Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pakistan bodyguards: Everyone should get one of those!

My ode to the Major.

Ah, the Major. Where do I begin?

Yes, for the first few days, I thought his name was "Major". Like "Meyjooh". Yes, at first, I didn't think he was capable of a smile. Maybe he could smile. He just didn't find me funny. And when someone doesn't find me funny, I laugh harder at my own jokes to make up for it. Like hysterically.

I'm betting Special Ops in the Congo was looking pretty good to him after our initial meeting.
The Major: thrilled to be here.

When I wandered around the house in Ranala and found my way to the roof, he followed me. Silently. I fought the urge to say something like, "What? It's not like I'm gonna steal anything. Sheesh."
The Major. I thought he was protecting the cars.

I didn't know that every time we drove somewhere, he was following us in a second car. I didn't know his previous work included stints on UN Peace keeping missions throughout Africa.

Once I found out he was actually ranked a Major, it only took me, like, five minutes to conclude Major probably wasn't his given name as well.

That would be too coincidental.

Many times, I didn't even know he was with us. He was like the whisper on the wind. A shadow in the corner of your eye.

For instance, on the plane ride to Pakistan, I met an actor from L.A., Salman Bokhari, who had grown up in Lahore. He was also bringing an American friend, and he was excited to show off his country.
It's not like I was taken in by a scam artist or anything. I did my homework. I looked up his profile on IMDB. He really is an actor.

So on day two, the day Saira and I were planning on shopping at Liberty Market, Salman called my hotel. He and his friend were going there as well, and he suggested we meet up.

So I sent off a quick email to the Company. AKA, those in charge of my security.

I thought my email said something like this: "Hey. Remember that cool Pakistani guy from the airplane? I'm gonna meet him at the market."

But the way everyone reacted, I may have typed something more like this:
"Hey, remember that strange guy from the plane? He wants to meet me. Alone. In a dark alley. He says he wants to show me his cool gun."

I almost lost all privileges at that point. It nearly sent me into lockdown mode.

Saira and I still went shopping. And this is one of those points where I didn't see the major until we finally met up with Salman and his friend. Then, suddenly the major was there. Looking dark and forbidding. And totally unamused. You know, his usual look. Let me just say, the visit with Salman was very short. Very very short.

As a side note, Salman's friend Michael remarked how great it was I could make friends in Pakistan so fast. Salman immediately corrected him, saying, "There's no way she walked down the street and made friends. You just don't do that in Pakistan."
The Major's eating, but he's not happy about it.

When we entered the security check at our hotel the first time, the Major joked with Saira about where to hide his gun.

I'm all: "You carry a gun?! Oh crap. Where
are we going to hide it? I'm gonna end up in a Pakistani prison."

He just ignored me.
The Major: longing for the dangerous days of the Congo

Despite my original misconceptions about his role in my safety, and his obvious disdain for very funny American humor, I soon became accustomed to his face.
The Major, after I told a really funny joke. Is that the slight hint of a smile?

In the more risky areas of our tour, at the slightest sense of unease I could turn around and know he was there. When curious bystanders began following me around, getting a little too close for comfort, he was there.

I'm telling you, there's nothing like the feeling of knowing someone has your back. And that someone has a gun. (Although despite numerous efforts, I never could spot the darn pistol. I guess that's the point).

He even smiled once or twice. And although I'm sure he was bored out of his guts having to follow me around while I shopped, he always offered an opinion on which shoes I should get, and which outfit to buy.

You know the movie "Dave"? The point where the secret service guy tells the fake president he would have taken a bullet for him? That's exactly how I felt. I would have taken a bullet for the Major.

When they were dropping us off at the airport, lining up to say goodbye, I really had to stop myself from hugging him and saying something along the lines of, "Scarecrow, I think I'll miss you most of all."

As Sam and I made our way through the throngs of Pakistanis lining up outside the airport, I started to think Sam was infinitely unqualified to protect me. Again, I was very blond, and very American. The lines weren't moving, and the crowds were getting pushy.
I turned around, as I had done so many times on the trip, and there he was.
The Major at the airport, obviously fighting back the tears.

He had come back to watch the crowd and make sure we were okay. Once we had made it safely inside, I could no longer see his face. But I could see his hand above the crowd, waving and then giving me a thumbs up.

Okay, I may have squeezed out a couple tears. Once we had parted ways with the Major, and Sam left me to use the loo, I told him, "The Major would be so dang mad if he knew you left me like that."

It's been great, because now that we're home, that line never gets old. "The Major would never have allowed that." or "I'm so telling the Major what you did."

Or Sam's personal favorite:"Where's the major when I need a man around?"

