Uncertainty about road conditions after the massive October earthquake has sent us detouring outside the Karakoram Highway to the Swat Valley. This is said to be one of the prettiest areas in Pakistan, a popular retreat for tourists and Pakistanis alike. The sun is out again; but after the rains, the small local road is an even more thickly muddied potholed pea-soup of a mess than the KKH. That means we're going along even slower than our previous hotrod average of, say, 30 kilometers an hour. Our journey winds through narrow valleys where villages nestle under steep hillsides near the road.
Once upon a time this area was apparently a prime hippie hangout, but it's hard to imagine long-haired skimpy-clothed westerners basking mellow in the sun here now. The Northwest Frontier Province is a particularly conservative area; the few women coming from market are covered in full burkha and skitter quickly out of sight. Occasionally a dark pile of cloth with a child or two appears crouched by the roadside, waiting for the bus. Erika buys a heavier darker shawl both because 1) it's gotten even colder and 2) it seems more fittingly conservative for this region. Even with it on and next to Dave, she feels overexposed as she isn't going so far as to cover her face. Odd how quickly one is affected by perceived standards of a culture. People seem surprised but pleased that we're wearing local attire. Pakistan is almost 100% Moslem, which permeates most every aspect of the community's daily life.
Back in Madyan, a $3.50 room at the Hotel River Palace comes complete with chairs facing the river where you can chill in the winter sun. Chilling is even easier in the cold uninsulated brick room. Try to negotiate a meatball dinner with the Urdu-speaking cook: it will result in a fascinating plate of 12 deep fried peeled hard boiled eggs. If you want beef stew, you will receive a skillet-full of graphically greasy mutton. But the elderly cook is eager to please and doing his best. Eat what you get and deal with the stomach consequences later.
8 kilometers upstream in an even narrower valley sits Bahrain, with a wide array of empty riverfront hotels. It's definitely past tourist season. One can imagine that the Swat Valley would be more scenic with trees and fields sprouting green springtime shoots. Still, the room is unusually sun-warmed and pleasant. Erika wonders why there's an arrow tacked on to the ceiling; Dave wisely observes that it points the guests towards Mecca at prayer time.
Strolling through town, this little twosome becomes three when a quirky older guy decides he is our guide. He points out a busy grain-producing mill in a small dark wood shack, low gabled roofs of shuttered stores on a narrow old street, a mosque where boys play and men pray, and a courtyard where Erika is ushered inside to meet the women while Dave remains with the men. Inside the inner sanctum little girls and women are gathered, head-covering-less, to check her out. A pretty 19 year old who speaks a small bit of English embarks on a polite exchange of questions. Once these run their inevitable course, Erika sends the small children shrieking by tickling and chasing them around the room. Eventually we leave and continue to the last spot on the tour, a spring where Dave is encouraged to imbibe in order to grow new hair. Dave feels the bacterial risks outweigh the promise of a thicker pelt and spits out the magic water when no one's looking.
Perhaps Dave should have swallowed, as the next day he's back in bed with more stomach problems anyway. Good thing the room is warm and comfortable. Erika heads out to buy a newspaper but the fatherly hotel attendant insists on accompanying her up the street. Later the attendant accompanies her down the street to order dinner and later yet to buy some crackers and soda. It seems less that people are worried she will come to harm than that she will be looked upon with disrespect. One must try to balance an understanding of local views with the desire to just take an unescorted walk. It's challenging.
A day later we're back on the bike. Countryside gives way to the smog and chaos of Mingora, the first sizeable city so far. The nearby government seat of Saidu Sharif is a more peaceful place to stay. Dave needs more rest as he's still not 100% and Erika needs more strategizing to sneak out of the latest hotel without accompaniment. The hotel manager discovers her plan to walk to some local archaeological sites and insists that an awkward young employee go along. For the next two hours he trudges ahead without eye contact or words. Maybe it's good to have had a guide as the sites are tucked behind dusty backstreets and might have been hard to find. Erika's sure she could have found them.
Dave is still under the weather the next day and Erika just can't bear another escort, so she tells the inquisitive manager that she's going to the store next door and escapes to the museum 20 minutes down the street. Jailbreak! The museum exhibits interesting stone carvings of the Buddha sitting skinny with a moustache. Coincidentally, a young doctor we met earlier in Bahrain is also at the museum. He's going to a medical conference in the building next door to the hotel and offers to walk her back. So much for last moments of independence.
