Monday, December 13, 2010

Paragliding Western Pakistan - Part Five

After walking about an hour, I came upon a gravel road. Actually just a path really – no one had laid any gravel here – but you could clearly make out tire tracks. So I followed them in the hope I might get lucky and pick up a ride even before reaching the highway.

After about an hour and a half of walking, a beat-up Toyota pick-up truck pulled up beside me and the driver said something to me in a language I didn’t know but that I understood to be an offer for a ride. He had another guy beside him in the cab, and in the bed of the truck were four burqa-draped women sitting on large bags of rice. The driver gestured toward the truck bed so I hopped in and took a seat on one of the rice bags.

As the truck started off, the women started talking to me, so I used an old trick I’ve used many times before to avoid inconvenient conversations. I quickly and deftly executed the Universal Sign Language phrase for “Sorry, I am deaf and dumb.” This is a great trick every American world traveler should know, as you will often find yourself in situations where it is wise to be discrete about your nationality. Many people hate us for our freedom and want to hurt us, so an American can get you killed in certain parts of the world.

The cool thing about the sign language trick is that people don’t only not expect you to talk, they also stop talking to you, so you don’t have to try to figure out what they’re saying. You don’t even have to really know the Universal Sign Language phrase – you just need to be able to fake passable hand gestures quickly, without hesitation. Chances are the person you’re signing to won’t have any idea if what you’re doing is legit or not, so as long as you “sell-it” just about any hand jive will do. And if they do know sign language, the gig would be up anyway as they would start signing to you and your only viable response would be to run.

My fake sign language mumbo-jumbo did the trick and they stopped trying to talk to me, but they continued chattering away to each other about me. I’m guessing they were curious about the bright orange color of my burqa. Most Pakistani women opt for the more tasteful colors of black or white. I wasn’t sure if they were envious or scandalized by my neon-bright attire.

I was grateful for the breeze I felt riding in the back of that open truck, not because it made me any cooler, but because it made being in such close proximity to burqa-clad women somewhat tolerable. All kinds of molds and fungi thrive in moist dark environments, and the brand Summer’s Eve is clearly not popular amongst this market segment. And perhaps making women walk around in tents has a de-motivating effect on their efforts regarding personal hygiene. For whatever reason, the result is a particularly pungent aroma that, from a distance of about thirty feet is more than a little erotic – but if you get any closer, the gag reflex kicks in. The memory of a single cross-town bus ride in Quetta can put you off cunnilingus for a year. I speak from experience on this.

My thoughts on Pakistani punani were violently jolted by the realization that we were pulling into the paramilitary training camp I had glided over just a few hours earlier. We stopped, the women all stood (as did I, following their lead) and a group of young men came over and began collecting the bags of rice. As the cargo was being unloaded, Osama bin Laden walked over and began chatting with the driver.

Standing just three feet away from me, his identity was unmistakable. He stood at least a head taller than any other man there, he was stroking his flowing beard absent-mindedly the way he does in his videos, and his skin had the yellow jaundice tint of someone about a day past their scheduled bi-weekly dialysis treatment. I sized him up and concluded that I could, from my elevated position in the back of the truck, easily pounce on him and rip out his jugular vein with my teeth before anyone could stop me.

The fact that he was surrounded by guys holding AK-47’s who would riddle my body with bullets before Osama even hit the ground is not what stopped me from taking action. No, it wasn’t fear of certain death at all. I face near certain death nearly every day of my life. It’s my passion. Dying in service to America and free people everywhere by ridding the earth of this monster would be an honor. But I took a moment to consider the bigger picture. I thought, “What would President Bush do?”

There must be a reason that, at this time, seven years after 9-11, this guy had not yet been killed or captured. The reason must be that Osama would be much more powerful as an immortal martyr than a marginalized rabble-rouser stuck out here in this Pakistani wasteland. So with all my strength, I resisted the urge to take heroic action. I’m convinced that resisting the urge to bring bin Laden to justice was ultimately the truly heroic thing to do.

Once the truck bed was emptied of its cargo, I and the other women sat down and the truck drove off. I hopped out when we reached Highway 25, bowing and signing my gratitude to the driver. Then I flagged down a bus for the return trip to Quetta.

As I sat in a window seat watching the barren Balochistan landscape pass by in a blur of russet and sienna hues, I reflected on my time in Pakistan. It had been quite an adventure. A typical day paragliding consists of rising and falling, highs and lows, and that was what my past few weeks had been. From the incredible highs of primo Afghani opium to the deepest lows of a narcotic-withdrawal enhanced kidney stone attack, from staring down my mortality from multiple snakebites to the ultimate act of patriotism, it had all taken a lot out of me. I couldn’t get back to the modest comfort of my PTDC motel room soon enough. I was looking forward to getting those crusty snake skins out of my underwear.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Paragliding Western Pakistan - Part Four

How did the fall end? I wasn’t awake to find out. I was spinning so rapidly during the fall that I blacked out. The next thing I knew, I woke up on a steep sandy slope, without a scratch on me. Apparently, I couldn’t have landed in a better spot. That couldn’t have been mere luck. I’m sure it’s just another example of the beneficial power of positive thinking that is the subject of my highly lucrative speaking engagements.

After remembering where the hell I was and getting my bearings, I figured out a plan for getting back to civilization. Based on where I thought I was when I encountered that camp and the cumulus excitement that followed, I was pretty sure Highway 25 was about a twelve-hour walk to the west. But before I set off, I had two matters to attend to.

