Today I handed in my report, the culmination of the work I did in Gilgit. That felt good and right. A friend living in London suggested I celebrate "with a cold beer, or whatever is appropriate". What was very appropriate, and accessible today was hot chai and a samosa fresh out of the oil. The price was right as well, CAN$0.40 for the lot.
Then I hailed a taxi and rode back to my hosts' house reveling in the warm sunshine and the green. And trying not to breathe the smog.
I'm dashing up to my old hometown, the military and colonial Abbotabad tomorrow to visit family friends and then back down to Islamabad on Saturday for an early departure on Sunday morning.
I will attempt more summing up at a later date, but I will say now that I am entirely this trip was exactly the right thing for me to do at the right time in my life. The pace has been right. Time allotments in each place have been sufficient. And I expect that the last segment Down Under and will follow this pattern.
But "Down Under" is well crafted, easy, informative and devastatingly funny. Much of his humour is self-deprecating to the extreme. For example, he goes on for a page describing his unsavoury demeanor when sleeping in a car. And I nearly died laughing. Of course, in a book about Australia, by an American, there must be a section on cricket. And, to be sure, Bryson shows no mercy. With cricket it's just too easy. I will simply quote Bryson here. Let me know if you think its funny. I nearly wet myself.
Bryson is driving West from Canberra to Adelaide on the Sturt Highway. As he gets further and further away from "civilization" he begins,
"As if to emphasize the isolation, all the area radio stations began to abandon me...Eventually the radio dial presented only an interrupted cat's hiss of static, but for one clear spot near the end of the dial. At first I thought that's all it was - just an empty clear spot-but then I realized I could hear the faint shiftings and stirrings of seated people, and after a quiet pause a voice, calm and reflective said:
'Plichard begins his long run in from short stump. He bowls and . . . oh, he's out! Yes, he's got him. Longwilley is caught leg-before in middle slops by Grattan. Well, now what do you make of that, Neville?'
'That's definitely one for the books, Bruce. I don't think I've seen offside medium slow fast pace bowling to match it since Baden-Powell took Rangachangabanga for a maiden ovary at Bangalore in 1948.'
I had stumbled into the surreal and rewarding world of cricket on the radio" (pp.144-145).
Okay, let me interject just for a second before going on. If you happen to know nothing about cricket in the first place this won't be quite as funny. Part of what makes it so funny is that all Bryson had to do was to tweek the real terms and names ever so slightly to turn the commentary he heard into this absolutely nonsensical rant. On we go...
"Imagine a form of baseball in which the pitcher, after each delivery, collects the ball from the catcher and walks slowly with it out to centre field; and that there, after a minute's pause to collect himself, he turns and runs full tilt towards the pitchers mound before hurling the ball at the ankles of a man who stands before him wearing a riding hat, heavy gloves of the sort used to handle radioactive isotopes and a mattress strapped to each leg"(pg.145).
"Listening to cricket on the radio is like listening to two men sitting in a rowing boat on a large, placid lake on a day when the fish aren't biting"(pg.146)
"'So here comes Stovepipe to bowl on this glorious summer's afternoon at the MCG,' one of the commentators was saying now. 'I wonder if he'll chance an offside drop scone here or go for the quick legover. Stovepipe has an unusual delivery in that he actually leaves the grounds and starts his run just outside the Carlton & United Brewery at Kooyong.'
'That's right, Clive. I haven't known anyone start his delivery that far back since Stopcock caught his sleeve on the reversing mirror of number 11 bus during the third test at Brisbane in 1957 and ended up at Goondiwindi four days later owing to some frightful confusion over a changed timetable at Toowoomba Junction.'
After a very long silence while they absorbed this thought, and possibly stepped out to transact some small errands, they resumed with a leisurely discussion of the English fielding. Neasden, it appeared, was turning a solid performance at square bowel, while Packet has been stalwart in the dribbles, when set beside the outstanding play of young Hugh Twain-Buttocks at middle nipple. The commentators were in calm agreement that they had not seen anyone caught behind with such panache since Tandoori took Rogan Josh for a stiffy at Vindaloo in '61. At last Stovepipe, having found his way over the railway line at Flinders street - the footbridge was evidently closed for painting-returned to the stadium and bowled to Hasty, who deftly turned the ball away for a corner...
'So as we break for second luncheon, and with 11,200 balls remaining, Australia are 962 for two not half and England are four for a duck and hoping for rain.'
I may not have all the terminology exactly right, but I believe I have caught the flavour of it."(pp146-147).
"...the mystery of cricket is...that [Australians] play [cricket] at all. It has always seemed to me a game much too restrained for the rough-and-tumble Australian temperament. Australians much prefer games in which brawny men in scanty clothing bloody each other's noses. I am quite certain that if the rest of the world vanished overnight and the development of cricket was left in Australian hands, within a generation the players would be wearing shorts and using the bats to hit each other.
And the thing is, it would be a much better game for it" (pg.148).
This is the book I have selected for my primer on Australia as I prepare to land in Sydney exactly 1 week from today. I think it's great fun. I already have gleaned ideas for a walking tour of Sydney which should be sunny and hot according to BBC's 5-day forecast.
