Monday, May 03, 2004

Pakistan: Lahore - Part 3

At the start of May, I made another trip to Lahore.

On this trip, I went with my good friend Kimberly.

We were taking my car, and when I went to pick Kimberly up at her apartment, I could immediately tell that we had different ideas about road trips. The drive was 4 to 5 hours each way, but judging by the volume of snacks she was bringing, you’d have thought we were going to be on the road for weeks. She had cans of coke, bottles of water, a jug of tea, a huge cooler full of ice, 4 types of cookies, snack cakes, popcorn, carrots, and the fixins for chicken burritos. She also had a suitcase with her clothes and a big bag full of her income tax materials, which were already overdue. I had a small duffle bag. We were only going for 2 nights.

Kimberly is a federal agent, and she also brought along her weapon “just in case”. I’m sure her shooting skills were fine, but I was not keen on her packing heat while we were touring. I think I’d rather take my chances with an angry mob unarmed.

The drive to Lahore was always a highlight for me, and I drove the whole way. As I mentioned, we took my car, Goldie, the Little Honda Civic That Could. Goldie was not in the best condition, so when I brought her up to the speed limit of about 80 mph, she would vibrate in an unnerving manner. I kept her closer to 65, and that worked fine.

Another thing about Goldie was that the passenger side seat beat didn't always work. Kimberly didn’t mind riding shotgun without a seat beat while I was driving, so it didn't bother me either. I had a working seat beat, and I used it.

Goldie was left-hand drive, like American cars, but Pakistan is a right-hand drive country. As such, the tolls along the Motorway were on Kimberly’s side.

As we came to the first toll booth, Kimberly kept insisting that we didn’t have to pay the toll since we were diplomats. There are a number of perks like this for diplomats, but no one I’m with ever seems to know exactly what we are entitled to with any degree of confidence. Anyway, having driven the Motorway before, I knew she was wrong. At this first toll booth, she started arguing with the attendant and waving her diplomatic card around. The toll booth man agreed that we didn’t have to pay, and he allowed us to pass through. The only catch was that this stop wasn’t even a paying stop. It was the first stop, where you get a ticket that will be used to determine the total charge once you exit the Motorway. He gave her the toll card and told her what she wanted to hear in order to get rid of us.

After four hours of snacking, we came to the other end of the Motorway, to the exit toll booth. Again Kimberly started with the complaining and the diplomatic ID waving. Finally, the guy was like, “Yes, madam, the special diplomat price is only 140 rupees” (about $2.50). If she wasn’t getting through for free, the next best thing was a special price. Of course, I had to point out to her that the special diplomat price was oddly enough the same as the price for everyone else, which was posted on all the toll booth signs.

In Lahore, we were staying with our good friend Kerry, who was stationed there. Neither of us had gotten directions on how to find her house, so as we approached the city, I asked Kimberly to navigate using a crappy map I had picked up. She never managed to make heads or tails of it, so we were cruising blind for the most part.

Lahore is a city of 7 million people, and the driving is much more dicey than in Islamabad. In Lahore, there are tons of motorcycles and cars and trucks and buses and horses and people and tuk-tuks on the streets. It’s like driving in a school of fish, and it’s a blast.

Knowing that Kerry lived close to the two main hotels in town, I was cruising along, taking the roads that looked busiest at each intersection. It was handy having a passenger because Kimberly could tell me when we were about to get sandwiched or when a kamikaze biker was coming up on the side. At the traffic lights, I would ask the people stopped around me or the street vendors for directions using my baby Urdu skills. Usually, the directions would take me a few streets further, and then I’d have to ask someone else for the next leg.

Talk about taking the long way – we ended up driving through half the city on our way to the hotels. When we finally got to the hotel area, which was a respectable place to call Kerry from for the final directions to her place, Kerry guided us in the rest of the way.

At Kerry's, we unloaded our junk from the car and made some small talk. Then Kimberly and I set out for town.

People who aren’t stationed in Lahore, like me and Kimberly, are allowed to drive to Lahore, but not in Lahore. We were going shopping, so Kimberly called Avis for a car and driver. The Avis guy picked us up, and, of course, his English sucked. The first order of business was to get money from an ATM, so we told the driver to start by going to Citibank. He understood and we were off.

On the way to Citibank, Kimberly kept asking the driver questions about the markets. Each time she would mention the name of a place, this driver would take that as the new destination. He was weaving all through the town, because she kept asking him questions and he kept thinking she wanted him to change course.

For example, she’d ask, “Does Anarkali Market have good deals on brass?”

