The Proposal (Part II of life!)

Ethiopia!

Fast forward to our trip.  Lalibella was cool, but definitely not the place for this.  Next up was Bahir Dar, which I felt would be more appropriate.  We arrived and planned to spend three days there.  The first one was just hanging out, the second going to the Blue Nile Falls in the afternoon (where I would do my deed), and the third touring around Lake Tana in the boat and visiting the monasteries in the area.

On our second day, in the afternoon, I sneakily put the ring in my side pocket as we left our hotel room to grab the bus for the falls.  We were waiting around the lobby for a bit, when the manager of the hotel told us the weather out at the falls was very rainy right now and it would be a bad time to go (it was the wet season in Ethiopia at the time).  I, however, really wanted to push on regardless, given my pre-arranged plans.  But he assured me we could go in the afternoon tomorrow instead, after touring the lake in the morning.  I asked “but what if it rains tomorrow,” as we had to leave the day after that, meaning I would have to devise a new plan.  But he assured me, “oh, it won’t rain tomorrow.”  With that, we instead toured some sites around Bahir Dar that afternoon, which involved a small walk to a viewpoint of the city.  I still had the ring in my pocket and was seriously contemplating making a move then, but thought it best to stick with my gut and the original plan.

The next day we met our tour guide in the morning, and proceeded to go in a boat around Lana Tana’s monasteries.  It was a resounding failure, and put us in a really bad mood.  To begin, our guide was a rookie, this was literally his first time taking people around.  That was fine enough, I like giving people chances (unless they are pilots or pedicurists).  He was very nice and spoke English well, though he had a hard time understanding us.  What we thought we understood though, was that he was our guide, and not just someone tagging along for the ride.  He apparently did not seem to understand that last part, and once we got to the first monastery, he explained that we would have to pay for a new guide there.  All he had literally done was sit with us for a 45-minute boat ride across the lake, making awkward small talk.  It was a bit of a fiasco, and we wound up paying for new guides, refusing to pay him, getting reimbursed by the hotel manager for the new guides we paid for, then ultimately paying him his fare, even though he provided absolutely no value to the morning whatsoever (the boat driver, supposedly ‘unskilled labor’ as our guide implied, spoke better English and knew more about the area than he did).  We also cut the morning tour short, because we were incensed at the idea of paying for a new guide at each and every monastery (we were supposed to visit anywhere from three to eight).  So we arrived back at home not in the best of moods.  Not the way I had imagined the morning of the day we would remember for the rest of our lives (though in my imagination there were also a lot more dinosaurs carrying exotic cheeses around).

After getting some lunch out in town, we walked back to our hotel to get ready for the trip to the Blue Nile Falls (and pray that various Ethiopian rain gods in fact did not exist).  On the way back, a group of three young female tourists stopped us on the side of the road and asked us if we were Spanish.  That was an odd question, but many people in Ethiopia had assumed we were Spanish so far on the trip, though usually other Ethiopians (to their credit though, I did happen to be fighting a bull while taking a siesta on a bed of paella at the time).  We said no, and they seemed a bit dejected and puzzled, which made me wonder why they were wandering the streets of Bahir Dar looking for Spanish tourists.  But then they asked if we were going to the Blue Nile Falls this afternoon.  We said yes and they were less dejected (however I became more so).  They said they might come along on our trip as there were empty spots in the car.  Great I said enthusiastically out loud, but sarcastically inside.  Before we had been the only ones signed up, and I obviously was hoping for a little privacy.  But they were just getting lunch now and we were scheduled to go soon, so I figured they wouldn’t make it back in time, and we would indeed be on our own.

We got back to the hotel and were ready for our 3:00 departure.   The three female tourists, who we discovered were from Israel, were nowhere to be found.  This was looking good.  However we did not depart at 3:00, but instead waited around for some time.  This is what happened the previous day, before we ultimately were not able to go.  I was preparing for the worst, and began racking my brain for other suitable locations on our trip.  However once all hope was lost, the manager decided that we were leaving.  It seemed like it would only be us and we headed for the car . . . when we saw the three Israeli tourists enter the hotel compound and walk right into the vehicle.  We were all in it together now I suppose (though in some ways, this development technically gave me some backup options in case Christine felt more ‘seasick’ than overjoyed).

Lallibella is sweet!

to be continued . . .

The Proposal (Part I of life!)

The Lead Up

Around the sixth month of the twelfth year in the second millennium of our Gregorian calendar, the time had come for two things in my life: to visit Ethiopia, a country that fascinated me, I had extensively studied, and desperately wanted to experience, and to finally ensure that the girl of my dreams would not be able to run away in the middle of the night (or at least make it a bit more legally complex for her to do so).  I had been thinking about the latter move for some time, as many of my previous excuses had run dry.  I was now out of school, in a stable job, and attaining financial independence.  I even had health insurance and a retirement plan.  In other words, I was the ‘realest’ person I knew, so it seemed like the right time to become ever ‘realer.’

However, despite thinking about such moves for a short while, I hadn’t acted upon them.  I wanted to do something special, despite it not really being my nature, as I assumed I would have to tell this story for the rest of my life (hence why I am writing this, to eliminate that necessity).  You see, Christine and I had met many moons ago on a study abroad trip in South Africa.  Following, we both did the Peace Corps in West Africa, I in Burkina Faso, she in Benin (Christine did a Fulbright in Burkina as well).  So despite the fact that I wouldn’t necessarily say we are full-fledged Africa-philes for life (more just enjoy anything international), Africa has significantly defined our relationship.  I thought it only logical for the next step to involve the continent as well.  I had toyed with the idea of going back to our old college hangouts in Charlottesville and doing it there, but that was too normal.  A nice restaurant in DC just seemed boring, and my dream of doing it on Mars was about 83 years premature (as patient as Christine is, even I doubted she would wait that long).  Thus when I got word that I was going to be spending a week in Kenya taking a course for work, I started to scheme.

If I was going to Kenya, then I was going to neighboring Ethiopia as well (it was a package deal for me).  I cashed in all my paltry vacation days to ensure I would have two full weeks to romp around (I was previously more accustomed to the frequent three month travel stints during my extensive time in the not-so ’real’ world).  Now that that was done, arranging a trip to the country I had studied so much, and the region I want to focus a large part of my career on, I had to figure out how to get Christine there.  That, unsurprisingly, was easy.  You see, convincing Christine to take a trip abroad to a country she has never been to is a fairly easy enterprise (it happens to be a bit trickier if that country is a focal point in our generational ‘war on terror,’ a la Pakistan, but not impossible!).  She also just so happens to work as a contractor for the World Bank, where she is ‘forced’ to take three months off a year.  We should all be so lucky.  So when I PROPOSED the idea that she come meet me in Ethiopia, about eleven minutes later she had a plane ticket.