I've already had fun getting pictures printed. Today I ran in to the Kodak place in Jinnah. Right there they made a test 8x10 of a black and white print and 20 minutes later they had the other 10 8x10s finished and charged me a grand total of...CAN$15.57. I'm not complaining.
I wrote about boundaries and imagination in an earlier post, stealing the title of Rushdie's other collection of non-fiction.
On Sunday I arrived at the Gilgit airport, a small stone building on the edge of the alluvial fan that is Gilgit's resting place in the world. The airport stretches away between rows of tall pines and beyond are the ever-present parched hills (now with snow dusting their worn down ridges). The clouds were high and the sun warmed the waiting lounge. It appeared the flight would go that day. And it did. At around 9:30am, the C-130 military transport, succunded to PIA, touched down with a roar and disgorged passengers and baggage and Gilgit's supply of newspapers.
As I sat in the waiting lounge I realized how thankful I was the flight was going that day. The previous two weeks were characterized by bad weather and about one flight each. Finally they called us to get on the plane - ladies first. They piled out of a doorway at the back of the waiting lounge that I hadn't noticed before and stood in line at the door that led down two or three steps to the tarmac. Suddenly the whole line of ladies did an about face and retreated behind a wall into their waiting room again. The rest of us (men) sat down. No explanation. I started to get nervous. But the weather still looked good.
About half an hour latter, the ladies were called out and again formed a line through the aisle in the waiting room. This time they were let out and the men followed, forming another queue by rear door of the transport plane. We piled in strapping ourselves into the seats fashioned out of canvas webbing clipped to aluminium stays running the length of the plane, one of the modular configurations for the cavernous interior, big enough to drive tanks into when the seats are
The captain came on the air, then and said there would be a delay. And then, a few minutes later, we were told to exit the aircraft and return to the waiting lounge. There, the PIA rep told us we would have to wait for 20minutes until we were given permission to land in Islamabad (Chaklala Field is the name of the military airbase there). I was greatly dismayed at this. First of all, NOTHING in Pakistan happens in 20 minutes. And secondly, permission=bureaucracy and that definitely takes longer than 20 minutes - it could be 20 days, I thought. But somewhere, deep inside me there was an inexplicable glimmer of hope - maybe it sparked when someone in the waiting room called for chai and the PIA chap refused on the grounds that there would not be enough time (and, that there was no good hotel nearby from which to procure the stuff).
Sure enough, at around noon, we were again called to the plane. This time it was a free-for-all and so the men (me included) pushed to the front of the line. I took my chances and walked quickly, once we were on the open tarmac, hoping to get one of the five seats in the whole plane that offer a view of the spectacular mountains we would fly over. But I was out of luck.
This time, however, the engines were started and the bare-bones interior reverberated with the howl of four big turbo-props. And then we shot down the runway and lifted off above the dust and cold and grey water of the Gilgit river. We passed Nanga Parbat (I caught a glimpse as we turned South, but missed most of it) and then headed over the shrinking mountains to the plains and smog.
I walked across the tarmac to the arrival area in Islamabad glad to be back - surprised at how glad I was to be back. Maybe when I stepped up beside the baggage carousel I crossed this line. And suddenly I saw myself arriving in Islamabad on a hot summer day with plans in my head to stay long time and I shrank inside myself thinking, "I can't do this". Again, I surprised myself. And then the feeling passed.
I walked into the perfect early afternoon and sat down beside my taxi driver for the half hour drive to my gracious hosts who once again have invited me into their home for the duration of this week.
That evening I was in a bookstore in Jinnah market in the purple haze and gathering cold of a November evening. I felt removed from myself, pulled in to the evocative sensual experience of being in a place that was once so iconic to my experience. As I was browsing through the V.S. Naipaul section, a dreadfully tasteless version of Seal's (who's Seal? I haven't heard of him for ages either) "Kiss From a Rose" started to play on the store's PA. The subtle combination of all that gave me a very strange feeling, as if I would walk out the door and meet someone I knew, as if there would be a (Toyota) Coaster waiting filled with sunburned, hot-blooded teenagers and I would jump in and travel with them back in time, up a river of shadow.
And then it passed. I remembered who I am and who I was and walked out to the photo shop where my prints were waiting and then in a taxi back home. The sky was dust and orange and grey and the call to prayer floated in through the windows on cool air and lush green dark in the musty shadows.
I was going to include this in the previous post, but I thought that one was long enough and complete.
As I’ve finished up my report, the summation of my activities here at AKRSP, I’ve started to realize what it is that really thrills me, what I could spend a lot more time doing and studying. It is exactly this, what I’m writing about and what AKRSP is, at this moment in time, trying to figure out: how does development move forward? In the case of AKRSP, the initial push for grass-roots self-development and social organization has been a resounding success. But what next? What’s the next economic model (John Clarke)? How do equity and community equilibrium and co-operation move beyond donor-subsidy (ultimately) to a self-sustaining model for future development? This is a great question. It’s progressive, cutting-edge, a question that more development organizations should be asking. And I, an inexperienced, junior engineer-in-training get to be thrown into the thick of it for a fleeting minute – enough time to know that I want more.