BTW, next week we will be having more contests for autographed books. So, be prepared with your thinking caps, because there might just be a few pop quizzes.

I jest. I took my own thinking cap to the DI last winter. It's gone for good, but I'm sure it went to someone very needy.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Pakistan Chronicles: Misconceptions, Prostitution and Cheesy Love Songs

When Sam first started going over to Pakistan, I was very jealous to say the least. To him, it was all part of the job. But to me, it seemed as if he was traveling the world while I was (not stuck, totally not stuck) but... kind of... stuck at home with the kids.

After his first trip, he brought me pictures like this...

and this...

and this...

Seriously, that was it. Just those three pictures.

I have to admit, I found the pictures lacking in
woohoo and overflowing with blech, but I was still determined to go.

Based on the pics, I imagined a giant desert, with adobe huts everywhere. At the same time, I also knew Lahore had a population of around 7 to 10 million people, so I figured it must just be a sprawling city/village.

Um, so yeah, I was totally wrong.

Pakistan has three major cities: Islamabad is the political capital, Karachi the commercial capital, and Lahore the cultural capital. Lahore is a city of extremes: extreme driving, extreme noise, extreme economic diversity, extreme spice, extreme heat.
So, today, I thought it would be fun to review my preconceived notions, and those of other Americans like me, and figure out what is the truth, and what is fiction.

1. All Pakistanis hate Americans.

FALSE. Of course. Now that doesn't mean those with ill will towards the US don't exist. And there were definitely neighborhoods in which I would never be allowed to enter, some streets I would never be allowed to walk.

But everyone I met was kind and good. Sure there were curious stares. And maybe there were people who kept their distance because of how I looked, and who knows what goes on inside the head of someone else? But I only felt good vibes.

The people I talked to are very concerned with the terror problem in their country. But they also want outsiders to know that their country is not solely about what is shown on CNN.

2. I'm American. I live near Mexico. I can handle spicy food.

Um, abso-freakin-lutely FALSE. Spice has its own political party over there. Seriously, it should be its own nation. Our naive stomachs simply cannot handle the truth of their spices. What's that you say? You eat at the Bombay House every night? That's like saying you eat white bread every night, so you should be okay eating a piece of granite.
Also, we can't handle the dairy either. Or raw vegetables. Thankfully, I had friends who would leap through the air and tackle me every time I was about to eat something I shouldn't.

3. Blond hair and blue eyes couldn't possibly be scary.

FALSE. We've already discussed how many little children I made cry just by smiling at them.

4. All women in Pakistan cover their heads and faces.

FALSE. There exists more conservative Muslims, who only show their eyes. Especially on the outskirts of the city. But you will also find those who just cover their heads and those who don't cover anything from the neck up. Some wear the traditional shawal kameez, some wear jeans and tees.
Many women won't shake the hand of a man. Many will. Some believe a woman's place is only in the home, as a housewife. Some work very hard at their jobs to provide for their families. Some choose to focus on a career instead of marriage.
I met at least one of each kind of woman. And they were all muslim.
5. American music is nowhere to be found.

FALSE. Much of the music playing in our cars was of the India Bollywood type. But on the way to tour the Badshahi Mosque and the Fort, we were all singing to the tunes of ABBA. On the way to the airport, I even heard Muse playing. At another point "She's got Bette Davis Eyes." So, yes, they even listen to cheesy American music.

6. Cars cost the same in Pakistan as they do in America.

NOPE. Cars cost about twice as much in Pakistan. So the kind of car can often be an indicator of how well off a person is. Also, many of the "middle class" people have maids, cooks, and/or drivers.
Considering the cost of cars, you can understand why an entire family would be riding on one little motorcycle.Or even just a donkey pulling a cart.
As a side note, most of the women on motorcycles ride "side-saddle". They can do this while holding a baby with one arm and a bag of groceries with the other. Talk about balance.
7. Pakistanis probably have never heard of Facebook.

Okay, this one's probably obvious. They Facebook as much as we do, and even the shyest of women suggested we "friend" each other.

8. Prostitution could never exist in an Islamic republic.

Nope. It does. Lahore even has a red light district. But prostitution is only legal between the hours of 11 pm and 1 am. (or maybe 10 to 12). We ate dinner in the old city, near the red light district once, and I got to see some women of the night. I noticed that most were sorta chubby. When I asked about it, I was told that's how the men want their prostitutes. Chubby is sexy.

9. I've driven a car in New York City. I could drive one on the streets of Lahore.

Uh-uh. Not in a million years. Every time I got in the car, I would close my eyes and just hope we would get to our destination in one piece. We always did. In fact, accidents seemed to be pretty rare. I still don't understand it.
10. Sam doesn't do dairies. He really works for the CIA.