Dave feels well enough for dinner at the upscale Hotel Serena's extravagant buffet. Six dollars buys the best meal we've had in months. Pakistani food overall has sparked the renaissance of Dave's lost appetite (Erika's never troubled by such issues). Portions are large, spices are tasty, protein and vegetables are available in a variety of shape and sizes. No platters of a dozen deep fried peeled hard boiled eggs at the buffet though.
Next day dawns dreary and overcast, a condition that takes on progressively grimier overtones approaching Peshawar. A guy flashing a hand gesture of questionable interpretation is almost the only bit of color. We decide to think he's teaching his parrot to count.
On the way a massive stupa (ancient burial site often said to contain relics--remnants--of religious figures) blobs massively brown near a small village. Dave successfully maneuvers the motorcycle through the local bovine blockade for an up-close and personal view.
Stuck in Peshawar's traffic, we can barely see the massive terra cotta walls of the army-occupied historical fort from 100 meters away. One can thank the overwhelming prevalence of two-stroke-engine autorickshaws for this veil of smog. Though on the positive side their abundance must provide employment for two thirds of Peshawar's inhabitants, they also seem to emit enough exhaust to blanket two thirds of the country. Later we'll find out that really they provide only enough exhaust to blanket one third of the country, with Lahore's autorickshaws providing the rest. Many locals seem to prefer the congeniality on the back of a truck anyway.
Dave is all excited at the prospect of touring the nearby Khyber Pass (which comes close to the border of Afghanistan) and the infamous village of Dara Adam Khel (where the folks of the Tribal Areas get their guns). Both of these places are said to require a guide and armed guard, though some travellers seem to manage on their own. At dinner a local tour operator comes by. His name is Prince and he'll get everything set up.
Before that is a fairly straightforward trip to the passport office to extend the one-month Pakistan visa for another month. Then back to Peshawar's old town where each small street specializes in its own product.
The jewelery street shimmers with a dizzying array of actual women, most of whom are nonetheless still cloaked from head to toe.
At a small shop we're invited in for tea and fried vegetable pakoras.
A crowd of school children buzz about, hardly intimidated by a uniformed guy trying to shoo them away with a big bamboo stick.
One of the guys, Malik, turns out to be a local politician who invites us back to his home (though once we get there he cautions against accepting invitations into most other peoples' homes). He and his brother, a political science lecturer, pour more tea and speak of their family's land in the country. Another brother is getting married this week and they would be honored to have us at the wedding. This would involve attending four consecutive days of segregated traditional dinners and celebrations, Dave with the men and Erika with the women. Malik's rather overwhelmingly generous invitation must be declined as by then we will be en route to Islamabad.
The next day guide Prince swings by with a taxi. Two stops must be made: one to pick up the permits to travel over the Khyber Pass, and the second to pick up the red-eyed Kalashnikov-toting tribal guard. One wonders briefly whether his hashish-tampered reflexes are in reality contributing to a safer environment. Then one wonders again. Just briefly.
We enter the Tribal Areas via the famous Jamoud Fort Archway. In the Khyber Agency, hills are low and dry with massive mud-walled forts of the Afridi. Their walls allegedly shelter the great wealth one accrues when one runs Various Things across the border. There's a tea stop at a ramshackle stall in Landi Cotal. You climb rickety stairs to a roof top where you really should take in the ramshackle street view rather than that of the roof top itself. If you look at the roof top itself you will notice that not far from your feet are scattered things like excrement. You decide to focus on the street. The friendly wasted guard offers Dave some hashish which he graciously declines. You wonder about drinking the tea but take your chances.
The turnaround point on this day trip is within viewing distance of Afghanistan but not to its actual border. It's a little anticlimatic but interesting to ride over the historic Khyber Pass linking Asia and the subcontinent.
We pass some more time wandering through the old city. Neon billboards advertise the latest lurid blockbuster.
We decide not to take tea despite the warm smiles of the vendors
or buy animal innards though the hooves are kind of tempting.
Dave considers some parts for the bike but isn't quite sure those are the right ones.
More exciting is the trip the next day to Dara Adam Khel, a town officially off-limits to foreigners but accessible with a well-connected guide. Prince seems tense during the drive. He's told us repeatedly that if anyone asks we should say we are from CANADA, as stating we are Americans may result in a rather frosty reception. As the car passes certain checkpoints Erika is told to pull the headscarf completely over her face; at other points Dave must drape the checkered prayer scarf around his head or shoulders. Apparently thus cocooned and shalwar-kameez-clad we will pass muster as locals. Canadian locals.
Trash flies down the street as the car pulls into a small lane. Prince greets a local cop whose palm has probably been well greased for the occasion. Everyone benefits from tourist interest in the gun trade. The "factory" consists of one small dark room after another along narrow rutted streets and around littered courtyards: within these capsules men design copies of any gun brought to them, recreating gun barrels, sanding and polishing stocks.