I thought my dream job was working directly with micro/mini hydels, designing and implementing and the like. But it’s not – this is, maybe not with AKRSP or in Gilgit, but somewhere out here, asking the tough questions and watching things work themselves out on the ground and working with donor organizations, governments and community organizations to take the next step.
Pure engineering is vitally important, not only to our society in Canada, but in the development sector as well, but it’s not for me. I’ll leave it to the people who are actually good at maths and know how to solve partial differential equations and perform Laplace transforms. I’m thankful I did my degree in Mechanical Engineering and, by God’s grace, got through it with reasonable grades, but there are things that I’m much better at, subjects that excite me enough to motivate me to put in the long hours and become proficient at. That said, a lot of the soft skills I learned over the course of my education came into play during my assignment with AKRSP – an engineering education gives a person a keen ability to critically analyze problems and synthesize diverse data and, if you pay attention in Tech Comm, the ability to put all of that together into a decent report.
NB. For those of you at New Flyer who are reading this (I see a hit from Transcona every once in a while) don’t worry…I’ll be back in January-call this development gig a hobby :)
Anyway, I just wanted to say that I think I’ve found something that I’m reasonably good at and very excited about. We’ll see what happens from here on. Maybe tomorrow I’ll get a bad review on my report and tell another story.
And as an aside, I look at the possibility of doing a master’s in English on post-colonial literature through the University of Guelph’s Collaborative International Development Studies department and my mouth waters. But, only a few people in this world seem to be able to do everything at once, and I’m not one of them.PS. The Northern Areas Power and Water Development people are way ahead of the times, they offer a wide variety of products to electricity consumers in the Northern Ares. For example, they just switched to the 5-volt special...oh! now it's back to 220V, I guess that was just a demo...you probably have to give them your credit card number to order the 5V package if you want to keep it.
The lawyer I mentioned in a previous post mocked the director of Market Development during the post-meeting chai session in the Market guy’s office, “I wish someone paid me to sit in a nice office and listen to people tell me about their problems.”
Today was a good day, a long day, a day in my future life (perhaps). Today is my penultimate day with AKRSP and I’m trying to wrap up my report. Yesterday the Regional Programme Manager directed me to beef up my analyses of the project. So today I was working on that. I stayed late and the office emptied out. I moved to the office one of the accountants so I could use his printer and network connection.
A kerosene heater warmed up the room and made my eyes sting. I had the door open a crack for some ventilation. The window in my office looked out into the cold gray hallway, through the windows that line it onto a long lawn and up into the mountains coated with fresh snow and pink and mottled in the chilly dusk. The local mullah started his mournful call to prayer and I chirped away on my laptop trying to make sense of Pakistan’s policy on renewable energy development and splicing segments of the World Bank’s latest evaluation into the final section of my report.
As the dark gathered outside I finished up the final section offering recommendations to the Programme based on my analysis of progress so far on the community-based mini-hydel project and the implications of privatizing the hydel.
Before leaving I printed out the text of my report, feeding the finicky HP laser printer one page at a time and thinking I didn’t want to be anywhere else.
It was cold when I left the office. I told the night guard I was going to the hotel across the street for supper and asked if there would be a vehicle available to drive me home after.
The hotel is the same one that served me suspect chicken jalfrezzi last time I was there, so I ordered their chicken ginger handi hoping the (new) cook was not going to apply his maverick methods to the entire menu. The handi had changed, but was still good and the naan hot. I sat at the table with my back warmed by the heater going through my print-out highlighting errors, but realizing that, overall, it would probably be acceptable.
Green tea with cardamom accompanied my meal.
I paid and walked out of the restaurant just as an AKRSP Land Cruiser (the “white jeep” criticized as a symbol of AKRSP’s aloof approach to development by one person I spent about half an hour listening to speaking in breakneck Urdu) pulled up to drive me home.
I washed dishes, made myself chai and sat down to write this blog post. Now I will post it and spend a couple more hours on my report, hoping to finish it to present for final review tomorrow.
I could do this everyday, all of it.
(PS. Word keeps switching back to US spelling and now it’s telling me that “programme” is spelled incorrectly. At the home of an American family here in Gilgit we were sitting around discussing American, Canadian and British spelling and pronunciation. “Do Canadians use American or British spelling?” said one of the Americans who teaches English here in Gilgit. “We’re confused,” said I. Another Canadian in the room laughed in agreement. “And you guys say “aboot”, don’t you,” challenged the American. “No,” I said. “Canadians simply pronounce vowels they way they’re supposed to be pronounced.” That one got a triumphant smirk from the other Canadian and a laugh of disbelief from the American)
Kabul International Airport is a frontier airport in the middle of a warzone. The ISAF/NATO(one or the other, I'll call it ISAF) base stands out. The civilian building is understated: small and dirty and crowded. Somehow I found my way through a small, disorganized room to the desk with the sign that had my flight number posted over it. I got my boarding pass and headed out to the departure lounge, a long, plain room with a row of dirty windows looking out onto the roof of another part of the airport. Only the tops of Ariana tails were visible. The roar of a fighter jet punched through the air periodically. Helicoptors circled the runway.
