Sunday, February 20, 2005

India: Varanasi

Around mid-February, I happened upon another long weekend.  The occasion this time was the Mourning of Muharram, the Muslim day of remembrance of the death and martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad.

I decided to take another little trip to India; this time to Varanasi.

I left Islamabad on Friday and flew the first two legs of the journey, first to Lahore and then to Delhi.  My connecting flight to Varanasi wasn’t until the following day, however, so I had to find a place to overnight.

Having been to Delhi before, I decided to skip the airport’s official pre-paid taxi booth and haggle with one of the unsanctioned cabbies.  I did end up getting a cheaper ride than I would have at the pre-paid stand, but I was also riding in a tuk-tuk, which are always cheaper than cars.  I didn’t care, though.  The tuk-tuk got the job done and was probably no more likely to fall apart than the ancient Ambassador I could have ridden in.

I told the cabbie to take me to a place called the H. K. Chaudary Guesthouse located in Connaught Place.  Connaught Place is a large commercial area in the center of Delhi that is laid out as a few concentric circles.  Shops, banks, restaurants, and so forth line the circles as well as the streets that form the spokes.

At the airport, when I told my driver where I wanted to go, he said he knew the place.  Once we were on the road, he changed his story and claimed that he didn’t know where my guesthouse was.  This was obviously just a ruse.  Since he supposedly didn’t know how to get to my guesthouse, he offered me a few other lodging suggestions – places where he would get a kickback from the owners, no doubt.

I told him that I already had a place to stay and that I thought his suggestions were a waste of money.  (I didn’t know how much they cost, but I had a feeling.)  He then asked what my budget was, and, upon hearing this, he popped out a few more suggestions in this price range.

I told him that I wasn’t interested and to just take me to Connaught Place (which any fool could find).  Once there, we would just have to ask directions until we found the guesthouse.

He agreed, but he wasn’t finished scamming yet.  He proceeded to ask me if I had a reservation.  I lied and told him that I did.  Otherwise, I would have had to hear all about how overbooked the place was.

A little further down the road, he became even more desperate.  Suddenly, he realized that he did know the place.  Unfortunately, though, he had some bad news for me: the guesthouse had recently burned down.

I told him I didn’t mind.

Then he remembered more of the story.  The place had indeed burned down, but it had been rebuilt.  Unfortunately, though, there was more bad news: the kindly owner that everyone loved had died in the fire, and the man who rebuilt the guesthouse and now managed it was a real lowlife.

I told him I was cool with that.

He eventually dropped me at the guesthouse, and putted off down the road with no hostility.  We had played a game and he had lost, but it was nothing personal.

I checked in at the guesthouse.  It was built around a large tree and had maybe five or six rooms.  I got a room close to the top, and close to the shared bathroom.  My room was built like a fun house.  The floor had several different gradients to it, part of the ceiling was so low I had to bend over to walk under it, and there were strange shaped windows on either end of the room.  It looked like someone had gradually built the room as he managed to find spare building supplies in the street.

It was good enough, though, and only a few hundred rupees.

I tossed my OK-if-it-gets-stolen stuff in the room, locked the padlock on the door, had a filling meal of chapatti and spicy daal at the rooftop restaurant, and hit the streets.

I had already seen most of the tourist highlights of Delhi, so I spent hours just walking around, browsing shops, and eating street food.  I did have one specific objective, though.  On my trip to China a few weeks prior, I had lost a silver bracelet that I had bought a few months earlier in Delhi.  One of my goals of this trip was to get another one.

In route to Janpath market, the place I needed to go to look for the bracelet, I asked two young boys (maybe 10 and 12 years old) for directions to make sure that I was going the right way.  They immediately latched on to me.  They asked if I would help them out in getting school books.  Supposedly, they would get a commission from certain shopkeepers for bringing in customers, and their commission was paid in school books.  I told them that I would be happy to look at the shops, but that I almost surely would not buy anything.  Having been there before, I knew exactly which stores they would be taking me to.

They didn’t care since whether or not I bought, they still got the minimum commission.  If I did purchase anything, that would only get them more of a commission.

As we walked around to these shops, we talked.  They told me their names, and I told them mine.  Chris was very difficult for them, and they kept cracking up every time they would butcher it – which was every time they tried to say it.  One of them had the great idea to have me spell my name for them, so they could pronounce it easier.  Not thinking, I spelled it the way I normally do: C-H-R-I-S.  For their sakes, I should have written it as K-R-I-S.  When they saw my name spelled out, they got more confused than before and started calling me Cheers.  I told them that was close enough, and I was Cheers for the next few hours.

Both boys were from Jaipur, a place I had visited previously, and they were keen to hear of my visit to their hometown.  They were both very much into movie music and continually sang movie songs.  When we met, I explained to them that I only knew a little Hindi, and no other Indian languages.  Still, the younger boy kept asking me things like, “Can you sing a song in Rajasthani?”  This was the language of their home state, but I knew nothing of it.  He knew movie songs in many different languages and would also try to have me guess what a song was about.  I had to speficially tell him that I couldn’t understand language after language.  “No, I don’t know Punjabi…no, I don’t know Bengali…no, I don’t know Gujarati.”  I’m not sure what part of “I only know a little Hindi and no other Indian languages” he didn’t understand.  That said, they did provide opportunities for me to speak most all the Hindi I knew, and they acted duly impressed whenever I would say anything.

After I had been serenaded for a while, the boys got stuck on the idea of me singing something to them.

“Cheers, sing us your favorite movie song," they pleaded.  "Please…”

So, finally I relented.  I could not think of a movie song at the time, so I sung them the song from the Simpsons called See My Vest.  It is a song that Mr. Burns sings when he is about to make a fur coat out of the Simpson family’s litter of greyhound puppies (in a spoof of 101 Dalmatians).  The boys thoroughly enjoyed the performance, although I don’t know how much they understood.

As requested, I went from store to store, always looking but never buying, so the boys could get their commission.  They would always wait for me outside.

After the seventh store, I told the boys that we had covered enough ground for one day.  When it started to look like our time together was drawing to a close, they hit me up: “Can you give us a gift?”

I told them that I had just devoted the better part of my afternoon toward helping them in their commission scam and that seemed like a plenty generous gift itself.

They continued, “But we are so hungry.”

I am not heartless, so I agreed to take them to eat.  They really did look like they could use a meal, and, not to mention, we had developed some rapport by this point.

The younger boy started singing again, and we walked on in search of food.

We ended up going to a street vendor, where we ordered rice and chicken.  It was a Friday in Lent, so I could not eat the chicken.  I told them I was a vegetarian, and they gladly took my portion.

These kids ate with a fierce determination.  They put their heads right above their plates and shoveled the rice into their mouths.  They didn’t even look up except to grab the occasional gulp of water.  They really looked like they were in an eating contest or something.  When they had eaten the chicken meat off the bones, they then ate the bones as well.  There was all manner of cracking and popping going on.  By the time we finished, there was nothing edible left on the table.

With lunch taken care of, we parted ways, and I went to Janpath.

I found the same shop as before, and like before, it was so jam-packed with metal pieces, the slightest nudge would cause several things to fall off the shelves.  The little Tibetan guy who ran the place had one bracelet left that was similar to the one I wanted.  I bought it for cheap and left.

I ended up getting a few other metal pieces from a woman showing her wares on a blanket on the sidewalk.  Then I headed back toward the guesthouse.  I was looking for a bar, but in honor of Muharram, everything was locked up tight.

I opted to see a movie instead.

The theater closest to my guesthouse was showing a Hindi film called Black.  It turned out to be an Indian rendition of the Helen Keller story.  Not knowing anything about the movie, I asked the ticket agent what it was about.  Not really answering my question, he responded, “It’s a comedy.  About 80% is in English.”

At movie theaters in India, tickets are sold for individual seats – with the price dependent on the location.  I bought a higher-end seat, but it still only cost a few bucks.  It was toward the back center, for the midnight showing.

I poked around the area a little longer, and soon it was showtime.  I got a monster coke and industrial-sized popcorn and took my seat.

It only took me a few minutes to realize that maybe the ticket seller hadn’t given me totally accurate information.  I could quickly tell it was a Helen Keller-esque story, and it was definitely not a comedy.  Total laughs in the whole movie: maybe two.

And 80% English?  That seemed a bit generous.

Not that I couldn’t follow the events of the story.  They were pretty straight forward: (1) girl is born without ability to hear or see, (2) her parents throw their hands up and let her behave like a wild animal, (3) parents get tired of wild animal behavior and hire a kooky, unorthodoxed teacher to work miracle with girl, (4) teacher slaps girl around using his tough love teaching method, (5) girl continues to act wild, (6) parents fire teacher, (7) just as teacher is leaving, girl has a breakthrough, (8) girl acts civilized, teacher feels like a god, high-fives all around, (9) girl grows fond of teacher, (10) girl graduates high school and gets into college; teacher goes along to help, (11) girl struggles and fails final exams year after year after year, (12) meanwhile, girl’s normal sister gets married and girl freaks out about living the rest of her life alone, (13) girl seduces her much older teacher one lonely night, (14) they vow never to speak of this night, (15) girl finally graduates from college, high-fives all around, (16) girl is selected by classmates to give graduation address (Who’d have guessed?), (17) teacher meanwhile develops Alzheimers and doesn’t understand what is accomplished, (18) girl visits teacher in the hospital and works with him like he used to work with her, (19) the student has become the teacher, (20) the teacher has a moment of lucidity and remembers girl, (21) girl and teacher dance around the hospital cheering like crazies, (22) movie is over and there isn’t a dry eye in the place – figuratively speaking, anyhow; I personally wasn’t overly affected.

Sorry if I ruined the ending for you.

Anyhow, I didn’t consider this to be either a comedy or mostly in English, and I was rather disappointed at my luck.  Probably 99% of Indian films are comedies or are full of musical numbers or both.  I happened to be there for that 1% with no laughs and no singing.  The popcorn was good at least.

And it was a fine diversion.

By the time the movie finished, it was past curfew at the guesthouse.  I don’t know what time curfew was exactly since I never asked, but the doors were definitely locked.

Most of the people associated with running the place were in a room off of the reservation desk playing cards or something.  They let me in, and I crashed in my lumpy bed.

The next morning, I checked out to catch my plane to Varanasi.  As I did, I told the owner of the guesthouse that I would be passing back through Delhi the following evening (since my visit to Varanasi was only going to be about 24 hours long).  He told me that he would be waiting for me.

I ate some street eggs and hailed a tuk-tuk on the Circle.  After a bit of negotiations, I got the price I wanted.  I was really pleased with how these taxi rides were working out.

We got to the airport, and I flew to Varanasi without anything of interest happening, and that was fine.

As is the case with many municipal airports, the Varanasi Airport was a good distance from the city of Varanasi.  And all across the board, the taxi drivers at the airport insisted on getting prepaid for the trip.  Most won’t negotiate the fare, either, beyond a few rupees here and there.