These events took place around March or April of 2012.  Now that I knew we were going to Ethiopia, I had to first of all ignore the constant pleas from everyone else around me to ‘lock her down before it’s too late,’ (I informed essentially no one of my plan) and figure out where/when to ask the proverbial question.  Despite having studied Ethiopia’s external relations extensively, I knew very little about the country from a tourist’s perspective.  After flipping through a Lonely Planet book a bit, we decided we would head north during our travels, visiting some old Christian churches hand carved completely from large stones in the ground (Lalibella – look it up), a small town on the shore of Lake Tana near many old monasteries and the Blue Nile Falls (Bahir Dar), and another city known for its medieval castles (Gonder).  Those all sounded like awesome places, so it was hard to pick which one might be best for such an occasion.  I initially thought Lalibella, but decided against it once I realized how touristy it might be (wasn’t as much as I had imagined, but a bit – like popping the question at your local TGIF, but on a Tuesday).  I then thought Lake Tana might be a nice place.  However that consists of a day-long boat trip around the massive lake visiting various monasteries, and Christine doesn’t do so well with boats.  I wanted to avoid a situation where she would mistake the seasickness in her stomach for how she felt about the prospects of my offer.  Thus, I felt the Blue Nile Falls might be the best option, but I resolved to more or less play it by ear once we got there, in case a more opportune situation arose.

Now that I had decided to go forward, found a location in Africa, and schemed to get Christine to that location, there remained a slight issue of obtaining a ring.  I am not much of one to dole out a month’s salary for the blood of an African miner (sorry, little diamond editorial!), and the odds that I would be able to identify a ring suitable to Christine were perilously low.  However, luckily I had another viable, and more meaningful, option.  In my village in Burkina Faso, there was a man who used to make rings out of coins.  One day when Christine was visiting me, we went and hung out with him for a bit.  We watched as he made two rings out of CFA (Burkinabe coins) and gave them to us.  It was pretty cool to see the coin, and then see him do the labor to turn it into something cheap machines at tourist traps do in America (in fact I told him if he ever wanted to come to America, he’d make a great machine).  But then, as we were talking with him and admiring his handiwork, he unveiled an old gold coin from Ghana, likely from colonial times.  It was awfully shiny and he said he had been saving it for a special occasion.  Us hanging out at his little corner was apparently enough of a special occasion.  I felt bad, but he insisted on using this coin he had been saving for so long, and turned it into a gold ring right before our very eyes.  Though it didn’t look like anything overly special (and in fact it turns Christine’s fingers green), it meant a lot to us, and was pretty cool as we were an integral part of its formation.  He gave it to me, ostensibly thinking I would know what to do with it, but rather it sat in my closet for over five years.  Now was the perfect time to bring it out of the woodworks.

This might’ve been a nice time to do it

Sirens and scams in Ethiopia – Part ፪

Now I pride myself on being an aware traveler and realize the majority of the people so overtly approaching me on the street in not so wealthy countries have motives ulterior of pure friendship.   However the wonders of Ethiopian hospitality has been stressed to me many times past, and I had no reason to suspect this situation was anything but.  At any rate Isaias worked at the hotel, had not mentioned anything about money or anything else out of the ordinary thus far, and generally passed my personal gut-check of a vetting process.

So we continued walking, stopping at a few phone kiosks.  Isaias would say a few sentences to them in Amharic that extended beyond my 20 word vocabulary, but nothing would happen and we would leave.  It seemed like he was genuinely trying, but despite how easy I had heard it was to get a phone unlocked in Addis, was not meeting much success.

We made a left at a major roundabout that I had remembered from my walk home from the airport.  I was now truly in unchartered waters, the place looked a bit more residential.  We kept walking farther away from what I knew so I felt compelled to make sure the coffee shop was not too far away, as I had limited time.  Isaias reassured me that it was just up the road.

Isaias greeted someone on the road and right after we entered a residential courtyard.  I was a bit confused as to why we were not at some café, but followed him in regardless.  There were two pretty girls dressed in ‘traditional’ clothing standing in the courtyard.  We greeted them as we entered, they seemed happy to see us and even spoke to me a bit in broken English.  We went inside and greeted an older lady before sitting down on a couch.  This was not quite the café I had expected, but assumed it was prolly Isaias’s house.  I reasoned that we must have become such good friends that he bestowed upon me the ultimate honor of inviting me into his home instead!  I mean, who doesn’t become such good friends with me within 10 minutes of engrossing mind-altering conversation (typically about cell phone logistics)?  I must just be that good at relating to Africans, even after nearly 5 years out of the game.  Thus were the self-inflating thoughts running through my mind at this point of time, taking the place of the arousing suspicions that should be been present instead.

We sat down the couch and now there were three girls standing next to us, swaying from side to side.  An older man in a lab coat also came out and greeted me.  Isaias’s father?  The chemist?

It must’ve been when the girls did not sit on the couch but instead remained standing that made me a bit curious.  The lab coat did not really help matters either.  I felt compelled to be reassured, so I turned to Isaias and asked “is this your house? Is that your mother?”  To his credit and perhaps ultimately folly, he truthfully replied “no, this is the place where we can drink coffee and see the girls dance.”  Alarms bells finally shrieked throughout my brain and flashes of the ‘siren scam’ text from the Lonely Planet appeared vividly in front of me.  I realized I was in that exact situation, how on earth had that happened?   It was obvious, a polite well-dressed young male approached me, invited me to coffee, and took me to a house.  It was all so textbook and I couldn’t believe that is where I found myself at that very moment in this world.

I immediately decided I needed to get out.  I had two choices – I was seated at the outer end of the couch near the door and was in a position to make a run for it, or I could try to somehow leave in a more polite and less blatant manner.  If I failed at one I couldn’t really do the other and would probably be in an even worse situation, as my intentions to get the hell out of there would be well known.

I turned to Isaias and attempted to calmly explain that I had to go, I had no time and needed to call a friend I was going to meet soon.  He pulled out his phone so I could make the call and not have to leave, but I firmly, yet politely insisted I had to go to a telecenter to do it.  Isaias’s was resisting, he replied “you don’t even have 10 minutes for coffee?”  I continued and made motions of getting up.  Isaias, to my surprise, said ok.  I quickly got up, thanked the not-so-smiley-anymore girls, and exited the courtyard without looking back.  Isaias followed me out.

I had fully expected there to me some sort of showdown and much more aggressive resistance to my leaving.  I was certain I was going to be held against my will until I paid an exorbitant sum to secure my exit.  A scene was going to erupt, this was going to take time, and Christine would not even know where I disappeared to.  I did not even have that much money on my person – I had no idea how it was really going to go down but I expected the worst.  But now that I was out, I wasn’t going to think twice about it.  I quickly turned to Isaias once we were about 10 yards from the courtyard, thanked him and said I would go back now and find a telecenter.  I expected him to resist further, follow and harass me as I attempted to get back onto the main road as quickly as possible.

He asked me if I knew the way, then asked “something for me,” and for “for the entrance.”  I knew that code but wasn’t going to give him anything.  I said “I can’t, I don’t have that much.”  To which he bluntly got to the core of the matter by asking, “Ok, how much do you have? 100 birr for the entrance.” (I had left with the idea of unlocking my phone and buying a SIM card, he surely knew I had some money on me).  I again politely but firmly resisted, and called his bluff.   “Ok, well I’ll get you back at the hotel when I see you there.”  He relented at that comment, and I quickly turned to walk in the other direction, saying “ok I’ll see you back at the hotel next time.”