He’d respond, “Yes, madam,” and then we’d turn in the direction of Anarkali.

I explained to Kimberly what was happening and suggested that she quit overloading the guy. I kept reminding him that Citibank was the first stop.

When he finally stopped the car, of course we were nowhere near a bank. Kimberly was angry with his incompetence, but she was also to blame. You have to work with what you’ve got after all.

One thing I liked was when Kimberly kept asking the guy how far things were.

“How far is Liberty?”

“Yes, madam, how far.”

He clearly wasn’t understanding.

We were in Lahore on May 1, and following the great Soviet tradition, it was Labor Day (May Day). As we were driving around, we saw a few labor rallies and other demonstrations, and for each one, there were tons of cops in riot gear. Unfortunately, since it was a holiday, many stores were closed.

With all the driver’s bungling, we decided not to go to the bank and to just look at the market he had taken us to.

Kimberly was a notorious bargainer (she would literally bargain on a 10-cent piece of bubble gum if she could), and she was in prime form on this day. We spent several hours haggling in the first market, and left basically empty-handed. Part of the problem with shopping in Lahore, as compared to Islamabad, was that most vendors didn’t have much exposure to Westerners. As I already mentioned, Lahore is a city of about 7 million people, and there are probably only a few hundred Westerners. Islamabad, on the other hand, is a city of around 400,000 people, and there are probably thousands of Westerners.

Many of the shopkeepers in Lahore were quite reluctant to bargain much on their tourist prices. They must have thought Kimberly would break before they would, but they were wrong.

Kimberly is a tall (like 6’1” or 6'2”) black woman, and she was telling all the merchants that she was from Africa and that she was too poor for their high prices. I don’t think that this was having any effect, though, since she was shopping with me, her rich American friend.

People would stare at Kimberly a little, but I was actually the main attraction, like on my other trips to Lahore. People were gawking, and this time, they were more handsy. The streets were packed with people, and a lot of the guys were deliberately brushing against me as they’d pass. Just to clarify, all the “accidental” rubbing was above the waist. One punk, however, put his hands on my waist like he was starting a conga line. I ignored him, and he left.

You may have the standard reaction to this (“If that guy touched me, I'd knock him on his ass.”), but it’s different in person. Across the world, young males (particularly in groups) are the most volatile demographic – committing the majority of crimes, engaging in the most violent behavior, etc. – and most of the people in the Pakistani markets are young males with nothing to do. I’ve seen fights in the markets where a few people will be fighting and then a bunch of other people who have no relationship to the fight will jump in just for the fun of it. Aside from the possibility of getting injured, getting in a fight with the locals is not a good career move for a diplomat.

So, I temporarily lowered my personal space threshold and went on about my business.

We went to a few more markets, didn’t buy much, and ended up at the Fortress Stadium market. Kimberly was looking for a velour blanket, so we went into a store that sold bedding. She had the clerks show her several pieces and finally narrowed it down to 2 that she liked. The guy told her that each one cost 22-hundred rupees (about $40). She picked the one she liked and told the guy she would give him 20 bucks. He, of course, didn’t accept, and Kimberly started raising a ruckus. She claimed that he had originally told her that the price was $22, as opposed to 2200 rupees like he had actually said. At first, I couldn’t tell if she was being serious or if she was trying some lame bargaining tactic. It would have made no sense for him to have given the price in dollars, since everything was normally quoted in rupees except for expensive things like carpets.

It was soon obvious that Kimberly was really pissed and not just goofing off. She stormed out of the store, and I had to give the clerks a look like “Women – who can figure ‘em out?” It was embarrassing, plus we had probably wasted half an hour in there before the deal soured.

Next, we went to a CD/DVD store. In Pakistan, all the CDs and DVDs are bootlegged, and you'd be hard-pressed to find legitimate media. In Islamabad, bootleg DVDs sold for about $3. In the first store we tried in Fortress, all the DVDs were selling for about $2.15. After a lengthy search, Kimberly picked 2 movies.

As we were walking past the rest of the shops, the price of the DVDs kept dropping - $1.80, $1.70, $1.60, and finally $1.43. Kimberly told me she was going to return her “expensive” DVDs back to the first shop and buy instead from the cheapest shop. I didn’t like this idea, so I told her I wasn’t going with her. She caught the hint, and we went back to the car.

Next on the agenda was dinner. Kimberly told the driver to take us to KFC. Lahore had many good restaurants, as well as several fast food chains. KFC, however, happened to be one of the only 2 fast food chains we had in Islamabad. Seeing as how we could eat at the Colonel’s any time, I vetoed that choice. Kimberly’s second choice was McDonald's.

