Sunday, April 17, 2005

Pakistan: Jingle Truck Mania

A bright sunny morning in April, I hopped in Goldie, the Little Honda Civic That Could, and headed west toward Taxila.  My destination was only a few miles outside of Islamabad.  I was going to visit some jingle truck workshops, and I was psyched.  I love these trucks.

In Pakistan, all manner of vehicles – from horse carts to tuk-tuks to buses – are lavishly decorated.  Of all the decorated vehicles, though, the greatest by far are the trucks.  The basic paint scheme is very loud.  On top of this, artistically painted scenes are added.  These scenes represent the dreams, aspirations, and hopes of the drivers.  They are sometimes scenes of glory, sometimes objects of pride.  Religious themes are also common.  Some popular themes are women, animals, pastoral mountain homes, famous people (actors, singers, sports stars, politicians, military figures), and the buraq (Mohammad’s flying horse with a woman’s head).  You also frequently see F-16s which were a big deal in Pakistan after the U.S. wouldn’t deliver the planes it had sold to Pakistan.  [They have since finally been delivered.]

Besides the main pieces of artwork, the trucks generally feature many smaller pieces that are often constructed from colored, often reflective, pieces of tape.  These smaller images include everything from geometrics (like stars and zig-zags) to animals to Jinnah (Pakistan’s founding father) to Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) aircraft to the Minar-i-Pakistan in Lahore to Mickey Mouse.  The portion of the truck over the cab usually has images of the Kaaba in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.  There are frequently Quranic verses painted around the trucks, as well as jokes, advertisements, and bits of poetry – sometimes profound, sometimes irreverent.  There are also usually the eyes of a woman painted on the back of the truck, and sometimes on the front.  These are meant to keep away the evil eye.

After the paint and sticker work is completed, any remaining spaces on the truck are filled with tiny mirrors and metal ornaments.  Black cloth streamers are hung for luck.  Coins, small bells, or bits of metal are hung from chains around the entire perimeter of the bottom of the truck.  It is because of the noise these dangles make that people call these vehicles jingle trucks.

Lights are also placed around the trucks, sometimes in elaborate displays, so that the trucks can strut their stuff day or night.

When it’s all said and done, nearly every available surface is decorated.  Even the underside of the hood is painted.  The wheels are outfitted with colorful, pointy Ben Hur-type hubcaps, and the mud flaps too are works of art.  Inside the cab, the upholstery is as amped up as the exterior.  This is further supplemented by tinsel liberally tossed about and plastic flowers glued all over the roof.  Toss in a kick-ass horn and a Pakistani dance hits CD, and you’re ready to hit the road!

The end result is fantastic.

I would have had Goldie jingled out if I had been planning to take her with me when I transferred.  I knew one American in Pakistan who did get his Jeep jingled.  It looked OK, but it didn’t really appeal to me.  It was a bit too conservative as far as jingle trucks go.

I think that Pakistan must have the most colorful trucks in the world, and they are a big source of pride for the Pakistanis.  I recall reading an article in the newspaper once in which Pakistani businessmen were explaining how they chose trucks to transport their products.  The most important factor in their decision-making was the look of the truck.  The condition of the vehicle, the performance of the engine, the wear on the tires…  All these things took a backseat to the paintjob.

In any case, that’s a bit of background information on jingle trucks.  Now back to the story…

The jingle truck workshops lined both sides of the road, and I parked on one side and started walking around.

I had my camera out so that everyone could see that I was a tourist.  Then I approached a group of guys applying stickers to a dump truck that was in the early stages of decoration.  I asked them if I could take some photographs, and they looked totally confused.  No one objected, though, so I started.

In about two seconds, the owner of the stall materialized.  He could not have been more happy to see me.  I immediately had a complimentary Pepsi in my hand as the owner walked me around the truck, explaining what was being done and proudly showing me his designs.  He pulled up a dingy chair, and we sat for a while watching the work progress and talking.  When I say talking, I mean that he was struggling in English and I was struggling in Urdu.  Twenty minutes and a few more Pepsis later, I moved on.

As I was walking along the row of workshops, I took some more photographs and was soon befriended by another man.  This guy could speak better English than the first, but it was still very difficult for him.  I found myself constantly rewording sentences to try and avoid vocabulary that he couldn’t understand.  I wasn’t always successful.

Aside from the first guy’s shop, every other shop on this side of the road was mechanical in nature, not artistic.  I met the lone clutch man, the electronics specialist, the brakes guy, and numerous other people who specialized in aspects of engine repair that were way beyond me.  Among other things, the electronics guy was responsible for wiring all the lights around the trucks and for the crazy musical horns.

As I was walking along with my self-appointed chaperone, he was good about informing me when someone wanted to have his photograph taken -- not that it wasn’t obvious who wanted to be photographed with all the posing and smiling.

As the guy was asking questions of me, I explained that I was working at the Embassy and that I was about to leave after a 2-year assignment.  He asked if I was observing the truck workshops for my work, and I told him no.  I stressed that I was only there as a tourist and that I was taking so many pictures because I liked the trucks so much.  He seemed to be able to grasp this concept.  We continued talking about my family and about everything I had seen during my time in Pakistan.

Before long we came to a nice workshop.  My guide suggested that I have a seat inside and enjoy a Pepsi.  Having gone a whole 10 minutes without a beverage, I was quick to accept the offer.

As soon as I sat down, at least 20 mechanics came into the shop and stood around me.  I greeted them, and they greeted me.  Then I watched as they fished around in their heads for the English they never used.

Before long, my host came back with the Pepsi.  As he stepped to the middle of the crowd to give me the drink, he briefly introduced me in Urdu.  I could mostly understand what he said, and it was something to this effect: “This is Mr. Chris.  He is making a report about us for the American Embassy.”

Everyone thought this was great.

I corrected him and told the guys that I was just there as a tourist, not as a reporter.

Everyone thought this was great.

