Trip Start Mar 11, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2006

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Flag of Pakistan  ,
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Three amigos ended their siestas as we were pulling into Amritsar station, the end of the line. Knowing that the basic rule of the taxi drivers trying to charge you double would still be in full force, we took out our secret weapons: the guitar, our indifference, and the smiling wagging "ahh, I know better!" finger. Before our driver could take us the 25 or so kilometers to the border, we implored that we first needed to see the Golden Temple, the sacred and quite beautiful site that the town is known for. I'd like to think that the tourist-logo-orange bandanna that I and the boys had to buy to cover our heads and the dark, scratched to look like a cats eye, $5, swap-meet aviators I was sporting helped to obscure the fact that I didn't see and very unsubtley, in my sandals, tripped through the holy barefoot wash pool in front on the entrance. We didn't have time to stay too long but I did manage, for reasons both spiritual and hot-and-tropical, to have a swim in the square moat actually surrounding the Golden Temple inside the complex. It did feel quite lovely, even as careful as I was to not encourage Wilbur by getting even a drop in my mouth, and the border guard a few hours later told me that, for my dip, I was not the luckiest man on earth. Score!
We finished off with a trip to the communal kitchen where huge pots of lentil stew, rice, bread, water, and assorted veggie piece are doled out assembly-line-style for anyone in want. It did look interesting, but I had a pass, Ryan was starting to feel a bit peaked in the belly as well, and only Elliot enthusiastically inhaled all our food, stopping only to repeat "y'know guys, I really think I'm just cut out for Indian food." That's (what we call in the biz) foreshadowing.
The process of crossing the India-Pakistan border is a lot more laid-back than I imagined but certainly no shorter for that fact. I tried as we crossed from India to convince the guards not to mark that Elliot was leaving the country this time as he'd been mistakenly issued a single- rather than multiple-entry visa and thus would not be able to cross back with us should he desire. We stopped four or five times on the Indian side before they allowed us to cross into the mile-long corridor to the Pakistani turf. Few more stops there, including a good 30 minutes in side the second-to-last one with all the processes done but the guards not telling us we could leave because they wanted to hang out. Rather than taking a taxi the 25 kilometers or so into town, we waited for the rickety bus with orders more sweaty people, extremely precise pothole-seeking radar, and at a fraction of the cost, who says there's no such thing as a good deal anymore?
We arrived in Lahore near the train station and, while waiting for Imad's friend Abed to pick us up, I was more surprised to find McDonald's and Pizza Hut right in the train station in what I had imagined would be a very un-Western country than I was non-at-all surprised that my bank card again wouldn't allow me any funds to purchase any said artery-clogging delicacies (I seem to be cursed when it comes to that sort of thing). We had a few minutes to hobo picnic in the park and run our heads under the nearby garden hose on this particularly-for-us but not-at-all-unusually hot day before Abed, Imad's roommate, gallantly arrived to whisk us away. Straight away we headed for The Friday Times, Imad's current place of employ. It had been several years since I'd seen my good friend (we were Senators together in ASUC at Cal) and his now-even-skinnier frame crunched that much more under duress of one of my hugs. How did he get so thin and why? Sir, we would soon find out.
Back to his childhood home that was abandoned and is now only occupied by the two young men, we could no longer pretend to be cool in the searing heat (as if our sweat-soaked shirts and dog-pant tongues didn't give us away already) and it was a race to strip to the skivvies and fight for prime real estate directly under the one AC vent for the house. This would become a common occurrence. We cleaned up nicely for the first time in a while (a mundane detail to the readers at home but legend'ry at the time even to this filthy traveler) and set off for dinner at a restaurant boasting one of the best views in all of Asia, if not the world, of a specular and massive old red mosque lit up at night, and in fact the second largest mosque in the world (demoted to runner-up only recently). The view is even nicer when taken in from different perspectives and I got to gaze upon the splendorous beauty from every angle possible on the soon-well-worn route from our table to the can. Wilbur is, as are most tapeworms, an avid connoisseur of fine art and architecture. It was a lovely evening of fine food, talk, hookah, and even a stroll through the how-the-heck-is-this-allowed-here red light district of Lahore (Imad's explanation: government officials are government officials everywhere). Imad and Abed would not let us pay for anything and we threatened to punch then for their repeated and extreme hospitality. This would become a common occurrence.
