S-Overloaded VehiclesSYNOPSIS:  Traffic is a different ballgame in Pakistan; a few observations on roads, trains, and air travel.

Traffic in any Middle Eastern country is scary and Pakistan is no exception.  Yes, there are traffic rules and laws similar to the Western world.  But the difference is that these rules seem to be mere suggestions.  Shabir, our driver would have no problem going the wrong way into a one-way street if this would shorten his trip by a few hundred feet…  A three lane highway sports easily as many as five motor bikes, overloaded trucks, tractors, or cars across.  And the idea of waiting your turn at an intersection seems altogether alien.  And this is just for starters.

Pedestrians, and there are many of them, assert their right by stepping into the flow of traffic at any given time.  Any such action in the Western world would bring traffic to a screeching halt or cause multiple accidents.  Here, pedestrians and cars engage in a sort of a dance, sliding by each other with inches to spare.  The trick is to gage the opponent’s speed and to indicate a clear and confident speed of your own.  This allows all participants to slow down just enough to miss a potential target.  Thankfully, one can make the assumption that neither participant wants to die or cause anyone else’s death.  But after that, it’s all a matter of luck.

There are trains in Pakistan and we were looking forward to taking the train across the country from North to South.  But Benazir Bhutto’s assassination just days before our scheduled departure put a dent into that idea.  Trains, for some reason, became the target of vandalism and violence all across the country.  Is that because they are government run?  What stupidity to target public transportation in a country which so heavily relies on it?  Which political gain could possibly come from it?  Yet, train stations had to be shut down, tracks were ripped off and trains lay sweltering and smoldering along the wayside.  Go figure!

Air traffic between large cities is surprisingly modern, affordable, and quick.  Since the trains were out of commission and a road trip would have taken forever, we opted for the plane between Multan and Karachi.  We got tickets the same day without a huge mark-up.  Now, that could have been due to the general strike and the political upheaval we found ourselves in, but I don’t think so.  Just about any sensible person had canceled non-essential travel to Sindh, the birth province of Benazir Bhutto.  But we went and the plane was reasonably full.  It was a special night, the 31st of 2007.  Over the plane’s loudspeaker the captain wished his two foreign travelers a Happy New Year.  What a nice touch!  It brought me to tears.  I had not kept track of time for several days, being absorbed in the upheaval and the day to day decisions that followed.  It made me realize how much tension we were under.  A glass of champagne and the celebration of the New Year seemed like a mirage from a different planet.

One thing holds true for all overland travel:  Roads are crowded.  There are not just the obligatory cars and trucks, the many overcrowded mini-buses, overloaded motor bikes, and horribly over stacked cotton trucks, but there are also the animals that travel alongside it all.  The most startling experience we had on this trip caused by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto was, how overnight the roads were empty.  An occasional daring car, a lonely biker and a few pedestrians were left.  But from Lahore to Multan we had a four-lane highway almost to ourselves.  It was haunting!  The  slow return to the roads indicated the slow return to normalcy in the country like nothing else.  For a brief few days we were the kings and queens of the road.  What an experience.



3-Eid Mosque Men preparing and dividing the MeatSYNOPSIS:   A bloody festival, the Faisal mosque, a gem dealer, and a look down on Islamabad.

Traffic was  dense on this early morning in Islamabad, even though we had gotten up early to  avoid it.  Shabir picked us up at the hotel  and took us to the main Shia mosque where Eid would be celebrated today and for  the next three days.

Eid, or “solemn  festival” is one of two holidays celebrated in the Islamic calendar by this  name and observed world-wide.  Eid  ul-Fitr, the lesser of the Eid festivals  follows the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting.  Eid al Adha or the greater Eid, is a festival  of sacrifice.  As far as I could tell it  is the most popular holiday for Pakistanis all year.  Everyone has three days off and the entire  country is in a state of frenzied festivities and if I may say so, bloody  gore.   If you have never experienced Eid this  closely, it may challenge some of your Western sensibilities.  If you are a vegetarian or a vegan or a faint  of heart, you may not want to read on.