The waiting lounge was packed. I took a seat near the entrance to it. To my right sat a row of buff Afro-Americans. One had an iPod strapped to his barrel-like bicep. He was singing along. I wondered if they were with the military. I couldn't see anything about them that identified them as such.
Later, a man appeared in the small doorway at the end of the lounge. He had a loudspeaker and announced quickly, in accented English, "Kam Air, Dubai". At once most of the people in the lounge stood up and crowded towards the loudspeaker man. The afro-americans were on the flight to and stood to get in line. I guessed they were taking leave and travelling to the Emirate for a holiday as, it seems, most of expatriate Kabul does at some point.
Another flight, this time for Moscow-Kabul's one-time colonial lord-was called, then another for Dubai.
The lounge had emptied considerably. At one point a mass of bearded mean in white shalwar-chamise and prayer caps stood up and moved toward the exit. No flight had been called. I wondered if it was mine and I had missed a telepathic announcement. As the line thinned out and men disappeared down the staircase, I started to worry. I walked to the end of the line and asked one if the flight was for Peshawar. He said "No", it was for Dubai.
Finally a man in a suit walked through the lounge and said the Peshawar flight was ready. I walked down. A large, scruffy-looking camera man with a reporter's multi-pocketed vest and his collegue, a diminuative, attractive young woman were on the same flight. They sat in first class and tried to sleep.
My seat turned out to be an exit row seat. So I stretched out my legs and leaned back in comfort for the entire 30 minute flight.
Two ISAF Huey's rose and skimmed over the runway just before we took off. We passed Italian F-16s in their bays. The view of Kabul was stunning from the plane. The city is covered in dust. Even the concrete, multi-story buildings look like mud huts fromt he air. We flew over the TV tower that the Americans took out in the first air strike on the city in 2002. Brown, desolate hills stretched out in all directions from the city. Then we were off, above the clouds.
My seat was right over the wing. I saw a gap in the cowling over the structural joint between the port engine and the wing. It widened under the stress of flight once the aircraft lifted off the ground. Bording the A-310, I had noticed a large section of the side of the fuselage which looked like it had been patched up (after what?, I thought). But the plane held up and we landed in Peshawar. As I was walking from the plane to the arrivals area, the siren for Iftar (the breaking of the fast) sounded. Hardly anyone was around. The airport was deserted. No one manned the customs table. I took my bag off the carasoul and left. The streets were deserted. Eventually I hailed a motor rickshaw, folded up into the back seat and told the driver where I wanted to go.
Last week and this week are cut out for writing my report. The days have gone by surprisingly quickly and have been largely uneventful, but profitable none the less. Now I’m 6 days away from my departure from Gilgit (if the plane will fly on Sunday).
It’s getting colder. Every time the clouds roll in, the snowline descends on the surrounding hills. Yesterday I was showering in the evening in my cold concrete bathroom and the flow of hot water inexplicably stopped cold (pun fully intended). I was left standing there, the soap lather on my body doing little to stop the heat racing from my body. I thought the problem might be temporary, possibly caused by sudden use of hot water by the Northern Scouts who share my plumbing system in the building next door. But the water was about to return and I was slowly turning hypothermic. So there was nothing for it. I dried the water and soap off, jumped into my blessed long underwear (thank you MEC) and headed to bed.
On Sunday I got up at 6:30am. I don’t have many pictures of Gilgit so I thought I try taking some sun-rise pictures. The Urdu verb associated with picture taking is “nikalna”, not “kanchna” as I thought – maybe it’s a Gilgit thing. The verb carries the idea of extracting or taking out. So there I was, shivering in the dewy pre-dawn, pulling pictures from the smoky grey around me.
I live on the road called “Riverview Road”. Surprisingly, it skirts the Gilgit river for the length of the very long town. My section of the road veers away from the river and in between the two is a gravelly wasteland. Crews dig rocks out of the area to dress for walls or crush for gravel so there are mounds and holes scattered across the area. Spindly, sad-looking trees sprout up between the stones in a few places. The road is built up across the alluvial deposits and an electricity transmission line runs beside the road held up by square lattice galvanized steel poles. At one point, asphalt makers have set up shop. The met tar (bitumen) out of rusty barrels and mix it with gravel and sand in huge, black rotating drums. The tar is lit to keep is soft and flames leap from the rotating barrel while laborers shovel gravel and sand into a hole in the middle of the drum. It all looks rather industrial and barbaric. They’ve pitched tents in between the gravel mounds close to their flaming drums.
I started shooting from just outside my door (producing poor results) and then started walking along the road towards the asphalt maker and the encamped workers as the sky lightened. Broken clouds spread across the sky forming a porous roof and settled raggedly on the brown ridges that march away toward the Indus.
