The Reluctant Traveler — Journey to Sweden

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

Introduction

The reluctant researcher blog series chronicled my journey from the start of PhD to its end and thereafter. But how did I end up being in Sweden in the first place. No, it was not the PhD. I was in Sweden already for nearly 2 years when I started mine and this blogs looks at the part of my life, starting from the first journey abroad and looks into these 2 years in some detail.

Planning for Pursuing Higher Education

Having completed my undergraduate education from N.E.D. University of Engineering and Technology in early 2007, I joined a small company but plans to go abroad for graduate education was always on the cards. However, I needed to make a prudent decision based on what was affordable. I looked for opportunities in Asia, Europe and Canada and applied for multiple master’s program which either offered free education or had opportunities for tuition wavers and/or stipends.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Sweden at that time offered free graduate education and one was only required to support the living expenses. On the other hand Saudi Arabia had good universities offering graduate programs which were not only free but also provided a stipend. Being an observant Muslim, Saudi Arabia had immense attraction due to proximity of the Holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, apart from the fact that praying places were always round the corner.

However, purely from the perspective of quality of education and opportunities, Sweden was far better. This was based on advice of people who have had experience of either or both the places. I applied to both (Linköping University in Sweden and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) in Dahran, Saudi Arabia), did istikhara (an Islamic prayer seeking guidance from the Al-Mighty Allah ﷻ when making a decision) and hoped for the best.

Photo by Agus Dietrich on Unsplash

As fate had it, admission from Sweden came much before KFUPM and I went ahead and applied for visa. Meanwhile, admission from KFUPM was also confirmed and I had to make a choice. There was an opportunity to defer the admission in KFUPM from the fall semester to spring and since I had already applied for visa to Sweden, I opted for it.

Traveling to Sweden and the Struggle to Settle Down

Karachi to Doha

Qatar airways at Karachi airport (image obtained from historyofpia.com)
Qatar airways at Karachi airport (image obtained from historyofpia.com)

So, on Friday, August 22, 2008 I boarded a Qatar Airways flight very early in the morning. In order to get a cheaper ticket, I opted for a longer flight with two transits rather than the usual ‘1’. The journey was to first take me to Doha, then Frankfurt and then eventually to Stockholm. I had traveled by air locally but this was my first ever flight abroad and saying that I was nervous would be an understatement.

I had grown up in a joint family with loving members and being the only son, the center of attention, specially of my mother. All I had to do at home was study, play or be with friends. Suddenly the thought of leaving such comforts of home to go to a far country nestled close to the Article circle to live completely on my own to not only study, but to study, cook, wash and clean, freaked me out, once I reached airport.

The reality of living alone hit hard when I bid a final farewell to my mother and I broke down. Somehow, I managed to somehow regroup and proceed to check-in and board. The initial flight from Karachi to Doha was a bit better as another student was sitting next to me proceeding to UK for his own higher studies and we had a nice chat. I also came across two more students going to Sweden but taking a relatively more direct route of flying directly to Stockholm from Doha.

Doha to Frankfurt

Frankfurt airport. Photo by Dennis Gecaj on Unsplash

The transit in Doha was very short for me and I had no time of even looking around. Within minutes of going through security, I was in the queue for my flight to Frankfurt and I landed towards the back of the plane next to a, possible, Chinese person and:

The introvert in me kicked in and we spent the whole 5–6 hours flight completely ignoring each other’s existence

Photo by Gabriel on Unsplash

The whole journey, I was extremely depressed and wished if I could turn the plane and go back home. It was certainly a difficult journey and I still remember each minute of it. It is so strongly ingrained in me, that I cannot even listen to the Nasheeds I listened during that journey as the whole journey just flashes across me when I do so.

Next stop was Frankfurt where I had to spend another 5 hours before my flight to Sweden. First of all, I needed to find a toilet but quickly realized I did not have the most important element of us desi’s backpack, a pee bottle. Yes, a bottle which we use to fill up with water to wash. I reluctantly bought a bottle, thinking it is of water for €2 and quickly calculated that I have spent like Rs. 200 (the exchange rate at that time must be around 110 for € as $ was around 75) just to pee :-). I later realized that it was not a water bottle but an apple scented sparkling water :-D.

Prayer room at Frankfurt airport (image obtained from: https://shop.frankfurt-airport.com/en/poi/muslimischer-gebetsraum-1/). It looked different when I was there.

Fortunately, I was able to find a small and cosy Islamic prayer room where I spent the next few hours praying and relaxing. It was the first time I witnessed people from other countries praying and it was truly magical to witness the slight variations with which people belonging to different countries pray. Eventually I made my way down to the departure lounge for my flight to Stockholm, which was through the Scandinavian Airlines (SAS).

Frankfurt to Stockholm

The flight from Frankfurt to Stockholm was really uneventful. It was late in the evening and everything was dark outside. Within a few minutes of my flight I realized that there would be no free meals on this flight and everything was being sold in Euros. The currency calculator kicked in my mind and I decided to go through the flight without any food. The flight was just a couple of hours long so it wasn’t difficult. I sheepishly asked for a glass of water from the air hostess and was fortunately provided.

