Friday, July 20, 2007

Dateline Islamabad, Pakistan

Arriving at the Islamabad international airport after a long sleepless night I was herded into the arrivals area. Various signs directed me and my horde into the appropriate queues as per our nationality, citizenship, and gender. I was classified a foreigner and lined up accordingly. The air was sticky with humidity and soon soaked my clothing as I did the slow shuffle forward. After half an hour and an advancement of about 10 inches I realized that the signs meant nothing and I jumped ship and lined up in the Pakistani citizens column. This speeded matters up somewhat and a half hour later I was at the luggage carousel waiting the arrival of my gear. Half an hour more- no luggage!. It turns out that I had been misdirected to the wrong carousel. Moved to another one, found my bags and exited into the bedlam of the Islamabad arrivals area. Picture this- walking through the exit doors one is faced with a sea of expectant faces, 200 across and 10 deep, all wearing similar clothes and all gesticulating loudly. I heard my name above the din and was quickly whisked away by my Islamabad hosts, Michael and his son James.

Leaving the airport parking lot I was soon drinking in the sights and sounds of Pakistan. There seems to be no rules in Pakistan, especially on the roads. If it has wheels it is allowed to roll and, if it has the space, it is filled to capacity. We were quickly engulfed in a mass of moving vehicles, small scooters, smoke belching buses, vastly overloaded 'jingle' trucks, and pedestrians weaving through and dodging the motorized madness. The roadsides were full of people, mostly men squatting as is the fashion here, seemingly waiting for something that might never happen nor appear. Every couple of hundred feet stands a soldier or a police officer armed with whatever weapon was available (I have told that they have to provide for their own weapon and uniform besides being paid almost nothing).

A couple of hours after landing I was lounging beside a pool at the Canadabad Club, inside the heavily guarded international embassy's compound walls, drinking an ice cold imported beer surrounded by the sounds of an artificial waterfall cascading behind me. The incongruency of the situation almost overwhelmed me as James told me the story of a recent party at the 'club' where the guests were entertained with the distant sounds of gunfire and explosions when government forces attacked the Red Mosque and it's determined defenders.

James and I left the compound later in the afternoon to pick up his dad's car which was having some bodywork done. We were dropped off by embassy vehicle at what I call 'bodywork avenue', a street lined with bodywork stalls. Stalls not shops since all the work was done on the street and the stalls seemed to be for tea and social gatherings only. The smell of paint hung in the air as workers hammered, sanded, and painted their ongoing projects. Meanwhile others stripped vehicles for every part that can re reused when called upon. 5,000 rupees later ($100)and we were on the road back to the diplomatic compound.

Pakistan is a very troubled country at the present time, especially since the destruction of the nearby Red Mosque. The most recent development was the President's recent ruling to re-instalment an important official. As we drove near the presidential compound crowds were gathering to celebrate the news. Police and the army were also gathering in large numbers to counter any demonstrations that might turn violent. A strange welcome to a person arriving from a country where demonstrations are quite often polite affairs.

We got through the gathering crowds safely and made it back to the compound without difficulty. Later we had a formal sit down dinner with other embassy folks, dining on Alberta beef, BC smoked salmon, and drinking Moosehead beer. Outside monsoon rains were falling and the sky was lit by flash lightning that lasted all night. Falling asleep as sat I (intelligently) decided to hit the sack. I tried to read for a while but kept dropping the book on my face until I gave up and slept the sleep of the dead.