Saturday, November 29, 2003

Pakistan: Lahore

At the end of November, I went to Lahore (jokingly referred to as the Paris of Pakistan). I went with my good friend Dennis, and we had a high time.

The Motorway between Islamabad and Lahore is very nice. The arid terrain is reminiscent of the Southwest U.S. Unlike the U.S. Interstate system, however, the Pakistani Motorway has very little traffic and no billboards. The speed limit on the Motorway is about 75 mph and there are 3 lanes in both directions.

With one stop for gas, the drive took us 3 and 1/2 hours. Along the entire length of the Motorway, there were policemen observing traffic. They were either standing by the road or sitting in squad cars - either parked or slowly driving on the shoulder. This was a good thing for us because we were in Dennis's car and the engine was really knocking. He suspected that there was water in the gas tank. I know nothing about cars, so I could offer no better theory. In any case, there was a good chance we would break down, at which point a roadside cop would come in very handy.

As we approached Lahore, we paid the toll and left the Motorway. We didn't have a map and the exit sign just said Lahore, so we didn't know where we were going. Not 2 seconds after we had entered the city, we were stuck in the middle of a huge traffic situation. In Islamabad city limits, horses and tongas and push carts and all the rest are not allowed on the roads. In Lahore, anything goes. There were bikes and motorbikes and animals and buses and trucks and cars and carts and pedestrians everywhere. And everyone was honking, hardly anyone was moving, and the exhaust fumes were off the chart.

Dennis was driving, and he honked his way through the traffic. Then we turned around and tried a different road. It was less congested, so we stayed on this road and continued toward the city center. Eventually we parked at a gas station and called Dennis's friends to come lead us to their house.

Lahore is in eastern Pakistan, 30 kilometers from the Indian border. It is a bustling city of 3 or 4 million people, and there are hardly any Westerners there. As far as diplomatic missions go, I think the only Westerners in Lahore work at the American Consulate, and there are only a handful of them. Other than that, there are a handful of Westerners working in NGOs and on the local economy.

Dennis is a Filipino American, and he had been to Lahore before for work. He told me before we went that I would stick out like a sore thumb. When we asked for permission for our trip from the Consulate, the security officer told me the same thing. They were both right on the money, and I attracted no small amount of attention.

Getting back to the story, we didn't have to wait long at the gas station before Dennis's friends came and retrieved us. I think we had definitely made the right choice in having the friends come to us because I doubt we would have ever found their house on our own. The route was a bit convoluted.

Our hosts were a Filipino couple in their 60s. Leo, the husband was the quality control manager for a textiles plant. His factory had contracts for Gap, Polo/Ralph Lauren, Speedo, Old Navy, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, and probably others I am forgetting. As part of the terms of these contracts, though, none of the products were allowed to be sold in Pakistan. Even so, Leo told us how every month there were over two thousand shirts "missing" from inventory. That's not counting pants, jackets, and the rest. So, it didn't matter that the items couldn't be legally sold in Pakistan; they were still walking out of the factory doors and onto the market.

Leo was also the central figure of the Filipino community in Lahore, so through him I was constantly meeting more of his countrymen.

His wife, Millet, had cooked a large spread of Filipino delicacies, so we had lunch and then hit the town. Leo and Millet also warned me that I was going to really stick out in town.

We started with a driving tour of the city with their driver, a Pakistani Christian named Joseph. The Filipinos all happened to have been very short, so I was selected to ride in the front seat for the leg room. Wherever we went, the locals were fixated on me. It was a weird thing - it made me feel kind of like a freak, kind of like a rock star.

The drive was interesting, but the warm sun on my face got the better of me. I fell asleep, and when I woke up we were parking at Lahore Fort - a large Mogul fort with courtyards and a wall and towers and whatnot. It took several minutes to get the car parked since the place was crawling with people and they were all walking in the road.

When we got to the ticket window, a hassle erupted. The prices were 10 rupees for kids (18 cents), 20 rupees for adults (35 cents), and 200 rupees for foreigners ($3.50). Joseph was local, and the 3 Filipinos were dark and Asian, so they also got through as locals. I was clearly a foreigner, and I was cool with paying the foreign charge. Leo wasn't cool with this, however. He was up at the window bargaining like a madman. And about 10 minutes later, we got inside - with 4 local tickets and one foreigner ticket.

As our group of 5 walked along, a crowd gathered around us. Everyone was staring at us, or at me to be more precise. Nobody was talking to me, though. Rather, the curious onlookers asked my companions questions about me. Then, some little kids ran up and tentatively shook my hand. After that, the gloves were off. Other people ran up to shake hands. Others rubbed my arms or touched my hair. People asked me to pose for pictures with them, which I did for the first two before I had to nip that in the bud. All of these jokers were like, "To hell with the fort, look at that white guy!" It was very odd to see a group like that with such limited exposure. It was such a shock for these people that even the beggars just stared. Thank goodness for that!

After a while, I could tell that Dennis was getting a little pissed at the whole circus that was following us around. It wasn't like we could get rid of them, though. As we walked along, I did see one other light-skinned guy who happened to be an old man. He didn't seem to be drawing any attention, so maybe they didn't think an old white guy was as interesting as a younger one. Or maybe he knew some way to instantly scatter a crowd.

