Sunday, November 28, 2004

Pakistan: Nathiagali

The last weekend of November, I made a daytrip to Nathiagali with my good friends Nenita, Tangela, and Raja.

We took Goldie, the little Honda Civic that could, and I drove. Goldie has no heat (or A/C for that matter), so in the winter, no matter how cold it is or how hard it is raining, I keep the window rolled down. Otherwise the windshield gets totally fogged up.

On this particular day, which was a bit chilly, there was some minor whining about the window, although everyone was aware of the window situation well before we set out.

Nathiagali is a scenic spot in the mountains, a bit further than Murree, that the British established as a hill station back when they occupied India and Pakistan. The road is a narrow, steep affair, with curves to spare. It reminded of the mountain roads in the rural U.S., except for the ridiculous level of traffic. On the road to Nathiagali, there were plenty of pleasure drivers mixed in with the tons of buses, mini-buses, trucks, taxis, and tankers. There were also the odd horse cart and donkey cart. In general, the bigger the vehicle, the slower it moved, so the buses and trucks would often wind up with several cars and mini-buses stacked up behind them. No one would wait for long, though, and as soon as the smallest opportunity would present itself, the first car or two would go for the classic blind kamikaze pass.

Like everyone else, we found ourselves in the kamikaze passing cycle, where we would get stuck behind a truck and zoom around it on a blind corner only to find ourselves behind another slow truck.

It was a blast, and Goldie was doing swell.

Only once on the ride up did we have a really close call. At that time, we passed a truck so closely that when we pulled back in front of it, we were close enough to swap some paint with both the truck and the on-coming car. Almost. It was tight. Nenita and Tangie sucked in their breath, and Raja was clinging pretty tightly to the handle over his window. Everyone instantly recovered once we were safely through, though.

As we drove, we had the Pakistani tunes cranked, and Raja was able to tell us what the songs were about.

It was an awesome drive to Nathiagali, and we got there in record time. Raja was impressed at Goldie’s performance on the steep roads. Evidently he had some doubts when we started.

Anyway, the hill stations were developed so that the British could escape the heat of the lowland cities during the summers. Today, they still function mainly as summer destinations, so Nathiagali was pretty well shut down when we got there. We couldn’t even find a place serving lunch.

We ended up driving around and admiring the scenery. We decided to check out the Governor’s House, but it wasn’t really open for tourism. We turned around when we came to the armed guards and the locked gate.

On the way back from the Governor’s House, we drove past St. Mathew’s Catholic Church, and decided to stop for photos.

While we were photographing the church, some guys with horses came up. Their shtick was to lead tourists around on horseback for a fee.

Nenita wanted her picture on the horse, so she saddled up. Then Tangela saddled up. Then I, with my mild fear of horses, was peer-pressured into saddling up. Raja mounted his horse, and we were all set.

The horse guys led us over to the scenic overlook, and we posed for photos on the horses. The overlook was something else. You could see all the way to the snow-capped mountains of Indian Kashmir.

After the photos, they led us the short distance back to the car which was parked at the church. Once we got off, we each paid 50 rupees (80 cents) for the use of the horses. The horse guys started caterwauling, asking for 100 rupees at least. We wouldn’t hear of it, and since we had a Pakistani with us, we felt a little more legitimate. He felt that 50 rupees was too generous as it was.

We drove away and any hard feelings instantly melted away, I’m sure.

On the drive back to Murree, the traffic was insane, which was no surprise. We saw a few crashes, and several near misses. In one instance, a huge bus was flying down the hill towards us, and when it hit a turn, its front wheels turned and its rear wheels slid the other direction. The driver corrected before he totally spun out, which would have been bad news for us (not to mention for the bus which was bursting at the seams with passengers).

We all thought it was great. Perhaps the fumes were getting to us by this point.

Outside of Murree, we stopped at a roadside roasted corn vendor for a quick snack. In the woods around the corn stand, there were wild monkeys hanging around patiently waiting for some corn of their own.

