Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Cat Wrangler

The flag carriers at the Wagah Crossing.

Our Embassy diplomats have many important reasons to travel to Lahore. That ancient and fascinating city is the political capitol of the Punjab, the traditional home of the Army's officer corps and the ancestral fiefdom of Nawaz Sharif, whose PML-N party is forming a coalition government with Benazir Bhutto's PPP. Our Political Section, therefore, is often required to meet in Lahore with one dignitary or another to solidify relationships and practice diplomacy. The folks from the Economic Section are frequently called upon to fly down to better gauge the pulse of the Pakistani economy in this center of commerce second in importance only to Karachi. They regularly meet there with Pakistan's captains of industry. Our Public Diplomacy people go there because Lahore is the cultural heart of the country and a prime location for news and media outlets. Cultivating these vital media resources is an important means of getting our message out to the population. So, many of our diplomats are in the position of having to travel to Lahore to better do their jobs. The fact that Lahore is also the acknowledged center of Pakistani cuisine and home to most of Pakistan's best restaurants is purely coincidental.

I went to Lahore last week to deliver a cat.

Admittedly, this doesn't rank as a seminal moment in diplomatic history but the cat and its owner appreciated the effort and it was the only excuse I could come up with to finagle an 'official' trip to Lahore. The cat is the pet of a diplomat who left Islamabad suddenly last year, too suddenly to arrange to take the cat with her. She left her pet with friends and contacted us recently to ask us to ship it to her new post. The best way to get the cat to her was to send it on a flight from Lahore and the only way to get it to Lahore was to send it down by car. I decided that if I had to send a motor pool vehicle to Lahore for a cat, I was going along for the ride.

The old Grand Trunk Road runs from Peshawar at the Khyber Pass, by Islamabad, through Lahore, through Delhi and on, all the way to Bangladesh. Between Islamabad and Lahore it is in very good condition and goes right through the picturesque towns of Gujranwala, Gujrat and Jhelum as well as many small villages and roadside markets. It's a slice of history resurfaced in macadam. We are, of course, prohibited from driving down the Grand Trunk Road and are required, instead, to take the Motorway. The Motorway is a six lane divided highway the equal of any interstate in the US and every bit as boring. The cat seemed annoyed too at not being allowed to drive on the fabled Grand Trunk Road and expressed its displeasure most of the way down by making very loud cat noises. At one point the driver said, "Sir, I think your cat is dying". "Possibly, but it's not my cat", was all I could think of to say. The cat managed to not die on the trip and I saw it safely into the hands of the shippers before I began my tour of Lahore.

The Grand Trunk Road crosses the Pakistan-India border just outside of Lahore in a town called Wagah which has the distinction of being the only open border between the two countries. Each night at around sundown, Honor Guards from each country close the gates and lower their respective flags in a carefully choreographed ceremony.

Our Consulate in Lahore had made arrangements for me to attend the ceremony that night and I went out to Wagah in an armored vehicle with a full police escort. I showed my ID to the military guards surrounding the spectator's area and was escorted into the grandstands built around the Wagah gate. They took me past all the stadium seats and then past the rows of VIP seats right up to the VVIP seats which were virtually next to the crossing gate itself. My escort from the Consulate and I were the only two people in this section and I was pretty sure someone had made a mistake. No sooner had we chosen our seats from among the twenty or so empty chairs when, sure enough, a soldier came up and asked us to move. Then he moved us to the VVIP seats on the opposite side of the road so we would have a better angle for taking pictures! To this day I still wonder who they thought I was.

The ceremony begins with flag carriers running up and down the road between the two sets of grandstands leading the crowd in cheers, exactly like a college football game. They wave their flags and shout, "PAK..I..STAN" and the crowd roars back, "ZIN..DA..BA" which means, 'long live'. And just across the border Indian flag carriers are leading their crowd in equally patriotic cheers. All the while each side is playing pop music on loudspeakers set to maximum volume and soldiers are wandering here and there. This goes on for thirty to forty minutes before the actual border crossing ceremony begins. The official ceremony starts when the Pakistani Honor Guard comes down the road towards the gate (the mirror image of what's happening on the Indian side) and the crowd goes wild. These men are chosen from one particular regiment and must be at least six and one half feet tall. They march aggressively towards the gate, stamp their boots in greatly exaggerated movements, scowl ferociously and shake their fists at their counterparts on the Indian side, who are behaving in exactly the same manner.

After quite a bit of martial posturing on both sides war is narrowly avoided by the strategic withdrawal of the belligerents and decorum is restored. At sunset, with bugles blowing, the flags are lowered in unison, folded with great respect and escorted on each side back to the barracks. The two senior members of the Honor Guards meet in the center of the road salute and give each other one crisp up and down handshake, then the gates are closed for the night and the ceremony is over. It's a truly wonderful spectacle and I highly recommend it if you're ever in this part of the world.

On the domestic front, I decided I'd had enough fun having a housekeeper and it was time to let my guy go. When he shows up he works at my house on Tuesday and Friday afternoons and does some light cleaning, the laundry including any necessary ironing and cooks dinner if I remember to defrost any food. Unfortunately, he seems to miss work more often than he comes and doesn't ever quite get everything done when he does grace me with his presence. Laundry is left in the washing machine or the vacuuming isn't done or if he's cooked, the kitchen looks like a food bomb exploded on the stove. In fact, it seemed to me that the only thing he does with any efficiency at all is ask for more money and he does that all the time.

So I drove home early on Friday to let him know his services were no longer required at Casa Gemmell. "Saqib," I would say, "I've decided that I don't need a housekeeper/cook and even though today is your last day, I'm going to pay you through the end of the month." I was fully prepared for some whining and even some pleading. I knew he would bring up his wife, his sickly mother and his three small kids, I was prepared to remind him that I was not responsible for his family and that if he had done a better job I wouldn't be letting him go. I was prepared for every argument. I was not prepared for the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Somehow the phrase, "I don't need a housekeeper/cook" came out sounding suspiciously like, "You can BAKE!"

Saqib's new title is Cook/housekeeper. We've agreed that he will cook enough food to last me until his next work day and that he will leave the kitchen spotlessly clean. If he doesn't have time to do the laundry or ironing, I'll use the dry cleaner and I can always run a vacuum over the rugs once in awhile if he can't get to it. His genuine gratitude towards me for not firing him was quite moving and he ended our conversation by asking for more money.

Summer is the busy season at Embassy Islamabad because most of our transfers in and out of Post take place then. I'll be kept hopping for the next couple of months looking after the Motor Pool, Shipping and Housing. My colleague Lita is responsible for Housing, but she's moving on to her next Post this month and her replacement won't be here until the middle of June so I'll pick up Housing in the interim. The workload will be heavy but I find it interesting so I'll survive. It's beginning to heat up now and days of 100 plus degree temperatures are just around the corner. I was given the chance to move into a brand new house on a quieter street, but my place suits me and all my flowers have bloomed and the new place doesn't have a yard. I have green parrots and crested woodpeckers and scarlet hummingbirds in my trees. I have trees! The new house has a jacuzzi tub and a glass shower. I'll leave them for the next guy.

I have company coming for dinner tonight. I'm serving duck l'orange, twice baked potatoes with cheddar cheese, a vegetable dish that is a mouthwatering combination of fresh veggies and spices and some kind of baked apple thing for dessert. I'd better go now because I have to clean up the kitchen before my guests arrive.