I tried out my Urdu on some boys who were interested in having a conversation. They asked my name and when I told them, it reminded them of a famous cricket player. We switched to English, and I told them I didn't follow cricket. They asked where I was from. I told them I was from the U.S.A., and they were most impressed. Evidently WWF is quite popular in Pakistan. These kids were like, "Do you know the Rock?"

I responded, "I know of the Rock."

They obviously didn't understand what I meant because they started asking questions along the lines of whether the Rock was my friend and if I had ever fought him. Every time they would ask me anything, I would have to have them repeat. After a bit, they started laughing about how I didn't know English. And why not? Seeing as how it's my native language and not theirs, clearly my English was the problem.

Around this time, the fort was closing and the park rangers started blowing whistles so people would leave. We got back to the car and honked our way out. The road was so clogged with people we were literally nudging them out of the way with the bumper.

That night, we got invited to a party - a rowdy, chaotic affair. Actually, it was a first birthday party for a Filipino lad. It was held at a Chinese restaurant, and in attendance there were like 50 Filipino people, me, and 2 Germans. Most of the time, I just sat around while everyone else was engaged in animated conversations in Tagalog. Every few minutes, they would break out laughing, and someone would turn to me and explain what was so funny. If you've never had this experience, let me tell you that the joke is never as funny once everyone else is done laughing and someone is still explaining it to you. Plus, a lot of the jokes seemed to involve me marrying the daughters of the women at the table. It got a little tedious.

After the party, we hit some stores and called it a night.

The next day was our main shopping day. We got an early start - too early since the stores didn't open until 11:00 - so we went to tour a tomb. It was something similar to the Taj Mahal. We had the same hassle at the ticket window that we had had at Lahore Fort, and this time we ended up with 1 local ticket and 4 foreigner tickets. Leo was pissed.

Pakistanis are not generally morning people, so the place was pretty dead and I was much less of a spectacle.

After we finished up at the tomb, we started a full day of shopping. Before we stepped into the first store, my companions practically ordered me not to say a word so that I wouldn't spoil any deals. They claimed that the vendors would jack up the prices right off the bat if I spoke. I didn't really think this would make a hill of beans difference, since whether I spoke or not, we were already destined to get the Westerner price. For their part, the Filipinos were telling everyone that they were Chinese. China borders Pakistan, and the two countries are friends.

We hit the bazaars and had a good haul. Even with the tourist mark-up, most of these vendors had a lower asking price than could be reached even after bargaining in Islamabad. Being a textiles expert, Leo was all over these guys. One guy was trying to sell us some "wool" blankets. Leo whipped out his glasses for a closer look, and this vendor didn't have a chance. Leo inspected the fabric, then smelled it, then looked some more, then tasted it (not really), and then put his glasses back in his pocket. Then he told the guy, "This is not wool. This is acrylic blend."

The guy knew he was busted, and suddenly the price was half. We didn't buy.

Millet is also a serious bargainer. Anytime anyone would tell her a price, she would give a long, dramatic "NOOOO". I know that's what you are supposed to do in bargaining, but she was cracking me up. The only bad part about the shopping was that one of the things we specifically came to buy was a special kind of local ceramics. The stores that had the good selections of it were all closed for the whole weekend for the Eid holiday. We would have to buy the ceramics on a different trip.

We had lunch at McDonald's. Islamabad didn't have a McDonald's at the time, so it was a big deal to have McDonald's in Lahore. I rarely eat at McDonald's in any country, but it is nice on occasion. If I had eaten this particular meal blindfolded, I don't think I would have been able to tell I wasn't eating Stateside. The taste was totally authentic. As we were eating, I also saw some of my Egyptian diplomat friends from Islamabad.

In Lahore, they take their fast food seriously. I think all the American chains that they have are McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Subway, KFC, and Dunkin Donuts, but there are several of each, and each one is huge - most are 3 stories tall.

That night at Leo and Millet's, we had screw drivers and slices of dried squid (which they tell me is the food for drinking in the Philippines) with some more Filipinos and a Jordanian man.

The next day was Sunday, and after church, we went to Dunkin Donuts with still more Filipinos. This time we went with five ladies, who just so happened to be the quality control team for the textile plant that manufactured Levis. They couldn't sell their products in-country either, but they took mine and Dennis's sizes in case they came across any production samples that would fit us.

Often times when I drink the night before, I don't do breakfast. On this day, I told my companions that I didn't want anything to eat, and I went to the bathroom. When I came back, there was this gruesome chicken sandwich covered with barbeque sauce waiting for me. We were at Dunkin Donuts, and they ordered these sandwiches for everyone (they must've missed the Donut part). In an amazing feat of mind-over-matter, I managed to choke the sandwich down. There were extra sandwiches for some reason, and they insisted that Dennis and I take them for our drive back to Islamabad. At that moment, Dennis and I both knew that those sandwiches were never coming out of that bag.

We returned to the house, and more visitors popped in. We had met them at the birthday party, so we were like one big family by now. Dennis and I said bye to Leo and Millet, bye to the other visitors, bye to the neighbors, and bye to the household staff. Several people invited us to stay with them on our next trip to Lahore. Others invited us to Christmas parties. Others invited us to the Philippines. Meanwhile, Millet was filling up an empty ice cream bucket with homemade macaroons. ¡Aye carumba! It was a wonder we ever got away.

