at the drop of a hat.

I throw myself into things with a fanatical determination; she takes a more cerebral approach to life.

Everything’s taken at a steady pace. My sister is careful, thoughtful, dependable. Whereas I’m a little reckless. She’s more a like a Volvo to my 911.

I exercise regularly because I don’t want to die young. She … well, she has no such concerns.

In December, 2007 we embarked on a two-week trip to Peru. Let’s just say it was a comedy of errors.

Our flight was delayed. We lost our bags. We had no clothes, no toiletries. Fortunately, these things were easily fixed.

Not so the altitude sickness. We arrived in Cuzco, a city lying 3,400 metres above sea level. The altitude hit me like a brick on the head.

Here I was, supposedly the epitome of peak fitness, someone who’d spent ample time in the mountains, throwing up every five minutes.

Not that my sister was much help. She was overcome by chronic headaches.

I’m not sure how much we took in during those first couple of days. Apparently we visited the concentric agricultural Inca rings and the salt pans of Maras.

The reason why I know this is because somehow I managed to record it all in a diary.

I’m not sure how I managed that, to be honest, although it may have something to do with the miracle wonder of Coca tea which cured our ailments.

We may also have become addicted it, downing at least 10 cups a day, which I’m sure had nothing to do with its alkaloid content (the source for cocaine).

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Before our first trek, we visited market places and eateries (a lot of guinea pigs roasted on spits which I couldn’t stomach), as well as churches and little villages.

In one, we were invited into the home of a family who lived together in a single room. In a corner was a dais. On top of it were skulls of their ancestors surrounded by candles. That was quite fascinating.

What was less so were the hundreds of guinea pigs climbing over our feet. I felt faint. And no, it definitely wasn’t the altitude sickness.

I had sudden visions of my own guinea pigs which I’d had as a teenager. The truth is, I neglected them. They died.

And this was my comeuppance. To be besieged by guinea pigs. Black, ginger, white, brown. Long-haired, short-haired, scrambling over each other like rats.

Yes. That’s what they reminded me of: rats. And the noise. I’ll never forget the sound they made. Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

I thought they would crawl over me, dragging me to my death. I had to get out.

My sister wondered what on earth was the matter with me, why I was hyperventilating. I couldn’t explain it. Not then at least.

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