I walked as quickly as I could to the main road, recounting what had just happened.  I could not believe I fell victim to such a naïve practice, but also could not believe I had gotten out of there unscathed.  It could’ve been much, much worse.  I had no recourse once I had entered the house, had they chosen to ‘block’ my exit.  I had not phone to call, no one knew where I was, and in fact I didn’t even really know anyone. As I made my hurriedly made my way back, I was paranoid the entire time that Isaias would be following me, or call some people to come ‘get’ or mug me.  He was reaching for his phone as I left, but luckily I made it back to the main road rather quickly and seemingly with no tails.

On the way back I felt so pathetic and duped.  How could I have been so silly, was I really that long out of the game?  I began replaying the incident in my head to see where I went wrong and came to the conclusion that Isaias prolly did not work for my hotel at all.  He seemingly knew some pertinent details, but in reality he mentioned nothing specifically at all about the place I was staying at and very well could have made the whole thing up.  The ‘tall Swiss couple’ comment was the most convincing, but really I had no idea if there were any tall Swiss people in Ethiopia or elsewhere, ‘twas impossible to verify (Note: I left the next day and stayed at a different hotel upon my return, but I did not see Isaias there afterwards).

I was near the hotel now and realized I was completely empty handed.  How was I going to explain this to ‘sleeping beauty,’ how incompetent did I look?  I passed by a small child selling toilet paper, I figured I might as well buy some to demonstrate I accomplished something at least.  So I acquired a roll, made it back home, attempted to explain the fruits of my past hour – that is, why I left with an unlocked SIM card-less cellphone, but returned with an unlocked SIM card-less cellphone and an unwarranted roll of toilet paper.  The whole thing made me realize I sorely need more travel ‘practice.’  Good thing it was just the first day of our two week journey, there was nowhere to go but up (or out, the next time I fall for such a silly scam)!

Note: while I did manage to conduct the toilet paper transaction more or less in crappy Amharic, salvaging some sort of dignity, we never once had to open it over the course of the trip.  Another great victory indeed.

Sirens and scams in Ethiopia – Part ፩

I truly enjoy being in Africa and plan on returning at some point to spend a good chunk of my life there.  After nearly 2.5 years with the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso I also pride myself on being comfortable there and able to navigate the chaos.  However my first full day in Ethiopia reminded me that after not setting foot on the continent for 4.5 years, I was sorely out of practice.

I was staying in Addis Ababa for a night, before heading up north to see the sights of Ethiopia.  My girlfriend had arrived on an overnight flight that morning and wanted to take a nap in the afternoon, giving me a chance to wander around on my own for a bit.  We had an old locked cellphone and wanted to change that, thus giving me a mission of sorts.  It was a Sunday afternoon and many stores were closed, meaning I might have to venture a ways from our hotel.  Sounded like good fun to me.

The Lonely Planet book for Ethiopia (or as many Ethiopians referred to it as the ‘foreigners bible), has a little cutout box titled the ‘Siren Scam,’ that oddly enough Christine had focused upon while flipping through earlier that morning.  While trying to avoid plagiarism, the basic idea goes like this: a nicely dressed young male would approach a tourist, and make friendly small talk.  The tourist would be exuberant to connect on a personal level with a ‘local’ and relish the opportunity to expand this nascent friendship.  The young gentleman would then invite the tourist for a cup of coffee and to see the ‘traditional’ ceremony behind the process.  The tourist would quickly take up the idea, the two would go off to a house, coffee would be drunken, ceremonies would be performed, and everyone would live happily ever after in eternal bliss.  That is of course until matters turns to business, in which the young, well dressed gentlemen who befriended said tourist would not be so gentlemanly.  Demands upwards of 1000 birr would be demanded for what the tourist thought was pure hospitality (note: an average cup of coffee in Ethiopia can run about 5 birr, or less than 30 cents).  The tourist would be trapped at in a bad situation, and basically be forced to ‘pay’ his or her way out.  A nice introduction into the Ethiopian hospitality of Addis if there was one (Note: 13 out of every 11 people I wound up interacting with in Ethiopia were just like people I met everywhere – super nice, friendly, helpful, and politely willing to ignore my lack of knowledge regarding the deodorant-al arts).  Anyways I dismissed the text as being for ‘inexperienced’ travelers and not people like me – I would never fall victim to such an obvious scam given my years of experience, and thus did not need to pay much attention to it.

That side note aside, I set out from our hotel, wandering aimlessly in the direction of the airport.  After about a block (I made it real far) a man who had been walking parallel to me suddenly noticed my presence and turned his head.  He smiled and asked “do you remember me?  I am working at the hotel.”  Now when I arrived at my hotel the previous night there was a crowd of about 8 Ethiopians hanging out in the courtyard.  It was dark and I did not take note of everyone’s appearance, but rather just talked to the manager and got the key to my room.  So while I did not recognize this young man, I also did not want to offend him by making him aware of that fact.  Thus I deftly ignored his question, but rather asked how he was doing and struck up that low key general friendly conversation that I am known for (Note: “dinosaurs” was the fourth word of my mouth, proceeded by a “do you like?”).

Turns out his name was Isaias and he was on his day off, walking in the same direction I was.  He asked if I had come with the tall Swiss couple, to which I replied I was unaware neutral people were allowed to grow above a neutral size and expressed that someone should prolly do something about that.  Moving quickly on, I asked how long he had been working at the hotel and he said two and a half years.  I feigned impression, saying two years was a long time.  He corrected me, reminding that it was “two and a half years.”  At any rate he seemed legit enough and connected to the hotel, so I felt a level of trust and confided in him my mission.

I told him I needed to unlock my phone and get a SIM card, tasks necessary to impress a sleeping girlfriend and remind myself that I could still get things done in Africa after such prolonged absence (at some level I felt I needed to ‘prove’ this to myself, to show that I hadn’t changed at all since my Peace Corps days – for better or worse).  He said I would need two photos to register a SIM card, and I remembered I was in a country where security concerns can predominate at times.  That and I am brown with a Muslim name – might make that four photos.  He took out two photos from his wallet and offered to register on my behalf.  I considered, but did not wish to really have him hang out throughout the seemingly lengthy process but rather just point me in the direction I needed to go – I had some photos back at the hotel anyways.  Rather if he could show me a store now I could get the phone unlocked, and later buy a SIM card with my own photos.

We continued to walk down Tele Bole Road in the direction of the airport together.  Isaias broke out his phone as if to make some sort of call but did not talk to anyone.  He also stared intently at this piece of paper from his wallet for about a minute, but put it back and didn’t say anything.

We proceeded, I did not really know where I was going anymore and wondered if I should continue walking with him or try my luck in some other direction.  Isaias mumbled something about a SIM card, and then mentioned a cultural festival involving dances from the countryside that was being held today, and only today –  he promptly invited me to attend with him.  Though it sounded interesting and was apparently being held today and only today, I politely declined, using my sleeping girlfriend as an excuse.  Maybe I’ll check it out with her later in the afternoon instead.  He said no problem, why don’t we instead grab a quick cup of coffee, and then I could “return to my sleeping beauty,” as he put it.

