Trip Slag

Pakistan

The news said it was the worst bombing in recent years, twenty-two dead and over a hundred wounded. Bodies were flying everywhere, it said, bodies were flying at the height of twenty to twenty-five feet.

That morning we waited for our guests in a reception hall at the Capital’s most plush and fortified hotel, half-an-hour from the open-air market that was the site of the blast. Eighty-five had registered and confirmed, but seventy-plus were no-shows. The plush room was surreally empty, the exquisite buffet nearly untouched. During the seminar most of the few in attendance unstealthily sneaked out, so by midday I was presenting to only three, each one seated at their own table laid out for ten.

The event’s organizers were on and off phones and hurrying in and out all morning, yet they couldn’t explain the apparent failure. More likely, they chose to protect the information from the foreigner. Secrecy feigns control and order.

The quietude of our room stood in stark contrast to the rackety lobby, which functioned more as a luxury mall than a hotel’s reception. It also served as a hotspot for photographing wedding parties and a meeting point for VIPs allowed entry to the otherwise fortress. There were various ranks of armed security positioned about, which gave the sense that your sole presence was at all times being observed and tracked.

Once a cluster of secret police crossed the promenade. They were towering, muscular men wearing dark fatigues and military boots and all armed with AK-47s. Their sheer, navy t-shirts had the words No Fear in emboldened white lettering on the backs.

It wasn’t until the next afternoon after landing in Urumqi, China when I learned the news from a Dubai colleague. After our call, I phoned my other foreign colleague still in Islamabad. The bombing had been kept surprising and unneedfully hushed.

He overtly downplayed the tragedy. It was not something to be discussed—or at least not over an open line—but in reality never at all. “These sorts of things happen all the time and you never hear about them. Nobody hears about them.”

A bomb kills twenty-two and that is that.

——————-

Of the hundreds of people I met in Pakistan, most were eager to ask whether I felt safe there as an American. This was at first off-putting, but it soon became an expected icebreaker, along with other, more innocuous, questions like whether I ate spicy food or liked their country. To the safety gambit, I half-jokingly replied: “I felt much safer before everyone kept asking.” This proved the perfect reprieve to cease further small talk.

My safety was discussed so often, however, that sometimes I needed to engage in earnest on the topic. All I knew were the dribs and drabs I had half-digested from the Western media. But I didn’t feel there was one thing I could point a finger at and say that that was the issue. Admittedly, I might be the most naïve American to have ever been granted a Pakistani visa.

Interestingly, though, no one could, or at least would, relay any solid information. When I once asked the only American working at the international school in Lahore as to the source of all the perceived danger, she curtly retorted, “Are you kidding me?” So much for that. And so, my uncertainty—perpetuated by the constant queries into my well-being—lead my overly worked imagination to run wild with terrorist scenarios.

——————-

One dinner in Karachi was on the open-air terrace of a famous kebab shop. Even the short walk in and out of the dark parking area made me uneasy: met by intent stares of huddled loiterers dressed in traditional shalwar kameez and the filthy food vendors who dotted the near-vacant lot.

While eating, I drifted in and out of the table chatter, periodically entertaining visions of a grenade or Molotov cocktail being lunged onto our patio from the manic streets a stone’s throw below, where the unlit main thoroughfare blared with cacophonous traffic.

The next night my foreign colleague and I flew to Lahore where we were met by an unmarked hotel car. Ten minutes en route from the airport we were pulled over at a makeshift military checkpoint where two men with machine guns slung over their shoulders took our passports. They also took the driver, and the three of them slowly walked off the black road and into a distant, temporarily fixed trailer.

We waited in near-silence for five minutes, then another five. My colleague had been to Lahore many times but uneasily confessed that this was irregular. We exited the taxi and lightly paced about the area, each double-burning two cigarettes and periodically looking out towards the quiet office container, our ghostly white countenances only illuminated by the headlights of the odd-passing vehicle. After an unprecedented twenty-five minutes and with no explanation, we were again safely on our way.

The next day we held a seminar at an alcohol-free bar, where around bar stools the mixologists proudly shook up virgin cocktails concocted from juice. It felt as natural as a vegetarian restaurant that simulates meat dishes.