The guys then made themselves comfortable.  Some sat on workbenches and presses and other pieces of equipment.  Others sat on the floor or leaned against the wall.  Then they started asking me things.  They asked all of the standard questions - How old are you?  Are you married?  Do you have a girlfriend?  What is your family like?  How do you like Pakistan?  How do you like the body shop?  Where all have you traveled in Pakistan?  What do you do at the Embassy? - and so forth.

This Q&A session was mostly in English, so there was a bit of translating within the group after each of my answers.

One of the guys was standing at the ready with a fresh Pepsi for when I finished the one at hand.

After a bit, I grew tired of talking about myself, so I asked them if they would show me how their machinery worked.  They were more than happy.  They trotted out several tools and cranked up some of the machines.  Everything was interesting enough, but the highlight was riding on the hydraulic lifter.

As they were proudly demonstrating their toys, I mentioned to them that one of my brothers was a mechanic in the U.S. and that he used all of the same tools and equipment they did.  They all thought this was just dandy.  One guy took me quite literally, though, and was amazed that my brother had XYZ model of a piece of equipment.  Obviously I hadn’t meant that my brother had the same exact brands and models as they did, so I corrected myself and told them that my brother worked in a shop with similar tools and machines.

It dawned on some of the guys that I had a car parked outside, and they offered to check Goldie over.  I didn’t feel like waiting around for that, and I felt like that would be taking too much advantage of their hospitality, so I thanked them and declined.  Besides, I already knew about several problems with Goldie, and I didn’t really want to hear about any more.  The most recent discovery was that the rear axle was bent and a replacement was not available in the country.  This was discovered when I was having a battery issue checked.  When the Pakistani mechanic explained the axle situation to me, his words were pretty ominous: “If I were you, I would not take this car on the road any more.”

Well, he wasn’t me, and I continued to drive.  And Goldie never did have a catastrophic failure.

By this point, it was time to move on, so I bid the guys farewell and continued walking.  My guide came after me.

"I have to go back to work," he told me.  "So what do you want to do?"

I didn’t need an escort, so I thanked him for his help and went on alone.

At the end of the row, there was a fancy auto body shop like in the States.  It had the large glassed-in garage area where the work was done and an attached building that served as the office and a small parts store.

The owner was hanging around outside.  We greeted each other, and then he invited me inside his store.

This guy had a bushy black beard and small spectacles, and his English was perfect.  He seemed like an intellectual, and my hunch turned out to be correct.  We had all the preliminary conversation, and then he started talking politics and current events.

After a while, the man steered the conversation in a different direction.  He was pleased to inform me that several years ago he had had a contract to supply some sort of auto parts (filters or something) to the Embassy.  As part of the contracting process, he had gotten to go inside the Embassy on several occasions.  This seemed like a total non-event to me, but this guy was very proud to have stepped inside the chancery.

He went on to tell me that when his contract had finished, the Embassy did not renew it.  He was puzzled at this and was looking to me for an explanation.  I told him that I didn’t know anything about contracting but it seemed to me that his former contract must have been rebid and awarded to another vendor.  I told him to call the contracting unit at the Embassy and they could probably provide a better answer.

Over the next 15 minutes or so, we watched a truck being repaired in the bay; I had some more Pepsis; I met the owner’s brother, and we compared trucking in the U.S. to trucking in Pakistan.  I steered this last discussion toward the scholarly topics of amenities found in American trucks and colorful phrases truckers used on CB radios.

Then we exchanged e-mail addresses and parted ways.

I hopped in my car and drove up the road until I found a place to do a U-turn across the median.  Then I came back to see the workshops on the opposite side of the road.

This side of the road was predominantly artistic, and it was here that most of the painters, detailers, and upholsterers were working.

After I parked and started walking around, I came upon a group of painters who were sitting down to eat.  I was walking by on the street and they were several meters away sitting on the floor in a concrete storage unit.  One of the guys came out to the street and invited me to join them.

Very rarely do I turn down an invitation for free food, and this time was no exception.

They had a traditional Pakistani spread.  It consisted of several small metal bowls, each filled with some variety of tender meat or stewed vegetables or daal.  There was a stack of chapattis which we used to scoop up the food until the bowls were empty.  There was also a bowl of chilies to kick things up a notch.  It was an excellent meal.  For drink, there was a metal cup of water that we all passed around.  I knew it was probably not bottled or boiled, but as I was already down with diarrhea I went ahead and drank.

These guys didn’t speak much English, so we didn’t talk much.

After the meal, we cleaned up the dishes and moved on to milk tea and cigarettes.  I hadn’t had a cigarette since my trip to Russia over six weeks earlier, but I figured there was no harm in having one with the guys.

They were smoking local cigarettes made from local tobacco which is famously harsh and potent.  This, coupled with the fact that I was out of practice, resulted in me feeling nauseous almost immediately.  Not willing to be bested by a cigarette, though, I continued smoking.  By strategically timing my drags and my sips of tea, I was able to keep my stomach settled.  My hosts were none the wiser.  They gave me another cigarette, and I put in behind my ear for later.

Then they all got up and went back to work painting trucks.  They were more than happy to be photographed.

I left them and walked around on my own.  Everyone was having a good time showing me his work and posing with the trucks.

Part of the workshops on this side of the road were double-decker.  As I was walking along, some of the guys on the second level called me up.  They were upholsterers, and inside their workshop, they were busy sewing colorful covers for the seats of these colorful trucks.

When I was nearly ready to go home, two guys parked their truck in the lot near where I was standing.

These guys were goofy, and we had a good time talking.  I ended up letting these guys use my camera.  It was digital, so they would review their photographs and laugh at what they had done.  And they had reason to laugh – all of their shots were totally crooked and the object of the photograph was generally halfway out of the picture.  They obviously didn’t have much practice at using cameras, but they were very careful with mine.

The reason they had stopped was to make sure their cargo was still secure.  After we finished goofing off, they tightened some ropes and straps on their load and fired up the engine.  Before they drove away, they caught my attention.  "Hop in!" they yelled.  "We will take you where you need to go!”