I have spent some time studying Ethiopia for a few years now but had never visited the country.  That was the main inspiration behind my decision to take whatever vacation days I had to extricate myself from my DC office and book a flight to Addis Ababa.  I had heard many great things about Ethiopian hospitality and coffee – 16 hours into my stay I had not experienced either, but was jumping for the chance.  I figured I had an hour to kill; it was Sunday and not too shops seemed open for my business.  Might as well take Isaias up on his offer and make an Ethiopian friend in the process.  My first real friend in Ethiopia! – how could I turn this offer down??
to be continued . . .

Detained in Pakistan – or just being Muslim on a Friday afternoon (a lengthy, final five spot)

I made contact with my grandmother again.  I started yelling in the phone again, and the non-bearded cop came over to take away my phone/offer to talk to her himself.  I relented, but told him he had to speak really loud.  He ignored me, so I said it again once he started talking, to which he impatiently waved at me to sit back down.   I guess he doesn’t like taking orders from his suspects.

What I learned later was that Tali Hali had been asleep.  My grandmother was reading downstairs, her day helper nurse type person was also asleep (which was just typical and peachy).  My grandmother couldn’t understand the conversation on the phone, but did manage to pick out the word ‘police,’ and since she was talking to a voice she had never heard before, she naturally went into worry overdrive.  She cannot walk all that well, but can move around on her own.  However she cannot climb stairs and thus has not been on the second floor of her house in years.  Unfortunately that’s where Tali Hali was sleeping, with the door closed.  Her voice isn’t that strong either, all factors working against her.  She did manage to get out of bed though, to the bottom of the stairs, and yell for Tali Hali to come down (more power to her!).  During this laborious process, the police station was on hold.  The cop told me she was going to get someone else.  I was relieved that at least now my grandmother realized something was afoot, but concerned about how long this would take.  My phone was under a prepaid system and I didn’t have that much credit left.  It would not be favorable to be left at the police station without any phone credit, as I do not think it was part of the typical inmate welcome package.

My grandmother did not return after sometime.  Sensing my exact fears, the non-bearded cop inquired as to whether he should hang up, asking how much credit I had left.  I told him I wasn’t sure, but not too much.  Being the decisive non-bearded cop that he was, he hung up, confidently saying they would call back shortly.  I think upon hearing the voice of the oft referenced  Nani, he relaxed a bit.  We waited patiently, but suspensefully for what was probably no more than eight minutes, but seemed like an eternity and then some.

The phone rang again.  I discreetly rejoiced, while the non-bearded cop answered.  From the onset of his conversation, I knew it was Tali Hali.  He was speaking Urdu rather quickly, but I caught most of it.  He explained to her why they had taken me off the street, told her my version of my identity, and asked her to confirm.  She thankfully decide not to haze me, and indeed confirmed that I was an American student of Pakistani descent on vacation traveling around by myself, but currently residing with my grandmother in Gulberg III, Lahore (even though more technically I wasn’t a student at the time but an unemployed drifter up to no good, it was close enough).  Blissfully, he then passed the phone over to me.  I didn’t know what to say, I wasn’t sure if I should be embarrassed, overjoyed, sad or what.  I just nonchalantly said “hello,” in as cool a voice as I could.  I thought I should’ve had some great movie one liner ready, but alas the last time I had been in a play was 5th grade, and even then I got booed off stage.  I really did not want to get booed off the phone right now.  Luckily Tali Hali had no want for such Hollywood theatrics, and simply asked me if I was ok.  She said she’d be coming right away to retrieve me.  This was all nearing an end.

My identity as a non-terrorist had been confirmed, mostly.  I believe they would’ve freed me right then and there, but Tali Hali told me and them not to move.  That put us in the awkward spot of detaining me further, while I was knowingly acknowledged as innocent.  Soon after the phone call I found myself sandwiched on the cot between the bearded cop and a new, even larger cop, with a new, even larger gun.  I was literally being squeezed to such an extent that my shoulders were now touching each other.  I assumed it was to intimidate me further and keep me in line despite the recent revelations; the bearded cop could have easily moved over but I didn’t care too much.  I was soon to be free!

After the successful phone call the mood was considerably lighter.  Police kept coming and going, and it would take Tali Hali another 45 minutes to arrive (she did not know the exact location and was going through many a police checkpoints), so I was still there for a while.  I found myself alone with the non-bearded cop at one point.  Initially I was angry with him putting me in this scenario, but decided that I should rise above that, and now that we both knew I was in the clear, to break the ice with him.  We chatted a bit in terms that were becoming more of equal buddies rather than captor and guard.  An older chief randomly came in without saying anything and sat in the desk, forcing him to get up.  By this time I think the entire station had heard about the erroneously arrested American, and many policemen were peeking in their heads to check out what was going on.  It was a jovial, joking mood and after my initial reluctance/hesitation, I joined in the fun as well.  They asked many questions about America, to which I politely entertained:

How many people study Urdu there? Only 1, me

Do you go to dance clubs often? No, I tend to stay away from overly loud noises (like bombs, you fools!)

Do Americans like Pakistanis? Not after I tell them what happened today

How much did my digital camera cost? Equivalent of 300 rotis (bread)

Why can’t I drive a car in Pakistan (i.e. why on earth was I walking around by myself when I could clearly afford not to)? Because I am rather dumb, and don’t know how to drive  stick shift

Would I change places with the chief and become a police officer in Pakistan? If I get to fire a gun.  And then arrest him.

And so on.  The other officers made fun of the non-bearded cop for not liking music, calling him the Taliban.  Nice that they had a sense of humor about their profession.  They asked some questions about my family and what they did.  Luckily describing my family was indeed one of the Urdu language units I recalled well.  There was much joking going around, the cops were like a tight knit group of friends making fun of each other as much as they were inquiring about me.  The atmosphere was light, and I dare to say I was almost even having a good time, getting a chance to experience a sector of society that I most decidedly never would had otherwise.

The chief asked to switch places at multiple times.  I was also asked if X-ray glasses exist in America, and despite my response to the contrary, they demanded that I send some over.  At first I thought they were no more than routine perverts, but then they explained they wanted them not to look at girls in this conservative society, but to see if people had suicide vests underneath their clothing, a noble goal indeed which may also have to include checking women for suicide vests as well, an added perk.  They also said my ‘touti phoue’ (broken) Urdu was like their broken English.  I was sandwiched on the cot again, but it was ok.  In fact, I saw this as a good photo opportunity and decided to try my luck and snap a great future facebook profile, on the cot in this run down room between these two large cops with large guns in my best terrorist attire.  My request was intriguing but politely declined after some laughter, and they asked me if I was going to use it to target them afterwards.  They said not today, maybe if I come back tomorrow.  I replied and said I was never coming back, to some amusement.