We were  inching through traffic this morning observing numerous colorfully decorated animals  bound to trees in people’s front yards, transported in small trucks, or led  through town by their owners.  They were  heading to be sacrificed…  Their meat  would be divided into three parts:  One  to keep, one to donate, one to give to your relatives.  And since everyone was following that  formula, for Pakistanis, the next three days consisted of numerous visits to  the extended family for the purpose of “giving meat and getting meat”.   Saeed had a funny way of bowing with outstretched  arms and theatrically exclaiming this phrase whenever we would ask him what we would  do next:  We will go and visit so-and-so  and then “we will give meat and we will get meat”!  But we knew none of this yet as we were  heading to the mosque on this cool winter morning.

We were  carefully searched for weapons and explosives before entering the mosque and I  was not allowed to take in my back pack even though it contained nothing of  interest!  Why this level of  security?  Sectarian fear!  Shias are in the clear minority in Pakistan.  Afghanistan has given Shias a  taste of what  to expect if and/or when the Taliban, an Islamist Sunni organization, comes to  power.  They are taking no chances.

Few were in  the prayer area reserved for women and before long, Nicola and I were the only  women left in the entire mosque.  We were  treated like special guests; lectured on Islam, lead through the facilities,  shown the prayer room, the special shrine area, and the communal areas.   We were  offered tea and sweets and invited  to “hang out”.  All could have been fine  if one could have ignored what was going on outside in the courtyard.  Nicola stayed away as much as possible, but I  was too curious to let it go.

In the  courtyard, men and children (boys only) were gathering and slaughtering the  animals which had been brought in for sacrifice.  Every few minutes, another cow, sheep, or  goat went…   I had to conjure up all my  stoic might of “Don’t get upset if you can’t change anything!” to go out and
witness the scene.   Even harder than to  look, was to photograph.  But I did.

Several young  boys – hardly older than 12 – were busy gutting the animals that had been  killed.  One man led a group of young  boys and instructed them how to kill the animal just right, slicing the throat without  hesitation and draining the blood.  And a  majority of men were busy cutting the meat, weighing, dividing and bagging it  into the three prescribed portions.  And  all the while at the far end of the court the remaining cows, goats and sheep  were grazing, looking somewhat silly with their colorful plastic bows, their  ribbons, and their stripes of paint which marked them as next in line.  Did they have any inkling of what awaited  them?  The air was rife with the stench  of blood and decay.  It was hard to smile  for the group picture with the imam and to have cookies and tea…  But I did.

It was a  relief to get out of the mosque.  We  headed for one of Saeed’s family gatherings to “give and get meat” passing numerous  “drive way slaughter” scenes on the way.  People had gathered outside the mosque in parks, streets, front yards,  and plazas to slaughter animals.  Shabir  mentioned that in previous years he had to participate but that it appalled him.

The country  had come to a standstill as far as tourist activities were concerned, but a few  things were still possible.  In the  afternoon Shabir took us to the famous Faisal mosque.  It has an interesting history and is by far  the largest mosque in Islamabad.   A big  sign warned of taking pictures in the mosque area.  I was almost willing to observe it but after watching just about every other visitor taking pictures, I sneaked a few myself.

The highlight  of the day for Nicola was a visit to a gem trader.  Pakistan is known for its rare and fine gems  from the mountains and Nicola is an expert collector.  She was in heaven!  I can only look at gems for so long and asked  if I could walk around.  No, no, no!  We were in a rural area and this was the  first time I was faced with some of the limitations for women in this country.  I could not go out unaccompanied.   An eight year old boy of the household was  summoned to be my “guardian” as I strolled through the neighborhood.  There was not much to be seen except more and more slaughter scenes.  But there was a  courtyard of an artisan who restored antique architectural elements such as  doors and windows.  What a place!

In the  evening Shabir took us on another trip, a hill near Islamabad.  It is a favorite excursion spot for the  locals to get away from the city.   Entertainers, performers, and refreshment  stands were everywhere.  Entire families  in their finest clothes were strolling around.  The atmosphere was festive and relaxed.  And for the first time all day, we were far from the smells and sounds of slaughter.  At the overlook a  fantastic panorama of Islamabad sprawls before us.  It was more than enough to round up our third day in this strange and foreign land.

Good night.