Saturday, January 29, 2005

Pakistan: Peshawar

Peshawar is in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), about three hours west of Islamabad.  NWFP, which borders Afghanistan, is described as the Wild West of Pakistan.  It’s the place where some Al-Qaeda and Taliban are still believed to be hiding.

My good friend Anton was temporarily moved from Islamabad to be the security officer in Peshawar while the regular security officer was on vacation.  There are only a handful of Americans stationed there, and they are under a lot of restrictions.  After several days, Anton was in need of visitors, and I, as luck would have it, am always in need of an excursion.  So, road trip it was.  I rounded out the trip roster with my good friends Kaki and Traci, and they were more than happy to come along.

Not only did Anton want to see more people than the small group in Peshawar, he also had a list of things he needed us to bring him from the big city.  This was, without a doubt, an important mission:  I was tasked with bringing nail clippers and Anton’s business cards.  Traci was asked to bring hand sanitizer.  I was also asked to pick up a coat from a tailor in Islamabad and bring it for one of the Peshawar employees.  As far as Anton’s needs went, Kaki was pretty much – how should I put this? – dead weight.  She’s fun to travel with, though.

We were to drive to Peshawar in Goldie, the Little Honda Civic that Could, and both Kaki and Traci were aware of Goldie’s peculiarities well before departure.  These peculiarities included a lack of heat (and defrost), which required that the window be kept down so that the windshield didn’t fog up.

The trip took place at the end of January, and granted it was a bit cold.  Still, I did not appreciate the constant whining:

“Boo-hoo – I can’t feel my feet.”

“Waaa, waaa, waaa – my nose is frostbitten.”

and on and on.

I had to threaten to turn the car around several times.  I wasn’t unreasonable, though.  I rolled up the window little by little until it was clear that we weren’t going to fog.

Driving to Peshawar is always good.  It used to entail driving the entire way on the Grand Trunk Road, which is totally congested, in less than pristine condition, and a bit dangerous to drive.  It is, however, totally fun to drive.  A new motorway (the M1) is being built from Islamabad to Peshawar.  It was about halfway finished, and the first half was open to motorists.  We decided to take the M1 because it would save us a lot of time, and we ended up with the road totally to ourselves.  There was a toll of about one dollar, and most locals seemed to choose the GT Road to forgo this.  Or maybe they just preferred the interestingness of the GT Road to the speed of the M1.  Who knows?

At the end of the open portion of the M1, we hopped on the GT.  We stopped to check out a monument (a tomb or something) by the road.  Then we drove on in to P-town.  I had only driven to Peshawar once before, over a year earlier, and that was as a passenger; Kaki had never been; and Traci had been a few times, also as a passenger.  It would have made sense for us to get directions to the Consulate before we left, but we didn’t.  We did well, though.  We only got a little turned around at first, but we were in the right area, and we found the Consulate on our second pass.

We parked at the Consulate and got a warm welcome.  We gave Anton the things he had requested.  Actually, only I gave Anton the things he had requested.  Traci forgot the hand sanitizer.  It’s all fun and games, I guess, until someone gets an awful disease that could have been prevented with a little hand sanitizer that his friend forgot to bring him.

That being said, I feel I should disclose that personally I am anti-hand sanitizer.

Anyhow, Anton ended up getting tied up with some other visitors at the Consulate and was unable to join us in touring around town.  Meanwhile, another colleague of ours from Islamabad, my good friend Shawna, was also in Peshawar.  After learning of our visit, she had asked if she could hang out with us for the day.  We were happy to have her.

After a very long wait, Shawna, our driver, and our police escort were all assembled, and we were off.  We were only going to be in Peshawar for a few hours, and there wasn’t much specifically that we wanted to see.  Kaki wanted to go to the brass and copper market, and I wanted to find some Pashto movies.  Beyond that, we were just glad to be getting a break from Islamabad.

Before we could get on our way, Anton was at the ready with yet another request.  He gave me some money to buy some men’s shawls and hats in the market.  He was going to give them as gifts.  Having bought some previously, he had a target price for us to go after.

And then we were off.