I drove most of the way back, and a good deal of that was in the fast lane. In Pakistan, the fast lane is the passing lane, and you are not supposed to drive there except when passing. I didn't realize this at the time. Actually, this may also be the rule in the U.S., but no one follows it if it is. Anyway, we noticed a few of the policemen who were standing watch on the side of the Motorway flapping papers at us as we passed by. I guess that they were trying to pull us over, but we couldn't tell. We just drove on.

At the final toll booth, however, they caught us. The police along the road had radioed ahead about us, and an officer pulled us over when we got in the toll line. We shook hands with the cop, and he inquired about our families. We inquired about his family. All of our families were OK.

After the chit-chat the policeman started going on about how driving in the passing lane on the Motorway was a very serious offense. I told him that I was only using it for passing (which was true since I was going faster than most of the other traffic), but he continued harping about it.

We had diplomatic plates on the car, and the policeman knew it. He pulled out his ticket book, but he didn't write us up. He would start to write, then hesitate and lecture us some more, then pause, and repeat the process. I think that he was trying to provide us with an opportunity to offer him a few hundred rupees to make the problem go away. We didn't opt for bribery, though, and the cop gave us a final warning and allowed us to continue.

Twenty minutes later, I was home.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Pakistan: Islamabad: Arizona Grill

The Arizona Grill is a steakhouse/TexMex restaurant in Islamabad. As far as the dining scene goes, it is probably in the top ten - not that the culinary bar is set very high. For a few months in the summer, it was floating on and off of the health unit's list of restaurants of concern. But, if you can look past a little abdominal discomfort and nausea, the Arizona Grill can grill a mean steak. They can also serve up some humor without even trying.

Last night, I was out for dinner at the Arizona Grill with my good friend Sumera. We were at the table comparing notes to see who had had the most horrific day (I was winning), when the waiter came out. He presented us with the menus, and then he gave us each a laminated sheet of paper highlighting the new dishes for the month.

Right at the top of the list was new entree #1: CHICKEN CRAP

Me and Sumera read that out loud at the same time and started laughing for like ten minutes.

The rest of the dishes were nothing special, until near the bottom of the menu...


It was a riot. Both items were supposed to say crepe, but this was much better.

Naturally, I wanted a copy of the menu insert for future entertainment. I was going to offer the waiter a few hundred rupees for a copy (it was just the laminated insert afterall), but Sumera, who spoke much better Urdu than I did, thought she could get it without paying any rupees. I was fine with that, so I sat back and watched her in action.

Her performance got two thumbs down, I'm afraid. Instead of putting the question to a lowly waiter, she asked the roving manager who was supervising the dining room. Then, she didn't even use Urdu.

The manager was like, "No. That is against our policy. I can write down the name of the dish you need." That was no good, though, so we told him not to bother. Then the waiter took our orders, and the manager took our menus. Doh!

I'm sure that the manager knew something was up since he had been standing around while we had been cracking up.

While it may have been a little mean to laugh at their innocent mistake, the whole situation made for a great ending to the day.

Not to mention, it was the best chicken crap I've ever eaten.

Monday, September 01, 2003

Pakistan: Taxila

There’s nothing like spending a hot Labor Day in Taxila, Pakistan.

Taxila is a town about 40 minutes west of Islamabad, and it has several sites of archaeological interest and a nice museum. I went with my good friends Mel, Kaki, and Dennis.

We found the place easily enough and parked in the visitor’s lot. I popped in to get a map, and the tourist information guy told me that the museum wasn’t open. Turns out that it is closed the first Monday of the month. We all thought that this was hilarious.

All wasn’t lost, though, because there were about 7 sites that were open.

Near the museum, there was a guy with a horse cart who was giving us the hard sell to tour the sites with his horse. There was no way the four of us were going to fit in there with the driver, so we turned him down. He was surely puzzled, though, because by Pakistani standards the single-seat horse cart probably had a 10-person capacity.

We set off with our map, unguided.

A little ways down the road, things started looking up. We came to a row of shops. In Taxila, there are 3 main specialties – mortars and pestles, grave settings, and mirrored things. I’m sure you already know what a mortar and pestle is, so that doesn’t need any explanation. In Pakistani grave yards, the grave is covered with 2 or 3 decoratively carved pieces of stone. There is also usually a headstone. They were making all these things here. The mirrored things looked like disco balls, and they were in fact selling disco balls. In addition to mirrored balls of various sizes, there were also vases and statues of cats and things with tiny mirrors all over them.

The mortars and pestles were made out of locally quarried granite and marble. All along the roads, there were men, young and old, hammering on large chunks of rock with chisels and hammers. Once they got them down to the right shape, other men would take them and polish them up on machines. It was very interesting – and noisy and dusty. And the prices could not be beat. I didn’t even bargain because the prices were so low. The same pieces I bought would have cost 1,000% more in Islamabad (no joke), even considering the tourist mark-up that I’m sure the vendors included in Taxila.

I bought multiple mortars and pestles – one to use, others to collect dust. I also got a cool mini disco ball. No disco cheetah, though. My companions bought some souvenirs as well.