Having had such good luck with taxis so far, I didn’t feel the need to waste much time.  I hired a guy, paid him the going rate of around 300 rupees (about $7), and we were off.

We went through the guesthouse routine again, but this driver wasn’t so dogged as the last one.  He was much more devious, though.

About halfway to my guesthouse, he pulled over to the side of the road.  He claimed that he didn’t know where my guesthouse was and that even if he did, he could not get his taxi to the guesthouse because the streets would become too narrow.  I didn’t believe him for a minute on either of his claims.  Even if he were telling me the truth, though, both of these things would have been nice to know when we had discussed my destination back at the airport.  In any case, he had me over a barrel since I had prepaid.

He called a man over who was riding a bike rickshaw, and they had a quick discussion in Hindi.  Then the taxi jerk told me that the bike guy knew where my guesthouse was, and that he would take me there for 100 rupees.  Plus, he would be able to negotiate the narrow streets with his bike.

I was mad enough to call the first jerk a chowder head or something equally biting, but I figured it wouldn’t do any good.

I got out of the taxi and into the rickshaw.

The rickshaw guy clearly didn’t have his heart in it.  He was pedaling as slow as a turtle, and everyone was passing us.

Finally, he stopped pedaling and started going on about something in Hindi.  I couldn’t follow much with my very limited Hindi, but soon another taxi driver stopped and helped translate.

Get this: The rickshaw driver also didn’t know where the guesthouse was, and he was tired, and he wanted me to pay and get out.

I got the distinct impression that the conversation between the rickshaw driver and my first taxi driver had been something to this effect: “You wanna make a quick buck?  This guy is a real patsy…”

Too bad for the rickshaw driver, though.  He forgot the crucial element of the scam: getting prepaid.

I gave him 10 rupees, which was more than he deserved.  He knew better than to complain.

So, I was seemingly conned twice in a row with the same scam.  They say a sucker is born every minute, and, alas, this wasn’t the first time – or the last – that I felt I must have spared all of the other babies who were born in my timeslot from this fate.  (Assuming that a maximum of one sucker is born each minute, of course.)

In any case, my cheap taxi karma had gone away.

Once Mr. Sore Legs pedaled away, the taxi driver who had translated for him offered to take me to my guesthouse.  Figuring he too would probably “get lost” in a few minutes, I reluctantly agreed.

He proved to be a decent guy, though.  He took me as far as he could in the taxi, and when the roads did narrow, he parked and led me on foot.

I paid the driver and checked in at the guesthouse.  It was very close to the Ganges.  There were several floors to this place, with maybe 30 rooms total.  At the time, though, everything was either occupied or reserved, except for one room.  This room was up on the roof, all by itself.  The owner showed me the room on the roof, and I thought it was great.  Not only was it pretty well isolated, it also had a great view and a relatively private bathroom.  Every floor had a shared bathroom, and since I was the only person on my floor, the bathroom was all mine.  And the room on the roof was cheaper than the others to boot.

I went back downstairs and filled out the paperwork.  As the owner handed me the key, he told me to be sure to keep the chain-link door that led to the roof closed to prevent monkeys from entering the building.  Evidently, it took a real effort to get them out once they got in.

I went back upstairs to the roof and looked around for a few minutes.  The advice about the monkeys was surely sound.  They were jumping all over the buildings in town.  They didn’t come up to my rooftop while I watched, but I’m sure they came up later.  Within the monkey community, there was clearly a pecking order and a fierce defense of territory.  Monkeys were beating up other monkeys as far as the eye could see.  Some monkeys were just pacing back and forth, giving a look that said, “Don’t even think about coming up on this balcony, fool!”

My only visitors while I watched the monkeys were some well-behaved green parrots who perched on my railing.

After a bit of monkey watching, I went down to explore.

As I mentioned earlier, Varanasi (also known as Banaras) is on the Ganges River, and it is a holy city for Hindus.  Specifically, it is the prime place for Hindus to be cremated – once they are dead, of course – and there is a brisk business in body-burning.

On the side of the Ganges where Varanasi sits, the riverbank is separated into dozens of areas known as ghats.  Each ghat has a specific purpose or specialty.  For example there are laundry ghats, temple ghats, bathing ghats, and so forth.  My guesthouse happened to be close to the main burning ghat (there were 2 or 3 total) where cremations took place around the clock.

As I started my touring, I logically went first to see the cremations.

As I was heading that direction, a man who was sitting by the side of the path stopped me.  He told me that I was most welcome to go and view the cremation process.  The only caveat was that I must not take any photographs.  Then he went on to warn me that there were numerous people at the ghat who would try to solicit money from me for various causes, the most common reason being for those who were in Varanasi waiting for death.  As it happens, many Hindus want to be cremated in Varanasi.  In order to avoid winding up dead in some far-flung location, many decide to head to Varanasi once they reach a certain age that they consider to be within the reach of death.  Of these old people who move to Varanasi to wait for death, some die fairly quickly.  Others, however, live for many more years, eventually using all their savings.  This last group that is blessed with longevity soon becomes dependent on the money collected on their behalves since most of them do not actually beg for themselves.  They need money not just to survive, but also for the expenses of the cremation.

With his tips in mind, I left the helpful shopkeeper and went to see the cremations up close.

To get to the place of burning, I first had to transverse the huge stacks of firewood that would be used to burn the bodies.  The process of burning a human body to ashes uses a lot of wood.  For each cremation, each piece of wood was carefully weighed and tallied up at a price-per-kilo rate.  A proper cremation requires many kilos of wood and costs a few hundred dollars.  So, while it's cheaper than the same process utilizing a cremation chamber, it still isn’t cheap, especially by Indian standards.

As I passed through the stacks of wood, I could see all the workers selecting and weighing logs.

Just beyond the logs was the actual burning operation.

As soon as I approached, a man latched on to me and started explaining things.  Before he got very far along, I told him that he was free to continue, but I would not be paying him for his time.  He immediately left.

Then I observed things on my own.  I had never seen a human body burn before, and the whole process was fascinating.  I momentarily questioned whether or not something was wrong with me since seeing this did not bother me.  I came to the conclusion that nothing was.

If you are extra sensitive, you might want to skip the following portion between the two lines:

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The whole process started with the family purchasing the necessary amount of wood.  Next, the funerary workers would build the funeral pyre using the newly purchased wood, while the family would carry the body of their loved one down to the site.  The body would be wrapped in white cloth, and some were also decorated with strings of tensil.  The family would carry the body at shoulder height on a stretcher made of branches.

Before setting the body on the pyre, the family would dip it one last time in the Ganges and say something.

Then they would put the body on the stack of wood.

At this point, the family would step aside, and a cremation attendant would light the wood on fire.

Very quickly, the cloth and tensil would burn away.

Sometimes the fire immediately took off, and sometimes it took some coaxing from the cremators.

As the body would burn, some people, but not all, had a special service for their deceased family member whereby men would throw things into the fire to make it dramatically flare up.  They were probably throwing sawdust, possibly mixed with some minerals.

As the bodies burned, they would start dripping.  Some of the fluid was water-based and would hamper the fire, and some was fat-based and would encourage the fire.

In most of the pyres, the trunk of the body was squarely in the fire, with the legs and the head less so.  As such, in many cases I saw bodies with charring over the entire body except for the feet.  The feet which were not in the direct heat, were browning and baking as if they were in an oven.

During the burning, the cremation attendants would manipulate the body.  It was fascinating to watch these guys.  As soon as it was possible, they would bend the legs back over the torso so they would be in the hottest part of the fire.  Along with this came all sorts of cracking and popping noises.  Likewise, they would take a sturdy wooden pole and ram it through the top of the skull, forcing it down into the fire.  This was the single most disturbing thing to watch.

The cremation attendants were from one of the lowest castes in India, but they were clearly used to the work and could not have been more at ease.  One minute, they would be snapping a body around like a chicken carcass.  Then the next minute, they’d be standing 2 feet away from the same burning body, loudly joking amongst themselves.  This seemed to be par for the course, though, and no one much seemed to mind.  As a matter of fact, all of the families there seemed very solemn, but there wasn’t a lot of sobbing or outwardly visible lamentation.

At the burning ghat, there were maybe eight sites for cremations, and each of the sites had a body at a different point in the process.

As the burning progressed, the attendants would continually compact the body until it eventually burned completely away.  The entire process took several hours.

Once the body was totally consumed, the attendants would collect the ashes and debris and take them down to the Ganges to rinse them.  The ashes were allowed to drift away in the river, and the small bone fragments were collected, presumably to return to the relatives.

I stood and watched this whole process for what turned out to be about two and a half hours, and I was duly respectful.

Many of you may be wondering about the smell.  It was a strange thing.  There was clearly the smell of roasting flesh, but for some reason, it just wasn’t appealing to me.  This was either because (a) humans can distinguish the smell of their own cooked flesh against the smell of the cooked flesh of other animals, or (b) I knew what I was looking at and my lack of appetite was a mental response to the situation.

As much as I would like to say that the answer was (a), I think it was more likely (b) predominantly.  I’ve heard that some surgeons who deal with burn victims actually associate the smell of burned human flesh with barbeque, and some even admit to getting cravings as they operate.

For me, though, the most striking part of the whole thing was not the smell, but the sound.  As the skin would split and the fluids would drain out, the fire would pop and hiss and roar.  The most unexpected sound for me, however, was the exploding long bones.  Bones like the femur are heavy and contain a lot of fluid.  They would heat up so quickly in the cremations that the heat could not escape.  The result was that they would explode with a report that sounded like a gunshot.

Anyway, the whole process seemed quite dignified and practical.  It is my desire to be cremated when I die, and had I dropped dead in Varanasi, I would have been perfectly happy to have had a Varanasi riverside cremation.

When I had finally watched enough, I brushed all the human ashes out of my hair and clothes, and went to explore some of the other ghats.

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Near the burning ghat, there were many tailors who had shops selling clothing they had made (as opposed to the tailors who sold on a made-to-order basis).  One shopowner beaconed to me, and I stopped for a look.

He had a lot of cool things.  He had a few basic designs of pants and shirts made out of hemp, cotton, and silk in a variety of colors.  Since the sizes weren’t standardized, I had to try on everything that interested me.  Many stores like this had a small closet or a curtain that could be brought across a corner of the main room to offer privacy while people tried on clothing.  I asked the owner where I could try on the clothes.

“Right here,” he responded.

So in front of this guy and his young daughter and his two older boys, I tried on these clothes.  I would have preferred privacy, but I figured that I would never see these people again.  For them, living in one of the world’s most densely populated countries, privacy was a luxury they didn’t often have.

As I tried on one of the shirts the owner remarked, “It is very interesting to watch other people put on clothes.  Here we put both arms in a shirt at the same time, but you put in the arms one by one.”

