"there are cracks in everything. . ."

On Friday Aziz (alternate name) took me on a whirlwind tour of Kabul. We saw Babur's garden, under restoration by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. It was crawling with young Afghan men, but otherwise a beautiful, walled in green space-rare in Kabul. I got some semi-reasonable pictures there. We moved on through the city, between the hills that jut into it, past the ancient city wall and into the old bazaar. Aziz kept up a string of commentary. He had just finished translating a book of Dari short stories. The stories mostly focus on tales in the alleyways of old Kabul - modern stories about an old place. He showed me the ruin of a large complex where the British held court in their day in Kabul. "This is the real Kabul", Aziz kept saying as we drove through the crowded bazaars. "Musicians and other artists work in that building", Aziz said pointing to a dilapidated, multi-story white complex nearly falling out into the bazaar. He is working on a book about culture in Kabul. He had interviewed a musician - an arrogant chap who felt his musicianship trumped all in the city. We passed many old and renowned Mosques. "I want to do a book just on the old mosques". And he could, if he had the time. We criss-crossed the Kabul river on our way through the city. The river is a channel sunken in the Kabul dust. A mere trickle wanders through, seemingly disoriented by the size of the otherwise empty channel. It waters the grass that grows on the river's bed. Famous bridges cross a confused trickle of water. Discarded cranes from the 1950s sit atop ghastly grey blocks of concrete the Soviet's thought passed as apartment blocks. Communications towers dot the skyline at the beginning of the Jalalabad road. New road construction equipment sits in the dust on contractors' compounds afraid to venture out and construct lest they are blown to pieces by a wayward bomb or IED.

We race down newly paved streets between heavily fortified walls of embassies, Camp Agar (the US forces base), the NATO base, the UN and other agencies under seige by threats of violence. "The walls keep getting thicker and higher".

Dusk and dust combine warping the waning yellow sun, creating an eerie glow around the mountains, giving wireless phone towers and minarets fuzzy edges. The city is softened by the haze. It glows like a dusty gem. Police men stop cars to check for bombs? They wave us through.

We drive between a huge mosque and the stadium where heads fell, drenched in blood, under Taliban swords. Beside the stadium is a huge exhibition ground where a thousand children play in the cool of dusk.

Then we're in a crowded street next to a city park. Kebab shops line the avenue. Families by sweets and barbequed me. There's a stand selling tapes of soundtracks to the movies that play in the cinema just behind it. "This is what Afghans want" Aziz said as we drove on, waving his hand at the seen of normal life with good little things. Five years on, the Karzai government has been hobbled by security issues. Money pours into the country only to sit in vaults. And development is slow. People are again discontent.

Suddenly we're out on a broad highway. Hundreds of private wedding plazas are under construction here. Huge three-dimensional grids of concrete and steel waiting for walls and lights and the shimmer of unreal nights, long speeches and too much money and somewhere a (happy?) couple waiting to leave. The streets are too wide. We pass a yellow monstrosity - a Soviet bread factory: centralization - what's wrong with naan available on your street corner.

It gets dark. Cars stream into the city from a weekend desitination. We race up a small hill to the Intercontinental Hotel and watch the city from above. Then we're down again in the direction of the point where we started our wild ride. I'm feeling the allure of Kabul settle in around me.

"There's something different about Kabul", I say, implying a comparison to Pakistan (where I've spent a significant amount of time).

"Go on," Aziz says with a gleam in his eye.

"It's so subtle, there's something softer in this people."

We talk about the extreme courtisy of the Persian culture.

"They outdo us entirely in hospitality."

And yet the paradox persists unparalleled hospitality and brutality in the same people. Beauty and brokenness in one city. Dust and rocks and bombs and hot tea and warm naan and broad smiles, Babur's garden and bullet-riddled walls crumbling onto the street.

Night falls. We stop at the gate of Aziz's friend. I sit in the Land Cruiser, a cacoon in an empty street, wishing I could stay just a little longer.


worlds are spinning by my window

Worlds are spinning by my window. Landing in Kabul on Monday (18 September) was not surprising, but what is these days? More than anything we are surprised by joy, by warmth, by sincerity. These are rare finds. Cultural noise and drama are ubiquitous. Wars and killings are common place. Political upheaval and despots are old news. Policemen are shot on the street corner. Imperialism is the new colonialism. Modernization is the lie that freedom has replaced tyrannical oppression. Democracy is the illusion of order and choice where despots once ruled. This is the world we live in. I've been suprised by the warmth of the people I've come to Kabul to visit.

