Detained in Pakistan – or just being Muslim on a Friday afternoon (Part I of who knows)

The day before I turned 27, I found myself in Lahore, Pakistan.  I was staying with my grandmother, along with an aunt from America who also happened to be visiting at the time.  I had been to Pakistan many times before, but this trip was different; it was the first time I truly experienced the country.  I came on my own, without my parents, and I traveled outside our usual, family oriented destinations.  One could say I caught fleeting glimpses of ‘real’ Pakistan on this trip.  Or one could say I am just full of rhino sh*t, both adequately describe the situation.

Anyways on this day I was walking around the old city in Lahore, and I decided to try my best to blend it.  I had already been growing my beard for about a month by now, so it was decently long and dirty.  To complement this, I put on an average looking pair of shalwar kameez I had bought in the market for $4.  My touristy valuables (a lonely planet book and my camera) were placed in a sabzi tela, or a small white sac designed to hold vegetables, in an attempt to conceal them and my true identity.  Despite these efforts, I maintained my obligatory Redskins hat and a pair of overly large, ridiculous sunglasses that I had also just recently purchased.   To complete my appearance, I was rocking a nondescript pair of cheap sandals that actually proved to be rather comfortable.  I thought I looked pretty local, and in the rickshaw on the way out the driver did as well, that is until I opened my mouth and my halting, broken Urdu spoken in a Austrian accent gave me away (I have no idea how I developed an Austrian Urdu accent, I just did).  I quickly learned that if I just kept quiet no one would ever suspect me of being an outsider (as all Pakistanis by default wear Redskins baseball caps – it’s a glorious country).

After spending a good few hours randomly ambling through much of the old city and seeing the major sites, I came down to Mall Road, a major thoroughfare.  I saw a sign for the zoo and decide to stop by and check it out.  I toured it briefly, took a picture of a diseased rhino eating cotton candy, and exited back onto Mall Road.  It was the mid afternoon by now and I had had enough of walking, I was ready to return home.  At any rate my grandmother would be worried sick, she made my aunt call twice already during the day and I didn’t want to keep her much longer.

I hailed one rickshaw and explained where I wanted to go (after the first one I stopped had quoted me a ridiculous price).  This driver also started high, but went down to 70 rupees.  Given my extensive knowledge of the ins and outs of the rickshaw business climate in the summer of 2009, I was confident that 50 rupees would be a more acceptable price, a difference of 25 cents.  He refused to budge.  I had discovered from some of my travels that the best and least demanding bargaining tactic was simply to walk away.  That way if you were offering a fair price the driver would take you up on it as you were leaving to ensure some business.  Otherwise you were low-balling him too much and would offer a bit more to the next guy.  It was a simple application of the supply and demand graphs I had tattooed all over myself one wild night during my rebellious undergrad years – my econ major actually held an occasional practical use.   Often as soon as you begin to feign leaving or show disinterest, one becomes more desperate and accepts your price.  At least that’s how it worked much of the time in West Africa.  So I did that, but he didn’t seem to care and drove off.  I still thought 50 rupees was a good price, but decided for the sake of getting home I would pony up the extra quarter and take the next driver at 70.

There were not too many rickshaws forthcoming on this section of Mall Road, but thanks to my trusty lonely planet guidebook map I saw that there was a major intersection a bit up the road, which was the most logical route home anyways.  So I decided to make my way there, and if any rickshaws passed on the way I’d hail them down.  I jaywalked across the street quickly to get to the side I need to be on, and continued walking.  As I was walking I moved slowly, and kept peering behind me to see if any rickshaws were a coming.  I came to a small intersection to cross and saw some policemen up ahead.  Ignoring them I crossed the road, still looking back intermittently for approaching, vacant rickshaws.  The cops drove off down the road and I finished crossing the intersection.  I was apparently near some special building of sorts as this area was largely devoid of street vendors or pedestrians and the compound walls here were awfully high.  I knew there were some government buildings on Mall road, I had passed the High court and local assembly earlier, the scenes of recent protests, but thought nothing of it.  I had a semi-long distance to cover before I came to the major intersection and it didn’t seem like many rickshaws were plying this route, so I would have to go a bit quicker to get home soon.

