Monthly Archives: November 2006

Blown away by Pakistan: A guide to scoring beer and avoiding suicide bombers in the Land of the Pure

YOU’VE got to hand it to the Pakistanis for sheer persistence.

A day or two after a terrorist blew himself up—together with 42 others—in a Pakistan army training camp early this month, the country’s prime minister launched Destination Pakistan 2007 in New York. The campaign invited American tourists to visit the South Asian country, which, a Pakistan newspaper said, “had great cultural heritage and scenic beauty that offered a unique blend to international tourists.”

While I had no doubts about Pakistan ‘s charm and the “unique blend” it offered to its visitors—whatever that was (curry?)—I knew that somewhere in Islamabad , the capital, bureaucrats were gnashing their teeth over how the attack squandered the country’s opportunity to promote itself.

However, I wasn’t overly concerned about the attack’s effects on Pakistan ‘s tourism industry. I was mainly concerned about the attack’s effects on myself. Sure, I wished to be blown away by Pakistan’s attractions but I meant that figuratively.

After all, when the suicide bomber met his Maker—in a manner that can be considered grand, depending on one’s interpretation of Islam—I was in Peshawar, some 100 kilometers away from ground zero, doing what self-proclaimed journalists do best: nothing.

Since I was a veteran Filipino parachute journalist—experienced in the ways of drinking beer, avoiding work, and producing dandruff out of thin air—I found it easy to survive, thanks to the impeccable accomodations at the Pearl Continental Peshawar.

The PC, as the famous Pakistani hotel chain was called, was where three other Filipino journalists and I were staying during the third day of our nine-day, five city tour across Pakistan.

Populated by 162 million people, the country has varying degrees of tension with some of its neighbors—a 50 year-old border dispute with India and the occasional conflict with Afghanistan. It is currently chummy with China, perhaps the only country in the world which has good relations with both the Chinese and the Americans.

Our trip, sponsored by the Islamabad Strategic Studies Institute (ISSI), was not a walk in the park. Or at least for individuals such as myself who occasionally enjoy cold, alcoholic beverages, especially after loafing around all day.

Since Pakistan was an Islamic country, access to such drinks was difficult. But there were ways of wetting one’s whistle without getting a fatwa.

According to a Pakistani friend, alcoholic drinks were available in hotels but these orders need to be placed in advance and required immediate cash payment. This was the very first piece of good news I learned upon reaching Karachi, the city we visited during our first day.

Eager to confirm this new information, I immediately summoned our hotel’s room service and ordered three cold ones. Minutes later, the precious cargo—three half-liter bottles of locally-brewed Murree Hill beers—were delivered to my room.

As soon as I settled the exorbitant bill (approximately P300 per bottle), I gave a self-congratulatory toast and welcomed myself to Pakistan. It was a rare moment to be savored: not only was I visiting the country for the very first time, I was also drinking on the job.

Fun at the Jinnah Museum

KARACHI looks suspiciously like Metro Manila in the late eighties—old buildings begging for a makeover, antiquated taxicabs belching smoke all over the place, and colorful Japanese minibuses trying to run down and quite possibly, maim the occasional wayward pedestrian.

But if there is one thing that sets Pakistan ‘s financial capital from Metro Manila then and now, it is the Jinnah International Airport (JIA).

With surprisingly minimal traffic along roads leading to and from the said airport, the terminal also features a scanner—embedded inside a fairly large speed bump—along the entrance, allowing authorities to check for bombs underneath every vehicle. (At Islamabad International, besides the embedded scanner, there was a turret at the gates occupied by a soldier wielding a machine gun. He was prepared to pump heavy artillery into anyone who tried to make fun of Pakistani food or President Musharraf’s moustache. To play it safe, I only remarked upon President Arroyo’s height, Speaker de Venecia’s ears, and, of course, the importance of free speech.)

The airport named after Pakistan ‘s founder has its fair share of wide spaces, clean toilets, adequate seating, and—get this—free internet access via desktop computers at various departure gates.

If airports, in any way, help foreigners form a lasting impression of the cities they visit, the JIA was a good indication that I was going to enjoy Karachi.