I told him that I liked to mix it up a bit, sometimes putting both arms at the same time and sometimes putting one at a time.  He seemed pleased as if he had just had a real insight into American behavior.

As I put on some pants, I asked him if my method was consistent with the Indian method.  It was.

I ended up getting some shirts and a few drawstring lounge pants.  The owner, of course, tried to steer me toward the more expensive things, but in the end he took what he could get out of me.

After shopping, I dropped my bags back at the guesthouse.  Then I decided to walk downstream.

On my walk, I passed vendors and laundry guys and a ton of boatmen hoping to be hired.

Many of these boatmen refused to believe that I was walking for fun, and assumed that I wasn’t going by boat because of the price.  They began self-bargaining (dropping their prices little by little) hoping to hook me.

I walked down to the last ghat and watched a train traverse the steel bridge over the Ganges.  Then I turned to walk back.  As soon as I started, I met up with my first take-my-picture kids: two boys who felt they ought to be in pictures.  Having been through this before, I knew what might happen: once I had taken the photograph, the boys might be inclined to ask for money or to ask me to send them a copy.  I rarely do the first option, and I usually only do the second option if the kids are living in the same country as I am.

I told the boys I would photograph them, but that I wouldn’t be giving them any money.  They agreed to my terms.  Then I photographed them, and they were satisfied just reviewing the photo on my digital camera.

As I continued on, I came upon a group of young beggar children.  They immediately started asking to be photographed as well.  I explained the ground rules to them in my best Hindi, and they agreed.  To get a better picture, I crouched down to the level of the children.  Then they rushed me.  There were little hands everywhere.  I could feel them in my pockets, in my backpack, and up my shirt. (The little rascals even knew to look for a hidden neck pouch.)  They were the cutest little robbers I had ever seen.

I detangled myself, and, as far as I know, I still had all of my belongings.

While I didn’t appreciate the sneak attack in theory, I gotta give these kids bonus points for teamwork and likeability.  They were cool in my book.  I gave them a few rupees and continued on.  Some other children saw that I was paying and rushed up for a piece of the pie.  They got nada.

Over the course of the weekend, I got many requests from people – young and old – wanting to be photographed.  And by the end, my conditions had to be amended somewhat from what I started with due to people getting crafty with their requests.

Eventually, I was telling take-my-picture people, in a mix of English and Hindi, “Photo, OK, but no rupees, no copy for you, no candy, no pens, and no cigarettes”.  And across the board, everyone nodded agreement and smiled for the camera.

This made for some good pictures, but after a while it got a little annoying.  I ended up turning a lot of people away.

Anyhow, to get back to the story, I was walking along the river.  Before long, I passed a boy with a boat who had tried to convince me to hire him when I first passed on my way downstream.  When I passed him this second time, he lowered his rate a final time and offered to give me a ride to the main ghat (which was a good distance upstream) for 40 rupees (about $0.90).  I was prepared to walk back to the guesthouse, but this was an offer I couldn’t refuse.  We shoved off from the shore.

As he rowed us up the river, other boats would occasionally pull up and try to sell me things.  In one boat, there was a little boy and a little girl (neither looked to be over 10 years old) selling candles in little leaf boats.  I don’t know if these floating candles were something Indians used or if they just sold them to tourists.  In any case, the kids told me that I needed to float a candle on the Ganges to bring blessings on my family and friends.  They were asking 10 rupees (about 22 cents) which was double the rate on the shore.  After much deliberation, however, I decided that blessings for my friends and family were indeed worth 22 cents, and I bought a candle and launched it.  The things I do for you guys...

After what seemed like an hour, my young rower dropped me off at the main ghat.  I think the $0.90 was perfectly fair based on local standards, but I didn’t think it was very cool after he had rowed all that distance.  He was ready to accept the 40 rupees, but I gave him an even hundred (about $2.30).  He was very appreciative.

At the main ghat, I was walking along, checking out the scene.  There were a lot of people bathing in the river, and on the ghat there were shops and restaurants.  As I was poking around the crowd, an old man grabbed my arm and started kneading it.  His game was to give a free arm massage and thereby convince me to pay for a full massage.  He did a decent job on the arm, so I asked him his rate.  The full massage cost 50 rupees.

I agreed to give it a shot, so we went to his “office” to get started.  And that's how I came to be lying on a reed mat, with no shirt, on the sidewalk under a bridge, with an old Indian guy rubbing oil on me.  This may sound unusual, but I assure you, nothing untoward was happening.  This was normal for India.  Pakistan has these massage guys too.

As he massaged, there was a steady stream of pedestrians walking by.  The biggest problem I had with the whole thing was a fear for my things – namely my wallet and my camera.  To guard my wallet, I took it out of my pocket and held it in my hand.  I also held onto the strap of my backpack which held my camera.  This arrangement did not work well, though, since the masseuse worked my arms again.  I ended up shifting the hand with the wallet several times, and I lost my grip on the backpack.

About midway through the massage, two more hands started working on me.  I figured that the first guy just wanted to finish quicker, so he got his buddy to help.  I didn’t think much of it.

Eventually, they finished massaging, I put my shirt on, and all of my valuables were still there.  I paid the first guy 50 rupees.  Then he started whining.  Evidently, a regular massage only cost 50 rupees, but they had secretly upgraded me to the “special maharaja massage” which cost 300 rupees.  This upgrade supposedly happened when the second man joined in.

I told them that I did not appreciate them changing our deal in the middle.

“I think you are not happy,” the first guy responded.  He was pretty sharp.

“No, I’m not,” I told him.

“OK, then, what do you want to pay?” he asked.

What I wanted to pay was 50, but what I was willing to pay was 100 (50 each).  They wisely accepted the deal on the table.

We parted ways and I went down to the river again to watch a ceremony that was starting.  In this ceremony, there were 4 or 5 young men standing on concrete pillars by the water.  They did some routine where they would wave smoldering sticks of incense, alternating back and forth between the Ganges and the crowd.  The movements were all synchronized to some piped-in music.  I think this was something that was done every night.

I watched for a few minutes and then went into the city to see the markets.

I found the markets easily enough and started browsing.  Most of what people were selling was the standard stuff: clothing, incense, food, pots and pans, and other household items.  What caught my eye, however, were the toys.  Varanasi is famous for it hand-made wooden toys.

I stepped into the first toy shop that I happened upon, and everything was totally cool and totally cheap.  I bought a few of these toys for myself, but I told the vendor they were for my niece to save face.

The cool thing about these toys is that most are built to move.  For example, many have strings to pull that cause something to spin or to pop up.  A lot of them also have spring mechanisms built in.  Plus, everything has a nice paint job.

I bargained a little, but the prices were already so low, I didn’t push very much.

I continued browsing the market, and I came upon many other stores.  As it turned out, I really lucked out by finding the toy store where I made my first purchases.  I found other toy stores, but few had the selection of the first store and none had the low prices.

The only other thing that caught my eye in the markets was the body paint.  To accommodate the many colorful religions in India, there were vendors with pots full of bright pigments.  Practicality got the better of me, though, and I decided not to buy any.

It was already getting dark when I started looking in the markets, and when I finally decided to head home, it was pitch black.  The market was a big winding mess, and I had lost my bearings.  I started in a direction that I thought was correct, but nothing looked familiar.

I decided to ask for directions.

I didn’t encounter anyone who could speak English, so I had to rely on my Hindi.  The question I posed was simple, but there was one problem.  In asking for directions to my guesthouse, I had to use the word ghat.  In Hindi (and in Urdu) gh is an aspirated letter.  There is no equivalent in English.  Unlike the g in English, in saying the gh in Hindi you have to push out a lot of air when you say it.  This sound can really separate the natives from the non, and as a matter of fact, all of my friends who received formal training in Hindi or Urdu seemed to have poor pronunciation of this sound as well.

In any case, my bad pronunciation started to become a problem.  I would approach a person on the street, and start in with my question.  As soon as I hit the word ghat, the person would act all confused.  I would repeat the question, and word by word, the person would nod… until we got to ghat.  Doh!

This was annoying to me because I was only butchering one sound.  This would be maybe equivalent to a non-English speaker asking me, “Where is the Statue of Liverty?”

In this situation, I could use a little common sense to get past the mispronunciation.  Or I could refuse to understand like the people I encountered seemed to be doing.  “What do you want?  Liverty?  Say it again.”

Down street after street, no one could help.  Some people tried, but ultimately failed.  Others didn’t even try.  In one case, a large group of young men approached me and asked me where I was going.  Groups of young men just hanging out have a huge potential for mischief anywhere you go in the world.  I knew this, and I would have normally avoided this gang, especially on a dark street at night.

Since they asked, though, I told them where I was trying to go.  Once they had me repeat myself about three times, it was pretty obvious that they were more interested in mocking me than helping.

I left them to have their laugh, and I could really have cared less.  A few of them did break away from the group and follow me.  They continued asking me to repeat myself.  I couldn’t tell if they felt guilty and were now genuinely interested in helping, or if they were still just being jackasses.  I didn’t talk to them any more, though, and they left me alone.

I continued on further, and once I crossed a certain point, things totally changed.  I would ask my question, and people would answer right away.  It was as if I had magically passed from the jerk side of town to the decent-folk side of town.

When a person would give me directions, I would only catch the first few steps.  This would usually take me a few blocks.  Then I would ask another person, and they would get me a few more blocks.  As I walked along a few curious boys rode their bicycles next to me and asked questions.

When I was nearly back at the guesthouse, I came across two guys who could speak English reasonably well.  They approached me and asked me to join them for dinner.  I had nothing else to do, so I accepted.

They took me to a street vendor, and the food was awesome.  First, we had these crunchy pastry balls that the cook cracked a hole in and filled with tasty spices and sauces.  These were eaten in one bite.  Then we had some chili mixture.  The chili mixture was served in a formed leaf.  These leaves are used all over India, and I think they are a great idea.  Basically, green leaves are placed over molds shaped like bowls, and as the leaves dry, they take the shape of bowls.  These are totally natural and biodegradable, so once they are used, they can be dropped anywhere on the ground to decompose.  They are, after all, just leaves.

After the vegetarian chili, we switched back to the stuffed pastry balls.  Everything was great, and there was a good-sized crowd there eating.  Our entire meal cost maybe 50 cents per person, and my hosts paid for me.

Once we finished, we walked toward my guesthouse and talked.  Their hospitality wasn’t totally without strings, though, and my two hosts mentioned that they had an uncle with a shop that they would really like for me to visit.

I agreed to have a look.  The shop was closed at the time, so they told me they would wait for me outside the guesthouse the following morning and take me to the shop then.

I went up to my room and watched the action on the Ganges for an hour or so longer.  It was after midnight, but there were still people bathing and horsing around.

And the cremations continued.  I could see the smoke rising and the orange glow of the flames.  I could also hear the exploding longbones.

