Friday, December 31, 2004

Pakistan: Saidpur

I had made plans to visit Saidpur village with my good friends Kaki, Tangie, and Mollie, but on the day we were to go, it was raining buckets.  I called around to see if anyone was still interested, and to my surprise, everyone was still game.  I drove around in Goldie, the Little Honda Civic that Could, and assembled my posse. As you may recall, I keep the window down in Goldie at all times, so it made for a cold, wet ride for the driver’s side passenger.

Saidpur is a small village that butts up against the Margalla Hills on the edge of Islamabad, although the two are nothing alike. It took us about 5 minutes to get there.

We drove past the Saidpur goat market and parked in the parking lot of a small deserted-looking hospital on the edge of the village. The rain had let up, and we got out and walked around.

Lonely Planet has a blip on Saidpur that mentions it is famous for its pottery. We stopped in a few shops and weren’t impressed. We made a few sympathy purchases and moved on. One thing I did like was a large model train (several feet long and at least a foot tall) that a potter had constructed out of clay. It cost several hundred dollars, which wasn’t unreasonable, but I just don’t think it will ever sell because it would probably break pretty readily if it were moved. It probably weighed a ton also.

After the pottery shops, we walked through the town to the hills on its perimeter. The ditches were flowing with sewage, and there was garbage everywhere. The rain had turned most of the paths to mud. We were having a good time, though.

There were no other visitors around, and around every corner we would find something interesting – children getting water at a pump, old men chatting at a store front, boys playing cricket. For a while, we were like the Pied Piper with a train of young children following us around. There were goats and chickens throughout the village, and monkeys on the fringes near the hills.

As we were wandering, we saw a sign for the SMS Guard Training School. SMS is the company the Embassy has contracted with to provide guard services for the Embassy itself as well as the staff residences in town. SMS guards are easily identifiable because they wear blue uniforms with orange or red baseball hats.

We thought it would be cool to check out the guard school, so we followed the signs through the winding streets. We never did find it, but in our search, we did pick up a young Pakistani lad who spoke good English. He thought we were silly, but he led us around and pointed things out to us like mosques and some ruins. We thought the ruins were Hindu when we had first passed them, and our young guide confirmed this. At one point, we ended up on a path on the same level as the rooftops of some homes. On one rooftop, a woman and her daughters approached us. Mollie was trained in Urdu, so she spoke to the woman. The woman wanted to know if we were lost, but Mollie explained that, no, we were just tourists.

Saidpur is not a big place, so we left after an hour or so in search of lunch. We stopped by Kaki’s house, and from there we decided to go to a new Chinese restaurant that another friend had recommended. Kaki rode with her husband Mel, and Mollie, Tangie, and I rode in Goldie. It was pouring again.

We found the restaurant, which also happened to be a beauty parlor, and there was one other group of diners off in a private room.

The hostess seated us and gave us menus. Then the comedy commenced. She couldn’t speak English, and we couldn’t speak Chinese. That alone should not have been a huge problem since the menu was in English and Chinese and we could have just pointed to what we wanted to order. That didn’t work. When we would point at one dish, she’d point at another. We were unclear if what we were trying to order wasn’t available or if she was just recommending other things to us. When the food did arrive, we devoured it. Unfortunately, we had no idea exactly what we were eating since the hostess seemed to have decided for us what we were going to eat. We were cracking up the whole time.

Our friend who had recommended the place didn’t mention the language barrier. Perhaps, it didn’t strike her as pertinent since she speaks fluent Chinese. As I would later learn, however, she was aware of the problem, but she didn’t want to scare people off from the restaurant.  So she never mentioned it.

Once we finished eating and were paying, a Pakistani guy came out and asked us in English how we had enjoyed our meal. Another Pakistani had also appeared and was stationed at the exit. Where were these guys when we could have used them?

The rain was coming down by the bucketful again, so we dashed out to our cars. It was a cold, wet ride home for Mollie and Tangie, but totally worth it, I’m sure.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Khajuraho, India: Ancient Erotica

Christmas came and brought me the gift of a long weekend.  I took the opportunity to visit India yet again.  Specifically, I went to see Khajuraho and its famous erotic temples.

I left on Friday afternoon, passed through Lahore, and arrived in Delhi a few hours behind schedule.  Winter in Pakistan and India is fog season, and many flights are delayed or cancelled.  So all things considered, I had no complaints.

My flight to Khajuraho was not leaving until the following morning, so I ended up with one night to spend in Delhi.  My good friend Sue from our Embassy in Delhi was nice enough to host me.

At the airport, I booked a prepaid taxi and told them Sue’s address.  The dispatcher and the drivers all claimed to know the place, so I tossed my bag in the taxi, and we were off.

In Delhi, the fog was as thick as curry, and I was grateful that my speed-demon taxi driver, Ashok, didn’t get us both killed.

As we got closer to Sue’s neighborhood, it became clear that this guy didn’t know exactly where he was going.  He kept asking me things like, “I turn here?” to which I told him that I hadn’t a clue.

After stopping for directions a dozen times, we pulled up to a building, and Ashok told me that I had the wrong address.  “Your friend not living here.  This is doctor’s office.”  Then I pointed out to him that he had the wrong address by 100.  For example, if I had needed house 84, he had taken me to 184.

We were hot on the trail, though, and about 10 minutes later, we arrived at Sue’s.

I had ordered my Khajuraho tickets through a travel agent in Delhi, and a courier was waiting for me with the tickets at Sue’s gate.

As I was quite late, I gave him a good tip.

I chatted with Sue for a bit, and then set out in search of Midnight Mass.

I went down to the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, and it was quite a scene.

The street in front was totally choked with cars and rickshaws.  The Cathedral grounds were behind a fence, and between the road and the fence, there was a sidewalk.  On the sidewalk, there were loads of beggars.  Many of the bearded hobos were sitting around their fire barrels dressed like Santa.  This was a nice touch, I’m sure you’ll agree.  Little children would run up, trying to sell candles to churchgoers for 10 rupees (about 25 cents).  Meanwhile, a speaker at the Cathedral was blasting out an announcement: “Please do not buy the candles from the street children.”

Inside the gate, there was definitely a strange party atmosphere, unlike any Catholic service I’ve ever seen.  There were young people casually cruising the grounds like they were at a mall or something.  Clearly they were only there to socialize.  There were ice cream and balloon vendors.

The Cathedral itself was decorated with Christmas lights – individual strings and prefab shapes like stars and Christmas trees.

As I walked up to the Cathedral, there was a crowd of people outside the doors which were locked.  I assumed that I had just arrived too late and that they had locked the doors when they reached maximum capacity.  That would be regrettable from a fire safety standpoint, but, hey, this was India.

The real story was that huge tents had been set up in the adjacent Catholic school’s sports field to accommodate all the worshipers.  I walked on over and got a seat amongst the thousands of chairs.

The service started with a very spirited Christmas pageant – in Hindi, of course.  King Harrod was especially dynamic: “Raja kahan hai?!?!” (“Where is the king?”)  With all the shouting and gesturing, there was something truly violent about the whole show.

After the play, the crowd went wild.  Then it was time for some singing.  The band was rather peppy and reminded me of a mariachi band.  The songs, which alternated between English and Hindi, were unfamiliar to me, and I didn’t have a song sheet.  I could only sit and people-watch.  Everyone seemed to be having a good time, and there was a sea of heads bobbing to the catchy beats.  The girl across the aisle from me really seemed to be grooving along to the songs as well, until I noticed that she was listening to a Walkman.

Soon enough, the actual service started, and it was a grand production.  It was presided over by the Archbishop, and assisting him were 11 priests and a bishop.

The readings and songs continued to alternate between English and Hindi, so I could understand a fair bit of what was happening.  Plus, Catholic services are standardized.

When it came time for the collection, the lector explained how it cost the church over 360,000 rupees (about $9,000) to set up the tents and chairs for the service, and as such, how our generosity would be greatly appreciated.  I thought it was funny that he told us an actual dollar amount, but no harm in it I suppose.

I had been getting by thus far on a handful of Indian rupees that I had left over from a previous visit, and I needed to get to a money changer.  I had just enough rupes on me to take a taxi back to Sue’s place and then a little extra, so I decided to tithe in Pakistani rupees, of which I had plenty.  That probably surprised someone later when the take was counted (seeing as how Pakistan and India aren’t the best of friends).  It was also possibly a headache for them to deposit, but I’m sure there is some outlet in Delhi that’ll change Pak rupees.  Besides, it’s the thought that counts.