I parked myself at a high point on the road, facing the rising sun with the asphalt camp between me and the sun. Smoke hangs heavy in the Gilgit valley and filled the air between me and the trees bordering my property. Before the sun rose, the asphalt workers emerged from their tents to start their unforgiving labor. One man climbed on top of the drum. Another started a smoking fire under the tar melting station and others passed buckets of something to the man on the drum. As the sun crested the last ridge before hitting Gilgit, I shot the asphalt station with a small aperture and fast shutter speed. I shot the wasteland by the river – weak yellow sun-light seeping through the smoke making ghosts of trees and shrouding the feet of the ridges that end at the river.
Yesterday after lunch in the tea shop across the street from my office I went for a walk with a friend, the guy I went to Naltar with on Gilgit's independence day. I stopped at a shop and asked for a box of Prince biscuits in Urdu. He looked at me with a grin, "You even know names of biscuits. You are 50% Pakistani, I think."
Today I sat at the end of a long table in a nice restaurant with three AKRSP managers, including my boss. They have been taking part in a week-long training session (training of trainers - or TOT because they like to make everything into acronyms here) only today all of the trainees were out on a field trip - so the long table was empty, but apparently the seminar's tab was still open.
Today I made parathas yet again. And this time they were perfect :)
I’m reading another travel book. This one I found in the stately book shelf in the living room of my little house. The shelving unit is solid wood and has two levels, each with three shelves. Each level has a set of glass doors. The collection includes everything from a textbook titled “Personal Trainer” to the paperback version of “Cold Mountain” to an ancient copy of the Koran in English with copious notes. And there are plenty of books about this area, a little text on glaciers, books about religion and history and, of course, travel books like the one I’m reading: “The Golden Peak” by the Scot Kathleen Jamie, copyright 1990 and 1992.
Jamie traveled through this part of the world by herself over a period of two years or so spending a good deal of time in Gilgit. She stayed with a Shia Moslem family. One conversation with the head of the family, Murtaza, she recounts thus:
“’You have visited the Major, my cousin?’
‘Yes, we were speaking of local politics.’
‘Ah, do you understand our problems? Do you know, here in Gilgit we have a Commissioner, for the whole Northern Areas. This one is from Peshawar. He, the heads of the various departments, even headmasters of middle and high school, are from Outside. Subordinates only are local, they can’t speak with us people. We are like sheep, like colony of Pakistan’” (pg. 71).
On Saturday (11-Nov) I was sitting in the office of AKRSP’s manager of Market Development with a local lawyer and his associate. We were conducting a short meeting regarding legal issues surround the company that village is setting up to manage its hydel. We had exhausted the topics set for the meeting and chai was ordered. The lawyer lit a cigarette as did the manager. Together the tobacco smoke and the kerosene fumes from the heater nearly knocked me out. The lawyer started talking about Pakistan. The lawyer (rendered “liar” by the Urdu accent, unfortunately) had been adamant that the company would be formed legitimately, all of its assets disclosed from the outset, etc. The Pakistani bureaucracy, however, is rife with corruption, the lawyer stated (I don’t doubt it). “It is fully accepted that illegal practices are going on the side to make extra money.” He asked me what came to mine when I heard the word “bureaucracy”. I said, “hundreds of desks, piled high with paper.” He guffawed and held out his hand so I could give him “five” (a Pakistani gesture-perhaps part of other cultures as well-made when a point is well and humorously made).
Somehow his monologue shifted from bureaucracy to the political situation in the Northern Areas. He explained to me the deplorable political situation – how people in the NAs are not allowed to vote (on the flip side neither do they pay taxes – but who does in Pakistan?) and are ruled over by “Outsiders” as Murtaza said. He slowly worked himself up until he really got going, his lawyer-speak taking over – “The Westerners – they are worried about our mountains and the snow leopards! They don’t care about basic human rights! On their TVs they show a dead duck on a lake and are outraged – but what about people?!” The Marketing manager, a soft-spoken, diminutive man, kept smoking behind his desk and laughing at the lawyer’s intensity. Then it was time for the lawyer to leave, chai and cigarette finished.
I lived in Pakistan for 14 years but was never really aware of the status of the Northern Areas. It’s still something new to me.PS. I'm curious to know who's visiting my blog from Hungary.
Josiah’s comment on my Rakaposhi post cracked me up. So I’m going to write a post about parathas, the flaky flat-bread that I’ve raved about on at least two occasions.
There are some Pakistani foods, try as we might, that are nearly impossible to replicate perfectly in Canada. Samosa, for example, are great in Canada, but there’s something about the ones I pick up at the corner sweet shop in Gilgit that are different. Is it the blackened oil that their cooked in, or a trace amount of kerosene smoke that mingles with the oil or the newspaper they’re stored on? I can’t say. Perhaps it’s the flour used to make the pastry (flour that sits reasonably well with me, I might add).
Likewise, I’ve never tasted anything like Pakistani Chicken Karahi (a fairly basic curry heavy on tomatoes with something else in the sauce) in Canada.
