Asia, 1989. Part the last: More Pakistan

May 20: Gilgit is not a large place.  The narrow streets are lined with little shops that sell cloth, medicines, spices, books, food, hats, and of course, crackers.  Females over the age of twelve or so are nowhere to be found on the streets.  It’s surprising that such a clearly male-dominated society elected a female prime minister.  But Benazir Bhutto seems to be very popular here; certainly the people seem to approve of her more than they did Zia.

The children here have to be some of the most physically beautiful people on earth.  Many have smooth dark skin, intelligent faces, black hair and striking green eyes.  Traditional Pakistani dress (Shalwar Kamiz) is graceful and flattering.  The people are very friendly and openly affectionate to each other.  Pakistan on the whole so far seems to be a pretty easygoing, happy place.  So easygoing that I have to take a long nap in the afternoon.  Maybe it’s still the effects of all the sun I got, but I sleep half the day away and wake up in time for dinner.

Carol is already tired of Pakistani food, so we go to the “Tourist Cottage,” having heard that they have western food.  But no!  We’re taunted by the first course, a soup with macaroni noodles, but everything after that is Pakistani: lentils, bread, spinach.  Actually, I think I should have used the word tantalized, not taunted.  The point is, we were tricked.

May 21: A morning stroll down the main street yields several invitations for tea.  Just looking at someone’s goods isn’t enough; you’ve got to sit and have some tea and talk a bit in each shop.  I choose some cloth from one shop and take it to a tailor to have a Shalwar Kamiz made for Angele, whose birthday is in five days.  The tailor invites us to have tea, then to come to his house for dinner.  Glenn and I accept.

Tim, Carol, Glenn and I walk to the Gilgit River, a few blocks north of our hotel.  We cross the suspension bridge and seek out a place to relax by the water.  We realize only after we’ve reached the rocky bank that the area near the water all along both sides is a popular alimentary relief center.  The view is lovely; the smell is horrendous.  We wait until the latter overtakes the former, then leave.

I enter a small cloth and jewelry shop to look at a few scarves.  The obligatory cup of tea is followed by a sitar lesson and a few flute songs.  It’s pleasant sitting in the shop sipping tea under a watchful portrait of the Aga Khan.

At 4pm a cacophony of drums, reedy horns and flutes marks the beginning of a polo match on the field across the street from the Golden Peak.  Spectators gather under a large tarp, sipping complimentary Cokes through long straws as the horses thunder by and the players flail their mallets.  It is a rougher game than in the West.  At halftime, one player from each side does a traditional dance in front of the little band.

At 6 o’clock I go with Ute to meet the tailor; Glenn decided not to go.  The tailor says to come back at 7.  We have a change of heart somewhere between 6 & 7 and go tell him at 7 that we have to have dinner with Tomas, who is leaving Gilgit later tonight – maybe we can come for dinner tomorrow.  He says okay, and we go to the Serena Lodge for a little more expensive but much more satisfying meal.  We all eat a lot, then return to the Golden Peak to sit on the roof and look at the clear sky.  All is calm and well until…

May 22: …disaster strikes Carol’s and Glenn’s digestive systems.  Tomas, too, was sick last night, but he seems to be feeling better.  Carol is bedridden, weak, nauseated, feverish, but Glenn is violently sick.  It has all the hallmarks of food poisoning, but we all ate the same food (it was a buffet) and only 3 of 7 got sick.  The rest of us sit around most of the day and feel grateful and ask the afflicted how they feel on their frequent trips to the bathroom.

The wind picks up in the late afternoon, and Tim and I head for the river to experience the thrill of the suspension bridge in high winds and to try to find a stretch of riverfront that’s not human waste heaven.  We pick a relatively clean area and sit and watch the sun go down.  Tim loves to talk and quote poetry and offer observations that range from the insightful to the hopelessly corny.  He gets a dreamy look in his eyes and holds forth on the fascination of nature, then launches into an unrelated anecdote, laughs riotously, takes a few deep drags on his cigarette (one of an endless series), then breaks into an off-key rendition of an old Stray Cats tune.  The afternoon passes pleasantly.  At last the smell starts to get to Tim, and he starts for higher ground.  I stay by the river with a scarf over my nose, watching the swirling water and trying to make patterns out of jumbled thoughts.

As we walk back toward the Golden Peak, I am spotted by the tailor, Lal Khan, who corners me as I’m having tea and asks why I didn’t come at 7 to go to his house for dinner.  I know he’ll want me to come alone if I tell him Glenn is sick, so I tell him I am very sick and can’t possibly eat and I’m very sorry.

He looks concerned and  exclaims, “Wait!  You wait!”  and zips out for a minute, returning with foil-wrapped pills.  “Here.  You take this.  You feel better.”  I’m trapped.  The sincerity in his face is breaking my heart, but the thought of taking medicine I don’t need isn’t too appealing.

I do the old hide-pill-under- tongue-and-spit-it-out-discreetly routine, thank him, and make a move for the exit.
“Wait.  You wait.  I walk you back.”  Fortunately Tim is with me.  Unfortunately, he walks about 10 paces ahead, looking at the sky, oblivious to the tailor’s clumsy attempts to escort me, taking my hand or elbow or whatever part of my anatomy is most easily accessible.  Enough of this silliness.  I assert myself as a modern Western woman: “Ouch.  No,no, I’ve got a blister on my palm there,” and scurry out of his reach until we get to the hotel.

“You have dinner tomorrow my house?” he asks.  “I, well, I just don’t know.”

May 23: I realize I’m carrying more money than is safe, so I spend a lot this morning.  Scarves primarily and a field hockey stick for Kathy.  A gen-u-ine Pakistani field hockey stick stamped “made in Taiwan” on the bottom.  No, just kidding.

Back at the hotel, I have a brief but enlightening conversation with the local vice-chairman of the Pakistani People’s Party, whose members meet frequently in our little courtyard.  He told me several interesting things: Benazir Bhutto is a Shi’ite, the same religion as Ayatollah Khomeini (who he referred to as a “great man”), Gilgit and the Hunza Valley are claimed by both Pakistan and India, but legislated by Pakistan, fighting in Gilgit between Sunnis and Shi’ites is blamed by some on American provocation, the pilot of Zia’s fateful flight was a Shi’ite and Zia was Sunni.

In the evening we escape Pakistan for a while to watch “Arthur” on VCR at the Serena Lodge.

[With that, my Asia journal ended. There were many more adventures after this, in Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore, and on into India, but I couldn’t take writing every evening anymore. I did scribble some notes, however, which I still have. Perhaps one day before the memories are gone completely, I’ll try to reconstruct those last five weeks.]

3 responses to “Asia, 1989. Part the last: More Pakistan”

  1. g.a. says:

    Photo essay! Photo essay!

  2. LP says:

    Next week, for sure. I’ll finally have some time to scan them.

  3. J-Man says:

    The historical foreshadowing is interesting, and a bit eerie. Thanks for all your stories, Parrish! Can’t wait for the pics :)