Anyhow, I got out a 1000-rupee note (about $17) for the collection basket.

When the woman next to me saw the thousand, she got all excited.  She put her purse down and said something to her family in Hindi.  Then I put the money in the basket, and she thanked me.  Evidently, I was covering the whole row with my contribution.

The service continued as did the party attitude of many people.  People were walking in and out the whole time.  Some were talking on cell phones.  Others were having conversations complete with loud laughter.  It was like cocktail hour for some of these people.  I’m not sure if it was like this because it was Christmas or because we were outside in a tent or because it was so late.  Or maybe that is the way Indians always approach mass.

At Communion, probably half of the congregation did not participate.  Even so, there was still a whole herd of people up for some Holy Wafer.  Indians like a tight line, and a person will literally stand so that his shoes are touching the person’s in front of him.  This means that you have someone’s chest in your back.  I queued up, sardine style, and was subject to the momentum of the line.

There were about a dozen Communion distribution points, but many more lines of people.  This led to all sorts of jockeying for position as the lines funneled down.  When one Communion station would somehow manage to empty, a string of Indians would dash over from some far flung corner of the tent, with a take-no-prisoners determination.

Before long, everyone got Communion who wanted it, and as far as I could tell, there were no serious injuries.

At the conclusion of mass, there was cake and coffee for everyone.  And to finish off Jesus’s birthday party in fine fashion, they shot stadium-quality fireworks from the top of the Cathedral.  It was quite impressive.  The Cathedral doors were unlocked now, so I went inside to have a look.  The fireworks being shot on the roof were really rattling the place.

I walked out past the hobo Santas and candle kids and paid too much for a rickshaw back to Sue’s.

She had already gone to bed, but she had left some sugar cookies for me in my room.  They hit the spot.

The next day, I rode over to the airport, and as I was checking in for Khajuraho, the fog once again reared its ugly head.  The flight actually had a lay-over in Varanasi, and the Varanasi-Khajuraho leg was cancelled due to the fog.  Not wanting to spend the weekend in Delhi, I asked the ticket lady if she could just send me to Varanasi, and from there I would catch a bus to Khajuraho.  I think it would take 10 or 12 hours.

The lady agreed, took my Khajuraho ticket, and issued me a boarding pass for Varanasi.

As I waited at the gate, I was approached by a tourist from New York who couldn’t quit staring at me.  She asked if my name was Cory.  I apparently looked just like her nephew.  I get that pretty frequently actually – reminding people of their brother, nephew, son, etc.

Once we were loaded up, the flight attendants kept talking about our flight as Flight XYZ to Varanasi with continuing service to Khajuraho.  I told one attendant what I had been told about the fog cancellation, and she told me that the flight had been un-cancelled.  It was too late to correct my ticket, but she assured me I would have no problem straightening things out once we reached Varanasi.

In Varanasi, there was total confusion at the ticket counter.  The ticket agent called in his managers and supervisors, and they were all trying to wrap their brains around what I considered to be a pretty simple problem.  Eventually, they agreed to put me on the flight to Khajuraho, but they kept trying to take another flight coupon from my ticket book.  Had they done that, I would have been without a ticket for my return flight.  Finally, they issued me a boarding pass and gave me back the ticket they had taken.  No problem, indeed.

Soon enough, we landed in Khajuraho – the first flight to beat the fog in 10 days – and I caught a taxi with two guys, Arif Khan and Pawan Singh.  The fare was steep, but there was a fixed posted price among all the airport taxi drivers, so there wasn’t much choice but to pay or walk.  We had the usual introductory chat, and they told me how much they loved America.  I told them India was swell too.

Arif and Pawan drove me to my guesthouse, and I foolishly agreed to hire them for a day of sightseeing.  I say foolishly because when I later came to get my bearings, I realized that the whole place was the size of a postage stamp.  Everything was totally reachable by foot or bike.

My trusty taxi friends drove me to the main temple site.  It was only a few minutes from the guesthouse, but they took some convoluted route to justify their service, I’m sure.

Khajuraho is famous for its series of elaborately decorated temples.  It is off the beaten path (or it used to be anyway), so when army after army was conquering India throughout the ages, none ventured into Khajuraho and destroyed the place, as invading armies are apt to do.  The temples, which mostly date between 900 and 1050 AD, remain in excellent condition and the stone carvings and statues that adorn them are true works of art.

The subject matter of the temple carvings ranges from gods and goddesses to battle scenes to snapshots of daily life.  What put Khajuraho on the map, though, is sex.  In the tourist literature, it’s frequently described as “The Karma Sutra in Stone”.  There are numerous erotic carvings of couples and groups performing various sexual acts, as well as numerous erotic carvings of apsaras, sexy nymphs, seductively lounging around.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to say the carvings have something to do with fertility, but no one knows for sure why the temple builders decided to go so X-rated.

Anyhow, I walked around and checked out the carvings in the main temple complex.  The craftsmanship was amazing.

As in Pakistan, India has a dual pricing system for cultural attractions, where foreigners pay 5 or 10 bucks, and Indians pay a few cents.  As such, there were numerous Indian families having picnics and otherwise enjoying the well-kept grounds.

Walking along, I overheard tour guides saying the darnedest things:

“Note the male in the fully excited state...”

“The union of man and horse represents that man came from nature.”

“An orgy is a celebration of life...”

The famous horse scene.  The guy up front is taking a huge gamble I'd say.

The famous orgy scene.

A flexible couple.

Several hours and photographs later, I left the temple grounds with my taxi comrades.  The first order of business was to finally change money so that I could pay them.  They were keen on taking me to the shops of their friends, who all offered awful exchange rates.  I walked down the street and picked my own money changer.  The rate was only minimally better than the others, but at least I got to cheese off Arif and Pawan.

By now, the sun was setting.  Arif and Pawan recommended that I see a traditional dance show that evening and I agreed.  The place putting on the show was a tourist trap of the worst kind.  It had the dance theater, a restaurant, and a huge, expensive souvenir shop.  There were several buses in the parking lot, and a slew of Westerners inside the shop shelling out all kinds of dough.

I bought my ticket, and there was an hour before the show was to start.  I went to the shop and could tell immediately that I wasn’t going to buy a thing.  Prices were practically double Delhi prices.

As I entered the store, a clerk descended on me.  I told him that I was just killing time and that I wasn’t going to buy anything.  He gave me the standard response: “Sir, no need to buy.  Looking is free.”  Of course, he didn’t mean what he said, and he spent the whole time fighting for a sale.  It didn’t happen.

I left the shop, and there was still a lot of time remaining before the show.  Arif and Pawan were concerned, but I told them I would just sit on the bench outside the shop and wait.  They suggested that we go to a restaurant for a cup of tea, their treat (retail value: 7 cents), and I agreed.

After a few cups of tea, we drove back to the show.

There were maybe 20 people in the audience – me, a group of Germans, and some Scandinavian-looking people.

The show itself was embarrassingly bad in my opinion.  The dancers performed 6 or 7 dances from different regions of India, and everything was totally Disneyfied.   There were 3 musicians on the side of the stage, and they played music and sang.  The performers meanwhile pranced around with exaggerated smiles and lip-synced.  Several of the dances had the performers using musical instruments like drums and cymbals.  As with the singing, they only pretended to play the instruments while the real musicians actually played.  Air drum?  C’mon.  How hard could it be to train the dancers to hit a drum?

And those smiles…  It looked like most of those guys and gals were getting paid by the tooth.  On some, you could see distress in the eyebrows, but the painted smile was still there in full force.

Growing up in Tennessee, dance troupes from other countries would come to town every year or so and perform at the local college.  My parents took us kids to see the dances several times, and that sort of dancing had an authenticity about it.  That’s what I was hoping for with the Khajuraho show, instead of the phony tourist extravaganza I got.

After the show, Arif and Pawan dropped me back at the guesthouse.  They hit me up to hire them again the following day for more sightseeing or to book them for my airport drop-off, but I told them that their services were no longer required.  I settled up, and they seemed genuinely hurt that I opted not to retain them.

That night, I walked down the block in search of dinner.  I ended up at a restaurant in another guesthouse.  The place was deserted, so the owner of the restaurant, a man named Kerloo, came and sat at my table.  He was about my age and came from a well-to-do farming family outside of town.  He was married with a young daughter.

