Friday, December 31, 2004

Pakistan: Saidpur

I had made plans to visit Saidpur village with my good friends Kaki, Tangie, and Mollie, but on the day we were to go, it was raining buckets.  I called around to see if anyone was still interested, and to my surprise, everyone was still game.  I drove around in Goldie, the Little Honda Civic that Could, and assembled my posse. As you may recall, I keep the window down in Goldie at all times, so it made for a cold, wet ride for the driver’s side passenger.

Saidpur is a small village that butts up against the Margalla Hills on the edge of Islamabad, although the two are nothing alike. It took us about 5 minutes to get there.

We drove past the Saidpur goat market and parked in the parking lot of a small deserted-looking hospital on the edge of the village. The rain had let up, and we got out and walked around.

Lonely Planet has a blip on Saidpur that mentions it is famous for its pottery. We stopped in a few shops and weren’t impressed. We made a few sympathy purchases and moved on. One thing I did like was a large model train (several feet long and at least a foot tall) that a potter had constructed out of clay. It cost several hundred dollars, which wasn’t unreasonable, but I just don’t think it will ever sell because it would probably break pretty readily if it were moved. It probably weighed a ton also.

After the pottery shops, we walked through the town to the hills on its perimeter. The ditches were flowing with sewage, and there was garbage everywhere. The rain had turned most of the paths to mud. We were having a good time, though.

There were no other visitors around, and around every corner we would find something interesting – children getting water at a pump, old men chatting at a store front, boys playing cricket. For a while, we were like the Pied Piper with a train of young children following us around. There were goats and chickens throughout the village, and monkeys on the fringes near the hills.

As we were wandering, we saw a sign for the SMS Guard Training School. SMS is the company the Embassy has contracted with to provide guard services for the Embassy itself as well as the staff residences in town. SMS guards are easily identifiable because they wear blue uniforms with orange or red baseball hats.

We thought it would be cool to check out the guard school, so we followed the signs through the winding streets. We never did find it, but in our search, we did pick up a young Pakistani lad who spoke good English. He thought we were silly, but he led us around and pointed things out to us like mosques and some ruins. We thought the ruins were Hindu when we had first passed them, and our young guide confirmed this. At one point, we ended up on a path on the same level as the rooftops of some homes. On one rooftop, a woman and her daughters approached us. Mollie was trained in Urdu, so she spoke to the woman. The woman wanted to know if we were lost, but Mollie explained that, no, we were just tourists.

Saidpur is not a big place, so we left after an hour or so in search of lunch. We stopped by Kaki’s house, and from there we decided to go to a new Chinese restaurant that another friend had recommended. Kaki rode with her husband Mel, and Mollie, Tangie, and I rode in Goldie. It was pouring again.

We found the restaurant, which also happened to be a beauty parlor, and there was one other group of diners off in a private room.

The hostess seated us and gave us menus. Then the comedy commenced. She couldn’t speak English, and we couldn’t speak Chinese. That alone should not have been a huge problem since the menu was in English and Chinese and we could have just pointed to what we wanted to order. That didn’t work. When we would point at one dish, she’d point at another. We were unclear if what we were trying to order wasn’t available or if she was just recommending other things to us. When the food did arrive, we devoured it. Unfortunately, we had no idea exactly what we were eating since the hostess seemed to have decided for us what we were going to eat. We were cracking up the whole time.

Our friend who had recommended the place didn’t mention the language barrier. Perhaps, it didn’t strike her as pertinent since she speaks fluent Chinese. As I would later learn, however, she was aware of the problem, but she didn’t want to scare people off from the restaurant.  So she never mentioned it.

Once we finished eating and were paying, a Pakistani guy came out and asked us in English how we had enjoyed our meal. Another Pakistani had also appeared and was stationed at the exit. Where were these guys when we could have used them?

The rain was coming down by the bucketful again, so we dashed out to our cars. It was a cold, wet ride home for Mollie and Tangie, but totally worth it, I’m sure.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Khajuraho, India: Ancient Erotica

Christmas came and brought me the gift of a long weekend.  I took the opportunity to visit India yet again.  Specifically, I went to see Khajuraho and its famous erotic temples.

I left on Friday afternoon, passed through Lahore, and arrived in Delhi a few hours behind schedule.  Winter in Pakistan and India is fog season, and many flights are delayed or cancelled.  So all things considered, I had no complaints.

My flight to Khajuraho was not leaving until the following morning, so I ended up with one night to spend in Delhi.  My good friend Sue from our Embassy in Delhi was nice enough to host me.

At the airport, I booked a prepaid taxi and told them Sue’s address.  The dispatcher and the drivers all claimed to know the place, so I tossed my bag in the taxi, and we were off.

In Delhi, the fog was as thick as curry, and I was grateful that my speed-demon taxi driver, Ashok, didn’t get us both killed.

As we got closer to Sue’s neighborhood, it became clear that this guy didn’t know exactly where he was going.  He kept asking me things like, “I turn here?” to which I told him that I hadn’t a clue.

After stopping for directions a dozen times, we pulled up to a building, and Ashok told me that I had the wrong address.  “Your friend not living here.  This is doctor’s office.”  Then I pointed out to him that he had the wrong address by 100.  For example, if I had needed house 84, he had taken me to 184.

We were hot on the trail, though, and about 10 minutes later, we arrived at Sue’s.

I had ordered my Khajuraho tickets through a travel agent in Delhi, and a courier was waiting for me with the tickets at Sue’s gate.

