So I had the chance of attending a summer camp arranged by Pakistan Girl Guides Association for five days in Ghora Galli. I initially had qualms about undergoing rigorous training for full five days. But I was so sick of home- of that monotonous life- that I knew I needed a break. And so I took the chance I got.

The very first experience of travelling via train was unnerving, to say the least, and that too in economy class. It taught me that all those lecherous, criminal-looking, purse-snatching, smoking people you have avoided your entire life would confront you at the same time in the same place if you ever decide to take the economy class on a Pakistani train. Only the Lord knows how those 6 hours were spent before we finally reached Pindi station and I ran as fast as I could shoving my luggage onto any coolie who would take it. And yes, it also taught me that the Lahori coolies would ask for more money by saying their ‘thaikedaars’ fleece them- and the Pindi boy coolies would try to fleece you by saying that it is actually them who are the victims of ‘thaikedaars’ and this system has been abolished in Lahore.

When I finally overcame the traumatic experience that was the train- namely drug-addict looking, child-kidnappers looking, Taliban-looking (no I don’t usually stereotype so believe me when I say this) people crowding outside your cabin trying to steal glances inside and making crass-est jokes you have ever heard in Punjabi jargon (or Pushto/Seraiki/Afghani since I couldn’t recognize that language)- I thanked the heavens for being alive and not kidnapped yet.

Fast forward and we were in the Girl Guide House trying to get our mattresses. The lesson I got was that even if you hate coming forward and competing for your right, under some circumstances you have to stand up for yourself and ask for your right. So after about an hour of impatient wait, some argument and requests, finally I got a mattress. Arranging all my belongings was a whole new story. And I was overwhelmed by sharing a room with some 60 other girls. And so many of them were from other cities like Multan, Sheikhupura, Gujranwala, Bahawalpur, Layyah etc. There were 130 of them in total. All of us were in the strange company of ‘others’.

Gradually we learnt the rules. You had to use water sparingly. You had to get up at 4.15 in the morning. You had to sleep despite the constant giggling of girls at the other end of the room. You had to bear with the 3 am alarms that someone set. You had to wash your own dishes. You had to descend 30 huge steps of stairs to get food from the kitchen. You had to stand in a long queue to get your food. You had to do without sweets or Maggi noodles or fast food for all your stay. You had to socialize with the ‘others’ despite you being an introvert. You had to do exercise at 5.30 morn. You had to attend an hour long ceremony of flag hoisting. You had to attend sessions and manage other duties as well. You had to ignore the pain in your legs. You had to be up and about. And every day you had to do quite a lot of hiking.  Also you did not get more than one kofta or one egg.

Initially, coexisting with so many girls was hard. It was unsettling. But gradually things started to improve. I found friends in unlikely places with unlikely interests. We shared things more freely now. Everyone began caring for one another. We even offered each other help. Also, we each chose a ‘Secret Friend’ that we had to help secretly during the whole stay. All our activities were aimed at building a communal spirit, feeling ourselves to be a part of the whole, fitting in the mosaic puzzle, celebrating our individuality and rejoicing at our group cooperation. We were explicitly taught not to compete, but to collectively make an effort. “My Path, My Pace” was one of our guidelines. I saw some exceptionally resilient people there- those who worked 24/7 without the slightest complaint.

The greatest gift that camp gave to me was the morning sounds. The cold hue that resides in the sky just before morning and just after night- and all the birds welcoming it and the sun rays breaking through the gray blackness- penetrating the dark- few things can compare to that. That wet grass, deep forests below, sparse lights shining in the distance and the sun slowly descending like a shy bride removing the veil that hides the glow—that truly is the gift of life. Our activity one day was to wake up at 4 am and record the various songs of birds and make a medley of nature. I could have gladly resided there for life just for this one moment of divine oneness you feel at dawn.