What can I say about Kabul? Not much, I haven’t really experienced much yet. It’s an economic capsule struggling to take off from a ruined place. It’s a city in a mine field. There’s a minefield in the city. The UN and the embassies are barricaded for war. There’s a dirty street with gleaming shops. There’s an underground, expat party scene, an Indian restaurant behind a wall, dust and dung. Traffic looks like chaos, but people get where they’re headed. Streets run nameless in grids and in tangles. Streets are dust. Modernization is trying hard to rear its ugly head. Progress is progressing too fast and too slow.

I’m trying to take in so much. I’m trying to see around the corner of my life.

I’m starting all over again and I’m a different person than when I last set foot in South Asia. I’m still trying to grow up, I’m still wondering what I’ll do then.

I’m really enjoying myself here in Kabul, metaphysical analyses aside. This is turning out to be a true holiday, a quiet place to meet old friends and make some space between Canada and Pakistan. I’m staying at the guesthouse of the International Assistance Mission, an NGO that’s been working in Kabul for 40 years, focusing on community development, sustainable energy, healthcare and teaching English. The guesthouse is a large, sprawling building behind a wall (all houses are here). The house looks like it’s been around for a while and survived the wars of the past 20 years. It’s well run and homey. Interesting people flit in and out. And it happens to be located in the part of Kabul where most of the people I’m going to be meeting with live.

Here in Kabul life goes on despite security concerns. Parts of the city do look like a war zone. Big the big NGOs (or BINGOs) and the Afghanistan Government persist despite strict security measures. Commerce goes on. Buildings go up. Foreign investment is desperately courted.

My exposure to development theory and thinking over the past few years now informs my perspective of this part of this country. The pace of progress in Pakistan and Afghanistan and India is staggering (never mind China). The all-important middle-class is rising and consuming. India’s economic growth rate is one of the highest in the world. Pakistan’s is also strong. Afghanistan is desperately trying to catch up. The drug of the promise of capitalism flows strong through government veins. No one seems to be questioning the model of economic growth through government liberalization and industrialization that proselytes from the rich countries have been pushing for years. Fossil fuel consumption must be increasing almost as fast as pollution in the cities of South Asia. More cars fill the poorly planned roads and streets, more highways plow through scarce green-space, more shops sprout up through overcrowded and staggering market complexes. I’ve seen some numbers that suggest poverty rates in South Asian countries have been decreasing over the past 20 years. This may be, but the sheer numbers of poor and vulnerable, must be growing.

Poignant analyses of the effects of the October earthquake point out that the areas affected were economically insignificant to Pakistan. In other words, the fact that 10s of thousands died and 100s of thousands are homeless doesn’t impact Pakistan’s economic outlook . Any shortfall is taken up by the 10s of millions pouring in as foreign aid.


the car that didn't fall apart

Saturday morning, I got up early and caught a taxi to Faisabad to catch a van to Muzuffarabad, the capital of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (or Kashmir). Muzuffarabad was devastated, along with Balakot in the earthquake. I went to visit a friend who has been working with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a division of the UN.

My adventures began about 30 minutes after arriving in the town. My friend and I had driven in an IOM vehicle to meet another staff member. We were going to take a short trip around Muzuffarabad and then go for lunch. We were backing out of a driveway and had stopped for a second. I was sitting in the back of the brand-new 4-door Toyota pick-up and saw a large, local jeep ambling down the road, going quite slowly and easily far enough from our vehicle to stop in time. But the driver didn't slow the vehicle. I said to the driver of our truck, "He's not going to stop." And then it was too late. The lumbering jeep connected with the truck, caving in the front passenger-side door.

So for the next hour or so we sat around. First the IOM staff discussed what should be done and assured the driver of the vehicle at fault (it's breaks had failed) that the IOM truck was covered by insurance. Shortly after the incident, a traffic policeman arrived. He argued loudly with someone on a radio and assured us he couldn't do anything. But he did threaten to arrest the driver of the jeep. Eventually the district police showed up and looked at the damage. They needed to write a report but said it would take 3 hours.