Young boys start apprenticing at around age 8. No one would know the guns are forgeries (unless they catch, perhaps, the notation on one rifle that says, "Made On USA").
The tour is accompanied by bursts of gunfire and deep blasting booms as firing mechanisms are tested out back. That's the part Dave's been waiting for. Shell out $15 and you can shoot off a 30-round clip from a fully automatic Kalashnikov; a bit less lets you pump out 12 rounds out of a 9mm semi-automatic pistol. Dave's done this kind of thing before but has to whine, wheedle and cajole before Erika finally relents and pulls the trigger on each gun twice. It's ear-splitting up close. Dave's folks see the photos and get a little concerned that he might be getting involved in some unusual activities.
Prince tells us on the drive back to Peshawar that two people were killed in a tribal feud that morning in Dara. Oh, so THAT'S why he was so tense.
Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, is to Dara as Orange County is to the Wild West. Someone has written an ironic letter to the editor in the local English newspaper calling Islamabad "a city 7 miles outside of Pakistan". It's laid out on a grid, with each sector given a number and its own central market. The endless roads surrounding each sector are broad and tree-lined with little to distinguish one area from the next. Within some sectors, homes of wealthy government employees resemble sprawling 50's-built mansions of the rich back home. Just around a corner are the piles of brick dirt hovels where the "help" must live. Hotel prices have skyrocketed due to an influx of earthquake aid workers: one place the book says costs 600 rupees now wants 2800 rupees, PLUS TAX. We think they just don't like motorcycles. There's reasonable lodging in low-key Sitara Market where a big volunteer group of Cuban doctors is also staying .
Fortunately during the next week and a half during which we'll be waiting around for the India visas, there are various entertaining perks. One of them is roasted chicken, which we devour almost every night at a wealth of local places. Another is Toby and Renata, a German couple on Transalps who rode through Iran and are helping set up pharmacy services in the earthquake region. A third is the fastest internet on the trip, where we can upload some of our millions of trip photos and get out a blog from some country five months ago. Uh, where were we five months ago?
One day we all head out of tidy Islamabad in search of The Elusive Truck Painters. Toby and Renata have the brilliant idea of getting their motorcycles' sidecases painted in flamboyant Pakistani style.
A long slow crawl through bustling neighboring Rawalpindi according to directions leads to a cramped little road where a shop or two creates small decal-ed panels. This is nothing like the sprawling bevy of artistes we'd all imagined, clambering up truckbeds flailing paintbrushes about, adorning each vehicle with the painted fruits of their deepest hearts' imaginings. Toby and Renata nonetheless negotiate some decals to be delivered to their campsite on Thursday. The decals never do show up.
Dinner the next night is with Dave's contact Shigri and his friend. Shigri is a travel agent with Vertical Explorers and has been incredibly helpful despite not making any money off us. The plan is to take him to dinner in appreciation but in typical Pakistani style, Shigri pays for the whole thing. Like so many others here, he insists that it is his "responsibility". We try to explain that in OUR culture the guest shows appreciation by taking out the host, but that doesn't fly. We're stuck with more abundant Moslem generosity.
There are certainly differences in cultures, and more than once conversations take place which reveal how differently everyone thinks. Some people do react with tension when it's revealed we're from the U.S., though no one is directly rude to us. Some people are surprised to hear we don't approve of the policies of George Bush--"but you elected him". This is an opportunity to explain that in a democracy a mere 1% of the populace can tilt an election one way or the other. And an opportunity to say that now many Americans do not approve of the war in Iraq. And that Americans do not hate Moslems. It's a small attempt to bridge cultures that's also evidence of just how much misperception exists, both by those of Pakistan and the U.S. Check out this prime example of how Pakistanis, for example, might find America a bit baffling:
"The US embassy in Pakistan has refused to give visa to Prof. A.K. Shams...[who] has been invited by the Literary Society of Greater Philadelphia to attend a seminar. [Prof. Shams] is leading a delegation of four literary personalities to the seminar on "Pakistan-American friendship as a bulwark of higher objective for peace in South-East Asia to be held December 11 in New Jersey...."
--The Dawn, Islamabad, Dec. 4, 2005
One day we head up to a viewpoint above town and down to the immense Al Faisal Mosque. There is supposedly room for 10,000 worshippers in the main hall and an additional 64,000 more outside.
All this works up a tremendous appetite, so it's a relief when Erika spots a sign for "corn soup with some chicken". How can you resist.