MYTH. Nope, it's nothing as exciting as that. He really is all about the cows.
So, what are your questions about Pakistan? What are some of your perceptions? If I can't answer them (I'm still pretty clueless) I know my Pakistani friends who are reading this can. I would love it if y'all would leave a question in the comments today. Then maybe I can get them answered for Wednesday's or Friday's blog posts.

Of course, regular comments are fine too. You don't have to ask a question.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Pakistan by the Numbers (Brodi style)

Home from Pakistan status: Home.

I've been sitting at my computer for a long time, trying to figure out how in the heck to blog about my trip. Where to start? Where to stop? What should I have for breakfast? (OK, I'm also hungry).

So, I figured I'd follow the old adage, and eat the country, one bite at a time.

Today will be an overview, and next week I will delve into the specifics.


Number of hours travel time to and from Pakistan: 72

Number of security checks just to get into our hotel: 3

Number of bodyguards for me: 1
(The Major. For the first few days, I thought his actual name was "Major" only spelled something more Urdu-ish, like "Mehyjooh". And I kept wondering, "Why is this guy following me around everywhere, looking extremely forbidding?" I grew to absolutely love him. More about the Major next week.)

Number of times I got sick from the food: 1
Yay! I consider this a feat, since everyone usually gets sick a lot more their first time. It's a spice thing. Lesson learned: when they ask if you like spice, say, "a little." Don't say, "Heck yeah. Load it up!"

Number of times the driver Olfat had to rush me home because I was sick: 1

Number of cars Olfat butted in front of to get me through the security line at the hotel: 20

Number on the thermometer: 104

Number of times I got heat stroke: 1

Number of times I told people (during bout with heat stroke) "It's snowing where I come from": 28
(But it's okay, because it sounded slurred when I said it)

Number of times the power went out at the hotel on a daily basis: 10

Number of times the crappy internet connection prevented me from blogging: 382
(So, sorry for the blogless Wednesday.)

Number of little children I scared the mush out of, just by smiling at them: 5
(I figured somethig out: little babies were okay with the way I looked, children 5 years and older were fascinated, everyone in between was scared spitless). Who'd have thunk it? I look scary.

Number of times I asked to ride in a rickshaw: 40

Number of times the Major wouldn't allow it: 39

Number of times I rode in a rickshaw: 1
(There's something to be said for persistance)

Number of times Seru and I laughed in the rickshaw: Constantly
Number of times the rickshaw driver looked at us like we were nuts: 7

Number of cars following five feet behind, making sure nothing happened to us: 1

Number of trees I planted: 2

Number of trees I planted and then subsequently drowned: Just 1

Number of banners announcing my arrival: 10 (that I counted)

Number of bouquets with which I was presented: 2

Number of times I was asked for an autograph: 1
Number of times my ego exploded because of aforementioned banners, bouquets and autographs: 382

Number of banners I brought home to hang above my garage: 1

Number of times I was offered tea: 1,873,450

Number of times I felt threatened: 0

Number of people witnessed riding one tiny moped scooter: 5

Number of plaques presented to me: 1
(Etching: "Presented to Ms. Brodi Ashton on her first visit to Pakistan". Again, contributing to said ego trip).

Number of new friends made: countless
Number of kindred spirits: countless
Number of times I cried when saying goodbye to new friends: None.
Preposterous to even think it. I never cry. Not only because my medication prevents that sort of thing, but because I just don't cry.

Okay, I cried like a little girl.

Number of Pakistani's I invited to come live with me: Every single one I talked to.

Comments are back on! At least, I'm trying to put them back... hang tight. Please know my friends in Pakistan are now reading this, so you can say hi to them as well!

Monday, April 20, 2009

My First Autograph... and a Day at the Mosque

Yesterday we went to the Badshahi Mosque and the Lahore Fort. These were the places I was most anticipating, and also the places I most wanted to fit in.

We started off at the Lahore Fort- a palace of sorts built when the Islamic Republic of Pakistan used to be a kingdom.

As you can see, I dressed the part. I wore a traditional shirt and shawl. But that did nothing to hide my complete American-ness.

(Olfat: our driver, me, Amra, Ahmed, Umer, and the Major: our Security)

Our entourage didn't make us any less conspicuous, considering most of them dressed in traditional western garb. In fact, besides my good friend Amra, I was the only one trying to look like a Pakistani. And failing miserably.

Shortly after we began our tour, we noticed the extreme attention our little group was receiving. The expressions ranged from curious to friendly to downright excited.

People began to follow our little group along on the tour, waving and smiling as we went. It even got to the point where some of the more adventurous spectators approached our escorts, asking if they could take a picture with us.