I had a light dinner of daal (mashed lentils), chapatti (flat bread), and Kingfisher beer.  Kerloo continually told me how all the food in his restaurant was made fresh, unlike other restaurants that would cook in advance and reheat the food for customers.  I didn’t really care, since it tasted about like all the other food I had eaten in India.

As I left that night, Kerloo invited me back for breakfast the next day on his side, meaning that he was treating.

After dinner, I walked down the main drag and took in the scene.  The young people would talk with me, and the shopkeepers would try to get me in their stores.  In Khajuraho, there were 2 basic types of souvenir stores – metalwork shops and Kashmiri craft shops.  The Kashmiri shops carried Kashmiri products like carpets, wall hangings, shawls, and paper mache.  Unfortunately for these shopkeepers, there are many Kashmiri shops in Pakistan selling similar wares, so I wasn’t really interested.  The metalwork shops had metal creations – some practical, most ornamental – made from bronze, brass, and copper.  There were also a few jewelry stores, clothing stores, woodcraft stores, and general supply stores.

Although I wasn’t interested in the Kashmiri shops, I ended up going into one at the shopkeeper’s pleading.  The owner was a fat Kashmiri with a moustache.  He introduced himself, “I’m Zaroor Ahmed, but my Western name is Super Mario.”  His young son was also there.  “I’m Raza, and my Western name is John.”  And so I introduced myself.  “I’m Chris, and my Eastern name is Sanjay.”  We all had a good laugh over that, although there was an actual dig behind it.  To me, the whole notion of using a different name around foreigners seems so antiquated and pointless in today’s world.

I also thought the Super Mario deal was a bit silly.  Evidently at some point, some young boy touring with his mother had made the comparison between Zaroor and the video game character.  Zaroor proudly latched on to the name.

Anyhow, Super Mario and John showed me a bunch of junk that I had no intention of buying.  To try to give himself more credibility, Super Mario pulled out his stack of letters from satisfied former customers.  This is a common practice, and I dutifully read the nice things the woman from L.A. and the couple from Melbourne had to say.  Unfortunately, nothing was remotely current and some of the letters were 10 or 15 years old.  I wasn’t impressed.

That said, Super Mario and John plied me with Kashmiri tea, and we actually had a nice conversation.  I left with a few inexpensive knickknacks.

Before I left, John asked if he could show me the old village where his school was as well as the smaller, eastern temple complex.  He assured me that he just wanted to show me around as a friend and to practice his English.  We agreed to go at 9:00 the following day.

At that point, I called it a night and went back to my $9 guesthouse.  The hot water wasn’t working, so I had an invigorating ice cold shower (it was winter and it was pretty chilly anyway) and went to bed.

The next morning, I met Kerloo for breakfast.  Again he rattled on about the freshness of his cooking.  He started trying to help me develop a program for the day, but I told him that I already had plans with John.  He thought that sounded OK, but pointed out that my plan would take a few hours at the most.  He suggested I take an excursion to the nearby Panna Tiger Reserve in the afternoon.  I agreed, and – surprise, surprise – Kerloo was also a tour organizer.  His half-day trip to Panna cost about $40, which was comparable with other tour operators in town.  I signed on.

Before I left the restaurant, Kerloo asked me to come back that night for a special chicken curry cooked outdoors on an open fire – again on his side.  I felt he was getting a little too clingy, but I agreed to come anyway.

It was a little past 9:00 by now, and John was waiting outside for me.  He had a friend, Vicky, with him.  I rented a bike for a few rupees, John and Vicky doubled up on their bike, and we were off.  The bike I got was quite rickety.  That coupled with the rutted roads and the fact that I hadn’t ridden a bike in a long while gave me the feeling that I would wipe out before the day was done.  I did fine, though.

Ganesh - the original party animal.

We cruised down toward the old village and stopped at a few stand-alone temples along the way.  As we admired the craftsmanship, John, who was maybe 12, pointed out the sex scenes to me and gave me his version of their purpose.  Evidently, at the time the temples were built, the area was dangerously underpopulated.  The king commissioned the erotic temples to be built both to provide the people with visual aids and to put sex on their minds.  Maybe John’s version is true.  In any case, India seems to have gotten the hang of reproduction since then.

Next we went on to the old village.  First stop: the craft shop of John’s “uncle”.  I am sure this guy was no relation of John’s.  Rather, John just wanted me to shop there so he could get a commission from the shop owner.  I looked around and bought an elephant controller – a large metal hook used to direct an elephant.

After the shop, John took me to his school.  The headmaster came out and gave me a quick tour of the 2-room facility and a spiel on the curriculum.  I could tell my visit to the school would culminate with a request for a donation, so it came as no surprise when the headmaster went to his desk and pulled out a book of visitor’s comments praising the school.  He asked me to add my comments, so I wrote a very few words.  Then he hit me up for a donation.  At this point, he casually flipped through his receipt book so I could see all the rich gifts others had supposedly given ($100, $200, etc.).  I gave him 500 rupees (about $13), and he wrote me a receipt.  “With your donation, we can buy 500 pencils for the students.  Thank you.”  And I left the school with a kind of creepy feeling that doesn’t usually accompany an act of charity.

We proceeded on to the second main temple complex, and I went inside while John and Vicky waited.

A famous carving of a couple in love.

Near the temples, there were several shops.  I browsed a few but saw nothing of interest.  I wanted to change some dollars, but again they were yanking me around on the exchange rate.  I told them I would wait until I got back to town to get more rupees, which they rightly understood to mean no sale.

As I was leaving, some of the shopkeepers asked me a few questions, and at one point, I told them that I was living in Pakistan.  I always try to bring this up around Indians just to see the reaction.  About 20 men had gathered by this point, and they were all keenly interested.  They started asking all sorts of questions about Pakistan:

“Are the women beautiful?”

“Do they have vegetarian food?”

“Do you like Indian or Pakistani cricket better?”

And so forth.

I gave them many good answers.  I told them how nice and hospitable Pakistanis were, and I let them pass around some Pakistani rupees.  Before it was all over, I was being bombarded with, “We want to go to Pakistan!  How can we go?”  It was a super nice change for once to not be pestered for an American visa.  I told the guys to check with their nearest Pakistani embassy or consulate for further information on visiting.  They all liked this advice, although if they did end up applying for Pakistani visas, I’ll bet that they were all denied.  Oh well.

As we were parting ways, a man in the crowd who the others told me was crazy, got up in my face and started telling me something I couldn’t understand.  The others in the crowd were cracking up.  The crazy guy was saying that he too would like to go to Pakistan – only he wanted to charter a jet and fly in style to Lahore.  I told him that was a fine idea, but it would cost some serious money.  He told me that if he sold off his possessions, he supposed he could get $25.  The crowd laughed again.  I told the man that maybe a chartered jet wasn’t for him and he should consider the bus.

The crowd went wild, and I left on the high note.

Just past the area with shops, there were a few vendors with items set up on tables out in the open, and I bought several small trinkets.

Several more vendors tried to hawk me the exact same things I had just purchased, so I turned the tables on them.

"Would you like a keychain?"  I asked them.  "How about a statue?  Only 100 rupees each.  OK, 50.  50 rupees only.  Best deal for you!”

We were all rolling.  Leaving the old village, we passed by all the yellow fields of mustard-seed flowers which would be processed into mustard-seed oil.  We stopped and ate some of the seed pods.

Then it was back to downtown Khajuraho.  After I returned my bike, John and Vicky came up to say good-bye.  More specifically, they came to hit me up for a tip.  I expected this and gave them each 100 rupees (about $2.50).  I did take the opportunity to tell them that where I come from you don’t hit up “friends” for money once you do them a favor, but it fell on deaf ears.

Kerloo was lounging by the road when John and Vicky left, and like a fish on the line, he reeled me inside for lunch.  It made well enough sense, though, since I was going on his tour to Panna shortly thereafter.

Lunch was quick, and soon I was heading down the road to the tiger reserve.  This time my driver was Jay Singh.  The drive was maybe an hour and a half, and the road was deplorable.  It was basically the width of one car, and the drop to the shoulder was a few inches on both sides.  Much of the roadbed was cratered with potholes.  While the roadbed could accommodate only one car, there were two lanes of traffic vying for the space.  The drive turned into a protracted game of chicken, with the larger trucks and buses having the most success.  The road improved eventually, and we arrived at Panna.

Kerloo had really played up Panna and told me there was a good possibility I would see a tiger.

