Monday, February 16, 2004

Pakistan: Lahore - Part 2: Basant

It was February when I returned to Lahore. My purpose this time was to enjoy Basant, the spring festival. I went with my good friend Dennis like before. He was about to leave Pakistan for good so he didn’t want to take his car on this trip. He didn't want anything to happen to it before he could sell it. Dennis also didn’t trust my car to make the trip (which it would have – no problem), so we ended up renting a car and a driver, Ayyaz.

The drive up to Lahore was something else. Dennis and I were both tired (hung-over) from a big farewell party that had only ended a few hours before. It wasn’t hard to stay awake, though, when we realized Ayyaz was also a bit tired. He was swerving all in the shoulder and kept slapping his checks. It turned out that he had just driven all night on another job. And here we were paying him the handsome sum of $10 a day (plus meals) for such lousy service. We kept him talking, though, and we arrived in one piece.

As we drove the 4 or 5 hours to Lahore, we all talked. Among other interesting nuggets of information, Ayyaz shared this story: he and his wife had 2 children, but Ayyaz's sister was unable to have any. Ayyaz and his wife then had twin boys, so they gave one to his sister to raise. Now the boys are 4, and the separated one doesn’t know who his real parents are. Sure it was a nice gesture to give his sister a child, but it's also a bit weird to me.

Once we got to Lahore, it was quickly apparent that Ayyaz didn’t know the city quite so well as he claimed. Every time we asked him to drive anywhere, we ended up stopping several times for directions. This can get really annoying, especially when the stopping is literally in the middle of intersections and whatnot, and when all the other motorists are honking and shouting.

We were staying with the same Filipino family we stayed with last time, and Ayyaz eventually found their house. They were nice enough people, but right off the bat, they started into their tag-team grilling as to why I wasn’t married. It was worse than before because they found out I was 27 (and not 23 like they had guessed). In the end, they concluded that I wasn't married because I just hadn’t found the right Filipina yet.

After the interrogation into my singleness, they went into Tagalog for the rest of the weekend, and spoke to me in English like a sentence an hour. Even then, I would miss the rare comment directed at me half the time since by then I was zoned out from all the Tagalog and because the accents were so strong. Dennis was having a fine time, so I guess it never dawned on him that I wasn’t really part of the conversation.

The day we arrived, it was Valentine’s. After the initial small talk with our hosts, Dennis and I went into town to see the Basant festivities, and the Filipinos started setting up for their Valentine’s party. We made the trip into town with Ayyaz and the Filipinos’ driver, Joseph, so we didn’t get lost.

The main attraction of Basant is kite-flying. On Saturday during the night and Sunday during the day of Basant weekend, everyone who is anyone goes kiting.

We started out by going into the Old City to see the night kiting. One of the unfortunate side-effects of so much kite flying was that the power was constantly being knocked out, mostly from people flying kites on wire strings and getting them caught in power lines.

Of course, the Old City was pitch black when we arrived. Holding our rupees a little tighter, we walked down the street, and up in the air, there were quite a few white kites flying. The power came back after a bit, and the street sprang to life with shops and restaurants.

We passed by a guy with a white horse decorated with some sequins. Horse-dancing is another part of Basant. Joseph told the guy we wanted to see the horse dance, and the owner was more than happy to make his animal perform. A group of drummers came up and started beating a rhythm and walking down the street. The horseman followed. Along the way, a crowd - and my party of three - joined the procession. When we got to a place with enough room, the drummers started a more frenzied dancing beat. Then everyone packed into a circle barely wider than the length of the horse, and the show started. The horse dancing basically involved the handler yanking at the bit or hitting the horse with a whip. The horse, of course, responded. He was spinning, squatting, bouncing, and whatnot. I got pushed up to the front of the circle, and it was a frightening thing. Literally, when the horse made a turn, its butt would be touching me. You could see everyone trying to shove off the front row whenever the back of the horse would swing in their direction. This horse didn’t look all that happy, and no one wanted to be at the rear when a kick might come.

Soon enough, the horse show wrapped up, and Dennis and I had to buy another meal for Ayyaz, who evidently hadn’t gotten enough to eat at the first dinner we had all eaten an hour or so earlier.

Once he had swabbed up every last piece of food, we went to Joseph’s son’s house to fly kites. By now, it was 12:30 at night. Supposedly, everyone stays awake all night for Basant, but I am sure we woke up Joseph's son and his family. They had a tiny apartment for 5 people, but they were very hospitable. We declined food, but the wife insisted that we at least have tea. We obliged. Then Joseph’s grandson took us up to the roof to fly kites.

Another sign that they had pretty much wrapped things up for the night was that they didn’t have any more white kites left. They strung me up a blue one (a day kite).

The kites were made out of tissue paper and wooden supports. They only cost a few rupees each, so everyone seemed to be walking around with a large stack of them. They didn’t have tails, which allowed for better steering. Anyhow, one thing's for sure: Pakistanis really know how to fly kites. With a few yanks on the string, this kid had the kite way up in the air. It was the same thing everywhere I’d look. Everyone was an expert.

When Joseph's grandson was getting me started, he tied a string on the kite and popped into the sky. As soon as he handed me the string, the kite nose-dived and smashed apart on another roof. It was a little embarrassing, but not such a big deal since the kites were made to be lost.

