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Yak to the Future

July 7, 2007

PRIOR WARNING!: DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU HAVE SEVERAL HOURS TO KILL

Just in case you are wondering, Danny suggested the title for this latest post. Around two weeks ago, we began planning for a little excursion to the Hunza valley in the mountains of northern Pakistan. The plan was to end the trip with a yak safari – unfortunately no yaks or alternative bovines were forthcoming, so this post is in honour of them.

Our flight up to Gilgit where we were to begin our journey was scheduled for Friday 22nd June. We had lots to do on the Thursday before. Danny’s solution to this was to write down everything that we had to do or buy, whilst muttering excitedly “let’s make a list!” every so often. By the end of the day, with all necessary goods and services purchased, we headed over to a new art museum that was having its grand opening. Apparently, this wasn’t just any museum, this was, as the email promised, “BREATHTAKING. SUCH A PAKISTANI TREASURE THAT HAS BEEN BUILT THAT IS GOING UNNOTICED” [sic]. Well with that glowing review, how could one resist the sheer artistic allure?

On arrival we were informed that the museum was only operating on a ‘sneak preview’ basis. You had to be special, nay worthy to gain entry. We were bustled into the executive’s office to await our fate where we amused ourselves among his personal effects, including an autobiographical book entitled “My Heartrendingly Tragic Story” until he waltzed in half an hour later to tell us it had closed half an hour before.

With that we left, and push starting Danny’s geriatric car went home. Later that evening we went to dinner at a Korean restaurant where the conversation returned to the lately popular topic of cannibalism, and more specifically whether we would eat each other if our plane crashed in the Andes ( or somewhere else where you might encounter such a dilemma). I wouldn’t, he would. I had a nice introduction to Korean food minus some weird stuff that tasted like sauerkraut although also tempting was the ‘Mange juice’ and ‘American’ available at the vending machine outside for only 15r apiece.

Recent flights having been cancelled, we weren’t too sure of the status of our flight to Gilgit. Luckily the skies were clear and we took off without incident. The small passenger plane does not fly above cloud level, so we had spectacular views of surrounding mountains, valleys and lakes. At one point to our left you could see the magnificent River Indus and to the right arresting views of Nanga Parbat, the 9th highest mountain in the world. Flying below the heights of large mountains, you could see why clear weather was such an imperative for flying conditions.

I had secretly been dreading finding transport at the other end and moreover the prospect of taking a wagon and having to sheath myself in fabric once again. My prayers were answered quite creatively when we met Lucy, a girl from the Czech Republic who had hired a jeep to Duikar, just beyond where we were headed. A photographer, we stopped regularly to take pictures, and she would not let us give her anything at the end, so we saved quite substantially. The route to Karimabad is on the Karakoram highway, and follows one of the paths of the ancient Silk Route. The highest international highway in the world, it took twenty years to build (mostly by blowing sides of the mountain away with dynamite) and claimed almost 900 lives.

The feat of engineering is incomprehensible. It takes you up through traditional villages to the arid, inhospitable mountainous regions. That being said, an intricate maze of irrigation channels have been meticulously constructed to create arable pasture from the challenging surroundings. There are messages written in stones on the mountainside that read “Nice to see you” and “Welcome to the royal couple” which we assumed were directed at our stately arrival, and later regretfully discovered were meant for the Aga Khan (the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims – so almost!).

When we arrived in Karimabad we found a room at the Mulberry hotel and set our stuff down so we could go and explore. We went for a late lunch at a little café called the Hidden Paradise where we tried the local food – chap schuro – a sort of flatbread stuffed with minced meat and garma – a mix of spinach, potatoes and a secret blend of herbs – all washed down with fresh apricot juice. There is abundance of apricots and walnuts in the area and every last bit is used to some end to make apricot oil, flour, juice and walnut chapatti, bread and cake etc. When the bill came it said VIP guests (handwritten) at the top which fuelled our delusions of grandeur and general regality.

Later we took a stroll to the Baltit fort, and then settled down for an early night in preparation for a little expedition the next day. Unfortunately my body had other ideas so we reverted to plan B next day which was eat and nap. We ate cherries, delicious walnut cake at the fantastic Café de Hunza (accompanied by real Lavazza cappuccino – this guy knows how to make a mint), and later BBQ chicken and local cheese. We read, and snoozed. We revisited the fort and took the tour following a 60-strong bunch of schoolkids who quite possibly hadn’t been introduced to the wonders of deodorant just yet.

That afternoon, we went to find Kate, a friend of Danny’s who lives in nearby Altit. We gatecrashed a meeting at the Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan (AKCSP) and were given somewhat cryptic clues as to how to find her. We needn’t have bothered because after a picturesque walk past waterfalls and greenery we arrived at the village, our enquiries met with joyful faces. It seemed everyone knew Kate. We were guided to a derelict hotel which, it appeared had never had paying guests. It takes a brave person to live alone in a deserted hotel but it seems Kate is our girl. We suggested that she starts sub-letting the other rooms for a bit of residual income!

On Sunday morning, we finally set off for Ultar Meadow, with the plan to stay the night and come back down the next day. We took stashes of raisins, nuts and plenty of chocolate and water. The first part of the walk was through a labyrinthine network of houses and fields, through a waterfall and up a steep hill to the start of the trail. Then we got to Danny’s ‘favourite part’ because it made his heart go really fast in a good kind of way. Or something. The path, which is less than a yard wide in several places follows a water channel carved into the rock to your left. To your right there is a sheer drop of…hmm…about 50,000ft. My powers of estimation are not great, but when you get past a few hundred feet it doesn’t really matter how big the drop is you know? It still gives you mental pictures of dying a really long horrific death if you’re me. What can I say? I’m morbid, and I see death in everything and am always looking for new and exciting ways I could feasibly (but not statistically) die.

The view was amazing, but I still held Danny’s hand for that part because he’s a lot more surefooted than me (read: if I go down he’s comin’ with me!). The next part involved scrambling up some rocks (there’s nothing like the sound of falling scree to inspire confidence in an amateur hiker such as myself!), and then it levelled out a bit before a final scramble to the top. On the way, we came across several optimistic/sadistic signs that claimed it was only 40 minutes or so until we reached our destination. These have obviously been put there by locals who have been using the trail since they were five to train for marathons. Forty minutes turned out to be around two hours, but we reached the meadow in four hours, which the guide book suggests is good time. However when we purchased Cokes at extortionate prices from Ladyfinger restaurant (ie. a man with a crate of Cokes) he didn’t seem very impressed, screwing his face up and muttering ‘very slow’ and ‘problem’ or words to that effect.

Sipping our drinks, we encountered several bemused goats (They always have that huh, what’s going on here? look about them), one of whom we christened Anila the goat. She (I hope – we didn’t check) had brown curly hair which bore a striking resemblance to my own but I think that’s where the similarities end.

Ultar meadow (at 10,730ft) is beautiful. You are hemmed in by snow-capped mountains on three sides including Ultar peak, the razor blade-like Ladyfinger (which Danny suggests be renamed ‘Sabre of Death’) and Ultar glacier. Ultar peak is supposedly the highest unscaled mountain in the world, but although there haven’t been any recent attempts, a couple of Japanese expeditions made the summit in the early nineties. There were fatalities on the way down however, and the climbers’ graves are nearby.