We set sail on foot for adventure on the town the next morning and spirits were buoyed as my appetite made a guest appearance. I was starting to understand how, between heat and various digestive maladies that are unavoidable barring a lifetime of acclimatization to bad water, Imad will be nothing more than a silhouette by the next time I see him again. The extra energy provided by an actual meal came in handy as we made stop after stop in and around Lahore's wonders. First was the previously-mentioned mosque, our feet burning as we raced across the considerable marble courtyard to the prayer mats. On the way in, as they alternatively admired and confiscated my guitar, and a young boy gave me a native bracelet as a gift, they asked us which country we were from. Imad and Abed had told us that, while Lahore is the safest and most "enlightened" cantonment in Pakistan, it was still a better bet to claim our motherland as Australia or England, both somehow believable due to our lingering mohawks, than admit our allegiances to the USA. Clumsy foreign policy and errant smart bombs over a population can engender less-than-charitable feelings about a country and its residents. However, call me stubborn or patriotic or unable to produce a passable "g'day mate" but I refused to hide or deny either my Jewish or American heritage while in Pakistan. Perhaps an easier dilemma than it could have been as Lahore was in a lull in between protests (the last one having been over the Danish cartoons), and I can imagine the temptation for some to deny their identity when faced with a very dangerous situation, but it just wasn't in me to show disrespect towards my country and people. Of course we were careful to steer away from religious or political conversations except among trusted friends (often a decent policy no matter the situation), and I only occasionally received awkward stares in response to my identity, never hostile, and mostly warm and curious.
We continued in with a "guide" we'd picked up (really just a guy from outside the mosque who liked my guitar and knew a little more about Lahore's history than did our two hosts) and passed through the old city, bazaar, royal bath house, and a mosque that an occupying king used to store horses until his health began to suffer and the best local doctor said give the site back to the people and WHAMMY! within two days he could see again.
We doused our heads with water, sang in an echo chamber, and Ryan lost half his body weight in the world's only saunatoilet. I was very excited to see each of the sites but, the lack of recent sleep and heat having taken a bit of a toll, I did lost myself to a short sweet slumber on an outer prayer mat in the next mosque. I was embarrassed that I might have shows unintentional disrespect but Imad claimed it as a good omen and went on about how wonderful it was that I could feel that at peace in the worship site of another religious. I do wish the folks at temple back at home felt that way, that fourth Yom Kippur service in the span of a day really does begin to drag the eyelids down.
We had left to climb to the tip top of the highest minaret in town and grab a tonga (horse cart) back to the car before we got to meet Imad's old coworkers at the Aurat Foundation, pick up supplies for that night's party in honor of us, and after another boxers-and-AC session, clean house in anticipation of the guests soon to arrive. Quite the eclectic collection of guests were soon to arrive to greet us, from the older crowd from Aurat to the philosophical Europeans to Imad's wacky menagerie of cousins to sassypants. Imad and I wore togas. No reason. Though our exposed biceps still didn't make us half the hit that Mr. Cohen was.
Over the river and through the woods, to Imad's grandmother's house we went to break fast the next morning. Having lived in the area through the British-Indian-Pakistani transitions, she possessed a wealth of knowledge and memory to share. We got Ryan all gussied up in ninjapants so that we could enter our mosque of the day and paid another visit to Imad's work. Soon, however, Abed whisked us 25 kilometers away to the border for the most spirited border-closing ceremony on earth. Each day at 6PM, when it comes time to shut the gates between Pakistan and India for the night, the guards are anything but content to let that happen quietly. Both sides fully dressed in their complete decorated regalia, chanting their slogans, high-stepping, chest-beating, musket-spinning, and mustache-twitching, and spurred on by the crowds on either side perched on the huge bleachers constructed specially for that purpose, I felt back in the student section in Memorial Stadium except for instead of clapping my hands above my head increasingly quickly on third down, I was hoping nothing went wrong as a misstep by a Cal Mic Man will likely never lead to nuclear war over the result of the Big Game. Partially to satisfy Ryan's pizza checklist and partially because I just can't find it in Cali anymore, we had a legend'ry meal at Uno Pizzeria with sassypants, and we finally reasoned our way into covering the bill under the logic "it's an American restaurant, so the Americans will pay". We then kept the spirit alive with a visit to the Sufi drumming complex. Sufi is the mystical sect of Islam, I believe similar in principle to Kabbalah in Judaism, and they induce mind-altered states by quite literally and rapidly turning about in circles very many times. Done to the rhythm if a few drums and singing chants, it was such a cool experience witnessing the "whirling dervishes" in actions, the spinning robes juxtaposed with the headbanging leaving the audience unsure whether to pray or put on flannel and mosh. As we noshed on the sticky sweet rice being passed about, we also appreciated the extra spiritual vibes and beats coming from the fellow in red, apparently quite a famous Sufi drummer and in Lahore only for a short engagement. It all climaxed in the big open square downstairs and as the attendants shoved spectators out of the way to make room for the spinning finale I was lucky enough to quickly befriend a group of young Pakistani men (the women were all off to the side in a semi-enclosure) who helped guide me out of the way of the trampling and into the front row of the circle where I could feel the hem of the robes whip by my face and the shock waves of the drums in my belly until it grew late/early and was time to go.