As I’ve talked about in other stories, McDonald's in Pakistan is just like McDonald's in the States with a few menu changes. We were going to eat at Kerry’s so we got our food to go. We were ordering separately, and Kimberly went first. After asking questions about every freakin’ thing on the menu, Kimberly finally ordered. She ordered some burger (a Big & Tasty or whatever) and started with all her customizations (she wanted mustard, but only a little, pickles on each hamburger patty, no lettuce or onions, fries cooked in fresh oil with a little crunch to them, blah blah blah). She must have thought we were at Burger King (“Have it your way at Burger King!”). The order taker was getting so confused that when she read the order back, there were like 3 extra things on it. I was wondering if Kimberly was such a nuisance at McDonald's normally.

Once her order was entered, she paid and stepped aside while it was being prepared. I ordered next, with no special requests, and my food came before Kimberly’s.

In a few minutes, Kimberly’s food was ready. She immediately unwrapped the burger. Next (I kid you not), she started ranting because the burger didn’t look like the one on the picture. The patties were allegedly too small and unjuicy. I was thinking, “When does the product ever look as good as the picture?”

I sat down and started eating my take-out. Kimberly, meanwhile, pleaded her case to a small crowd of employees and managers. The other customers were staring. I finished my whole meal, and they were still deep in discussion. Finally, Kimberly changed her order, and when the new one was ready, she stormed out. I can’t take her anywhere.

In the car, Kimberly ate in front of the driver, and we went back to Kerry’s house.

It wasn’t long before another situation developed.

When the driver dropped us off, it was time to settle the bill for the car. The price was based on time and kilometers driven, and the rates had been agreed to beforehand. The problem was that Kimberly didn’t agreed with the times and kilometers that the driver was claiming. We had the car and driver for around 5 hours, and the total came to about $35. Kimberly thought it should be more like $20. She claimed we had only had the car 4.5 hours (I don’t wear a watch and I wasn’t paying attention so I didn’t know), and that there was no way we had driven 55 kilometers in that time. As far as the mileage was concerned, I didn’t think it was unreasonable. For one thing, we had driven what must have been the longest route to everything since the driver was so easily diverted off course by Kimberly. Also, it is difficult to estimate mileage when driving in city traffic. Kimberly didn’t like those arguments, though, and claimed that the driver had deliberately taken the long way to everything to run up the meter.

She told the guy to wait, and she went into Kerry’s house to call Avis and complain. By the time she came back outside, the driver was gone. I had paid him off. Kimberly was pissed, but she forked over her half of the money nonetheless.

While Kimberly was inside on the phone, I found some newborn kittens in a concrete pipe. The mother had abandoned the litter, and two were already dead.

Kerry had two indoor cats and 2 yard cats, so she, of course, wanted to help the live kitten. I brought it inside, and we fed it milk. We didn’t have a dropper or a straw, so we put its face into some milk in a shallow dish. It couldn’t drink very well yet, so it kept dropping its snout in the milk and then it would raise its head and meow and sneeze. Its eyes were not yet open. Kerry later found a straw on the sprayer mechanism on a bottle of throat spray, and Pete (as he was named) started taking the milk better.

The next day, we went to brunch with Kerry and two other Lahore people, Matt and Deborah, at the International Club. Then we all went to the Consulate. It was way better than the Embassy in Islamabad.

Kerry stayed at the office to do some work, and the rest of us went touring. Matt had been in Lahore less than a week, so he hadn’t seen anything yet. The first stop was the Lahore Fort, to which I had already been.

The Fort, like all government-run attractions in Pakistan, had a tourist admission price (about $3.60) and a locals one (about 18 cents). When it was our turn, Kimberly demanded that we get the local price. Again with the diplomatic ID waving. This was another one of those alleged diplomatic privileges that I’ve heard different things on from different people. I didn’t want any part of the fiasco, so I went to a different line and bought a tourist ticket. Matt took Kimberly's side, and Deborah and I waited on the sidelines. They finally got in at the local's price. Whether or not they were right didn't really concern me. As I saw it, the fort could use the extra money from my tourist ticket.

Like before, I attracted a lot of attention (more than the other three in our group for some reason). Like before, there was the gawking and handshaking and people wanting to take pictures with me. At one point, a guy came up to me and was like, “Sir, my clients would like to have a picture with you.”

I was like, “Your clients?”

He pointed to two Pakistanis. Turns out that the guy was one of those people who hangs out at attractions with a camera to take pictures for tourists without cameras. I left my fans hangin’, though.