The climax was this darling Pakistani girl who came up to me with a notebook and pen, and shyly asked for my autograph. I didn't have the heart to tell her it wasn't worth anything!

Our next stop was the Badshahi Mosque- the fourth largest behind Mecca, Faisal (in Islamabad) and another one (I'm trying to remember).

Once within its walls, the women are asked to cover their heads as a sign of respect, and everyone must take their shoes off. (Which made walking on the red stone in 100 degree temps a little difficult).

Amra and me in the Mosque

This cute little girl had been following me, staring wide-eyed at my hair.

At one point, I wasn't paying attention, and one of our guides told me to go stand in the corner and face the wall. I assumed this is what the muslim women were supposed to do in this particular room, so I quickly obeyed. (Not wanting to offend). I thought this was very strange, because I know a tiny bit about the Islamic religion, and I couldn't remember any part where the women are forced to stand in a corner, facing the wall.

Me, being dumb.

A couple moments later, I could hear a voice coming to me from above. No, it was not a prophet. It was my friend Amra, who was standing in the opposite corner. I finally realized it was an Echo chamber, and that's why they made me stand in the corner- so Amra and I could hear each other talk. Yeah, I felt very Christian at that moment.

Since it's one a.m., I'll leave you with these pictures and blog more later. I find this country fascinating and the people kind and inviting.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Cowpies and Brain Masala

Howdy Y'all! We are living quite comfortably in sunny Pakistan. It's only April, and the temperature is hovering around 100 degrees. But it's a dry heat.

Yesterday we drove down to visit Sam's dairy farm, and I finally got to meet the bovine harem. They are all lovely women. Whoops, I mean cows.

The drive took about an hour and a half, and let me just say I finally got a taste of how it is to live dangerously. On the main road (the GT, that goes from Islamabad up north all the way through Pakistan to Karachi in the south) cars share space with giant decorated buses, mopeds, rickshaws, and donkeys pulling carts.

It is truly a spectacle. On one moped, I saw a father, a mother holding a 3 month old baby, and two young children, maybe 4 and 2 years old. Five people on a moped. They definitely understand about conservation.

It's considered good form to honk your horn constantly, politely letting the slow guy in front of you know that if he doesn't move out of the way soon, our car will courteously ram him off the road. In fact, it's rude if you don't honk.

This is what happens when you don't move out of the way fast enough.

Most of the time, I just closed my eyes and tried to think happy thoughts

On the sides of many homes (like the one pictured below), the people throw, um, cowpies on the wall. When the sun dries them out, they use the pies to burn for fuel. See? Conservation.

For the day, I was provided my own "lady-in-waiting" Saira. She was a delight to be around, and she was so beautiful, I felt incredibly underdressed and unworthy, and so I often asked her if I could get her anything. She became a fast friend.

At the dairy farm, our car was met with salutes from the security team, and when I got out of the car, the farm team was lined up, waiting to give me a bouquet of flowers. Again, I felt extremely welcome, and underdressed.

I got to plant a tree in my name, and then I watered it.

But of course, being completely plant-illiterate, I drowned the poor little dear. So the plaque saying "Mrs. Brodi planted a tree" will probably be replaced by a little tombstone saying "Mrs. Brodi murdered a tree. Right here in this very spot. May the tree rest in peace, and may Mrs. Brodi stay in her own country."

There was a little cafe of sorts for the workers, where a man would bake roti (kind of like wheat tortilla) in a tandoor. I can only imagine how tough his job will be in the summer, when the temps reach 120 degrees. I could barely stand within five feet of the oven.

This is a picture of a little square clay hut, where a family lives. We would see these often along the side of the road on the way.

Today, Saira and I are going shopping, and she's going to try to help me with my fashion sense (Pakistani, and even American).
Everyone I've met so far has been so kind and nice and good. I can already tell my trip is going to go by way too fast. The only bad part has been the jet lag. It feels like I have the flu or something and around 3:00 in the morning, I have a sudden craving for a roasted chicken. But I'm guessing that's how everyone deals with jet lag, right?

Favorite menu item so far: brain masala. Yes, it's exactly how it sounds.

Favorite conversation: When Sam tried to order a hamburger.

waiter: "No, sir, we don't have hamburger."

Sam: "I promise, I've had hamburgers here before. Like, all the time."

waiter: "No. No hamburger. Ever."

awkward pause.

waiter: "We do have beef burger. Perhaps you would like that?"

I mean, he has a good point. Where did we come up with "hamburger" when there isn't any actual ham in said burger?

Due to internet glitches, the comments are off right now, but I know you would all express a desire to be here, right?

Blog y'all later.