Another gift was the feeling of truly being a part of something. For someone who has, like Batman, always preferred to work alone, working collectively can be a hard nut to crack. But in this camp, we all synchronized into our places- as diverse pieces that could merge into a beautiful painting by taking our specific places that no one but ourselves could fill. Only the Multan girls could do what they did and only the KC-ites could fill their own spot. No one could replace the Layyah girls and that specific task could only be accomplished by the Islamia College girls. Only Ms. Najma could sing that well (her a cappella music was so damn good). Only Duaa could compere so good. Amna was a born debater! Ms. Salma was the best supervisor. And Babar Uncle was the cutest Pathan you would ever meet. And Ujala was truly our Anjali.

Then there was the campfire. It was so nostalgic and romantic and melancholy at the same time. It reminded me of ancient storytelling practices every time. The feeling of engagement and interaction that you felt- everyone showcasing their little pieces of talent that they held high in their tiny shelves of heart-everyone carving their identities again in a new place- an anecdote here and a song there, a joke here and a speech there, a duet here and a dance there—we were connecting to the human cores inside each of us. Nothing could compare to that time of connectivity and that collective human experience with the star studded sky above and those distant lights of trucks on the roads beneath surrounded by thickets moving speedily for God knew which errand.

We played games too. And those games were highly simplistic but most enjoyable. They were not meant to make us more ‘mature’ or ‘intellectual’- they were there to bring the hidden child outside, to tear those facades of maturity that each of us had worn and were tired of carrying. We all were allowed to be ourselves with no expectations to keep or identities to maintain. We did not know each other. We could as well be anything we wanted. And that too, is a gift- entering into a world where no one knows you.

Our excursions were definitely enjoyable despite the subsequent cramps that Panadol was employed to fix. And so went by the days. We were all in love with Uncle Rukhsar’s cooking by that time. Especially at night, sitting in the corridor with the cool breeze swaying your hair and your eyes wandering over the dark sky, you could eat so many rotis at one time. And the tea. Oh the tea. Where I had always detested tea at home, I became an ardent tea lover at the camp.

And the last day with the incessant rain sloshing at our umbrellas relentlessly as we rushed down the stairs towards the kitchen to get our boiled eggs- and how we gobbled the egg in 5 seconds like there was nothing more precious on earth.

We also learnt a lot on our excursions. I learnt that you could get an amazing Rs. 10 samosa on Mall Road of Murree. I learnt that so many shopkeepers would try to fleece you because you don’t seem like a native. I learnt that pulling the hand-cart with passengers on (a common vehicle on Mall Road) requires Herculean effort and isn’t all romantic like one Hum TV serial Jugnu portrayed it to be. I also learnt, to my anguish, that the flower-wreath sellers at Pindi Point fleece you by selling it for Rs. 100 whereas the Kashmir Point ones sell it for Rs. 50. I also learnt that for some strange reason, Nestle water bottles don’t come sealed in Murree no matter where you go. And that Ghora Galli fruit-sellers would tell you that their apples come from Quetta (like seriously?). And that the moment you try to take a picture outside the PTV office in Murree, a guard would peep out from the gate and shoo you off. And that the moment you try to enter the Murree church without permission, you would again be kicked out. And that the Ghora Galli ‘zoo’ has hardly 3 to 4 animals. And that the local ice cream sold over there is so bad you have to throw it after the first bite. I also learnt that some people only make you their friend because your phone takes better pictures.

On the way back via train, I also learnt that opening the berth seats are a nuisance for all by which no one remains able to sit up properly or even sleep properly. And again, that trains are to be avoided for a good life. I also learnt that because the train washroom window refuses to go down, you feel like you are standing in an open field instead of a washroom because the whole purpose of privacy vanishes up the air. And because the lock does not work, you cannot go to the washroom alone- someone has to hold the door. And that the Lahore Railway Station seems to move farther and farther just because you finally want to get off the hellhole that train is. But finally, the train does stop. And there your mother is, smiling and rushing forward to meet you.