Tangie and Nenita didn’t want to go around the monkeys, so Raja and I went to buy the corn. The monkeys came close, but they didn’t seem to be so bold as to attack people. Besides, my rabies vaccinations are up-to-date. I got some awesome shots of the monkeys, and they did not bother us. I think they were purposely trying to look cute so that we would feed them, but we didn’t. The corn guy gave them some scraps, though.

We ate our corn in the car and drove on down to Murree.

Murree, while also a hill station, is bigger and more accessible than Nathiagali. As such, it has more to offer year round. We stopped for lunch.

The restaurant that Raja recommended was the same one that another Pakistani had recommended to me on a trip to Murree I had taken several months ago.

We had a good spread for lunch, and only a few things looked suspect. We ate the suspect things as well, though.

After lunch, the check came. Nenita wanted to treat. Raja tried to trump Nenita and said he would treat since we were guests in his country. As there were already two people fighting over the bill, Tangie and I didn’t even offer. That would only have complicated things further, as you could imagine.

As we were walking from our table to the counter where we were to pay, Nenita and Raja continued to fight over the bill.

I walked outside to wait.

As I was waiting in front of the restaurant, three Pakistani guys about my age came to talk to me. We did all the usual greetings, and then they asked me where I was from.

I told them that I was from America, which they all thought was good and well. Unfortunately, they had no clue what this meant.

“So you are from London?” the first guy queried.

“No, London is in England. I am from the U.S.” I responded.

The second young man chimed in: “So you have a Chinese passport?”

“No, I have an American passport.”

“Are you South African?” they asked.

"No," I tried again, "I am from America, and I have an American passport. I am not Chinese or British or South African.”

As my dad would say, I was dealing with some real mental midgets.

This discussion was going nowhere fast, and we went through the whole geography run-around several more times before Nenita, Tangie, and Raja came out of the restaurant. I don’t know who ended up paying for lunch.

The whole discussion with the three Pakistanis was amazing to me because in my travels this was my first encounter with people who didn’t know what it meant to be an American. Maybe other people I had met had thought that the U.S. was part of China or the U.K., but they never vocalized it to me.

Having just finished a huge lunch, we bought a few bags of roasted peanuts from a street vendor outside the restaurant and set off for a bit of shopping. We started by hitting a handicraft store. After a bit of browsing I bought a mug. Nenita was still looking, so I went outside to wait. Tangie came soon after.

There was a table of merchandise outside, and a Pakistani woman came by to look. She mistook me for a store employee and started asking me in Urdu something about a sweater. We all got a good laugh over that one. I was dressed in local garb, though, so the woman might have been confused by that.

After the handicraft store, we went to another store, and Tangie bought a blanket to use in the car for the ride home. Once we hit a few more shops, it was getting late, so we decided to head back to Islamabad. Tangie was right: It was getting cold.

As the sun set on the mountains, so spectacular was the sunset that the clouds seemed to be on fire. We stopped for a few more photos, and before long, the sun was totally gone. This meant that I had to drive down the mountains in the dark. The drive was just as crazy as it had been on the way up, and, of course, the darkness only increased the hairiness of it all.

We were swerving, ducking, and dodging, and the tunes were blasting once more.

Everyone was totally laid back. Whenever there was a close call, we would all laugh and make jokes. Thankfully no one in the car was prone to anxiety or the ride home would have been a nerve-wracking mess for us all.

Cold hands and red noses aside, we got back to Islamabad with no problems, and in plenty of time for the Saturday night parties.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Muscat, Oman: One Drink at a Time

For Eid last November, we ended up with a 5-day weekend, Saturday through Wednesday. I decided to use this break to visit my good friend Diana in Muscat, Oman. Over the course of this trip, the local employees, who are normally pretty sharp, didn’t seem to be running at peak performance.

The Marine Corps Birthday Ball was on that Saturday night, so I decided not to leave until afterwards. Saturday during the day, I was at a carpet party at a friend’s house.

During the party, my phone rang. It was an expeditor calling from the Karachi Consulate (my route went through Karachi) to tell me that he had been waiting for me at the airport the night before, and he was worried since I had never shown up.

Local staff screw-up number 1: I was supposed to arrive at 1:25 AM on Sunday, but the expediter misread the date on my notification and showed up a day early. I told him I would see him later in the day, and went back to the party. He ended up with back-to-back midnight shifts unfortunately.

