Sunday, August 24, 2008

R&R Redux

The Man Who Would Be King

I have three guards. Azad is a man of about 40, bearded and serious. He speaks a bit of English and between that and my broken Urdu we communicate with some degree of understanding. Saqib is the youngest guard and he too speaks a little English but, as he is highly excitable and borderline insane, we don't communicate so well. Then there is Sher Mohammad, the 'Lion of the Pathans'. Sher Mohammad is in his late 60s or early 70s and speaks only Pashto so communication with him is all but impossible. He takes his work very seriously and always carries himself with great dignity so it came as somewhat of a surprise to us all when he returned from his days off and a visit back to his village in the FATA with his grey hair dyed bright orange. This may have some cultural significance among Pathans of which we're unaware, but more likely it's a simple fashion statement gone badly awry. Sher Mohammad continued to behave with the same serious and dignified approach to his work that he's always shown so I became used to his orange hair curling out from under his Wackenhut Guards hat. Then I came home from work one day to discover that the 'Lion of the Pathans' was wearing mascara, eyeliner and makeup on his cheeks. The Pathans are fierce and proud warriors who have controlled the mountain passes between Pakistan and Afghanistan for centuries. They have occasionally been defeated in battle but never conquered and they always avenge any slight, real or imagined. I was, therefore, careful to continue to treat Sher Mohammad with all the respect and courtesy due a cross-dressing senior citizen Pathan carrying a gun. And I immediately put in for my second R&R.

I made reservations at a resort in the Maldive Islands that was reputed to have great food and an excellent dive center. My plan was to spend ten days lying in the sun, reading books, eating big meals, smoking cigars, and doing some scuba diving. The resort was called Herathera which means "Hideaway" in the local language. I would live in a beach villa that didn't have a 'safe' room, Phase 3 security, two-way radio or armed guards. When the mood struck me I would walk up and down the beach and I wouldn't ride in an armored vehicle for the whole ten days. It took me just over 24 hours to get from Islamabad to Herathera. I flew to Dubai where I had a sixteen hour layover but the airline gave me a complimentary hotel room and I managed to both get some rest and see a little of the city. Then I flew from Dubai to Male, the capitol of the Maldives. In Male I transferred to a small twin engined plane for another hour and a half flight down to Gan, the island with an airport on the atoll with Herathera. From Gan I took a 25 minute speedboat ride across the lagoon to Herathera and then I was there, one speedboat ride too far, in my opinion, to be summoned back to the Embassy for any perceived emergencies.

The first thing I noticed about Herathera was that it was no longer called Herathera. It had changed ownership since I made my reservation and is now called Han'dhufushi which means something other than Hideaway in the local language but I couldn't determine exactly what that might be. Under either name my villa was excellent and opened up right onto the lagoon so after a short nap I visited the dive center to pick up a mask, snorkel and fins. The day was overcast but warm and I swam around the reef for almost three hours. It may surprise you to learn that you can become pretty severely sunburned while snorkeling for three hours under an overcast sky; it did me. However, because the sunburn was on my back and calves and I couldn't see it, I decided to just ignore it and hoped it would go away. When that plan didn't work so well I bought some exorbitantly priced spray stuff that actually took the sting out. I snorkeled every day and went scuba diving every second day. There were reef fish of every imaginable shape and color, dolphins, turtles, moray eels, manta rays and sharks all over the lagoon. The underwater scenery was amazing!

Sartorial splendor on R&R

The staff decorated my bed on my birthday

My vllla

Three meals a day were included in the price of the room and the food was delicious. There was a salad table, a bread & cheese table, a row of serving dishes with a wide range of hot foods, a dessert table and two chefs who cooked at the grill. There was no limit to the number of times you could waddle back up to the buffet and I began to feel as if I were conducting an experiment in seeing how far the human skin will stretch.

The view from my dining room table

I brought along a stack of books and a box of cigars and spent much of each day lying in the shade relaxing. Every day, in the late afternoon, bats the size of flying monkeys came out and flew up and down the beach. In addition to their well known powers of sonar and echolocation they also seemed to be able to sense when a very sunburned man was trying to take a picture of them and would only come by when my camera was back in the room.

Dolphins played around the dive boat every day

One of the dive boats

Bats aside, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Han'dhufushi Resort to anyone interested in a quiet relaxing vacation in a remote idyllic spot. Bring suntan lotion and, if you're so inclined, bat repellent.

Caped Crusader, where art thou?

It took another full day to fly back to Pak where I did my laundry, slept for a few hours, repacked my bag and headed back out to the airport for a flight to Skardu in Kashmir. I had reservations at a hotel near K2 and was looking forward to seeing that famous mountain and taking some pictures of it. While I was sleeping Musharraf resigned. The country didn't explode so I didn't cancel my trip.