Because the event was publically advertised and there was no security preventing anyone from wandering in off the street, I naturally daydreamed about armed bandits bursting through the threshold and littering the room in a blaze of bullets. I even went so far as to identify the optimal places to seek cover and considered all possible escape routes. But this fantasy left me deflated, as I sadly concluded that the place was a venerable deathtrap. And so I regained consciousness, the guests still deep in conversation, and lounging around me on plush pastel sofas slurping virgin Piña Coladas.

But my paranoia was not abated when, after the day, colleagues advised against going downstairs and outside to wait for our hotel driver, instead insisting we remained perched in single file on the broiling, narrow second floor stairwell in anticipation of his call.

The next night we dined with clients at another open-air restaurant, this one atop a narrow and confined historic walk-up that once functioned as a brothel. The overly decorated small entrance way and crammed corridors featured erotic pictures, statuettes, handicrafts and paintings of prostitutes. The roof offered exquisite unobstructed views of the twinkling Badshahi Mosque, Pakistan’s largest house of prayer.

During the meal there was a power outage. With a snap of a finger the entire landscape went black, rendering a rooftop packed with diners, the world’s seventh largest mosque, and a labyrinth of ancient cobblestone streets all in instant darkness. It gave one the eerie and majestic sense of how civilization existed for so long in the absence of electricity. Restaurant attendants frantically placed candles about the terrace and then shined flashlights onto our invisible plates, piled pell-mell with a mélange of charcoaled meats draped in mouth-singeing gravies.

After dinner we strolled the ancient alleyways once home to Lahore’s red light district. I was told there were still brothels in operation, so it was naturally half-jokingly suggested that we explore some of these options. Such a notion made me giggle with dread. I could easily envision getting raided at a Pakistani whorehouse and the inevitably catastrophic results with all their humiliations and near, or not-so-near, death experiences. So, to this repeated proposal, which I insisted interpreting as jest, I dismissed the bulging white eyes and impish grins of our hosts without a whiff of interest.

The next afternoon we made the four-hour drive from Lahore to our hotel in Islamabad, a smooth open highway along magnificent mountainous countryside without checkpoints or other obstructions. The drive revealed the vast extent of the open border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which put me on guard when we stopped to refuel. Here I was met by the unfriendly stares of travelers from aboard trucks and buses, leaving my mind reeling with images of dread. But of course, yet again, I was absolutely fine.

——————-

Pakistan was at once fascinating and as equally unsettling. I was deeply moved—as I often am when I travel—by people’s kindness and hospitality. I had the pleasure of visiting three families’ homes and enjoying their incredible home-cooked feasts. I met hundreds of lovely people. Many have since kept in touch via Skype; so many in fact, that a good half of all my contacts are from the trip, which I’m sure is much to the chagrin of the NSA. While my fear wasn’t constant, it was still—however helpful or not—a most loyal companion.

I think Jiddu Krishnamurti says it well:

Fear is never an actuality; it is either before or after the active present. When there is fear in the active present, is it fear? It is there and there is no escape from it, no evasion possible. There, at that actual moment, there is total attention at the moment of danger, physical or psychological. When there is complete attention there is no fear. But the actual fact of inattention breeds fear; fear arises when there is an avoidance of the fact, a flight; then the very escape itself is fear.

And so, I can’t wait to one day again escape back to Pakistan.

The Taj Mahal

When you first set eyes on the Taj Mahal the sensation is absolute awe. As the sun sets and again rises, you have the privilege of exploring this marvelous behemoth, meditating on its splendor from multiple perspectives and heights. After your time is done, that precious moment fills you when you realize you must cast a parting gaze. This knowledge is joined by mixed feelings of nostalgia coupled with inexplicable swells of sadness. But those final seconds are also accompanied by a serene lightness before you inevitably journey on. To experience the stillness of the ages you must confront how your own days are so surely waning.

Two Fags

In China, smoking cigarettes is as common as in the US inhaling Doritos. And like the culture of gluttony in the States, the Chinese can proudly claim to be the world’s biggest smokers.

Cigarettes are major status symbols in China, no different from the cache that luxury cars or designer clothing carry in the West. Unlike in the West, however, where most brands of cigarettes are similarly priced, in China a packet of fags ranges from a few pennies to over a hundred dollars. And soft packs are priced higher than hard packs, a justification for which I have yet heard explained. Cartons of cigarettes are also gifted in exchange for favors, serving as unofficial currency.