An older cop with a smattering of English came in, but he could speak less than my Urdu.  They said had he been there they wouldn’t have had to take me in because I could’ve explained everything in English to him.  Considering when they told him to speak to me in English he started off his sentence with two English words before switching into Urdu, I highly doubted it.  I told them about my travels in Pakistan and all the places I had gone, including the sights of Lahore I had seen this morning.  They were a bit confused and enthralled as to why exactly I would want to do all this, and even more confused that my family did not care enough to send someone with me.  They asked me which was better, America or Pakistan.  I replied “before today Pakistan was up there.”

Even the bearded cop had lightened up a bit after he asked how I spoke to my grandmother – I said some English, some Urdu.  Then he asked me if I really spoke English, to which I replied in English “of course I speak English, I am from and live in America.”  After that he laughed so hard and extended his hand for a Pakistani high-five.  I still harbored some resentment towards him and didn’t much feel like reciprocating, but if I had cracked the steely exterior of the bearded cop and gained his approval I was doing well, so best not to upset that balance.

This was the atmosphere Tali Hail found when she arrived, a drastic change from the way things began.  The joking stopped as soon as she came in though, as the cops had put their game face on so to speak.  Tali Hali turned to me upon entering, and softly inquired in English if I had been roughed up, letting out a huge sigh of relief when I said no.  In this small room now, there were about eight cops in total.  They suddenly were serious again, and explained all the reasons they had taken me in, emphasizing my gora (white) face, lack of Urdu skills, attire, pictures on my camera, ect.  They then took some of Tali Hali’s information down by hand, and told me I shouldn’t walk around alone.  I protested that I had no friends, and the group offered the non-bearded cop to come around with me next time.

I also told them I was shaving immediately after this and never wearing shalvar kameez again, mostly in a joking but somewhat serious manner.  I believe they took that more seriously than as a joke and said it wasn’t necessary, assuming that I had decided to end any explorations into Pakistani culture, not their intent at all.  I believe they were genuinely understanding about the mix up from my perspective, but not necessarily sorry or ready to apologize, for it was their job to be on the lookout for suspicious people, and they doing just that.  Tali Hali name dropped a random uncle (my mother’s first cousin) who just so happened to be the chief of police in Lahore (a fact I was unaware of at the time, and in retrospect could’ve saved me much trouble).  Backs straightened a bit at that and I’m sure it came as a shock to them, though the reaction was not as worrisome as one might’ve guessed when you realize you just innocently arrested your boss’s foreign nephew.

But at that I was already being let go.  I got up from the cot, and they made sure I had everything I came in with.  I shook hands with each cops, said an awkward ‘shukria’ (what exactly was I thanking them for?), and goodbye.  Especially to the non-bearded cop, he dealt with me the most and was in the room almost the entire time after the exonerating phone call, I felt we had developed a bit of a connection.  I had seen him go from menacing scowls to sheepish grins, and I was the catalyst behind those changes.

As we exited the station multiple guards that I did not recognize said good-bye and asked us if everything was allright.  I had become a sort of celebrity there, the whole station knew about me and my situation.  In the end I was unharmed and with all of my possessions (I even saved some money on my trip budget since I didn’t pay for a rickshaw on the way home).  It was not an overly bad ordeal, apart from the initial bouts of scariness and uneasiness.  I cannot truly fault the cops either as they were completely honest and just doing their job.  I had many suspicious qualities about me, I might’ve taken myself into the station had I seen me walking.  I still maintain it should’ve been fairly obvious from the first encounter and my multiple ID’s/photos that I was in fact American, but the confusion led to doubt and doubt led to over-reactive measures.  Perhaps they were just following protocol, I don’t know.   Regardless, the fact that the cops were actively looking for terrorists was a telling sign that something was working in Pakistan at least, and a point used as a personal defense that the state was absolutely not failed at all (though I suppose some might convincingly argue  a “failing” component).  It all worked out, and I gained an insight into one of the front lines of Pakistan’s war on terror – though the cops did well to avoid talking overtly about their work and giving too much away.  I guess they had been trained up decently also.

Tali Hali and I decided not to worry my grandmother further and fill her in on the details.  She was already sobbing by the time I got home because it had taken so long.  Our story to her was that traffic was heavy and I was unable to get a rickshaw.  I asked a traffic warden how to get home and he told me to call for a ride.  Because my phone wasn’t working properly, he called for me (explaining the police officer my grandmother spoke with on the phone).  She bought the story at the time but I suspected she had serious doubts, just choosing not to question it for fear of the truth.  I came out looking rather incompetent in our made up tale, but that’s ok (I pretty much was/am).   She wondered how I could go to all the places I mentioned during the day and then not be able to get home, but her inquisitions didn’t continue much further.  We decided not to tell my parents also, at least that is until after I shaved my beard and left Pakistan.

All in all though I came out of this experience feeling good.  So much has been made, about the lack of willingness to fight terrorism in Pakistan, and how much of a fertile ground the nation is.  Both those assertions may still be quite true, with a weak government dithering and radical Islam preying on rural youth without access to alternative sources of education.  But this day I saw that something was being done about it, terrorism was being fought by low-level grunt work as this.  It may not make the nightly news, but it was being done.  The Taliban and their value system had no room within the views of these police officers, it was decidedly a foreign way of life to them.  Though they are not the most at risk, it was gratifying to see their aversion to such practices, proving them alien to the history and traditions of the land.  If this one incident was a microcosm for how Pakistan was going to fare in its battle against religious fanaticism, I think with more cops like the ones I met today, the nation will be all right.

(p.s. small editorial – nearly 3 years later, I’m not sure any of that is enough to make up for weak, incompetent, and unwilling leadership.)

THE END (FINALLY!)

On second thought, I would've "arrested" me too

Detained in Pakistan – or just being Muslim on a Friday afternoon (no. ٤‎)

After that little outburst, I was told to sit back down on the cot.  The bearded cop now came back and decided to awkwardly lie all stretched out on the cot I was sitting on, while I confined myself as close to the edge as possible, adamantly trying to avoid rubbing up against his legs.  I was beginning to wonder how long this ‘verification’ process was going to take, the half an hour estimate seemed quite off by this point.  I was also wondering how exactly did they plan to verify me?  My IDs were all there, that was about all I had.  In my mind I figured they were waiting for some senior commander to arrive, as no one could make a decision without his approval.  He would come in, take one look at me and my situation, berate the other cops for wasting his time when there were real terrorists out there to catch, and let me be on my merry way.  I was waiting patiently for that man, my new savoir.

The thought of having to bribe my way out briefly crossed my mind as well, but I didn’t really have the required materials.  Back in the cab the new cops asked how much money I had on me, leading me to believe they wanted some sort of payoff to set me free.  I obliged, opening up my wallet to show them exactly how little I had (about 800 rupees total, or $10), in an attempt to portray my small time status and limited bribing power.  They asked if the first cops had known how much I had, an odd question I thought, but one that made sense if they were intent on taking it all in exchange for my release.  They then wanted to know if they first cops had taken anything also, I told them they hadn’t.  End of discussion, I still have my $10 (yay!) but was still detained (boo!).  I also still have the extra 25 cents I saved by refusing to budge from my negotiating bottom limit with the first rickshaw driver I encountered (to think all of this could’ve been avoided for a mere 25 pennies . . . but then I would be forced to blog about fake dinosaur death matches on the moon years later instead of real life battle of the wits with Pakistan security personnel).  At any rate, it seemed the new cops were being extremely honest rather than fishing for a bribe, going so far as to check up on their fellow officers.  They exhibited a distinct lack of corruptibility, which of course was to my extreme dismay, for the purposes of this situation at least.