After our bit of shopping, we figured we should probably look at some ruins since we had driven all the way out there for that purpose.

We chose to start with the furthest site, which was supposed to be one of the best. It took us a while to reach the site, which means that it would have taken us a very long time to get there in that horse cart.

Anyway, this site, called the Jaulian Site, featured the ruins of a Buddhist monastery that was used between the 2nd and 5th Centuries A.D. We drove up and then started hiking up to the site. There was a canal full of water along the way, and a bunch of little boys were swimming in it. It looked like a good idea because we were all roasting in the sweltering heat. By the time we got to the site, everyone’s shirt was soaked. Just outside the site's entrance, there were two guys sitting around waiting for customers. One was selling tickets (Adult admission – about 8 cents), and the other was the tour guide.

The ruins were very cool. All around there were stupas, which are carved memorials or mounds of earth that hold relics (ashes and other remains). One was supposed to hold some of the Buddha’s ashes, but in general the stupas were for the remains of the monks that lived there.

Back in the day, the monastery was sacked by the “ruthless white Huns” (the Chinese) and burned. So some of the artifacts were destroyed then, some were ruined during excavation by the British, some were stolen, and some were removed and put in the Taxila Museum. Still, there were many cool things left to see. Buddha in the teaching pose, the praying pose, the starving pose, the healing pose, the humble pose, the relaxation pose… They all started to look the same to me, so I just nodded as the guide continued explaining.

In addition to the stupas, the living areas were still in tact. The monastery was two stories and housed 28 students and one teacher. We saw the bathroom, the kitchen, the dining room, the pool that was used to collect rain, the study room, the scullery, and probably other stuff I can’t recall.

In the background were some great mountains. Men were hard at work up there under little grass thatched lean-tos, hammering chunks of stone out of the mountain. These would eventually become more mortars and pestles. The area has been quarried now for thousands of years.

Before long, Mel was about to die from the heat, so Kaki pulled out a bottle of water from her backpack. During the hand-off, the bottle slipped and started spilling out on the dirt. They scrambled for it, and about half the water was gone before they recovered the bottle. It was comical watching the precious water flow into the dirt - like a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

On the way back to the car, the hucksters descended on us. There were 5 guys trying to sell us “authentic” artifacts from the sites. They had little statues and coins and things. We all knew that they were fake. That didn’t mean the things weren’t worth buying, though. One huckster had a statue of starving Buddha that I wanted. I expressed interest, and the bargaining commenced. It went something like this (converted to U.S. dollars):

Me: How much for the skeleton?
Huckster 1: Starving Buddha? Best price for you, sir. $5.25.
Me: I’ll give you $1.75.
Huckster 1: $3.50. This is very nice piece.
Me: No thanks.
Huckster 1: $2.60.
Me: $1.75.
Huckster 2: Take this one for $1.75.
Huckster 1: OK, sir, $1.75.

And I got starving Buddha from Number 1. When Number 2 came in with his offer, it was for a fat Buddha, which wasn’t what I wanted.

Kaki told one of the hucksters that she wasn’t interested in genuine artifacts, so the guy told her he also had replicas. Also had replicas – good one. Mel, meanwhile, tried to get rid of the hucksters by telling them that he wanted a large Buddha, which they didn't have on hand. Too bad for him, though, they scurried off and quickly returned with an assortment of larger Buddhas. Oddly enough, they didn’t have exactly what he wanted, so he still didn’t buy.

After that, we all loaded in the car and set off for another site. We never made it, though. My friends all voted to forego any more touring until the temperature cooled a bit. Since we were coming back to see the museum another day anyway, it didn’t make that much difference to me.

Saturday, August 30, 2003

Pakistan: The Khyber Pass

On a fine Saturday morning, I went with some colleagues to the Khyber Pass.

The Khyber Pass is a slice through the mountains where Pakistan and Afghanistan meet. Throughout history, several armies from Alexander the Great's to the British Army have come through the Pass. About 5 hours from Islamabad by car, a day-trip to the Khyber Pass isn't advised. We opted for a day-trip nonetheless.

Besides me, there were 6 other Americans and two of our local Embassy staff, split between 3 armored vehicles. As we were leaving Islamabad, everything was pretty normal – the road was nice, the driving erratic. Islamabad driving isn't real Pakistan driving, though, because animal carts, rickshaws, and the rest aren't allowed on the roads within city limits.

Twenty minutes out, we were off the motorway, and the animal carts were out in full force. Got a donkey, a horse, a goat? By all means, strap on a cart and merge on the highway in front of a packed bus going full speed.

When we left the motorway, we got on the Grand Trunk Road, which runs from Delhi to Turkmenistan, I think. The road got worse, and the driving followed suit. Chicken was the name of the game, and everyone was engaged in constant kamikaze passing. Where the roadbed didn't provide sufficient space, the action spilled onto the gravel shoulders. Unfortunately, there were also people riding bikes and herding animals in the shoulder.

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, our caravan was moving along at a good clip. Our lead car was driven by one of the Pakistanis so the two follow cars were forced to match his driving style. The second car did well enough, but we kept losing our third.

The scenery along the way was great. There are all sorts of hills and mountains in Pakistan. Most of the ones on this trip were low on vegetation, similar to those in the American southwest.