Even when the Chinese currency was valued at 25 percent more than today, and not taking into account inflation and salary increases, cigarette prices have always had a huge range from the dirt cheap to the dizzyingly absurd. To put this in perspective, imagine stepping into a 7-Eleven where the cigarette display contained packs from 50 cents to a thousand dollars.

There’s also the starry-eyed, circa 1950’s notion that cigarettes are still somehow beneficial. Even in today’s purportedly developed Chinese society, the common thought is that cigarettes are relaxing and social. Naturally, none of the hundreds of brands sold in China contain a warning label. And at all major functions, like government banquets, wedding receptions, and ironically funerals, high-end brands of cigarettes will be piled around the table on saucers or left in their sealed boxes for guests to enjoy and smuggle into their pockets. At the entranceway to a wedding reception it is likely to be greeted with a cigarette by the bride and groom or child of the family. Everyone gets one, as if a party favor or lollipop after a visit to the doctor’s. People smoke in hospitals, classrooms, elevators, buses, nowhere is sacred.

I remember one brief hospital visit I had in the City of Changchun. I was hooked up to an intravenous drip and laid out on a gurney and left in a bare room that could have doubled for the set of the Saw movies. A well-dressed doctor eventually came to visit and as there were no chairs he propped himself on the edge of my wheeled cot and proceeded to hand me a cigarette. The two of us then shared a smoke and chatted about my medical condition while I laid on my back and watched the IV drizzle into my arm.

One justification I have heard for the prevalence of smoking is that cigarettes represent wealth. They are a throwback to a time not so long ago when smoking was equated with the status of having disposal income. So, sticking a cigarette in your face is literally a way of giving yourself face. And this antiquated “tradition” marches on through modern-day China. Cigarettes are also huge revenue streams for the government, accounting for a reported 7% of taxes and 1% of China’s GPD. These are the “official” numbers so they are probably higher. There’s no question that China’s cigarette industry keeps millions employed. However smoking related diseases also kill over 1% of the population each year, so like the one-child policy smoking also plays a less-than-bragged-about role in population control.

China even has a national cigarette, like the panda is their national animal. The brand is called “Chunghwa,” the very same famed cancer sticks that Mao choked until he expired. And successor Deng Xiaoping’s choice oral fixation was none other than a brand called “Panda.” You can’t make this shit up.

When I used to smoke cigarettes I remember buying a different brand with every purchase. There are literally hundreds of choices available and each box is designed with unique flare. Kid in a cancer store. One night at dinner I was with two well-to-do, loyal Chunghwa smokers. They noticed me toting a camouflage box of cigarettes and proceeded to mock me saying that I didn’t know anything about good cigarettes. I submitted to them that there was actually little discernible difference between most Chinese brands. Apart from there being strong cigarettes and light ones, price was the only noticeable divide. This remark drew only further derision, and with it the taste challenge was on.

I removed one of their soft-pack Chunghwas fags and then one of my own. Simultaneously lighting both, I told one of the guys to close his eyes. The mocking grew more acute and their laughter tightened. This was far too easy a game, it was just childish. And so Mr. Tang obligatorily shut his eyes while I delivered to his lips the first cigarette. It was his own. Following a pensive drag and exhale he nodded in wait for the second. And after a quick draw on my own inferior brand, he then boldly extolled that that was of course his treasured Chunghwa. I said nothing when he opened his eyes to have the embarrassing truth revealed, his friend aghast with hysteria and himself quick to take up the test.

And so we again commenced, again with eyes wide shut but now with cigarettes coyly switched in their order of delivery. I figured that even with a guess one of these two ninnies should toss the 50:50 odds. Add to their chances the strong likelihood that a devotee of one brand of cigarette should be able to perceive even the slightest difference in taste, if even in the feel of the filter. Something! I would have even bet against me. But as events would prove, the second contestant also guessed wrong.

It was a rare moment in my many years in China, a rare one indeed, when proof was served up and force-fed with absolute silence. No excuses were made. Everyone was quiet. It was really something to see. Nothing more of it was said. And I didn’t need to gloat. The cigarettes—as they usually do—got the last laugh.

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