I had a good night’s sleep and was up bright and early.

A popular touristy thing to do in Varanasi is to take a sunrise cruise on the Ganges.  The guesthouse offered a cruise for 50 rupees (about $1.10) per hour per person, and I signed up.  I was joined by five other budget travelers from the guesthouse – four ladies and a man.

We rallied at 5 o'clock in the morning and walked down to the river.

My two friends from the night before were nowhere to be seen.  I guess they hadn’t anticipated me leaving the guesthouse so early.  They never did stop by, and I never did look at their uncle’s shop.

Anyhow, we loaded up in the boat and shoved off.  The cruise was going well, and we watched the sun come up.  It was pretty spectacular, and not even the corpse we saw floating by dampened the mood.  Incidentally, I was informed by another passenger on our boat that certain people were not allowed to be cremated.  These included, among others, lepers, children, priests, and pregnant women.  Then there were the people who could not afford to be cremated.  Of these people who weren’t allowed or couldn’t afford to be cremated, many of them would either commit suicide by drowning themselves in the Ganges or else arrange for someone to throw their bodies into the river once they died.  Hence the floaters.  The river isn’t chocked with bodies or anything, but there are enough that it seems like every person who tours there comes away having seen at least one.

As each minute passed, more and more tourist boats took to the water.

We watched tons of people bathing in the sacred river.  Men and women bathed in separate spots for the most part.  Some of the bathers, both men and women, would go in the water pretty much dressed.  Most of the men, though, would strip down to their underwear.  What surprised me were the ladies.  Many of them would wade into the water in their saris and then take off their tops.

I didn’t take any pictures of the topless women, though, partly due to decency and partly due to the fact that there wasn’t a looker in the bunch.  Maybe young women are discouraged from public toplessness because all of the topless bathers seemed to be older and larger women.

When we passed the burning ghats, we were again instructed not to take any photographs.  We all put our cameras away so as to avoid any misunderstandings.

We passed by the dhobis doing laundry, and then we passed by a model doing a photoshoot by the Ganges.  She was dressed in white with a scarf that was being blown around by a wind machine.  The photographer was a tiny woman.

Next we came to the main ghat.  Around this time, our boatman informed us that we had been out for half an hour, so that if he were to turn around, we would have ridden for an even hour.  He asked us if we would like to keep going or turn around.

At this, some of my petty fellow passengers got incensed.  Evidently, they had been told by the guy at the guesthouse that in an hour we should get as far as the new electric crematorium and back.  The crematorium was some ways away when we hit the half hour mark, and these annoying ladies started accusing the boatman of purposely rowing slowly in order to length the ride and thereby increase his fee.  Whether or not he was dogging it, I didn’t really care.  We were paying by the hour, and we were at a point where we had to decide whether we wanted to just pay for an hour or whether we wanted to go further and pay a little more.

I told the ladies that I wanted to go further, and they could tell that I didn't share their baseless indignation.  After a few scowls, we all agreed to go further.  Some of the ladies, however, were conspiring to only pay the guy 50 rupees, no matter how long he rowed.  I am all for budget travel, but I found these ladies to be quite pathetic.

One of them did provide me some amusement, though, with her Hindi.  She spoke worse than I did (which is really saying something), but, to her credit I suppose, she didn’t let that stop her.  She was constantly saying things to the boatman, in totally butchered language.  At one point she was counting for some reason and her Hindi numbers included several Spanish ones.  The boatman just stared at her with a blank expression.  As bad as she sucked, the other people on the boat knew no better and thought that she was pretty talented.

As we rowed back toward the ending point, some of the floating vendors paddled up to us.  We sent most of them away.  One guy came up with a boat full of toys.  He had a few pieces I had not seen the night before, so I decided to take a closer look.  I asked him the price of a few things.  Everything was much more expensive than in the market, so I told him that I wasn’t interested.  Then the Hindi whiz-kid piped up.

“Wait a minute," she told me, "Let me show you something.”

She pointed to one of the toys and told the vendor that she would give him 2 rupees.  And the vendor promptly paddled away.  I’m not sure what exactly she was trying to show me.

Once we docked, our total time came to an hour and a half, which meant the total charge was 75 rupees.  I paid the guy an even hundred (~$2.30) and went on my way.  I don’t know if the ladies ended up stiffing him or not.

I returned yet again to the ghats, and I came upon two guys who tried to convince me to take a dip in the Ganges.  As you could have probably guessed, the Ganges is unbelieveably polluted.  I believe I read that it is so full of sewage, garbage, industrial waste, and farm run-off that it is essentially devoid of life in the stretch that passes through Varanasi (and many other stretches for that matter).

That said, I possibly would have bathed in the Ganges even with the pollution.  What broke the deal for me was the fear of being robbed.  If I went down to the river clutching my possessions, I would have looked paranoid.  If I had left them on the shore, I would have never seen my camera and wallet again.  Having already lost one camera in India, that wasn’t a risk I was willing to take.

I declined to get in the water, so the two guys asked me to come exercise with them.  In their own little version of Muscle Beach, they had a few pieces of weight-lifting equipment on a nearby ghat.  Of the few guys working out at the time, no one looked particularly muscular.  As for me, I wasn’t working-out in my everyday life, and I had no intention of working-out on vacation.

I bid them farewell and continued on.

Before long, I was approached by another guy.  His name was Sadentir.  He had learned to speak English from watching movies, and it showed.  As we walked and talked, he repeatedly made movie references.  One thing he hadn’t learned from movies that he wanted me to teach him was how Americans talked dirty to women.  Of course, there are movies for this as well, but I guess he didn’t have access to them.  As he explained his desire for this knowledge, he made it clear that he knew the risks.

“I don’t even mind if I get slapped,” he told me.

God bless the perverts of the world!

I told him that I could be of no help in this area.  While I could have maybe told him a few things he didn’t know, I am by no means any sort of expert for this type of information.  More importantly, I did not want to be responsible for contributing to the ignorance of the world any more than need be.

With that behind us, we walked on.  It was pretty obvious that I was a tourist, so Sadentir asked me if I had a camera.  I got it out and he hollered down to a bunch of people on a nearby ghat that I wanted to take their picture.  I didn’t really want to, but the point was moot once he yelled.

A short exchange took place between Sadentir and the people on the ghat.  I couldn’t follow, so he explained what was said.  Evidently, the people saw that my camera was sort of big and were concerned that I was a professional.  Nothing ticked them off more than for professionals to photograph them and make money off of them.  Sadentir assured them that I wasn’t a professional and they were more than happy for me to snap away.  I hadn’t thought about it before, but it made perfect sense.  In addition to farmers and other yokels who bathe in the Ganges, there are many professionals and people from all walks of life doing the same thing.  I can image, for example, how irritating it would be for an Indian dentist or lawyer to open up a copy of National Geographic and find a picture of himself standing at the Ganges in his underwear.

After I took my photograph, Sadentir asked me if I would be willing to come see his family’s cloth store.  I told him that I wouldn’t buy anything, but I would be willing to look.  He told me that he didn’t care if I bought anything, but I’m sure he thought he would be able to sell me something.

His store was quite a hike from the river – in the Muslim section of town.  I had not eaten breakfast yet, so on the way, Sadentir took me to a place he could vouch for.  I had some spicy curries and tea, and as I ate, Sadentir showed me his little book of positive comments.  It seems like every vendor in India carries one of these.  At his request, I read all the nice things that Jeremy from San Francisco, Jack from Perth, and Mary from Glasgow had to say about Sadentir.  When I finished reading, he asked if I wanted to write a few words.  Since I had known him all of 40 minutes, I passed.

I changed the subject and told him that I was living in Pakistan.  Many Indians have serious issues with Pakistan, and vice versa, so I figured there would be some sort of reaction.  And there was, although not the one I was initially expecting.  Being a Muslim, Sadentir was elated at this information.  His family had been split during Partition, so he had some uncles and other relatives in Pakistan who had not seen their Indian relatives in over 50 years.  He had a lot of questions about Pakistan, and I had a lot of answers.  For show-and-tell, I gave him some Pakistani rupees to look at.  There were a few other customers in the store, and they, as well as the owner, came over to see.

Soon it was time to move on, so I paid the bill which was a few rupees.  The place was also a bakery, and as I walked past the bakery case near the door, I decided that I should have some sweets to finish my breakfast.  I ended up eating at least one of each confection and probably had 15 pieces total.  This was because the owner and Sadentir kept telling me that I had to have this one and that.  Most of the treats were about the size of a donut hole and could be eaten in a bite or two.  Still, I was quite full by the end.  Everything was tasty, but eventually, it all started tasting the same.

We continued on.

As we walked, Sadentir decided to guess my age.  He guessed 23, which was 5 years too young.  When I told him my real age, he was concerned that I wasn’t yet married.  Then he told me to guess his age.  Sadentir’s face had been severely burned, and I had no clue how old he was.  He insisted I guess, but I refused.  It turned out that he was 25.  I was thinking 40, so I was glad I didn't hazard a guess.  Then he told me his woeful tale.  When he was 18, he had been engaged.  Before the wedding, he was severely injured in a motorcycle accident.  He nearly died.  To make a bad situation worse, his fiancĂ© broke their engagement.  Now he was disfigured and had very little hope of ever dating a woman, much less getting married.  Come to think of it, I don’t know who he thought he would be talking dirty to.

Once we got into the Muslim district, we came upon several groups of boys preparing for their Muharram processions.  They were proud to show me the elaborate floats they had made that would be carried through the streets by the men.  They asked me to photograph them with their floats, which I did.

It was a treat to see the Muharram events in India because we had been instructed to avoid them in Pakistan.

The boys were all very curious about me, and we chatted for a bit.  On the way out, I told them good-bye using the most common Hindi word for the situation.  All of the boys broke out laughing.  Then I realized that I should have used the Muslim farewell, like in Pakistan.  Doh!

We finally reached Sadentir’s shop after much walking.  Realizing that it was a long hike to get there, Sadentir told me that he would take me back to my guesthouse on his motorcycle after I had finished shopping.  After hearing about his fiery crash, I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to accept his offer, but I did.

We went inside the shop, and his younger brother was there.  They pumped me full of tea, and then it was all business.  At least for Sadentir it was all business.  His brother kept watching Sadentir putting the hard sell on me, and this would cause him to smile.  I think he could tell that Sadentir had his work cut out for him.

In the shop, the power kept going off.  Each time it did, Sadentir would curse and he and his brother would open the doors and uncover the windows.  Then when the power came back on, they’d close up everything and turn on the fan.

I reiterated what I had told him earlier about having no intention of buying.

“This is a game," he told me.  "Sometimes I win; sometimes I lose.  Please just look.”