After the Fort, Deborah went to another engagement, and Kimberly, Matt, and I went back to Anarkali Market. We went down exactly the same streets Kimberly and I had gone down the day before, but she kept claiming new things were open. It was exactly the same, and we went in exactly the same stores.

Matt got a sampling of Kimberly’s shopping, and he lost interest quickly.

Matt had received full Urdu training, so he knew more than I did. His conversations were not too advanced, though, and I could understand a lot of what he was discussing with the store clerks. Once someone was asking where he was from and if he and I were brothers. He told him that he was from the U.S., that we weren’t brothers, and that he didn’t know where I was from. Maybe I was supposed to be pretending to be a Brit that day, but I never got the memo. (For the record, Matt and I look nothing alike.)

As we were going through the market, Matt picked up a leech – some Christian Pakistani who wanted Matt to help him get a visa or some such. I told Matt that he needed to ditch him before he got attached. He instead kept talking with this guy as we went through the market. Finally, after like 45 minutes, Matt started trying to brush him off. By now, his hooks were in deep, though. The guy gave Matt a business card and kept asking for Matt’s card or at least his address or his phone number. Matt kept refusing. This could have all been easily handled if he had brushed him off in the first place. Short of doing that, he could have given him the Consulate phone number, or, if he didn’t want to talk to him again, given him a fake name and number. There were so many good options, but he didn’t use any. In the end, after a million pleas and good-byes and other nonsense, they shook hands and the guy left.

Like 15 minutes later, he reappeared with a gift for Matt - a green plastic hand keychain. Matt wouldn’t take it, and he told the guy that he was very angry with him. Pretty harsh. Finally the guy left for good.

We went to the market using a motor pool vehicle, and we had a designated time when the driver was to pick us up. As the time drew near, we started heading for the rendezvous point. Kimberly kept stopping at every other stall, and it was all stuff we had passed on the way into the market. Matt was getting perturbed. He started walking far ahead, I was in the middle where I could see both him and Kimberly easily, and Kimberly was a mile back.

When we finally met up with our driver, late, we headed over to Kerry's house to pick her up for dinner. That night we were going to Coocoo’s Den, a famous Lahorie restaurant. Kimberly, however, didn’t want to eat Pakistani food, so she opted out. We picked her up some more McDonald's (less of a hassle than the first time), left her working on her taxes at Kerry’s house, and went to the Old City.

The food at Coocoo’s wasn’t great, but the scenery made up for it. The prime seating was on the roof, and to get there, we had to climb 6 or 7 narrow, steep staircases. Coocoo’s is in the red light district, so a lot of the artwork on the walls was of working women. Being a Muslim country, though, even the working women were pretty heavily veiled.

We had some good conversation and ate some tough kabobs and extremely salty spinach.

I was picking up the tab, and when the waiter took my money and brought back the change, there was a bit of a discrepancy. It was no matter, though, since I just deducted the missing money from his tip. The waiter was probably pissed, but it was the cashier’s fault.

That night, we watched some DVDs on Kerry’s big screen.

The following day was Monday, and it was another Pakistani holiday – the Prophet Muhammed’s birthday. Kerry’s cook whipped up some breakfast, and Kimberly wasn’t shy about ordering him around so that her waffles were just-so.

We were driving back to Islamabad that morning, and as we left, Kerry assigned her tiger team to escort out of the city and back to the Motorway. The tiger team was two cops on a motorcycle. The one in front drove and the one in back was the shooter, I suppose. I didn’t want the escort, but Kerry insisted.
The tiger team met us outside Kerry’s gate, and we thought we were supposed to follow them. We were each going super slow, trying to get behind the other. Then I figured out that I was supposed to lead. I pulled out at a normal road speed, and they followed. They didn’t seem to be doing much.

We only got a few minutes from the house before the tiger team amused me greatly. Their bike died at one of the stoplights, and they had to walk it out of traffic. I ditched them, and I found the Motorway quite well on my own. It’s always easier going from the small residential street back to the highway as opposed to the other way.

I drove the 4 hours back, and it was a hot one, especially since Goldie didn't have A/C. On the upside, I did manage to get a nice painful trucker’s tan on my window arm.

It was a straight shot. One toilet break, one photo stop, and no haggling at the toll booths.

Back in Islamabad, we drove past a few markets. Kimberly was up for more shopping, and she hit me with her old, “Let’s stop here for a quick minute.”
Borrowing one of her phrases, I gave her my answer: "That's a big negative."