We found a level spot to camp and no sooner had we laid out our sleeping mats, we spotted a huge avalanche in the distance to our left. You can hear constant rumbling of distant snowfalls so we were amazed to actually see one and we stood there mouths open for the full duration…

The next morning we woke to find curious goats nibbling on my boots which are clearly a delicacy in these parts. We found a stream to wash in and refilled our water bottles ready for the descent. My feet were blistered and Danny’s knee was playing up so together we were the walking wounded. I slipped about three or four times but I didn’t die so it’s okay. About halfway down, Danny suggested we took another route by a separate water channel which to me looked like it abruptly culminated at about 50,000ft. His words were “We would be the stronger for it, if not deader”, assuring me it would be character building. I assured him it would be friendship breakdown-ing.

The surrounding mountains look like Mordor so you feel as though you are in a fantasy film, and the rabbit warren-like village at the bottom add to the quest experience. We made it back to Karimabad in around 3 ½ hours and following a burger (more like spot-the-burger as it was only 3mm thick) we headed north to Gulmit.

There we found the Hunza Marco Polo Inn where we were quoted 1500r for a room. The guy assured us there was hot water. This is a familiar experience in Pakistan. “YES! Garam pani! 24hrs a day – you can check!” We checked and it was cold. We bargained a ‘special price’ of 350r. We then discovered there was no electric either. Not to be discouraged we went to the garden and placed our dinner order. Unable to compromise, we attempted the elimination method. Danny told me a somewhat morbid story of a butcher treated at his parents hospital who had caught is fingers in the mincer and subsequently sold the batch of ground ‘beef’ fingers and all. Qeema being hastily struck of the list we went with chicken biryani. When it arrived it smelled suspiciously of rotting bodies and after one bite we concluded that the electricity had probably been off for some time. It later made a brief appearance that evening when we read/washed by strobe lighting on account of the sporadic generator.

The next morning, our festering chicken experience was redeemed by yummy Hunza bread and honey. Our tummies full, we set off for another mini-adventure. Just another day in the life of the Dannyanilamobile! Our journey took us on a steep climb to Kamaris village and onto Borit lake. As soon as we started, I felt a vague wave of malnoia (see previous post) as I realized that my blisters were still providing me much discomfort. Danny complained of pain in his hip flexors (what the?). It was time to pray. Miraculously, some white van men appeared along the deserted road and offered us a lift. We hitched a ride to the village as Danny wearily asked me what I would be praying for next (manna or maybe cake from heaven maybe?). The climb would have added at least 2hrs to our journey time.

We tried to find our way in the village, but couldn’t seem to find anyone over the age of five. Mind you they were all tri-lingual (Wakhi, Urdu, English – ‘hello, one picture?) which is pretty cool if you’re five I reckon. Later, we thought better than to seek direction from infants and consulted a 12 year old who was offering his services as a guide. Thinking we could use the help of a local we agreed. He took us to his house. Swaggering in, he barked something to his mother in Wakhi, which roughly translated I imagine meant “White people. Make chai.”

She was a lovely laid back lady who offered us genuine hospitality. She spoke little English, yet she chuckled as she served us ‘organic’ (her words!) chapattis. Wakhi households consist of a pillared quadrangle with a small sunken area in the middle for dining and lighting a stove in winter. Light is provided through a central skylight. Traditionally there are few inner walls or doors, giving a communal, cosy feel. We sat on the floor to take tea and then set of at breakneck speed with her older son, headed for Gulkin glacier.

After about 15 minutes our guide Nazir-u-din relieved me of my pack, but even so he appeared to be moving at a running pace and I struggled to keep up. When we reached the glacier we realised how insane it would have been to not take a guide. It looks other-worldly, like a Martian surface or the earth as it might have been in prehistory. In fact, I doubt much has changed for many years indeed. The sheer size is imposing – the route across is not at all obvious and I am sure would daunt even the most experienced walkers.

You feel miniscule as you try to negotiate the ridges. At the top of each crest there are large boulders poised to fall and split your head open and die (I told you I’m morbid – but some were falling so I felt it was a realistically envisaged fatal scenario). I scraped myself once on the hand to prevent one such rock taking my foot out. The irony was that I could have done with some ice and just below the dirt underfoot was a huge packed icy mass.

We found a glacial pond which was only several metres wide but incredibly deep according to our guide who repeatedly urged us not to swim and threw in boulders in a rather theatrical manner in order to prove his point. When we reached the uppermost point, we began our descent using a ‘controlled slide’ technique down the sandy/rocky mountainside. Danny felt this was an opportune moment to make useful comments like ‘It’s like an escalator – you get more for each step’ and ‘Is now a bad time to ask you if you want a piggy back?”. At last we reached Borit lake. Last year, Danny’s friend Grant gave this place the double thumbs-down. If Ben, the Japanese guy we met earlier (see first posts) were to have seen it he would have probably given us his best unimpressed face. He said Macchu Picchu was ‘a bit rubbish – not old enough’ which cracked me up. Having said that, just the sight of water after being enclosed by sinister red rock on all sides was a relief. On closer inspection, I discovered the water was inhabited by large clumps of weed. Past experience with wild underwater plants combined with a brisk breeze were enough to put me off going swimming. Swimming through reeds feels like a thousand hands reaching out to touch you. It’s creepy. Danny (among others) likes to remind me that I find pretty much everything creepy. I protest the untruth of this.

Undeterred, Danny took to the waters and we briefly tried to take out a rowing boat, until we realised the wind was steering us into a particularly ominous looking patch of weedy mulsh. After much gentle insistence on Danny’s part and strong resistance on mine, we took dinner (a successful biryani – woohoo!) and retired to the room. It had a homestyle feel about it like many of our previous rented abodes replete with fake wooden beams and carpeted floors. All the same it wasn’t particularly homely, but who can argue for 150r a night?

The following morning, we walked down to the KKH and attempted to hitchhike. This was slightly problematic given that the highway was devoid of any traffic whatsoever. Luckily though, the second car that passed through gave us a life to Sost for only 70r each. We reached Sost after 45 minutes, I changed into something more…respectable (a Punjabi suit) and we located the jeep that was bound for our next destination… the Chapursun valley. While we were waiting we were invited to take tea with a guy named Hassan. Initially I thought his baseball cap, high waist jeans and faintly southern tone derived from a long-held adulation for all things American. We discovered however that he was an ex-proprietor of a grocery store and would-be jeweller who regularly resides in Birmingham Alabama. I feel I should be less cynical in future.

Our jeep, when it finally took off had less than thirty but definitely more than twenty people inside. We sensibly decided to ride on the roof. Three dusty hours later after much ducking cliff overhangs and dodging tree branches, we made it to our destination of Zood Khun in one piece (two pieces if you include the boy).

This small village does not have any guesthouses as such, but is inhabited by one Alum Jan whose reputation precedes his actual being. We were directed to his house and welcomed with some warm Hunza bread by his wife only to find that the legend himself was back in Islamabad collecting a party of hikers. We discovered that a journey by yak would require collection of said animals from their residences further north and that that would take around ten days so unfortunately our safari plans were scuppered. Those of you who read my Indian Summer blog will recall the um…abrasion induced by a camel safari so I can’t say as if I was that devastated. Danny on the other hand found a corner and rocked back and forth sobbing, at least that’s what he would have done if he hadn’t contained his emotions so well.