As Sadentir was showing me things, he would ask if I liked a certain type of scarf or whatever.  I would say no and ask him not to unfold any.  Heck, I didn’t want him to have to refold everything in the whole store for no reason.  Each time I would tell him not to open everything, though, he would chide me.

“This is how we do business," he explained.  "Just have a look and you may see something in the stack.”

Then he proceded to unfold everything, and by the end of our session, the whole damned store was unfolded in a heap on the floor.

One thing Sadentir did that was very annoying was to withhold all of the prices until the end.  He told me just to set aside anything that remotely appealed to me.  Then once we had seen everything, we would discuss price.

As he displayed his wares, he felt the need to do the old burning test for me to show the difference between silk and synthetics.  I had seen this demonstration many times before and told him not to bother.  He did it anyway.  The general premise is that pure silk will burn much like a human hair.  The only residue will be some black ash that will disintegrate as you rub it between your fingers.  Synthetic thread, on the other hand, will burn into black ash that will not disintegrate as you rub it between your fingers.  Anyone who has ever burned a nylon rope knows how synthetic fibers melt and burn.

In any case, he burned a few silk strings and showed me.  Then it was time for the synthetics.  It took him several tries to light the synthetic fibers because he kept yanking his hand away from the match too soon.  He knew they would burn quickly and he was clearly a little nervous.  In the end, they burned very quickly and he burned his fingers.  His brother's smile returned, broader than before.

Once he had unfolded everything, I had several pieces set aside.  He may have assumed that I was going to buy a lot, but I mostly just wanted to know what everything cost.  This was his stupid game we were playing after all.

As he told me the prices, piece by piece I decided not to buy.  Everything was totally overpriced.

He tried to up the sales pitch again.

“Don’t you have sisters?" he asked.  "These are great gifts.”

“Christmas was two months ago," I answered, "and the next birthday I have to deal with is eight months from now.  No thanks.”

“Well, what about a souvenir from India?” he countered.

I told him that my idea of a souvenir cost a lot less than what he was asking.

Then he focused on Mom.  He was holding up a fancy sari with real gold brocade work – another Varanasi specialty – asking if my mother didn’t deserved such a beautiful outfit.  I agreed that she did deserve it, but unfortunately there was absolutely no occasion that Mom would have to wear something like that in Middle Tennessee.  I could just see Mom walking into Food Lion dressed like the Indian elite.

He tried a few more angles on Mom, moved on to the girlfriend argument, and finally accepted defeat.

I took pity and bought a 300-rupee scarf, but this was a far cry from the hundreds of dollars he intended to extract from my wallet.

He was trying everything.

“If you don’t have enough cash, we can take credit cards,” he told me at one point.  This wasn’t the issue.

Once this meager transaction was finished, Sadentir showed me to the door.  He was pissed, but he offered to hail a taxi for me.  His earlier offer to drive me back to the guesthouse on his motorcycle was obviously no longer on the table.  So much for all his philosophizing.  We had played the game, he had lost, and he had taken it personally.  What a poor loser.  It would seem that our friendship had indeed been contingent on a successful sale.

I turned down his offer to hail a taxi.  I had had enough of crooked taxi drivers, and I had no intention of paying to go back to the guesthouse anyhow.  Had I taken a taxi, it seemed to me somehow that Sadentir would have won.  This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense even to me as I write this, but it was about saving face on some level.  In any case, I knew that I had to walk back.

As with the previous night, I had to ask people for directions.  This time, though, I had a better way of asking.  Instead of asking where the ghat was, I just asked where the Ganges was.  In Hindi it’s called Ganga Mata (Mother Ganges), and this was easier for me to pronounce correctly.  Everyone was most helpful in pointing me back to the river.  Once at the river, I had to walk a little ways downstream, and then I was back at the guesthouse.

When I was nearly there, I came across the old shopkeeper guy who had warned me the day before against paying money to the beggars at the burning ghat.  He asked if I would look at his clothing shop.  I had about an hour before I had to leave for the airport, so I agreed to have a quick look.  He had his young son lead me back through a maze of streets to the shop.  Along the way, we passed a dead monkey laid at the base of a shrine of some sort.

At the shop, the man and his boys showed me a bunch of things that were similar to what I had already bought.  Not only was I not interested, but at the time, I also didn’t have many rupees left to spend.  I still had dollars, but I wanted to change those in Delhi since I was about to leave Varanasi and Delhi offered a better rate.

I left the shop empty-handed and went to check out of the guesthouse.

When I checked out, I opted to prepay for a ride back to the airport through the guesthouse.  This left me with only a few rupes left, so I went to the in-house restaurant and ordered the cheapest thing on the menu for lunch.  This happened to be an omelet.

Then I loaded up in the taxi and got back to the airport without any drama.

Back in Delhi, I again found a cheap taxi outside of the main taxi queue and was soon on my way back to the H.K Chaudary Guesthouse.

The people at the guesthouse did not save my room as they had said they would.  Everything was either occupied or reserved except their most expensive room.  It was still relatively cheap, but I didn’t want it.  The manager told me to check back in an hour, and if some of the reservations had not been claimed by that point, I could choose from among those rooms.  There were many other guesthouses and hotels in Connaught Place, so I told him to forget about it.

Then I walked on in search of a place to stay.

Before long, I came across a guy wearing one of those advertising boards.  He was advertising for a hotel called Hotel Blue.  I asked him how much their rooms cost, and he asked me how much I wanted to spend.  I told him what I was paying at the other place and he said they had something in that range.

As soon as I told him I was interested in seeing the room, he grabbed my bag and ran up the stairs.  The reservation desk was on the top floor, 6 or 7 flights up.  This was this guy’s idea of prompt bellboy service, but I didn’t appreciate him sprinting away with my stuff.

At the desk, the reservationist immediately started trying to interest me in a better room.

“For just 200 rupees more," he offered, "you can have a private bathroom!”

I told him no thanks.  He kept going on and on until I told him I would just leave if he didn’t really have a room as cheap as the guy downstairs had claimed.

At this, he showed me to a room.  I am sure that this was not a real room, but rather the room that the hotel staff was supposed to use if they wanted to catch a few winks.  The room was right behind the reservation desk.  The wall between the two did not go all the way to the ceiling, so you could be in either place and hear everything that was happening in the other.  There were several filing cabinets in there as well as a desk.  And there was a bed.

“Surely you don’t want this room,” the receptionist surmised.

I told him I’d take it.

I tossed my things inside and had a beer or two on the balcony.  It was quite chilly.  After that, I left the hotel, changed a few more dollars, had dinner, and poked around the shops on the Circle.  I checked the theater again, but since I had only been there one day before, the same movie was playing.  Then I called it a night.  The hot water in the shared bathroom worked OK, but my room was downright frigid.  The reservation desk was actually open to the outdoors, and since I only had a partial wall between me and the desk, my room was also open to the outdoors.  The wind blew into my room all night.  Luckily there was a blanket for me to use.

The next day, I got up and thawed out over a nice breakfast at the hotel.  I then decided to check out the Paloka underground market.  This place had numerous restaurants and shops selling the usuals – food, clothing, DVDs, housewares, and electronics.  I stopped in one shop and looked at a few shirts.  I decided that I didn’t want them, but the shopkeeper wouldn’t take no for an answer.  We had a discussion that got to be much longer than it needed to be before I finally just walked out.

And the rest of the time I was in the market, a flunkie from that store followed me around trying to sell me the shirts.  Each time I saw him he would drop the price a little more until it was ridiculously low.  Still, I didn’t want the shirts no matter how cheap they were.

One of the main businesses in Paloka seemed to be sex.  Everywhere I would turn, there would be a guy pulling some pornographic DVDs from behind the counter.  And this didn’t just happen at DVD stores.  You could be a kiosk selling wallets, and the guy would open a drawer all sly-like and pull out his secret stash of porn.  Worse than this, I ran into several Indian pimps who were keen on introducing me to their lovely ladies.  It was like I was in Bangkok or something.

I didn’t spend much time at Paloka.  I decided to go instead to the Dilli Haat market, which features vendors from the different states of India on a rotating basis.

This was a long walk from Paloka, so I hailed a taxi.  This guy gave me the same run around as the taxi drivers who didn’t want to take me to my guesthouse.  He claimed that Dilli Haat had closed due to a strike, but that he knew of another place that was even better.  Thank God!

No, really, I didn’t believe him, of course.  I told him that I still wanted to go to Dilli Haat.  He finally took me there, and everything was business as usual.  The strike must have wrapped up as I was enroute.

I looked around for a bit, but no one would bargain.  I didn’t like the prices that they had fixed, so I left.  It was nearly time for me to fly back to Pakistan anyway.

I went from Dilli Haat back to Hotel Blue and checked out.  I still had an hour or two before I had to be at the airport, so I decided to go to lunch.

When I travel, I rarely convert local currency back to dollars when I leave.  I usually spend most of it and then keep the leftovers.  On this trip, I still had a good supply of rupees left and not much time, so I decided to go for a money-wasting lunch.  The TGI Friday in Connaught Place provided the perfect venue.

The place was nearly deserted when I went in, so I had plenty of attention from the wait staff.  I think they really cared what I thought of the restaurant since I was American and this was an American restaurant.  It would be like if I opened an Indian restaurant in the U.S. and an Indian man came there to eat.  If he enjoyed my cooking, that would be a big deal.

Anyhow, since I was trying to waste money, I ordered a main course, an appetizer, and a large frozen margarita.

The appetizer came first, followed closely by the margarita.  The appetizer came and went, and then I devoted my full attention to the drink.

When you drink a frozen drink, there are many solids that pass over your tongue.  You expect little chunks of ice to be there, so you don’t really think about it.  At one point, though, I happened to take a big sip, and I held it in my mouth.  And everything did not dissolve.  As a matter of fact, there were many solid chunks in my mouth.  I put these on my napkin and looked at them.  They were white crystals, and at first I thought they might be chunks of salt or maybe sugar.  I tried to crush them, and they didn’t crush easily.  That’s because they weren’t salt or sugar; they were chunks of glass.  I had finished half of a fish bowl-sized margarita and it was full of ground glass.  How’s that for roughage in your diet?

I called the waiter over and showed him my napkin full of glass.

“Are you sure that is from the drink?” he asked me in disbelief.

“No," I thought to myself, "this is just some scam I’m running on you."

Putting my sarcasm aside, I told him it was definitely from the drink.

And to illustrate my point, I took another sip and produced several more pieces of glass while he watched.

The waiter was quite embarrassed and took my drink away.  A minute later, the manager came out and told me that he had fully investigated the problem and that the glass must have been in the ice, which they bought by the bag from a supplier.  They threw out the bag in question, and naturally offered to get me another drink.  I told him that I would like my replacement drink to be on-the-rocks, not frozen, but he told me that the frozen drink was already made and was on its way to me.  I told him it was OK in that case.

I let many mouthfuls of the replacement drink fully dissolve in my mouth, and I didn’t find any more glass, and by the time I finished my meal, I was feeling quite at ease from all the alcohol.