Scandinavian airplane (image from: sasgroup.net)

The Night in Stockholm

We landed at Arlanda Airport, Stockholm around 11 pm and all trains to my destination city of Linköping had already departed. I had to contact an acquaintance to arrange meeting him in the central station and proceeded to the phone booth at the airport. All instructions were in Swedish, so, unable to understand how to operate it. I just pushed a 10 SEK coin into it which duly came back out. After trying unsuccessfully a few more times, I started contemplating spending the night at the airport. I was lucky I didn’t as Arlanda airport closes for a few hours during the night.

An aerial view of Arlanda airport, Stockholm (image obtained from: en.wikipedia.org)

Fortunately, I overheard some one talking in Urdu from a distance and met a fellow Pakistani brother who was returning from some visit to another European country. Surprisingly, he was also from Karachi (my home city) and was the neighbor of the acquaintance where I had to spent the night. This was certainly a great blessing of the Al-Mighty (ﷻ). He was kind enough to accompany me on the Flygbussarna airport coaches which took me directly to the central train station, known as T-Centralen. He was also kind enough to allow me to call my acquaintance and also send a message home to Pakistan (these were the non-WhatsApp days with no 3G/4G enabled phones). During our time on the bus, which took around 1 hour, we had a debate about MQM and Karachi as he was a keen supporter of MQM (and I am not).

The Stockholm central station, known as T-Centralen (image obtained from: www.alamy.com)

Eventually I reached the home of my acquaintance, contacted my family and went to sleep. Next day, after having breakfast, I proceeded to the central station again to get on the bus towards Linköping. My acquaintance, now my friend, was kind enough to accompany me to the station from where I boarded the Swebus Express.

Stockholm to Linköping

Swebus on E4, Sweden (image obtained from hiveminer.com)

The journey to Linköping was good. We traveled on the E4 highway which is one of the major highways in Sweden. Next to me was a Swedish person who was had visited a number of Muslim countries like Malaysia and Indonesia and we struck up an interesting conversation about Islam, Pakistan and Sweden. Those were the days when the incident of the hateful cartoons depicting our beloved Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) was still fresh and we had a good conversation about it and he happily agreed with the view that these cartoons are certainly offensive for us Muslims. I also got to witness some glimpse of life in a western society as the couple in the seat ahead of me generally spent the whole journey kissing and cuddling each other.

Start of Life in Linköping

Linköping, Sweden. The city I made my home for 8 years (Image obtained from here)

On the Linköping bus stop, a dear friend and elder brother, Mr. Saad Rahman, was there to receive me. Saad Bhai was the one who guided me about the studies in Linköping, in general, and the Masters in System-on-chip design program, in particular. He is a man who finds extreme comfort in helping others and was at the forefront of Pakistani student associations in Sweden.

The general impression I had of western cities was one of hustle and bustle with wide roads and lots of cars. But Linköping was a small and quite city which at that time was certainly something alien to me. During my journey from the stop to his home, we went pass the central Linköping graveyard and I made an impromptu prayer that:

Oh Allah (ﷻ), I do not want to be buried in here

This prayer was certainly extreme but one can imagine my state of mind. We reached his home and he was kind enough to invite me to his home and offered me lunch after which I proceeded to my home. It was Saad Bhai’s guidance that helped me arrange a home on my own while being in Pakistan and was already in contact with one potential room-mate who had arrived a few days earlier and got possession of the apartment on Björnkärrsgatan, which was the same street where Saad Bhai lived. The room-mate had already arranged for two more room-mates, one of which was incidentally on the same flight as me from Karachi to Doha.

Björnkärrsgatan during early winter.

It was certainly weird to go to my apartment, which I would go on to call home for the next 1.5 years. It was completely empty with absolutely no furniture apart from a few mattresses. Thankfully, the kitchen came with a fitted refrigerator and a stove. The first night dinner was prepared by a room mate and then we proceeded to just roam a bit around the new town. My journey also started my journey as someone who would occasionally and sometimes frequently lead the Islamic daily prayers, which, Alhumdulillah, continues to this day.

Minimal furniture at our home. Image was captured a few weeks after I reached Linköping.

The First Night in Linköping

The first night was hard. I just laid down a piece of bed sheet and slept on it with, I think, a jacket as a pillow. Although it was August but the floor was very cold since our home was on the ground floor. I literally woke up shaking with cold a few hours later and had to wear full winter clothing in order to go to sleep.

Start of Semester and My Struggles

Classes started just a couple of days later and as the days passed, I slowly got to meet other Pakistanis and started going to Linköping University. But settling in was hard. As said before, it was the first time I was living on my own. Initially I did not have a laptop and had to rely on friends’ laptops or University’s lab computers. Smartphones were not in vogue back then. Also, Sweden has the quarter system where each semester is broken down into two shorter quarters and initially it was tough to get to speed with the studies.

