Inside the border post I waited patiently. Slowly, seriously and with a bureaucratic zest, the senior officials took their time to write down each and every detail of my last name in big books that probably go back to the days of the partition. I was ragged, faded, crumbling and dusty. It was the ninth border crossing in the three weeks since I had left Amsterdam by bus and train on a journey taking me to India, and eventually to the streets of Bangkok.
After a minute (or twenty-seven), the bureaucratic process let me out into the Baloch heat on Pakistan’s southernmost soil, amongst the white muddy shacks of luscious Taftan. The Iranian side of the border had been completely bare; the only sign of life were the very organized military structures, posts and fences, stuck midway in the desert of Balochistan.
Taftan in its metropolitan lore was made up of muddy white one-story buildings that were thinking about falling over. Goats chewed god knows what and their squatting shepherds chewed on fragrant paan. A few broken down trucks lay half-stripped on the roadside. Dust and sand hid the tarmac of Taftan’s only road. A mob of local men surrounded me under the general guise of: “Change money?" Crisp blue and green bills with Khomeini’s bored expression on it were exchanged for crumpled stained and torn bills holding Jinnnah’s earnest face.
I had a few hours before my bus would leave. I spent them inside the local food court; a small white muddy shack that housed hordes of flies, empty Coca Cola bottles, a small kitchen plus tandoor, and a man who worked the tandoor incessantly making chapattis with vigor. Milky tea was brewed non-stop, and a few local youngsters of about 17 or so sat with full moustaches, using me as a stare sponge. They wore a shalwar kameez, the traditional floppy pajama-like threads that are characteristic of the South-Asian continent.
One of the shalwar kameezed guys introduced himself as Haider. He asked me for foreign currency. “Dollars please. No rials… Rials no good… Iran no good.” Outside a woman in a bright green and purple sari was huddled in the shade of the food-court with three half-naked children. Her face was touching twenty, scarred by life, she yelled hoarsely at her playing and whining children. I asked Haider if there were a lot of tourists coming through Taftan nowadays.
"No, not as much as a few years ago," he said in fluent English.
By the look of the place, it hadn't been part of the Visit Pakistan Campaign nor would it ever be. Goats shagged in the road, men in shalwar kameez squatted, the woman huddled, and one of her kids was intently trying to play the flute on a rusty brown Coca-Cola bottle it had found. The sun burned.
Haider made it sound as if hordes of international tourists used to frequent Taftan for years, and then in his own words or word, he said, "Iraq" with a pained expression and then a confused, "I don't know. Change money?"
I adjusted to the drastic time zone changes in the desert. Pakistan was an uncharacteristic 30 minutes ahead of Iran’s timetable according to the Greenwich meantime game. And the quarreling brothers, India and Pakistan, shared another 30-minute difference on winding clocks. So disenchanted with one another, they refused to live in the same time zone.
Towards five o’clock Karachi time, I left the shade of the pseudo-food court and moved over to the bus I was to take to Quetta. The bus was a large tin tattooed with explosive colors and designs characteristic of Pakistan. Monster truck tires acquired from the local demolition derby retailer supported its colorful weight. The brilliant shack on wheels would cart me across the desert of Balochistan to the province's capital, Quetta, a.k.a. the nearest civilized town. I was embarking on an overnight journey of 20 hours or so, passing through tribal, bandit, and drug running country.
Since partition in 1947, the region has been the scene of numerous forms of social unrest, and uprisings much to the dismay of whichever Pakistani ruler du jour. According to all the official sources up in air-conditioned Islamabad, the Pakistani authorities generally had no say in the local affairs. They only held their position of authority on the main road between Taftan and Quetta – the same road that would drag me to Quetta in the garish monstrosity I was about to board. The terms control and authority were relatively vague and flexible, as was the term road in this case. The bus to Quetta is known to be held up for sums of cash on a regular basis.
The bus driver motioned me into the bus with a smile under his holy beard – a large jovial man raised in the sandbox of Balochistan. I found the seat that I was to squeeze into for the next 20 hours. From there I watched the spectacle of my fellow passengers trickle in. There was a seven-piece family of boys, their stonewashed jeans wearing pop, and the mother unit sporting rimmed glasses along with her black veil. Also Baloch and Pathan men in full garb and beards slumped in with rugs over their shoulders sporting the latest in Mujahideen fashion. Some smaller Persian men dropped in for the ride.