Another day we have lunch with Michael Jones, the United Nations Emergency Food Program Coordinator who is working on earthquake relief. Erika's mom is friends with his, a handy bonus connection. The rather upscale United Nations office displays a wall-sized blow-up map of the entire affected region, with miniscule dots indicating remote villages still needing assistance. Michael's task is huge, though he says that two months after the quake the most intense part of the crisis work has been done. Still so much work remains. With all that, he's actually made time to have lunch with us. It's impressive.
While bringing his bike back to Rawalpindi one day for minor maintenance, Dave meets Shiraz, a dynamic guy whose ancestral home is in the earthquake affected region and who's trying to start up various projects to help out there. He has invited us to stay with his family in Abbotabad, where he will arrange for us to meet with others involved in earthquake relief. So after finally picking up the India visas, we leave Islamabad and head back into the countryside. The plan is to take a small scenic mountain road via Murree, a hillside vacation town. This is supposed to put us in Abbotabad in about 3-4 hours. That estimate must have been made on either a nice sunny day or by someone driving a jeep with rugged snow tires. The drive is indeed scenic, with pine trees shading the steep hillside towns. But the rains of some days back deposited snow up here which has turned to ice around the shadowed bends. The lesson pounded into our heads after attempting the snow-covered passes into China and Pakistan is that the bike can't safely handle these conditions. Tension mounts as we ascend. Erika dismounts as Dave basically walks the bike over stretches that are getting longer with each shaded turn in the road. The biggest worry is that the snow will get so thick that we'll have to turn back, and 4 hours later we're not even half way there. After some exhausting hauls we finally reach Abbotabad only 4 hours late.
Shiraz hosts us for the next 3 days in his family's local home. The first night Erika experiences the interesting social ritual of being served tea in the living room while a procession of family members filters in and out. Two aunts, two uncles, two sisters, a bevy of cousins, five minutes each, one at a time. As she doesn't speak Pakistani and they don't speak English, the protocol's a bit unclear. Dave shows up after about 40 minutes. He speaks a little English. Shiraz works until after 9:00 and arrives after we've finished a big dinner with the family.
The next two days are beyond educational. We take a van with Shiraz throughout the region and witness devastation and the attempts at order springing out of it. Erika finds herself in reporter mode as we meed up with some significant people doing relief work in various capacities. In Mansera, we talk to Dr. Qurrehman at the Executive District Office of Health. He feels that the crisis phase of assistance is basically finished, with rehabilitation of infrastructure to come next. He seems to be trying to normalize reports of health epidemics in the tent camps, saying the media is exaggerating, and feels there is enough funding and medicine for the health sector. As of March 31 the temporary housing of tent villages are projected to come down as the government is supposed to have homes for everyone. Is this possible?
We drive further in to the earthquake affected area and start to see an array of tents. Some are set up next to barely standing hillside homes; other people have abandoned their destroyed home sites entirely and relocated to sprawling tracts of tent communities in the valley. Banners list a spectrum of aid agencies taking charge of individual sites: Zindago Trust, Sahara for Life Trust, ILO, Samaritan's Purse, World Food Project, SRSP, Khubaib Foundation, Muslim Hands International, United Arab Emirates, Mercy Corps, Red Crescent, Ummah Welfare Trust, UNHCR, Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund, Partner Aid International, USAID, Just Peace, University of Lahore, and OXFAM, to name a few.
In Dadar we meet Captain Nadeem who is overseeing military relief in the 66-village Bhogar-Mang Union Council. Somehow only two children were killed under this collapsed school roof; but he says that out of 2840 houses, 90% were destroyed.
He also feels that there are currently enough practical supplies like blankets, quilts, tents and food. He says the government is issuing checks now for 25,000 rupees, about $400 (!), to rebuild houses; this amount will be increased by 125,000 rupees later. The captain says with feeling: "To make the people happy and bring their smiles back to their faces--that is our duty." We are shown the new tent school, supported by the Joy River Program of Taiwan, where the children shout and wave happily when we poke our heads in; but their somber faces outside tell a different story.
A large somber group of men are gathered near the site, along with a much smaller group of women. Erika goes up to the women and reaches out to grasp their hands. They are so eager for contact, some with tears in their eyes. Shiraz translates Erika's sympathy to them and encourages her to speak to the larger group of men as well. It's a little intimidating at first but she warms to the occasion, giving wishes from America for condolence and for their recovery. Shiraz' translations seem quite a bit longer than her brief statements, surely padded out with appropriate nuance. This is probably the most powerful moment for Erika of the whole trip. She can only hope that his diplomacy is conveying words that might mean something, even a little something, to someone in the crowd.