As for the carpet showing, I came away empty-handed. The one piece I liked mysteriously disappeared between the viewing and the buying stages. I didn’t need another carpet anyway.

That night, I went to the Marine Ball. I decided not to get drunk (which is a big part of the Marine Ball experience, mind you), since I was about to fly to Muscat. I only had two drinks. I stayed for about 3 hours and went home to chuck my tux and wait for the car I had requested.

When I pulled in my driveway, my night guard informed me in his best English that the car already came and left.

Local staff screw-up number 2: When I called the driver, he claimed my request had been for 9:00 PM instead of 10:00 PM, so he had shown up and left already. I had a copy of the request in front of me, and the time was clearly listed as 10:00. The driver had to make a second trip back to my house unfortunately.

Seeing as how it was Eid, though, the biggest holiday for Muslims, I hooked him up with a good tip at the airport.

My itinerary to Muscat included stops in Karachi and Dubai, both coming and going. For anyone tempted to tell me that I could have done it with less lay-overs, I am well aware of this fact.

So, I caught the red-eye to Karachi. The flight was maybe a quarter full, including 2 sisters who were seated a few rows up and across from me. They were both around 10 or 12, and they spent the whole flight peeking back at me and giggling when I would look in their direction. As flattering as this all was, as the flight wore on, I looked their way less and less.

As we deplaned, they gave me a drawing they had made of me. As far as 10-year-old’s drawings go, it was a dead-ringer, I suppose. Unfortunately, I have no idea where the picture went.

In Karachi, the expediter came and escorted me from the domestic terminal to the international one. This was a total waste of his time, and I was perfectly capable of doing this unaided. We are required, however, to use the expediters in Karachi for every arrival, departure, and transfer.

After a long lay-over and a little time in the air, I was in Dubai. Once we landed, they called for all the passengers with a final destination of Dubai to get off first. Literally, 3 people got off. The rest of us were transiting.

They bused us to the transiting passengers security check point, and it was chaos. There was a huge mob of people trying to funnel into 3 x-ray lanes. Plus, the metal detectors seemed to be extra sensitive because practically everyone had to remove their shoes. To further irritate the situation, more and more buses kept dropping people off. People who came in later were pushing in front of people already in line. Tempers were heating.

I made it through the check point and got to my gate just as boarding was starting. We got on a bus and went out to the plane.

As we were queued up at the jetway, a few of the passengers whipped out their cameras. They must have been trying to document every last detail of the trip of a lifetime.

We left Dubai, and in no time we were in Muscat.

Diana had booked a car and expediters for me, so there was an Omani with my name on a sign when I got off the plane. He asked for my passport and had me wait in a room with 4 other people. I had gotten an Omani visa in Islamabad before I came, so there was less for him to do than he realized. He came back, gave me my passport, and passed me off to another Omani. This guy took me to baggage claim at a brisk walk. I hadn’t checked any bags, so he took me outside.

Outside, there was another man with my name on a sign, so I got in his car and we were off to Diana’s house.

In the mad dash out of the airport, I had not changed any money. This would prove to be a hassle later, since Oman, like Pakistan, was celebrating Eid, and most of the banks were closed for the holiday and would remain that way for the duration of my stay.

The driver took me to Diana’s, and I was happy to find that Oman was another non-tipping country.

Diana had told me as I was planning my visit that she might also be leaving for the Eid holiday. She decided that she would leave, but she waited for me to arrive before she did. She was going a few hours down the road to Abu Dhabi, so she had some flexibility.

We chatted a bit and Diana showed me the important things about her house like where the bathroom was and how to turn on the internet and work the TV. She also gave me a sheet of helpful notes with bits of information like her address and phone number, the embassy switchboard number, places to shop and catch taxis, good spots to hit the beach, and so forth. On the sheet, she had written which days the maid and the gardener would be coming, so that I wouldn’t lock them out. I must have messed something up, though, because I didn’t see either one of them while I was there.