I think a ride in their truck would have been great fun, and I would have gone with them in a heartbeat.  On the other hand, though, I didn't want to leave my own car unattended in the parking lot.  I declined their generous offer, and the two guys drove off with a nice show of honking and light flashing.

Ten-four, good buddies.  Catch ya on the flip-flop!

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Pakistan: Hasan Abdal and Khanpur Dam

It was mid-April, and I put in a request through the security office to go to Hasan Abdal and Khanpur Dam, both of which lie maybe 45 minutes west of Islamabad in the direction of Peshawar on the Grand Trunk Road.  There was a big rally scheduled to take place in Islamabad on the day that I requested to go, and there was concern that all of the people coming into town from the outlying regions to take part in the protest would clog the GT Road (making it too dangerous for me to go).  In the end, though, I got a cautious approval, but an approval nonetheless.

That Saturday, I picked up my good friend Portia, and we set off in Goldie, The Little Honda Civic That Could.

Before we got underway, we stopped to pick up a CD for the trip.  It was after 10:30, but when we got to the music stores, they weren’t open yet.  Shopkeepers in Pakistan, like many other people there, are not generally interested in being the early bird.

We waited in the parking lot for a few minutes, and a store opened before long.

Then we quickly picked a CD and continued on our way.

As we drove down the GT Road, it was clear to me that the increased traffic caused by the protesters was nothing to be concerned about, and I was glad that my trip hadn’t been cancelled because of it.  For starters, all of the protesters were heading into the city, and I was heading out.  No problem there.  In addition, the protester traffic wasn’t very thick.  If I had been driving in it, I don’t think it would have been any big deal.

(That said, I realize that hindsight is 20/20 and that it is easy to second-guess the security office when it’s beneficial to oneself to do so.)

In no time, we reached Hasan Abdal.  It was a hole-in-the-wall town with no obvious signage, and we drove by it the first time.  We realized our mistake, though, and stopped for directions.

I started out asking for directions of a man by the side of the road.  I only lasted a few seconds in my baby Urdu before I turned things over to Portia.  Born in Peshawar, and partly raised in Pakistan, she was fluent.

At the point that we stopped for directions, we had been very close to the entrance to Hasan Abdal.

We thanked the man that we had asked directions of, did a U-ie, and exited off the GT Road and into the town.  As soon as we got off the GT Road, there was total gridlock.  The bus station was perched right at the entrance to the village, and there were buses and people everywhere.

We finally got through and into the streets of Hasan Abdal.  These were narrow, one-lane deals for the most part.

As we navigated through the streets, we ended up behind a horse cart.  It was barely moving, and traffic started to back up.  There was no good way to get around the cart, so we kept slowly following it and cars started to stack up behind us.  After about five seconds of patience, everyone behind us started laying on their horns.  I slowed up a little more.

Eventually, there came an opportunity to pass the horse cart, and I gladly took it.

Moments later, we were on the main drag of town, and I parked Goldie on the side of the road.

This was one of those grand entrances where everyone in the area stopped what he was doing to watch our arrival.  It’s fun to get your things together and lock the doors of the car while a crowd of people intently watch as if you are doing something fascinating.  Evidently they didn’t see many tourists in these parts.

Hasan Abdal is an important holy city.  The main attraction in town is probably Panja Sahib, the temple of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.  This temple makes Hasan Abdal one of the holiest places for Sikhs.  The complication with this is that most Sikhs are Indian and they have a very difficult time getting visas to come to Pakistan so they can visit Hasan Abdal.

In town, there are also a shrine to Baba Wali (a Sufi preacher), some other tombs and shrines, and the usual trappings of town life like markets and eateries and livestock wandering around.

Portia asked some of our onlookers where Panja Sahib was, and they happily pointed it out.  It was only a little ways up the street.

At the temple, there was a crowd of Pakistanis standing outside its large gates, which totally concealed everything inside.  The gates were slightly ajar, and the people outside were speaking with a man on the inside.

Portia and I wedged through the crowd to see what was happening.  When we reached the gate, Portia spoke with the man on the other side.

He explained to her that visitors were not allowed inside the temple area.

This was a pity, but rules are rules.  Portia and I started leaving.

Then the man inside the gate unexpectedly called us back.  He offered to make a special exception and show us around inside.  Again we passed through the crowd of people who would not be allowed inside the gates.  They seemed not to mind that we were getting preferential treatment simply because we were foreigners.

At the time, I wasn’t sure how special an exception we were.  I figured that they must let a lot of foreigners inside.  Really, though, I don’t know how many tourists make it inside and how many don’t.  I did learn later that a few of my colleagues had been denied entry on a separate trip, so maybe Portia and I had indeed gotten lucky.

Inside the gates, there was a large yellow and white temple in the center of a courtyard.  It was surrounded by a yellow and white stone fence and then by a moat.  There were several people walking around that looked like regular Pakistanis as well as several that were wearing the turban that Sikhs often wear.

Our guide gave us a brief tour.  He walked us down to the moat that surrounded the temple.  Before we descended the steps to the water, he asked us to remove our shoes.

The moat was a shallow pool that was nicely tiled and ran with clear water around the perimeter of the temple.  It was used for ritual bathing, and some of the Sikhs also seemed to simply be swimming.

As we stood outside the moat, our guide pointed across the water at an opening in the temple that contained some holy texts.

We walked a little further along the water’s edge, and we came to the place where the sparkling fresh water flowed from the wall and into the moat.  Near this spot, there was a boulder.  As the story goes, Baba Wali, the Sufi badass, rolled the boulder down the hill, right at Guru Nanak.  No one ever explained to us what this was all about, so I don’t know if the two were feuding or if Baba Wali was testing Guru Nanak or what.  In any case, Guru Nanak didn’t even bat an eye at the challenge.  As the huge rock barreled down on him, he simply extended his arm.  When the rock met his hand, it instantly stopped, and an impression of his hand was burned into the stone.  After this happened, Baba Wali probably did something dramatic like throw his turban on the ground in a fit of rage.  (If the Sikhs ever want to sex up the legend a bit, they should consider a nice Hollywood touch like having Guru Nanak punch the boulder at the last second and turn it into a pile of dust.)