First, I needed shelter from the blazing sun, and I needed some sort of disguise. I was clearly in an area that’s not safe for Americans, and I immediately regretted wearing my Bush/Cheney 2004 t-shirt that day. Lucky, I had a solution that met both needs at once. I simply used the silk of my canopy to fashion a burqa. My Swiss Army Knife has a handy scissors tool, and I always carry needle and thread with me for just such occurrences as these. The sewing went very quickly, and in just about an hour I had an acceptable burqa I could wear for sun protection — and with my compact gymnast-like physique, I would be able to pass for a Pakistani woman until I reached safety.

With my dessert attire taken care of, I could then turn my attention to the second urgent need: hydration. In this dessert environment, I would probably only live about two hours without water. Of course, I started my day already dehydrated from throwing up for three straight days. Not bringing water with me was, in hindsight, not the smartest decision I’ve ever made, but I wanted to travel light while gliding.

In this area, my best bet for hydration would be snake blood. So I set off looking for warm rocks in sunny spots that would be littered with local serpents. It didn’t take long to find one.

Right on top of a pile of rocks, I found a Russell’s viper sunning itself. Now the three-foot-long Russell’s viper is the most poisonous snake in the world, so I would have to approach this prey with caution. My plan was to pick up a rock and smash its head, so I could avoid handling the deadly beast. That was the plan, anyway.

I selected a suitable rock to use as a snakehead smasher, and as I lifted it I discovered a second Russell’s viper coiled, ready to strike. Instinct kicked in and I jumped back, landing right on top of snake number one who promptly sunk his fangs right into my calf.

I jumped around trying to shake off the viper for a few seconds before reaching down and smashing the thing to a pulp with the rock I still held in my hand. Somehow in hopping around I made my way back to snake number two who I discovered had sunk its fangs into my other calf. So I smashed that one too.

After prying both snakes’ mouths off my legs, I sat down to await my death. A single bite from a Russell’s viper delivers a potent neurotoxin that results in death within 30 minutes in 90% of all cases. The other “lucky” 10% just experience severe paralysis, which in my current situation also means death. And having two bites makes my odds even worse.

What will you think about in the last half hour of your life? Your accomplishments? Your regrets? Your loved ones?

Even with all that I have achieved, all of my experiences pale next to my dreams for the future, so I didn’t think about my accomplishments. I don’t dwell on the past much at all. In fact, there are several-years-long chunks of time that are just big black holes in my memory. Complete blanks. About the only thing that can bring some of those times back to me is leafing through old tax returns. A receipt for a boat rental will suddenly take me back to a forgotten day when I laid on the warm sand of a tropical island beach as two giggly native girls took turns slurping coconut milk out of my navel.

Not having any tax returns on hand to help me reminisce and reflect as I wait for the paralysis to creep up my legs and into my lungs, I just let my mind wander. I thought about the song Layla by Derek and the Dominos. I saw a documentary once where the producer of that cut was screwing around with the master tape in a studio, and he isolated the dueling guitar leads of Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. It sounded just like the shrieks of two cats tangled up in a John Deere 467 Hay Baler. But in the context of the song, it sounded beautiful. Amazing. Later, the song slows down and the piano part comes in and that’s beautiful too, but not nearly as impressive. There’s no trick to making a beautiful instrument like a piano sound beautiful, it’s just a matter of hitting the right keys at the right time. But to make what sounds like cats being mangled into beautiful music, that’s real talent.

Which led me to wonder if a talented musician could make a beautiful blues-rock song by torturing cats. It would be totally impractical, of course. The animal rights people would be so far up your ass your record would be banned from iTunes and Walmart. But just hypothetically, if you tied its little paws to some sort of framework and used, I don’t know, perhaps hot pokers, could you tease its wailing into something transcendent? I’m not sure Eric could, but I’ll bet Duane could have if he would have lived. But he didn’t, so we’ll never know.

Then I started to wonder if I was thinking about Duane Allman because I was about to meet him and all those other cool people who are dead. Some heavy thoughts for someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife. Then it occurred to me to check my watch.

Turns out I’d been sitting for over an hour waiting to die, and I didn’t even feel the least bit paralyzed. Then I remembered that the Sand Boa is also prevalent in these parts. The Sand Boa has markings that are almost identical to the Russell’s viper, though it’s a non-poisonous snake. Its visual mimicry of a much more dangerous creature makes predators not want to fuck with it. Batesian mimicry is what the biologists call it. I’m no intelligent design fanatic, but how can evolution possibly explain that?

Now that my death was no longer imminent, I got back to the business of survival. I cut the smashed heads off both snakes and sucked out the blood. Man, was I thirsty. I enjoy snake blood anyway, but on that afternoon it was especially refreshing. Then I skinned the snakes and ate the meat because the flesh still held a lot of fluid, and I needed every drop to survive this desert heat.

I should mention that if you ever find yourself in a similar situation you should probably light a fire and cook the snake before consuming it. These critters are loaded with parasites. But in this situation, I needed hydration fast, so I was willing to accept the fact that I was going to need a good de-worming once I got back to civilization.

Before heading off, I stuffed the snake skins down into my underwear – not for any survival purpose – I just wanted to have a pair of boots made out to them when I got home. After using shadows to get my directional bearings, I threw on my burqa and set off toward the highway.

Continued next week: blending in.