During our second day, we were brought to the mausoleum of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who served as the British governor-general of a Indian province which would later be known as Pakistan.

In 1947, when India ‘s independence from Britain became imminent, Jinnah established Pakistan by separating from the former British colony due to fears that the Muslim minority may be oppressed under the Hindu majority. (Nearly three decades later, the area which used to be East Pakistan repeated history. After a civil war with West Pakistan, it separated itself from Pakistan and called itself Bangladesh.)

Jinnah’s mausoleum is located at the city’s highest point. It also serves as one of the spectacles of Karachi ‘s skyline, especially considering that the tallest building in Pakistan’s largest city has only 25 storeys. (Not surprisingly, the second tallest building has 24 floors.)

Built shortly after Jinnah’s death, the mausoleum is a testament to how Pakistanis give reverence to their Quaid-i-Azam (national hero). Surrounded on all sides by a sprawling park, the whole compound was clean and well-maintained, much like very own Luneta, without pesky photographers who stalk tourists until they agree to pay to have their pictures taken.

Meanwhile, Jinnah’s remains are inside a room 14 feet underground. Inaccessible to the general public, the room is decorated with white marble tablets, each piece lovingly hand-carved and hand-polished by hundreds of artisans.

A museum can also be found within the compound, featuring some of the leader’s clothes, his furniture, and his cars, a 1938 Packard and a 1947 Cadillac, which was a gift from the US government. Unfortunately, in their rush to show their generosity, the Americans may have forgotten that Pakistan, like India and the UK, drove on the right side of the road.

Safe shopping near the world’s ambush capital

OF Pakistan’s many cities, Peshawar perhaps is the most inured to massacres and suicide attacks, no thanks to its proximity to Khyber Pass, a trade and military route along the mountains near the Afghanistan border.

Famous for military encounters dating back to Alexander the Great, the route may as well be the world’s ambush capital.

Despite its bloody history, the Pass as well as Peshawar remains mainly populated by Pashtuns, who continue to oppose any form of central authority governing their affairs.

In a way, the Pashtuns are similar to your garden-variety, right-wing—and somewhat nutty—libertarian American (think Grover Norquist). Except that the Pashtuns are better at bucking the intrusion of central authority than the Americans, having successfully resisted British colonization centuries ago. Currently, tribal elders have grudgingly agreed to coordinate with Pakistan’s political agents regarding certain policies.

As we were waiting to board our flight to the land of Pashtuns, I stumbled upon another similarity between the the Pearl of the Orient Seas and the Land of the Pure: both our flag carriers had the punctuality of a Filipino congressman attending a House committee hearing.

Accustomed to a culture of tardiness, I simply sat down and waited, munching on a chicken sandwich so bland that I considered nibbling on my boarding pass.

An hour later, we found out that the delay owed to the plane’s flat tire. At least this was a good enough excuse. But more than that, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) also offered better value for money than their Filipino counterparts.

Although the Karachi to Peshawar flight took ninety minutes—just about the same it took to fly from Manila to Davao—the Pakistan government’s favorite airline served a full course meal: a curry-laced rice meal, drinks, the works. Compare that with Philippine domestic flights: passengers got a snack ration that would scandalize a United Nations refugee.

Upon arriving in Peshawar , our sponsors cancelled plans to visit the Khyber Rifles Mess Hall, no thanks to the suicide attack that very same day.

Since our hosts discouraged us from going anywhere outside the city, we managed to entertain ourselves by shopping at the hotel’s exotic shops which sold jewelry from Iran, Iraq , Afghanistan , and Pakistan .

Burning rubber in Bhurban

WHEN we left Peshawar the next morning, we knew that we were embarking on an adventure which we were way too old to enjoy. Two Toyota pickup trucks filled with half a dozen armed policemen stayed in front and behind our van as we moved in a convoy en route to Bhurban, a popular vacation resort similar to Baguio City.

Every ten or so minutes, the truck in front would slow down, take the road shoulder, and disappear from view. It would then be replaced by another truck, filled with the same number of rifle-toting policemen whose faces seemed to betray a sense of resignation owing to their simple yet tedious task: escort duty for a Filipino media delegation, including a bibulous deadline-beater whose military experience was limited to watching Police Academy: The Movie.