The boulder that our host pointed out to us that day was presented as the very same boulder Guru Nanak had stopped in its tracks over 500 years earlier.  It even had an impression of a hand embedded in it, which was pretty cool.

This concluded our tour, and our guide led us back to the main gates.  As we walked the short distance out, we made a little small talk.  As we were talking, we learned that we had just missed the premier Sikh festival of the year by a few days.  This was too bad, but you can’t win 'em all.  At least we managed to get a tour of the temple.

Before we left, our host mentioned to Portia that there was a donation box in the temple (hint, hint).  We were happy to make a contribution, so we pulled out our wallets.  Before we even made a step toward the temple to put the money in the donation box, our host piped up in Urdu and explained to Portia that the box was unfortunately locked at the moment.  We both read this to mean that our host wanted to receive the money directly and that the box was possibly not even locked.  We gladly gave the money (which was the equivalent of a few U.S. dollars) to the man, and he gladly accepted it.

Before we left, the man asked if I would like to take some photos of the temple.  Up to that point, I had refrained from taking photographs since we weren’t even supposed to be inside the gates, and I didn’t want to push our luck by doing anything that might be considered offensive.

After he offered, I took one photograph of the temple, and our guide took one of Portia and me.  Then we left.

After this, we wandered around town.

In the market area, several young street children ran up and started harassing us.  Normally, I just ignore kids like this, and they lose interest in a minute or two and leave.  These kids didn’t leave fast enough for Portia, though, and she gave them a stern talking-to in Urdu.  Here’s a bit of child psychology for you folks at home:  Kids, especially street urchins, like to see adults lose their cool.  As soon as they could see that they were pushing Portia’s buttons, these kids started shadowing us and bothering us with a renewed passion.  I still think that if we had done it my way and ignored them, they would have gone much sooner.

In any case, they continued following us, and more rapscallions joined their ranks.  Periodically, Portia would lash out at them, and each time, they thoroughly enjoyed it.

After literally what must have been 10 or 15 minutes of us walking around with this troupe of scamps in tow, we stopped at a shop and the owner realized that we were being hounded.  I don’t know what he said to the kids, but it was very loud and very aggressive.  All the kids vanished.

I enjoy browsing markets for the people-watching oftentimes more than for the merchandise, and I thought this one was great.  Portia wasn’t so keen on it, though, so we didn’t stay long.

We left the market streets and came upon a few graves of Muslim saints.  These were in small temple-like buildings that were very colorfully decorated, both architecturally (tile work and paint job) and interior-design-wise (colorful cloth, streamers, and tinsel).  At the few of these we visited, there were men serving as caretakers and a handful of beggars lounging around.  We tipped them all a few rupees, and everyone was happy.

After we looked at these tombs, we worked our way back to the car.  En route, we had some cookies and drinks at a little shop.

Further along, I also spied a shop selling charpai.  These are local beds that consist of a colorful frame with ropes woven across where the mattress would normally be.  At this shop, they had nice charpai that were made with wooden frames and natural fiber ropes.  In many other places in Pakistan, charpai were now being made with metal frames and synthetic ropes.  While functional and probably more durable than the traditional ones, these new style charpai were no doubt ugly.  I wanted a pair of the traditional ones, so I talked with the charpai craftsman about his product.  He told me that he could not deliver to Islamabad, and I didn’t have access to a truck.  I decided to try to find similar ones closer to Islamabad.

(As it turned out, after an exhaustive search utilizing many of my local contacts, I never did find any charpai that I liked that were closer to Islamabad than Hasan Abdal.  I eventually came back to Hasan Abdal to the charpai shop, and after a bit of a hassle in making the deal (mostly due to the language barrier), I purchased the two beds I wanted.  Then I found a man with a truck and paid him as much as I had paid for the two beds and he delivered them to my house.  The beds were cheap to begin with, though, so I wasn’t out that much when the delivery charge was factored in.)

Getting back to the story, Portia and I headed back to where Goldie was parked.  We decided against going to Baba Wali’s shrine because it was an hour hike away and we had heard from others that it wasn’t much to see and wasn’t really worth the trouble.

We cruised out of town on the one-lane streets and thankfully didn’t encounter much oncoming traffic.

Back on the Grand Trunk Road, we headed back toward Islamabad.  Soon we came to the turn-off for the Wah Gardens.  These gardens are actually located on a military installation, and right after we exited the Motorway, we were faced with the military gate, manned with ID-checking, armed soldiers.  I don’t know how easy it would have been to get inside, but neither of us much cared about seeing the gardens and we consequently didn’t feel like going through any hassle for the privilege.  I reversed away from the gates, did a U-turn, and re-entered the highway.

Our final destination was Khanpur Dam.  Neither of us had been before, but a colleague had recommended it.

Khanpur Dam, and the lake it forms, lie 48 kilometers from Islamabad.  It is one of the main sources of water for Islamabad and Rawalpindi.  Khanpur is on the same road – only much farther down – as Taxila, which I visited a few times before.

As we drove out to Khanpur, we were really in the sticks.  There were very few people in view and almost no other cars.  After we had been driving for a bit, though, this suddenly changed.

A string of cars flew by us going the opposite direction, back toward Islamabad.  These weren’t just any cars, though.  They were all diplomatic vehicles, and ambassadors at that.  I could tell this much from the license plates, but Portia could do even better.  She could identify which country most of the cars were from, and she spouted these out as they passed us.  (Many people who hung around the diplomatic circles learned the series of diplomatic plate numbers.  I myself never did learn more than a handful, though.)

