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 appliquéd 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.

1 comment:

Mollie said...

Chris! I've only just discovered your blog, and have just been engrossed in fantastic nostalgia from the trips we did in Pakistan. I had forgotten about half of this stuff, so reading your blog re-awakened some amazing memories. So happy you have this record of all your adventures. You need to write a book someday about it. Cheers! Mollie