Then I hailed a cab and went to the airport.

On the way, the cabbie stopped to pick up another passenger.  It was a woman who worked at one of the airport hotels.  Just before we reached the ariport, she asked me how much I was paying for my ride.  When I told her, she went ballistic.  Evidently, I was being grossly overcharged, and she kept reading the driver the riot act.  She turned back to me and told me not to pay more than a quarter of the quoted fare.  I truly appreciated her concern and her intervention, but I told her that she was unfortunately too late.  The driver and I had already agreed on a fare, and I wasn’t going to change it after the fact.

I was not really sure how seriously I was being ripped off because this woman was basing her outrage on what an Indian would pay to take the same ride.  That doesn’t always work, because no matter how hard a foreigner bargains, he will pretty much never get the true local price.  At least, I don’t think so.  So, the challenge is to minimize the gouging, not to eradicate it.

This woman ended up giving me her card so that next time I was in India, I could call her and she could help me avoid making so many rookie mistakes.  It was nice of her to take such a strong personal interest in my well-being.  Then again, maybe she was just flirting with me.

After that, the cabbie dropped me off at the airport, and I flew back to Islamabad through Lahore.  India is great, but it was good to be back home in Pakistan.  While the two countries continue to run neck and neck with each other on things like nuclear technology, there is one area where they just don’t compare.  Pakistan is at least 20 years behind in the area of scamming.  Allah be praised!

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Pakistan: Basant 2: Flying High in Lahore

The first weekend in February, I got the opportunity to attend Basant in Lahore for a second time.  Basant is an annual kite-flying spring festival, and it's a big deal in Pakistan.  Its roots are Hindu, I believe, and it is also celebrated in India each spring.

Basant is understandably popular, and a lot of people from the Embassy try to attend.  Unfortunately, in the name of safety, Embassy rules limit the number of official Americans who can attend such events.  I requested permission early on, made arrangements to stay with a friend, and was eventually approved.  At the last minute, however, my friend in Lahore had a change of plans and was unable to host me.  I checked with the few hotels in the city that we were allowed to use, and the news was not good.  Of the three, only one had space left, and its rates were ridiculous.  Cashing in on the influx of Basant tourists, the hotel was only offering rooms through a special package deal.  Basically they jacked up all the prices and implemented a two-night minimum stay.  It was all a little too special for my budget.

Just when I was about to throw in the towel and stay home, a colleague of mine, my good friend Lilly, invited me to join her and her husband Norm for the weekend.  They were going to Basant as guests of their Pakistani neighbors, and they would be staying with the neighbors’ relatives in Lahore.  Lilly first had to check with Norm and the neighbors to make sure that no one had any objections to my adding on and that there was enough room and so forth, but I was definitely interested.  In the end, I was warmly welcomed to the group.

The drive from Islamabad to Lahore can take four or five hours, depending on the weather, traffic, and how much time one spends on the faster M2 motorway versus the slower Grand Trunk Road.

Embassy rules required that driving outside of Islamabad be done during daylight hours which meant that for us to make it to Lahore by Friday night we would have had to leave work early.  We opted instead to go on Saturday morning.

Figuring the earlier, the better, Lilly set the departure time for 7:00.  The neighbor, Bobby, wasn’t on board with this.  Knowing that the main Basant activities didn’t start until Saturday night, he suggested a later departure.  I think we settled on 9:00 in the end, with Lilly thinking we were going too late and Bobby thinking we were still going too early.

Our entourage consisted of me, Lilly, Norm, the neighbors Bobby and Alya, their son Timmy, and Bobby’s sister Sarwat.  In Lahore, we would also be joined by Bobby and Alya’s daughter, Zara, and Sarwat’s daughter, Feroza.

When I met Bobby, Alya, Timmy, and Sarwat, I did my greetings in Urdu.  Beyond the greetings and other basic courtesy phrases, I didn’t know much else.  My greetings must have sounded OK, though, because for the rest of the weekend, everyone was under the impression that I was totally understanding what was being said in Urdu.  The family would be in an Urdu discussion, and then someone would look at me and say something like, “You understood what we were saying, didn’t you?”  And as much as I claimed ignorance, they could not be convinced.  They said I was only pretending not to speak good Urdu.  Many people in Pakistan speak English, Urdu, the language of their home province (Punjabi, Pashto, etc.), and maybe some other languages and dialects.  Convinced that I could comprehend both English and Urdu, the family would switch to Punjabi whenever they wanted to say something not meant for me to hear.  As I understand things, though, if I truly were fluent in Urdu, I still would have been able to make out the Punjabi, as it is not terribly different.

Over the course of the weekend, I would get to know Bobby and his family better.  They were all totally cool, exceedingly nice, and full of entertaining stories.  Bobby was a retired colonel in the Pakistani Army who had served as a surgeon and a medical administrator.  He was nuts about hunting, and had a large collection of trophies in his home.  He was also an accomplished polo player and polo pony trainer.  Alya was equally interesting.  Like her husband, she was a doctor.

We took three vehicles – Bobby and Alya in one; Timmy and Sarwat in the next; and me, Lilly, and Norm in the last – and set out on the GT Road.  It was drizzling.

Like everyone does, Lilly and Norm had their peculiarities.  For both, the most obvious would have to be their constant and vigorous throat clearing.  As far as I know, neither smokes, so perhaps there was a medical explanation.

Growing up in Tennessee, a woman who lived across the street from our family had a medical condition in which her throat would also clog up, but to the point where she could not breathe.  At times like this, she had to have someone who was around violently whack her on the back until she could breathe again.  I remember my mom doing this for her on at least one occasion.  Eventually this woman died because she had one of these attacks when no one was around to help her.

Norm and Lilly were nowhere near this bad off, but I still had this story in the back of my mind as we cruised on down the road.

We had some good conversation, ate some good snacks, listened to Norm’s old-school tapes, and admired the scenery.  We passed through several small towns.  It continued to rain, and the back window of our SUV had no wiper and was totally covered in dirt thanks to the rear-tire spray.

About midway, we stopped for a bathroom break.  While we were waiting, Norm paid a man to clean the back window.  He wiped a filthy rag over it, and it was just as dirty when we left as when we arrived.

We reached Lahore in the four to five hours we expected.

The original plan had been for Bobby, Alya, and family to stay with one of their relatives, for Lilly and Norm to stay at the home of Alya’s aunt and uncle, and for me to stay at the home of a different family.  I don’t recall if my original hosts were friends or relatives of Bobby and Alya.

Once we got to Lahore, Bobby took us to my house first.  He initially missed the turn, and we all had to backtrack a few times.  We found the house after a few minutes, though.  It was near the polo grounds.  The man and the woman who lived at the house showed me the guest room where I would be staying.  Then we left to check out Norm and Lilly’s accommodations.

Before we left the neighborhood, Bobby took us over to the polo grounds.  There were no matches going, but we watched the men and horses training.  Bobby kept running into people he knew.

After we had watched the horses for a bit, Bobby showed us the club house.  We only stayed a moment because at the time it was in use for a private party.

From the polo grounds, we drove completely across town to Alya’s aunt and uncle’s house.  The uncle – retired Judge Khalid – and his wife – the lovely and talented Farida – could not have been nicer.  Farida took an immediate liking to me.  As it turned out, I reminded her exactly of her brother when he was my age.  She thought I looked like him, talked like him, and moved like him.  It was a little strange.

Farida showed Norm and Lilly to their room.  When Alya told her that I would be staying with other people, Farida suggested that I stay in her other spare room so that our group wouldn’t be so spread out.  I was happy to accept her offer.

We all chatted in the living room for a while, and then Bobby and the others went to the house where they would be staying.  It was decided that we would all rest for an hour or two, and then meet up again and hit the town.  It had been years since I had nap time  and I just wasn’t feeling it.  I dutifully went to my room and sent text messages on my cell phone the whole time.  I had a few live ones on the line and ended up with a few good laughs.

Eventually, the time for napping was over.  We all met up and went for a late lunch.  Timmy wanted to ditch our group and hang out with his friends, but his parents weren’t having any of that.  It was family-fun time.

Bobby asked what kind of food we liked, and we were all game for anything.  He took us for Pakistani barbeque, and we had the restaurant to ourselves.  He ordered several dishes, and we ended up with a real mountain of food.

Bobby and Alya generously and continuously offered Lilly, Norm, and me more food.  I, in particular, really stepped up my game.  I was eating everything pushed in my direction.  Yes, I was in the zone.  In the end, there was nothing left on the table but a pile of bones.  Nothing shows meal appreciation like a stack of clean plates.

Our hosts ended up eating sensible portions and they walked out no worse for the wear.  Lilly, Norm, and I walked out on the verge of popping.   We were moving slowly so as to avoid any sudden jarring movements to the stomach.

That evening, we were taking two cars into town.  Bobby was driving one, and Timmy the other.  That left five of us to be passengers.  Like picking teams for kickball, Timmy selected me for his car, and the rest piled in with Bobby.  This wasn’t any big surprise since I was the only one remotely near Timmy’s age.

Our first stop was to a private college to pick up Feroza and Zara.  Whereas in the U.S. a student goes from middle school to high school to college, students in Pakistan go from middle school to college and then to university.  It’s just a different way of naming things.  In any case, Feroza and Zara were high-school age.

As we were in route to the college, Timmy and I were talking.  He told me all about his hunting experiences, and we talked about traveling.  We talked about Pakistani sports a bit.  Timmy enjoyed cricket as much as the next guy, but his favorite sport to play was tennis.  We talked a bit of politics.  Then we started talking about what we did for fun.  I mentioned that I was learning guitar, and it happened that Timmy was as well.  This topic led us to the larger topic of music, and we started discussing bands.  While I was in Pakistan, I had bought a ton of Pakistani and Indian CDs.  I knew which bands were good and which were garbage.  I knew who was going solo, who was breaking up, and who ought to be breaking up.  I knew about the personal scandals of the musicians.  In short, I could discuss the subject comfortably.

Both Timmy and I liked the same music, and, being better connected than I was to the music scene in Islamabad, he offered to give me a heads-up and to get me tickets when groups came to perform.

After we were making these plans to go to concerts and to get together for guitar playing and so forth, Timmy had a question.

“So, how old are you?” he asked.

“28," I answered.  "You?”

“I’m almost 18," he replied.

And then I felt ancient.

I knew he was younger than me, but I guess I was thinking he was early twenties.  I suppose there is nothing wrong with hanging out with someone more than ten years younger than you.  In reality, though, it seemed awkward.  That said, I have many friends who are much more than ten years my senior, so I think the strange part about the current situation for me was more Timmy’s youth than our age difference.

In any case, Timmy seemed unfazed at my advanced years, and we continued talking.

