Monday, September 06, 2004

Pakistan: Rohtas Fort

It was another fine Islamabad morning, and even more so since it was a Monday holiday, Labor Day. My good friend Portia and I took the opportunity to visit Rohtas Fort.

Rohtas is a few hours down the Grand Trunk Road, in the direction of Lahore. I was driving Goldie, the little Honda Civic that could, and she was barely recovered from the hostile driving in Taxila the day before.

The drive to Rohtas was excellent – very scenic and with a pace just a little faster than logic would dictate. The Pakistani and Indian tunes were cranked, and the windows were down. I managed to dodge most of the obstructions in the road, except for once when I dragged Goldie’s soft underbelly on the road. It was at a place where long ruts had developed on either side of the roadbed where the tires ride, and the middle of the road was elevated. The worst part of the incident, no doubt, was my gasp. Not that is wasn’t justified.

Anyhow, after a few short hours, we pulled off the main road toward Rohtas. The road to the Fort was narrow and winding, so it was difficult to see oncoming traffic. We only ran a few other cars off the road. Just kidding.

In a few minutes, the Fort was in view, and then we drove in.

Rohtas Fort is, I think, the largest fort in Pakistan. The main wall is still intact, and it still surrounds the town of Rohtas, just as it has since the fort was built in the 1500s.

When you first enter the Fort, you drive through the town. We drove past shops and houses and shanties and school children and wizened old people who were just chillin’. We turned a few heads.

When we got to the part of the Fort that is reserved for tourists to see, we pulled into the parking lot. We were the only car there. There were a few vendors selling soft drinks and snacks, a guide or two, some policemen, a ticket seller, and some other government workers who were assigned to the Fort.

After we parked, several of the Pakistanis started asking us questions like if we had stopped at the police station in town to register and so forth. We told them that we hadn’t, but that we had followed all the procedures that the Government of Pakistan required for traveling diplomats (I had anyway. Portia was not affiliated with the Embassy.) It turned out that they were expecting a visit from an official delegation of Americans, and they were just making sure we weren’t the VIPs. It was a pretty safe assumption since not many Congressmen travel around unshaven in a shalwar kamiz.

I was hungry by this point, but the vendor with the little cook station didn’t have anything prepared yet.

It was still before noon, but the sun was out in full force. Portia and I downed a coke and headed for the Fort.

It didn’t take long for a guide to latch onto us. We asked him what his rate was, and he gave us the old “as you like”. What we liked wasn’t all that much, so we hired him. After all, a little money is better than nothing – it’s not like they were being overrun by tourists.

Our guide’s name was Tanveer, and like many Pakistani men, he was retired military. As we walked toward the Fort, he told us how since 9/11 there had been a dramatic decrease in visitors, especially among Americans who rarely visited anymore. Of course, the number of tourists was even lower when we went since it was a Monday.

Portia is an American who was born in Peshawar, Pakistan. She speaks fluent Urdu, among other languages. Tanveer could speak some English, but badly, so Portia spoke to him mostly in Urdu. Portia did a pretty good job of cluing me in as to what they were discussing, but I still spent a good deal of the tour in a fog. There was also a rare moment or two when I could understand their Urdu conversation without translation. In one of these little snippets of conversation that I could understand, Tanveer was asking Portia how many kids we had. She told him we were just friends. The concept of a platonic friendship between a man and woman doesn’t really exist in Pakistani society. We got a cultural pass, of course, since we hailed from anything-goes Western society.

We toured the battle stations along the top of the wall. We peered into the execution hole, which was about the size of a sewer hole. If I understood correctly, when people were executed, they would be hanged and then lowered in the hole. That way that could finish dying and the people in town wouldn’t have to see the unpleasantness. Of course that doesn’t really mesh with what I’ve heard about most “fort cultures”. It always seemed to me that executions at such places were high entertainment.

Who knows.

I’ve also heard that people were just thrown down the hole so that their bodies would be dashed on the rocks below. By either method, the hole was hardly lethal anymore. After years of tourism, it was mostly full of trash.

Tanveer pointed out a palace that was being restored thanks to a grant from USAID, the do-gooder branch of American overseas operations.

We viewed the old fort mosque, complete with bats on the ceiling. Portia freaked.

She calmed her nerves with a cigarette break. Tanveer joined her. Portia had been schooled for some years in Islamabad, and she reminisced about a class trip to Rohtas Fort with Tanveer and me.

During the smoke break, I asked Tanveer for a recommendation for lunch. He kept telling us places that were in the wrong direction from Islamabad. I told him that we wanted some place in Rohtas or on the way back to Islamabad. He racked his brain and couldn’t think of a single place worth eating. I think he must have been trying to think of a place he thought would be suitable for Westerners, even though I kept telling him that I was interested in the kind of place that locals would eat at, so long as the food tasted good.