It was nearing the end of our days in Pakistan but we'd not yet gotten any more used to the heat than in the previous five days, plus Imad needed to get us off his hands for a while so he could meet his deadline at the paper, so we were dropped off at the pool (yay summer '93!) and I cannot even begin to describe how wonderful that was, my friends. We swam and explored the surrounding town until Imitaz came to collect us. Imitaz was one of Imad's friends from Aurat who had adopted me as his American son at the party a few nights hence because he and his wife had spent a bit of time in Moscow and we giddily spoke broken Russian in Pakistan like long-lost friends. He insisted we come to meet his family, and we got the honor of becoming acquainted with his wife and teenage daughter (both DJs, the latter the youngest in Pakistan) and young son. I spoke with the adults, the boys hit it off with the kids, and we all enjoyed our ice cream as the electricity faltered: load-sharing'll do that. Too soon, two other fellas from Aurat arrived to take us to Food Street where we again met Imad and Abed and happily/warily munched on the minced brains and testicles set before us. As we were amongst trusted company, I did get to participate in quite an interesting political conversation, though hushed as we were still in public. Not expecting to find this sort of perspective in a Muslim country, I learned that Abed, who used to live in Iraq under Saddam, was in favor initially of the war though disapproves of the way it has been conducted, and the older and larger funny man, who would have had no trouble blending into an NRA convention (he proudly showed us the gun he carries underneath the passenger seat in his car), was an absolute Bush supporter because he claimed that Bush was dealing with the Muslim world in the only effective way possible. Imad of course chimed in with all the anti-Bush points and it was enlightening, to say the least, to find such a diversity of political thought at one table in a sort of place where all that I had read, but sensed to be incomplete,suggested that the landscape was much more homogeneous than in America. Of course it makes sense: people are people, how can you really expect us all to agree on everything everywhere?
Imad made us carry him on our shoulders down Food Street when he'd arrived with the news that he'd arranged a pool party that night with more of his fun and attractive friends, but while I'm happy to carry my friends anytime, it would have been just as fitting had we dropped him in a mud puddle along the way. As we strolled into the Europeans' house for this shindig, we passed a kiddie poolfull of brackish brown water in the front yard and had a laugh remarking to each other "wouldn't it be funny if this was actually the pool". It was. And not funny at all at first, even less so when Skinny McEurope took a dip in only his this white clingy boxers, but grew more hilarious as we at least relieved them of their vodka. We felt like teenagers again making toasts as alcohol is not exactly allowed nor forbidden in Pakistan: Muslims may not indulge, Westerners can, foreigners can buy it but no one sells it. We got our few small bottles from the maintenance bay underneath a swanky hotel. Occasionally, there can still be a little trouble but with a little sweet talking like grandpa taught, it usually "amounts to nothing".
On our last day in Pakistan, we made sure to tag the last activity on our list, one that we'd been preparing for since India: playing cricket. We headed for the university grounds after a stop to buy tennis balls and white tape to cover them, as you do not want beginners hurling the real croquet-ball-hard cricket orbs. Our version of the game, being short-staffed, was definitely the sandlot variety, i.e. OK guys, you get 2 points for hitting it across the pavement, 4 for over the tree, and like 8 for a homer. Gotta say, both our hosts bowl a helluva wicket, they are even super spare on the wides, how's that for some cricket lingo! To further our last big of cultural immersion, we stopped by a play that was in progress. I thought it was about a magic genie found by a man who was a cross between Homer Simpson and Ricky Ricardo but it was in fact so rich in culture that both Imad and Abed also didn't get what was going on (it was in Punjabi, the language of the region, not Urdu, the language of the country that our hosts better know). They said it might have been about a matchmaker but in either case we all enjoyed it alike when the dude in the coat took off his sandal and beat the mustache guy with it for near 10 minutes. We did find it strange to be able to walk into a play not even halfway over by 11PM, but then we were even able to look into a bus ticket for Elliot up to Islamabad and Kashgar at 1AM ... Lahore may join NY (and St. Petersburg too) as the cities that never sleep.
We do sleep on occasion, however, though we started out latest slumber to get out on time to get back to Delhi that day. Wishing fond farewell and bon voyage to Abed and Elliot, Imad hauled Ryan and I out to the border where we big him adieu as well. We chilled at the way station for a good half-hour (border didn't open till 9AM: we had the Indian opening time on our minds and, just for fun, India and Pakistan are 30 minutes apart in the same place) before our frustratingly but surprisingly first real search of the trip (usually my guitar is enough to charm them into cursorily waving us by). On the Indian side, the border agent took us to the taxi union (which is why it cost three times as much going back as coming in) and hopped in to join us for the scramble to Amritsar to catch the last early train to Delhi. We were 40 minutes late but. hey, no problem, our policy of being bass-ackwards lucky ensured that the train was right there on the platform waiting for us. We were soon aboard and steaming full bore back to Delhi.

Moral of the Story: Don't judge a book by the media.
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