To aid the grieving process we took a stroll in the village, encountering a somewhat curious lamb and its rather possessive mother. Later that evening, we met a Quiet Frenchman and a Loud Swiss who were also staying at the same place. The Frenchman entertained us with his fervent views on tomato ketchup. Adding it to spaghetti is abhorrent (take note Suzy!) if you’re cultured apparently. Oh how I love the French’s views on cuisine. French dude, who shall be known only as Monsieur Dupont (should Sarkozy be reading this) revealed that for the past 8 years he has bee living off €400 per month only they haven’t realised that for the duration he has failed to check in each week (much like Jobseekers where you have to prove weekly you’re still jobless). The crazy thing is there is nothing at all illegal about it. Monsieur Dupont also taught me a new French word though I haven’t decided whether he is just playing on my gullibility. He claims they use the same word (sac à la viande) for body bag as well as sleeping bag liner. Hmm…if anyone could confirm or dispel this notion it would be much appreciated
Settling down to bed later that evening, we found we were sharing our ‘room’ (the quad) with an overexcited mouse/shrew who Danny claimed was “super-soft – I stroked him!!”

The following morning we awoke to the sound of the Loud Swiss talking to the Quiet Frenchman. In actual fact, I imagine he was talking at the Frenchman whilst Monsieur Dupont politely nodded at acceptable intervals. In fact, such were Loud Swiss’s monologues, he probably wouldn’t notice if Monsieur Dupont/his audience were dead.

After some greasy parathas for breakfast we donned our hiking gear and went out to explore. We crossed the river on a dodgy suspension bridge and a little while later found Jhui Sam, a place the guidebook said was interspersed with arcadian foliage and crystal lakes. The lake we found seemed sulphuric, and far from crystal clear. However our initial disappointment turned to wonder as we ventured far back and found dreamy scenes that looked like they were straight out of a fantasy computer game. Those familiar with the likes of Myst or Riven (my sister Rhea, brother Aaron) will know what I mean.

After lunch during which we were joined by some rather friendly, overenthusiastic, yet still thoroughly bemused goats we walked up a nearby mountain, and to the land beyond which the guidebook ever-animatedly described as the Garden of Eden. Well, Danny and I joked that the author should re-consult his Bible as it was maybe too favourable a description. That being said, in all honesty I had expected cascading chocolate waterfalls and lemon bonbon trees so maybe I should go back to Sunday school too…

Still it was very beautiful and we spent the good part of a day exploring, finally returning home after six hours. We met Bert from Holland and his wife Maria from Bolivia who were travelling in the region. We swapped travel tales and I was pleased to find that Maria too shared my morbid fear of sheer drops (in fact I believe she had a more extreme version of the phobia). I realise that my phobia is somewhat irrational as it is not a fear of heights per se, but a fear of instability and more specifically sheer drops. If anyone could supply me with the Latin for ‘sheer’ and ‘drop’ I’d be most thankful because I’d be halfway to making it sound like a legitimate fear.

The next morning we had a jeep to catch at 5am which meant waking at 4.45am. And to think this was meant to be a holiday! Luckily we had a mere 13 or so in the jeep and it was raining so riding atop the vehicle was not so much of an option. Passengers included a young mum and her baby who was being breastfed and sicking up his own babyweight in turn, and a spritely sexagenarian a.k.a. SuperGrandaddy! who jumped out when required to throw stones in flooded streams to aid our crossing.

Our taxi (a Toyota Corolla) from Sost to Karimabad was positively luxurious by comparison. The opulence was short-lived however, as we came up to a roadblock and noticed mud gushing from the side of the mountain. Close up we found a sizeable landslide that was not even negotiable on foot. A local guy said it would take 2 weeks to clear and the policemen said we couldn’t get through. We soldiered on nevertheless (stiff upper lip and all that). We ventured down to the river towards a bridge ahead where we could see some guys making a temporary bridge across part of the river that was quite narrow. What was slightly worrying was that it appeared to be constructed from old girders that had broken off another older, broken-er bridge. Soon though we got across and pioneering a trend, others followed.

Once across, we met a bunch of students from Punjab University who were on a roadtrip up north for the first time. They were quite excited like us by the adventure they were experiencing. They were blatantly like Londoners heading to the Lake District or the highlands for the first time. Or anywhere ending in –shire for that matter! They took photos with us – their looking rather chuffed to have made friends so quickly (“You got stuck in a landslide? Ohhh, we have so much in common!”) and us with somewhat more bewildered, goat-like expressions on our faces.

Then they crammed all 20 of them into a small wagon and took off. Five minutes later they reversed and offered us a lift. Or rather issued us a challenge – if we could fit we could come. Well of course we could. It’s at times like these that I am not so thankful that God blessed me with height!

Lots of singing of Hindi movie soundtracks and performing of really bad magic tricks involving a napkin ensued and around 30 squished minutes later we arrived in Karimabad. Refusing several offers of chai we headed to our favourite Hunza haunt – the café de hunza – for some well-deserved revitalising cafetiere coffee and walnut cake.

Then we set off for Duikar and the Eagle’s Nest, our last stop in Hunza. Another uphill walk, we were followed by a retinue of 8-9 year olds, who took us on a shortcut. For the last leg, we held on to the back of a jeep that had stopped for us. This is no mean feat with a pack on your back weighing you down so we were relieved to finally get there. When the contents of the jeep spilled out, what do you know, one of the guys had spent 15 years working in South Woodford where I went to school. Small world.

Our room was the nicest so far and had gorgeous views over the valleys that no picture could ever do justice. The ‘welcome’ mountain tea was not so nice. In fact it reminded me of a vile mixture my dad used to give me when I was younger to induce vomiting. That’s nice.

Lunch was hilarious. The English menu offered ‘Alakat Brake Fast’, ‘Form Fresh Eggs Cary Style’ (still wondering who Cary is…) and Buffed lunch. We ordered the Jalfrezi. Over lunch, we couldn’t help overhearing the following words uttered by a rather rotund member of the jeep party we had previously encountered:

Rotund lady quizzing local dude: “In the evening, do you go back to your… village?

Local dude: [silence] *puzzled look followed by answer in the affirmative*

RL: In your village…do they have cows?

LD: [silence]

Disclaimer: These events may have seemed infinitely more amusing at the time of passing.

We showered our dust-ridden selves. After a long-long waited dinner we exited and were struck again by the sheer size of the surrounding mountains. Trust me, as long as you are here, you wake up every day shocked that they are still there and still just as huge. By night, the only parts that are visible are the snow-capped peaks. They look like neon parallelograms in the sky and are ever so slightly creepy. But amazing nonetheless.

Saturday 30th June was Danny’s 25th birthday. To celebrate, we did… nothing. Ah-ha! But zis vas de plan all along! To be honest, he’s getting on in years so I am urging him to take it easy. For the best part of the day, we wallowed in our collective laziness, reading, sleeping and eating chocolate at will. At 4pm we sauntered over to the look-out point slightly further up from the hotel and watched the sunset. In the evening we watched “Voice of India” (like Pop Idol but not) with Indian Jeff Goldblum as we waited for them to buff dinner (they did a buffed dinner as well as buffed lunch). This programme really has to be seen to be believed. It’s car-crash TV. Like, you really shouldn’t watch it but something is compelling you all the same. Wow. The producers really seem to have gone to great lengths to assemble the most ugly people in India and then coaxed them into singing (very few seemed to enjoy the experience). We discovered unsightlyness seemed to be a prerequisite for audience members too when we spotted an Indian Gollum among the masses.