The changing of our guard went on until we exited the Grand Trunk Road and entered the Motorway, a highway network which connects the whole country to serve as an alternative to Pakistan’s comprehensive rail system.

However, just a few minutes into the trip, we became more concerned about road safety than a terrorist attack, no thanks to our driver who, from the looks of it, was previously employed as a cabbie in Manhattan.

Besides burning enough rubber to color the highway black, he never slowed down, even while ascending Bhurban’s steep roads, which had curves more dangerous than a female James Bond villain.

Whenever he gunned the engine and sped through an uphill blind curve, I held on for dear life, praying to all the Gods I knew, including Allah, Jehovah, Yahweh, Buddha, Brothers Mike and Ely.

Fortunately, except for nearly having a massive coronary attack, nothing untoward happened, enabling me to heave a sigh of relief, enjoy the cool weather and the offerings at the PC Bhurban.

Reportedly Pakistan’s most expensive hotel, the PC Bhurban featured a viewing deck connected to an al fresco dining area which gave guests—mostly newlywed Pakistani couples on their honeymoon—an impressive view of the mountains and hills.

In a country almost always known for conflict and strife, Bhurban proved that Pakistan had more to offer the world than just Kashmir or Khyber Pass.

I took in the view, had supper, and got myself a good night’s sleep. After all, we were going down the same route the next day with the same driver. And when we did, not even the Taliban could force me into skipping the seat belt this time.

Loving Lahore

VISITING Pakistan without dropping by Lahore is much like going to the US without experiencing New York City. Being the country’s cultural capital, Lahore is just about the most cheerful, most laid-back, and the most welcoming city in the country.

During our two-day stay, our delegation was stopped more than once by locals who wanted to know where we were from and why we visited. They also asked to have their pictures taken with us, a request we found odd because none of us could be mistaken for the next Pakistani Idol.

Surprisingly, we found it easy to pose and show our pearly whites in front of their cameras. After all, not only were we already charmed by the city’s pleasant weather, we have also become so easily enamored with its attractions such as the Lahore Museum.

The repository of more than 40,000 poems, the museum also displayed stupas, a number of which were reconfigured and enhanced by the museum’s staff, owing to their old age and varying stages of disrepair.

The preservation of these stupas—spherical towers which were erected to honor a devout Buddhist practitioner—only underscored Pakistani society’s tolerance for beliefs other than Islam.

However, the museum’s main attraction may very well be a painting by the famous Pakistani artist Ustad Allah Bux. Not only does the title exactly describe the work’s subject—Bull in Fields—it also showcases a captivating optical illusion.

When viewed on the left, the rightmost bull, pulling a plow, is seen headed westward. Conversely, when viewed on the right, the same bull appears to be heading straight towards the horizon.

Bux’s fascinating work meanwhile compares to the delights offered by the Badshahi mosque, the second-largest structure of its kind in the country.

Besides being a feast for the eyes, the majestic structure was an auditory wonder: whisper in any one of the nooks and you would be heard clearly in another corner. This made it easy for an Imam to lead the Muslim faithful in prayer, even without audio equipment and even in a packed crowd of 55,000, which is the mosque’s capacity.

Finally, no visit to Lahore is complete without experiencing the flag-lowering ceremony, an event that true military aficionado would appreciate.

Held at the Wagha border, the ritual, undertaken everyday since 1947, represented the bittersweet regret of both Pakistan and India after each went their separate ways. It also enabled both Pakistanis and Indians to show their sense of pride whenever they cheered on their soldiers, who marched and paraded in front of their gates, which secured their respective boundaries.

Although the ceremony bordered on the jingoistic, it nonetheless emphasized what Filipinos tragically lacked and what both Pakistanis and Indians have in abundance: a sense of country and a love for their motherland.

Pakistan, unlike the Philippines, may not be on anyone’s list of places to visit anytime soon. But with the kind of citizens that they had—proud of their unique national identity and their heritage—the Land of the Pure can teach the Pearl of the Orient Seas a thing or two about patriotism.

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