Instead, Tanveer invited us to join him for lunch at his house. He did this in Urdu, so when Portia told me what he was saying, she also added her own thoughts on the proposal: “Tell him that we can’t because we have to get back, and we don’t have time.” (This didn’t make total sense since we had only moments before been asking where we could stop for lunch.) Portia felt that Tanveer was going to eventually hit us up for something – visas, money, favors, etc. – so it would be best not to accept anything from him.

"What poppycock!" I thought.

I accepted his invite. Unfortunately, it would come back later to bite me in the butt, only in a small way though – so let’s just call it a nibble.

Once it was agreed that we would dine with Tanveer, we went to look at one of the grand gates to the Fort that we being restored. Then we went to the well. Along the way, a guy ran up with some cokes for us. He wouldn’t take any money.

To get to the well, we had to descend maybe 150 or 200 steps. It was still a scorcher, but the farther down we got, the cooler it got. At the bottom, it was almost a little too cold. Not really, though.

Like the execution hole, the well had a remarkable stash of trash at the bottom. Plus there was a lot of mud filling up the well and covering the lower steps.

We hiked back out of the well, and it was sounding like Portia should have maybe skipped the pre-well smoke. Not that she was wheezing that badly.

The well was our last stop, so we went back to the car. The American delegation never did show up.

Portia hopped in back and Tanveer rode shotgun. He directed us to his house, which wasn’t too far into town.

We parked and started walking down the alley to his place. Tanveer saw that I left my camera in the car, and he asked me to get it. He wanted me to photograph his family.

As we were walking, people peered out of homes and shops at us. A few children ran up and walked along with us.

When we got to Tanveer’s place, we obviously caught the family off-guard. He had us wait outside for a few moments while they quickly cleaned up and cleared space for us. There were eight people there – Tanveer, his wife, and 6 kids. It was a school day, and there were other children who were not yet home for lunch break. I don’t know the total count of family members.

Speaking of school, all of Tanveer’s children who were of age were either in school or had been in school (which is something of an accomplishment for a poor family in Pakistan, where public schools aren’t free), except for the oldest daughter. She had basically been shafted to help raise the family. While the other kids who had gone to school wouldn’t have a huge advantage over her in the end, I did feel badly for her. All she could look forward to in life was a good marriage, and I hope she gets it.

Anyhow, the house was a small concrete deal consisting of a main room and a smaller room which was separated by a curtain. The main room had 2 beds which were used for sitting during the day. We all sat and Portia made a little conversation in Urdu.

What with all the kids there, I told them that I was one of 10 kids. They were impressed. Portia later told me that I should quit telling people that in Pakistan since even though my parents had responsibly decided to have a large family, I was giving a Western seal of approval to these villagers who had no concept of family planning. She had a point on a certain level, but I never did put her suggestion into practice.

The little kids were curious and took an immediate liking to us. I took some pictures, and I made the mistake of showing the kids that the camera was digital and that they could instantly see the picture on the screen. Every time I took a picture, they would all rush over to look – a barrage of little dirty hands. Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to Pakistani village children; my nieces in Tennessee do the exact same thing.

The mother had one eye that didn’t face the expected way. Two of the children had their mother’s eyes. One was a baby, and one was maybe 4. I don’t know if the 4-year-old also had developmental issues, but I think he did. At one point, he got excited and punched me in the jaw. It was clearly not intentional – more of a motor skills problem than anything else – and it didn’t hurt in the least. Still, Tanveer was mortified, so he made a big show of yanking the boy’s arm and scolding him.

Tanveer pulled out his photo album and showed us the other pictures tourists had taken for him. It looked like it had been a while since his last photo shoot.

Soon lunch appeared. It was from a street vendor, so one of the kids must have gone to get it.

Lunch consisted of fried snacks – samosas and pakoras – and Pepsi and tea. The family presented the food to us and sat there watching us eat. I offered some to the kids, but evidently, they wanted the guests to eat first and alone. At my offer to share, Tanveer replied, “They are not hungry; they have just eaten.” Yet, at the same moment, one of the kids was mimicking eating, as if he were eating an air samosa.

After we finished, the kids took the tray of food behind the curtain to the other room, and devoured it. Not hungry? Indeed...

After lunch, we exchanged contact information. I got Tanveer’s address so that I could send him the photos. I didn’t know why he wanted my information, so I told him he could contact me through the Embassy.

We took a few more pictures (which was worse than before since the kids now had dirty and greasy hands grabbing at the camera). Then we walked back to the car. Before we departed, Tanveer gave us a book on Rohtas Fort.

We thanked him, and I offered him a few hundred rupees. He wouldn’t take it. He was doing some lame humility thing, so I put the money in his shirt pocket, and he kept it, of course.