We didn’t observe the American ambassador leaving this gathering, but that’s not to say he wasn’t there.  Whatever was going on, though, it was really curious to see so many ambassadors out there in the boondocks.

After all the motorcades passed us, we came upon a large, interesting tree by the side of the road.  There were three young boys there, maybe 8, 10, and 12 years old.

We stopped the car and walked up to have a look at the tree, and the boys came to look at us.  They started talking to me, but unfortunately my basic Urdu only allowed me to understand a very small bit of what they were saying.

Portia stepped in and tried to talk with the boys, and they immediately clammed up.  Outside Islamabad, things are more conservative.  These boys were refusing to speak with a woman because it wasn’t considered proper.

I tried to convey to the boys that Portia was my translator, but they either couldn’t understand this or they just didn’t want to speak with her in any capacity.  Even when I tried to get them to resume speaking directly to me so that Portia could overhear and tell me what was happening, they clammed up.  They seemingly would not speak at all until there was no woman around, but that was no good considering my language shortcomings.  We hit an impasse, and the conversation ended before it started.  Oh, well.

I had my camera out, and the boys kept looking at it.  I asked if they would like a photograph.  The two older ones consented, and the youngest one bolted.  I took that to mean that he didn’t want to be in the photo.

After a few photos of the boys, me, Portia (not with the boys, of course), and the tree, Portia and I walked back to the car.  The two boys followed us all the way and then just stood silently outside my window.  They really didn’t seem to be after money, but I don’t know what they did want.  Maybe they were enjoying listening to the music coming from the car, maybe they were trying to muster the courage to request a ride, maybe they did want money, maybe they just liked being in my company, maybe it was curiosity…  who knows...  We didn’t stick around to solve the mystery.  We gave the boys some pretzels we had been snacking on in the car, bid them farewell, and continued down the road.  They took the pretzels and stood there dumbfounded as we drove away.

A few minutes later, we arrived at Khanpur Lake.

Along the stretch of shore that was near the road, several boatmen were waiting with their colorful vessels.  We parked and went down to see what they could offer us.

Portia bargained with the boatmen, and we ended up with what we thought was a good deal on a boat ride around the lake.  When we loaded up in the boat we had chosen, there came to be a scuffle between our boat driver and some of the others.  From what we could tell, the guy we had hired had jumped ahead in the queue, and others who had been waiting longer for customers had gotten passed over.  As we saw it, this was our driver’s problem and had nothing to do with us.  We stayed in his boat, and he soon joined us and pushed off from the shore.

The lake was nice, and the ride was fun.  It was a good ending to our daytrip.

After maybe half an hour, we returned to the shore, paid our driver, and started back toward Islamabad.  When we left, the other boatmen probably kicked our guy’s butt.

When I would later see my friend who had recommended that I go to Khanpur Lake, he would ask me why I hadn’t gone swimming while I was there.  Besides not being prepared to go swimming, the main reason we didn’t was that there were "no swimming" signs posted all around the lake.  During his visit, though, my friend had been at the lakeside home of one of his friends, and, of course, being on private property, he had much better access for swimming than we did in the public areas.

It had been a good enough treat for us just riding in the boat.

We left the lake the same way we came, and when we passed the interesting tree again, the boys were gone.

By the time we hit the GT Road back toward Islamabad, fortune smiled on us once again and the increased traffic caused by the protesters had totally dissipated.  That meant that we could go at the normal, brisk GT-Road speed all the way home.  This was a good thing.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Pakistan: Lahore - The Farewell Tour

The second weekend in April, I made my last of several trips to Lahore.  This time I was accompanied by my good friends Mollie, Kaki, and Tangie.  For the most part, the others had not yet been to Lahore, and if they had, they had only been there for work or in transit and hadn’t yet had the chance to sightsee.

We were taking Goldie, The Little Honda Civic That Could, so bright and early on Saturday morning, I made the rounds and picked everyone up.

It was a little cool, but not bad, so we hit the M2 Motorway with the windows down and the wind blowing through the car.  We listened to some good music and had some good conversation.

Knowing that there were service stations along the M2, I didn’t bother filling up the car, and we started the trip with half, or maybe it was a quarter, of a tank of gas.

When we arrived to the first service stop, I pulled over and we hit the bathroom area.  Then we loaded back up, and I drove over to the gas pumps to fill up.

When I got to the pumps, the attendant explained to me that he couldn’t give me any gas because the pumps were solar-powered and the sun wasn’t strong enough to pump the gas that day.  At least I think that is what he was telling me.

I explained to him that I needed gas whether the sun was strong enough or not.

“Why didn’t you fill up before you started your trip?” he asked me.


That was easy for him to say since in hindsight it would obviously have been the best option.  I didn’t much appreciate the question, though.  “Why didn’t I fill up in Islamabad?”  Well, why didn’t they have electric gas pumps or why didn’t the sun shine brighter?  Why, why, why?

I didn’t badger the guy, though.  I just replied that I hadn't anticipated the pumps being out of order.

At this, the pump attendant looked past my poor planning and concocted an idea.  He told me to follow him across the road to the gas station that was serving traffic going in the opposite direction.

He loaded up in a car with some of his co-workers, and they drove off.  I followed.

On the M2, there is a big concrete median that separates the two directions of traffic, and there are very few points at which to do a U-turn.  After a few moments, the car we were following stopped in the middle of the road, in a triangle of quiet asphalt created where an onramp met the motorway.  We pulled behind the car and waited.  The gas attendant came back to our car and told me to wait there.  He and his friends were going to go get a can of gas and bring it back for us.

We sat there on the motorway for several minutes and waited.  Eventually they returned with a plastic can full of gas.  As they were trying to get it in the tank, we all cringed as probably half of the gas drizzled down the side of the car.

We paid the guys double what they asked for the few liters of gas, and when we left, everyone was happy.  That was some first-rate service.

