Category Archives: Pakistan

Raw Lahore

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Crowdsourcing directions

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We’re in Lahore and it’s a big city. There are somewhere between 8 and 10 million people here ad they sprawl uncontrolled in every direction. We’re tending to take auto-rickshaws to get around. I suspect they’re ripping us off but we pay $1-3 for a pretty big journey so the prices don’t demand that much of our attention.

Nobody knows where to go. The worst drivers are the ones who pretend that they know where you want to go, career off in what they understand to be the general direction and then stop every fifty metres to ask for directions. A slight improvement are the drivers who obviously have no idea where they’re going, but still desperately want your business, and so gather an every growing mob of street goers in the hope they might be able to assist.

I have to say this process has been raising my heckles more than most travel nuisances. There’s something enormously frustrating about having to put your trust in a driver who doesn’t know how to get from A to B.

After the conference shown in the picture above we were off in search of the tourist information office in the hope of securing a better map than the one we were using to point out destinations. An hour later we were literally going round in circles.

The only upside was a long conversation with some traffic police officers who confidently rattled off every major city in New Zealand and its corresponding cricket ground. Small grounds, they said, disapprovingly. I was about to launch into an explanation of why they’re so small when our driver felt he’d secured enough new information from passersby and pushed us back into the flow of traffic.

Shortly afterwards he deposited us on a nondescript kerbside with a shrug and a grimaced apology.

Inshallah you go get my shoes

A big part of traveling with others is that you’re always asking them to do you some favour or other. Obviously that happens in a marriage too, but when you travel there seem to be more favours hanging about needing to be done each day. We’re all prone to finding language that softens these requests. Fiona tells a story of traveling with a very good friend who would say “do you want to [insert small favour]?”. One Day Fi snapped: no, she didn’t want to thank you very much. But she would because she was a good friend.

Between Fi and I we often preface things with “maybe”. So it’s “maybe you can get the water from my backpack?” or “maybe you can wash my towel too?”.

But I think I have a superior pleasantry, adopted from my Pakistani brothers, that carries with it a sense of moral compulsion as well as a suggestion it’s not you who is asking at all: Inshallah. It means ‘God willing’ and it is used all over the place here. Inshallah I’ll see you at seven. Inshallah we still have chicken kebabs. Now I intend to harness its awesome power: Fiona, Inshallah you will go and get my shoes and mobile phone so we can go to dinner now.

Our man Jamil

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We’re still not sure whether to be incredibly grateful for Jamil’s hospitality, or a little irked and possibly offended by it.

Jamil found us on a Gilgit kerbside, loaded up with big packs and with only a vague sense of directions to the hostel we wanted to stay in. He knew the way, he said, and so he took us there. We weren’t really sure who this guy was when he helped us check in, ordered up cups of green tea and deposited himself on what was to be our bed in our hotel room. He lapped up every detail we could convey about our lives. We exhausted all the normal pleasantries within that first hour and then our conversations turned circular. When silence struck Jamil would say something like “I am your friend?” we’d nod agreeably and then he’d smile.

Jamil had an interesting conversational style. He was a forty something lawyer for a local transport company he said, and had the ID cards to prove it, but we struggled to believe that his clumsy English was what he actually used in court. When he didn’t understand the question we were asking he would veer the conversation off in a quite unexpected direction instead. Some highlights:

  • On why he studied law: Elders said you have very good language, killer mind. So I go law school.
  • On whether he’d have more children: My wife and I have not gathered for past six years.
  • On New Zealand not having a state religion: So, you have no customs and no traditions.
  • On Fiona: Why are you so silent? You have very weak voice. He very good company.*
  • On the restaurant we ate in: This restaurant very like Fiona. Why? Because silent.
  • On potential sleeping arrangements: You honour me with invite to sleep in your hotel room.
  • On everything else: Inshallah.

Jamil was not content with meeting us only once. “What is your programme?” he inquired. We agreed he’d return that evening and take us to visit his family but they turned out to have other plans, so instead we went out for chapal kebab – like a deep fried, lightly spiced beef patty to be picked apart with chapattis. Then we all retired to our hotel room again for more green tea and interrogation about our planned programme for the next day.

