Monday, November 15, 2010

Paragliding Western Pakistan - Part One

Gliding peacefully over the barren, unearthly Sulaiman Mountains is just the sort of relaxing afternoon I needed after a heart-stopping adventure skydiving onto and then hang gliding down from K2. Of course, in any extreme sport, a sudden death event (SDE) can pop up out of nowhere, even when you’re not actively seeking one. Before the next few weeks would pass, I’d find myself in a half dozen SDEs, and a chance to be an international hero. Such is the life I lead.

Since I was in the area after my historic triumph in the Himalayas, I decided to spend some time paragliding XC (cross country) in one of the best areas in the world for this sport. Paragliding is like hang gliding, except you use a parachute-like parafoil rather than a fixed wing. The canopy has cells that are open in the front to trap air as you move forward, creating an airfoil shape. By gliding from updraft to updraft, XC paragliders like me can cover hundreds of miles in a day.

The Sulaiman Mountains in the Balochistan province of Pakistan are ideal for XC since they have ample amounts of both kinds of rising air: ridge lifts and thermals. There’s a steady wind up from the Indian Ocean that bounces off the mountains for reliable ridge lifts, and the barren sun-baked landscape provides plenty of hot air thermals. I could glide all the way to China if I felt like it.

Surprisingly, in spite of such ideal conditions, paragliding hasn’t caught on with the local population. I’m guessing the fact that there’s not a single paraglider supplier in the whole city of Quetta has something to do with that. Since I wasn’t traveling with my own gear, I had to use an Internet cafĂ© to buy a rig over Ebay, and then wait five days for the delivery — which meant finding a way to kill five days in Quetta.

I had settled into a room in a modest PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation) motel on the road out by the airport. I had planned on staying at the Hotel Serena, supposedly the nicest place in town, but at nearly $200 a night it was out of my league. The PTDC was clean, and that’s really all that counts in a hotel room.

To be honest, in spite of the best efforts of the PTDC, Quetta doesn’t have a lot to offer in the way of tourist attractions. It sure is crowded, though. Apparently, Afghani refugees have tripled the population in the past few years. Everywhere I look I see small groups of men hanging out, sitting on their haunches in the dirt. That can’t be comfortable. I made a mental note that I could make a lot of money here importing those canvas folding camper chairs that you can get at Wal-Mart for about seven bucks – the kind that come with a matching carrying bag. These Pakistani or Afghani guys could walk around with their chairs slung over their shoulders and then whenever they felt like it, they could unfold their chairs and sit down like civilized men. Most of these chairs even have a cup-holder. I’m going to make a fortune.

Here’s another million-dollar idea for this region. After just a few hours in the region I realized that the people here are crazy about their religion. They stop everything and pray, like five times a day. I’m not exaggerating. But I also notice that, unlike in the U.S., there aren’t any good religious children’s books in the bookstores, like the Jesus comic books they gave us in Sunday school. So when I get back to the States, I’m going to hire a translator and illustrator to do a whole series of illustrated books showing the adventures of the prophet Mohammed for all those Islamic kids. How could that not succeed? It’s a no-brainer.

But for the time being, I needed something do until my paragliding gear arrived. In addition to extreme sports gear, the escort market is woefully under-served in Pakistan. I took the Quetta Yellow Pages up to the desk clerk so he could help me decipher the ads and find a reputable agency to meet my needs. He claimed there wasn’t a single listing for an escort agency, without even looking. He even gave me a little attitude about it, saying that no precious, beautiful flower of Pakistani womanhood would ever engage in that kind of commerce, and if she did she would be stoned for it, so if I wanted that kind of filthy trash I should go back to America for it. Jeez. Hardly the level of customer service I would expect from a quality organization – not to mention his presumption that my intent was anything other than obtaining a pleasant sightseeing companion. I took his name and I intend to send a stern letter to the PTDC about the way I was treated.

Reconciled to being on my own here, I did find a fun activity that helped me pass the time quite enjoyably: smoking opium. It’s cheap, readily available on the street, and boy does it make the time fly. I even stayed in my room smoking the stuff a few days after my paragliding gear arrived. I’m not sure how many days exactly – I kind of lost track of time. That whole week went by in a haze. A sweet, warm, shimmering haze of perfect bliss.

Unfortunately, when my stash ran out I realized I had built up a little opium addiction to kick. Normally, kicking a narcotic jones cold-turkey isn’t a problem for me – just some uncontrollable shivers and unrelenting nausea for a few days. But this time, my detox was complicated by an ill-timed kidney stone attack.

Continued next week: soaring away.

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