The funny thing is that Goldie got such good gas mileage, I could have probably driven the rest of the way to Lahore (and definitely the rest of the way to the next service station) on the little bit of gas we had when we arrived at the out-of-order station.  I didn’t want to risk it, though.  I’m sure my companions would not have been happy if I had gotten us stranded in the middle of nowhere.

With the little bit of extra gas, the needle on the gas guage moved off the “E” and we were back on track.

Soon we came to the Salt Range – Pakistan’s chain of mountains that contains the world’s largest salt deposits.  At the start of the Salt Range, I pulled over and had my picture taken at the sign with a turtle on it warning motorists to slow down.  I had wanted that photograph for a long time, but I always seemed to pass it before I realized it.

Photograph taken, we drove up the Salt Range and down the other side.  The view was excellent.

As we were heading down the mountains, I got pulled over by a cop.

When he came over to the car, we exchanged some pleasantries.  Everything was going well.  Then he laid out the charge.  He said that I had been going 120 kilometers per hour in a 50 kph zone.  The equivalent in miles per hour would be going 75 in a 31 mph zone.

I don’t deny that I had totally blown off the 50 kph zone, but there was no way was I going 120 either.  I doubt this cop had a radar, and we all got the impression that he was really just after some lunch money.

When we first started talking, the policeman asked me if we were from Libya.  I told him no.  Then he continued, “And your license plate isn’t such-and-such?” as he read off a Libyan plate number.  Again I told him no.

It was at this point that we realized that this guy already had a ticket written out.  He had written it for some Libyans and was looking for some other suckers to push it off on.

At this realization, we weren’t going to accept the ticket without a hassle.

U.S. State Department policy prohibits American diplomatic personnel from using diplomatic immunity to get out of traffic violations, but you can still use all of the tools at your disposal that are available to everyone else.  For example, a woman diplomat could still try to cry her way out of a ticket if she wanted.

In our case, Kaki (and the others to a lesser extent) started arguing.  They challenged the bogus speed that the policeman had clocked us at.  In reality, though, they were mostly just background noise.

The cop was standing in my window, in my face, asking me questions, and he wasn’t paying any attention to the others.  I was the driver after all.

I didn’t argue or challenge or bargain.  I used my go-to tactic – I acted totally confused.  The cop’s English was perfectly understandable, and the charge was perfectly straightforward, but I just couldn’t wrap my brain around it.  I had the cop go over everything several times, and eventually he got tired.  He told us to just go, and we gladly obeyed.

Not long after, we finished up with the 50 kph zone.

About five hours after we left Islamabad, we arrived in Lahore.  It was moving along with all of its usual energy.

We had reservations at the Pearl Continental Hotel – one of three places we were allowed to stay in Lahore – and I found the place on my first try.  After getting slightly lost a few times in the past, I finally had the route down.

While we were checking-in, the desk clerk asked for our passports.  It was then that I realized that I had forgotten mine.  I was also without my diplomatic ID card since I had lost mine in Russia, and it hadn’t yet been replaced.

We were getting a special government rate at the hotel, and with nothing to prove my identity, it totally looked like I was pulling a scam.  It looked like I was trying to sneak-in on the special rate with my diplomat friends.

The guy at the desk didn’t bat an eye, though.  He said he could process me without any ID and he continued.

In a moment, it was time to pay.  It was then that I realized that I had forgotten to get rupees.  I also had no credit cards since they had also been stolen in Russia a few weeks earlier.  I did have some U.S. dollars, but the hotel was offering such a typically crappy exchange rate, I didn’t want to change my dollars there.

Mollie ended up putting my room on her credit card, and I reimbursed her later.

No rupes and no IDs…  I was not off to a very good start.

Once we got checked in, we tossed our bags in our rooms.  Then we hired a car and driver from the hotel and went out on the town.  [We had to hire a car because the embassy rules at the time prohibited people from Islamabad from driving in Lahore.  They could only drive to Lahore.  People who were stationed in Lahore, however, were allowed to drive within the city.]

We started by going out for lunch.  We went to a popular restaurant and had a nice meal.  All the while, there was a lot of “You guys think I should eat this?” being tossed around the table.  We had all been in Pakistan for a while, and we were all aware of how even the nicest meal at the nicest restaurant could come back to haunt you later.

While we were at lunch, I got a call from our good friend Matt.  He was stationed in Lahore, and he had helped organize a trip for us to see the border closing ceremony at the Pakistan/India border.  He called to tell us that we needed to meet the embassy car that would be taking us to the border at 4:00 at the hotel.  [Once again, embassy rules required that travel to the border be in official embassy vehicles.  We would be billed later for the travel.]

After lunch, we had a few hours before the border ceremony, so we went to the Lahore Museum.  This was Kaki’s pick.

The Lahore Museum’s first curator was Rudyard Kipling’s father, and Rudyard himself obviously spent some time there.  Many of the exhibits looked like they hadn’t been updated since the Kiplings were there in the 1880’s.  For example, many of the display labels were crusty, yellowed, curling strips of paper with handwritten or typewritten descriptions.  There were a lot of interesting things, though, and it was worth a stop.  We didn’t have much time, so we did the museum in fast forward.

Outside the museum was Kim’s Gun – the cannon Zamzama – that Kipling writes about in Kim.

After the museum, we drove back to the hotel and meet the embassy car.  Then we were off to the Wagah border crossing.  At Wagah, land crossings are permitted between Lahore, Pakistan, and Amritsar, India.  Every day at sunset, there is a well choreographed ceremony there in which ceremonial military units from Pakistan and India retire their flags and close their gates, all to the backdrop of hundreds of screaming and chanting patriotic citizens (and a handful of tourists).

It took us about an hour to reach Wagah.  When we arrived, we were escorted to our seats in the VIP section.  The VIP section consisted of a few bleachers on either side of the road.  Women sat on one side, and men on the other.  The VIP section wasn’t very exclusive, however.  Basically, anyone who wasn’t Pakistani was seated there.  Mostly everyone was dressed pretty middle-of-the-road in the VIP section, but there were also a few people dressed nicely, as well as some backpacker types who looked like they hadn’t showered in a few weeks.  There was also a good number of Pakistanis on both sides.