Suddenly that police car, which was a five seater camry type with 3 cops in it, reversed in the middle of the road, slammed on the gas, and then came to a sudden stop right next to me.  I was a little startled by the change in movement.  The cops started rapidly firing question about where I was going in Urdu, a language that I should be fluent in from birth, but rather instead am quite conversationally limited.  I told them in broken Urdu I was trying to get to Gulberg III, the area where my grandmother lived.  They motioned for me to get in the car.  I briefly thought they saw that I was confused and a bit lost, and were offering me a ride home.  I quickly came to my senses and realized that could be in no way the case.  After an initial movement forward, I did not budge.  They slammed the car into park and all three cops jumped out.  Matters were intensifying rather quickly.

One cop began to frisk me, another had grabbed my tela, found my camera and demanded I turn it on for his viewing pleasure.  He proceeded to ask me questions about every picture, most of which, as I had been touring around Pakistan and taking photos of masjids (mosques) since there was much else to photographically capture in the country, went along the lines of “where is this masjid? Why do you have a picture of this masjid??”  Unfortunately Pakistan in the summer of 2009 was involved in a major war on terror of sorts, and recently masjids throughout the country had become particularly appealing targets for terrorist elements, thus explaining his suspicious demands about each and every of the 50 or so masjids I had digitally captured.

This was going on while the third cop was inspecting the ID card I had quickly thrown at him.  They were all barking questions out at the same time in Urdu,and I was going back and forth and back again in a vain attempt to keep up.  My Urdu as I mentioned is rather poor, trying to speak it rapidly in a high pressure situation surprisingly does not improve it much.   I  realized by this point that these fine young coppers had mistaken me for a terrorist or suspicious persons of a sort, a genuine mistake since I had so overwhelmingly succeeded in my attempts to blend in.  This would all be over when they understood the nature of my ID.  I had a POC (Pakistani origin card), which basically meant that I was a foreigner but of Pakistani bloodlines.  That was my trump card, and I produced it instantly when this madness began.  I figured as soon as they understood I was a foreigner, let alone an American, they’d let me go.  The gingerliness in which they had jumped out of the car and started accosting me had caught me off guard, but now I understood the situation and was ready to easily extricate myself the only the way I knew how, by explaining that I was not one of them.

The cop was inspecting my POC card and it was confusing him thoroughly, deservedly so.  It was issued by the Pakistani government, but apparently they never realized the point of having the card was to show to Pakistani authorities and not the foreigners themselves.  For that reason the entire card was basically in English.  As this cop obviously didn’t understand that language, it was essentially useless, and perhaps even look spurious, despite the fact that it clearly stated I was an (innocent) foreigner from America.  To that effect I produced my old never-expiring  Virginia Tech student ID and my Virginia state driving license, to further prove my point.  This only served to confuse them even more, and they began to wonder ‘why on earth does this guy have 3 different ID’s??’

to be continued . . .

Should've ridden the rare Pakistan zoo rhino home, bet they would've done it for less than 50 rupees if I pretended I didn't want it.

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“Accomodations” in Bissau – Part Three (of Three)

This place would require all that, plus more.  We began our usual preparations.  Even in our rooms we had to shout to communicate with each other.  Worse still, the room reeked of piss.  One look out the window to the lovely sight of multiple people peeing on it explained why.  I took three Benadryls, a never before used combination, but this night required some ultra-extreme measures.  I was setting up, having taken my Benadryl, hoping to get drowsy enough to pass out worry free soon – but then came to the conclusion that sleep would be essentially impossible at this juncture.  Disregarding everything else, the earsplitting music would prevent any sort of peaceful slumber, no matter how many Benadryls ingested.  So me and Diego knew what we had to do, there was no other option really.  If you can’t beat them, might as well join them.  Besides, we would need to be really hammered to even dream of sleep, and we were at a bar.  A bar that in fact served drinks cheaper than the restaurant we had just been to – we should’ve come home sooner.