Every half hour or so, the road led us through a town. The increased congestion of people and cars and animals would bring us to a stand-still more often than not.

About an hour and a half in, we came to Attock. At Attock, the Kabul River and the Indus River join. It’s cool because the Kabul is brown and silty, and the Indus is clear and blue. Where they come together, they flow like two separate rivers that just happen to be next to each other. Plus, there is a Mogul fort that overlooks the rivers. Attock is near the border for the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), which is a tribal province of Pakistan. The tribal provinces in Pakistan maintain considerable autonomy from the central government.

We passed the madrasas, the shanty towns, the refugee camps. The next big thing was Peshawar, which is the capital of NWFP. It’s a pretty big town, and we passed some familiar faces – Subway, KFC, and Pizza Hut.

We went to the U.S. Consulate and picked up some other people who would be joining us. Then we drove 2 more hours to the Pass. Foreigners aren't allowed in the Khyber District without special permission, but of course we had requested in advance.

When we arrived, our Frontier Corps escort was waiting. It consisted of 5 soldiers in the back of a pick-up. One was standing behind a gun mounted on the cab, and the others were seated with rifles. We had an hour and a half to go at this point, and those guards took off like a shot. We were going down to the border, and the road was gravel in parts and crudely paved in others. There were constant switch-backs, and plenty of traffic. There were buses crammed with people, oil tankers, cars, animals, pedestrians, and bicyclists, and motorists were still passing like they had death wishes.

The NWFP is somewhat famously lawless, and the closer we got to Afghanistan, the more evident this was. All of the men, and probably some of the women and children, were packing heat. There were plenty of little kids loitering around by the road, and they shot at us with their fingers as we drove by. There was one kid we saw carrying a rifle that was taller than he was.

There is a smuggler’s bizarre in Peshawar where it is said that anything can be purchased – even a fighter jet. Alas, we didn’t get to go. Another interesting thing about the region is that the closer to Afghanistan you get, the lighter the skin tones become. I was told by more than one of my Pakistani friends that if I ever wanted to pretend to be a native, I should grow a beard, wear a shalwar qameez, and let people assume that I was Pashtun (a western tribesman).

As on the GT Road, we passed through little towns on the way down to the Pass. As part of the security arrangements, though, the guards would stop all traffic when we approached so that we could sail straight through without stopping.

Since our cars were armored, they were much heavier than normal ones. Going up and down those pocked roads, our car was not having a good time. By the time we pulled up to the border, we had jack-hammered our suspension numerous times. The brakes were squeaking. Something kept thunking. Also, the air was so laden with dust that the A/C was filling the car with fine powder. We weren’t about to turn it off, though.

The Khyber Rifles is the group that guards the Pass on the Pakistani side, and a major gave us a lecture on its history, geography, and so forth. He had a cool model of the valley that he used during the speech.

After the presentation, we drove down to the gate at the border. Sometimes groups don’t get to go all the way to the border because of sniper activity, but this wasn't an issue on the day we visited.

The border gate was wide open, and all manner of people and vehicles were freely going through into either country. One of the people in our group commented on how loose the border security appeared to the major who was escorting us.

“Doh!” I thought to myself. I couldn't believe he was saying that to the guy whose job it was to monitor the border. Of course, the major assured us that all the people going through had proper documentation. I'm not sure my colleague was convinced.

There were a lot of little beggars on the Afghan side, and they swarmed over to where we were and starting heckling us through the fence. Some other little kids were busy smuggling things over the border. These kids would run out behind moving trucks and tuck small bundles in with the other cargo. I have no idea what they were sending across the border. I didn't really see the point either, since it seemed like they could have just as easily walked 10 feet through the gate carrying whatever they wanted.

After a bit, we left the border and went to the Khyber Rifle Mess for lunch. The lunch wasn't ready straight away, however, so the major started giving us a tour. There were long walls filled with pictures and plaques that people had given the Rifles over the years. The major started going over the photos one by one. Looking down the wall at the dozens of photos we knew we would have to hear about, everyone felt a sense of dread.  (I was able to confirm this later.) There were some interesting photos of Khyber Pass visitors, though - Princess Di, Jackie Kennedy, Carter, Bush (the elder), Nixon, Reagan, General (then Captain) MacArthur, Al Pacino, and tons of dignitaries from other countries.

After forty-five minutes of looking at photographs, we were finished, and it was time to eat.

It was a traditional dinner, and waiters came around constantly during the meal with meats and rice and vegetables. The best strategy was to only take a little bit each time since the waiters returned again and again with the same dishes.

At first, there was some weak conversation. Then it was dead silent. It was a bit awkward, and I thought it was hilarious.

One young woman in our group, my good friend Heidi, was afraid of getting sick, so she took a small portion of everything and basically let it all sit on her plate. The major noticed, and he kept asking her why she wasn't eating. Instead of making a good excuse like she was sick or that it was too spicy, she just kept patting her stomach, saying how much she had eaten and how full she was. She wasn't fooling anyone.