Anyway, that was a bit of an aside! On Sunday, Danny set his alarm ridiculously early to take pictures of the sunrise, and then proceeded to hit snooze a couple more times for good measure. What a sweetie. We later packed up and were looking forward to some exercise after several slothful days. We saw some Americans in the car park and went over to say bye and wish them well (and hint at getting a lift maybe?). Five minutes later they passed us on the downhill slope and offered us a ride. We lazily agreed, and breaking our previous record managed to fit 9 people and 9 large camping bags into a teeny jeep meant for 4. Funnily enough one of the girls had met Danny’s parents at their hospital in Pakistan the summer before. Good times.

Back in Karimabad again, we said thank-yous and goodbyes and killed time shopping which Danny definitely enjoyed thoroughly. I’m glad he was there though because he was able to prise me away from the antique jewellery counters when, presumably, he could see my eyes twinkling with rubies and emeralds.

Amid a dust storm, we took a taxi to Gilgit. Gilgit is a grimy transit town which is best used as a place to stay whilst arranging treks and transport further north. Hunza peoples seem generally more open and friendly than anywhere else I have been in Pakistan. You almost feel in another country because the language is so different (not in the least bit related to Urdu) and even visually there are huge differences (Hunzakuts often having extremely fair skin and hair and blue eyes). Gilgit seemed more hostile by comparison. There has been a recent history of sectarian violence, so there are military checkpoints with men carrying big scary guns. Thankfully, we didn’t look dodgy enough to get stopped.

We had planned to stay where the Americans were but there was no room at the Inn so we found a bed at the Madina guesthouse. On Monday morning we went to confirm our flight tickets which has to be done in person 24hrs before. It was grey and rainy and we were told one flight was delayed and several cancelled on previous days. We tried to forget about the possibility of going by road (20hrs!!). With little to do, we amused ourselves reading the daily papers over lunch. Under Marriage Bureau one can only guess what some of the descriptions were euphemisms for: tall male, sharp features, foreign nationality holder, fair-complexioned, eastern values, professionally educated (doctor, engineers, MBA) [sic]. None of your fancy arts degrees will do here…These two here particularly cracked me up. Again, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions:

‘Urdu speaking 5.8” handsome exec post in multinational company seeks fair, good-looking, smart graduate 5.3”-5.4” aged 30-35 domestic chores expert unmarried girl.’

’38, Sunni conservative Muslim male, short, 5’4”, bald, dark skin, Bengali origin, residing currently in NE U.S. divorced with one child, gainfully employed.’

As you can tell we were rather bored by this point. Then, Danny had the genius idea of going to the Serena and spending the rest of the evening in the grounds there. It was a sterling idea. Readers of this blog will know our fondness for staying at run-down dirt-cheap holes and hanging out in expensive hotels. For some reason the Serena has had a particularly powerful appeal, so we decided to make it a hat trick.

We got there early evening, perused pricey Persian carpets and jewels and took a walk in the gardens. The pikey extravaganza continued as we made our way to the restaurant for an expensive buffet dinner. To put it in perspective, we worked out that the dinner cost 4 times as much as we were paying for our hotel room. But it was worth it for the yummy food. We had to suspend our disbelief at the automatic doors though because it would not have looked particularly refined and might have resulted in pompous cries of “I daresay old boy, how terribly uncouth!” The only question that remains is… which Serena is to undergo the chav treatment next? Danny suggests we conquer either Kabul or Zanzibar…

On Tuesday, we awoke at 6am to head for the airport. I woke up long before though, thinking about the 20hr ordeal we might face if the flight didn’t go. I couldn’t bear to even open the curtains and check the weather. When we left it was partly cloudy. When we arrived at the airport we heard that the outbound flight hadn’t even left Islamabad. Thank God, about half an hour later it left so we checked in and waited. About an hour and a half late we finally took off. We were flying PIA (Pakistan International Airways). There are various other… less motivational interpretations of the acronym (Pilot Is Asleep, Parachute Is Advisable, Panic In the Air, Perhaps I’ll Arrive, Please Inform Allah etc) so we were thankful to finally land in Islamabad an hour later after a smooth flight.

To celebrate we dined at Mcdonalds (what?! It has to be done) and then moved our stuff to Pam and Peter’s house. These are two ex-pat friends of Danny’s who asked him to housesit for a while. They have a fabulously lovely house embellished with items from each country they have lived in, which from my reckoning seems to be everywhere. It is very sumptuous especially in comparison with Danny’s characterful flat. Haha.

They have lovely AC, cable TV and Internet which is why I have finally been able to write this short novel. As you might expect, we have spent much of our time since Tuesday watching DVDs, going online, eating and sleeping. This is the life.

On Thursday Danny got up at 5am (gargh) and went climbing and then we went shopping ALL DAY (a threat I had vowed to carry out – Danny lured me to Pakistan with promises of new shoes). An initially unsuccessful trip was made good in the end with 3 consecutive purchases in three shops. Problem is, there is a lot of tat to sift through to find stuff and before you know it the proprietor has whipped out 478 leopard print shawls and it’s all too much. I never did get any new shoes from the boy. We spent Thursday evening at the Rasmussens who invited a large gathering for dinner. Yesterday, we didn’t even leave the house til around 7.30pm to go for another delectable feast at Anna’s. It’s so nice to have people cook for you!

Today I haven’t done much apart from write this epic post. I’m not even ready. Like I said, this is the life. You may have seen in the news plenty of reports about problems here in Islamabad at the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque). It is a shame that things have kicked off and the police have had to move in. Danny climbed on the roof and could see a column of smoke where some radical students set the Ministry of Environment alight. And last night, I was up pretty late and amid thunder and lightning I thought I heard explosions. Actually I thought I was tired and losing it and imagining things but I read this morning that there were exchanges of gunfire in the early hours. It seems to be localised though so we are just going to stay away from the area.

We might head over to the US embassy for a swim. All I need is a fancy cocktail with an umbrella and ten straws and a sunchair. Else I might just roam around in PJs and watch a few more DVDs…

My flight leaves Islamabad tomorrow morning so I shall be setting several alarms to ensure my timely arrival at the airport. Can’t believe my five weeks are already up, but it’s been great. Thanks for reading, tune in next week when I may do a post-mortem blog entry. Promise it won’t be as long as this…Peace and God bless.

FAFEN about!

June 21, 2007

It’s that time of the week again folks, the time when I write my blog and the world reads on in awe. At least that’s the theory. So I guess the question is are you ready for another mammoth post? Can you handle the pressure? If you answered Yes to the above, please continue. If not, well I feel sorry for you, I personally can’t think of anything better to do that tops it. So I shall continue where I left off many moons ago on the afternoon of Friday the 15th. My second week in Pakistan began with quite a relaxed evening at an Afghan restaurant with Danny and two of his friends from school, Elliot and John. Afghan fare hasn’t exactly got a world class reputation as haute cuisine so I didn’t expect much but was rather satisfied with the meal.