As I was quite late, I gave him a good tip.

I chatted with Sue for a bit, and then set out in search of Midnight Mass.

I went down to the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, and it was quite a scene.

The street in front was totally choked with cars and rickshaws.  The Cathedral grounds were behind a fence, and between the road and the fence, there was a sidewalk.  On the sidewalk, there were loads of beggars.  Many of the bearded hobos were sitting around their fire barrels dressed like Santa.  This was a nice touch, I’m sure you’ll agree.  Little children would run up, trying to sell candles to churchgoers for 10 rupees (about 25 cents).  Meanwhile, a speaker at the Cathedral was blasting out an announcement: “Please do not buy the candles from the street children.”

Inside the gate, there was definitely a strange party atmosphere, unlike any Catholic service I’ve ever seen.  There were young people casually cruising the grounds like they were at a mall or something.  Clearly they were only there to socialize.  There were ice cream and balloon vendors.

The Cathedral itself was decorated with Christmas lights – individual strings and prefab shapes like stars and Christmas trees.

As I walked up to the Cathedral, there was a crowd of people outside the doors which were locked.  I assumed that I had just arrived too late and that they had locked the doors when they reached maximum capacity.  That would be regrettable from a fire safety standpoint, but, hey, this was India.

The real story was that huge tents had been set up in the adjacent Catholic school’s sports field to accommodate all the worshipers.  I walked on over and got a seat amongst the thousands of chairs.

The service started with a very spirited Christmas pageant – in Hindi, of course.  King Harrod was especially dynamic: “Raja kahan hai?!?!” (“Where is the king?”)  With all the shouting and gesturing, there was something truly violent about the whole show.

After the play, the crowd went wild.  Then it was time for some singing.  The band was rather peppy and reminded me of a mariachi band.  The songs, which alternated between English and Hindi, were unfamiliar to me, and I didn’t have a song sheet.  I could only sit and people-watch.  Everyone seemed to be having a good time, and there was a sea of heads bobbing to the catchy beats.  The girl across the aisle from me really seemed to be grooving along to the songs as well, until I noticed that she was listening to a Walkman.

Soon enough, the actual service started, and it was a grand production.  It was presided over by the Archbishop, and assisting him were 11 priests and a bishop.

The readings and songs continued to alternate between English and Hindi, so I could understand a fair bit of what was happening.  Plus, Catholic services are standardized.

When it came time for the collection, the lector explained how it cost the church over 360,000 rupees (about $9,000) to set up the tents and chairs for the service, and as such, how our generosity would be greatly appreciated.  I thought it was funny that he told us an actual dollar amount, but no harm in it I suppose.

I had been getting by thus far on a handful of Indian rupees that I had left over from a previous visit, and I needed to get to a money changer.  I had just enough rupes on me to take a taxi back to Sue’s place and then a little extra, so I decided to tithe in Pakistani rupees, of which I had plenty.  That probably surprised someone later when the take was counted (seeing as how Pakistan and India aren’t the best of friends).  It was also possibly a headache for them to deposit, but I’m sure there is some outlet in Delhi that’ll change Pak rupees.  Besides, it’s the thought that counts.

Anyhow, I got out a 1000-rupee note (about $17) for the collection basket.

When the woman next to me saw the thousand, she got all excited.  She put her purse down and said something to her family in Hindi.  Then I put the money in the basket, and she thanked me.  Evidently, I was covering the whole row with my contribution.

The service continued as did the party attitude of many people.  People were walking in and out the whole time.  Some were talking on cell phones.  Others were having conversations complete with loud laughter.  It was like cocktail hour for some of these people.  I’m not sure if it was like this because it was Christmas or because we were outside in a tent or because it was so late.  Or maybe that is the way Indians always approach mass.

At Communion, probably half of the congregation did not participate.  Even so, there was still a whole herd of people up for some Holy Wafer.  Indians like a tight line, and a person will literally stand so that his shoes are touching the person’s in front of him.  This means that you have someone’s chest in your back.  I queued up, sardine style, and was subject to the momentum of the line.

There were about a dozen Communion distribution points, but many more lines of people.  This led to all sorts of jockeying for position as the lines funneled down.  When one Communion station would somehow manage to empty, a string of Indians would dash over from some far flung corner of the tent, with a take-no-prisoners determination.

Before long, everyone got Communion who wanted it, and as far as I could tell, there were no serious injuries.

At the conclusion of mass, there was cake and coffee for everyone.  And to finish off Jesus’s birthday party in fine fashion, they shot stadium-quality fireworks from the top of the Cathedral.  It was quite impressive.  The Cathedral doors were unlocked now, so I went inside to have a look.  The fireworks being shot on the roof were really rattling the place.

I walked out past the hobo Santas and candle kids and paid too much for a rickshaw back to Sue’s.

She had already gone to bed, but she had left some sugar cookies for me in my room.  They hit the spot.

The next day, I rode over to the airport, and as I was checking in for Khajuraho, the fog once again reared its ugly head.  The flight actually had a lay-over in Varanasi, and the Varanasi-Khajuraho leg was cancelled due to the fog.  Not wanting to spend the weekend in Delhi, I asked the ticket lady if she could just send me to Varanasi, and from there I would catch a bus to Khajuraho.  I think it would take 10 or 12 hours.

The lady agreed, took my Khajuraho ticket, and issued me a boarding pass for Varanasi.