The first thing we did was drive around a bit.  We went as far as the border of the Khyber Agency, which requires prior arrangements and a permit to enter.  I had already been to the Khyber Pass before, though, and that wasn’t the purpose of this trip.

Local traffic.

Along the road leading to the Khyber Agency was the massive Smuggler’s Bazaar.  This is one of those places that can use the old shopkeeper’s boast – “If we don’t sell it, it doesn’t exist.” – with some degree of truthfulness.  It is said you can buy anything here from a kilo of rice to a can of Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper to an attack helicopter.  If your car happened to get stolen in Islamabad, this would be a good place to look for it – minus the VINs of course.

Alas, the Smuggler’s Bazaar was off-limits to us, so we just checked out what we could see of it from the road as we drove by.  Shawna, Traci, and I all had our cameras, and from the moving car, we were photographing the interesting people and sights rather shamelessly.

Allow me to insert my philosophy of photographing people here.  My feeling is that a person cannot be offended if he doesn’t even realize he is being photographed.  So, unless I can ask permission of a person, I will not overtly point a camera at him.  I will, however, snap photographs of a person as I drive by him, or from a distance, or if he’s not paying attention, or by similar means that I consider relatively unobtrusive.  Basically, it has to do with how close I am to the subject (The more in-your-face it is, the more intrusive.), how likely the subject is to want his picture taken (Is he performing or just going about his business?), whether the subject will notice if I take his picture (What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.), whether the picture is just of the subject or a larger scene (The smaller the part a person plays in a photograph, the less insulting it is.), and how much time I devote to setting up the shot (A quick point-and-shoot is less intrusive than a picture with a lengthy set-up.).  In any case, I think everything balances out in the end when I weigh the pictures I’ve taken against how much I have been gawked at and photographed by non-Western peoples in the course of my travels.  You, of course, may or may not agree with this whole line of thinking.

A young street food vendor.

Anyhow, getting back to the story, we were driving and photographing.  In line with my philosophy, I’d put my camera down whenever we’d stop.  Shawna had a different philosophy.  When we’d stop, she would intensify her photographing.  So we’d be sitting in traffic, and she would be photographing through the window a child or an old man ten feet away from us on the curb.  Some people would smile, some would just sit there, but all could clearly tell that they were being photographed.  I’m sure she got some cool shots, but I think she also raised the probability that someone would whack the car with a stick or worse.  No one did bother us, though, so more power to her.

After we drove the length of the Smuggler’s Bazaar, we went to the brass and copper market.  There were some interesting pieces, but I didn’t get anything.  Some of the others did, though.

While we were at the metalwork shop, Kaki stepped outside to have a cigarette.  She was quickly instructed by our bodyguard to smoke closer to the door of the shop and to get away from the street.  We weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Fully covered local women in an alley.

After the copper market, we were ready for lunch.  We asked our driver if he could suggest a good place.  His answer started with, “Many Westerners like the…”  He was answering a different question than had been asked.  We told him that we just wanted any place that served good food, not necessarily one that catered mostly to foreigners.  The driver started getting all confused.  He thought of several places, but he didn’t think that any of them would be serving lunch at the time.  (It was about 12:45, which is totally early for lunch in Pakistan.)  We eventually had him take us to the Pearl Continental Hotel, and we ate at their Chinese restaurant.  From the restaurant, we called Anton to see if he would be able to meet us there.  He was not.

We were the only customers in the whole place, so we had both a waiter and the manager to assist us.  The service was nice, but the food didn’t really blow me away.  Given the choice, I don’t think I’d eat there again.

As we were leaving the restaurant, the ladies all went off to the bathroom, and Anton called me to pass a message: the Principal Officer – the head honcho – at the Consulate had invited us to join him for tea at his residence at 3:00.  It was an offer we couldn’t refuse.  Not only did he totally outrank us, but he had been instrumental in getting our visit approved.  Background compulsions aside, we were happy to join him for tea.

What our tea time did mean, though, was that we had less than an hour to get to the markets and quickly shop.

The shopping turned out to be very unproductive.  We searched around for Anton’s hats and scarves, and, at the places that the driver took us, everything was too expensive.  We didn’t bargain much for anything, but you can get a pretty good idea of what the final price will be based on the initial asking price.