Without the possibility of bribing my way out, and still not being allowed to use my phone, I didn’t have much to do but wait.  The bearded cop would come and leave, taking turns lying next to me on the cot in what I believe was a highly successful attempt to make me uncomfortable.  The non-bearded cop sat silently where the older man had been writing down my information, intermittently looking at pictures on my camera.  There was a lull in the action, so I again asked if I could make my one phone call, and again was rejected.  The bearded cop continued to talk Pashto to me when he was around, as if I was about to crack and reveal the true nature of my linguistic abilities.  I am fairly certain he was making fun of me the entire time – I did not appreciate him much.  I understood him saying ”Nani, Nani, Nani” in an irritating high pitched voice that was obviously an imitation of me and my  constant demands to call my grandmother.  I began to try to take up a bit more of the cot space, slowly sliding inward in a poor attempt to reassert some feigned dominance.

The bearded cop exited again once it became abundantly clear how dominant my cot position had become (not really at all, I was still occupying maybe 4 square inches of the entire thing), and I was left alone with the non-bearded cop.  I decided to retry my previously failed approach to soften him up by general, friendly conversation.  I truly think he believed me, but just couldn’t show it and had no power to act.  I asked him how many people they catch in a day.  He didn’t quite understand my intent and rather went into a small rant as to all the reasons I looked suspicious, justifying why they had taken me in.  After that finished, I asked how long he had been doing this job (3 years) and if it was dangerous (yes).  In fact, what was more than a bit disconcerting was that this was still a high-level threat alert day and I was being confined, against my will, at a police station, a definite, high-level threat target.  These days in Pakistan we would go through such lengths to avoid places that seem like obvious targets – for example I had only briefly visited the Liberty market in Lahore on this trip, where my family previously did much shopping, since the Sri Lankan cricket team had been attacked a few months ago in the vicinity.  But now I was stuck at a high profile target on a high profile day.  To that point, this police station happened to be located directly next to a Rescue 15 building (a sort of Pakistani equivalent of 911).  The buildings were adjoined to each other, or at least had been. That very Rescue 15 building on Mall Road in Lahore had been the site of a bombing just a few weeks earlier.  The entire building had been destroyed and much of the neighboring police headquarters, which I currently found myself, had also been affected.    I swear if someone came right now to finish off the job while I was there all because I wasn’t allowed to leave, I would be so freaking pissed off . . .

My softening up tactics only went so far.  The non-bearded cop got distracted and the bearded cop returned.  It was no use trying to talk to him.  But then a chaiwala (literally a tea guy) brought in three cups of tea, one for each of the cops, with the third ostensibly for me.  Perhaps my soft approach was working after all.  I gladly took the tea when offered, even though it was after 4:00pm and I’d probably be up all night (in a dark Pakistani cell at this point).  I chose to interpret this gesture as a very positive sign in favor of my innocence, rather than simply a perfunctory courtesy engrained in Pakistani culture.  I drank my tea in silence, while the bearded cop left and the non-bearded one was still fiddling with my camera.

No one had come in the room for a while.  Randomly the non-bearded cop looked up at me and said I could now make a phone call.  I was stunned!  It seemed he had made that decision completely on his own, without consulting with any superiors.  That was kind of odd, but I didn’t give him a second chance to think it through.  I immediately grabbed my cell phone and dialed Tali Hali’s number.  She didn’t answer.  My face went white.  The cop told me specifically I could make ‘a’ call, not multiple.  I quickly redialed, attempting to do so before he noticed I was on my second call.  Again no answer, what the hell was going on?  At this point he looked at me and must’ve realized what had happened.  He said, ‘don’t worry, they’ll call back.’  Reassuring he was not; I worried.  I insisted I try again, and briefly thought about writing a text message, but decided that would take too much time and look a bit suspicious.  I dialed the house of my grandmother, surely someone would pick up there.  Again no answer, but I hit the redial button before I could even think about it.  This wasn’t looking good.  I thought about who else I could call, relatives in Islamabad perhaps?  But what was the point of calling someone in another city, I had told these guys I was living in Gulberg III this whole time, I had to prove it now.

The phone rang and rang on – I was not going to hang up.  I had very little phone credit and was worried it would give out as soon as someone picked up, but I had to try and hope they would call back.  Suddenly, I heard a faint and high pitched ‘hello.’  Success! It was my grandmother, I had made contact with the outside world.  That was very encouraging and all, but then I remembered my grandmother’s hearing had been in rapid decline in recent years.  In addition, she did not believe that her hearing had been in rapid decline, but more subscribed to the theory put forth by a few prominent but equally old scientists, that the entire world was getting quieter the further we entered into the 21st century.  For this reason she never wore the expensive hearing aid her children had so thoughtfully bought for her, and our conversations together typically consisted of yelling matches.  Talking on the phone was no better.  In fact I had written off the whole practice, and rarely, if ever, participated in phone conversations with her.  However that was all I had right now, so I began to yell.  Our conversation went a little like this:

(me) “Hello Nani Amma, it’s Omar.”

(Nani) “Hello?”

(me) “Hello Nani Amma, can you hear me?”

(Nani) “Hello? Is anyone there?”

(me) “Nani Amma! It’s Omar! I’ve been detained by the police, you have to go get Tali Hali!”

(Nani) “ . . . . who is this?”

(me) “Hello (even louder) Nani Amma, it’s me Omar, this is important!!!”

(Nani) “ . . . Hello?”

End call.  I froze, my back stiffened.  I looked up, multiple police officers had come into the room and were staring at me now, ostensibly wondering what all the commotion was about.  I realized I had been yelling into the phone quite loudly, perhaps even somewhat angrily, in a foreign language.  That did not look suspicious at all.  I had built my entire defense around the prospect of being allowed to make one, single phone call to resolve this entire mess.  Now I had made my call, looked crazy and frustrated during it, and nothing had been resolved.  I think at that moment some of the police officers began to consider me suspicious again, perhaps I had just called in a hit to the police station.  I again didn’t let them think about it for too long, I called right back before anyone could instruct me not to.

(to be continued – once, maybe twice more only I swear.  Clearing your name in Pakistan takes some time!)

Detained in Pakistan – or just being Muslim on a Friday afternoon (v.3)

Me, the bearded cop, and the non-bearded were stuck in the back.  Or at least I was stuck with them.  We started driving off, and I began to worry about how far we would be going.  The entire time I had been telling anyone who cared to listen that I was currently residing with my Nani Amma (mother’s mother) in Gulberg III.  Now I was pleading with the non-bearded cop to call her, explaining in all honesty that she would be very worried that I had not reached back home by now.  He told me to wait, the station was close and we wouldn’t be more than half an hour.  That was a positive development as he gave me a time frame, and a short one at that, but I didn’t put too much stock into it.  I continued to insist I had to call now, repeating the same few phrases over and over again (I was getting some language practice in at the very least, to help me the next time I’m in such a scenario).

