Two Months in Romania

If you had asked me at the beginning of this year what I’d be doing this summer, I would probably have shrugged and mumbled something about taking an extra course at university. Instead, I found myself in Romania, taking part in an ambitious educational project to help young people realize their potential in an increasingly competitive yet interdependent world: gROw, 2011.

When I say Romania, probably the first thing that comes to your mind is the legend of Dracula, with blood dripping from his fangs, the swish of his black cape as he turns into a bat and disappears into the Transylvanian night. When I chose to go to Romania for my exchange experience in the summer of 2011, I certainly wasn’t on the vampire trail; but to be perfectly honest it was one of the things that attracted me in the beginning. Believe it or not, vampires used to be cool back in the day, before they began sparkling in the sun.

But there’s much more to Romania than the folklore of vampires, as I found during my 2-month internship in Bucharest, the cultural, financial and administrative capital of this vigorous Eastern-European country.

Bucharest itself is about the size of Gulshan-e-Iqbal, the town where I live, at least in terms of population. But whoa is it different! From the underground metro, to the trolley-buses and trams; the gigantic parks and the river cutting through the middle of the city;

In a team with 9 others in Bucharest (from Poland, Russia, The Netherlands, Czech Republic, Greece & Malaysia), I worked with high school students, talking to them about global change and how they could adapt their skills to achieve their dreams and beyond. Discussions ranged from entrepreneurship, career orientation and self-awareness to how much a wedding in Pakistan costs and what kind of movies we have in Lollywood.

Before leaving, I was a little worried about the kind of reception and reactions I would get. Here I was traveling alone, a 20-year old guy from the “most dangerous country in the world,” where Bin Laden had been found just a couple of weeks before. But apart from a few awkward questions now and then, I neither felt nor experienced anything untoward. I was asked why I didn’t wear a beard, how many wives I had, if I had any bombs on me and whether I had a pet camel. Most of these questions were, of course, made in jest – and I had been expecting them. But for the most part, every single person I encountered was curious to discover the real side of Pakistan and listened to what I had to say with an open mind.

I met many wonderful people throughout my exchange, in Bucharest as well as the other cities in Romania I had the pleasure of visiting. I made some invaluable friends; my awesome co-trainers and everyone in AIESEC Bucharest, who all made my summer much more fun than I could have hoped for. I discovered many things about myself and about other people during this time. I think that’s the biggest difference between an AIESEC (international) internship and a “regular” local internship. Plucked from my comfortable life here in Karachi and left alone to fend for myself in a dramatically different environment than what I was used to, there was no choice but to adapt – and that came easily enough. We Pakistanis are nothing if not very good at adapting to less-than-favorable conditions. But if someone were to ask me what the hardest part of the internship was, I would say it was finishing it and leaving.

There are many small incidents and inside jokes that pop into my head every now and then as I’m reminded of all the fun I had with my co-trainers. From the look of surprise on the waiter’s face when I asked for a Coke instead of a beer, to walking 1,500 steps up a hill to see Vlad Dracula’s castle; being asked whether Pakistanis live in caves and travel on camels, to trying to explain the function of a model Rickshaw to a Romanian customs officer; going inside a 600-year old Orthodox church to playing Uno with the elderly in the park. This whole experience has been a treasure-trove of memories and learning that I would gladly do all over again.

AIESEC gave me the opportunity to make some great friends from 27 different countries and experience their cultures; to travel a beautiful Eastern European country and experience (bits of) its fascinating culture; and most importantly, to contribute to something great. I’ve developed myself and helped to improve the impressions of Pakistan. I’ve lived through a life altering experience that I will never forget.