Monday, January 22, 2007


Unpacking the remaining boxes from our move, I found my photo album from Pakistan, and thought I'd share some photos.

I was working for the UN that summer, and Scott came to visit me for about 10 days. It was August and Peshawar was unbearable with temperatures steadily topping 110.

To escape the heat, we flew to Chitral which is perched in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains, just south of Afghanistan's panhandle. It's very harsh terrain, extremely arid, and starkly beautiful.

Throughout its history, it has seen many invaders and adventurers, including Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Ghengis Khan and the occupying British who were trying to expand the Indian empire at the end of the 19th century. Oh, and according to the CIA's latest guesses, this is probably where Osama bin Laden is hiding.

The plane ride was terrifying--to reach the airport, our tiny prop plane flew through the river valley with mountains flanking either side. It is such tough terrain that it is impossible to drive in or out in winter when the pass fills with snow.

There are no women to be seen on the streets of Chitral, and so I was an oddity. I remember that we stopped at a shoe stall on the main street so I could replace my worn flip flops for something sturdier, and a crowd of men gathered simply to watch me try on shoes.

We did a fair amount of hiking, to Chitral Gol national park one day with a local guide:

And we also got to see the endangered Markhor sheep, which come down the mountains at dusk to drink from the river:

Lastly, we headed to the nearby Kalash Valley, aka Kafiristan (land of the infidels), where the Kalashi people are based. Non-Muslims, they practice a polytheistic, nature-based religion and speak a distinct, Indo-European language. Blond hair and blue eyes are common--they claim to be descendants of Alexander the Great who passed through the region more than 2000 years ago. In stark contrast to Chitral, the Kalash Valley is forested and well irrigated. Apple and walnut trees and uncultivated marijuana grow everywhere. We hired a Kalash guide who was somewhat of a local hero. Educated in Islamabad (the capital) and with impeccable English skills, he had returned to the Valley to spearhead economic development and was also running for office.

Everyone knew and loved him and so when we'd stop every few hours at a little cottage for tea the whole family would sit around the outdoor firepit to hear what he had to say. People in this area of the world pride themselves on their hospitality. We were travelers, and they felt it their obligation to offer us tea and a friendly place to rest, even though they lived precariously hand to mouth (and without electricity, running water, health care, or reliable roads). A broken limb, the death of sheep, or one bad crop could do them in.

One night, we camped at a Kalashi farm. The children, shy but curious, drifted toward our tent. Oddly, I was able to communicate with them after hearing them speak for a while--since their language is Indo-European, I could make out some words that sounded like a mix of Spanish and French, and so eventually I was able to ask them their names and other simple questions.

A group of Chitrali men were also camping at the farm that night. As we arrived earlier that afternoon, we greeted them as they sprawled out on woolen blankets, eating apples, smoking pot, and taking in the sun.

Later that evening, as we were about to go to sleep, one of their group walked over to our camp and said to us, "Mister, you come."

We followed him through a clearing, and were touched to see that we'd been invited to their feast. There was an enormous communal plate of rice and chickens in the center of the blankets, with a tremendous bonfire to one side. As Muslims in a very conservative area, they were not accustomed to socializing with women they didn't know. But their sense of hospitality trumped any hesitance they may have felt and so I was not excluded.

As an aside, I cannot stress enough the extent to which people went out of their way to help us. When our guests saw Scott and me having trouble eating with our hands, they somehow, in the middle of the Hindu Kush mountains, procured a fork for us to use. Later on in our trip, I was having trouble crossing a river that Scott and our guide had navigated easily (you try hopping across river rocks while practicing purdah). A group of loggers approached and saw that Scott was a ways ahead, unaware that I needed help. Without a word, they waded into the river and built me a footbridge by rolling heavy rocks into place. I tried to thank them, but out of respect they did not acknowledge me. Instead, they waved to Scott as if to say "No problem, we rescue abandoned women all the time."

And the children were just too sweet:

But back to our feast with the Chitrali men. Only one of them spoke a tiny bit of English. He was a biologist who was working to protect the endangered markor sheep and snow leopards in the region. They were curious about what our life at home was like, and asked many questions, as we did of them. They were amused to learn that Scott and I cooked and ate dinner together. All of this was communicated in two or three word sentences, elaborated upon with creative hand gestures.

After dinner, it was time to dance.

They pulled out a variety of homemade instruments, including flutes, drums, a tambourine-like thing, even an empty gas can, and began playing traditional folk music. And as they sang, the verses spiraled faster and faster as did the drum. One at a time, they'd get up to dance, holding their bodies upright with arms extended perpendicular. They'd twirl faster and faster to keep up with the music and then collapse. Everyone would applaud, and then it would start all over again.

Then, it was Scott's turn.

All of them had already danced, and now they were focused on including Scott. He demurred. They insisted. He laughed heartily and politely refused. They insisted even more. Finally, as they pulled him to his feet, he looked back and said to me, "They don't understand--I'm from New England!"

I snapped this group photo the following morning:

And less than a month later, it was September 11th and I returned, unexpectedly, to New York.

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