When we met our safari guide, he basically said that the chances of us seeing a tiger were zilch.  In the past, tourists had been able to go on safari anytime and anywhere in the park.  Recently (but not so recently that Kerloo wouldn’t have been aware), though, the Indian government had implemented new restrictions such that tourist safaris were only permitted twice a day (once in the morning, once in the afternoon) and only on a specific dirt loop.  Not being fond of noise and exhaust fumes, the tigers rarely hung around the dirt track, and tourist tiger sightings were way down.

A monkey (tiger bait?) chillin'.
There were optional elephant treks for getting off the dirt road and into the jungle, but the elephants were closed for the winter.

A deer (tiger bait?) wallowing in the mud.

We drove around for a few hours and saw 4 kinds of deer, some warthogs, some birds, and some monkeys.  We missed the tigers, jaguars, and even the crocodiles which were driven to the bottom of the river by the chilly air.  Jurassic Park it wasn’t.

After Panna, we stopped at 2 lesser attractions in the area: a tree house restaurant and a waterfall near some hermit caves.

If you ever make it out to Khajuraho, I recommend you skip the Panna side trip.  It was a waste of $40.

When we left the tree house restaurant and started home, it was dark.  Jay was driving like a bat out of hell on the crappy road.  We were going much faster than on the way to Panna, and I wondered where the fire was.

We reached Kerloo’s restaurant in one piece, and I went up for dinner.  Kerloo asked me how I liked the tiger park, and I told him that I wasn’t overly impressed.  He responded, “With animals, you win some and you lose some.”  Then he asked me if I had noticed how Jay was driving so fast and recklessly on our return.  How could I have not noticed?  Kerloo explained that Jay was not a licensed taxi driver, so he was going at breakneck speed to beat the evening police ID checkpoints.  It’s nice to know he was risking our lives for a fine (read: bribe) that was probably only a few rupees.

That night, as agreed Kerloo and his restaurant staff treated me to chicken curry cooked on an open fire.  It wasn’t totally free though.  Kerloo asked if I couldn’t provide the alcohol since he was providing the food.  So I bought $10 worth of beer and whiskey, and Kerloo bought 50 cents worth of chicken.

The chicken was tasty, and Kerloo’s chapatti maker, an old guy named Kalas, made us a mountain of bread.

I let them pick the alcohol, so we started with some Kingfisher beer, moved to local Green Label whiskey, and finished with a better local whiskey, Officer’s Choice.  Oo la la!

By the end, Kerloo and I were the only ones left enjoying the whiskey.  He couldn’t hold his liquor very well and started telling me inappropriate things like how he didn’t get to see his wife enough so he would treat himself on occasion to prostitutes from Satna, some 120 kilometers away.

As we finished up the whiskey, a Kashmiri shopkeeper who had a shop in the same guesthouse as Kerloo’s restaurant came by and invited us to have Kashmiri tea in his shop.

Kerloo whispered to me that all Kashmiris were crooks, but we should go with the shopkeeper because the tea was really good.  My only hesitation was my lack of interest in the high pressure sales tactics that I knew would be served with the tea.  I didn’t mind, though, since at that point it was a choice of either getting badgered or going to bed, and I wasn’t tired.

We had several cups of tea each, and I left the shopkeeper to roll up all the carpets he had insisted on opening for me.

Kerloo later told me his spiel on shopping in India.  “Never go shopping with me or any Indian because I will have to get a commission and the shopkeeper will charge you more.”  I liked the way he made it sound like his hands were tied in the matter.  He had to take a commission; there was no other choice.  I asked him if he were helping someone shop whom he considered to be a friend, could he not just refuse the commission, or if that were not possible, could he not accept it and secretly give it to the friend who had been overcharged to generate the commission.  He, however, could not understand this.  He had to take a commission.  Of course, I had no intention of shopping with him anyway, so the discussion was moot.

Another cold shower and a good night’s sleep, and I woke up for my last morning in Khajuraho.

Deciding to cut Kerloo loose, I had some chapatti from a street vendor for breakfast and set out in search of the post office.  I had only brought a small backpack on the trip, which I didn’t want to check for my return flight.  The problem was the elephant controller I had bought.  It had a pointed end and could not go in carry-on luggage.  I decided to just mail it back to Pakistan, but the Indian postal service apparently won’t ship to Pakistan.  Plan A foiled, I decided to buy a cheap bag in town to use as the check-in bag for the elephant controller.  That way, I could still carry-on my backpack.

I found a cheap duffle bag easily enough, and, with a few hours left before my flight, I wandered down the street.  I had only a few rupees left in my souvenir fund, but all the shopkeepers continued begging me to look in their shops.  In one shop, I was looking at a neat wooden horse.  The guy wanted 600 rupees for it.  I told him I only had 300, and he said no deal.  I went next door and got a t-shirt for 50 rupees ($1.30).  As I came out of the shop, the horse guy had reconsidered.  “300, OK.”  Then I told him that my funds were down to only 250, to which he said no deal.  I went to another shop down the road and got a bronze Ganesh (elephant-headed Hindu god) figure for 100 ($2.60).  Again the horse guy was waiting for me as I left the shop.  “OK, OK, 250, OK,” he told me.  I responded that I now only had 150, and that was the end of our association.

As I was heading back toward the guesthouse to check-out, I was beckoned by another shopkeeper.  He was a scrawny guy with slicked back black hair, sunglasses, and a black leather jacket.  His name was Suresh, but I prefer to call him Fonz.  Fonz had discolored front teeth probably due to too much cigarettes, coffee, or betel nut, or a combination thereof.  Fonz spoke good English, as well as Japanese (his brother lived in Japan and was married to a Japanese woman) and French (his girlfriend was a French diplomat in India).  He must have learned his English by watching movies, as it was saturated with the f-word.  I’d never heard anything like it.

Anyhow, we had the usual introductory conversation, and Fonz told me how he just loved Americans and Israelis.  He obviously thought this is what I wanted to hear, since there had been no mention of Israel previously.

He saw my bag and asked if he could see what I had bought.  Then he told me how I had been ripped off all around and how he knew a shop where I could have gotten a better price.  Sure.  Discrediting the competition to make oneself look better is practically a sport in India.

He asked what all I had seen in Khajuraho, and when he heard that I had gone to the old village, he asked if I had paid any money to the school.  He was very concerned and claimed that the headmaster kept all the donations for himself and gave nothing to the students.

We continued to chat over tea about many things like why many Western tourists didn’t want to interact with the locals.  (Could it possibly be that they eventually got tired of getting scammed?)  I told him that they were probably all just in a hurry.  Even as we were talking, though, several Western tourists walked by and blew off Fonz’s greetings to them.

We talked about women and beer.  Then I broached the subject of Pakistan.  On this topic, Fonz represented the worst of both India and Pakistan.  He said that if he were put in charge of India, he would nuke Pakistan in his first 15 minutes in office.  I told him that I thought Pakistan was great and asked him what his problem was specifically.  He, of course, started with the disputed territory of Kashmir.  He was enraged at suggestions he had heard for India to give Kashmir to Pakistan or to even share it.  “Kashmir is the f**king mother of India, and why the f**k should we divide or give away our mother?  F**k!”  So I asked about the suggestion to make Kashmir an independent state, separate from both Pakistan and India.  He was like a broken record, “That’s our f**king mother…”

In addition to the Kashmir issue, he was bitter that Pakistan got the best lands after Partition.  I told him that I thought he was a real tool of the government, and that they had been manipulating the people into believing Pakistan was the root of all of India’s problems in order to divert attention from the many domestic problems India faced.  To be fair, I told him that the same held true for anti-Indian Pakistanis.  Surprisingly, Fonz agreed that I might he right.

He had one more argument for me on the evils of Pakistan.  According to Fonz, in an incident much publicized in India, an Indian Hindu who was visiting Pakistan had been attacked by a gang of young men and forcibly circumcised to “make him Muslim”.  I told Fonz that I thought he was a tool of the media, and if the incident did indeed occur as he had recounted it, it was undoubtedly an unrepresentative random act of violence.  I told him that such a situation would be analogous to an Indian tourist getting raped in the U.S., and the Indian media saturating the presses with the story.  It would be a horrible event, but in no way reflective of the experience most visitors to the U.S. have.  Again Fonz agreed with me.

Changing subjects again, we started talking travel.  Fonz had been to Europe and Thailand, but he had no luck in getting a U.S. visa.  As I mentioned earlier, his girlfriend was French.  In one of the most humanizing moments of this trip, he told me about his French visa denial.  Having successfully traveled to France previously, he assumed he was a shoe-in for getting another visa.  It didn’t work that way.