As I waited at the gate, I was approached by a tourist from New York who couldn’t quit staring at me.  She asked if my name was Cory.  I apparently looked just like her nephew.  I get that pretty frequently actually – reminding people of their brother, nephew, son, etc.

Once we were loaded up, the flight attendants kept talking about our flight as Flight XYZ to Varanasi with continuing service to Khajuraho.  I told one attendant what I had been told about the fog cancellation, and she told me that the flight had been un-cancelled.  It was too late to correct my ticket, but she assured me I would have no problem straightening things out once we reached Varanasi.

In Varanasi, there was total confusion at the ticket counter.  The ticket agent called in his managers and supervisors, and they were all trying to wrap their brains around what I considered to be a pretty simple problem.  Eventually, they agreed to put me on the flight to Khajuraho, but they kept trying to take another flight coupon from my ticket book.  Had they done that, I would have been without a ticket for my return flight.  Finally, they issued me a boarding pass and gave me back the ticket they had taken.  No problem, indeed.

Soon enough, we landed in Khajuraho – the first flight to beat the fog in 10 days – and I caught a taxi with two guys, Arif Khan and Pawan Singh.  The fare was steep, but there was a fixed posted price among all the airport taxi drivers, so there wasn’t much choice but to pay or walk.  We had the usual introductory chat, and they told me how much they loved America.  I told them India was swell too.

Arif and Pawan drove me to my guesthouse, and I foolishly agreed to hire them for a day of sightseeing.  I say foolishly because when I later came to get my bearings, I realized that the whole place was the size of a postage stamp.  Everything was totally reachable by foot or bike.

My trusty taxi friends drove me to the main temple site.  It was only a few minutes from the guesthouse, but they took some convoluted route to justify their service, I’m sure.

Khajuraho is famous for its series of elaborately decorated temples.  It is off the beaten path (or it used to be anyway), so when army after army was conquering India throughout the ages, none ventured into Khajuraho and destroyed the place, as invading armies are apt to do.  The temples, which mostly date between 900 and 1050 AD, remain in excellent condition and the stone carvings and statues that adorn them are true works of art.

The subject matter of the temple carvings ranges from gods and goddesses to battle scenes to snapshots of daily life.  What put Khajuraho on the map, though, is sex.  In the tourist literature, it’s frequently described as “The Karma Sutra in Stone”.  There are numerous erotic carvings of couples and groups performing various sexual acts, as well as numerous erotic carvings of apsaras, sexy nymphs, seductively lounging around.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to say the carvings have something to do with fertility, but no one knows for sure why the temple builders decided to go so X-rated.

Anyhow, I walked around and checked out the carvings in the main temple complex.  The craftsmanship was amazing.

As in Pakistan, India has a dual pricing system for cultural attractions, where foreigners pay 5 or 10 bucks, and Indians pay a few cents.  As such, there were numerous Indian families having picnics and otherwise enjoying the well-kept grounds.

Walking along, I overheard tour guides saying the darnedest things:

“Note the male in the fully excited state...”

“The union of man and horse represents that man came from nature.”

“An orgy is a celebration of life...”

The famous horse scene.  The guy up front is taking a huge gamble I'd say.

The famous orgy scene.

A flexible couple.

Several hours and photographs later, I left the temple grounds with my taxi comrades.  The first order of business was to finally change money so that I could pay them.  They were keen on taking me to the shops of their friends, who all offered awful exchange rates.  I walked down the street and picked my own money changer.  The rate was only minimally better than the others, but at least I got to cheese off Arif and Pawan.

By now, the sun was setting.  Arif and Pawan recommended that I see a traditional dance show that evening and I agreed.  The place putting on the show was a tourist trap of the worst kind.  It had the dance theater, a restaurant, and a huge, expensive souvenir shop.  There were several buses in the parking lot, and a slew of Westerners inside the shop shelling out all kinds of dough.

I bought my ticket, and there was an hour before the show was to start.  I went to the shop and could tell immediately that I wasn’t going to buy a thing.  Prices were practically double Delhi prices.

As I entered the store, a clerk descended on me.  I told him that I was just killing time and that I wasn’t going to buy anything.  He gave me the standard response: “Sir, no need to buy.  Looking is free.”  Of course, he didn’t mean what he said, and he spent the whole time fighting for a sale.  It didn’t happen.

I left the shop, and there was still a lot of time remaining before the show.  Arif and Pawan were concerned, but I told them I would just sit on the bench outside the shop and wait.  They suggested that we go to a restaurant for a cup of tea, their treat (retail value: 7 cents), and I agreed.

After a few cups of tea, we drove back to the show.

There were maybe 20 people in the audience – me, a group of Germans, and some Scandinavian-looking people.

The show itself was embarrassingly bad in my opinion.  The dancers performed 6 or 7 dances from different regions of India, and everything was totally Disneyfied.   There were 3 musicians on the side of the stage, and they played music and sang.  The performers meanwhile pranced around with exaggerated smiles and lip-synced.  Several of the dances had the performers using musical instruments like drums and cymbals.  As with the singing, they only pretended to play the instruments while the real musicians actually played.  Air drum?  C’mon.  How hard could it be to train the dancers to hit a drum?

And those smiles…  It looked like most of those guys and gals were getting paid by the tooth.  On some, you could see distress in the eyebrows, but the painted smile was still there in full force.

Growing up in Tennessee, dance troupes from other countries would come to town every year or so and perform at the local college.  My parents took us kids to see the dances several times, and that sort of dancing had an authenticity about it.  That’s what I was hoping for with the Khajuraho show, instead of the phony tourist extravaganza I got.

