The ocean is so clear you can spot tiny fish hiding between the rocks even from the shore. Coconut palm trees sway in the wind and a bright sun beats down, giving the water unimaginable shades of blue.
I am in French Polynesia’s Bora Bora, 15,000 kilometres away from Karachi, exploring this ‘pearl of the Pacific’ and not expecting to find someone who will be reminiscing with me about the grey waters of the Arabian Sea, riding camels in Clifton or rescuing turtles at Sandspit. But this is exactly what happens.
I meet Virginie Badet, a French-Guatemalan woman who works at a store in the main city of Bora Bora called Vaitape. She asks me where I was from as soon as I enter the store and when I reply, “Karachi”, she laughs and tells me, “I lived in Karachi too!”
Virginie moved to Karachi in 1993 and lived there for five years as a teenager as her father worked at Alliance Française de Karachi. In fact, her younger brother was born at the Aga Khan Hospital in 1994. He lives in Tahiti now and takes great joy in telling everyone that he was born in Pakistan.
“I was born in a different culture so, for me, Pakistan was completely new and different,” Virginie tells me a few days later when we sit down for an interview at Matira Beach. Before Pakistan, Virginie had only lived in Guatemala with her parents. In Karachi, she remembers being told that she has to stay covered up. No shorts in public, even in the hot weather. “I was also young so I didn’t understand much of why things were the way they were.”
However, she acknowledges living in Karachi as an important experience in her life. “It allowed me to learn something about a completely new culture,” she says.
In those days, the weekends were on Fridays and Saturdays. Virginie’s family and their friends – other people working at various consulates – would head down to French Beach. “We were preparing the food at home and taking picnic baskets to the beach,” she says, remembering how she always carried her bodyboard. “The waves at the beach were awesome for bodyboarding.” And like many people growing up in Karachi, for her as well, beach trips were never complete without rides on the camels and horses.
One memory that still brings a sparkle to Virginie’s eyes is going crabbing on a boat. “We used to go at night, get on a boat and there was someone serving spicy crabs,” she says. “I still remember the taste. I’ve never had crabs as good as those anywhere else in the world.”
Karachi is never short of options for food and Virginie marvelled at the variety of spices that were available. “When it was time for us to leave Karachi, my mother took some herbs and plants with her and planted them in Guatemala,” she shares. “Those plants are still alive and there are many people in my mother’s village who come to collect the leaves of the plants we brought from Karachi almost 25 years ago.”
Her love for animals led her to rescue some turtles near Sandspit. “Once we were driving to French Beach and we saw many little turtles crossing the main road to go to the other side where the mangroves were,” she recalls. “We thought these tiny creatures will be crushed by the cars so we got them all in a plastic net and released them back into the ocean. I sometimes think there must be big turtles in the Arabian Sea who wouldn’t have made it if we hadn’t rescued them.”
Virginie also spotted former prime minister Benazir Bhutto at Agha’s Supermarket one day. “We saw many guards and police vans stationed outside the store and I became excited that there must be an important person inside for there to be so much security,” she says. “Soon enough, we saw Benazir Bhutto coming out of the market and getting in her car.”
She remembers the beautiful house they lived in in Karachi, close to the palace of a Qatari prince. “There were two women from Sri Lanka who worked as domestic help and we had a chowkidar and a driver,” she says, surprised that she still remembers the Urdu word for housekeeper. Even as a teenager who spent only five years in Karachi, Virginie holds fond memories of her time in the city.