Likewise, flatbreads seem nearly impossible to replicate in Canada (and Indian restaurants seem to manage no better than us white folk, while charging ridiculously high prices for the simple creations). And parathas fall into this category. After all, they are simply fried chapatti with additional oil worked into the dough to give the final product a pastry-like flakiness. We have, of course made parathas in Canada – and they were pretty good. Again, the differences between parathas in Canada and the those made and eaten here are ever so subtle. So subtle, in some cases, the difference could simply the experience as a whole. After all, how can my faculties ignore the differences between sitting cross-legged on the floor of a mud and timber hut in the fading afternoon above 3000m and sitting at the table in my well-insulated, warm house on the prairie with snow outside?
But what are parathas, the phantom cause of Josiah’s real hunger pangs as he sits half a world away in a university computer lab?
Let me explain.
Flat bread, I think, is one of the 7 wonders of the culinary world (don’t ask me what the other 6 are). How can something so simple, often just flour, water and salt mixed together with heat applied, be the cause of such enormous gastronomical pleasure? I’m sure I don’t know, but that doesn’t change the experience. In Northern Pakistan, there are, at least, a few varieties of flat bread. One is the simple, chapatti, the most basic bread, the tortilla of the sub-continent…
funny story about the term “sub-continent” here, as an aside: The term refers more or less to the countries situated on the plate that pushes into Asia and forms the Himalaya: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka (perhaps Bhutan as well, I’m not sure if there’s a concise definition). Anyway, I was at a Navigators spring conference (for the Western Canadian chapters) in Colorado and, as an ice breaker, we were playing a game that is often called “Fruit Basket Upset”. Basically, everyone sits on chairs formed in a circle except for one person standing in the middle. That person describes something possibly unique that she has done and everyone else in the circle who has done that same thing has to get up and shift sets. In the ensuing chaos, the person in the middle must try to find a seat leaving a different person to cause the next upset. When it was my turn, I said “I’ve traveled to the sub-continent”. And nobody moved. I know that that part of the world is far away, but for an international crowd in their 20s this surprised me. I thought perhaps they hadn’t heard correctly, so I said again, “I’ve traveled to the sub-continent”. Still – blank faces all around. Then someone, probably a brilliant engineering student, asked, “what’s the sub-continent?”, The experience of realization on my part was similar to the time, just before leaving on this trip, when I said that my colleagues in Pakistan would probably “dress Western” and my co-workers started laughing. I realized they were picturing Pakistani development workers dressed in Wranglers, snakeskin boots and Stetsons. Whoa! Your still a TCK/GlobalNomad/MK/Re-Entryer, Jordan – don’t forget it.) Long aside.
…Chapatti are unleavened-flour salt and water-rolled almost paper thin and baked on a dry hot steel surface. These are best fresh and dry out quickly. But they are made in a surprising number of varieties. At a small hotel in Karimabad, during the month of fasting, I received two dark brown chapatti, quite thin and earthy and steaming hot with my order of chicken curry. In a Gilgit hotel, that sets itself up as posh, I had large, chewy chapatti made with white flour that I folded double to scoop up the daal (curried split-peas another simple dish made in wide variety of ways – a subject for another post perhaps) I had ordered that night. Roti, or Naan are made in a Tandoor, a large clay oven, oriented vertically or horizontally, heated red hot. The dough is rolled out, stretched over a cushion and pressed against the side of the oven. The dough for Roti (also a generic term for bread, or even food in general) and Naan contains leavening (what kind, I’m not sure – the Joy of Cooking calls for live yeast-but they don’t reference the Joy out here). Roti is made with white flour in Gilgit. In Jhika Gali-my old haunt from boarding school, near the hill station Murree-, a coarser flour is used (when fresh, I’ve never tasted their equal). Naan contains something else. The dough is more dense than that used for chapatti and is baked to a golden brown; often sesame seeds are scattered on the fire-side of the naan.
Paratha (okay-we’re finally here – I get carried away when writing about food) are versions of all of the flatbreads described above, but made with oil. I’ve described two types in previous posts. The deep-fried version I had in Hispar was made with a course wheat flour, rolled out thickly and deep-fried until golden. I doubt they contained leavening.
At Eagle’s Nest, the paratha are also unleavened. They probably used a simple technique to layer fat and gluten sheets such as rolling the dough out into a square, putting a tablespoon of oil in the center, folding the corners over, rolling the dough flat and repeating this procedure several times. The result was impossibly thin bread resembling layers of phyllo, but not as brittle. These again are best eaten fresh off the stove as they appeared from the kitchen after my morning with Rakaposhi.
In the town where I grew up a shop near our house used the leavened dough prepared for naan, but deposited oil on the dough and then rolled the dough out into a long rope. The rope as then coiled and the dough rolled out flat. This was baked in a tandoor. This resulted in yet another variety of paratha, soft and flaky simultaneously. The baked bread broke away along the lines of the coil and tasked particularly divine with honey.
And always chai. Chai (the simple tea made with roughly equal amounts of water and milk, brewed strong and boiled together – the Gilgit people I work with take a pinch of salt in their tea instead of sugar) has the effect of purging the grease in ones mouth. The creamy sweetness complements both the parathas and the eggs or omelet commonly eaten with paratha using the paratha to scoop up the egg as you would chapatti or naan to scoop up a curry.