After the show, Arif and Pawan dropped me back at the guesthouse.  They hit me up to hire them again the following day for more sightseeing or to book them for my airport drop-off, but I told them that their services were no longer required.  I settled up, and they seemed genuinely hurt that I opted not to retain them.

That night, I walked down the block in search of dinner.  I ended up at a restaurant in another guesthouse.  The place was deserted, so the owner of the restaurant, a man named Kerloo, came and sat at my table.  He was about my age and came from a well-to-do farming family outside of town.  He was married with a young daughter.

I had a light dinner of daal (mashed lentils), chapatti (flat bread), and Kingfisher beer.  Kerloo continually told me how all the food in his restaurant was made fresh, unlike other restaurants that would cook in advance and reheat the food for customers.  I didn’t really care, since it tasted about like all the other food I had eaten in India.

As I left that night, Kerloo invited me back for breakfast the next day on his side, meaning that he was treating.

After dinner, I walked down the main drag and took in the scene.  The young people would talk with me, and the shopkeepers would try to get me in their stores.  In Khajuraho, there were 2 basic types of souvenir stores – metalwork shops and Kashmiri craft shops.  The Kashmiri shops carried Kashmiri products like carpets, wall hangings, shawls, and paper mache.  Unfortunately for these shopkeepers, there are many Kashmiri shops in Pakistan selling similar wares, so I wasn’t really interested.  The metalwork shops had metal creations – some practical, most ornamental – made from bronze, brass, and copper.  There were also a few jewelry stores, clothing stores, woodcraft stores, and general supply stores.

Although I wasn’t interested in the Kashmiri shops, I ended up going into one at the shopkeeper’s pleading.  The owner was a fat Kashmiri with a moustache.  He introduced himself, “I’m Zaroor Ahmed, but my Western name is Super Mario.”  His young son was also there.  “I’m Raza, and my Western name is John.”  And so I introduced myself.  “I’m Chris, and my Eastern name is Sanjay.”  We all had a good laugh over that, although there was an actual dig behind it.  To me, the whole notion of using a different name around foreigners seems so antiquated and pointless in today’s world.

I also thought the Super Mario deal was a bit silly.  Evidently at some point, some young boy touring with his mother had made the comparison between Zaroor and the video game character.  Zaroor proudly latched on to the name.

Anyhow, Super Mario and John showed me a bunch of junk that I had no intention of buying.  To try to give himself more credibility, Super Mario pulled out his stack of letters from satisfied former customers.  This is a common practice, and I dutifully read the nice things the woman from L.A. and the couple from Melbourne had to say.  Unfortunately, nothing was remotely current and some of the letters were 10 or 15 years old.  I wasn’t impressed.

That said, Super Mario and John plied me with Kashmiri tea, and we actually had a nice conversation.  I left with a few inexpensive knickknacks.

Before I left, John asked if he could show me the old village where his school was as well as the smaller, eastern temple complex.  He assured me that he just wanted to show me around as a friend and to practice his English.  We agreed to go at 9:00 the following day.

At that point, I called it a night and went back to my $9 guesthouse.  The hot water wasn’t working, so I had an invigorating ice cold shower (it was winter and it was pretty chilly anyway) and went to bed.

The next morning, I met Kerloo for breakfast.  Again he rattled on about the freshness of his cooking.  He started trying to help me develop a program for the day, but I told him that I already had plans with John.  He thought that sounded OK, but pointed out that my plan would take a few hours at the most.  He suggested I take an excursion to the nearby Panna Tiger Reserve in the afternoon.  I agreed, and – surprise, surprise – Kerloo was also a tour organizer.  His half-day trip to Panna cost about $40, which was comparable with other tour operators in town.  I signed on.

Before I left the restaurant, Kerloo asked me to come back that night for a special chicken curry cooked outdoors on an open fire – again on his side.  I felt he was getting a little too clingy, but I agreed to come anyway.

It was a little past 9:00 by now, and John was waiting outside for me.  He had a friend, Vicky, with him.  I rented a bike for a few rupees, John and Vicky doubled up on their bike, and we were off.  The bike I got was quite rickety.  That coupled with the rutted roads and the fact that I hadn’t ridden a bike in a long while gave me the feeling that I would wipe out before the day was done.  I did fine, though.

Ganesh - the original party animal.

We cruised down toward the old village and stopped at a few stand-alone temples along the way.  As we admired the craftsmanship, John, who was maybe 12, pointed out the sex scenes to me and gave me his version of their purpose.  Evidently, at the time the temples were built, the area was dangerously underpopulated.  The king commissioned the erotic temples to be built both to provide the people with visual aids and to put sex on their minds.  Maybe John’s version is true.  In any case, India seems to have gotten the hang of reproduction since then.

Next we went on to the old village.  First stop: the craft shop of John’s “uncle”.  I am sure this guy was no relation of John’s.  Rather, John just wanted me to shop there so he could get a commission from the shop owner.  I looked around and bought an elephant controller – a large metal hook used to direct an elephant.

After the shop, John took me to his school.  The headmaster came out and gave me a quick tour of the 2-room facility and a spiel on the curriculum.  I could tell my visit to the school would culminate with a request for a donation, so it came as no surprise when the headmaster went to his desk and pulled out a book of visitor’s comments praising the school.  He asked me to add my comments, so I wrote a very few words.  Then he hit me up for a donation.  At this point, he casually flipped through his receipt book so I could see all the rich gifts others had supposedly given ($100, $200, etc.).  I gave him 500 rupees (about $13), and he wrote me a receipt.  “With your donation, we can buy 500 pencils for the students.  Thank you.”  And I left the school with a kind of creepy feeling that doesn’t usually accompany an act of charity.