Jamil was building a house, so the next morning he took us to visit the construction site and loaded us up with tea at his big brother’s place. That evening he agreed it would be acceptable for us to pay for dinner, so he took us to a tikka place out of town on a bluff overlooking the river. This was the kind of place that had toothpicks that were specially shaped, rather than just offcuts of wood. Classy.

We were tired when dinner ended, already anticipating the early start next morning and the cramped jeep ride to follow. But Jamil’s enthusiasm was unquenchable. Again we retired to our hotel room. Jamil sang us a local song and I mumbled through some Crowded House. Grasping for less talent driven entertainment I fired up the laptop to show some of our wedding photos. Jamil couldn’t believe how few clothes everyone was wearing and that there were photos of us, wait for it, kissing, on our wedding day. He ended up with a slightly giddy smile. His request to dance with Fiona was probably a little too insistent and his grip a little too tight when she did.

I gave Jamil some chocolates, hoping the idea of a gift would seal the evening and send him home. He responded with rings for Fiona and I, an even broader smile, and no apparent interest in leaving. I stood and hovered for an uncomfortable period of time in the hope he’d get the message. Then I sat down again. Our circular pleasantries continued until Jamil leapt up and departed with scarcely time for a handshake. We were left relieved, bemused, and unsure what to make of our Gilgit host.

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Jamil enjoyed trying on our sunglasses.

With a little more time we’ve come to see Jamil as a somewhat tragic figure, awed and craving for the kinds of freedoms we have. The fact we never got to see his family – the very first thing most hosts want to show us – seems more significant in hindsight. He has an arranged marriage and hinted it had ups and downs. Would we pray for him to have a love marriage, he asked?

It’s an easy give to tell our various hosts that they’re welcome in our New Zealand home. For one thing, we don’t have one, but even when we do they’re unlikely to have the means to be able to visit. But there was something in Jamil’s eyes that said he really, really wanted to. We’ll send him some photos, and that might have to do. Sadly, I fear he will treasure them much more than we will the plastic rings he ceremoniously slipped on to our fingers before he disappeared off to his family home.

* For the record Fiona spoke an entirely appropriate amount, and with her normally strong voice.

Sound the horns

I have recently developed a theory on horn usage. It basically says that there are two equilibria of horn usage.

  1. Horns are used rarely to indicate imminent danger or frustration at an individual who might have created such danger.
  2. Horns are used to say “hello I’m here and I’m a car/moto/auto rickshaw doing my thing, which means basically going where I want”.

There seems to be a strong correlation between the first equilibrium and developed countries with highly developed traffic rules and infrastructure, and between the second and the developing world where traffic has a more spontaneous order.

What interests me, though, is that I haven’t really visited a country which is somewhere in between the two equilibria. And so I wonder how you magically going from using horns all the time (sometimes horn usage might even be taken to be a marker of the conscientious driver) to basically never using horns. Really the only occasion I can think of that doesn’t fit with either equilibria is the, thoroughly useless, blaring of horns to signify frustration with a traffic jam.

The ‘pindi

Rawalpindi is an old city next to Islamabad which was created new to be Pakistan’s capital. Islamabad probably has more to draw tourists, but at the moment it also has violent protests so we went to ‘pindi instead.

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It was our first taste of a big Pakistani city with something like three million people. In the hope of finding a little glamour and a little break – and possibly a dominoes pizza – we asked around for directions to the centre city. Turned out we were staying in the middle of it. No skyscrapers though, no gleaming parks and pavements. Just a moderate level of squalor and a never ending bazaar. It was fun to walk about and the locals were super friendly. Normally it’s just village folk who want their pictures taken, but the ‘pindi stall holders were pretty keen too.

It didn’t feel as crazy, dirty and smelly as a big Indian city the likes of which we visited some five years ago. A big contributing factor is that cows do not wander the streets, being all sacred like and free to roam. But probably a bigger factor is our more gradual acclimatisation. I dare anyone to arrive in central Delhi after a long haul flight and not feel overwhelmed. But having been on the road for months now we’re probably much less shocked by a pile of rubbish or too, or the occasional, unmistakeable scent of humanity.

Pacing around Abbottabad

On 1 May 2011 American helicopters carrying elite special forces took off from a base in Afghanistan and headed into Pakistan, further than they had ever been before on a covert operation. Their destination was the city of Abbottabad and one compound within it. Inside they expected to find a man that CIA analysts had dubbed “the pacer” because satellite footage revealed he only ever left his quarters to pace about the yard. They expected to find that “the pacer” was Osama bin Laden.

