When I received my Canadian passport in January 2016, I remember holding it in my cold, wintry hands and feeling overwhelmed.
I had a Pakistani passport all my life, and I had plenty of stamps that embraced the green pages proudly. But the new blue pages were bare and waiting for the same treatment.
I often wondered about which stamp would be the first on my new passport. After exotic daydreams and mindless scrolling on travel websites, I had made my decision in December. I would visit Lahore, Pakistan.
Although I had grown up in the Middle East, and then Canada, it was important to me to visit my roots.
My father often speaks in Punjabi, a robust and flavourful language reflective of the culture. Whenever he spoke it, I imagined the mustard fields and the colourful trucks from my childhood visits, but my dream would always be shattered when I turned the news on to see bomb attacks on schools and the shrines with blood spilled on their floors.
Regardless of outside voices urging me to stay, I listened to my own and chose to fly there and stay for two months.
The timing was convenient, because I was required to complete a six-week internship in the media to hone my journalistic skills and figure out what I wanted to do.
I emailed a platform that I had admired for a while, MangoBaaz. I considered them revolutionary for changing the narrative of the more traditional media available. Through memes, videos and articles, they had given the youth of Pakistan a new way to digest their news.
While most of their content was based on entertainment and social news, they addressed controversial and taboo topics like rape, child prostitution and transgender rights.
After a couple of video calls with the founders, Ali Ahsan and Ali Gul, I was invited to join the team.
And thus, I set out on my journey.
My time in the office was unlike any experience I’ve ever had.
We were all a group of young individuals brimming with ideas, some of which we brought to life and some, we were hoping to build on.
I learned how to write for a different audience, and challenged myself in that process with the topics I researched.
I became comfortable with being in front of the camera and flirted with acting.
The environment was supportive and encouraging, even with bombs and increasing tensions taking place. When rubble decorated the streets and phones rang with worried voices and scary messages, we took care of each other.
Lahore was some sort of unreal fantasy that fed my wanderlust every day, literally and figuratively.
The curiosity in me led me to Badshahi Mosque, Anarkali bazaar and beyond. It led me to the hospital with a bad case of food poisoning, and then to a wedding showered in rose petals and confetti.
Every morning I was surrounded by delectable foods and tantalizing smells that made me feel like I was home.
Every night invited me to exciting adventures and spontaneous drives to see the stars in the open sky.
Strangers became friends and cousins became siblings over time. There was a pride in knowing this was mine and this is what coursed through my veins.
I wanted to share it with the world.
I soon started to immerse myself in what was a short-term love affair with Lahore.
I learned to haggle with shopkeepers in fast-paced Urdu and guided rickshaw drivers with confidence.
I gave up on my daily double-double coffee and replaced it with rich and fragrant chai, which soon became an addiction.
I walked into this experience a little scared, unsure of what would happen.
But after evading explosions, surviving three nights in a hospital and dodging marriage proposals, I realized I shouldn’t fear the unknown, rather welcome it.
They say in Punjabi, “Jinnay Lahore nai vekhiya, woh jameya hi nai” which loosely translates to “whoever hasn’t seen Lahore, hasn’t lived.”
It took me about 20 years to learn this.
But it’ll take me a lifetime to forget.