We proceeded on to the second main temple complex, and I went inside while John and Vicky waited.

A famous carving of a couple in love.

Near the temples, there were several shops.  I browsed a few but saw nothing of interest.  I wanted to change some dollars, but again they were yanking me around on the exchange rate.  I told them I would wait until I got back to town to get more rupees, which they rightly understood to mean no sale.

As I was leaving, some of the shopkeepers asked me a few questions, and at one point, I told them that I was living in Pakistan.  I always try to bring this up around Indians just to see the reaction.  About 20 men had gathered by this point, and they were all keenly interested.  They started asking all sorts of questions about Pakistan:

“Are the women beautiful?”

“Do they have vegetarian food?”

“Do you like Indian or Pakistani cricket better?”

And so forth.

I gave them many good answers.  I told them how nice and hospitable Pakistanis were, and I let them pass around some Pakistani rupees.  Before it was all over, I was being bombarded with, “We want to go to Pakistan!  How can we go?”  It was a super nice change for once to not be pestered for an American visa.  I told the guys to check with their nearest Pakistani embassy or consulate for further information on visiting.  They all liked this advice, although if they did end up applying for Pakistani visas, I’ll bet that they were all denied.  Oh well.

As we were parting ways, a man in the crowd who the others told me was crazy, got up in my face and started telling me something I couldn’t understand.  The others in the crowd were cracking up.  The crazy guy was saying that he too would like to go to Pakistan – only he wanted to charter a jet and fly in style to Lahore.  I told him that was a fine idea, but it would cost some serious money.  He told me that if he sold off his possessions, he supposed he could get $25.  The crowd laughed again.  I told the man that maybe a chartered jet wasn’t for him and he should consider the bus.

The crowd went wild, and I left on the high note.

Just past the area with shops, there were a few vendors with items set up on tables out in the open, and I bought several small trinkets.

Several more vendors tried to hawk me the exact same things I had just purchased, so I turned the tables on them.

"Would you like a keychain?"  I asked them.  "How about a statue?  Only 100 rupees each.  OK, 50.  50 rupees only.  Best deal for you!”

We were all rolling.  Leaving the old village, we passed by all the yellow fields of mustard-seed flowers which would be processed into mustard-seed oil.  We stopped and ate some of the seed pods.

Then it was back to downtown Khajuraho.  After I returned my bike, John and Vicky came up to say good-bye.  More specifically, they came to hit me up for a tip.  I expected this and gave them each 100 rupees (about $2.50).  I did take the opportunity to tell them that where I come from you don’t hit up “friends” for money once you do them a favor, but it fell on deaf ears.

Kerloo was lounging by the road when John and Vicky left, and like a fish on the line, he reeled me inside for lunch.  It made well enough sense, though, since I was going on his tour to Panna shortly thereafter.

Lunch was quick, and soon I was heading down the road to the tiger reserve.  This time my driver was Jay Singh.  The drive was maybe an hour and a half, and the road was deplorable.  It was basically the width of one car, and the drop to the shoulder was a few inches on both sides.  Much of the roadbed was cratered with potholes.  While the roadbed could accommodate only one car, there were two lanes of traffic vying for the space.  The drive turned into a protracted game of chicken, with the larger trucks and buses having the most success.  The road improved eventually, and we arrived at Panna.

Kerloo had really played up Panna and told me there was a good possibility I would see a tiger.

When we met our safari guide, he basically said that the chances of us seeing a tiger were zilch.  In the past, tourists had been able to go on safari anytime and anywhere in the park.  Recently (but not so recently that Kerloo wouldn’t have been aware), though, the Indian government had implemented new restrictions such that tourist safaris were only permitted twice a day (once in the morning, once in the afternoon) and only on a specific dirt loop.  Not being fond of noise and exhaust fumes, the tigers rarely hung around the dirt track, and tourist tiger sightings were way down.

A monkey (tiger bait?) chillin'.
There were optional elephant treks for getting off the dirt road and into the jungle, but the elephants were closed for the winter.

A deer (tiger bait?) wallowing in the mud.

We drove around for a few hours and saw 4 kinds of deer, some warthogs, some birds, and some monkeys.  We missed the tigers, jaguars, and even the crocodiles which were driven to the bottom of the river by the chilly air.  Jurassic Park it wasn’t.

After Panna, we stopped at 2 lesser attractions in the area: a tree house restaurant and a waterfall near some hermit caves.

If you ever make it out to Khajuraho, I recommend you skip the Panna side trip.  It was a waste of $40.

When we left the tree house restaurant and started home, it was dark.  Jay was driving like a bat out of hell on the crappy road.  We were going much faster than on the way to Panna, and I wondered where the fire was.

We reached Kerloo’s restaurant in one piece, and I went up for dinner.  Kerloo asked me how I liked the tiger park, and I told him that I wasn’t overly impressed.  He responded, “With animals, you win some and you lose some.”  Then he asked me if I had noticed how Jay was driving so fast and recklessly on our return.  How could I have not noticed?  Kerloo explained that Jay was not a licensed taxi driver, so he was going at breakneck speed to beat the evening police ID checkpoints.  It’s nice to know he was risking our lives for a fine (read: bribe) that was probably only a few rupees.