The first thing you notice when you fly on Pakistan International Airlines is that the flight attendants recite a prayer before takeoff. "Bismillah heerachman neeraheem" or "We begin with the name of God". Prior to descent they say, "We will be landing, Inshallah (God willing), at Skardu Airport in ten minutes". The next thing that strikes you on the flight to Skardu is that after climbing for 40 minutes out of Islamabad and negotiating narrow mountain passes that seem to be only marginally wider than the plane's wingspan, you land. You don't actually descend to land, you just land. Inshallah! Skardu is well over a mile high and at that altitude it is still the lowest point in the entire surrounding area.

This ruffian was spotted near the warning sign.

I stayed in a 17th century fort that's been converted into a very nice hotel called Shigar Fort. It's in the next valley over from Skardu and involves an interesting drive across one of the passes and along a very narrow two lane road that, in typically quaint Pakistani fashion, has no barriers or guardrails along the drop-off side. "Bismillah heerachman neeraheem" indeed! Upon checking in at Shigar Fort I asked the Manager if it was possible to have a room with a view of K2. He thought about it for a minute and then said, "No, not from this hotel." I asked him which hotel had rooms with views of K2 and he said, "Well, to see K2 we can rent you a jeep and you drive eight hours north until the road ends and then you hike for seven days and if the weather is clear you can see K2 from that spot." Which explains why I haven't seen K2 to date.

Shigar Fort Hotel

The hallway to my room in Shigar Fort

The doorway to the hallway to my room in Shigar Fort

A 'charpai' on the grounds of Shigar Fort

Instead of going to K2 I hired a car and driver to take me to the Deosai Plateau which has views of lots of very tall mountains, although none of them are famous. The car picked me up at the hotel and drove back along the narrow mountain road towards Skardu then south to the Plateau. It was an old Toyota Corolla with no shocks, bald tires, loose steering and bad brakes but the driver managed to hammer it along at just under the speed of sound and gave a whole new meaning to the word "careening" as we rounded the turns. Looking down into the river valleys thousands of feet below us as we rocketed along the road I didn't want to distract the driver so I whimpered softly instead of screaming out loud. The situation became marginally more terrifying when the driver received a call on his cell phone and proceeded to have a long animated conversation while sliding around the gravel strewn mountain road. Then, as if to prove that it can always get worse, he began to use his non-essential hand (the one doing the steering not the one holding the cell phone) to fiddle with his tape deck. Although not many things worked on this small decrepit juggernaut of a vehicle, I'm happy to report that the tape deck functioned perfectly and for the next several hours I was treated to very very loud music. It was atonal, repetitive, wailing and each song lasted approximately seven hundred hours. The driver continued to shout into his cell phone and, from time to time, would use his non-essential steering hand to see if he could boost a bit more volume from the tape deck. Flying off the road into one of the river valleys below began to look like an appealing option to me.

This isn't K2, seen from the PIA flight into Skardu.

Satpara Lake seen in the distance

Satpara Village as seen from a very high mountain road

I had decided to visit the Deosai Plateau National Park because the hotel manager had assured me that there were more types of wild flowers found there than could be seen anywhere else in the country. I was no longer a novice at this so I made him guarantee that I could see this wild mosaic of color from the jeep on the road and wouldn't have to hike for days in order to do so. No, the flowers grew everywhere and the road across the Plateau cut straight through them.

The Plateau looked like a lunar landscape, dry, featureless and brown. When I returned to the hotel and told him that I hadn't seen so much as a green leaf the hotel manager explained patiently and slowly, as if he finally realized that I was a bit dim, that the wild flowers grew in great the Spring...and that I really should choose my time to visit more carefully. The absence of flowers didn't really bother me too much because the drive through the mountains was spectacular and the views from the Plateau were incredible.

This patch of lichen represents the riotous spray of colors seen when the wildflowers bloom in Spring

The Deosai Plateau, Skardu and Kashmir are amazing places to visit with magnificent views of the Karakoram Mountains, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. The shopkeepers and businessmen in Skardu are suffering because there is virtually no tourism any more and tourism is the foundation of their economy. They repeatedly asked me to "tell Americans to come here" and assured me that Osama was nowhere near Skardu (and if he's up at K2 it'll take him seven days to hike to a road to hitchhike into town!). Unfortunately, after a period of relative calm, Kashmir seems to be on the verge of erupting into sectarian violence again. It's truly a shame that Kashmir isn't safe for tourists now because Americans would flock to this part of the world and they'd spend more money than we currently give to the Government of Pakistan. Tourist dollars put directly into the hands of shopkeepers, hotels, restaurants and local businesses would do more to reduce Pakistan's crushing poverty than all our well-intentioned government supplied aid put into the hands (pockets) of the politicians and military.

Town meeting in Skardu

Skardu's main shopping district

I flew back into Islamabad on Sunday and realized that I was completely rested and ready to get back to the job. I like the people I work with here, I enjoy the work I do and, in spite of our security restrictions, I like living in Pakistan. When the car bringing me back from the airport pulled into my driveway, Sher 'The Lion of the Pathans' Mohammad opened my gate, saluted touching his fingertips to his silver grey hair and smiled a make-up free smile. Everything seems to be back to normal (by Pakistan standards anyway) again and it's good to be home.

Last evening at Han'dhufushi