There’s a great account of the mission from the New Yorker here, doubtless much more rigorously fact checked than Zero Dark Thirty that movie with the silly name. President Obama announced the mission’s success on the evening of 2 May, US time, and Abbottabad was suddenly the subject of international media attention.

I felt an obligation to read up on the raid before we made our own nighttime incursion into Abbottabad to break our journey south overnight. Two things in particular struck me. First, unless there’s a whole bunch that’s classified, the intelligence which Obama relied on to authorise the raid was less than rock solid. It was circumstantial. The fact the compound had no phone or internet connection was considered telling, for example. And so I wonder about the road not traveled. I suppose if SEALS had burst into a compound and shot up a Pakistani man who never left is home because of agoraphobia I suppose we may never have heard about it. But it would have sucked.

And second, there was a soldier on the team that made the raid who, because of his Pakistani ethnicity and Pashtu language skills, was lifted out of a military desk job and suddenly plonked into an elite fighting force. Helluva debut for that guy. What was your first military mission? I calmed down local Pashtus while my compatriots shot up the world’s most wanted fugitive.

We arrived in Abbottabad late at night, worn down from twelve hours in a cramped jeep traveling a bumpy road. We didn’t stay long because it was pouring with rain and no one has yet turned the OBL compound into a tourist attraction. We did do some pacing of our own however, in between a wide range of ATMs that didn’t like our foreign cards. It seemed like a nice enough, medium sized, pretty nondescript Pakistani city. Its green hills were cloaked in mist when we visited, but I imagine it would be quite pretty on a summer’s day. I understand that, as a hill station, it attracts refugees from southern Pakistan’s heat. It’s a proper city, and having visited I’m not close to surprised that someone was tweeting about the OBL mission. In fact I’m surprised there wasn’t more widespread panic with US military choppers flying and crashing in what is essentially a suburban neighborhood. The lone Pashtu speaker with the US forces must have done very well indeed.

Abbottabad played host to Osama for at least five years. His age children were born in its hospitals. It is extraordinary to think that he stayed there safely for so long when you consider how ordinary Abbottabad is. Many think the longevity of his stay suggests Pakistani intelligence was in on his location. Others say the choice of Abbottabad, a military city that houses the Pakistani army academy points in that direction too. I don’t know about all that. I think it’s also possible he just hunkered down, and if he’d ridden a Stairmaster, rather than paces his yard, he might still be chilling in Abbottabad’s pleasant climes.

Shalwar are the new onsie

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Shalwar Kameez are the national dress of Pakistan. For women this means a tree piece suit with long tunic, trousers and a massive scarf. Definitely patterned. Sometimes sequined. For men you loose the sequins, patterns and scarf. Men also tend to have reasonably drab colours – mainly in the beige family – so my sky blue suit is just a little out there.

I’ve found my Shalwar to be very comfy. It’s like wearing pajamas everywhere you go. The tunic is light and airy and the pants have a billowing Aladdin thing going on, which is mostly hidden because they’re under the tunic. I really feel that Shalwar Kameez are the next level onesie.

There’s also something gratifying about traveling wearing the national dress of your destination. For Fi it’s a bit of a burden because doing so is an expectation, and it means a lot of covering up, including in hot weather. For me, it feels more like wearing a costume, and makes me feel more like I belong, as I might wearing a suit to a job interview. It gives a sense of additional freedom and license to strike the characteristic hands behind back pose of the discerning local when wandering the bazaar. Sadly, however, Fiona has not responded appropriately to the cultural attitudes I have adopted to go with my Shalwar. I am still waiting on her to slaughter me a goat, milk a cow and dry me some apricots. One thing at a time, I suppose.

So Slumdog Millionaire

It’s like something out of Slumdog Millionaire and/or Freakanomics. Amidst the on-going protests in Islamabad, kids that scavenge for bottle and other rubbish to sell to scrap shop owners are having a great time. The protestors are discarding water bottles and food packaging.

City cleaners won’t go into the ‘red zone’ to clean up after them. Scavengers are finding they can get up later and still earning up to twice what they’d normally bring in from a day picking through trashcans. One scavenger estimates there was work, and trash enough, for two hundred scavengers in the protest area.