Here’s the part I especially liked: Heidi was chugging the water like it was going out of style. It was not bottled water, and she was the one who was paranoid about getting sick. The rest of us stuck to the Pepsi. After the meal, I asked Heidi why she had engaged in such risky behavior if she didn't want to get sick. I know that she hadn't realized what she was doing at the time, but she just shrugged it off and said that she had been thirsty. Yet she had plenty of bottled water in her backpack. Hmm...

After lunch, we went outside to see the war dances. First, some guys came out and danced with rifles. Then some danced with ribbons. The last troupe danced with swords. We didn't know how to act, so we were all just sitting there a bit stiffly, sipping green tea. No one clapped along with the drums or anything.

As for the show, not to be culturally insensitive or anything, but the performances seemed a bit unmasculine. The sword dancers were wearing dresses, and all the dancers were generally a little too prancy, a little too smiley. In each troupe, there were 20 or 30 guys. The whole group would start the dance, and then small groups would break out. One small group performance, for example, was two guys that were facing off, in what was supposed to be a dominance dance. In reality, it looked more like they were courting each other.

After the dancing, our program was over. We thanked our hosts and then followed our lead-footed security escorts back to Peshawar. Then we dropped off our Consulate colleagues and hit the GT Road for Islamabad.

At one point, we got in one of the little traffic jams in one of the towns. As we were sitting there, a man without a shirt came walking up. The fact that he didn't have a shirt on was the first clue that something was up. No one ever goes without a shirt in Pakistan unless he is swimming. The second clue that this guy wasn't altogether there was his bugged-out eyes. Anyway, he came over to our car and started wailing on it with a stick. That alone wasn't such a big deal since the car was armored, but we drove up on the curb and got away. It doesn't take much to build a mob in Pakistan, and we didn't want to end up getting surrounded by 30 Pakistanis who had nothing better to do than try to roll a jeep over with some Americans in it.

We had gotten a late start in the morning, so the sun set while we were still on the road. Thanks to the black smoke pouring out of the trucks and all the dust in the air, visibility wasn't great. Driving was full steam ahead, though, and we all lived to tell the tale.

And did any of us get sick?  Possibly so, but there was denial all around.

Saturday, June 28, 2003

Pakistan: Murree Brewery, Rawalpindi

Always keen for a brewery tour, I contacted Murree Brewery to see if one might be possible. After a few weeks, I received a reply to my letter:  The brewery manager was happy to oblige.

With the brewery onboard, the next hurdle was getting clearance from the Embassy.

Murree Brewery is located in Rawalpindi, the sister city to Islamabad, and since any travel outside Islamabad city limits required approval from the security office, I contacted the guys with my proposal.  Luckily, security agents enjoy brewery tours as much, if not more, than your average Joe, and permission was granted without much hassle.  The security office capped the trip at eight participants, due to the capacity of the armored cars we would be taking and because it is obviously easier to safeguard a small group than it is a big one.

With the ground rules set, I put out the word that there were five seats available for the tour.  I had taken a seat for myself off the top, of course, and two went to security guys.  Well, within two minutes, the tour was full, and there was a lengthy waiting list.  As I mentioned earlier, employees had to request permission to leave city limits for any reason, and these requests were often denied due to security concerns.  Many people just gave up trying after a few such rejections, so when someone presented a pre-approved trip as I had done, people were chomping at the bit to join.  Unfortunately, there just wasn't room to accommodate everyone.

When the big day finally arrived, we met up at the Embassy for a 9 AM departure.  We all felt privileged at the opportunity, like we were holding the golden tickets to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.

After a problem with one of the vehicles caused a brief delay, we were finally underway at around 9:30.

Driving is a bit chaotic in Islamabad, but the closer we got to Rawalpindi, traffic became increasingly more haphazard.  Our Pakistani drivers didn't bat an eye, though, and we ducked and weaved our way through town like everyone else.

When we pulled into the brewery, it was a quarter after 10.  While this wasn't exactly the crack of dawn, it was still quite early considering what was in store for us.

Unlike every other brewery tour on which I have ever been, this one started in the tasting room, instead of finishing there.

Upon our arrival the manager welcomed us and immediately ushered us into a dining room.  There, a massive green table awaited us.  It was brimming with trays of savory pastries, bowls of chips and nuts, and beer, beer, beer.  It was only 10:30 in the morning, but we dutifully got the party started.

All three varieties of beer were available - Murree Original (4.5%), Murree Classic Lager (5.5%), and Murree Millennium (8%) - and there were flushed faces all around the table before long.  At 8%, Murree Millennium really packed a punch.  This "special occasion beer" also makes for a very cheap night out.  The going rate for a liter is about 50 cents.

Needless to say, this was quite a breakfast!

While we imbibed and ate meat pies, the manager gave us some background on the brewery.

The company began in 1860 with a brewery near the town of Murree, from which the brewery took its name.  It was built to cater to the thirsty British soldiers who were then controlling India.  At the time, Pakistan was still part of India.

In the 1880's two additional breweries were opened: one in Rawalpindi and one in Quetta.  The facility in Pindi also included a distillery.

The original brewery in Murree was one of the first modern breweries in Asia, but unfortunately, it did not survive.  Production mostly ended at that facility in the 1920's, and in 1947, when the British were painfully splitting Pakistan and India apart, the brewery at Murree was burned to the ground during a riot.  The facility in Quetta didn't fare much better.  It was leveled by an earthquake in 1935 and never rebuilt.