Finally, we left in another IOM truck. My friend took me up to a camp for earthquake survivors up above the city. On the mountains all around the city, huge sections had slid down during the quake. Chasms had opened up. The mountains looked broken. Many camps had already been shut down, their occupants returning to their villages. But this camp we visited persisted. Little shops made out of corrugated sheets of steel had sprung up: a tailor, a shop selling chickens and a shop selling essentials like milk, tea, sugar, oil and candies.

We had lunch in a large hotel. The interior had been badly damaged in the quake and construction was underway everywhere.

Finally, it came time for me to leave. I wanted to travel back through the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and stay the night in Abbotabad with friends. My friend, I and three others traveled to the bus stand in an IOM vehicle. They were going to help me get on a van to Abbotabad. But vans were scarce and large crowds waited for them, swarming around each one as it pulled in. So one of the national IOM staff persons offered to try and get a taxi to Manshara, a transport and commercial centre on my way to Abbotabad. A taxi that far was going to cost Rs1600 - more than I was willing to pay. Then our man phoned back and said he had found a taxi going to Abbotabad. It would only charge Rs600, but there was another person on the taxi. That was fine with me.

A few minutes later, the "taxi" pulled up caring not one passenger, but three. The vehicle was an ancient Toyota Corolla literally coming apart at the seams. It rattled badly and bottomed out on every bump. I was uncertain. The three passengers were serious-looking Pathans (Afghans, as it turned out). The driver was Pakistani. My friend speaks Pushtu and so he handled the negotiations. The large Afghan in the front seat agreed to give it up for me. He didn't look very happy about that. But off we went. From inside, the car seemed even more dilapidated. The transmission protested every gear change. The muffler thudded against the underside of the car ominously. The car seemed to flex noticeably at every shift in momentum. The first town on our route was Gardi Hubbibulah, about 20km from Muzuffarabad. The large Afghan argued continuously with the driver, urging him to get another car-it was not clear from where. 45 minutes, later, however we reached Gardi. And, surprisingly, our driver pulled up at some random place and said we would use the Suzuki van parked here - he knew the driver, it was his cousin.

Here the driver demanded the Rs.600 we had agreed on as my fare to Abbotabad. This startled me, but there seemed no way around it, so I shelled out the bills and boarded the Suzuki van with the Afghans. This second vehicle was luxurious compared with the first and we started off confidently up the hill and over to Manshera and then Abbotabad.

Just after 18h00 I sent a text message to my friend, letting him know I had arrived safely. He called me back and said he was relieved. The Afghans urged me to eat with them that evening. One of them had also tried to convert me to Islam during the journey, the one that knew some English (and no Urdu apparently) who had a relative in Vancouver (he showed me his address on a scrap of paper carried in his wallet). I declined both invitations.

I was thankful that I knew the latter part of the route we traveled that day. Once in Abbotabad, I breathed a sigh of relief and boarded a Suzuki along the main road toward the house where I would stay that night. I've always felt completely safe in Abbotabad and that remained the case as I would my way up the back streets to my destination. I called my friends once I arrived at their gate and they let me in. I joined them in their kitchen where they were preparing supper.

We talked easily about eggplant, my adventures and the earthquake.



"Your country?" my taxi driver yelled above the din of Islamabad's Power 99 FM screeching through his worn out speakers.
"You are Christian?"
"I too!"
And he points to a little picture of the Pope taped to the inside of his windscreen, in full view of the passenger (I had failed to notice). And that was it. I wasn't sure where to the conversation should go from there.

Before that I had been eating at a new Thai restaurant, Royal Orchid (food gets about a B, if you're reading this and might be eating in ISB soon, a B means don't bother, not at the prices they charge) here in ISB. The waiter couldn't stop smiling and ended all his sentences with "yes, please".

Pictures and a Soiree

Day 19, Islamabad, Rain

It's Friday and the house I'm staying is empty. I thought I'd make the most of my good internet access while I'm here and upload some pictures. I've opened a Flickr account and will post selected pictures there. So have a look from time to time. I'll keep including some pictures on my blog postings as well.