For the most part, though, the Pakistanis were seated in high bleachers at the end of the border crossing corridor.  Again, the women were separated from the men.

When we took our seats, I went to the men’s side, and the others went to the ladies’ side.  We got there pretty early, and there was plenty of room.  As it got later, though, more and more people came.  Before long, we were packed in like sardines on both sides.

Whenever a mixed group would enter, a guard would request for them to sit in the appropriate gender areas.  Some people ignored this request and sat together in one place or the other, but usually on the women’s side.  When this would happen, the violators would be told again to separate, and in the end, everyone cooperated.

While we waited for the show to start, an old man waving a Pakistani flag came out to entertain the crowd.  He was also wearing a kameez (knee-length shirt) that looked like a Pakistani flag.  You could tell by looking at this guy that he had been doing this for years and was now a fixture at the ceremony.

He would strut up and down the street, waving his flag and rallying the crowd.  He would shout out things to which the crowd would respond in unison, and he would also start chants.  The only one I could ever understand sounds like, “Pak – ee – stan!  Zin – da – bar!  Pak – ee – stan!  Zin – da – bar!”  I’ve probably gotten the syllables wrong, but in any case, this translates to, “Long live Pakistan!  Long live Pakistan!”

At one point, the old man stopped to chew out a Pakistani woman who had dropped some trash on the road.  She got indignant, but picked up the trash just the same.

After Father Pakistan had been working the crowd for a bit, he was joined by a younger version.  This guy was maybe 40 and he also had on a Pakistani flag shirt and was also waving a Pakistani flag.  He wasn’t as intense or entertaining as the old guy, though.

Eventually, the main event started.

Eight or ten soldiers marched in on both the Indian and Pakistani sides.  Then they did everything in unison, as mirror images of each other.

The Indians were dressed in short-sleeved khaki uniforms with hats with red fans coming out.  They had on black boots with white gaiters.

The Pakistanis looked much cooler.  They had long-sleeved black shalwar suits, black boots, and black hats with black fans.  They had red belts and red trim on their hats.

At the first part of the ceremony, some of the soldiers on each side went up on the elevated platforms on their sides of the crossing.  The rest of the soldiers assembled on the road.

The guys on the platforms then called out commands and the guys on the ground responded.  In the beginning, the ceremony involved a lot of face-offs.  A soldier from each country would rush to the gate.  Then they would strut around like roosters in some dominance display.  Each soldier would do the same movements as the other, but the style was a little different.  On the Pakistani side, the style involved a lot of stomping with a bent leg.  The Indians kept a straight leg.  On both sides, the soldiers would drag their boots on the road, making a scraping sound, after each stomp.  After the soldiers would face-off and stomp and puff their chests out and whatever, they would retreat back their units.

Then the guys on the platforms would bark orders and more soldiers would rush out.  Sometimes there were multiple people on each side doing the stomping displays and sometimes there was just a single person.

There was loads of posturing, and the crowds ate it up.

And it was good fun to watch.

Eventually, it came time to retire the flags.

For this, each side sent five soldiers.  There was a bugler, a person to work the rope on the flag pole, and three others to assist in collecting and folding the flag once it was lowered.  With a lot of heightened drama, the soldiers gradually lowered the flags.  A higher flag could be interpreted as being superior to a lower flag, so both the Pakistanis and Indians were very careful to make sure that the other country lowered their flag at the same rate.

As the flags were lowered at exactly the same speed, the buglers played in unison and the other soldiers saluted.  While the main flags in the center were being lowered, the flags in the towers on either end were also being lowered.  It was a first rate performance.

Once the flags were lowered and folded, each side marched out with the colors.  As they did, the soldiers on the platforms saluted.

Once the flags were removed, each side slammed shut its gate and locked it.  And the crowds went wild.

Even if it was only a choreographed, symbolic thing, the Pakistanis loved sticking it to the Indians every evening in this ceremony.  The same was true for the Indians.

As soon as the show ended, everyone stampeded for their cars.

None of us got trampled thankfully, and we started back toward the PC.  On the way, we touched bases with Matt again.

He invited us to join him at a handicraft fair that was being put on by local charities.  From there, we could then go to dinner.

We thought this sounded good, so we rested for a few minutes at the hotel before Matt met us with a car.

At the craft fair, there was a good variety… of crap.  It seems to me, based on this fair and others, that charities generally make the worst crafts.  There were things like doilies and appliqu├ęd table clothes and popsicle-stick bird cages and cushion covers and homemade clothes that were funky, but not in a cool way.  In short, there was very little for sale that I could picture anyone – rich or poor, local or foreign – wearing or putting in his or her home.

So, as much as I would have liked to help the orphans and the battered women and all of the others who were there trying to make a difference, I couldn’t bring myself to purchase anything beyond a few items at the snack bar.

While we were looking around at the fair, I started to feel unwell.  Specifically, my throat was getting sore and I was getting a headache.  In the week leading up to the trip, I had strep throat, and I had just finished my course of antibiotics the day before we left.

Now it was starting to look like I hadn’t fully recovered.

I also had the appearance of being sick because before I told the others I wasn’t feeling well, I started getting comments like, “Are you okay?  You don’t look so good.”

The others knew about my recent bout with strep, and when I mentioned my newly sore throat, Dr. Tangie took the floor.

"Do you still have your tonsils?" she asked.

I admitted that I did.

"They need to come out," Tangie deduced.  "My daughter went through the exact same thing."

The diagnosis was thoughtful and quite possibly sensible, but I wasn’t inspired to go book an operation.  You see, Dr. Tangie was a graduate of the Motherhood School of Medicine.  While I have every respect for this fine institution, I also value medical opinions from medical professionals.  I’m funny like that.