We drove on back to I’bad.

On the way, Portia opened the book Tanveer gave us. The suggested retail price was more than we had paid Tanveer for the entire day. While we were sure that he hadn’t paid full price for the book, we felt a little tacky. In our defense, though, the only thing we were actually paying for was the tour. The rest was hospitality and gifts. Not to mention, I was going to send him pictures once I had them printed, so that was a gift we were giving him.

And another fine adventure had come to a close.

Now, flash forward 6 weeks…

It was a Thursday morning. I was at the office and I got a call from – guess who? – Tanveer. His English was still awful, but he managed to convey to me that he was going to be in Islamabad on the following Monday. I arranged to meet him, mainly to give him the pictures I had taken. Sure it had been 6 weeks already, but I had been on the verge of sending them to him any day. Really.

I told Portia about his coming to Islamabad, and she repeated her warning from before about how he wanted something and how he was going to get pushy and demanding. She had no interest in seeing him again.

I knew she was probably right, but I figured there wasn’t any harm in seeing him. Plus I thought I could stand up to whatever demands he might have.

Monday came, and I met him at the place we had arranged. He ran over to the car and we did our Pakistani man hug and shook hands. I gave him the pictures, and he didn’t look at them. He clearly had other things on his mind.

Then his motivation was revealed. Supposedly, his brother was very poor and had some hospital bill – I couldn’t understand what the ailment was – that they desperately needed help in paying. The outstanding balance was 10 lak rupees, which is 100,000 rupees or about $1,764 USD.

I didn’t know if it was a scam or not, but I didn’t want any part of it. I understood why he would approach me since I did make so much more money than he did, but at the same time, I hated feeling like I'd been used. I wished him a safe return to Rohtas, and we parted with another handshake and not so much as a single rupee changing hands. As I drove away, I saw him in the rearview mirror, looking at the photos.

And I felt like a slime bag. Portia got the last laugh that night, I guess. As if there was anything to laugh about.

(Kind of a downer, I know, but not every story ends on a high note.)

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Pakistan: Taxila - Part 2

Almost a year to the day after my first visit to Taxila, I went back to finish it up. This time, I went with my good friend Nenita.

Taxila is about a 45-minute drive from Islamabad, down the Grand Trunk Road toward Peshawar. We left late in the morning, and, as it was my car, I got to drive. Driving the GT Road rocked like it always does. Most everyone flies down this beat-up road with the pedal to the metal, but there is always a tractor or donkey cart or bus or slow motorist or broken-down truck disrupting the flow. Nothing slows traffic for long, though, thanks to a little thing called the kamikaze pass. We had a few close calls where I would complete a pass seconds before the on-coming car passed. It was like a well-choreographed Hollywood stunt sequence. And we survived, so it’s all good.

Goldie, the little Honda Civic that could, was roaring like a lion.

We left for Taxila late in the morning, and we arrived in time for lunch.

We went to the main restaurant, across from the Taxila Museum, and at the time, we were the only ones there. The staff was busy setting up a buffet. We ordered the buffet, but it had been specially ordered by a tour group that would soon be arriving. The waiter shot us down, and we ordered off the menu.

While we were waiting for our food, the tour group came in – a few bus loads of Japanese people.

Nenita, who is Filipina, was joking that she should infiltrate and partake of the buffet.

After lunch, we decided to start our tour by hitting the museum. When we walked over, though, we were informed that the museum was closed until later in the afternoon for some reason. Maybe it was for lunch break. We decided to hit the ruins and go to the museum last.

There are several archaeological sites in Taxila, and our plan was to head down the road toward the farthest site and stop at all of the sites we passed along the way.

The first site we went to, Sirkap, was one of the most popular, so the entry road was in good shape. There were some other tourists there, as well as the guy from the government checking tickets. Also present were the usual entrepreneuring locals – the guides and the hawkers who were selling supposedly authentic artifacts and coins.

A guide wormed in and started showing us some features of this site. His English was not good. At one point, he was describing a find of human bones at the site. At first I thought he was saying “bomb” instead of “bone”, so his spiel wasn’t making a whole lot of sense. I finally realized what he was saying, but a few minutes later, Nenita turned to him and asked when the site was bombed. Obviously I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t understand this guy. We brushed him off and explored the rest on our own.

Then it was off to the next site.

The roads leading to most of these sites were awful, and pretty much required 4-wheel drive and a good clearance. Goldie had neither, so it was a bit dicey at times.

I was driving up 45-degree rock slopes, through creeks, and through large crevices and troughs in the road. I was going slowly and maneuvering so as to try to keep from dragging the bottom of the car, but several times it would take a hard blow from a root or a large rock or a dip in the road. And of course, once we would finally make it to a site, we’d have to go back over the same stretch of road to get back to the main road. I spoke to Goldie as we drove so as to boost her confidence. To make things more interesting, many of the roads weren’t marked very well.