So that’s my hopelessly long-winded response to Josiah’s comment. Cheers.
On Monday (Nov 6) I traveled back to Karimabad to participate in a meeting with the village organization of a town near Karimabad. We discussed matters relating to a mini-hydel under construction just above the town. The second part of my small mission was to conduct a market survey of the area, relating to the sale of surplus electricity from the hydel. Much to my delight we decided to start with Eagle’s Nest, the hotel situated on a remarkable viewpoint several hundred meters above Karimabad. I was there earlier and wrote about that in a previous post. At that time, however, my camera was not functioning. We ended up electing to stay the night at Eagle’s Nest and continue our survey the following day – perfect.
The sky was clear and the air crisp. I whipped out my camera and started shooting as the sun set, flaring above the ridge to the West and silhouetting Rakaposhi as it sank. I shot Hunza peak and Bublamating rising high above the hotel to the North. I tried to concentrate on the discussion at hand (the aforementioned market survey) as we sipped tea in the gathering cold.
Just before supper, at about 8pm, I walked up to the official viewpoint above the hotel. The valley was bathed in light from the rising moon. Rakaposhi glowed clean and pale. I set my camera to a 15 second exposure and balanced it on a rock, pointing out across the valley. The scene was ghostly and cold and beautiful.
I set my alarm for 6am. The next morning it was 10 degrees in my room. I jumped out of bed and into my synthetic long underwear, finished dressing and walked back up to the view point. It was light. It was cold. The sky was perfectly clear, the air like crystals and daggers. Rakaposhi glowed muted and the hazy sky at the bottom of her Western flank was rose and dark blue. I started shooting again. I got a great picture of the entire Hunza bowl in the pre-dawn light. My right hand was out of its glove and starting to sting with cold.
Then the sun touched the summit, slicing through the rarified air near 8000m, cold and dark blue. The sun was golden on the snow and red on the rock. I kept shooting as the glow crept down Rakaposhi’s Eastern shoulder, eventually resting on a triangular face perpendicular to the direction of the sun. The valley under Spantik, lying across the path of the sun filled with glowing mist.
Hunza peak with its 6000m granite spike stands to the north and catches the morning sun after Rakaposhi. Its southern face is vertical, twisted veins of granite. The round summit is crowned with snow. I was close enough that my limited zoom allowed me to capture details of the rock and the snow highlighted by the strengthening sunlight.
I kept shooting, fine-tuning my exposure, desperate to capture the light that changed by the minute and every crease in the snow and ice on the mountains around me. When the sun was high enough that the light turned white. I stepped back to capture the mountains with the bleak foreground available on the lookout point, rock cairns, brown earth and flags still standing from the recent visit of the Aga Khan and Prince Charles. The flags are a field of forest green with a crimson diagonal stripe bisecting the green. They stood fixed by the rock cairns.
Below, the sun had started to filter through the remaining fall colours hanging on the trees, light highlighting the leaves, leaves leaving orange and yellow and russet streaks through the morning haze like an impressionist’s brush strokes. I shot those too.
Finally the sun reached my position and started to warm me. Two of my colleagues had come out to have a look at the world before breakfast. I shot some more, different angles, and exposures and compositions of fore and backgrounds. And then it was time to go. I was torn between the beauty and clarity of the moment and the hot, flaky parathas and steaming tea that awaited me inside.
Such a day could hardly improve.
But the skies remained clear and around 4pm, we were driving back towards Gilgit, but on the north side of the Hunza river. The valley was in shadow, but the afternoon sun was highlighting the Western ridge of Rakaposhi and we stopped in Hussainabad where the entire Western ridge of Rakaposhi from summit to just above the point where it meets the KKH is visible. I shot about 60 more pictures from the village. Wisps of spindrift billowed off the summit and another irregularity lower down, illuminated by the sinking sun.
By the time we reached Gilgit, Rakaposhi was glowing dust pink and orange. But my memory card was full and I had already spend Sunday afternoon with the mountain shooting until all the light was gone and the wood and coal smoke had started to fill the valley.
The village consists of 150 households scattered over a flat-topped alluvial deposit. From the central part of the village, the snout of the huge Hispar glacier is clearly visible flanked by high peaks. The glacier stretches away to the southwest for 50 km before its head at Hispar La (pass) at 4770m and snow lake. From there, the Biafo glacier snakes down into Baltistan. The trek traversing the two glaciers takes around 14 days. Apparently migrants from Baltistan originally settled the village of Hispar several hundred years ago.
The day was perfectly clear. At over 3000m the sun was hot and the air chilly. The sun sets over the village at 14h30 this late in the year. The potatoes have been harvested and we met a caravan of 7 or 8 tractor-trailers (small Massy-Ferguson 270 farm tractors pulling trailers roughly the same length as the tractor, the standard, go-anywhere form of transportation in the mountains) on its way down to the town of Ganesh on the KKH to sell the produce to market. Ice stays frozen in the shade. People are starting to hunker down for winter.
