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!

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