A young man wore his shalwar kameez with a military air, along with a fresh pair of Nikes under the gear. His Punjabi face donned a moustache that would put a walrus to shame, and a look of distinction under his perfectly parted hairdo. His wife was veiled to the hilt in her bright purple and green sari and veil, almond eyes that shone and giggled along with her husband.
Osama's last few cousins trickled in and laid out their rugs in the aisle. All lined up back to back like they were embarking on one of those amusement-park log rides. The driver tossed a quick deranged grin down the bus, revved the engine, kicking in the radio full blast tablas and hymns that came along with it
BAPPADAPPADAPPADAHH boing boing
HYIOMINAYAAAH HEEYEYEHEEYA OMANUMUYEHAAAHYAHH boing"
The Baloch rendition of – On the Road Again.
The rumble and tumble began. It was the beginning of a 20-hour earthquake – 17.2.on the Richter scale.
The road that I mentioned before, where the Pakistani authorities supposedly run the show, the road between Taftan and Quetta that is indicated on every map is…well…it's non existent…that is, beyond five kilometers from Taftan.
The radio rocked full blast.
The bus rumbled and tumbled over rocks and sand, occasionally slipping and sliding, sending its monster wheels in overdrive. It occurred to me that robberies were the least of my worries. The absence of an actual paved road past the shopping centers of Taftan had me hanging on to my pants in the rolling earthquake of color and near death. The landscape raced by. You could hear the engine growling at full speed. The Baloch desert was getting paler and paler as dusk was coming, and the previously bright sky was inching towards darker hues.
The bus stopped.
The solar globe had begun its final ascent for the 20th of June. A soccer team’s worth of men left the bus. I saw them move out into individual spots in the desert. Each brought out a mat and started his prayers right there in the blowing sand. Sashes were flying in the wind. All of them prayed individually, out of synch. The big bus driver morphed into a humble seriousness also. Once the men were done with their issues towards Mecca, the heavens had turned into a deep phalo blue.
The bus driver got into his seat and glanced over with that bearded cocky smirk of his. The engine was revved and it went on, in that giant vibrator on wheels past dark hues and the ghosts of Balochistan. I nodded on and off like a light bulb on its last few buzzes between consciousness and unconsciousness. The other passengers were either falling asleep anywhere, or just lounging like it was the most matter of fact situation in the world.
The road then got somewhat smoother. It must have been near midnight. It felt like it. We passed shacks, stucco buildings, some dim lights. Stop.
The bus emptied out into a-middle-of-nowhere town – Balochistan, Dalbandin, I assumed. I got off and saw men racing towards a large house. It emanated the scent of bread being baked and spices being cooked. The men with their wives marched straight into the building.
”Ah a restaurant,” I thought. Where I’m from, you enter an eating establishment, are greeted by a fresh young hostess who leads you to the table, hands over laminated menus and smiles asking if you’d like to pay in cash or credit once the onslaught of pushing food into facial cavities has subsided. Not here.
I walked into the darkness and past a shack with no door. The interior was lit by one butane lamp, which cast a rapid moving shadow of the room's only inhabitant. A fully vested Pathan man was heavily involved in praying eastwards. His head was firmly pressed to the dirt floor; his gun lazily leaned against the shadow enhanced wall.
I moved along towards a dim-lit shack and asked the short man gently, ”Pani, water." He typed the price into his calculator and handed me a cold plastic bottle. Transaction was completed and thirst problems were solved.
I stood in the darkness of the road that carved down the middle of the town. A black Toyota Camry stopped next to me. Dust curled through the night. A heavy set Baloch man got out his beard and greeted me with a heavy laughter. I nodded an out of place “Whassup?” He quickly proceeded in the company of five tiny black burqa’d women, scuffling their way behind him. Their burqas were black with red ornaments, silver bells and chains jingling on them. The man was still laughing heartily as he passed.