Among Indians, it was common knowledge that the easiest place to get a French visa was Mumbai, so Fonz took the lengthy bus trip west.  Before going to the French Consulate, he decided on a whim to apply for a Japanese visa so that he might visit his brother.  Unfortunately for him, the Japanese rejected him, or as he put it, he “got the red stamp”.  Since his real goal was the French visa, he wasn’t overly concerned with the Japanese denial.

He went over to the French Consulate and presented his paperwork, and, according to him, they denied him based on the Japanese red stamp.  His diplomat girlfriend tried to resolve the issue, but in the end nothing could be done.  He had to return home on the bus, with no visas, and less money thanks to the application fees, to wait until he was eligible to reapply.

Several minutes after he finished his story, he was still repeating, “I got the red stamp.  I got the red stamp.”  He would laugh and hang his head.  He was supremely embarrassed.

Eventually we moved inside.  His shop was on the second level of a building, and he was building a guesthouse on the ground level.  He told me to come back in 6 months, and I could stay for free.  His shop sold jewelry, both regular things like gold and silver and hippie things like hemp bracelets and shell necklaces.  I told him that I was all shopped out, but he wouldn’t listen.  He gave me a bracelet made from cobra leather and told me that I must take it since we were friends.  The asking price was 300, which I didn’t even have.  He told me that he didn’t care about money and that whether I gave him 5 rupees or 300, I must keep the bracelet.

It was getting close to flight time, so we exchanged contact information.  He gave me three different business cards of his, and I wrote my name and e-mail address in his address book.  He invited me to call him if I ever made it to Goa, the beach town in the south.  He knew all the DJs at the clubs there, and they would show me a good time.

I told Fonz that I had to check-out and get to the airport, and he offered me a ride so I didn’t have to take a taxi.

So, I got my bags, and Fonz, his brother (another Vicky), one of their friends, and I all loaded up and drove down to the airport.

At the airport, I returned the cobra bracelet to Fonz and told him that I really didn’t need it or want it.  He insisted I keep it, so I gave him 5 rupees (~13 cents).  As you’ll recall, he didn’t care about the money, whether I chose to give him 5 rupees or 300 rupees.  His expression said otherwise: He was pissed.  Neither of us ever did e-mail the other.  It’s like he was just working me to make a sale, but it didn’t work out.  Instead, I got a cobra bracelet and a ride to the airport for 10 cents.

The flight from Khajuraho to Varanasi was uneventful.  From Varanasi to Delhi, I was seated with an interesting couple from San Antonio, Mary and Louis.  She was a school administrator, and he was retired army.  They both worked in the newspaper business at one point, and he had also published some travel guides.  They were on a week-long vacation to India.

An hour later, we parted ways in Delhi.  I transferred over to the international terminal to catch my flight back to Lahore.

The flight ended up departing 3 hours late because the Indian Airlines pilot was sick.  By the time we arrived in Lahore, I had missed the last flight to Islamabad.  I complained to the Indian Airlines rep, but she wouldn’t get me a hotel room since the embassy travel agent had issued me separate ticket packages for my Pakistan International Airlines and my Indian Airlines segments.  Had everything been booked on a single ticket, I would have qualified.

At that point, I paid the fee and changed my ticket for Islamabad to the first flight the following day.  I then called the hotels in Lahore that I am allowed to use.  All were full.  I ended up staying the night at the home of the Consulate’s Principle Officer.

The next day, I got back home from a 4-day trip that felt more like 10.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Pakistan: Down in the Salt Mines

It was a fine December weekend when I took a day trip to the Khewra Salt Mines with my good friends Kaki and Nenita. The Khewra Salt Mines are located about 2 hours from Islamabad, about midway between Islamabad and Lahore. We took Goldie, the little Honda Civic that could. The drive was scenic, and the weather was perfect.

When we arrived, we parked and went to buy tickets. I was relieved to see that they were indeed running tours on a Saturday since it said in my guidebook that they only gave tours on weekdays. I didn’t tell Kaki and Nenita about this potential snag until after it was revealed not to be an issue.

At the ticket desk, there was a crowd of people. We were the only foreigners, and the ticket sellers requested for us to wait inside a building behind the ticket booth.

We dutifully went to the V.I.P. waiting room which had a few couches and 2 bathrooms.

After about five minutes, we grew tired of sitting around. We left and waited outside like everyone else.

The Khewra Salt Mines are part of Pakistan’s Salt Range, the largest salt deposit in the world. It is the second largest salt mining operation in the world, bested only by Poland. The Pakistani salt deposit was supposedly discovered when Alexander the Great’s horse began licking the exposed rock salt, as Alexander was passing through the region on his drive to conquer the world. The mines have been producing every since.

The mines in their current state were engineered by the British during their occupation of Pakistan. At Khewra, there are some 18 levels of tunnels dug into the mountains of salt, and tourists are permitted on levels 7 and 8, if I recall correctly. There is a small train that tourists can ride into the mine. It is the original British train from 1918.

Kaki, Nenita, and I wanted to ride the train, so we waited half an hour for the next trip. It cost about 50 cents to ride, and most of the Pakistanis chose to walk the few kilometers into the shaft rather than pay.

As we waited, a man gave us some background information on the mines. I wasn’t paying attention, so I don’t really know what he was telling us. We also went to the gift shop where there were rock-salt sculptures, rock-salt lamps, and table salt for sale. The salt and salt crafts were dirt cheap, which I guess isn’t so surprising.

When it was finally time for our train ride, our guide led us down to the mine entrance to wait.

The salt mines are a big draw for school groups, and on this day, the place was crawling with middle- and high-school-aged children.

As had been the case in my previous travels in Pakistan, I was the big draw, particularly to the young men. Kaki and Nenita may as well have been invisible.

Some of the kids approached me to practice a bit of English. They were all brimming with curiosity.

Soon enough the train chugged out of the tunnel and dropped off a load of school kids who had actually paid the extra money to ride. Then Kaki, Nenita, and I boarded, and we had the whole train to ourselves.

The train utilized pretty basic technology. It appeared that an electrical cable ran along the roof of the shaft. The engine had a boom that made contact with the cable, and a rope was tied to the boom. To control the speed of the train, the conductor would just pull the rope to make it so the boom either was or wasn’t touching the electrical cable. It got the job done, and we were dropped off on the tourist level in a few minutes.

Our tour started at the salt mosque – a small but attractive structure complete with minarets. The salt at Khewra comes in 3 basic colors – regular white, red (due to iron), and pink (due to manganese). The mosque was constructed of salt bricks of the 3 different colors, and each brick was illuminated by embedded lighting. It looked pretty sweet.

Near the mosque, there was a salt-brick working post office. I asked our guide who used the post office, thinking it might be the miners. I guessed wrong; only tourists used it.

Over the course of the next hour, we viewed salt ponds, salt-brick tunnels, salt-crystal tunnels that sparkled like jewels, smooth marble-like salt passages, and numerous formations created by dripping salt water similar to the features found in a limestone cave, for example.

There was salt everywhere. Even the air was salty.

Toward the end of the tour, there was a large open room with a snack bar on one side and a cool multi-colored salt-brick elevated floor on the other side. That salt floor would have been a great spot for dancing if the mine ever wanted to get into the party business.

Leading off from the salt floor, there were a few passages. We went down the first one, and our guide showed us an ancient log that was protruding from the salt. That piece of wood was carbon-dated to be 6 billion years old.  Just near the piece of wood, there was a sign written in Urdu. I asked our guide what it said, and he told us that it was instructing people not to burn the log. After that, we took a closer look, and sure enough, the edges of the log were charred, and there were used matches scattered around it. We all got a good laugh over that one.

Down the other passageway, there was a chamber with some ponds, and salt carvings of Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, and the Lahore tower. Maybe it was the poor lighting, but neither looked like very good depictions to me.

Back in the passage leading out of the chamber, we passed the spot where the school kids all lick the salt wall. Licking the wall is supposed to ensure that they will pass their exams, so they all gladly partake.

Our guide pointed out the licking area to us as a point of interest, but he didn't expect us to actually lick. Being shameless tourists, however, we had other ideas. I licked first. Tasty! Kaki and Nenita were a little more hesitant.

I explained that bacteria couldn’t live on a pure salt medium, so unless they licked something that wasn’t dry salt – fresh kid drool or a dried loogie, for example – then there was nothing to worry about. (For my fellow egg heads out there, I am aware of the halophilic bacteria that thrive in salt rich environments, but, as far as I am aware, these don’t do bad things to humans.) Don’t correct me if I’m wrong.