Is soiree the right word? If so, I probably mis-spelled it.

Last night I did partake in a dinner party put on by my host for one Isobel Shaw. She's a guidebook writer who has done general guides of Pakistan as well as a trekking guide. She's out here to update the trekking guide. It was neat to meet her. Her demenur is airy and easy. Her British sensibilities complement her vivacious, confident character. In Pakistan she's a bit of a celebrity.

But I'm not good at the dinner party scene. Those of you who know me understand my reserved, sometimes awkward character in a crowd of strangers. I don't have much time for small talk and sometimes that's my loss. I am beginning to recognize the value of networking, as much as I dispise that word. But I felt like a kid, last night, interrupting a party for grown-ups. My stories seem empty and boring. Stories are rather highly valued in this context. Isobel, of course, has great stories of her hundreds of days trekking in Northern Pakistan. A Brigadier-General, ret., told of crossing a high pass between Kaghan and the Indus Valley. He and his soldiers made the crossing in winter, on foot. It was the first such crossing. He had asked a mullah to pray for their company before they set off over the pass. But the mullah refused to pray for such a foolish endeavor.

The food was quite good, prepared by the Indonesian-Pakistani cook who commands the kitchen here.


Boy Standing on Mountain

Day 17 - Qalandarabad, Pakistan

I took this picture yesterday in a small village about 5000ft above the town of Balakot, one of the large centres near the epicentre of the October earthquake in Pakistan. A small road winds up the mountain, broken in many places by the earthquake and narrowed in others by mudslides due to heavy rains this summer. At one point, an even smaller road breaks off and continues to climb up to this village. Here every house was flattened by the earthquake. I don't know how many people lost their lives. In November last year, construction of temporary dwellings was well under way. Many of these dwellings were semi-cylindrical shelters built of rolled steel tubing and sheets of corrugated galvanized steel. The person driving me up and I stopped to have tea with the owners of one of these dwellings which my dad helped to build while he was out here shortly after the quake. Afterwards we walked around the village. Somehow they have pressed on. Another corn crop was planted and has developed well, it seems. Construction of new permanent dwellings has begun, but slowly. Government bureaucracy and corruption slows everything, even more than the narrow, often-blocked jeep track that links the village to Balakot.

In Balakot, I marveled at the way life is pushing up again through the rubble and between mass graves of students trapped in schools when the earthquake struck just after 9am in the morning. Entire new rows of shops have sprung up alongside the main road. Other rebuilding has commenced. I can't really understand. People move around en mass. Drivers try to run each other off the road.

In the evening, yesterday, I visited with two old family friends. These were very warm experiences, akin to meeting family.

On I go, trying to fill the days until I travel to Afghanistan on Monday.

The Pakistan government currently debates whether or not they should amend a set of laws that generally result in rape victims going to jail for the crimes committed against them. There is much opposition from a conservative wing in the government. Everyone is trying to define the "true spirit of I----" is.


Dark Nights and Mad Drivers

Slowly I'm venturing into the wilds of Pakistan, back to the places where I spent most of my time here as a kid. Islamabad seemed messy and loud to my placated mind, but I forgot what it's like once your off the grid of streets under the Marghalla Hills.

The first stage of the journey was a taxi ride of Islamabad's twin Rawalpindi. They're unidentical twins. Rawalpindi is an ancient web of streets and a confusion of houses ringed by slums. Off we drove. You could see the city hovering in the smog, shimmering in the setting sun. I had hired a taxi together with an older woman who did not where the customary scarf on her head. She knew English well and we had both missed the shuttle from the bus station in Islamabad to the central station in Pindi. The first question she asked was: "Do you feel safe as a foreigner in light of developments since September 11?" I said I felt quite safe. She went on to tell me about her work as a peace activist in Pakistan - gutsy woman. Her organization is working for peace in South Asia, particularly between India and Pakistan. I commend her for that.

The bus ride was uneventful. Pakistan has a new bus network featuring clean, spacious, air-conditioned coaches. The network takes bookings and issues tickets (I'm sure this has never been the case for a bus service in Pakistan before). It's great, though the seats are a bit close together for me (did I mention I have a problem with that).