That night, as agreed Kerloo and his restaurant staff treated me to chicken curry cooked on an open fire.  It wasn’t totally free though.  Kerloo asked if I couldn’t provide the alcohol since he was providing the food.  So I bought $10 worth of beer and whiskey, and Kerloo bought 50 cents worth of chicken.

The chicken was tasty, and Kerloo’s chapatti maker, an old guy named Kalas, made us a mountain of bread.

I let them pick the alcohol, so we started with some Kingfisher beer, moved to local Green Label whiskey, and finished with a better local whiskey, Officer’s Choice.  Oo la la!

By the end, Kerloo and I were the only ones left enjoying the whiskey.  He couldn’t hold his liquor very well and started telling me inappropriate things like how he didn’t get to see his wife enough so he would treat himself on occasion to prostitutes from Satna, some 120 kilometers away.

As we finished up the whiskey, a Kashmiri shopkeeper who had a shop in the same guesthouse as Kerloo’s restaurant came by and invited us to have Kashmiri tea in his shop.

Kerloo whispered to me that all Kashmiris were crooks, but we should go with the shopkeeper because the tea was really good.  My only hesitation was my lack of interest in the high pressure sales tactics that I knew would be served with the tea.  I didn’t mind, though, since at that point it was a choice of either getting badgered or going to bed, and I wasn’t tired.

We had several cups of tea each, and I left the shopkeeper to roll up all the carpets he had insisted on opening for me.

Kerloo later told me his spiel on shopping in India.  “Never go shopping with me or any Indian because I will have to get a commission and the shopkeeper will charge you more.”  I liked the way he made it sound like his hands were tied in the matter.  He had to take a commission; there was no other choice.  I asked him if he were helping someone shop whom he considered to be a friend, could he not just refuse the commission, or if that were not possible, could he not accept it and secretly give it to the friend who had been overcharged to generate the commission.  He, however, could not understand this.  He had to take a commission.  Of course, I had no intention of shopping with him anyway, so the discussion was moot.

Another cold shower and a good night’s sleep, and I woke up for my last morning in Khajuraho.

Deciding to cut Kerloo loose, I had some chapatti from a street vendor for breakfast and set out in search of the post office.  I had only brought a small backpack on the trip, which I didn’t want to check for my return flight.  The problem was the elephant controller I had bought.  It had a pointed end and could not go in carry-on luggage.  I decided to just mail it back to Pakistan, but the Indian postal service apparently won’t ship to Pakistan.  Plan A foiled, I decided to buy a cheap bag in town to use as the check-in bag for the elephant controller.  That way, I could still carry-on my backpack.

I found a cheap duffle bag easily enough, and, with a few hours left before my flight, I wandered down the street.  I had only a few rupees left in my souvenir fund, but all the shopkeepers continued begging me to look in their shops.  In one shop, I was looking at a neat wooden horse.  The guy wanted 600 rupees for it.  I told him I only had 300, and he said no deal.  I went next door and got a t-shirt for 50 rupees ($1.30).  As I came out of the shop, the horse guy had reconsidered.  “300, OK.”  Then I told him that my funds were down to only 250, to which he said no deal.  I went to another shop down the road and got a bronze Ganesh (elephant-headed Hindu god) figure for 100 ($2.60).  Again the horse guy was waiting for me as I left the shop.  “OK, OK, 250, OK,” he told me.  I responded that I now only had 150, and that was the end of our association.

As I was heading back toward the guesthouse to check-out, I was beckoned by another shopkeeper.  He was a scrawny guy with slicked back black hair, sunglasses, and a black leather jacket.  His name was Suresh, but I prefer to call him Fonz.  Fonz had discolored front teeth probably due to too much cigarettes, coffee, or betel nut, or a combination thereof.  Fonz spoke good English, as well as Japanese (his brother lived in Japan and was married to a Japanese woman) and French (his girlfriend was a French diplomat in India).  He must have learned his English by watching movies, as it was saturated with the f-word.  I’d never heard anything like it.

Anyhow, we had the usual introductory conversation, and Fonz told me how he just loved Americans and Israelis.  He obviously thought this is what I wanted to hear, since there had been no mention of Israel previously.

He saw my bag and asked if he could see what I had bought.  Then he told me how I had been ripped off all around and how he knew a shop where I could have gotten a better price.  Sure.  Discrediting the competition to make oneself look better is practically a sport in India.

He asked what all I had seen in Khajuraho, and when he heard that I had gone to the old village, he asked if I had paid any money to the school.  He was very concerned and claimed that the headmaster kept all the donations for himself and gave nothing to the students.

We continued to chat over tea about many things like why many Western tourists didn’t want to interact with the locals.  (Could it possibly be that they eventually got tired of getting scammed?)  I told him that they were probably all just in a hurry.  Even as we were talking, though, several Western tourists walked by and blew off Fonz’s greetings to them.

We talked about women and beer.  Then I broached the subject of Pakistan.  On this topic, Fonz represented the worst of both India and Pakistan.  He said that if he were put in charge of India, he would nuke Pakistan in his first 15 minutes in office.  I told him that I thought Pakistan was great and asked him what his problem was specifically.  He, of course, started with the disputed territory of Kashmir.  He was enraged at suggestions he had heard for India to give Kashmir to Pakistan or to even share it.  “Kashmir is the f**king mother of India, and why the f**k should we divide or give away our mother?  F**k!”  So I asked about the suggestion to make Kashmir an independent state, separate from both Pakistan and India.  He was like a broken record, “That’s our f**king mother…”

In addition to the Kashmir issue, he was bitter that Pakistan got the best lands after Partition.  I told him that I thought he was a real tool of the government, and that they had been manipulating the people into believing Pakistan was the root of all of India’s problems in order to divert attention from the many domestic problems India faced.  To be fair, I told him that the same held true for anti-Indian Pakistanis.  Surprisingly, Fonz agreed that I might he right.