Most important of all, Diana wrote down the phone numbers for some of her embassy friends: Larry, Tim, and Julie. Larry was Diana’s back neighbor; Tim had been in Diana’s and my orientation class, so I knew him already; and Julie was Tim’s wife. They would all end up taking good care of me.

After Diana had given me the lowdown, she headed off to Abu Dhabi, and I chilled out. I started by watching Shark Tale, but her DVD stopped half-way through. That was a sign to me that I should go do something in town.

A screwy thing about Oman is that the whole place basically shuts down every day from like noon to 4:00. I guess this is because it’s in a desert environment and these are the hottest hours.

I decided to hit the beach, which wasn’t subject to the midday downtime.

I could see the water from the subdivision, so I decided to walk down. I didn’t have any rials to pay for a cab, anyway.

It turned out to be a long, hot walk in the midday sun, but I did make it to the beach eventually. And it was nice. Oman is considered to be one of the safest countries, if not the safest, in the world. It doesn’t have problems with terrorism or crime. Still, I didn’t want to leave my things alone on the beach too long, so I swam briefly and laid out and caught some sun for a bit afterward.

Then it was time to trudge back up to the house. I might not have been going the fastest way, but I went the same way I had come, like a rat trained in a maze.

Back at Diana’s, I rehydrated and watched AFN (the Armed Forces Network). I don’t have cable or AFN at my home in Islamabad, so all the episodes were new to me.

As night approached, I called Larry. Diana thought that he might be going out that night, and she was correct. He picked me up a few hours later and we went to the Inter-Continental Hotel bar.

At the bar, there seemed to be 3 main groups – the westerners and other foreigners, the Omani men dressed in western clothes, and the Omani men in traditional clothing. There were also Omani women and some working women.

We opened a tab and started drinking. There was a not-so-good band playing. As the night continued, Larry’s friends trickled in little by little.

Early on, we went across to Trader Vic’s and had a few Hawaiian drinks. Then we came back to the pub.

Eventually Tim and Julie showed up, as well as some Marines, a woman who I think was a defense attaché, and the man in charge of the APO (the military post office at the embassy). Everyone was totally cool.

We talked and drank. After a while, we found an open booth and moved over. While we were in the booth, 2 Omanis who were friends of the group came over.

When we decided to call it a night, Larry and I went to pay our tabs. It turned out that they had put us both on the same ticket, so we split it down the middle. I paid with my credit card, and Larry gave me his half in cash. Finally, I had some rials in my pocket.

As we were leaving, one of the people in our group was having words with an Omani. They were both drunk, but our guy was in worse condition I think. I didn’t see what happened, but apparently the American’s lady friend had been groped and verbally insulted by the Omani. Whether or not the groping and whatnot had taken place, the Omani took the opportunity to goad the American. The thing ended up with the American, practically foaming at the mouth, being held back by several of his friends. The bar manager asked us to leave, and since we were leaving anyway, that wasn’t a problem. The Omani smirked as we left. Of course, he could only smirk because he knew his opponent wouldn’t be allowed to fight him. If they had fought, the Omani would have been hurtin’ for certain.

The whole incident was 90% alcohol, I’m sure. And fighting would have been an especially bad idea there anyway. Evidently in the past when such things had happened, the Omani’s part was always minimized until he was painted as the total victim. Guess in their house, you play by their rules.

Larry dropped me off back at Diana’s around 4:00 AM, and I slept like a log.

I woke up at around 11:00, shortly before the midday shut-down. I watched a little TV and then walked a few blocks to the grocery store. That store had everything; they even had a pork room for non-Muslims. I bought a few things to snack on, and walked back home.

The night before at the Inter-Con, Tim and Julie had offered to take me to the market in the Old City.

They picked me up that afternoon, and we drove the half hour or so down to the market which was on the port.

The market was neat with lots of alleys and different shops. Several things were closed, though, since it was Eid. I ended up getting a khanjar (the famous curved, decorative Omani knife), a suit of Omani clothes, and some frankincense and burners. Frankincense - as featured in the Bible - comes from Oman, and the good stuff doesn’t grow anywhere else. It is made from the sap of a tree.