Even worse than failing to find Anton’s things was the failure to find my things – the Pashto movies.  Urdu movies are generally very conservative and family-friendly.  They also have a cinematic look that the rest of the movie-making world achieved 20 years ago.  That’s neither here nor there, however.  Pashto movies, on the other hand, are not nearly so conservative.  They supposedly show a lot of skin, to the point where they, at times, become pornographic.  That’s what I hear anyway.

Naturally, my interest in such movies was purely cultural and academic.

In our search for the Pashto movies, the driver took us to a few DVD stores with large selections.  Each time I asked the clerk if he had any Pashto flicks, the response was the same: With his mouth, he would tell me that he didn’t have any, and with his smirk and the twinkle in his eye, he’d tell me, “I hear you, brother; I could go for some of that culture myself right about now!”

We never did find the movies.

Our final stop was to a shop that carried the things Anton wanted.  The shopkeeper didn’t want to play ball, though, and the price didn’t get nearly as low as we wanted.  As a matter of fact, we could have gotten much better prices in Islamabad.  At this shop, the only thing that caught my eye was a handmade metal bus that was maybe 24 inches long.  It was a good-sized toy, complete with nice sharp edges, protruding screws, and an authentic paint job.  It, like the scarves and hats, was totally overpriced unfortunately.

We left empty-handed and high-tailed it back to the Consulate.

Back at the tea, only two of us actually had tea.  Of the 6 people there, we had 2 teas, a Diet Coke, a water, and two people who didn’t want anything.

We had a nice chat with our host, and before long, we had to head back to Islamabad.  The Embassy rule was that we had to be off the road by dark, so we had to leave Peshawar about three hours before sunset in order to make it home in time.

In addition to the daylight travel rule, Traci and I had another reason to get back to Islamabad.  That night, we were going to Burns Night at the British High Commission.  Burns Night is an annual formal event.  It’s held by Scots all around the world, I believe.  It celebrates the poet Robert Burns, and involves Scots making ridiculous toasts and speeches in unintelligible accents, everyone getting drunk, everyone eating haggis, everyone getting drunk, and everyone doing highland dancing (while drunk).  It was to be my first Burns Night, and after four weeks of highland dancing practice (one night a week) I was looking forward to it.

Getting back to the story, though, we bid Peshawar farewell and hit the road.

Right off the bat, we took a wrong turn.  This led to a few more wrong turns.  Eventually, Goldie was basically parked in the middle of a busy market street, with us inside appreciating the situation.  The road was choked with people and carts and horses and cars, and traffic was standing still.  I thought it was a swell diversion, but Traci seemed to be freaking out.  She did try to play it cool, but her voice had a higher than normal pitch and a note of panic to it.

In no time, though, we managed a U-ie and backtracked all the way to the main road.  Our bearings were restored, and we cruised on home.

The temperature in the afternoon was considerably warmer than in the morning, so it was pleasant driving back with the window open a tad.

I dropped Traci and Kaki off at their homes, cleaned up and put on my tux, and went to Burns Night.  And it turned out to be a huge disappointment.  Not only did the organizers double the price of the tickets over the year before, they also replaced the open bar with a cash bar.  What a rip-off!  There was wine served with dinner and a bottle of scotch at each 10-seater table, but this wasn’t sufficient.

The result was that very few people got tanked, and this was a tragedy.  If you take away the staggering drunkenness, all you are left with is haggis, square dancing, and toasting – a trio that alone is definitely not worth the $50 admission price.  Take away the booze, and you take away the comedy.  Robert Burns was surely spinning in his grave.

To add insult to injury, we were promptly kicked out of the High Commission at midnight, or maybe it was one o’clock, when the party officially ended.  I was so unimpressed by that point that I skipped the after-party that was starting at the British Club and went home.  (With the meager bit of alcohol I had consumed, I was totally good to drive.)

On the way home, I nearly ran over a huge porcupine crossing the road (against the signal, I might add), and my happiness level was magically restored.  I love it when animals walk around in the street.

Cheers to you, Needleback!

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