He had one more argument for me on the evils of Pakistan.  According to Fonz, in an incident much publicized in India, an Indian Hindu who was visiting Pakistan had been attacked by a gang of young men and forcibly circumcised to “make him Muslim”.  I told Fonz that I thought he was a tool of the media, and if the incident did indeed occur as he had recounted it, it was undoubtedly an unrepresentative random act of violence.  I told him that such a situation would be analogous to an Indian tourist getting raped in the U.S., and the Indian media saturating the presses with the story.  It would be a horrible event, but in no way reflective of the experience most visitors to the U.S. have.  Again Fonz agreed with me.

Changing subjects again, we started talking travel.  Fonz had been to Europe and Thailand, but he had no luck in getting a U.S. visa.  As I mentioned earlier, his girlfriend was French.  In one of the most humanizing moments of this trip, he told me about his French visa denial.  Having successfully traveled to France previously, he assumed he was a shoe-in for getting another visa.  It didn’t work that way.

Among Indians, it was common knowledge that the easiest place to get a French visa was Mumbai, so Fonz took the lengthy bus trip west.  Before going to the French Consulate, he decided on a whim to apply for a Japanese visa so that he might visit his brother.  Unfortunately for him, the Japanese rejected him, or as he put it, he “got the red stamp”.  Since his real goal was the French visa, he wasn’t overly concerned with the Japanese denial.

He went over to the French Consulate and presented his paperwork, and, according to him, they denied him based on the Japanese red stamp.  His diplomat girlfriend tried to resolve the issue, but in the end nothing could be done.  He had to return home on the bus, with no visas, and less money thanks to the application fees, to wait until he was eligible to reapply.

Several minutes after he finished his story, he was still repeating, “I got the red stamp.  I got the red stamp.”  He would laugh and hang his head.  He was supremely embarrassed.

Eventually we moved inside.  His shop was on the second level of a building, and he was building a guesthouse on the ground level.  He told me to come back in 6 months, and I could stay for free.  His shop sold jewelry, both regular things like gold and silver and hippie things like hemp bracelets and shell necklaces.  I told him that I was all shopped out, but he wouldn’t listen.  He gave me a bracelet made from cobra leather and told me that I must take it since we were friends.  The asking price was 300, which I didn’t even have.  He told me that he didn’t care about money and that whether I gave him 5 rupees or 300, I must keep the bracelet.

It was getting close to flight time, so we exchanged contact information.  He gave me three different business cards of his, and I wrote my name and e-mail address in his address book.  He invited me to call him if I ever made it to Goa, the beach town in the south.  He knew all the DJs at the clubs there, and they would show me a good time.

I told Fonz that I had to check-out and get to the airport, and he offered me a ride so I didn’t have to take a taxi.

So, I got my bags, and Fonz, his brother (another Vicky), one of their friends, and I all loaded up and drove down to the airport.

At the airport, I returned the cobra bracelet to Fonz and told him that I really didn’t need it or want it.  He insisted I keep it, so I gave him 5 rupees (~13 cents).  As you’ll recall, he didn’t care about the money, whether I chose to give him 5 rupees or 300 rupees.  His expression said otherwise: He was pissed.  Neither of us ever did e-mail the other.  It’s like he was just working me to make a sale, but it didn’t work out.  Instead, I got a cobra bracelet and a ride to the airport for 10 cents.

The flight from Khajuraho to Varanasi was uneventful.  From Varanasi to Delhi, I was seated with an interesting couple from San Antonio, Mary and Louis.  She was a school administrator, and he was retired army.  They both worked in the newspaper business at one point, and he had also published some travel guides.  They were on a week-long vacation to India.

An hour later, we parted ways in Delhi.  I transferred over to the international terminal to catch my flight back to Lahore.

The flight ended up departing 3 hours late because the Indian Airlines pilot was sick.  By the time we arrived in Lahore, I had missed the last flight to Islamabad.  I complained to the Indian Airlines rep, but she wouldn’t get me a hotel room since the embassy travel agent had issued me separate ticket packages for my Pakistan International Airlines and my Indian Airlines segments.  Had everything been booked on a single ticket, I would have qualified.

At that point, I paid the fee and changed my ticket for Islamabad to the first flight the following day.  I then called the hotels in Lahore that I am allowed to use.  All were full.  I ended up staying the night at the home of the Consulate’s Principle Officer.

The next day, I got back home from a 4-day trip that felt more like 10.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Pakistan: Down in the Salt Mines

It was a fine December weekend when I took a day trip to the Khewra Salt Mines with my good friends Kaki and Nenita. The Khewra Salt Mines are located about 2 hours from Islamabad, about midway between Islamabad and Lahore. We took Goldie, the little Honda Civic that could. The drive was scenic, and the weather was perfect.

When we arrived, we parked and went to buy tickets. I was relieved to see that they were indeed running tours on a Saturday since it said in my guidebook that they only gave tours on weekdays. I didn’t tell Kaki and Nenita about this potential snag until after it was revealed not to be an issue.