Whether or not they were influenced by my argument, both Kaki and Nenita sidled up like Alexander’s horse and had a good lick. A few months later, we all passed our exams and went off to university.

That marked the end of the tour, so we went back to the large chamber with the snack bar to wait for the train. The area was packed with school kids, and several of the young men came to talk to me. Some wanted to have a photo with me. Kaki and Nenita were still invisible.

Soon the kids hiked out of the shaft, and we cruised by them in style on the train. Once we got off the train, I tried to tip our guide on behalf of the group. He told us that he wasn’t allowed to take any money, so we didn’t press the issue.

As we walked back to the ticketing area, we passed some old guys selling big chunks of salt – in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors, and textures. We each bought a piece or two.

Then we piled into Goldie for the 2 hours back to Islamabad. Along the way, I took the opportunity to stop and pose with several unusual road signs. And why not? It’s not every day you come across an actual hedgehog crossing.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Pakistan: Nathiagali

The last weekend of November, I made a daytrip to Nathiagali with my good friends Nenita, Tangela, and Raja.

We took Goldie, the little Honda Civic that could, and I drove. Goldie has no heat (or A/C for that matter), so in the winter, no matter how cold it is or how hard it is raining, I keep the window rolled down. Otherwise the windshield gets totally fogged up.

On this particular day, which was a bit chilly, there was some minor whining about the window, although everyone was aware of the window situation well before we set out.

Nathiagali is a scenic spot in the mountains, a bit further than Murree, that the British established as a hill station back when they occupied India and Pakistan. The road is a narrow, steep affair, with curves to spare. It reminded of the mountain roads in the rural U.S., except for the ridiculous level of traffic. On the road to Nathiagali, there were plenty of pleasure drivers mixed in with the tons of buses, mini-buses, trucks, taxis, and tankers. There were also the odd horse cart and donkey cart. In general, the bigger the vehicle, the slower it moved, so the buses and trucks would often wind up with several cars and mini-buses stacked up behind them. No one would wait for long, though, and as soon as the smallest opportunity would present itself, the first car or two would go for the classic blind kamikaze pass.

Like everyone else, we found ourselves in the kamikaze passing cycle, where we would get stuck behind a truck and zoom around it on a blind corner only to find ourselves behind another slow truck.

It was a blast, and Goldie was doing swell.

Only once on the ride up did we have a really close call. At that time, we passed a truck so closely that when we pulled back in front of it, we were close enough to swap some paint with both the truck and the on-coming car. Almost. It was tight. Nenita and Tangie sucked in their breath, and Raja was clinging pretty tightly to the handle over his window. Everyone instantly recovered once we were safely through, though.

As we drove, we had the Pakistani tunes cranked, and Raja was able to tell us what the songs were about.

It was an awesome drive to Nathiagali, and we got there in record time. Raja was impressed at Goldie’s performance on the steep roads. Evidently he had some doubts when we started.

Anyway, the hill stations were developed so that the British could escape the heat of the lowland cities during the summers. Today, they still function mainly as summer destinations, so Nathiagali was pretty well shut down when we got there. We couldn’t even find a place serving lunch.

We ended up driving around and admiring the scenery. We decided to check out the Governor’s House, but it wasn’t really open for tourism. We turned around when we came to the armed guards and the locked gate.

On the way back from the Governor’s House, we drove past St. Mathew’s Catholic Church, and decided to stop for photos.

While we were photographing the church, some guys with horses came up. Their shtick was to lead tourists around on horseback for a fee.

Nenita wanted her picture on the horse, so she saddled up. Then Tangela saddled up. Then I, with my mild fear of horses, was peer-pressured into saddling up. Raja mounted his horse, and we were all set.

The horse guys led us over to the scenic overlook, and we posed for photos on the horses. The overlook was something else. You could see all the way to the snow-capped mountains of Indian Kashmir.

After the photos, they led us the short distance back to the car which was parked at the church. Once we got off, we each paid 50 rupees (80 cents) for the use of the horses. The horse guys started caterwauling, asking for 100 rupees at least. We wouldn’t hear of it, and since we had a Pakistani with us, we felt a little more legitimate. He felt that 50 rupees was too generous as it was.

We drove away and any hard feelings instantly melted away, I’m sure.

On the drive back to Murree, the traffic was insane, which was no surprise. We saw a few crashes, and several near misses. In one instance, a huge bus was flying down the hill towards us, and when it hit a turn, its front wheels turned and its rear wheels slid the other direction. The driver corrected before he totally spun out, which would have been bad news for us (not to mention for the bus which was bursting at the seams with passengers).

We all thought it was great. Perhaps the fumes were getting to us by this point.

Outside of Murree, we stopped at a roadside roasted corn vendor for a quick snack. In the woods around the corn stand, there were wild monkeys hanging around patiently waiting for some corn of their own.

Tangie and Nenita didn’t want to go around the monkeys, so Raja and I went to buy the corn. The monkeys came close, but they didn’t seem to be so bold as to attack people. Besides, my rabies vaccinations are up-to-date. I got some awesome shots of the monkeys, and they did not bother us. I think they were purposely trying to look cute so that we would feed them, but we didn’t. The corn guy gave them some scraps, though.

We ate our corn in the car and drove on down to Murree.

Murree, while also a hill station, is bigger and more accessible than Nathiagali. As such, it has more to offer year round. We stopped for lunch.

The restaurant that Raja recommended was the same one that another Pakistani had recommended to me on a trip to Murree I had taken several months ago.

We had a good spread for lunch, and only a few things looked suspect. We ate the suspect things as well, though.

After lunch, the check came. Nenita wanted to treat. Raja tried to trump Nenita and said he would treat since we were guests in his country. As there were already two people fighting over the bill, Tangie and I didn’t even offer. That would only have complicated things further, as you could imagine.

As we were walking from our table to the counter where we were to pay, Nenita and Raja continued to fight over the bill.

I walked outside to wait.

As I was waiting in front of the restaurant, three Pakistani guys about my age came to talk to me. We did all the usual greetings, and then they asked me where I was from.

I told them that I was from America, which they all thought was good and well. Unfortunately, they had no clue what this meant.

“So you are from London?” the first guy queried.

“No, London is in England. I am from the U.S.” I responded.

The second young man chimed in: “So you have a Chinese passport?”

“No, I have an American passport.”

“Are you South African?” they asked.

"No," I tried again, "I am from America, and I have an American passport. I am not Chinese or British or South African.”

As my dad would say, I was dealing with some real mental midgets.

This discussion was going nowhere fast, and we went through the whole geography run-around several more times before Nenita, Tangie, and Raja came out of the restaurant. I don’t know who ended up paying for lunch.

The whole discussion with the three Pakistanis was amazing to me because in my travels this was my first encounter with people who didn’t know what it meant to be an American. Maybe other people I had met had thought that the U.S. was part of China or the U.K., but they never vocalized it to me.

Having just finished a huge lunch, we bought a few bags of roasted peanuts from a street vendor outside the restaurant and set off for a bit of shopping. We started by hitting a handicraft store. After a bit of browsing I bought a mug. Nenita was still looking, so I went outside to wait. Tangie came soon after.

There was a table of merchandise outside, and a Pakistani woman came by to look. She mistook me for a store employee and started asking me in Urdu something about a sweater. We all got a good laugh over that one. I was dressed in local garb, though, so the woman might have been confused by that.

After the handicraft store, we went to another store, and Tangie bought a blanket to use in the car for the ride home. Once we hit a few more shops, it was getting late, so we decided to head back to Islamabad. Tangie was right: It was getting cold.

As the sun set on the mountains, so spectacular was the sunset that the clouds seemed to be on fire. We stopped for a few more photos, and before long, the sun was totally gone. This meant that I had to drive down the mountains in the dark. The drive was just as crazy as it had been on the way up, and, of course, the darkness only increased the hairiness of it all.

We were swerving, ducking, and dodging, and the tunes were blasting once more.

Everyone was totally laid back. Whenever there was a close call, we would all laugh and make jokes. Thankfully no one in the car was prone to anxiety or the ride home would have been a nerve-wracking mess for us all.

Cold hands and red noses aside, we got back to Islamabad with no problems, and in plenty of time for the Saturday night parties.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Muscat, Oman: One Drink at a Time

For Eid last November, we ended up with a 5-day weekend, Saturday through Wednesday. I decided to use this break to visit my good friend Diana in Muscat, Oman. Over the course of this trip, the local employees, who are normally pretty sharp, didn’t seem to be running at peak performance.