Diego and I went out, in the midst of the brothel in full swing, ordered some drinks and sat down at a table.  We were immediately approached by various women, ostensibly looking for light conversation and nothing else.  Diego thought it would be funny to leave me there by myself for a few minutes, under the false pretense of going to the bathroom (on our window of course).  I had to rebuff a lady who looked pregnant and about 40.  This was obviously not the choosiest joint in the world of Bissauan brothels.  Most women in fact looked quite a bit older, or busted, or both.  But since this was Bissau’s sole budget option, in all its grandeur, I suppose the women were of similar mark.  Diego returned, the rest of the crew came out to join us briefly.  It was quite an interesting scene, though most women didn’t look like they would be getting paid tonight.  The girl to guy ratio was quite skewed, but occasionally some would be lucky enough to bypass the bouncer to the back rooms.  We temporarily tried to get people to pee elsewhere, to little avail.  All in all we got a few offers, politely declined (there was no room in the budget to all of a sudden start throwing prostitutes in the mix, regardless of how budget they themselves might be), finished our beers, decided we had had enough of this and successfully bypassed the bouncer on the way to our chambers.  I’m sure everyone left in the bar had a slightly different idea about what was going to happen in our rooms than we did, when first Bobby, Megan, and Jaime went back together, then Diego and I following ensemble a bit later on (we did hold hands as we left too, in retrospect that might’ve sent off the wrong signals).

The music went on until a little before dawn, around 5am.  I know that because I was awake the entire time.  3 Benadryls and many drinks couldn’t even put me to sleep around such mayhem.  We all got up, ready to leave as quickly as we could be.   There wasn’t much to do in the morning but reminisce on how crazy the night before had been, and on how slow we had been to catch on.  From the moment we arrived signs were abundant that this was an establishment of ill repute.  All the little things didn’t add up in our heads though, until they came colliding together in one big and sudden dawning.  The fact that none of us had weird rashes or condom wrappers on us the next morning was a positive sign (and yet, Megan would shortly thereafter develop a rash of sorts, but luckily we eliminated her before it infected the rest of the Shark Force community).  At the very least, our protective sleeping measures had paid off, despite the lack of actual sleep.

In the city of Bobo in Burkina Faso there was a street we liked to go out on often when we would get together in the city, taking much needed breaks from our alternate village lives.  There were a couple bars to sit at outside amidst food stands, with people constantly strolling up and down the strip.  We liked to call it Hooker Street, since it was so obviously populated with those that one would expect on such a street.  It was good people watching entertainment, comparing the various outfits and seeing who would be paying who.  It was full of shady characters, not a place you would go on your own prolly (though that was known to occur), but in a large group of volunteers where the feeling of invincibility was ever present.  Something crazy would always happen (fights, getting spit on, handicapped people dumping yogurt on various members of our clan, stealing the supplies of vendors who were perceived to have wronged us, ect.), and towards the end of our service we started thinking we should stop going there, but never did.  People would constantly harass you, but it was all part of the experience.  In the bars though, in the back, there were rooms.  We never went back there, but that was presumably where all these hookers were doing the brunt of their work, and more than likely not in the most hygienic of conditions (if the latrines were any indication of the emphasis placed on cleanly appearances, then the rooms were prolly significantly beyond vile).   Our last night in Bissau was like sleeping on Hooker Street in Bobo, in all its disgusting glory.  A fun place to have a beer perhaps, but not ever somewhere where you would want to reside.  Too bad during my altered state, a lady of the evening to dawn hours convinced me to sign a 10 year lease, specifically upgrading to the pee-window (something about the ‘view’).  Just another example of learning my lesson there time and time again, and not even the Lonely Planet nor Benadryl could save me.  Guinea-Bissau, prostitutes and all, always wins.

“Accomodations” in Bissau – Part Deux

The loud music wasn’t near our hotel, it was our hotel.  The old decrepit courtyard bar that looked like it hadn’t seen much action this side of WWII was in full swing.  Furthermore, one quick look around put this whole establishment in its correct place.  This “bar” was filled with Bissauian women dressed rather provocatively for this part of the world (or any part really).  Not a single one was wearing something that effectively hid the inner thigh, more or less a shirt that covered the majority of their chests.  Oh there were a few men here and there, but mostly they were by themselves, surrounded only by such women, or had one sitting on their laps.  This, the place we would be spending the night, was clearly a brothel.  A disgusting, downtrodden, shady brothel at that.  It was all becoming clear now – the silky satin sheets, the lack of other customers during the day, the lady’s perplexity by our interest in passing the evening and showering here, and the shifting price of the room dependent on what time we departed.  The entire area had transformed greatly, but the signs were there all along.  As run down as the courtyard had been , you could barely tell now as the blaring music blocked all other senses.  This was going to be an interesting evening, and we were clearly not inebriated enough for it yet.  Good thing we were at a bar.

