By lex, Sat – May 22, 2004
Back in the late ’80s, part of our national strategy was to snuggle up a bit with Pakistan, as a way of balancing the Soviet presence in India. Pakistan at that point was at least nominally a democracy, and Benazir Bhutto (who had attended Harvard, by the way – she had been a classmate of one of my department heads, himself recently selected for flag rank) was president. Arms were sold or promised, and as a part of our naval regional engagement strategy, the aircraft carrier upon which I had the honor to serve was granted the opportunity to make a port visit.
It started out inauspiciously, to tell the truth: A day or so south of Karachi, a pair of our air wing F-14’s were sent north of the ship for some 1v1 intercept training. The wingie was further north as they split up, his lead some 40 miles to the south.
At the end of an intercept, the wingie was headed back to his cap flying slowly, at max endurance airspeed when his radar operator picked up a pair of unidentified fast movers, not very far away, coming towards him and making damn good time. He ended up merging with a pair of Mirage fighters, who started to turn on him, and being well below optimum maneuvering airspeed and all by himself (always a bad thing) he made a rather frantic call to his flight lead.
This worthy, of whom I may someday write more, snapped his jet to the north in zone 5 afterburner, joining the party at well over supersonic speeds with his ears pinned back, and turning hard at the merge. This in turn startled the Pakistani Mirages, who had apparently launched from an alert status to investigate the Tomcat’s inadvertent penetration of their coastal air defense zone. They jettisoned their fuel tanks – an unusual maneuver to say the least – which could be read ambiguously as intent to engage in combat or intent to run the hell away as fast as they could. Fortunately before a serious incident could occur, the airborne command and control E-2 got the F-14’s to bug out to the south as the Mirages bugged back to the north, and no one got shot at or killed that shouldn’t have been.
We did receive a rather tersely worded cable from the US defense attaché’s office in Karachi (how do you get THAT job?) asking us to be a little more careful of penetrating national air space.
But! The happy day of our arrival eventually came, and we received our mandatory port brief, to ensure that we would be good ambassadors of our country:
There was to be no public drinking or intoxication. Transgressors would be flogged. (Wait, what?)
We were not to stare at the womenfolk: We were not even to look at them if we could avoid it. In fact there weren’t even any women in Karachi, so just forget about it.
We were not to drink the water, under any circumstances. There were bugs in there that would fell an ox before he’d gotten his tongue back in his mouth. Soft drinks (encouraged!) should be requested without ice cubes, since these same bacteria were apparently invulnerable to death by freezing. Salads were to be avoided as well, since they had probably been washed. You should be careful about eating cooked food there as well. I’m just saying…
Drugs were prevalent in Karachi, but the Pakistanis had an even more draconian zero-tolerance policy than the Navy itself: Offenders would be executed.
We were to stay together in crowds of not less than three, and avoid dark areas at night, alleyways, roads and sidewalks. OK, that last is an exaggeration, but not by much.
In short we were asked to go ashore, have some fun but for God’s sake don’t touch anything and try and come back safely. This, by the way, was well before the rise of militant Islamist movements in the region.
Shortly before we landed there had been a political riot, and assault weapons had been used to put it down. There was some spirited debate in the ready room as to whether it would be better to stay on the ship or go ashore (only a Sailor will know how bizarre a statement that is), but at the end we all decided to screw our collective courage to the sticking point and sample the local delights.
But, it was a relatively subdued liberty party that went ashore that first day.
The ship anchored in the outer roads and so our liberty boat was a local dhow, a vessel of ancient provenance, common throughout the region, and of which we would, in the course of our naval careers, hear a great deal more. It was crewed by three or four men of indeterminate age, third world thin, abundantly unacquainted with western notions of personal hygiene. The waters entering the harbor were what the guidebooks would euphemistically call “fragrant,” a result no doubt of open sewers that gave out upon the shoreline.
A gaily decorated bus waited to take us from the landing to the town center, where we had booked lodging at the Holiday Inn. Yep.
Shortly after dropping off our dunnage, we hit the streets in search of what it was there was to see. I had spent by that time many a day in overseas ports, and had seen some pretty dismal sights on foreign shores – the alleyways behind the facades that third world countries present to their tourists. I’d been in the Barrio at Olangapo in the Philippines, and walked through fishing villages and the countryside in Thailand. But none of this had prepared me for what I was about to see in the streets and alleyways of Karachi.