We made our way up to the town where my parents lived for 10+years, Abottabad. As we neared the town night set it. I tried to orient myself based on lighted shops and intersections I recognized. The town is overflowing its bounds, it seems to me. We careened by the lights forcing smaller vehicles off onto the shoulders as we pushed back into our lane just in time to avoid an on-coming transport truck. I saw an amazing manouver. I've seen a lot of crazy stuff on Pakistani roads, but never two large vehicles (our bus was one) passing a slow-moving transport simultaneously on a single lane road around a blind corner. The other vehicle took the shoulder and we the on-coming lane. Fabulous!


Living Like a King

Pakistan's alright if you live like a king. This I already knew in the back of my mind. In my previous life here, we lived modestly, but still received preferential treatment because of the colour of our skin and the fact that my dad was a doctor, a Sahib.

This is a ridiculous carry over from the Raj. Pakistan is independent, but the white man is still considered special. This saddens me.

Of course legitimate relationships can be developed between Pakistanis and foreigners. I marveled at my father's and mother's abilities to walk the line between sahib (and memsahib) and a local. Their language skills and cultural sensitivity were probably as well honed as any white person's.

Last night I was out with the family I'm staying with. They are essentially foreigners, well educated with significant experience living and working in Pakistan. We drove up to a chic cafe in one of the markets in Islamabad. The ubiquitous security guard (blue uniform and shotgun) opened our doors with a "Good evening Sahib". Up we went into the cool space, espresso machine steaming behind an ornate bar.

After dinner, one of the children in our party asked why his mother tipped the security guard, who with equal servitude had closed our car doors. "He's poor", his mom replied. "He doesn't look poor", shot back the child. "Anyone who stands outside and opens doors for other people as a job, is poor, honey." And we were gone into the night, just cool enough to allow us to turn off the A/C and open our windows.

Today we went to church, gliding through myriad security barriers in our sealed Land Cruiser. Bow, bow, open the gate, step back and sit down again in the hot sun.

People have lived here as foreigners but tried to avoid this kind of lifestyle as much as possible. I don't envy them. I don't think I could do it. So I'll go on living like a king and enjoying the diversity and rich culture of this country from my airy throne. I've got my escape plans all laid out. My passport, money and status pave the way for me while I'm here.

NB. My limited experiences in the Northern Areas, the district of Pakistan where I will spend October and November, have been different than what I've described above. The people there seem more independent, more confident in their regional identities and more open.


Blog Title Yields No Charm

Day 13, Islamabad Pakistan, 29.5 degrees inside.

The more I travel through Heathrow, the less I'm inclined to write a positive word about the airport. It's too big, too smoky, too spread out, too messy. And it's airline employees have not been kind in my seat assignments. I did get a bulkhead seat on the LHR-ISB leg, but some guy across the aisle got moved to the next compartment (World traveler Plus) because his seat was double-booked! Grrr. More than half of that compartment was empty during the flight. So, I've resolved to put my Canadian modesty aside and blatantly ask for an upgrade on my next flight in December.

That said, I'm here. Stopping in Finland essentially eliminated jetlag so I'm back to normal.

Pakistan has even begun to feel normal, though the contrasts between Canadian society and Pakistani are glaring. 6 years away is long enough to almost completely slip into the mindset that North American society is the global norm and worldvision adds are a made-for-tv movie designed to instill some guilt, or something.

But it's life here that's the global norm, crowded, hot and, in some senses, hopeless. And (many of) you and I certainly don't deserve more comfort, but we're obscenely lavished with it, living in North America. And the math works speaks for itself. 10Xconsumption = 10Xwaste generation = 10Xcomfort level. Yay!

You can see I'm having a bit of culture shock. There seems to be no cure.


Day 9 Ramblings

Calvin: "A bushel is a unit of weight equal equal to four pecks." What's a peck?
Hobbes: A short smooch.
Calvin: You know, I don't understand math at all


What I'm really doing here in Finland is having a holiday. My days have usually started with a couple of cups of excellent Finnish coffee out on a little balcony overlooking forest, the forest that the city maintains within its limits for the enjoyment of its citizens. Then I've travelled into the city centre where my friend (call him Travis) works teaching english to Finnish business people. Helsinki feels entirely European to my now North American centric perspective, though the city is only 150 years old (a young'un, by European standards). Coblestones and coloured stone buildings built in polygons corresponding to the angles of intersection of the streets around them are commonplace. Yesterday I took the elevator up the tower at the stadium built for the 1952 olympics. It was misty at the top, but the city was visible, a small, unassuming town dotted with treed granite outcroppings and subdivided by meandering inlets of the Baltic sea.