On Saturday, Danny and I woke up extremely late (readers of this blog will know about my new-found fondness for napping – that’s what you do when it’s hot – but it’s bad when your regular night’s sleep sort of blends into an extended nap and you find that lying with your eyes closed doing nothing encroaches on your general ability to do anything during your day) and went to the American club to go swimming. Danny said “You’re in America now!” in a retarded Southern yank drawl (on reflection I think that’s just how he was born). It was quite surreal how true this was: inside the compound there were more people with annoying accents but it was a small price to pay to be granted the privacy to strip down to your swimwear and bathe, taking respite from the heat which got up to 50C we hear. Let me tell you more about that. Wow. In the UK when it’s 25C people start taking all their clothes off sitting in beer gardens and/or braving the English seaside at Blackpool/Bournemouth/Newquay and when it gets to 30C the papers go crazy with headlines featuring words such as “heatwave”, “blistering” and “scorcher”. So let’s try to imagine what 50C feels like – let me help, it’s roughly what you imagine the surface temperature of the sun to be like. Then of course there’s the searing ‘breeze’ – which you expect to refresh you but in this case blows at you like a giant celestial fireball, like you did something really really bad and deserve to roast.
Anyway I digress. ‘ America ’ was great and every bit as liberal and tolerant as I imagined. The afternoon was punctured by mouthfuls of authentic blueberry cheesecake which I can’t complain about. In the evening Danny went off for an evening for Elliot to mark his leaving and as a sort of early stag do ahead of his (Elliot’s) wedding. Not wanting to trespass into Testosteroneland I did what any good Pakistanisized girl would and stayed at home to wash and iron Danny’s underpants. Okay, that’s obviously not true. I met a woman at the Internet café the other day and we had talked about meeting up and she had accidentally left some of her stuff there and so she came round. I was about to show her round when I realised I had locked myself out. Luckily it was later that evening and I had brought my mobile out so I sheepishly called Danny and asked him to come and let me in his house.

On Sunday we went to the Pakistani International Church again (where they recognized me as a ‘regular’ and asked me to join the band, pouncing on me as I played piano after service). After, we went to America again, where this time I tried ‘grits’ a traditional Southern breakfast made from cornflour which tastes of kind of nothing, but in a satisfying kind of way. That evening, Danny went to volleyball, and I met up with Sophia of Internet café fame, this time with a little more success. We went to Pizza Hut with her young daughter Georgiana. There was a waiting list such is the popularity of this place (particularly with families) in these parts. At the end of the meal, Sophia insisted on paying and then to top it produced a pair of silver earrings (which I can’t decide look like weird trees or marijuana leaves?) as a gift. This is not abnormal, just Pakistani hospitality for you… I hope! Or else she’s part of some weird underground mafia and I owe her big time.
Monday was pretty interesting. Last post I mentioned a birthday dinner at Jason’s steak house but probably not the fact that we got propositioned with an offer for work. Before I came out to Pakistan , I toyed with the idea of working for part of my time and then gradually the notion became more and more fantastical, and when Danny quit his job it was the final nail in the coffin. Anyway, the offer came on Friday and by Monday we were attending training. It was only going to be a short one week consultancy with the Asia Foundation so we decided to go for it, since the money earned would come in useful on our venture up to Hunza in the next few days. This year is the first time in the history of Pakistan that the electoral roll is to be computerized. Up and down the country there are around 45,000 display centres open for three weeks where people can come to check they are on the electoral roll and if not, add their name to the list. Static Observers (SOs) have been appointed by the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) to monitor various centres and check the accuracy of the roll.  We were to be election monitors moving round the country to see that SOs were doing their job, correcting them and reporting any suggestions or concerns. We were monitors of monitors if you like. The training was interesting to say the least. Either I have the attention span of a six year old or the training really did go on for ages. Or both. Anyway they were trying to explain some simple maths. The objective is for the SO to take a random sampling of 15 voters thus: take the total number of people on the electoral roll…let’s say its 150. Then you divide it by 15 = 10. Then you take every 10th person on the list for your sample. ONLY, the examples they choose to use involved numbers like 693, 5423, or 88,406 which suddenly made the mental arithmetic just that little but harder, and a simple principle just that little bit harder to grasp. I swear it took about an hour. I couldn’t even look at Danny  for fear of bursting out laughing like a woman just released from a strange institution after 40 years.

It pains me just to think about it. Well, that evening we relaxed at David and Mehrs, two of Danny’s friends who were holding a Mexican themed rooftop soiree. The food was truly delicious, but after arriving close to starving at 8pm and having dinner at around 10.30pm, eating mud might have been equally as tasty. Danny definitely looked like a rabid dog – with this wild ‘me-must-eat-now’ look. And I’m sure I noticed some foaming round the mouth.
Next morning (Tuesday) we prised ourselves out of bed and went to the AF offices to sign our contracts and get on the road. Luckily they are right next door to Danny’s house which is rather good. All the same, we got there at 9am and only left at 1.30pm after many a complication. We stocked up on bakery goodies and finally hit the road for a 6hr-ish jaunt to Mingora. I don’t think our driver was that familiar with the concept of antiperspirant because we were greeted by a rather noxious odour on entering the car. Later we also realized he wasn’t that familiar with washing either since he wore the same shirt-trouser combo for six days straight. Yes, I did say six.

We had heard about (and seen several thousand advertisements) for a hotel called The White Palace (Sufaid Mahal) just outside the city, but anyone who knows me knows my cynicism regarding hotels with “star” “paradise” or “palace” in the title. Normally it involves sharing a room with a family of rats who resent you invading their space and an unstable ceiling fan that looks like it might fall and lop your head off at night if you’re not careful. Plus the Lonely Planet describes it as ‘luxury’ but we all know that these Lonely Planeteers stay at these places after 6 days continuous traveling by yak and are so optimistic they get excited by the presence of a plug socket.
When we arrived it didn’t look quite as deluxe as we might have hoped but it was quite nice. Apparently the Queen stayed here once. It also had a mini zoo that had a parrot I was convinced was saying “hello” and “help”. The leaflet was hilarious stating (and I quote) “Visitors are struck by wonder and beauty on his first step in to White Palace…not just an ordinary but great wonder…which will not only satisfy but inspire.”

Our first day of work on Wednesday took us to Uch, Bandegai, and Lower Dir. These are all very conservative places where if you can spot a woman (we made it into a game) she would almost certainly be burqa clad. In one town we counted 9 women and about 9000 men. One of the guys even had an “I HEART JESUS” cap on which cracked me up. I’m guessing he doesn’t realise he’s subliminally proselytising to the Muslim masses.
I donned a black chaddar like a good girl and we went on with the task in hand. Danny keeps on saying I looked good in a chaddar and then laughing so I am starting to think he has a not-so-secret chaddar fetish. It was pretty incomfortable because I know about 6 words in Urdu, one of which is slaughterhouse so I relied on body language and Danny translation for most of it. Luckily some of the Urdu forms used codes which corresponded with the English so I could pretend I knew what was happening. But on every occasion I was the only female in the room I not a 50mile radius so it was interesting to say the least. That evening we stayed in Dir town which is famous for knives and this too made Danny quite happy which, given his passion for the hijab makes me wonder why I am even friends with this guy. Dir is a complete dive. Don’t go there. The first hotel we stumbled upon had several different types of mould growing on the walls/mattresses so we hoped and prayed for something better. We found a slightly better room at the creatively titled Dir Hotel Dir, but the ‘host’ was just as hostile. We ventured out into the bazaar for all of about 15 minutes (literally) until the somewhat malevolent stares became a bit too much. Retiring to our room we spent the rest of the evening reading by the light of one candle and fending off over-enthusiastic staff who came by every five minutes with offers of chai/biryani.