That left Murree Brewery in Rawalpindi as Pakistan's sole remaining brewery.  Before Partition, Murree Beer had been popular throughout the country, even with the locals.  After Partition, things changed.  As a conservative Muslim nation, Pakistan basically became a dry country.  The brewery was allowed to continue production, however, with sales limited to non-Muslims.  Today, it remains the oldest business concern in the country.

Anyway, after about forty-five minutes of beer and biscuits, we started the actual tour.

Much of the equipment in the brewery originated in Germany, and all of it looked very rustic.  Our guide led us through several rooms and explained the magical process by which water, yeast, hops, and barley are converted to beer.  There were tanks, valves, and pipes to negotiate, and in a few places the floor was uneven.  It was an accident waiting to happen, in other words, and I was the first klutz to showcase my graceful moves.  I walked around a tank and clocked myself on a metal beam.  The impact was pretty loud, so I didn't have much chance at playing it off.  I didn't feel too bad about it, though, because two other people would meet the same fate before the tour was over.  Maybe that's why most breweries do the sampling after the tour.  Ha ha.

After the fermenting rooms, we came to the bottling room - my favorite part of any beverage tour besides the tasting.  On the morning we were there, they were bottling one of their non-alcoholic beers, Malt-79, and a handful of Pakistani quality control technicians were carefully watching the bottles run down the conveyor belts.  Seeing these technicians reminded me of a joke that I had often heard in expat circles.  For some people, the taste of Murree beer, especially Millennium, was a bit harsh.  The joke was that since it was brewed in a Muslim country, no one at the factory was allowed to taste the product and it went to market completely untested.

This wasn't true, of course, and the beer was routinely sampled by trained professionals.  Any harshness was therefore by design.

As I mentioned earlier, the brewery had an adjoining distillery.  We had not arranged to tour both, so our guide briefly explained their distillery operations and took us to see the whiskey aging in barrels in the cellars.  Besides beer, the Murree Brewery and Distillery also produced scotch, gin, vodka, rum, brandy, soft drinks, and fruit beers.

By 12:30, the tour was drawing to a close.  Our guide led us back to the dining room, and we enjoyed a few more brewskies.  While we were sitting there, the manager rejoined us, and this time he came bearing gifts: a Murree Brewery t-shirt for each of us.

The whole team at the brewery had been outstanding, but unfortunately, I had not come prepared with gifts for everyone.  I had brought along one t-shirt from the Embassy, so I presented it to the manager.  I wished I had brought a second one for our guide, though.

Once we were again well-hydrated, we loaded up in the cars and started back for Islamabad.

One of the security officers, Tony, was sitting in the front seat of my SUV, and as we drove through Pindi, he decided to throw us a bone.

"Does anyone want to stop at the markets while we're here?" he asked.

There is a time and place for everything, however, and as we looked out the windows at the masses of people sweating and haggling in the scorching midday sun, the answer was pretty clear.

"No, thanks!" was the unanimous response.

It wasn't every day that a chance to shop in Pindi came along, but sometimes enjoying a buzz in the comfort of an air-conditioned car on a hot summer day is reward enough.

Sunday, June 22, 2003

Pakistan: Murree

A month into my assignment in Pakistan, I finally went on an outing. The destination was Murree, which is about an hour from Islamabad. Murree is in the hills at about 6,000 feet, and it was once a British hill station. During colonization the British officers had summer homes in Murree to escape the heat of Islamabad. Actually, they were escaping the heat of Rawalpindi since Islamabad didn't exist at the time.

Anyway, I went with another American (my good friend Ross) and two Pakistanis. One of the Pakistanis was our local guard force commander, who was a retired captain in the Pakistan Army; the other was his friend, an army major. [Pakistan Army motto: We are the Punch!]

For the trip, we all crammed into the friend's tiny Honda.

Every ten or fifteen minutes, we passed a cluster of shops along the road. These shops were gritty, utilitarian stores selling food and tires and things. The farther we got from the city, the more animals there were roaming about. There were cows and water buffalos walking along the shoulders of the road. I was expecting to see a collision, preferably not with my vehicle, and the resulting hamburger explosion, but no dice.

As we got higher up, the air got cooler. Unfortunately, the higher we got up the mountain roads, the narrower the roads became and the easier it was for traffic to gridlock. In Pakistan, there are lumbering, colorful buses everywhere. They are often totally overloaded with passengers even filling the roof and hanging out of the doors. Well, there were a lot of these buses going into the mountains. They were slow; they were constantly blasting their loud musical horns; and they were spewing nasty exhaust. Since the A/C wasn't working in the Honda, black smoke poured in the windows as we chugged up the mountain at turtle speed. I was getting a headache.

Driving in Pakistan is very interactive, and people love to signal their fellow motorists to speed up or get out of the way. Every second, we were honking at someone or flashing the lights or something. Of course, the people in front frequently failed to respond, which naturally led to some hair-raising passes.

When we got to Murree, the traffic thinned out. The Captain had an adopted sister who was in a convent school there, so we signed her out and took her into town with us. She was in the fifth grade. Every time I would try my Urdu out on her, she would laugh at me. Everyone understood what I was saying to her, but I decided to stick with English since my Urdu was so hilarious.