We had come to visit a 150 kW micro-hydel funded by the Swiss Development Fund (SDC) and developed with the assistance of Partner Aid International (PAI) and a senior mechanical engineer who currently works for my organization and on the project I’ve been assigned to – thus the connection for this trip. A German staff member of PAI accompanied us to discuss the implementation of a maintenance fund for the micro-hydel. The first part of our visit consisted of an impromptu meeting lead by the German and the engineer. It ended in a high-pitched, but short-lived argument in one of the local languages and a side meeting between the German and one of the village leaders.
The second part consisted of tea and parathas (a local variety that is completely deep fried and beautifully flaky, eaten in this case with cherry jam and local Yak butter) at the village leader’s house and more discussion about the hydel project’s funds.
After tea we walked out again into the too-early evening. Boys played soccer in one dusty field and in another a volleyball net had been erected and a game was in progress against the sun on the brown hills and ice on the high peaks.
Finally we visited the hydel station. All the material had been carted up on a tractor-trailer. The German and the engineer had had to visit the site almost weekly at one point and during the summer they were forced to walk the last 15km. Now, when the sluice is opened in the evening, the pelton wheel hums alongside its generator and lights and heats the homes in the village.
On the ride down, we discussed why the villagers lack motivation to initiate a maintenance fund and take responsibility for upkeep of the hydel, a considerable asset to their village (according to the proposal for the project, at any rate). To us, it seems so simple: why wouldn’t you want to invest in the maintenance of something so valuable, something that you, yourselves initially invested quite a bit of time and money in?).
I thought of my own world view, once again (here's the broken record part), and how far removed my reality is from theirs. To me, the world is open – I can go anywhere at anytime. I can fly around the world if I want: one month I’m in Babur's garden in Kabul and weeks later I’m on a beach in Sydney and then, within a matter of days I’m skiing in the forests of central Canada. I have money coming out of my ears, a secure job, insurance for everything and a healthcare system that’s so reliable (let’s face it, Canadians, it’s actually quite good-I think I mentioned this before) I take it fore-granted. If there’s something I don’t know about I assume I’ll be able to find the answer somewhere. I work hard and assume it’s my right to expect ample remuneration from both my employer and society.
I don’t see how it’s possible for me to understand the world view of a villager who lives at the end of a glacier far away from everywhere, might get an education and interprets life by Nature’s cycle. To enlighten them, I assume they must move in my direction, that’s my natural ego-centric response. If I’m to move in theirs, how do I start? Some of the answers to this question have been found, if the impression I’ve gained of the organization I’m working for is accurate, but I’m still asking them of myself and of all the expensive white people who fly into poor countries expecting to make a difference. So let me ask, or tell me the answers.
Tonight the moon is nearly full. I took my last picture of the day of the fading light on Bojohagur (7329m) and Ultar (7388m) with a 1 second exposure, F4.0 using a small stone to prop up my camera as a make-shift tripod.Rakaposhi glowed majestically in the muted, clean light, towering over the smoky valley, guiding us home.
November, and the weather in the Gilgit valley turns cold. Now is my favourite time of year in Northern Pakistan: sweaters are required inside, but not yet heaters; the sun is just the right strength and tea is taken outside, still in a sweater, soaking up the rays and the blue mountain sky.
Yesterday was a local holiday, some kind of Gilgit independence day (I didn’t quite gather from what, people don’t seem to know entirely), but this day off work leant itself nicely to a day trip to the Naltar valley, a high, alpine valley about 2 hours' drive from Gilgit. A friend from work (a young Pakistani with a commerce degree working in the accounts section of AKRSP) and two of his friends hired a jeep for the day (the fare was $34). This was a new experience for me, hanging out with Pakistani men my age. And it turned out to be a good one.
The valley is beautiful, though overforresting of the huge pines on the valley’s slopes mares the view. Snow had fallen not far up the valley’s sides. The four of us set out to climb up to the snowlines, following the edge of a terraced and cultivated bowl (now brown and smooth after harvest) with great views back of the fields, a temporary settlement of stone huts and, behind that a sheer rock face rising 3 or 4000ft. At the highest point of our short hike Rakaposhi was visible, it’s knife edge southern ridge shear against the intense blue of the sky. The afternoon shadows were already engulfing out position though it was only 14h30 and it was cold. We wound our way back through the big trees and encountered some black-haired yaks grazing on the way.
One thing I’ve noticed about Pakistanis’ picture taking habits is that they are much more interested in taking pictures of each other than the scenery or anything else. My friend had borrowed someone’s camera-phone and he and one of his friends snaped incensently on the way down, posing in every concievable location-against tree, atop a charred stump, on the edge of a terrace. It was comical. And my friend kept taking pictures of himself with his hat at different angles. The other guy and I walked some ways ahead and discussed the perception of Islam in the world today and the circumstances under which a Moslem is allowed the take the life of another person – a fascinating conversation that our language barrier limited somewhat.
Many of you have commented on my blog, both on the website itself and in e-mails. Thanks for that. These comments motivate me to keep posting and lead me to believe that this blog is reasonably valuable way to communicate what’s happening out here.