The following day, our work took us to Swat which by comparison is a beauty spot. In fact, in its own right it is a rather magnificent place. The drive was long, but the scenery, which included lush green valleys, rolling hills and the impressive Swat river made it much more bearable. We saw Buddhist ruins – a stupa which we named the stupendous toupeed stupa on account of the grassy mane about it’s crown and we stopped for yummy fish along the river where we ate behind a curtain to protect my modesty.
It’s a strange phenomenon that occurs when you do work and get up early after any amount of time spent lazily napping. Suddenly the days seems twice as long and you have time to do things. That evening we settled into the PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation) Motel in Saidu Sharif. It was a lot nicer than it sounds. Thing is, in these parts of Pakistan the thought that two work collegues might share a twin room is up there in the unthinkable realm. Danny came back to the room with a ‘what-was-I-supposed-to-do’ look on his face and informed me that he told them I was his wife. (The alternative: ‘er yeah we kind of went to uni together ages ago and were an item for a bit and now and sort of are working together on a consultancy…and yeah…that’s just how we scandalous Westerners roll.’

Only, they took his middle name for his surname when noting down passport details so we were unofficially Mr. and Mrs. Luke. Well I found this hilarious, so I did what any exploitative wife would do to her under-the-thumb spouse and proceeded to ask my hubby to fetch me tea, and bring me things that were just out of reach and so on and so forth. In the afternoon we went to a Buddhist museum – we had about 80 rupees on us – the price tag for Pakistanis was 10 rupees, foreigners 200 rupees. After a small debate during which Danny contested that he had lived in Pakistan most of his life (I just sat back and looked Pakistani) they called a small board meeting and let us both in for 100 rupees. The visit was followed by dinner at the amazing Serena hotel which is on another stratosphere in terms of luxury. Staying at the motel and dining at the ‘posh’ hotel is admittedly quite pikey which is what most of our conversation around dinner centred on. I wanted to jack the salt and pepper shaker set (obviously I wouldn’t have) so Danny said I’m a pikey but with a name and face like his, that’s pretty rich right? Haha. If he came from the UK , it would most definitely be Romford. No Basildon . Anyway, who’s the most pikey – YOU decide. Cast your votes please.
We continued, to the consternation of the PTDC staff to take our meals at the Serena. Buffet breakfast at 300 rupees a piece? Oh go on then. The conversation took a nosedive:

Danny: “Yeah, that’s what ants taste like, plum skins” [after an apparent conversation in his head with himself]
Me: *incredulous look*

D: “I’m just saying” [he used to eat ants as a kid]
That day we visited 4 display centres, all in primary schools where I was way more interested in the cute Pakistani schoolkids. The staff at the centres were as generous as ever presenting us with bottles of neon Mountain Dew (it’s banned in most countries because a single hit can bring on ADHD) and offers of khanna (which I worked out means food).

We dined at the Serena. Actually first we went to the kid’s playground which had a tree swing with the biggest arc ever. It was so fun. At first we were the only ones seated for the BBQ buffet so it felt like a feast fit for a King and Queen. There were about 100 varieties of salad, meat and dessert and it was pretty delicious with the exception of the soup for starters. Someone got happy with the lemon and ginger and it made your eyes water so Danny waited for an opportune moment to lose most of it over the side of the tablecloth, and I was crying tears of laughter when the waiter came over two seconds later and asked us if everything was alright. Conversation continued to plummet reaching an all time (juvenile) low:
Me: This is boring

Danny: You’re boring
Me: Your face is boring

Danny: Your mum’s face…
Me: Your mum… etc etc

After a stroll around the beautiful grounds of the Serena, we went back to our hotel to sample the pure delights of cable TV. We found a penguin documentary which was scrambled with another much weirder channel – I’m guessing Russian hip-hop TV. And it was like that really creepy moment in Happy Feet when the penguins are grinding which is so many shades of wrong… We also mocked a made-for-TV movie called Mayday starring Dean Cain (Superman, remember?) which had terrible CGI and involved a missile going into the side of a plane and everyone gets sucked out and dies a hideous death and by the end they all miraculously survive (cue ambulance scene and cheesy music/oneliners). He is a bit of a chubmonster these days…
On Saturday we went to Shangla where the skies opened and the sunroof leaked and for a while, my white Patiala pants looked a little scandalous. After hours on roads that felt like you were the first people to navigate Mars or something, and 1/8th of a paratha all day, we reached Mansehra, home of the Cutherell family and Danny’s parents’ hospital.

Danny’s mum Nancy is the most wonderful cook ever so we were greeted by a veritable feast. On Sunday, our day off, we sat around doing very little, giving a cursory glance every now and then just to acknowledge others in the room. We took a stroll around the compound which is a little haven of peace from the bazaar outside, and I got to see where Danny grew up and heard stories involving guns, treehouses, traps and wild boars (4 boys and they had no playstation or TV). In the evening they had church at their house and then had some friends (Sohail and family) who were just a bit insane and refreshingly reminded me of the Babla family back home.
On Monday, we spent another 5hr round trip in the car (after finding a display centre located on a picnic rug with dudes sitting round drinking chai) which left me busting for the loo and evil Danny pointing out water related things of interest (Oh, what a lovely stream! Is that the first spot of rain?, Wow I fancy a swim in that flowing river etc). We couldn’t find the SO in Mansehra so we took the afternoon off. We went shopping with Danny’s parents during which I purchased some long awaited barfi, and we witnessed a mini domestic dispute at the carpet shop (they are moving house) during which Danny added a very unhelpful comment every so often (what about this rainbow striped/camouflage design?). I also looked for glasses but they were all really huge and fifties style and would have required a beehive hairstyle and Jackie O suits to complete the look…

For supper we had meatballs and mash (Mrs Cutherell’s cuisine is always worthy of mention) and tested each other from the “Superior Person’s Second Book of Weird and Wonderous Words”. Here are some of my favourites:
Neoteny – indefinite prolongation of the period of immaturity, retention of infantile or juvenile qualities.

Engastration – the stuffing of one bird inside another (I hope you NEVER have to use this)
Malnoia – A vague feeling of mental discomfort – waking up and remembering yesterday’s unsolved problems (put this on your sick leave form!)

Pantophobia – Morbid fear of everything (ponder this for a second)
If you don’t know at least three of the above words, I am clearly the superior person. Muhahaha.

On Tuesday (19th), after our work in Mansehra was done, we headed up into the hills with our driver to Murree where I saw Danny’s old boarding school and met his Uncle (who is the director) and Aunt and his cousins, one of whom just graduated…They were really welcoming and she makes a mean cake and iced tea. Mmmm
We headed back to Islamabad . We spent part of the journey behind a chicken coop truck. One of the chickens escaped and created quite a scene, clucking and flapping his wings eagerly while his friends chirped (roughly translated we reckoned they were saying “Go Bobby, run for the hills!”). I might have spent the last hour or so annoyingly asking ‘Are we there yet’ to which Danny responded ‘ Yeah, 15-20mins’ every time. So I responded by pointing at things gleefully and asking whether he had been there over and again. It helped pass the time.

