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.

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