The second kite he readied for me faired much better. I took over, and it didn’t immediately crash. After a little familiarization to my light and lofty weapon, I was all set to dog-fight. Joseph and his son and his grandson kept pointing out other kites that were challenging mine. Basically the flyers of these kites were trying to loop their strings around mine.

In a nutshell, in dog-fighting you have to cross your kite over the path of another one and intertwine the strings. Then once you feel tension on the line, you have to let out string as fast as you can in an attempt to cut the other string. The other kiter does the same thing at the same time. Eventually, friction will cut one of the strings. So either your string goes limp and you have lost the fight, or you get the satisfaction of watching the other kite drift away untethered.

To have an advantage in dog-fights, some people use wire string or string with bits of glass embedded in it. My string was very good quality, but it didn’t have any of these extras.

Right away, five kites came up against mine. I schooled them all. Then it was clear that mine was the kite to kill. A swarm of kites started attacking mine, and a battle royale took place in the night sky.

Not too surprisingly, I was out paced by the competition. Someone was even skilled enough to steer his kite into mine for a direct bashing. Needless to say, it wasn't long before old blue floated off into the distance and I rolled up my string.

Dennis had recently recovered from a torn rotator cuff, so he was afraid to fly a kite.

As it was so late, we went back to the house after my bout of kiting.

When we returned to the Filipinos' house, it was past 2:00, and the Valentine party was still going strong. The party consisted of a bunch of Filipinos talking loudly in Tagalog, drinking, and singing karaoke. I could barely contain my excitement.

Now there was renewed interest in me as they all tried to pressure me into singing something. I am not anti-karaoke per se, but the disks they had could not have been any older or less cool. I kid you not, the selections included the following greatest hits albums: Engelbert Humperdink, Barry Manilow, and the Carpenters. I hadn’t even heard 99% of the songs, but I eventually sang Blue Spanish Eyes to put an end to the nagging.

The party finally ended, and we called it a night with only a few hours to sleep before morning mass. Church was sort of hilarious because the Pakistanis really belted out the songs with conviction. At times, it got to be like a chorus of shouting.

After church we visited still more Filipinos, and then Dennis and I met some other Americans, also in town for Basant, for lunch. The restaurant scene in Lahore is great (Islamabad, not so much), and lunch was awesome. There was, however, a Fear Factor moment when they brought out some complimentary pickled carrot/beet juice beverages at the start of the meal. Three of us at the table agreed we would drink the concoction. I was the only successful one.

After lunch, we went back to the house. As the main event - Sunday’s kite flying - was gearing up, Dennis decided he just wanted to take it easy. I told him that I was fine with this, not realizing that he meant he wanted to take it easy the whole afternoon. After a few hours of sitting around while Dennis was laughing it up with our hosts, I asked if we were going to go see the kites. They all assured me that we would go around 5:00 and that there would still be plenty to see.

At about that time, I found out that Dennis had dispatched Ayyaz and our car to pick up some people at the airport, so I couldn’t have left even if I had wanted to (public transportation was not allowed).

By the time we drove downtown, it was past 7:00. It was dark, and there wasn’t a kite in the sky. I was pissed. I would have to wait another year to see the sky blanketed with thousands of kites. Dennis was drinking a screwdriver as we drove through town, and he didn’t seem the least bit disappointed.

Having missed the kiting, we decided to go shopping. I was down with that since shopping was better than going back to the house. Unfortunately, my companions didn’t want to browse. They kept asking me if there was something specific I wanted to buy. When I said no, they decided we should just go home.

We ended up back at the house. My companions had more drinks and sang more Manilow. I whistled to the parrot.

Meanwhile, we were missing another cool thing – a $5 concert featuring Ali Zafar (Pakistan’s top pop star) and Junoon (Pakistan’s top rock group – similar to U2).

The next day, we met up with our American friends again, and we all went to the National Horse and Cattle Show opening ceremonies. We had tickets for the VIP section, and we ended up sitting next to some Pakistani colonels. One bought tea and cookies for us.

As I mentioned in my last story about Lahore, it is a place where they like to gawk at white people. At the Horse and Cattle Show, things were no different. Our group even made it on the national news coverage of the event, for no other reason than the fact that we were westerners.

The opening ceremonies were pretty cool. There was a choir of Pakistani girls who entertained the crowd while we waited for the VVIPs to arrive (and who eventually showed up an hour late). Once the show started, there were several different groups of children dancing. These dances were fun to watch, and the kids did great with some complicated moves. It was even more impressive how long these kids had to sit before they got to perform.

Plus on the opposite side of the stadium from where we were sitting, there were 3,000 other children doing the thing where they hold up different colored squares to form pictures. The average Pakistani may drop out of school in the second grade, but these kids were great.

After the dancing, there were some military bands, bagpipers, and dog races, and then they brought out the livestock. They paraded all the different types of horses, cows, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels around the track. It was neat.

After that, there was some adult dancing which wasn’t so riveting. We left the show.

Dennis was all about eating at McDonald’s before we left for Islamabad. We had eaten there once already, so I wasn’t interested. There was no McDonald’s in Islamabad, so some people (like Dennis) really took advantage of it when they were in Lahore. Anyhow, Dennis and Ayyaz ate McDonald’s and I had an egg burger with chilies from a street vendor. It was excellente.

Then we drove back to I-town, and this time Ayyaz stayed awake.

On a serious side note, there were 19 Basant deaths this year (children falling off roofs, people getting electrocuted by the power lines, people getting hit by fireworks, etc.).