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 saut√©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.

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