The Marine Corps Birthday Ball was on that Saturday night, so I decided not to leave until afterwards. Saturday during the day, I was at a carpet party at a friend’s house.

During the party, my phone rang. It was an expeditor calling from the Karachi Consulate (my route went through Karachi) to tell me that he had been waiting for me at the airport the night before, and he was worried since I had never shown up.

Local staff screw-up number 1: I was supposed to arrive at 1:25 AM on Sunday, but the expediter misread the date on my notification and showed up a day early. I told him I would see him later in the day, and went back to the party. He ended up with back-to-back midnight shifts unfortunately.

As for the carpet showing, I came away empty-handed. The one piece I liked mysteriously disappeared between the viewing and the buying stages. I didn’t need another carpet anyway.

That night, I went to the Marine Ball. I decided not to get drunk (which is a big part of the Marine Ball experience, mind you), since I was about to fly to Muscat. I only had two drinks. I stayed for about 3 hours and went home to chuck my tux and wait for the car I had requested.

When I pulled in my driveway, my night guard informed me in his best English that the car already came and left.

Local staff screw-up number 2: When I called the driver, he claimed my request had been for 9:00 PM instead of 10:00 PM, so he had shown up and left already. I had a copy of the request in front of me, and the time was clearly listed as 10:00. The driver had to make a second trip back to my house unfortunately.

Seeing as how it was Eid, though, the biggest holiday for Muslims, I hooked him up with a good tip at the airport.

My itinerary to Muscat included stops in Karachi and Dubai, both coming and going. For anyone tempted to tell me that I could have done it with less lay-overs, I am well aware of this fact.

So, I caught the red-eye to Karachi. The flight was maybe a quarter full, including 2 sisters who were seated a few rows up and across from me. They were both around 10 or 12, and they spent the whole flight peeking back at me and giggling when I would look in their direction. As flattering as this all was, as the flight wore on, I looked their way less and less.

As we deplaned, they gave me a drawing they had made of me. As far as 10-year-old’s drawings go, it was a dead-ringer, I suppose. Unfortunately, I have no idea where the picture went.

In Karachi, the expediter came and escorted me from the domestic terminal to the international one. This was a total waste of his time, and I was perfectly capable of doing this unaided. We are required, however, to use the expediters in Karachi for every arrival, departure, and transfer.

After a long lay-over and a little time in the air, I was in Dubai. Once we landed, they called for all the passengers with a final destination of Dubai to get off first. Literally, 3 people got off. The rest of us were transiting.

They bused us to the transiting passengers security check point, and it was chaos. There was a huge mob of people trying to funnel into 3 x-ray lanes. Plus, the metal detectors seemed to be extra sensitive because practically everyone had to remove their shoes. To further irritate the situation, more and more buses kept dropping people off. People who came in later were pushing in front of people already in line. Tempers were heating.

I made it through the check point and got to my gate just as boarding was starting. We got on a bus and went out to the plane.

As we were queued up at the jetway, a few of the passengers whipped out their cameras. They must have been trying to document every last detail of the trip of a lifetime.

We left Dubai, and in no time we were in Muscat.

Diana had booked a car and expediters for me, so there was an Omani with my name on a sign when I got off the plane. He asked for my passport and had me wait in a room with 4 other people. I had gotten an Omani visa in Islamabad before I came, so there was less for him to do than he realized. He came back, gave me my passport, and passed me off to another Omani. This guy took me to baggage claim at a brisk walk. I hadn’t checked any bags, so he took me outside.

Outside, there was another man with my name on a sign, so I got in his car and we were off to Diana’s house.

In the mad dash out of the airport, I had not changed any money. This would prove to be a hassle later, since Oman, like Pakistan, was celebrating Eid, and most of the banks were closed for the holiday and would remain that way for the duration of my stay.

The driver took me to Diana’s, and I was happy to find that Oman was another non-tipping country.

Diana had told me as I was planning my visit that she might also be leaving for the Eid holiday. She decided that she would leave, but she waited for me to arrive before she did. She was going a few hours down the road to Abu Dhabi, so she had some flexibility.

We chatted a bit and Diana showed me the important things about her house like where the bathroom was and how to turn on the internet and work the TV. She also gave me a sheet of helpful notes with bits of information like her address and phone number, the embassy switchboard number, places to shop and catch taxis, good spots to hit the beach, and so forth. On the sheet, she had written which days the maid and the gardener would be coming, so that I wouldn’t lock them out. I must have messed something up, though, because I didn’t see either one of them while I was there.

Most important of all, Diana wrote down the phone numbers for some of her embassy friends: Larry, Tim, and Julie. Larry was Diana’s back neighbor; Tim had been in Diana’s and my orientation class, so I knew him already; and Julie was Tim’s wife. They would all end up taking good care of me.

After Diana had given me the lowdown, she headed off to Abu Dhabi, and I chilled out. I started by watching Shark Tale, but her DVD stopped half-way through. That was a sign to me that I should go do something in town.

A screwy thing about Oman is that the whole place basically shuts down every day from like noon to 4:00. I guess this is because it’s in a desert environment and these are the hottest hours.

I decided to hit the beach, which wasn’t subject to the midday downtime.

I could see the water from the subdivision, so I decided to walk down. I didn’t have any rials to pay for a cab, anyway.

It turned out to be a long, hot walk in the midday sun, but I did make it to the beach eventually. And it was nice. Oman is considered to be one of the safest countries, if not the safest, in the world. It doesn’t have problems with terrorism or crime. Still, I didn’t want to leave my things alone on the beach too long, so I swam briefly and laid out and caught some sun for a bit afterward.

Then it was time to trudge back up to the house. I might not have been going the fastest way, but I went the same way I had come, like a rat trained in a maze.

Back at Diana’s, I rehydrated and watched AFN (the Armed Forces Network). I don’t have cable or AFN at my home in Islamabad, so all the episodes were new to me.

As night approached, I called Larry. Diana thought that he might be going out that night, and she was correct. He picked me up a few hours later and we went to the Inter-Continental Hotel bar.

At the bar, there seemed to be 3 main groups – the westerners and other foreigners, the Omani men dressed in western clothes, and the Omani men in traditional clothing. There were also Omani women and some working women.

We opened a tab and started drinking. There was a not-so-good band playing. As the night continued, Larry’s friends trickled in little by little.

Early on, we went across to Trader Vic’s and had a few Hawaiian drinks. Then we came back to the pub.

Eventually Tim and Julie showed up, as well as some Marines, a woman who I think was a defense attaché, and the man in charge of the APO (the military post office at the embassy). Everyone was totally cool.

We talked and drank. After a while, we found an open booth and moved over. While we were in the booth, 2 Omanis who were friends of the group came over.

When we decided to call it a night, Larry and I went to pay our tabs. It turned out that they had put us both on the same ticket, so we split it down the middle. I paid with my credit card, and Larry gave me his half in cash. Finally, I had some rials in my pocket.

As we were leaving, one of the people in our group was having words with an Omani. They were both drunk, but our guy was in worse condition I think. I didn’t see what happened, but apparently the American’s lady friend had been groped and verbally insulted by the Omani. Whether or not the groping and whatnot had taken place, the Omani took the opportunity to goad the American. The thing ended up with the American, practically foaming at the mouth, being held back by several of his friends. The bar manager asked us to leave, and since we were leaving anyway, that wasn’t a problem. The Omani smirked as we left. Of course, he could only smirk because he knew his opponent wouldn’t be allowed to fight him. If they had fought, the Omani would have been hurtin’ for certain.

The whole incident was 90% alcohol, I’m sure. And fighting would have been an especially bad idea there anyway. Evidently in the past when such things had happened, the Omani’s part was always minimized until he was painted as the total victim. Guess in their house, you play by their rules.

Larry dropped me off back at Diana’s around 4:00 AM, and I slept like a log.

I woke up at around 11:00, shortly before the midday shut-down. I watched a little TV and then walked a few blocks to the grocery store. That store had everything; they even had a pork room for non-Muslims. I bought a few things to snack on, and walked back home.

The night before at the Inter-Con, Tim and Julie had offered to take me to the market in the Old City.

They picked me up that afternoon, and we drove the half hour or so down to the market which was on the port.