At the ticket desk, there was a crowd of people. We were the only foreigners, and the ticket sellers requested for us to wait inside a building behind the ticket booth.

We dutifully went to the V.I.P. waiting room which had a few couches and 2 bathrooms.

After about five minutes, we grew tired of sitting around. We left and waited outside like everyone else.

The Khewra Salt Mines are part of Pakistan’s Salt Range, the largest salt deposit in the world. It is the second largest salt mining operation in the world, bested only by Poland. The Pakistani salt deposit was supposedly discovered when Alexander the Great’s horse began licking the exposed rock salt, as Alexander was passing through the region on his drive to conquer the world. The mines have been producing every since.

The mines in their current state were engineered by the British during their occupation of Pakistan. At Khewra, there are some 18 levels of tunnels dug into the mountains of salt, and tourists are permitted on levels 7 and 8, if I recall correctly. There is a small train that tourists can ride into the mine. It is the original British train from 1918.

Kaki, Nenita, and I wanted to ride the train, so we waited half an hour for the next trip. It cost about 50 cents to ride, and most of the Pakistanis chose to walk the few kilometers into the shaft rather than pay.

As we waited, a man gave us some background information on the mines. I wasn’t paying attention, so I don’t really know what he was telling us. We also went to the gift shop where there were rock-salt sculptures, rock-salt lamps, and table salt for sale. The salt and salt crafts were dirt cheap, which I guess isn’t so surprising.

When it was finally time for our train ride, our guide led us down to the mine entrance to wait.

The salt mines are a big draw for school groups, and on this day, the place was crawling with middle- and high-school-aged children.

As had been the case in my previous travels in Pakistan, I was the big draw, particularly to the young men. Kaki and Nenita may as well have been invisible.

Some of the kids approached me to practice a bit of English. They were all brimming with curiosity.

Soon enough the train chugged out of the tunnel and dropped off a load of school kids who had actually paid the extra money to ride. Then Kaki, Nenita, and I boarded, and we had the whole train to ourselves.

The train utilized pretty basic technology. It appeared that an electrical cable ran along the roof of the shaft. The engine had a boom that made contact with the cable, and a rope was tied to the boom. To control the speed of the train, the conductor would just pull the rope to make it so the boom either was or wasn’t touching the electrical cable. It got the job done, and we were dropped off on the tourist level in a few minutes.

Our tour started at the salt mosque – a small but attractive structure complete with minarets. The salt at Khewra comes in 3 basic colors – regular white, red (due to iron), and pink (due to manganese). The mosque was constructed of salt bricks of the 3 different colors, and each brick was illuminated by embedded lighting. It looked pretty sweet.

Near the mosque, there was a salt-brick working post office. I asked our guide who used the post office, thinking it might be the miners. I guessed wrong; only tourists used it.

Over the course of the next hour, we viewed salt ponds, salt-brick tunnels, salt-crystal tunnels that sparkled like jewels, smooth marble-like salt passages, and numerous formations created by dripping salt water similar to the features found in a limestone cave, for example.

There was salt everywhere. Even the air was salty.

Toward the end of the tour, there was a large open room with a snack bar on one side and a cool multi-colored salt-brick elevated floor on the other side. That salt floor would have been a great spot for dancing if the mine ever wanted to get into the party business.

Leading off from the salt floor, there were a few passages. We went down the first one, and our guide showed us an ancient log that was protruding from the salt. That piece of wood was carbon-dated to be 6 billion years old.  Just near the piece of wood, there was a sign written in Urdu. I asked our guide what it said, and he told us that it was instructing people not to burn the log. After that, we took a closer look, and sure enough, the edges of the log were charred, and there were used matches scattered around it. We all got a good laugh over that one.

Down the other passageway, there was a chamber with some ponds, and salt carvings of Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, and the Lahore tower. Maybe it was the poor lighting, but neither looked like very good depictions to me.

Back in the passage leading out of the chamber, we passed the spot where the school kids all lick the salt wall. Licking the wall is supposed to ensure that they will pass their exams, so they all gladly partake.

Our guide pointed out the licking area to us as a point of interest, but he didn't expect us to actually lick. Being shameless tourists, however, we had other ideas. I licked first. Tasty! Kaki and Nenita were a little more hesitant.

I explained that bacteria couldn’t live on a pure salt medium, so unless they licked something that wasn’t dry salt – fresh kid drool or a dried loogie, for example – then there was nothing to worry about. (For my fellow egg heads out there, I am aware of the halophilic bacteria that thrive in salt rich environments, but, as far as I am aware, these don’t do bad things to humans.) Don’t correct me if I’m wrong.

Whether or not they were influenced by my argument, both Kaki and Nenita sidled up like Alexander’s horse and had a good lick. A few months later, we all passed our exams and went off to university.

That marked the end of the tour, so we went back to the large chamber with the snack bar to wait for the train. The area was packed with school kids, and several of the young men came to talk to me. Some wanted to have a photo with me. Kaki and Nenita were still invisible.

Soon the kids hiked out of the shaft, and we cruised by them in style on the train. Once we got off the train, I tried to tip our guide on behalf of the group. He told us that he wasn’t allowed to take any money, so we didn’t press the issue.

As we walked back to the ticketing area, we passed some old guys selling big chunks of salt – in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors, and textures. We each bought a piece or two.

Then we piled into Goldie for the 2 hours back to Islamabad. Along the way, I took the opportunity to stop and pose with several unusual road signs. And why not? It’s not every day you come across an actual hedgehog crossing.