Tomorrow I leave Finland, travel back through London's Heathrow (where my bag will probably get lost again) and take a direct BA flight to Islamabad. I'm trying to anticipate what it will be like to step out of Islamabad International into the hot, thick, loud morning for the first time since April 1999. It's been a while. I keep running useful Urdu phrases through my head trying to get the grammer right, deciding whether or not to try them out on unsuspecting customs agents. I think I'll stick with English.

There the real adventure begins. Finland has provided a much needed lull in my life. Conversation has often involved my and Travis's shared experiences in Pakistan. Travis's parents still live there and I'll be spending my first few days in the country with his uncle and aunt. So there's some continuity between my stay here and the next phase of my journey.

My gastronomic experiences in the two countries will lack continuity, but I'll be sure to report on them just the same.

I realize I tend to ramble on in these posts. If there's something you're not hearing about and would like to, let me know.

Cricket, for example, has not graced my posts for a while. Those of you in North America especially are feeling withdrawal, I'm sure. Pakistan is asserting herself in Enland after a dismal performance in the test matches. The first one-day match (that's right, as I've mentioned before, the short version of cricket takes a mere day) was rained out. In the second, England appeared water-logged, despite the improved weather and in the third England finally showed up, but Pakistan was able to hang on for the win.


Finns Start Talking on the Weekends

Talk turns to Politics, old times, makes of beer, families, music, what was and is and will be and how and why. The sky is grey but yields no rain. The sun is out but limits its heat. Drunks stagger home on Saturday morning, make scenes on the metro, drink beer out of paper bags in public. Finns start talking on the weekend. Goat cheese and basil-soaked feta sold by a Turk who adds chocolates to our order. Grey cobbles and coffee in a communist(-like) square. Smooth trains and buses that run on time in the middle of the forest. Stair-case up a granite shelf and lunch on a lake with ducks in the water. Talk turns to online match-making services, divorce, basketball, babies, Ben Harper.
Day 6.


Rissotto and Smoked Salmon

I just checked my blog stats and noticed quite a few new hits in recent days. Thanks for your interest. Thanks Rachel for your referral. I'll see what I can do to live up to your claims about my blog.


Days 4 and 5
Helsinki, Finland

Those of you who know me and read my blog, know that food is one of my favourite things. And so far, food experiences have been notable here in Helsinki. On Wednesday, I met my friend in the city centre and we stopped in one of his wife's favourite cafes on the street Pohjoisesplanaol. I'm on a wheat free diet so I had to pass up the tantalizing sandwiches. Instead I ordered a bowl of salmon soup on my friend's recommendation (although this cafe serves only the second best salmon soup in the city). I enjoy salmon, but I live in the middle of a large continent, hundreds of kilometers away from the sea, so good, fresh salmon is an expensive rarity, a foreign food. The soup was nearly perfect. It was fresh and hot, light and creamy, thin, with dill and black peppercorns and something sweet underneath, maybe cinnamon. Pink chunks of flaky salmon and pieces of new potato bursting with flavour floated in the broth. I've rarely enjoyed soup so much.

The next day, my friend, his wife and new baby lunched at a small French cafe in an area of the city called Ullanlinna (or Ulrikasborg, in Swedish). The cafe is perfect. Such establishments don't, to my knowledge, exist in Winnipeg. Lunch consists of a hot dish and a choice of eight tantalizing salads. Again, I had to pass on the two fine looking pasta options. I chose the Wild Forest Rissotto and a salad of mixed greens, sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese topped with red pepper dressing. The rissotto was excellent, well done and accented with oyster mushrooms (or a near relative).

Yesterday evening homemade pizza toppings included smoked, pepper-crusted salmon fillet with sauted mushrooms and shallots.

So much for food. It's a fleeting thing.