At the college, we picked up Zara and Feroza.  They were both very attractive young women (emphasis on young).  I’m pretty sure that Timmy was older than them, which would have made them 16 or 17 at the most.  Throughout the weekend and beyond, though, Lilly would ask me things like “Isn’t she beautiful?” and “Wouldn’t you like to see more of her?” about both Zara and Feroza.  She would wag her eyebrows for emphasis.  Without a doubt, Lilly was feeling the need to play match-maker.  I told her that while they were both very pretty, I was entirely too old.  A 28-year-old with a 16-year-old?  Perhaps that would fly in Pakistan, but definitely not in the U.S.  I’m sure Lilly would agree on this point, but, at the time, I think she was either not thinking it all the way through or else she was totally misreading my age.  In any case, there was nothing to suggest that either girl had any interest in me anyway.

Zara and Feroza got in the car with Timmy and me, and as we left the campus, the conversation immediately switched from English.  They switched back to English before long, though, and Timmy started telling them how I knew all about Pakistani music.  The girls responded with a “that’s cool” in a tone that showed they couldn’t care less.  Then the two of them switched back to Urdu and discussed girls they didn’t like and jewelry and boys and whatever else teenage girls talk about.

All the while, we were navigating through a mess of traffic.  Our two-car caravan kept getting separated, but never by very much.  Even so, there was a constant volley of cell phone calls between the two cars as people kept checking-in.

Eventually, there came a point when the older crowd didn’t like the responses they were getting from the younger crowd.  Bobby told Timmy to pull over to the side of the road.

We pulled over, and Sarwat got out of Bobby’s car and told me to trade places with her.  It was decided that they needed someone “responsible” in Timmy’s car.  The obvious conclusion I drew from that was that I was not considered to be responsible.  Indeed…

In the older car, things were still fun.  People in Lahore like to party anyway, but as it was Basant, the road was pure energy.

Our next stop was to a kite-flying event that was being held at some government sports complex, I think.  We parked and Bobby gave us tickets.  Inside, it was a family-friendly carnival.  There were kite vendors, refreshment stands, and a few booths selling crafts and so forth.  There was a stage set up for a concert later that night.  There was even a Barney (the purple dinosaur) walking around, but most of the attendees were concentrated in the open field where the kite-flying was taking place.

We looked at the exhibits and booths, and then turned to kiting.  Bobby and Timmy launched a kite with very little effort, and then Bobby explained some of the finer points of kiting to me.  Then he turned me loose with the kite, and I entered the fray up in the sky.  During Basant, the sky is totally choked with kites, and everyone has a blast dog-fighting with the other kites.  In dog-fighting, you cross your kite over the path of another one.  Once you feel tension on the line, you let out string as fast as you can in an attempt to cut the other kite’s string.  Of course, the person on the end of the kite you are attacking does the same thing.  Eventually, your string goes limp and you lose, or you get the satisfaction of watching the other kite drift away untethered.  Many people use wire or plastic string or string with bits of glass embedded in it to help in dog-fighting.

People like Bobby and Timmy (and most other Pakistanis) who grow up working with kites, have an impressive array of moves at their disposal.  With very little hand movement, they could make their kites turn and straighten and dive and climb.  They could also cause their kites to go into spins.  This is the move for winning dog-fights, since a spinning kite pulls out sting much faster than a kite in a straight ascension, thereby causing more friction and increasing the odds of breaking the opponent’s string.

While they were in total disciplined control of their kites, I was a total amateur.  I was making all sorts of grand movements, arms flailing everywhere, and my kite wasn’t paying me the least bit of attention.

Bobby was concerned about my “skills”, and whenever I would get into a dog-fight, he would rush over to help.  He would take the string from me, destroy the other kite, and hand me back the string.  I would have preferred to dog-fight on my own, but I didn’t mind Bobby’s help.  It was hilarious because he absolutely could not restraint himself.  After a bit, though, he did stop helping.  I cut down three or four kites on my own, and then I was vanquished.

My defeat provided a good stopping point, and we left the carnival for a concert that was being held in the Old City.  Everyone else in Lahore had the same idea, and the streets in the Old City – which were small to begin with – were totally packed.  We got turned around again, but before long, we found our way, parked, and walked up to the entrance.  The event was being held in an old fortress.

This was a ticketed event, and at the gate, Zara explained to Norm, Lilly, and me that we only had two tickets for our party of nine.  No problemo.  The plan was for us to pack together in line and hold on to each other.  Then Bobby would hand the ticket-taker the two tickets.  The ticket-taker would then open the gate for two people to enter, and we would all force our way inside.  This plan was pure genius in its simplicity.

And it actually worked.

Inside the party, I ran into most of the other people from the Embassy in Islamabad who were at Basant as well as a few people from the Lahore Consulate.

This party was one of the main Basant events.  It was sponsored by Coca-Cola, and featured a lot of Pakistani musical talent.  It was televised.

The stage was at one end, and there were a lot chairs set up in the large, sunken, central courtyard.  Several tents were set up to shield the chairs.

By the time we arrived, all the chairs were full.  At first we watched from an aisle.  Eventually the aisles were cleared, though, and we watched from the courtyard steps.

It had been raining off and on the whole day, and when we arrived, it started raining again.  It wasn’t unbearable, though.  The rain even provided some entertainment of its own.  It would collect in the tents over the chairs and form large puddles.  These puddles would cause the tents to sag and drip.  The best, though, was when the wind would blow.  Suddenly, the tents would catch the breezes and this would set the puddles in motion.  Eventually, the roaming puddles would either flow off the edge of the tent or through a seam or a hole.  And nine times out of ten, there was someone sitting there, unaware of the impending soaking.  Sitting on the steps in the back, we could see the whole drama unfolding time after time.  It was swell.

We had arrived as the show was starting, which was not the best time to arrive.  Before the music kicked off, there were long-winded welcomes and a play showing the roots of Basant.  The play traced Basant from ancient pagan times through Roman times and so forth.  Between the acts of the play, there were other bits of performance art sprinkled in.  Once, for example, people dressed like butterflies danced in a circle.  We were so enthralled with the opening ceremonies that our group decided to leave.  We walked around the fort and went up on the roof.

It was pretty late by now, and everyone was hungry.  There was a buffet dinner at this event, but by the time we decided to eat, every last morsel had been eaten.  Just as we were about to leave for good, the music finally started.

We caught Abrar-ul-Haq’s act.  Abrar is one of my favorites, and he's extremely popular in Pakistan.  Hailing from Lahore, he is as famous for his charity as for his music.  With his earnings, he has set up hospitals and clinics that serve the poor free of charge.  In addition to health care, he also devotes his time and money to things like educational programs and other quality of life programs for the poor.  And he sings a mean song.

We watched Abrar’s full set, and it was well done.  The crowd was going crazy.  All throughout the courtyard, people were hopping around and belting out the lyrics.

After Abrar, we left the party and went to dinner.

We ended up going to Lahore’s famous Food Street, which, as the name would suggest, is crammed full of restaurants.

One of Lahore’s specialty dishes is called taka-tak.  It is a dish of organ meats that are sautĂ©ed on a large flat skillet, which is generally several feet across.  In preparing the dish, the chef feverishly chops the meats (along with tomatoes, onions, and spices) with a large knife in each hand as the mixture cooks on the skillet.  The resulting sound of the knives on the skillet is what led to the name of the dish.  Nifty, eh?

Anyhow, this was something I wanted to eat going into this weekend.

On Food Street, most of the restaurants have the same types of food.  However, if a restaurant does not make a certain dish, but another one does, the first restaurant will take the order and go to the other restaurant and get the dish for you.  It’s a handy one-stop-shopping system.

We got a table outside at one of the restaurants, and Bobby ordered for us.  We got a variety of things including my taka-tak, some fried fish for which Lahore is also famous, and several other meat dishes.  We also got some Pepsis, a lot of chapattis (flat bread), and a few vegetable dishes.  Once again, it was way more food than a group our size needed - not that this meal had anything to do with need, though.

As I mentioned earlier, taka-tak is a dish of organ meats.  The available organs were listed in the menu, and since it turned out that I was the only one with any interest in eating the dish, I got to choose.  My options were kidney, liver, heart, tongue, brain, testicle, and probably some other gross stuff I can’t recall.  I have no idea what animal or animals were the source.

Bobby mentioned that brain was delicious, but was very high in cholesterol.  I was like, “If only it weren’t so high in cholesterol, I’d be all over it.”  Lilly, Norm, and I all got a good laugh over that one.

I ended up playing it safe with kidney and liver.

While we waited for our food, the others passed around hand sanitizer.  Bobby and I opted not to use it.

As she was cleaning up, Sarwat looked at me and said, “You know, you could write a book about all this.”  She had no idea that I intended to do just that.

Lilly told her that she was sure I would be writing about this trip.

Before long, our food was ready.  Shortly after the meal was laid out, the rain increased from a drizzle to a downpour.  We moved inside to eat.

As at lunch, we totally gorged.  A few people took small portions of the taka-tak, but for the most part, no one was eating it.  Seeing as how it had been my choice, I decided that I would finish eating it if it killed me.  It wasn’t bad, but by the time I finished the last few scoops in the pan, I was dreading each bite.

We managed to clean all the plates again.

Now it was late, but Bobby had one more treat for us.  He took us to a famous dessert spot.

As we drove to the dessert place, it was already past 3:00 in the morning, and Lilly, Norm, and I were drifting in and out of sleep in the back seat.  Maybe I could have used that afternoon nap after all.

At the dessert place, we parked along the side of the road, and Bobby walked up to the counter to order for us.

Soon thereafter, a waiter brought a boatload of desserts to the car.  Bobby had ordered us a sampler.  There was kheer (a milk and rice pudding), faluda (Moghul ice cream served with vermicelli), and rubbri (a milky drink with ice and vermicelli).  Bobby bought more than one of some of the dishes, so the three of us had more than two full desserts each.  And Bobby intended for us to order more.  When the food arrived, he told us to try everything and then decide what we would like for seconds.

We were all getting full, and it came to pass that I was given the lone rubbri to drink.  As I was working on the rubbri, Alya was explaining how one of the desserts was made.  In her description, she mentioned that it was made in the same manner as barfi.  Barfi is a confection made from milk solids, and I quite enjoy it.

Anyhow, as Norm listened to Alya, something occurred to him: “Rubbri?  Barfi?  You sure do have some awful-sounding names for desserts.”

And then we exploded in laughter.  It was like 3:30 by now, and we were dying.  We were all deliriously tired, but it looked like we were drunk.  It was one of those situations where the sound of the others laughing only made each of us laugh that much harder.  It was ridiculous   Literally for like ten minutes, we were doubled over laughing.  Even today, if I mention this to Lilly, we both start cracking up.

When we started laughing, Bobby was away from the car.  When he saw us laughing, he came over to see what was up.  With a big smile on his face, he poked his head in the window and asked, “What’s so funny?”