We must’ve stood there staring for at least five minutes, and a few of our fellow patrons stared back, equaling wondering as we did, how the hell did we end up here?  Damn you Lonely Planet!!  You’ve wronged us or led us astray before, but not like this.  It wouldn’t have taken that much extra effort to add another sentence about Bissau’s single budget accommodation, stating that “and in the evenings it doubles as a brothel for the city’s most desperate and income challenged.”  That is kind of a crucially omitted detail when reviewing a place.  Evidently the author of the Guinea Bissau chapter took one look at this dump, scribbled out a few platitudes so there would be some sort of budget accommodation they could list, and never bothered to check out the place after the sun set (or did, had a grand time here for hours, quickly became a most valued customer, and then permanently blocked it from his mind).  At any rate, we were stuck here.  We had already paid for the evening, and damned if a brothel in full swing was going to scare us away from that deposit.

We collectively realized what had transpired, thinking back to events earlier, and placing them together piece by piece – they were such telling signs that we had been patently oblivious to.  How could we have been so dumb?  Oh well, time to deal with the consequences of groupthink (or lack there of).  We walked through the courtyard, eliciting many a stares.  Perhaps a couple random white guys showing up in the mood for degenerate fun wouldn’t have made such a scene, but here we were, already with rooms, bringing in our own white women.  What kind of weird tourists brought their own women to a brothel?  No matter, we made it through the bar, past the bouncer collecting money at the front of the hallway sitting behind a recently appeared desk, and into our rooms.  We got there and laughed.  We had to laugh, there was nothing else to do.  We couldn’t stop laughing in fact.  We joked about all the STD’s that were floating around in the air, and how we’d never be clean again (though considering us to have been clean in the past was debatable).  It may not have been a laughing matter, but that was our only recourse at this point.

There was a process we went through for sleeping in dirty places like this.  Whoever was on floor duty between Diego, Jaime, and I was usually actually the lucky one, as they got to set up the one tent we had, further insulating them from wanton pestilence.  We would have to light multiple mosquito coils, as the place would inevitably be poorly insulated and thus swarming to the brim with them.  I would push deep down my fear of insects, and suppress any rumination as to their possible existence.  We each had our own thin sheet of sorts that we would place over whatever bedding had been provided (if any).  I would put on much clothing before lying down, ignoring the heat and my profuse sweating, to ensure that all possible parts of my body were protected from touching anything.  That meant a full pair of pants, socks, and a long sleeve shirt.  Also important was chucking away whatever pillow was there, and resting my head on my own collection of dirty clothes instead, trying not to turn as much as possible so my face would remain out of physical contact with the bed.  Only my hands were exposed, and I would usually fold my arms and sleep on them to prevent them from wandering about.  Bug repellant was applied liberally everywhere, even though most of my body would be covered in clothing anyway.  I tried to become as close to a mummy as possible (The Rock has nothing on me).  To top it all off and to put the mind at ease, drugs were insisted upon.  A drug specifically, our one of choice for all sorts of ailments.  We would all pop a Benadryl or two, helping us to pass out as soon as possible, so we could wake up and be gone as soon as possible.  All in all quite a process, but one that did keep us (most of us at least) relatively disease free throughout the trip, in pure defiance of some of the  establishments we engaged along the way.

to be continued . . .

“Accomodations” in Bissau – Parte Uno

On our way back from the burgeoning narcotics transit point that was the Bijagós Islands, to Guinea-Bissau’s capital city (Bissau), we were a bit stuck for lodging.  The Shark Force didn’t want to pony up the budget-busting funds to crash at the place we had stayed on our way out ($50/room), or any one of the similar type of hotels around.  Bissau has a not so surprising lack of budget options, and with our somewhat surprisingly lack of cocaine money, that left us in a rather deep fried pickle.  The Lonely Planet guide (aka our bible) did mention one, single, hard to find yet cheap option in all of the city.  It was before noon and we had time, there wasn’t much to do in Bissau anyways (we already walked most of the city during our previous afternoon here).  We were basically bidding our time until tomorrow when we would leave for Ziguinchor, Senegal, as it was too late to start that journey today.  So the five of us could afford to run around Bissau trying to find a cheap place to crash for a night, it gave us something to do at the very least.  We hopped in a cab from the port, and attempted to have him take us to wherever it was the LP told us to go.

We drove seemingly in squares around the main market for a while until the driver ostensibly got fed up.  He randomly stopped, and told us this was it.  We looked around and there didn’t seem to be any structure that was hotel-like.  He insisted, but we persisted in our hesitance to disembark.  We tried to communicate without much Portuguese to a couple people on the streets, and they pointed towards a place not too far away.  Perhaps the old, crabby taxi driver man was correct after all, or perhaps he was late to a tickle fight with a newly-installed Colombian drug lord, that he so rudely did not invite us to.