On the clothing, I had read that Omanis are very sensitive about foreigners wearing their national dress. I asked several of the people stationed there, and got a mixture of opinions on the subject. Some agreed that the Omanis wouldn’t like it if I wore the dress; some thought they wouldn’t really care; and some thought that more westerners would stare at me than locals. I didn’t intend to wear it in Oman, anyway, so I didn’t foresee any problems.

The vendors definitely had no qualms in selling the clothes to me. I got the hat (kumma), the floor-length gown (dishdasha), and the wrap that goes under the dishdasha (wizar).

Souvenirs taken care of, we left the Old City.

That night, there was a get-together at a Mexican restaurant. The food wasn’t bad and the margaritas weren’t either.

After a few hours, the party shifted back to the bar at the Inter-Con. Larry decided not to go, and I rode over with Tim and Julie.

We ended up getting a booth, and the 2 Omani friends joined us again. We talked about Oman, and the States, and Pakistan. At one point, I asked the 2 Omanis, who were dressed in western clothing, what the deal was with all the Omanis at the bar wearing the dishdashas. The response: they were just trying to look good. Makes sense I suppose, but it was still strange to me to see these guys in their traditional Muslim garb drinking, shooting pool, and carousing.

The scene at the Inter-Con was pretty slow that night, so the whole group shifted over to the Safari Bar which was in a different hotel.

We stayed a bit and then decided to leave.

As we were walking out, I was talking with the 2 Omanis again. We were all in a big group, but the 2 Omanis peeled off to go to another club in the hotel. I continued talking and walking and didn’t notice that everyone else went to the cars. This club had a dress code, and there was a hassle because I was wearing sandals. They were perfectly acceptable shoes, but rules are rules. Anyhow, I didn’t care if I could get inside or not. The 2 Omanis felt that they could get me in, though, so they took it upon themselves to argue with the bouncer on my behalf.

As they were working the situation, Tim yelled from the parking lot, “Hey, man, let’s go!” And that’s when I realized that I had gotten side-tracked. Doh!

After the Safari Bar, the party moved to Tim and Julie’s house. On the way to their home, they drove me through the diplomatic enclave and showed me the U.S. Embassy. It was right on the water.

At Tim and Julie’s, everyone was already pretty well lit, but the drinking continued. We started playing some drinking game with cards called horse race or something like that.

We only got through one round of horse race though, before the Marines realized that their curfew was only moments away. They called their driver and left soon after.

Once the Marines left, the rest of us decided to call it a night as well. The defense attaché offered to give me a ride home. I can’t recall her name, so I’ll call her Michelle. I think it was something like that.

Anyway, Michelle didn’t know where Diana lived exactly, so I told her that if she could get me back to the Mexican restaurant, I could direct her the rest of the way.

She did her part and got me to the restaurant. Then it was my turn. I didn’t do so well. I kept directing her down the wrong roads.

The Mexican restaurant was in a shopping area that was a few blocks from Diana’s, and I had walked the area several times in the days before.

Since I had walked the route several times, I told Michelle that maybe I needed to get my bearings on foot. So, I trotted down the road and Michelle followed in the car. And I still couldn’t find the house.

The route between the house and the restaurant was like right-left-right-left. It turns out that I was taking the first turn wrong (left-right-left-right), so of course I wasn’t recognizing anything.

Eventually, we gave up.

Michelle was staying at the Inter-Continental, so she decided I could catch a taxi from there, and the driver could find the house using the address.

As we were coming up in the elevator from the parking level in the Inter-Con, I got out at the lobby level, and Michelle rode on up to her room, confident that I was off to catch a cab.

I did not.

I walked back to Diana’s, and the whole way, I didn’t see a single person. It was a great time. I only wished I had my camera with me since the moon over the city and the shore was quite a scene. I found the house without incident and slept like a rock yet again.

The next day, I woke up around 11:00 again. One of the exceptions to the midday closing phenomena was a mall on the edge of town. I decided to check it out.

I caught a taxi, and the driver, Barakat, turned out to be my age. He started out talking to me in perfectly good English. When I responded, though, it became clear that his English was very limited. He asked me to speak Arabic, but unfortunately, I had like a 3-word vocabulary. The mall seemed to be about 30 minutes away, so there were long spells of silence. At least the radio worked, and we cruised down the highway listening to the Ketchup Song. That song plays well in so many cultures.