When we got to the convent school - the Convent of Jesus and Mary - Ross wasn't feeling well and started vomiting in the bushes. It was real nice. He told us that he must have caught a cold, but on the ride up, he had told us about doing tequila shots the night before. My vote was that he was hung-over.

We went into town, and it was really touristy. There was an animal park, a chair lift, a dumpy looking carnival, horse rides, and so forth. There were a lot of Pakistani tourists there, and they were all toting their cameras.

Our first order of business in town was lunch, so our hosts asked Ross and me what type of food we wanted. My vote was the spicier, the better, and the sick guy concurred. Who was he trying to fool? We ended up going to a barbeque joint, and he didn't stand a chance.

We got a table, and when the waiter brought out the glasses and dishes, I couldn't help but notice that everything had food caked on it. Yum...

We ordered a nice spread of meats and curries and rice. Meanwhile, Ross started to feel nauseous again, so he went to the bathroom. This bathroom was one of those that is simply a room with a hole in the floor and a bucket of water next to it. Ross came back commenting on how he was still getting used to the bathrooms in Pakistan.

The food came after half an hour and we pigged out. It was pretty spicy. Still trying to put on a brave face, Ross loaded his plate with a mountain of food. He hardly ate anything.

We finished lunch and went to a handicraft store. Even with the tourist mark-up, everything was much cheaper than in Islamabad. We browsed around for a bit, and as soon as we left the shop, I noticed that Ross was running around with his cheeks puffed out. This was because his month was full of vomit again.

Ross ran into a hotel lobby to find a place to puke, but the doorman quickly assessed the situation and chased him back out into the street. There he hurled on the sidewalk and a bit into a flower pot.

On the Murree main drag, there were tons of little kids begging for money. Unlike in Islamabad, however, these kids weren't just beggars; they were little salespeople. They offered us shoe shines, chewing gum, balloons, bubbles, and cotton candy, and everything cost 5 rupees (about 12 cents). That was all good and well, so I was buying all of this junk from the tikes.

Of course, there came a point when I ran out of 5-rupee bills, and beggars don't make change. These kids kept hounding us, and they honed in on me in particular. I put on my sunglasses and didn't make eye contact, and they started going after Ross instead.

I didn't feel overly sorry for these kids because they were all wearing colorful velvet dresses and things, not the ragged clothing like the beggars in Islamabad wore. Plus, some of these kids that I had given money to not 5 minutes earlier were back hounding me. The only time they backed off a bit was during one of Ross's vomiting episodes. That was great to see.

Anyhow, once we finished browsing and had had enough pawing from the kids, we started heading for the car. As we got further on our way, the urchins started to disappear. Before long only one girl remained. She came up to my waist. Of course, she started up with her begging. "Saab, saab, only 5 rupees. Please." I told her no thanks and then a more forceful no in both Urdu and English, but she wouldn't relent. Then she started getting physical. She tried to reach into my pockets, and then she started pushing me. This was a bit awkward. What can you do to a little kid acting like this that doesn't involve manhandling her? Unable to come up with a better solution, I just kept walking. I walked a good hundred yards with this kid pushing me, and everyone was staring.

Finally, the Captain stepped in. He was a portly gentleman, and he took the girl's arm and told her the Urdu equivalent of "Beat it, kid!" The two of them had a short argument, and then the beggar girl left in a huff. Our hosts, who were cracking up, filled us in on what the girl had told the Captain. When he was shooing her away, she told him, "Stay out of this fat ass! If you had minded your own business, I would have had him." Little did she know that I wasn't about to give her anything. The whole pushing thing was a real turnoff.

We dropped the sister off at the convent school, of which there were at least three in Murree. Then after a few more vomit stops, and a failed try at stopping the sickness with some medicine from a local chemist (pharmacist), we came back down the mountain. The return trip was even slower and more polluted than the trip up had been. Plus, there were wrecked cars all along the way that had been collecting throughout the day. Apparently emergency services didn't believe in rushing things.

Sunday, May 18, 2003

Pakistan: Islamabad: First Impressions

I got here on Friday, and the airport was a little crazy. My sponsor, Becky, was waiting there for me, though, and it was good to finally meet her in person.

Yesterday Becky and I went to the shopping areas, and it looks like jewelry and furniture are big favorites here. Oh, and carpets, carpets, carpets. Becky also introduced me to her tailor.

Some things here aren't quite so cheap as I was led to believe. Prices are generally low, though.

My house is not ready yet, so I am in a hotel for now. It is very nice. The decor is elaborate - lots of intricate woodwork, textiles, and marble.

The people at the hotel are great. Everywhere I go, there are like 5 people greeting me and offering assistance. Of course, the hotel is an artificial environment. The people in town are the same, though. Even in the smallest shops, there are 4 or 5 people trying to help, just like at the hotel.

On the streets, there is a bunch of honking, and traffic flows like a school of fish. Still driving here doesn't look too tricky, and I hope to purchase a car soon.

The food is tasty, but I am weary of parasites. At dinner the other night, my two guests were telling me all the things I could catch. It wasn't pretty.

All and all, though, the city is nice, my new colleagues are cool, and the Pakistanis are friendly and hospitable.