This non-bearded cop could be the friendly sort, but he had quite an angry face that I had experienced earlier when I refused to get in the car.  He was a good cop/bad cop/big cop all in one, and that face got me to do whatever he wanted.  As I continued to plead, his facial expressions slowly began to change as I’m sure his annoyance levels went up.  He eventually was in full scowl, and I had my cell phone out in my hand asking again to call.  He suddenly raised his beefy hand as if to hit me if I asked one more time.  Taking a not-so subtle hint, I promptly shut up and put the phone back in my bag.  That wasn’t good enough for him now, so he took the entire sabzi tela away.  This piqued his curiosity as to the other contents, which I enthusiastically endorsed, believing it would help my cause.  I had him pull out the lonely planet guidebook and showed him the Lahore map and all the touristy sites I had marked to visit, just as I had uselessly showed the original cops (I guess the markings could have also looked like all the places I intended to ‘target’).  If that had any effect on him, it went by unnoticed.

After taking my possessions and I quieted down for a bit, thinking about that scowling face of his.  I was getting quite distraught by this point, in my view all aspects of my defense had been logical and clear, what more could they want?  What more did I need to do to prove I wasn’t a terrorist, and how exactly was I going to get that change at the station?  My basic hope at this point was someone, namely Tali Hali (my aunt), would call to check up on me, at which point I could tell her “no I’m not fine, I’ve been abducted by the police.”  Unfortunately though, she most likely thought I was perturbed by all this needless monitoring after she had called me twice earlier in the day, and likely wasn’t going to bother me again.   Too bad for me, as I was in need of some serious monitoring right now.

We were driving around real slow, about 10km an hour, ostensibly looking for other terrorists to pick up.  I was not-so-secretly hoping we didn’t actually find any other ones – being seated and detained amongst real, live terrorists who might not be so enthralled by my “I’m an American defense” would not exactly have made me more comfortable.  After a brief respite, I started talking again, saying anything I could at all that supported my story.  We passed by the zoo, and I excitedly remembered I still had my entrance ticket and proudly produced it from my pocket, waving it frantically to prove that I had indeed just been there.  Terrorists don’t go to the zoo, they hate animals!  I went further to say there were pictures of animals on my camera as even more irrefutable proof.  The non-bearded cop looked at my ticket for a moment before losing interest.  One of the front seated policemen turned around to ask a question to another of the cops, I started pointing to the zoo and showing him my ticket through the glass, to little effect.

The bearded cop seated across from me was clearly enjoying this situation, and that was only pissing me off.  He kept saying things to me that I did not understand in the least.  Even if I can’t get the entire sentence, I’ll usually pick up a few words here or there to gain a general understanding.  But with this guy, no matter how hard I concentrated, I couldn’t understand him at all – it must’ve been his accent or he was speaking slang or something like that.  The non-bearded cop I understood fine, although I understood his facial expressions a lot better than his words.  The bearded cop continued talking and I kept trying to decipher it.  I kept telling him I was just learning Urdu, I don’t know it all that well just yet.  I was getting annoyed, and finally I flat out declared to him “I have no idea what you’re saying.”  He replied (in Urdu), as smug as ever, “that’s because I’m speaking Pashto – and by the way you do understand me.”  I was momentarily confused, but then I understood.  Many of the homegrown terrorizers tended to be from the Northern Areas of Pakistan, and belong to the Pasthun ethnicity, correspondingly speaking Pashto.  This cop was testing me, to see if I really understood the language or not, and thus determine if I was actually who I said I was.  I think it was clear I wasn’t just faking stupidity (that comes naturally), but as with many things thus far, what was crystal clear to me wasn’t necessarily seen in the same light by my captors.

We arrived at the police station, after passing many a check points.  The car was in full view of the outside world, so my presence elicited quite a few stares, as if they had finally caught a real live terrorist and I happened to know the exact location of Osama bin Laden (update: two years later in May 2011, I actually did).  I got out of the back of the car, closely escorted by the non-bearded cop.  The car drove off and we waited there a while, in the courtyard of the station.  In the car ride I came to understand that whatever incident involving me had probably been called in, and these guys had no choice now but to take me to the station regardless of whether they thought I was innocent or not.  At that point I had meekly decided to try a different approach and chat them up a little bit (or at least the non-bearded cop, the bearded one was constantly whispering poetic Pashto sweet nothings in my ear – it really became an awkward ride).  I got as far as a generic question about where they were born, and it didn’t really work.  But I did feel like I established somewhat of a rapport with the non-bearded cop, and he was beginning to believe me, as my story added up every which way.  While we were standing there I decided to turn to him and ask straight up if that was the case.  He ignored my question. He had been pretty good about not answering sensitive questions, he had obviously done his “how not converse with suspected terrorists” training well.  He instead smiled and put his hand on my back multiple times, that beefy hand that was, which simultaneously reassured me while reminding me of the potential consequences of not following his instructions.

We stood out there a bit longer, ostensibly waiting for something but I wasn’t quite sure what.  I had some time to ponder this predicament.  I imagined there would be points in my life where I would stand accused of being a terrorist because of my name or ethnic appearance, but most of those situations involved airports.  And America.  Never once did I think the same would happen in Pakistan.  Ridiculous, I went there trying to blend in and in doing so blended right into a stereotype.

I was led back around the corner to a spartan room with a desk and a cot type bed perpendicular to it.  I sat on the cot and waited, alone.  The bearded cop, my companion throughout all of this, had suddenly left me, and now I didn’t even have a familiar face around.  An older man came in.  He was very direct and began asking me questions immediately (didn’t even buy me dinner first).  I moved to stand in front of his desk as he noted all I was saying, about my address, my stay in Pakistan, when I arrived, when I was to leave, ect., then left.

Non-bearded cop returned, and while he was killing time waiting for something to happen next, he decided it was his turn to inspect the bevy of evidence on my camera.  He pulled up a picture of myself, in shlvar kameez again, with an uncle and cousins, demanding to know them all.  I thought I was fingering my own family, and they would soon be joining me in this room (at least I would have some familiar faces around then).  He flipped through some more pictures when he suddenly leapt from his chair burst out bluntly, as if he had identified a head terror ringleader, “yeh kon hai?!!” or “who is this?”  It was a picture of my 90 year old grandmother eating her daily half box of ice cream.  I explained, with as much emotion as his outburst, that that was my aforementioned grandmother (“voh nani yar!”), taking the opportunity to remind him that she was still worried about me, and probably not even able to eat her ice cream right now.   At the same time I was trying to process what on earth about that picture (below) made him think that sweet old lady looked anything like a criminal mastermind.

to be continued (and continued and continued) . . .

The mastermind herself, plotting away during ice cream time!

