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.)

1 comment:

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