The market was neat with lots of alleys and different shops. Several things were closed, though, since it was Eid. I ended up getting a khanjar (the famous curved, decorative Omani knife), a suit of Omani clothes, and some frankincense and burners. Frankincense - as featured in the Bible - comes from Oman, and the good stuff doesn’t grow anywhere else. It is made from the sap of a tree.

On the clothing, I had read that Omanis are very sensitive about foreigners wearing their national dress. I asked several of the people stationed there, and got a mixture of opinions on the subject. Some agreed that the Omanis wouldn’t like it if I wore the dress; some thought they wouldn’t really care; and some thought that more westerners would stare at me than locals. I didn’t intend to wear it in Oman, anyway, so I didn’t foresee any problems.

The vendors definitely had no qualms in selling the clothes to me. I got the hat (kumma), the floor-length gown (dishdasha), and the wrap that goes under the dishdasha (wizar).

Souvenirs taken care of, we left the Old City.

That night, there was a get-together at a Mexican restaurant. The food wasn’t bad and the margaritas weren’t either.

After a few hours, the party shifted back to the bar at the Inter-Con. Larry decided not to go, and I rode over with Tim and Julie.

We ended up getting a booth, and the 2 Omani friends joined us again. We talked about Oman, and the States, and Pakistan. At one point, I asked the 2 Omanis, who were dressed in western clothing, what the deal was with all the Omanis at the bar wearing the dishdashas. The response: they were just trying to look good. Makes sense I suppose, but it was still strange to me to see these guys in their traditional Muslim garb drinking, shooting pool, and carousing.

The scene at the Inter-Con was pretty slow that night, so the whole group shifted over to the Safari Bar which was in a different hotel.

We stayed a bit and then decided to leave.

As we were walking out, I was talking with the 2 Omanis again. We were all in a big group, but the 2 Omanis peeled off to go to another club in the hotel. I continued talking and walking and didn’t notice that everyone else went to the cars. This club had a dress code, and there was a hassle because I was wearing sandals. They were perfectly acceptable shoes, but rules are rules. Anyhow, I didn’t care if I could get inside or not. The 2 Omanis felt that they could get me in, though, so they took it upon themselves to argue with the bouncer on my behalf.

As they were working the situation, Tim yelled from the parking lot, “Hey, man, let’s go!” And that’s when I realized that I had gotten side-tracked. Doh!

After the Safari Bar, the party moved to Tim and Julie’s house. On the way to their home, they drove me through the diplomatic enclave and showed me the U.S. Embassy. It was right on the water.

At Tim and Julie’s, everyone was already pretty well lit, but the drinking continued. We started playing some drinking game with cards called horse race or something like that.

We only got through one round of horse race though, before the Marines realized that their curfew was only moments away. They called their driver and left soon after.

Once the Marines left, the rest of us decided to call it a night as well. The defense attaché offered to give me a ride home. I can’t recall her name, so I’ll call her Michelle. I think it was something like that.

Anyway, Michelle didn’t know where Diana lived exactly, so I told her that if she could get me back to the Mexican restaurant, I could direct her the rest of the way.

She did her part and got me to the restaurant. Then it was my turn. I didn’t do so well. I kept directing her down the wrong roads.

The Mexican restaurant was in a shopping area that was a few blocks from Diana’s, and I had walked the area several times in the days before.

Since I had walked the route several times, I told Michelle that maybe I needed to get my bearings on foot. So, I trotted down the road and Michelle followed in the car. And I still couldn’t find the house.

The route between the house and the restaurant was like right-left-right-left. It turns out that I was taking the first turn wrong (left-right-left-right), so of course I wasn’t recognizing anything.

Eventually, we gave up.

Michelle was staying at the Inter-Continental, so she decided I could catch a taxi from there, and the driver could find the house using the address.

As we were coming up in the elevator from the parking level in the Inter-Con, I got out at the lobby level, and Michelle rode on up to her room, confident that I was off to catch a cab.

I did not.

I walked back to Diana’s, and the whole way, I didn’t see a single person. It was a great time. I only wished I had my camera with me since the moon over the city and the shore was quite a scene. I found the house without incident and slept like a rock yet again.

The next day, I woke up around 11:00 again. One of the exceptions to the midday closing phenomena was a mall on the edge of town. I decided to check it out.

I caught a taxi, and the driver, Barakat, turned out to be my age. He started out talking to me in perfectly good English. When I responded, though, it became clear that his English was very limited. He asked me to speak Arabic, but unfortunately, I had like a 3-word vocabulary. The mall seemed to be about 30 minutes away, so there were long spells of silence. At least the radio worked, and we cruised down the highway listening to the Ketchup Song. That song plays well in so many cultures.

Every now and then, Barakat would think of something to ask me. Once he pulled a medal out of the glove compartment that he won in a soccer tournament and handed it to me.

“Do you play soccer?” he asked.


“I like soccer very much.”

“Well, I guess you must be pretty good at it.”

And that line of conversation was played out.

After a few more questions here and there, we finally arrived at the mall. Barakat asked if he could wait for me and take me back when I was finished shopping. I told him OK. This was really a favor to him since it meant that he didn’t have to try to round up a different paying customer to take back into town. For my part, there were dozens of other taxis I could have chosen.

Anyhow, I told him I would be inside for an hour and a half, and I went in. The mall was just like any other. There were places to eat and about a million clothes stores. There was also a Carrefour, which is like Wal-Mart or Target.

First thing, I found a place to change money. Then I walked through many stores, but didn’t find much worth buying. At Carrefour, I got a cheap shirt, and that was about it. While I was browsing Carrefour, I also went by the electronics section. I was thrilled to see the exact TV that I had just purchased a few weeks earlier in Pakistan selling for a hundred bucks less. I had even had to bargain for quite a while to get the price I paid. I wasn’t that annoyed, though, since I realize that the price of electronics varies widely from country to country. Not to mention, there is no department store in Pakistan that is able to offer discount prices like Carrefour can.

When my time was up, I went back outside, and Barakat magically pulled up to receive me at the door.

As we were driving back into town, he asked if I would mind if we stopped by his tailor, which was on the way. I didn’t mind.

At the tailor, Barakat was picking up several dishdashas, all different colors, and he asked me if I had one yet. I told him that I had a white one, but he felt that I should have a second one in a different color.

I still had a few rials left and it was my last day, so I figured what the hell. Barakat was the same size as me, so I tried on his new dishdashas. We decided that I should take the tan-colored one, and I got it at cost from the tailor. Both Barakat and the tailor were very pleased with my Omani look.

And that’s how I ended up with two Arab gowns that I will probably never use.

Back at Diana’s house, Barakat dropped me off and I paid him. We had negotiated the fare earlier, and when I mentioned it later to Julie, she told me that I had gotten a superb deal for such a long ride. I didn’t really have a sense of how much taxi fare should be, so I ended up basing my target price on what was in my guidebook. The info was a little dated, and I ended up low-balling Barakat. He did agree to it, though. He asked if he should come back in the evening to take me to the airport, but I told him that Diana had already arranged transportation.

That afternoon, I went to a barbeque at the Marine House. The food was good, and there was plenty of it.

After a few days of hard drinking, there were a lot of haggard people sitting around the table. I felt OK, though, which was good because the partying continued. In addition to the steady sipping of alcoholic beverages, there were also periodic whiskey shots. We were at the Marine House after all.

Michelle was at the barbeque, and she asked if the taxi driver had had any trouble finding Diana’s house the night before.

I told her how I had walked home instead of taking a taxi. She was none too pleased, and decided that she could not trust me in the future. Seeing as how I was leaving Muscat in a few hours, and the chances of me meeting her again were slim, I wasn't overly concerned.

I left the barbeque, packed my things, and waited for the driver to come and take me to the airport. Once the scheduled pick-up time had passed, I called Tim and Julie to see if they could help me track down the driver.

Local staff screw-up number 3: The dispatcher thought I was departing on a different day, and there were no drivers available to take me to the airport.

Julie ended up driving me to the airport herself.

I caught the red-eye to Dubai, where I had a long lay-over. I bought some stuff at the Duty Free. There was a problem with the credit card machine, and I found out later that I was charged 5 times for the same purchase. I pointed out the mistake to both Dubai Duty Free and to my credit card company, and they both ended up giving me credits for the overcharge. So I ended up making money on the purchase. I notified both parties of the double crediting, but they have yet to fix it. And really, I don’t mind keeping the money. I look at it as the price of incompetence.

After Dubai, it was back to Karachi and then on to Islamabad – where, amazingly, the driver I had requested was waiting for me at the airport.