I do not believe I had at that point seen the movie, “Mad Max,” but if I had, I might have been better prepared. There had evidently been an investment in infrastructure many years back, but everything was crumbling to dust and falling to ruin: roads, buildings, stadiums. We were escorted by our taxi driver (minder, ISI agent?) through the shopping areas, where I found and purchased a beautiful wooden box, a sort of miniature sea chest, filigreed and inlaid with brass and sea shells. It was cleverly designed as well, all burnished wood secret compartments.
I had haggled as well as any 27 year old Sailor ashore, which was to say, execrably, and felt very proud of myself leaving the establishment. Until I got a look at the alleyway behind the shop, where a small army of children, no more than nine or ten years old, were carefully sanding and burnishing wooden boxes, inlaid and filigreed with brass and sea shells.
We were taken to a rug shop, where beautiful Persian rugs were haggled over with much hospitality in the form of sweet tea and strong coffee, which of course, we had been reminded to avoid. Many of my compatriots made hugely expensive purchases, but I merely watched: I would not spend thousands of dollars on a rug that would remain rolled up in the garage – decorating the house is the Hobbit’s prerogative, and she jealously defends it. And in any case, a pair of German tourists or expatriates wrinkled their noses at us, telling us that our arrival had inflated the local prices by two or three hundred per cent, and wouldn’t it be nice when we left?
I was starting to agree.
Being Sailors ashore, we went in search of beer, not entirely unmindful of the potential consequences – beer was to be found, it turned out, at the American embassy’s cantina, but were strongly cautioned to have no more than two apiece. The floggings, you know. Two beers will do you, when you’ve been at sea for a few months, and in a better frame of mind, we headed back out on the street.
There were men on the sidewalks (I can’t recall ever having seen any women) offering camel rides, so we all had our photos taken atop that notoriously ill-tempered and precarious perch. Then we saw a guy with a cobra, a basket and a cage. Fascinated, we went up to talk to him. He offered us the chance to see the cobra fight a mongoose, and having in us all a bit of the ghoulish, we acceded. Money would have to change hands, and so it did.
As he opened the cage to release the mongoose, a sizable crowd appeared around us, growing out of the very pavement it appeared. They were not in any way threatening, just curious I guess, but neither were they jocose. The match between the snake and the mongoose was no contest whatsoever: The snake coiled, the mongoose cast a jaded eye at him, and thousands of years of genetic selection went to work. Almost faster than the eye could see, the mongoose was at the cobra’s neck. The snake coiled its body around him, but it would never do, and in short order he had bitten the snake’s head off. There was an appreciative murmur in the crowd, and offers to follow them to various other entertainments which we politely declined, making our exit somewhat troubled in our hearts.
We slept well ashore, awakened by the muezzin’s call to prayer at the mosque next door, and rather earlier than we would have liked in a more perfect world.
Several more similar days followed, and even if we weren’t in paradise , we were ashore, and that was good enough for the now. Close to the end of our visit, we met a couple of lovely young French girls at a local cafe, and joined them for dinner. They were desirous of company, and I had the opportunity to practice my French, so we had a pleasant time.
It turned out that they worked for the Red Cross in Peshawar, far to the north, and had come down to Karachi for an in-country vacation, to escape into a more westernized and open part of Pakistan. It wasn’t until later, having read a great deal more, and reflected, that I realized how very brave those girls must have been. I received letters from them for a time, but in the nature of such things, that exchange eventually stopped.
All good things must come to an end, and so we made our way back aboard at the end of the port visit. For my own part, the joy of getting to sea again was somewhat tempered by a guest that I had brought back within me, in punishment for having used the hotel sink to clean my toothbrush. Many an uncomfortable moment passed, and although I was never hospitalized, or in any serious danger of dying, there were moments when I bitterly regretted it.
Never been back to Karachi, and if I ever do, I’ll have that debate again about going ashore or not much better informed.
Shortly after we left a bomb exploded at the British embassy.
No point to all of this really, just another sea story. But it does remind me of a line from Russell Crowe’s Maximus character in the movie Gladiator: “I have seen much of the rest of the world, and it is darkness. Rome is the light.”
Don’t know why it reminds me of that, it just does.