The three of us were in no condition to explain the insanity, so Alya, who evidently didn’t see the humor in the situation, replied to Bobby.  “They think the names of some of our desserts are funny in English.”

She and Bobby kind of shrugged, and the three of us continued howling.  Finally, we regained our composure, wiped the tears from our eyes, and finished eating.  I barely finished my rubbri with enough time to ditch my glass on the curb before we zipped out of the parking lot.

At around 4:00, they dropped us off at Khalid and Farida’s place.  They were obviously already asleep, so we retired to our rooms and went to sleep.

A few hours later, we all were up and at ‘em.

For breakfast, Farida had prepared a nice spread for us.  She had a casserole or two, some breads, fresh squeezed juice, eggs, and some vegetable dishes.  She was a wonderful cook, and we chowed down.  Meanwhile, she and Khalid didn’t eat much of anything.  I think they both just had tea and maybe a piece of bread.  Farida had prepared many Punjabi specialties, and it was an awesome meal.  Norm, Lilly, and I were sucking everything down, and after some time, we had cleaned the table.  We were thinking that it had all worked out nicely since we were stuffed and there was no more food to eat.  We were wrong, though.

Once the table was picked clean, Farida brought out more food.  It was tasty, but we were really feeling the burn as we put our heads back in the trough so to speak.  Lest you think all of this eating was unnecessary, I’m sure many people would agree that a cook derives great pleasure when her guests are enjoying her cooking.  After all, it was not as though we looked miserable as we ate.  Rather, we enjoyed ourselves and gave Farida many well-deserved compliments.

Lilly actually started encouraging Farida to record her recipes as a cookbook.  I don’t know if that idea ever got any traction, though.

On the subject of cooking, Farida at one point mentioned that a tasty dish was brain masala.  Then, just like Bobby, both she and Khalid mentioned how it was unfortunately so high in cholesterol.

Norm, Lilly, and I all agreed that the high cholesterol was a real pity.

Regarding the eating of brain, though, Lilly was able to pull out a been-there-done-that.  I believe she said that her Chinese mother used to feed her brains so that she would be smart when she grew up.

Anyhow, after breakfast was over, we waddled over to the living room where we chatted over tea.  Khalid was watching (and only watching) the news on TV.  He had considerable hearing loss, and did not turn the sound on since he couldn’t hear it anyway.

Norm – who worked at the Embassy as the refugee affairs officer – struck up a conversation with Khalid on this subject.  Not too surprising, Khalid felt as though the Afghan refugees in Pakistan were bad news.  He felt that they brought a lot of crime and generally ruined society.

Lilly struck up a conversation with Farida, who was talented in a variety of things.  She was a great cook (the best in her large family, she told us).  She was an artist.  She was an interior designer, and her house looked ready for a magazine photo shoot.  She also made wedding boxes.  She showed us an article from the newspaper where she had been featured with her boxes.  I think she also designed clothing.  And there's probably more that I'm forgetting.

I was centrally located, and I switched between the two conversations at my pleasure.

I started losing interest in Lilly’s conversation when she and Farida pulled out the photo albums.  I did end up dutifully looking at them, though.

As we were all talking, Farida continued to mention how similar I was to her brother.  One of the dishes I had really liked at breakfast was even her brother’s favorite.  He lived in Silicon Valley, and Farida would always send the dish to him whenever she or anyone else went to the States.

She told me that she would really like to see me dressed locally.  As Lilly pointed out, this was somewhat ironic since I did wear the local shalwar kameez fairly frequently, but had not brought one on this trip.

What with all the photo albums out and all the talk of my look-alike, Lilly started pressing Farida to see a photo of her brother.

Farida didn’t really seem interested in looking for his photo, and I kind of played on this to encourage her not to.  I figured that I probably reminded her of him, but that I really didn’t look that much like him.  I felt that having an actual photo might let the wind out of Farida’s sails, and that it was of no value.

Lilly persisted, and eventually Farida found a photograph of her brother.  Unfortunately, we could not tell if he looked like me or not since she didn’t have a photo of him at my age.  The photo she did have was taken at around 45, nearly 20 years older than I was at the time.  We could only pretend to see the similarities with such a large age gap.

After we had looked at the photographs, Farida slipped upstairs.  She came back in a few minutes bearing gifts.  The day before, while we were out having fun, she had gone shopping.  For Lilly, she got a yellow scarf.  Mustard yellow is the color of Basant.  When we had met Farida and Khalid the day before, Lilly mentioned in passing that she was disappointed because she had been unable to find a nice yellow scarf for Basant in Islamabad.  They remedied this problem for her.

Farida got Norm some fancy festival sandals.  They were heavily embroidered with silver thread.

Farida gave me some leather sandals and a Pakistani shirt called a kurta.  It was white with blue embroidery.  She asked me to model it, so I did.  She was pleased as punch.  Unfortunately, it was a cold, rainy day, so when I finished modeling, I changed back into my warm sweater.

When we thanked Khalid and Farida for the gifts and their hospitality in general, Khalid responded, “In our culture, we do not just welcome guests.  We must honor them.  A guest is a blessing on our home.”  What great people!

As we chatted that morning, we were also waiting for Bobby and Alya to stop by.  Based on the late night it had been, we weren’t surprised when they stopped by a few hours after we had finished breakfast.

We chatted a little more, and they mentioned that the people I was originally going to stay with had asked about me when I didn’t show up.  We had all forgotten to tell them that I would instead be staying with Khalid and Farida.  Alya told them that we had finished partying too late and didn’t want to bother them, so that was a nice save.

It was Sunday, and Lilly had arranged for us to attend a party thrown by Siemens Corporation.  Bobby and Alya were going to be doing something else, but they stopped by to bid us farewell.  They also offered to lead us to the party.

We thanked Farida and Khalid again, exchanged contact information, and said our good-byes.  There were several plans up in the air for some or all of us to return to Lahore for another visit or for Farida and Khalid to come down to visit us in Islamabad.  I never did see them again before I departed Pakistan, though.

Bobby and Alya led us to the Siemens party, and most of the action was up on the roof of the building.  Once again it was sprinkling.  There were beverage stands (including beer and whiskey – oh boy!), food stands (including ice cream – oh boy!), fancy couches for lounging, and a band in the corner.  There was also a kite station, and people were flying them everywhere.

At this party, I saw several people from Islamabad, including some friends of mine from the German Embassy.  Evidently Siemens is German.


Anyhow, I was all about flying kites again, so I went over to the kite station.  There were plenty of kites around, but there was no string in view.  I asked the man if there was any string, and a different man behind the counter told me there wasn’t any.

Without string, I wouldn’t be kiting, so I went back to chat with Norm, Lilly, and their friends.  As I was standing there with Lilly and company, the guy who had shooed me away without giving me string walked up.  It turned out that he was some big shot with Siemens and was the host of the party.  And it further turned out that Lilly and Norm, and, by extension, I, were guests of his wife.  She introduced us to her husband.  Afterward, he turned to me.  “Why didn’t you tell me you were a guest of mine?” he asked.


The answer was simple.  I didn’t know who he was, much less that I was his guest.

Anyhow, once we got that out of the way, he walked me back to the kite station and gave me a reel of string from under the table.  Rock on!  Looks like they weren’t totally out of string after all.

I got a kite and headed for the edge of the roof.  Like before, I was doing a terrible job at getting the kite airborne.  It didn’t take long, though, before numerous helpful people were coaching me.  First a young kid was helping me.  I crashed the kite several times, though, and he lost interest.  Then a few men came over to help.

Like the night before, they would basically get the kite in the air for me and then give me the string.

Unfortunately on this occasion I was definitely no ace.  No sooner would I get a kite up, it would get cut down.  I lost like five kites in a row without getting a single kill.

There were kite strings all across that roof, and it was nearly impossible to walk without getting some part of your body snagged on a string.  When I was flying one of my kites, a little boy ran by and hooked my string on his neck.  People get serious neck cuts that sometimes lead to death every year during Basant.  This is usually from the wire strings that some people use.  This year, thirteen people would die in a variety of ways while celebrating Basant.  Luckily the little kid caught on my line didn’t even get cut.

He did freak me out, though, and caused me to crash yet again.  My kite fell in the road and a kid grabbed it.  He kept pulling on it to get more string, but I held it tight and rubbed the string on the bricks until it snapped.

Eventually, I left the front of the roof and stood on the back side so that most of the other flyers were standing in front of me.  That way, I could get a little height before they attacked me.

I was still having a heap of trouble getting my kites in the air.  If you are not used to starting a kite while standing still and getting attacked, it can be tricky.  Since my launching technique was so bad, every time I would find myself jerking the kite around trying to get it up, some helpful person would come by and get it up for me.  Eventually, though, this help got old.  I began to feel like I was five years old.  It was like I was a little kid fishing with my dad.  He would put the worm on and take the fish off, and all I would do was hold the line in the water.

Determined to do the whole process from start to finish without help, I spent a lot of time looking silly.  I finally got a kite up and was doing well in the dog-fights.  In the end, I wound up purposely allowing myself to get schooled because lunch was being served downstairs and I had to go.

The string I had been using incorporated ground glass.  By the time I finished kite-flying, my fingers were sliced and diced.  I eventually wrapped my fingers in tape for protection, but by the time I did, it was already too late.  A string cut is about as painful as a paper cut, so I winced a few times.

Having had Farida’s huge breakfast, I was not the least bit hungry.  I still ended up eating, though, since everyone kept insisting that I try the delicious lunch.

My good friend Kaki likes to tell the story about an ambassador’s wife who remarked at her husband’s retirement luncheon that she had spent 30 years overeating for her country.  Amen to that, sister.

Before long, we had to leave in order to comply with the Embassy rule that prohibited road travel outside of Islamabad after dark.

Another couple was leaving the party at the same time we were, and they offered to lead us to the motorway.

They ended up losing us in traffic before we got there, but we found it on our own.

Once we got on the motorway, it started pouring buckets.  We also ended up getting a later start than we needed, and soon it was dark.  We cranked up the music and pushed on.

Norm was driving, but after a few hours, he got tired and I relieved him.  I had never driven a right-hand-drive stick shift before, so it took a few moments of getting used to.  I did fine, though.

After maybe an hour, Norm took back over.  We stopped for a bathroom break at a rest stop along the way and ended up picking up an Abrar-ul-Haq CD for the car.

Norm drove the rest of the way to Islamabad.  It continued to pour the whole night, and I was truly thankful to get home safely.

Basant was a real trip.  I came away with new friends, great memories, a few photos, and some neat souvenirs, namely my shirt and shoes from Farida and a kite.  I also got one more souvenir.  It was a gift that kept on giving from Food Street – a side order of Shigella and amoebas.  I spent a lot of quality time with my toilet for about ten days before I went to the clinic for treatment, but you know it was totally worth it.