I went back towards the bus sipping my water until I heard a familiar shout of "Okay!" tossed into my general direction. I glanced over towards the restaurant. Under the shed roof, there was an older man in a shalwar kameez, topped by a knit skullcap, squatting on a nicely weaved rug. His rifle leaned against the wall.
He motioned to me again shouting, “Okay!” and making eating gestures. Ah! We've made contact. I went over, took my shoes off, shook hands with him. Someone came out with plates full of mutton curries, daal and large size naan. The man smiled, motioned towards the food and said, "Okay", pushing the food in my direction.
"Okay, okay," he nodded and ate ferociously, I gave him the introductory speech, asked him if he was on the bus. English was not spoken in his world. I kept dipping the naan into the orange curries. Some young men in their twenties came over, squatted, looked me over with wide eyes and inquired.
”No. No. Holland.” I muttered.
One of the two shook my hand with both of his and mumbled, "Angreji", English, as he shoved the next piece of soaking naan into his gob.
As we sat over our romantic dinner under the desert sky in the middle of some unknown town, perhaps Dalbandin, a crowd gathered in a half circle around our dinner rug. Men in all shapes and sizes – robed, kufid, armed, bearded, beads in hand, sashed, scarved, Punjabi, Pathan, Baloch, asleep and awake, ranging from eight through eighty gathered around. All gazed wide-eyed and slack jawed at my chewing style. I looked up smiled and went on with the digestive and post dinner conversation.
A man in stonewashed jeans and a tucked in polo shirt – the Indian subcontinent's affluent uniform – popped out of the crowd. Poof. There he was.
"Hello. Hello", he shouted. He had a gentle middle-aged Punjabi face – dark skinned, balding toupee, a moustache that would have made the Kaiser proud, and a smile best described as wide. "Hello. Hello. Mind if I sit with you?” he asked. He was a businessman from Lahore. We exchanged greetings and I had an interpreter for the surreal dinner.
Origins were revealed and my volunteering interpreter from Lahore barked a loud, "Holland. Europeh!" into the crowd. A loud mumble was audible and mass nodding was visible.
The Punjabi businessman ranted on with continuous bursts of enthusiasm, especially when I told him that I was going to the northern areas. He said I would be able to see the new freeway from Lahore to Islamabad. "Very, very beautiful”, he assured me. I could only picture and remember the countless hours on freeways in California stuck in traffic jams as an omen of what the concrete monsters could become. In Pakistan, though, it was fresh and new, a sign of progress, something people could be proud of, an achievement.
I thanked everyone for their hospitality and guided my curry-lined guts into the bus. The driver patted my back as I got on. I stumbled past boxes and rugs in the aisle towards my seat; the interior of the bus lit up with white smiles and hellos. I was being acknowledged. I squeezed my way in, sat down, some tribal fellow lying in the aisle cuddled up with my leg. End of intermission.
BAPPADAPPADAPPADAHH boing boing
HYIOMINAYAAAH HEEYEYEHEEYA OMANUMUYEHAAAHYAHH boing"
We left town without buying souvenirs or sending a postcard home. The tires slipped in the dirt and left a cloud in the night. People slept everywhere, bodies rendered weightless in the bump and ride, people flopped about. Snores sounded like foghorns. Bodies hopped, jumped and sweated. Dreams were heavy.
Darkness reigned; occasional stops were made in the midst of scattered shacks that were failed attempts at cities to be, or even villages, for that matter. In the brief intermissions, tribal gun-toting types rolled up their rugs, swung them over their shoulders and hopped off the bus.
By morning, I had collected half the Baloch desert in my hair, and somehow lured out of a dream by my spontaneous exercise of weightless sleep. I had bounced, bopped and been beaten by that ride. Now I know what it feels like to be a hamster in a tin can that's being shaken ferociously by a nine-year-old. I hurt.
The road reared its paved face by the time the suburbs of Quetta appeared – Balochistan’s capital and only major city of half a million. To get a general picture of this place, imagine a Wild West town from a Clint Eastwood flick and replace all the cowboys with Osama bin Laden look-alikes. That's what Quetta looks like – lots of guns, no women, and yours truly, the only denim-clad mug for miles.
I left the bus stop with many pats on the back. I still don't know whether their smiles were smiles of kindness or sympathy.