One of the hairiest drives was to the site called Mohra Moradu, a former Buddhist monastery. It was worth the trouble though. The ruins were nice and there were several young boys playing in the canal. Goats were trooping around like they owned the place. As Nenita and I were poking around, we saw a woman walk behind a small shed. Nenita asked the woman if there was anything to see back there. The woman looked sheepish and nodded that we could come over. When we went over, there were a few other women and a bunch of naked young children. I don’t know if it was bath day or if they were just trying to beat the heat. Whatever was going on, I think this woman was embarrassed – and rightly so – because she thought we wanted to gawk at them. She still accommodated us, though. We were interested in ruins or vistas, not invading peoples’ privacy, so we excused ourselves and went on to the next site.

We only skipped one site, and that was because it had a huge puddle stretching across the whole road. If we had gotten stuck there, we would have been in a pickle.

Of the rest, some were better than others. Some of the sites were purely architectural ruins like columns and such. Those were OK. The cool ones, however, were the ones with the statues.

The best one of all is the Jaulian monastery. It contains many stupas (ornate mounds said to contain relics of Buddha) and Buddhist statues. Some are originals, but most are replicas of originals now housed in the museum. To get to the Jaulian site, we had to climb probably a hundred and fifty steps. There were several goats perched around like they were guarding the place. Near the entrance of the site itself, there was a goat in a tree eating the leaves. Being tourists and city-slickers to boot, we felt obligated to stop and photograph the goat in the tree.

We toured Jaulian and on the way back to the car the hawkers swarmed on us. We sent them packing and had a few cokes in the scorching heat.

By now, it was late afternoon, so we drove back toward the museum.

As I’ve mentioned before, mirrored objects (like disco balls) are probably the most famous and unique of Taxila handicrafts. Of the mirrored objects, the disco cats are the coolest of all. They make a huge size (over 3 feet tall) and a small one (about one foot tall). Nenita and I stopped at a shop. The shopkeeper had one of the huge disco cats, and he wanted 1,500 rupees for it. Nenita told him she would give him 1000 for it. He started whining about how the heat had been keeping tourists away and how business had been slow and how it was late afternoon already so he would soon be closing for the day. It was unclear to me why he was telling us all this since it only strengthened our bargaining position. We told him that for exactly all the reasons he was complaining about, we should get the good price of 1000 (about $16.70 USD). And just like that he agreed. It was almost too easy, which led us to immediately realize we should have offered him 8 or 9 hundred. It was too late for that, so we took the cat for 1000 and loaded him in the car.

A little way down the road, we stopped at another shop since both Nenita and I wanted a huge disco cat. This time we tried going for 900 right off the bat. This guy was more resistant, so we went back to 1000. We didn’t have all afternoon to argue over 2 dollars. He still balked, so we walked. When we fired up the car, it struck him that we were actually leaving. He quickly relented, and Nenita and I each had our Taxila trophy.

The only thing left to do was hit the museum. Photography was not allowed inside. Since we were carrying cameras, they pointed this out to us specifically.

Nenita and I went through the museum, and it was fun. We both do museums pretty quickly and we were both cracking up over some of the exhibits. A group of Pakistani tourists kept staring at us.

When we had entered the museum, there was this one guard who complimented my shalwar kamiz in the usual manner, “Sir, you are looking smart in your shalwar kamiz today.” So I thanked him and we continued looking.

He came up again, asking where we were from and so forth. We had a nice mini-conversation and went back to looking. Then he tracked me around the whole museum.

He would point out things to me about statues or about things in exhibit cases. He was bordering on annoying.

At one point, he called me over to an exhibit that was in a separate room. I went inside, and the guard and I were the only people in the room. He closed the door leading back out to the main exhibit and was like, “OK, Sir, hurry – take a few pictures.” He, meanwhile, went to the door to keep watch so I could break the rules. The only problem was that there was nothing to photograph in that room. It was a room showcasing buttons and coins, neither of which I cared a lick about. Not to mention, neither would have been a very interesting photo subject. I’m not above breaking no-photo rules, per se, (without flash, of course) but it would have to be for something cool, like the Elephant Man’s skeleton, for example. But buttons? Not even close.

I thanked him for his gesture and left.

We finished up at the museum right around closing time, so we had a few sodas at the snack bar outside and hit the road.

Goldie had had a rough day, so I had an uneasy feeling when I first brought her up to highway speed. She did fine, though.

There was more road construction on the return trip, so the pace was a bit slower. It was just as dangerous, though, if not more so.

Not to worry, though. We made it home without shedding so much as a single mirror from our pair of disco cats.