Linköping University (image obtained from studyinsweden.se)

And just a couple of weeks into my sojourn, Ramadan started. It was very tough managing everything on my own, like cooking, washing, studying, traveling and what not. I massively missed the prayer congregations and whole beautiful environment we have back home in Pakistan.

Furthermore, since I was the tenant, I was also the default manager of the home with the Pakistani student association (PSA) managing the room-mates. I had to pay all the bills and also schedule all cleanings of the house. I could have delegated that but somehow, I kept everything with me. There were certain issues with new tenants as well.

Setting down was certainly very difficult and I used to cry a lot. Ramadan and eventually Eid also made it extremely difficult. I used to imagine daily about returning to Pakistan during the next summer holidays and fall asleep with that imagination. That imagination, or day dream as some might say, still helps me in relaxing. Also, a lot of people helped me a great deal in going through, probably, the most difficult part of my life. Not only my mother, but my whole family, from everywhere in Pakistan, Canada and America reached out to get me through this phase. One of my friends in Toronto, Canada was also very helpful and so was a friend in Manchester, UK. Friends in Linköping also played an important role.

I was so disturbed that I started to contemplate leaving Sweden and opt for KFUPM as I knew they will reach out again in November. One of my friends in Linköping also commented that he felt that I will leave Sweden and go to KFUPM. I went all out in gathering as much information I can about live in KFUPM through a friend who was already there.

Settling Down

As always happens, as time went by, I began to settle down. I was never fond of cooking, but found ways of doing minimal cooking, enough for survival. I would cook two dishes during the weekends in a quantity that would last the whole week with week days’ cooking only restricted to boiling rice or making bread (buying bread was not an option to keep the living costs down). The positive side of all this was that I shed around 10–15 kg in weight and also enabled me to appreciate food a lot more. Making schedules about cleaning and paying bills was also not much of a problem, though asking the roommates to stick to it certainly was :-).

One of my earliest self cooked meal. Kidney beans and bread.

Eventually, I decided to stay in Sweden as I started making good progress with studies. The trip to Norway certainly helped a lot where a cousin of my mother lived with all her family. After the end of the 1st semester (and 2nd quarter), I went to Oslo to live with them for around ‘3’ weeks and I had a great time there. They were very welcoming and since it was the holiday season towards the turn of the year, I accompanied them to a number of dinner gatherings with delicious food. They also had a Masjid (Mosque) nearby and I could go there for nearly all prayers, which was certainly relaxing and helped me meet so many other Muslims and Pakistanis. This period of time really helped me relax and I went back to Linköping really freshened up and ready to start another semester.

Place where I stayed in Norway.

Starting MS Thesis Early

Time now started to pass really quickly and I made up my mind to start with my MS Thesis early rather than wait for the end of the 3rd semester. This would help me in finishing MS early and certainly help me lower the costs associated with living longer. I started with my eventual PhD supervisor in March 2009 and carried on with both courses and research work. I would spend nearly all day in the university, including weekends, and would come home only for sleeping. The only extended period of time I spent at home was when I had to cook, clean or wash.

Summer Back in Pakistan

Eventually summer arrived and I took the flight back to Pakistan a mere few days after my final exam. Normally, people would spend the summer working or visiting Europe, but not me. But even while returning to Pakistan I felt nervous and I realized that I suffer from some form of long travel anxiety. I still do suffer and do not enjoy extended travels, yet I have always landed myself in places, be it Linköping, Mianwali or Dublin, where traveling to Pakistan/Karachi will always remain a part of life.

During my stay in Pakistan I continued working on my MS thesis while enjoying home cooked food and stayed there for a good 2.5 months. Getting back to Sweden was again tough and the nervousness and anxiety of traveling kicked back in leaving me with a really bad stomach. The journey back (this times with Turkish Airlines) was tough as I did not eat much and also missed the train back to my city due to it coming to the wrong platform. But the train officials were kind enough to realize that and issue me a 1st class ticket for the next train :-).

Back to Linköping

After coming back, it was time for one final push to complete my MS. At that point, I did not have any ambition of going for a PhD but as I neared the end of MS, I realized that going back with the kind of skill set I have, getting a good long term job would not be easy. As reasons outlined in my other blogs, I decided to go for a PhD which I hoped will enable me to land a safe job in the academia in Pakistan (a wrong assumption as it eventually turned out).

PhD in Linköping

I found a position in NTNU, Trondheim, Norway and I applied for that position under an experienced Professor there with my MS supervisor as a co-supervisor. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to land that position but at least I was able to show this intention of pursuing PhD and my performance during my MS convinced my supervisor to offer me a position instead. I started my PhD in March 2010, soon after completing my MS, and that

started the wonderful next 6 years of my life where my mother would be able to come visit for lengthy periods of time, I got married to a beautiful and intelligent wife and became father to lovely two kids

and as they say, the rest is history. But I’ll say this:

Read my other blogs here.

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A reluctant researcher, making the transition to industry. Opinions expressed in my posts are mine and not of my employer.

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Syed Asad Alam

Syed Asad Alam

A reluctant researcher, making the transition to industry. Opinions expressed in my posts are mine and not of my employer.

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