By the time we finished at the fair, it was getting late.  Kaki and Tangie decided to pass on dinner with Matt, and instead went back to the hotel and ordered room service.

Mollie, Matt, and I went down to Lahore’s famous food street to try our luck.

I wasn’t very hungry, but we had a nice spread of rice and fish and kabobs.

Earlier, Matt had mentioned that there might be a party happening during our visit.  If it happened, we were invited to attend.

The party ended up not happening.  Plus, by the time we finished dinner, Matt was also feeling poorly and wasn’t in any condition to be hanging out with Mollie and me.  At the time, Matt was in his final days at post and had actually been too sick to attend one of his main farewell parties a few days earlier.  His friends carried on without him, though.  ("We don’t need no stinking guest of honor!")

All dressed up and no place to go, Mollie and I called it a night and went back to the hotel.

The next day, Mollie, Kaki, Tangie, and I met for breakfast.  The others had rooms that faced the street, so they had gotten to see an elaborate wedding party the night before that included a team of decorated white horses.  I missed it and had nothing to contribute to the discussion since my room faced the other direction.

In a bit of good news, though, my sore throat and headache had quieted down during the night.

For everyone except Kaki, this was to be our last morning in Lahore.  She was scheduled to work in Lahore for a few additional days, so she was going to remain behind when the rest of us left that afternoon.

After breakfast, we hired another car and driver and set off for our first stop: the Minar-i-Pakistan, a tower built to commemorate the signing of the Pakistan Resolution in 1940.  This Resolution laid the groundwork for Pakistan’s independence in 1947.

As it turned out, the tower was closed when we got there, so we didn’t get the chance to climb to the top.  As we walked around and looked at the tower from the outside, we attracted some attention.  We were the only foreigners around, and all of the locals there (mostly men) were keenly interested.  Everyone just stopped what he was doing and started staring at us and talking about us.  A few asked me questions, not so much because they wanted to know the answers, but because they just wanted to talk to the foreigners.  I didn’t mind this attention – which was actually much less intense than the attention I had gotten in Pakistan on some other occasions – but my companions did not care for it at all.  We made our way out.

On the way, we passed by a dance troupe rehearsing their routine.  A stage and chairs were also set up near the tower, so there must have been a ceremony slated for later in the day.

From the Minar-i-Pakistan, we crossed the street and went to Lahore Fort.

At the ticket counter, one of the ticket sellers asked us if we were from Libya.  This was the second time this had happened in two days which was a pretty big coincidence.

I think there must have been an announcement in the news or something that a delegation from Libya was coming to Lahore.  The townspeople then got all excited about this and started trying to guess which visitors were the Libyans.  I doubt many Lahories had ever met any Libyans before, so I guess it was perfectly logical for them to think we might be the Libyan visitors.

I wonder if they would have given us any special treatment if we had admitted to being Libyan.

Anyhow, at the Fort, we poked around the ruined buildings and gardens, and then wound up at a row of little gift shops.  One of the shops was a bookstore, and on display front and center was a book on the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq.  It was written in Urdu, but the cover photograph was the one where a hooded prisoner was attached to wires as if he was about to be electrocuted.  As Americans, this was obviously not what we wanted to see in a bookstore window.  I pointed the book out to the others, and they were equally uncomfortable.

None of us bought anything at the bookshop.  It turned out that the ladies had more violent shopping in mind.

Both Kaki and Mollie bought canes with sabers concealed inside, and Tangie bought a large knife that was maybe 8 or 10 inches long.  Supposedly, they were all buying these weapons as gifts.

Purchases in hand, we left the fort.  We were well-armed.

Across the courtyard was the Badshahi Mosque, which we didn’t visit.  Embassy rules dictated that we had to be off the road by dark.  With the five-hour drive to Islamabad waiting for us, we didn’t have much time left to tour.

For our final hour or so, we told the driver to take us to the Old City.  He wouldn’t just drive around aimlessly, though, so we had to give him a destination.  At his suggestion, we chose the Wazir Khan Mosque.

The Old City was a lively place full of people and animals and vehicles.  There were little shops and restaurants everywhere, and people doing whatever it is they do all day.

After worming through several tiny streets, we parked and walked up to the mosque.

The Wazir Khan Mosque dates to 1634 and features some great tile work.

When we arrived, we took off our shoes as is required in mosques and walked around and looked.  Once we had looked at the courtyard and the mihrab and all the decorative mosaics, we started to leave.  At that point, one of the caretakers of the mosque asked if we would like to go upstairs.  We were game, so we followed the man up a dark staircase to the rooftop level.

There was glass strewn all about the roof as if someone had smashed a bunch of light bulbs up there.  I’m not sure what the deal was with that.  As we were all barefoot, though, we had to really watch our steps.

I think Kaki and Tangie either spent very little time on the roof or didn’t come up at all because I only remember seeing Mollie up there for the few minutes I was there.

As it happened, though, Kaki should have spent longer on the roof.  After she went back downstairs, she was promptly bombed by a pigeon.  Kaki was wearing a white shirt and the bird left its mark on her back below her right shoulder.  The payload seemed plenty large and juicy, and the clean-up attempt spearheaded by Tangie left the stain more noticeable than before.  It was hilarious.

By this point, we were running low on time, so we went back to the hotel.  The three of us who were departing checked-out.  Then we bid Kaki farewell and hit the road.  We took Kaki’s saber-cane with us to save her a lot of explaining at the airport in a few days when she flew back to Islamabad.

The ride back was uneventful.  There were no cops and no running-out-of-gas episodes.  It was just blindingly sunny and hot, and the wind that rushed in the windows didn’t offer much relief.  Mollie and Tangie slept a good deal of the way.  I, as the driver, however, felt obligated to stay awake.

It was still a swell drive, though, and a fine trip overall.  I had less than a month left in Pakistan, which meant I was on my last visit to Lahore and one of my last cruises down the motorway.  Call me sentimental, but it could have been hotter and longer and the ride would still have been, well, swell.