Finally that brings us to yesterday and our de-briefing session which was anything but brief. The meeting was of the collaborative work ethic style which meant nothing was really planned and we made it up as we went along. This would have been fine if it weren’t for the overenthusiastic twins that insisted on detailing every moment of their trip in real time. They would start every sentence with “Actually [Pakistanis, like Indians love this word], I have 7 points to make…” Shahnawaz, who was the teamleader has one I-don’t-DO-enthusiasm facial expression which he used to the fullest yesterday. I asked the guy next to me how long he thought it would be before cabin fever set in and Shahnawaz went crazy and killed one of the twins. We managed three and a half hours without incident. Pakistanis are clearly just as verbose in person as in print despite Ashley entreating them to ‘summarise’. Plus there was a huge clock that reminded us in red LCD how long we’d been there and the AC was set to arctic exploration levels.
Now I am sat comfortably in the lounge of the Serena Islamabad taking advantage of their free wireless Internet which we decided we are owed considering breakfast buffet costs 500 rupees. They were nice though they only charged me 250 because I had only tea and a pastry. Please send ideas to get Anila’s appetite back on a postcard, it’s not right, I always have room for food! I am just about to go and get my eyebrows sorted out at the Nirvana spa – it is known as a boutique kind of a salon so that generally means I can expect to pay the average Pakistani monthly wage for this…but I look like a cavewoman and you gotta do what you gotta do. Adieu, I hoped you enjoyed reading. Come back for more next time, and don’t forget to send in your comments and suggestions. If you were reading this at work and it took two hours and you just got fired, I’m sorry!

Passage to Pakistan

June 8, 2007

If it is a blog that you want then it’s a blog you will get. My blog for India was a resounding success for several reasons namely a) I didn’t have to bother writing and or emailing people individually and more importantly b) Jenna Jane’s memory sucks (I uhh did it for you honey!).

Anyway on with the proceedings. I touched down in Islamabad at approximately 6am last Friday. My entire journey was a pretty smooth ride, and I had been expecting at least a few things to go horribly wrong. There is so much potential for things to go amiss on trains/at the airport/on the plane. Fortunately they didn’t find any contraband items in my luggage (contact lens solution is a common offender) and I had a good few hours to kill in duty free browsing shops that sell items I might be able to afford after saving for say, 100 years. Anyway, I did what any pikey would do spraying myself liberally with cologne testers and searching out free stuff. I found Pimms and lemonade – how very English darling.

The plane ride was great mainly because I was unconscious for most of it. I had a very attentive and rather attractive flight attendant who brought me snacks every so often. Then I had some red wine with dinner which sent me off into a deep slumber… The plane was mostly empty so I could stretch out and lie down. Next thing I know, I have half an hour flight time left…and I still hadn’t cracked open my plane letters. Many thanks to everyone who gave me a slice of entertainment – Jimmy for his kind encouraging words, Jen for reminiscences of India (and advice on loose motions), Ruth for her Christian corner, Sascha for his ever philosophical musings, Aaron for his hilarious games and cartoons, Rhea for the random copy and paste from Google affair (I know you had exams dear) Danny for his ‘Learn Urdu in ten easy phrases’ and contingency plans for every possible eventuality and Thomas for his adorable baby pics and ‘La femme d’ete’ quiz.

Danny collected me in his Suzuki Mehran which is infamously known as the Red Rocket in Islamabad . Google it and you’ll see the irony. I have a nice little bedroom of my own with an en-suite bathroom and AC. Danny has a mini fridge which houses Corona and butter. Needless to say we eat out and the kitchen is something of a no man’s land (he has a just-in-time cleaning system which takes the ‘as and when you need it’ approach to washing up). I went home and slept whilst Danny went into work for his last day.

In the afternoon we got me a Pakistani SIM card – email me and I’ll let you know my number and you can text me sweet nothings. That evening, we went to a party at the Norwegian embassy. I didn’t think a pool party was what I’d be doing on my first day in Pakistan . We stayed right until the end (let’s face it you have to when your host is also the DJ) and it was still really hot and I didn’t have to be asked twice to go swimming. Most people didn’t have their swimwear including me so I just went in in my jeans and T-shirt like the rest of them. It was sweet relief from the heat of the day… On Saturday, we slept in because by now I had a bit of jet-lag and post party fatigue to deal with. In the afternoon, we continued the swimming theme at the Canadian club and I learnt a bit of French (‘Pas de jonglage autour de la piscine’ – No horsing around!) too which will come in handy when I visit Paris later this summer.

In the evening we went to dinner with Danny’s parents who happened to be in town for the day, and then to an ice cream café. It’s run by a guy who directed Pakistani’s first horror flick, and it’s there I picked up one of my first words in Urdu – Zibakhana – slaughterhouse. So I’m going to try and drop that into conversation as much as possible. After that we headed over to a friend of Danny’s house/mansion and sipped Margaritas on the roof whilst I personally provided dessert for approximately 8-12 mosquitoes per square inch.

On Sunday, we went to a church in the diplomatic enclave. Apart from the fact that you have to go through a metal detector and get frisked on the way in, it was reassuringly like most churches round the world (Worship band, post communion tea and coffee etc). We watched Wedding Crashers in the afternoon (great for those like me who have the sense of humour of a 13 year old boy), and in the evening we went to play volleyball (I read GQ from the spectator area) at another friend’s house (Peter and Pam who have worked in development for years and lived in every continent going).

On Monday we napped again til around afternoon (we are both free agents, it’s so liberating) and then started feeling pangs of laziness, and went shopping to find me some Punjabi suits. I got some money changed up (after getting used to Danny paying for everything thus far). We came back with a bag of peaches and cold coffee and ice cream (fast becoming a favourite) in our bellies. In the evening we had a romantic dinner by candlelight (courtesy of the Pakistani national grid) with Tom and Jo (also in development).

On Tuesday, I had a more successful shopping trip with Pam and Thirza buying fabrics to be made into salwar kameez (the first one came back and fits like a glove). Again the power went so we were running back and forth looking at colour choices and designs. In the evening we went up to a restaurant with Elliot, Thirza and two British students from Edinburgh called James and Ben in Daman-e-Koh in the Margalla hills which border the northern part of the city. The view over Islamabad was beautiful.

Early the next morning (as in 5am – yes people, be impressed) we returned to go for a walk in the hills with Ben and James before it got crazy hot, and I realized just how unfit I am. The view from the top looks even better by day, and is quite a nice reward for your hard efforts. We then further rewarded ourselves by going home and taking a nap on the floor for oh, about 5 hours. For dinner, we went to a place called Mr Chips (which confusingly sells delicious Pakistani food) with Colin and Elliot (two of Danny’s friends from school).

Afterward we were just getting ready to settle down and watch a movie when Thirza calls and invites us over. Next thing we know we are in the car heading over to the house of the Minister of Culture for Pakistan . I can’t even remember what this dude’s name is. All I know is that it was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. This man was quite fond of talking, mainly about himself and his opinions on pretty much everything. He was like the caterpillar out of Alice in Wonderland. Someone would ask him a question and he would take a long drawl on the hookah and then pause for what felt like an eternity, then say “Hmmmm” and then if you were lucky get an answer. He was previously Minister of Tourism.

This is what I learnt: (On China ) “They love me” (On Pakistan ) “ Pakistan is s***!” (On the Czech Republic ) “If you want beautiful women go to Czechoslovakia . Almost none of them are ugly.” Anyway, I kind of feel like Wednesday night didn’t actually happen. Like I was dreaming and then I saw a white rabbit and decided to chase it and then I fell down an hole and sustained serious brain damage and started hallucinating and met a caterpillar with a penchant for shisha and recreational drugs…or something… Well we finally got back at about 2am so of course we slept in again (Loz, I am definitely part of the pro napping mafia now!!)