Detained in Pakistan – or just being Muslim on a Friday afternoon (دوسرا حصہ)

I decided this had gone far enough and I was going to be a bit more proactive.  I speak some Urdu, and understand even more, but my (Austrian) accent is regrettably somewhat pitiful.  I started saying “main tourist houn,” which translates into “I am a tourist.”  However with them compensating for my weak accent, it apparently sounded more to them like “main terrorist houn,” or “I am a terrorist.”    That was the best I could do in Urdu to explain my predicament quickly while maintaining grammatical correctness – it did not help my cause.  Thus not realizing at the time how it might’ve sounded to them, I incessantly repeated it over and over, only to garner quizzical expressions from these three policemen, who must’ve been wondering why I had abruptly decided to confess all my terrorist sins.

These guys obviously weren’t letting me go after such repeated statements, and the camera inspector was still looking through every photo, going so far as to start asking who specific family members were.  As I tried to talk to the second cop (who for his credit was kind of listening, I just really couldn’t convincingly explain in a way he would understand), the third had gone back to the car to get on his radio, ostensibly relaying that he had fulfilled his monthly quota by catching a self-confessed terrorist by the Governor’s House on Mall road (I had no idea I was there).  Soon another cop car pulled up.  This one was an extended cab pickup truck, with long benches along the sides in the back and a covered bed.  The type of car that carries a bunch of cops around to a situation, where they are able to quickly dismount from the back in a flurry.  You can guess what happened next.

Two large(r) cops with real rifles hopped out, while two guys in the front remaining seated with the engine on.  There were now seven cops focused on me.  During a day of heightened terror alerts throughout the city of Lahore, who knows how many terrorists were running free because I was distracting whatever ungodly percent of today’s active police force.  Perhaps the cops were overzealous because it was a heightened terror alert day, meaning that someone decided today was a day when terrorists were likely to do things tourists do not.  The prime reason behind such thought patterns was that today was jummah, or Friday, when most Muslims go to the mosque to pray.  I also happened to be in Lahore on this jummah, a special place since the previous Friday, exactly one week ago, suicide bombers had attacked a masjid right after Friday prayers, killing a prominent cleric who had been so bold as to declare suicide bombing haram, or against Islam.  Those actual terrorists had broken sacred laws by first of all attacking a mosque, secondly killing a scholar of Islam, and thirdly taking their battle away from one with the Pakistani state, but into the realm of neutralizing opposition voices.  Thus the entire city was on edge – this was probably one of the worst of days to go out for a leisurely stroll through the old city.  So there was understandably extra police forces patrolling around, being extra vigilant and profiling extra hard in order to round up some extra terrorists.  Regardless of the fact that by now jummah has passed throughout the city peacefully (as far I knew), cops were still out in droves, with a drove still surrounding me.

Back to the seven cops, the original three were now explaining to the four new cops their take on the situation, while I was concurrently trying to do the same, assuming these new cops to be more important as they had been called in specifically to deal with the international menace that was me.  I continued with my useless but incriminating phrases, main tourist houn and main Amerika say houn (I am from America), presupposing that these new cops would sympathize with such first grade level statements.  There was added confusion over my multiple IDs and masjid filled camera, which had been handed to the two cops who refused to exit their vehicle (that actually hurt me a bit, was I not important enough to warrant getting off their asses?).  These new cops were taking their time I thought, was it really not so obvious that I wasn’t a terrorist, but just a really bad tourist?

This continued, me stupidly trying to out-talk the original cops, while they continued to explain their thoughts in better Urdu than I could.  I’m surprised they put up with me that well actually, I was literally trying to push and shout out the old cops to get my version heard – in retrospect I was not exactly cooperative to say the least.  Every now and then the new, seated cops would call me over to explain a picture.  This was almost getting comical, if witnessed by a bystander walking along the sidewalk.  There was me, dressed as locally as I could and shouting and flailing just nearly as much, the three old cops, two of which were just kind of staring at me in confusion by now, while the other was trying to get his point across to the two large new cops with guns, who were standing and listening rather patiently, while we were all huddled around the pickup truck where the two seated cops kept interrupting my attempts at verbal self defense to hastily demand why I had taken such and such picture.

This tragicomic scene went on for some minutes.  Finally the new cops patience waned, they looked at me and said ‘chello,’ as in, ‘let’s go, you’re coming with us.’  The non-bearded of the two large new cops with guns tried to gently lead me towards to the back of his vehicle.  I was quite taken aback, I had not even considered that the resolution of this mix up would continue at a location other than where it had began.  I refused to move, saying ‘niehn yar, main-ne kya kiya,’ or roughly “no way man, what did I do?”  Another thing I have learned, luckily not from firsthand experience, but in general, is to never ever get into cop cars in the numerically not-so-first world, unless you absolutely, truly, without a doubt had to.  I saw no reason why I absolutely, truly, without a doubt had to in this instance, and thus refused (as a side note, furthering emboldening my stance was a story I had read in the newspaper on the bus back to Lahore detailing the tale of two innocent civilians in the north, where the theatre of war was very apparent, who had been burned alive in boiling water by security forces under the suspicion of being terrorists – I was not going anywhere with these guys).  My response was clearly unexpected and not much appreciated.  Their faces instantly transformed from cheeky smiles with hints of amusement into menacing, snarly scowls.  The non-bearded new cop slapped me on the back, grabbed my arm, and began pulling me towards the back of the car, while the others surrounding me reached for their guns.  I decided then that this was probably rapidly developing one of those had ‘absolutely, truly, without a doubt had to’ situations.

I followed orders this time around and got into the truck.  I was beginning to realize by this point that the situation was a bit more serious than I had initially thought, and no quick fix was forthcoming.  I had been so caught up adamantly explaining myself earlier that I hadn’t even stopped to think about the possibility that I would not be on my way home to grandma’s in an economically appropriate rickshaw shortly.  My heart was sinking, a feeling of general despair overcame me.  I was being held against my will, led to a location unbeknownst to me, in a foreign country where I couldn’t communicate well, with my family not knowing where I was, and worst of all I had no idea if this next step was going to take half an hour or half a week.

I was sitting on one of the long benches in the back of the cab, the bearded cop across from me, smirking (he was clearly amused at my expense), with the non-bearded cop in between me and the exit of the cab.  I asked them where we were going;  he quickly replied to the station.  I inquired as to why exactly, he said they needed to do some verification.  I complained as to what verification exactly, they already have seen all three of my IDs.  The original cops seated at the front were still discussing said IDs with the seated officers when they called me out from the back of the car to ask me a question.  My spirits rose as I interpreted that as a sign of imminent release.  Those same spirits sunk right back down when they motioned for me to get back in after 30 seconds.  We started driving off, leaving the original three cops who had so thoughtfully organized this mess, behind.  As a final goodbye, I yelled out the cab to ensure they had handed over all my IDs and camera with incriminating pictures to the new cops, which they confirmed.

to be continued  . . .

Data Durbar Shrine in Lahore. Given the heightened security that day I wasn't able to take a picture in front of the building, but rather had to climb up an overpass across the street and quickly snatch a shot - did not help my cause with the photographically inquisitive coppers (sidenote: this complex was actually attacked by suicide bombers a year later)

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.

“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.