Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Pakistan: Islamabad: Chinese Acrobats

The last week in January, the circus came to town. Actually it was something much better – a troupe of Chinese acrobats.

Two of my friends had an extra ticket to the show and invited me to come along at the last moment. The show started at 7:00, and we got to the arena at about 6:40.

At the arena, ticketholders for the different sections had to enter at different doors. All the doors were packed with people trying to shove inside. Our tickets were in the VIP section, so we set out for the VIP doors. The security people kept pointing for us to go further around the building, so we kept walking. We ended up circling the whole building, never finding the VIP entrance.

Once we got back to the front entrance, my exasperated companions insisted that one of the policemen personally lead us to the correct door. One obliged and took us to our door, which was on a lower level than we were on initially. Along the way, I ran into several people (shopkeepers, local embassy employees, etc.) I knew, so I got to make the obligatory small talk.

When we got inside, it was probably less than 10 minutes before the show was supposed to start. There were banners and things hanging on the walls and from the ceiling with peppy phrases like “China and Pakistan – Friends 4-Ever” written on them. It was like reading a yearbook ("Dear China, you are 2 good 2 B 4-gotten. Have a good summer."). The VIP section turned out to be the block of seats closest to the floor, and there was hardly an empty seat to be seen, much less three in a row. So, either they oversold the section or they weren’t checking tickets and people were in the VIP section who shouldn’t have been. There did happen to be a few empty seats, front and center, in the VVIP section. This section was for senators and whatnot. One of the ladies in our group spotted the reserved VVIP seats and began demanding to sit there. It was embarrassing. I kept telling her that we should just go sit in the cheap seats, but she wouldn’t hear of it. To make matters worse, the other lady in our group had her back. (I should mention that the tickets were complimentary, so it’s not like there was money on the line here.)

So my two companions proceeded to raise a ruckus with two or three ushers and several people in the crowd. Then the show started, and we were still standing there while the arguing continued. To make matters worse, 2 British people came in late and started the same business over the empty seats. I was trying to stand out of the way, but we all looked like Grade-A American jackasses I’m sure (the Brits included). People in the crowd were gesturing at us and shouting things that it was probably best we didn’t understand. Did I mention that it was embarrassing? Finally, the head usher came over and told the belligerent ladies that they should have arrived earlier if they wanted good seats in the VIP section.

With that, they got all huffy, and we went to find seats in the cheap section. Unfortunately, with all the time they had wasted arguing, more chairs had filled and we ended up sitting in the upper level because the mid-level had filled. Doh!

Once we found three seats together, we moved in to sit down. I was the first of the group, and the seat I got was next to a Muslim woman, dressed up like a black ghost. As soon as I sat down, she started clutching her purse and leaning to the far side of her seat. I was thinking to myself that I should be the one protecting my wallet from her. Anyway, after about 5 minutes, the whole family broke into musical chairs and when all was said and done, I was seated next to the husband. Call me culturally insensitive, but I didn’t see why she was sitting on the end of the family in the first place if she was so afraid of sitting next to a man. Or then again maybe she was acting so silly because I was a foreigner.

There was a toddler in the family who kept coming over to me. The parents made a big deal of yanking him back each time.

The show itself was awesome. There were traditional dancers, gymnasts, contortionists, a magic lady, plate spinners, ballet people, a guy who could catch large pots on his head, people flipping other people off a see-saw, and a woman who laid on her back and tossed a girl around using her feet.

Several acts involved throwing little girls very high in the air, where they would flip and twist and possibly land on a small pole or on a stack of other people or something equally impressive. Everyone was very talented, and it was great to watch. Plus, there were vendors working the aisles, selling the usuals – chicken salad sandwiches, potato chips (ketchup or paprika flavor), and mango juice boxes.

There was, however, something disconcerting about the audience. Whenever any of the performers came out either showing some skin or wearing a tight costume, the men would go bonkers. The nature of the show meant that 90% of the costumes fell into this category. At one point, three guys came out for an acrobatic interpretive dance number, dressed in tree costumes. They had on pants and something like a man’s sports bra, and everything had fake leaves attached to it. Their stomachs were bare.

As these guys were getting into position to wait for the lights to go down and the music to start, the audience erupted. The men were cheering and whistling and making some weird throat noises. It was like I was watching this show from inside the joint. After what was literally like five minutes, the hooting and cat-calling subsided and the act started. Once the acrobats started doing cool stuff that would have warranted boisterous cheering, the stadium quieted down. The crowd was also wild when some of the ultra-flexible women started pretzeling themselves. At least that was understandable, based on the number of dirty old men in the crowd.

Nothing captivated the audience like the three tree guys, though.

The whole show lasted an hour and a half. After the last number, all the performers came out together to take a bow. As soon as the crowd saw the cast gathering, everyone bolted for the doors. It was funny to see, but I felt bad for the performers.

When we got back to the car, I commented that there would be a lot of Pakistani children wanting to run off and join the circus now. Our fearless leader agreed, based on her assertion that since they lacked exposure, they would latch on to the first thing they experienced. That’s not exactly what I was getting at. After that, this woman went into a litany of complaints – how too many people made mistakes in the show, how her coat got dirty, how she had a BO-induced headache.

By that point, I could feel a headache coming on myself, and it wasn’t from the BO.

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