Colonel Abid at the Jabori Tent Camp speaks eloquently of the devastation and future strategies. He says that the total death toll from the earthquake is over 75,000, with 80,000 with permanent disability and millions homeless. After rescue and relief (first aid, tents, rations, bedding, medicine) will come rehabilitation (financial compensation) and reconstruction (people will be taught to build earthquake-resistant homes). He does NOT believe relief supplies are adequate; he also feels that the business community, widows and women, disabled families and poor people have been left largely unattended. These people, he says, need to be advocated for at the highest levels--"Nothing is dearer than life."
Our last stop is Mercy Corps, a U.S. based non-governmental organization. We talk with a team leader and shelter coordinator there. Both express respect for the military's work and their emotional connection to the families and areas they are serving. Both also note how little international donations Pakistan has received compared to victims of the tsunami disaster. The team leader expand on the problems of widows and women, who often cannot access services without a man to represent them, and the multitude of medical problems being seen in local clinics. The shelter coordinator talks about Mercy Corps' cash-for-work program in which people get the opportunity to earn money and obtain shelter materials by clearing rubble and rebuilding communities. It sounds like a great project.
The next day Umer, Shiraz' brother, accompanies us to Balakot, the epicenter of the earthquake. It is literally a pile of rubble. We climb to the top of a hill where small groups of men pick dully through slabs of concrete. One well-groomed man says he lost his wife and some of his relatives along with his home and a hotel he owned in town. He is now reponsible for 5 nieces and nephews in addition to his own 4 children; they are in a tent camp now. This gentleman offers to make us tea. He actually apologizes for having nothing more to offer.
The catastrophe has been a great equalizer: this (previously) wealthy man will receive the same 150,000 rupees as a poorer farmer, and he has no expectation that the government will be offering him any extra help clearing this mountain of rubble any time soon. Further up the hill a younger man says his biggest concern is for the children, who are getting inadequate education and services. Life on the Balakot's main street goes on as if the small vendors' shops weren't surrounded by heaps of gravel, twisted rebar and broken concrete slabs.
Does it help to bear witness to such devastation, or is it only gawking to be present when there is nothing you will be doing to help? Is it doing something just to feel the pain of humanity, or is it selfish to take up the time of busy people who are really helping when you are just continuing on somewhere else? Does it help to explain the tragedy in a blog that others will read? This earthquake has become something immediate and personal as we happened to be there not long after it hit. But won't it be just as easy to tune out thoughts of the next thousands caught in the next natural disaster because it's just too much to take in all the time...?
We are leaving again, to our last big Pakistani city, Lahore. It's something like a cross between Peshawar and Islamabad, with busy smoggy semi-modern streets and a sprawling old town. The best thing about Lahore is meeting Al, a half-Indian, half-Pakistani Brit who's checking out the territory. We hang out in the old city, checking out the beautiful mosque
and the fort at dusk.
On Sunday night two brothers are performing blistering pounding Sufi drumming on the roof of our guesthouse. One of the brothers has been deaf since birth. At one point everyone is moved away as he begins spinning around, huge bongo drum around his neck, faster and faster, never missing a beat. Erika is having visions of death-by-60MPH-flying-drum-induced-skull-fracture. Another time the same drummers appear at Sufi Night at the Shrine of Babu Shah Jamal. There's a much edgier crowd here, lots of younger guys stoned on something, those coming and going having a harder and harder time funneling through one small main door down steep rail-less concrete steps. We leave through the back, which surreally filters onto a shadowy graveyard where furtive clusters of men are taking in the music, draped spacily over moonlit tombstones.
We wish Al well as he heads off into the wild blue yonder, hoping to be able to meet up again in London some day and hoping he knows how much we appreciated being able to drag him to Pizza Hut.
We finish off the days in Lahore with an upper-class polo match and a visit to the museum, considering a tooth cleaning but deciding the drilling techniques might be a bit...rough.
Then after two months of challenges and rewards, we're at the border between Pakistan and India. At 4:30 it's time for the heart-thumpingly inspiring and amusing Border Ceremony, in which crowds of both countries sit in their respective bleachers and in Pakistan the men and women sit in their respective bleachers. We've never seen so many Pakistani women, not to mention unveiled Pakistani women. And they're all screaming and having a blast. You go girls.
Impeccably dressed guards strut out emitting whoops of....what ARE those whoops of? Challange, that's it. We find ourselves inordinately fond of the Pakistani side and join the crowds as they scream, "PAKISTAN, ZINDABAD" (Long Live Pakistan!)
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