Upon entering the place we would be residing for this fine evening, we saw a rather spacious courtyard that looked like it might have been, at best, the scene of an already decrepit bar decades ago.  It was quite rundown, and now served as no more than a large area to hang laundry.  But there were some chairs strewn about, and it seemed like a passable spot to bring back a few drinks and chill.  Through the decaying courtyard was a short, narrow hallway leading to a larger and more open adjacent hallway, with rooms lined on either side.  This was the hotel part, it existed after all.  We had our doubts from the outside, and even the beginning of the inside, but our bible could never steer us wrong.

We met an old lady who spoke mostly Portuguese, but understood a few key words in French.  She showed us two rooms at the end of the hallway, with the back windows facing out to the courtyard.  She seemed a bit surprised to see us, we couldn’t tell if it was the usual “hey there’s white people here (aka foreigners),” or if it had more to do with the fact that this entire place looked like it was falling apart (and in fact was in most areas).  Not to mention that it was completely vacant at the moment, and we were quite possibly the first tourists to pass through since the wild, cassava-filled, decade long run of MTV Spring Breaks in Guinea Bissau, during the late 1870’s.  She must’ve thought we were a bit mentally insane to choose her establishment, but we thought it was financially insane to go back to where we were before.  This place was listed in the Lonely Planet as Bissau’s sole budget option, so it had some credibility to it.  For the city of Bissau, with their bizarrely high hotel prices, it was a decent deal at 8,500cfa ($17) for the room.  But compared to what we paid in other locations on this trip (usually less than $10/room), it was pot-holed highway robbery.

There was one double bed in each room, with silky black and blue sheets.  The rooms were rather dark, with little light coming through the musty window.  There was of course no electricity or running water, nor even a monkey butler serving tea.  In the corner was a bathroom-type structure, replete with a useless toilet and nonfunctional shower/sink.  The entire room had the appearance of being quite dirty, perhaps the darkness covered much of it up, but the air had a stank-ass smell to it.  If ever there was a place worthy of being the quintessential African definition of seedy, this would prolly be it.  To be frank it was utterly disgusting, and it already took the prize for worst place we would sleep in.  But in its favor, it was relatively cheap and we would only be spending one lone night before heading north early tomorrow morning, so it would do.  We asked the lady for some water to bucket shower.  It took some creative gesturing as we all pretended to shower in front of her for a good five minutes, and she was quite perplexed in initially, but eventually she did supply two buckets full of a light brown watery substance (best not to think about it).  She was a bit more confused when we said we would be staying here until tomorrow morning, as oddly enough her price seemed change depending on what time we were leaving.  At any rate, we decided to put our stuff down, wash and shower up, then go out on the town for the afternoon/evening (spending as much time outside the room as possible).  We could now use the accommodation money we were saving on drinks, so when we came home we were nice and oblivious enough to ignore the sewage pit we willing decided to sleep in.

After whiling away the time until well into the evening at some of Bissau’s most happening spots (I think I saw 8 people together in a room at one point), it was time to stumble on home and pass out in our explicitly non-luxurious conditions.   We started our trek back, somehow remembering our way across the city, and turned the corner at the now deserted market that our hotel of sorts sat next to.  We briefly considered ourselves to be misplaced as we heard intensely distorted and ear-splitting music, but continued on.  We wondered who on earth was having a party that extreme (EXTREME!), but only for a moment, as such matters occupy the tried, inebriated mind fleetingly.  But a funny thing happened that none of us could accurately explain at the time – the closer we walked towards our night’s final residing place, the louder the music seemed to become.   Great, our accommodations must be next to some bar; hopefully they don’t rock out ‘til the wee hours.  Sure explains the budget prices though (well actually the appearance alone explained the budget prices – in fact people prolly should’ve been paying us to stay there, as like a dare or something, but alas we didn’t really know people).  So we continued walking, the music continuing to get louder and louder.  We were at the courtyard entrance about to walk in, and could barely even communicate to the person standing next to us.  We entered and all stopped in our tracks, jaws gaping wide in disbelief.  It all made sense now.

to be continued . . .

The bombed out Presidential Palace in Bissau. If that was the state of the (former) official residence, imagine the nature of our budget accommodations!