The plan was to get up and go to Khanpur lake and dam at around 10am, but following our strange night, we consulted one another and pushed it back to 12pm. We finally left the house at 2pm, picked up Ben and James and headed over. It’s about a 1 1/2hr ride away so we got there just before 4pm. The drive goes through Taxila which is famous for its stonework apparently and also Disco cheetahs (Mirrored disco balls but in the shape of a cheetah – so not really a ball at all really!). Anyway I must get me one of those. When we arrived the guys stripped off whilst I found a secret spot and changed into a dirty Punjabi suit donated by Thirza which I can wear when things get messy! Haha. The temperature was just right, and we just swam and chilled for a while. When I got out my pink suit was rather transparent. Luckily I had a vest on too, but I still felt like an actress from a Bollywood movie dancing in the rain. Just a bit less glamourous.

On the way back, we heard suspiciously ‘broken car’ sounding noises emanating from the back of the car…on closer inspection the exhaust pipe thingy (I’m sure that’s the technical term!) had fallen off… One of the boys donated the string from his kurta pyjama pants and they secured it whilst I sat back and took photos of the whole charade. We managed fine across the bumpy gravel roads but then the car started slowing and Danny realized the accelerator connection had died so the car sort of didn’t work. About 6 pakistani guys came over and pointed and repointed out the problem. In the event Danny called his mechanic (an amazing guy who picks your car up from anywhere, fixes it up and returns it to your residence in about 2 days) and we took a taxi back.

It made us almost an hour late for a birthday dinner but we arrived just as orders were being taken so it wasn’t all bad (for us!) That was last night. Since today was even hotter than yesterday and I don’t have a lake as respite, I have taken refuge at this Internet café. Danny is at work – although technically finished he is finishing off a proposal so he went in today. I told him to just cut off emotionally but I know it isn’t that easy…I spent the weekend after my official end date at Y Care finishing off my case studies (my baby) so I sympathise.

I hope some of you guys are reading and commenting. I am having a lovely time in the 42 C heat, and it is nice to be with a tourguide whose mental age also festers at around 12. Danny’s favourite phrases are “You heard me” (when I have failed to understand his Southern American mumble), “You just got told” when I’ve apparently been put in my place by some supposedly humiliating insult or other form of defeat and “Hmm yeah” in the manner of the dude from Office Space (which he uses whenever I’m blatantly right which is quite frequently). I hope all is well whichever corner of the world you might be reading this from. Go and play “Here in your arms” by Hellogoodbye. It is becoming my soundtrack to the summer. Also, come back next week for more tales from the Pakistani hood…

Pakistan Ahoy!

May 31, 2007

The time has come, my friends, to talk of many things…of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings…and Pakistan!

It is that time of year again when I get itchy feet and go off travelling to some far-flung destination. It’s become something of an Anilan tradition! This time it is Islamabad, where I am going to visit one Danny Cutherell in his natural environment. It is somewhere I kinda thought would be a cool place to see, but tis only very recently that the notion of it became concrete.

If all goes to plan, he will be meeting me bright and early at 6am tomorrow with his morning face which should be funny. What is even more funny is that given my arrival time is approximately the middle of the night in the UK and the history of my capacity to sleep on planes or any other mode of transport known to man, I should arrive even more sleep deprived and ratty than him, and he will have to reconcile the girl he once knew with the monster before him…

Getting a visa was traditional Anila fare i.e. not a walk in the park! I simply must have a shady looking face, because I am always stopped for security checks and the like, and visa issue people don’t like me too much. After a spanish inquisition style interview, and lots of raised eyebrows and hushed voices in my general direction I finally managed to wrestle a visa out of the guys at the Pakistani embassy. I thought the hard part was over.

Oh how wrong I was. HAHA. I returned from two weeks in southern Spain only to find that Kiran (the younger twin) had decided that my hiking bag was just the thing he needed to take on a week long camping trip to the Lake District. I could not believe that where my lovely bag had once been there was only air. To say I completely lost it is the understatement of the year. This was not just any bag… This was a rather expensive women’s fit super deluxe…you get the picture. So I went crazy, only the perpetrator of the ‘crime’ wasn’t around so it was my poor mum and brother who had to hear my frantic cries/tears. I told Thomas later that if Kiran were around I would have probably put him in the bag and sold the whole package on Ebay.

Anyway Mum and Ash helped me calm down (liquorice allsorts were instrumental in this) and we tracked down a replacement bag at a camping store in Lakeside. EXACT REPLICA bag is now packed to the Brimble with all my stuff which weighs in at a hefty 15kg…

With that I need a few minutes to get the bag from the floor onto my back… So i’ll be signing off, and with any luck I will be back soon.

Thanks for reading!

The Unveiling

January 2, 2007

Here is what I look like now (approximately one week of hair stubble!):

look of wonder

This following picture was taken just after my no. 2 cut:

Me and Helen

And here is me with my long curly frizz the day before:

Me and the Gals

For lots more photos, click on the ‘before’, ‘during’ and ‘after’ pics posts- Enjoy!

Bad look for a good cause

December 28, 2006

A while back I decided I would like to get my long hair cut a lot shorter. Then, I had a conversation with some friends at lunch while still at uni, and I decided I would just shave the whole lot off and try and raise some cash for charity.

I chose to do it for a charity called Habitat for Humanity. I heard quite a lot about this charity and their wonderful work in a short space of time, and at about the same time they launched their HopeBuilders appeal.

One in three people live in poverty housing according to recent UN stats. Having no home, or inadequate housing is damaging for so many reasons. It causes insecurity, promotes disease, and makes getting a job or education very difficult. Emotionally, people living in poverty housing are more vulnerable and are robbed of a future of hope and opportunity.

Habitat for Humanity works in over 100 countries, its goal to combat poverty housing and homelessness. Since it was founded the charity has built over 200,000 homes worldwide. Homeowners help build the houses they will eventually live in together with the community and Habitat volunteers which is a real boost to their self esteem. As homes are built, so is the community. And the process brings new hope and inspiration.

I am in awe of what Habitat for Humanity has achieved and is achieving. Their focus on building houses recognises that homes are more than simply a shelter. They provide stability, a hope-filled future and a place to call home.

My friend Sascha has suggested he try to perpetuate an urban legend of the girl who built a house with her hair. The silliness made me laugh at first. It made me think though, people’s generosity in sponsoring my rather radical haircut has meant that I have nearly got to £1235, the average cost of a Habitat build. What seemed like a wildly ambitious target now seems like its in view. If losing my hair means someone gains a house, how cool is that?

If you would like to contribute you can do it HERE

Other useful links:

http://www.hopebuilders.org.uk/ Read more about the HopeBuilder’s appeal, including stories of how homes have changed lives and become a HopeBuilder yourself

http://www.habitatforhumanity.org.uk/ Read more about the charity’s work worldwide

Personal Oscar speech

December 28, 2006

Total to date: £1,336.18

I would like to say a big THANK YOU to all the people who have donated time and money to my charity headshave. Your kind words and support mean a lot to me. In honour of you, there is a separate page on the menu above with a list of thankyous as long as my arm.

Some people have been asking me if they can still donate. Well, you sure can! The best way is online at: www.hair-devil.co.uk

If you’re a UK taxpayer you can reclaim gift aid which increases all gifts by a third. If you would like to donate some other way, then send an email to me at: hairdevil@hotmail.co.uk See my last post for inspiration on how much to donate…