Every now and then, Barakat would think of something to ask me. Once he pulled a medal out of the glove compartment that he won in a soccer tournament and handed it to me.

“Do you play soccer?” he asked.


“I like soccer very much.”

“Well, I guess you must be pretty good at it.”

And that line of conversation was played out.

After a few more questions here and there, we finally arrived at the mall. Barakat asked if he could wait for me and take me back when I was finished shopping. I told him OK. This was really a favor to him since it meant that he didn’t have to try to round up a different paying customer to take back into town. For my part, there were dozens of other taxis I could have chosen.

Anyhow, I told him I would be inside for an hour and a half, and I went in. The mall was just like any other. There were places to eat and about a million clothes stores. There was also a Carrefour, which is like Wal-Mart or Target.

First thing, I found a place to change money. Then I walked through many stores, but didn’t find much worth buying. At Carrefour, I got a cheap shirt, and that was about it. While I was browsing Carrefour, I also went by the electronics section. I was thrilled to see the exact TV that I had just purchased a few weeks earlier in Pakistan selling for a hundred bucks less. I had even had to bargain for quite a while to get the price I paid. I wasn’t that annoyed, though, since I realize that the price of electronics varies widely from country to country. Not to mention, there is no department store in Pakistan that is able to offer discount prices like Carrefour can.

When my time was up, I went back outside, and Barakat magically pulled up to receive me at the door.

As we were driving back into town, he asked if I would mind if we stopped by his tailor, which was on the way. I didn’t mind.

At the tailor, Barakat was picking up several dishdashas, all different colors, and he asked me if I had one yet. I told him that I had a white one, but he felt that I should have a second one in a different color.

I still had a few rials left and it was my last day, so I figured what the hell. Barakat was the same size as me, so I tried on his new dishdashas. We decided that I should take the tan-colored one, and I got it at cost from the tailor. Both Barakat and the tailor were very pleased with my Omani look.

And that’s how I ended up with two Arab gowns that I will probably never use.

Back at Diana’s house, Barakat dropped me off and I paid him. We had negotiated the fare earlier, and when I mentioned it later to Julie, she told me that I had gotten a superb deal for such a long ride. I didn’t really have a sense of how much taxi fare should be, so I ended up basing my target price on what was in my guidebook. The info was a little dated, and I ended up low-balling Barakat. He did agree to it, though. He asked if he should come back in the evening to take me to the airport, but I told him that Diana had already arranged transportation.

That afternoon, I went to a barbeque at the Marine House. The food was good, and there was plenty of it.

After a few days of hard drinking, there were a lot of haggard people sitting around the table. I felt OK, though, which was good because the partying continued. In addition to the steady sipping of alcoholic beverages, there were also periodic whiskey shots. We were at the Marine House after all.

Michelle was at the barbeque, and she asked if the taxi driver had had any trouble finding Diana’s house the night before.

I told her how I had walked home instead of taking a taxi. She was none too pleased, and decided that she could not trust me in the future. Seeing as how I was leaving Muscat in a few hours, and the chances of me meeting her again were slim, I wasn't overly concerned.

I left the barbeque, packed my things, and waited for the driver to come and take me to the airport. Once the scheduled pick-up time had passed, I called Tim and Julie to see if they could help me track down the driver.

Local staff screw-up number 3: The dispatcher thought I was departing on a different day, and there were no drivers available to take me to the airport.

Julie ended up driving me to the airport herself.

I caught the red-eye to Dubai, where I had a long lay-over. I bought some stuff at the Duty Free. There was a problem with the credit card machine, and I found out later that I was charged 5 times for the same purchase. I pointed out the mistake to both Dubai Duty Free and to my credit card company, and they both ended up giving me credits for the overcharge. So I ended up making money on the purchase. I notified both parties of the double crediting, but they have yet to fix it. And really, I don’t mind keeping the money. I look at it as the price of incompetence.

After Dubai, it was back to Karachi and then on to Islamabad – where, amazingly, the driver I had requested was waiting for me at the airport.