Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Baluchistan Road Trip, or What's in the Bag?

Good time as any to take another trip down memory lane. Hope nobody is offended.

This is a story about being on the fringes of war, and getting a glimpse of what war is about.

As mentioned before, I served in Pakistan years ago, splitting my time among the Islamabad Embassy, the Peshawar Consulate, and the road. I ran our refugee program, and, consequently, had my own official vehicle, driver, and travel funds, and a great excuse to travel all over the country to do my other job, Reporting and Analysis Program Officer. One day, as I got ready to return to Peshawar from Islamabad, the Ambassador asked me to visit remote Quetta in Baluchistan. He wanted an update on the refugee situation there, but, more important, he wanted me to accompany a couple of fellows coming from Washington who would arrive in Karachi, head to Quetta, and perhaps to Pishin and Chamen. They sought to meet representatives of a mujahedin group who wanted to prove their anti-Soviet credentials, and claimed to have knocked down a MiG-19.

Sounded like fun, so why not?

I sent off a hurried diplomatic note to the Foreign Ministry telling them I would go check on the UNHCR program in Baluchistan. The Pakistanis insisted we request permission to travel outside of Islamabad; we refused to ask, but agreed to inform. This policy lead on occasion to confrontation, but the Pakistanis generally backed down. I loaded the Chevy Suburban, a magnificent beast with a powerful V-8, and took as my driver Iqbal, who claimed to know the area well. The Embassy frowned on us driving official cars: better that a Pakistani run someone over than an American diplomat do so. The trip to Quetta from Islamabad involved a grueling 600 miles over fairly primitive roads cutting through extremely bleak countryside. We decided to push off before the ISI (Pakistani intel) stopped us. Somewhere near the town of Zhob, however, we got a flat tire. Put on the spare, but Iqbal rightly insisted we get the puncture repaired. That involved getting the tire "vulcanized," having somebody in Zhob pour globs of molten rubber into the puncture and let it dry. Now we were very late, and it was getting dark, but since we were "only" about 200 miles from Quetta, Iqbal convinced me to push on.

It got very dark, very fast. The headlights were not much use. The road was bad, and we had to go slowly. Then the wind picked up and threw sand, dirt, and debris at us. The gusts would make the big truck shudder. Iqbal was getting tired; his head would nod every so often. He was having a hard time staying on the road. In fact, it turned out we were not on the road; Iqbal did not know the area quite as well as advertised. I told him to pull over. We would sleep in the truck until daybreak. I crawled into the back bench, leaving the front to Iqbal. Although I wrapped myself in a sleeping bag, it was cold; the wind picking up and dying down only to rage again. Lots of odd sounds coming from the outside, but since Iqbal, under a pile of blankets, kept snoring, I figured we were OK.

At dawn, I was cold, hungry, hurting, and needing "to use the facilities." A weak yellow-brown light filtered in through the dirt encrusted windows. I could see nothing outside. We might as well have been buried. I began to open a door. Something large, brown, furry, angry, and strong shoved that door back at me. My foggy mind raced through the possibilities. A bear! A lion! A wayward Yeti! I fell back and fumbled under the seat for my beloved S&W .357. Coming from the pile of blankets in the front seat, Iqbal's laughter filled the truck.

"What is that?"

"Not danger. Camel. Kuchi camel."

I hate camels; they are big, nasty, smelly, arrogant, and look like Don Knotts. About 300 billion camels had nudged up against our Suburban to use as a windbreak. Well, maybe, not 300 billion, but a dozen or so, certainly. The Kuchi people, nomads of various ethnicities, ply their ancient trade over routes through Afghanistan and Pakistan, pay no heed to borders, and smuggle whatever is in demand. The Soviet war in Afghanistan had been rough on them. A group, according to the all-knowing Iqbal, apparently had camped near us.

I again pushed open the door, the camels began to get up and move a bit. I slid out, and landed among these four-legged Barney Fifes. I walked clear of them, and saw maybe a hundred or so yards away, the Kuchi camp. Then, out of some secret portal to hell, three enormous beasts rose up from the dirt and began to run towards me. The biggest dogs I had ever seen. "Dogs" does not begin to convey the look of these fiends. If Rottweilers were geckos, these guys were velociraptors. I ran like a madman, scattering camels, diving inside the truck, and slamming the door shut, just as these things hit the Chevy. Primitive, violent, snarling beasts--pure essence of dog before man sissified and prettified the race. Panting, heart racing, I could hear Iqbal laughing.

"Kuchi dogs. Very bad. We should make urination some other place?"

"Yeah, yeah, let's go, let's go."

Let me speed this up before you get too bored. We had trouble getting back on the main road as we had wandered off some distance--this would have implications later. We eventually got to Quetta, a pretty neat town; went to the motel; had no water in my room, but as compensation had a large rat for a roomie. Our Karachi contacts had been delayed, so having time to kill, I tried to get some sleep, but with no water, the rat, and the loud knock on the door it was tough to relax. A junior Pakistani G-Man came to my room with a couple of cops holding a non-laughing Iqbal between them. The G-Man accused me of having cleverly, James Bond-like, slipped the patrol sent to monitor us. Our inadvertent turn off the main road meant our "guardians" had lost us.

This crisis in US-Pakistani relations was resolved thanks to Scotland: I donated one of the three Johnny Walker Black bottles I had brought for this sort of emergency. Johnny Walker possessed magical properties in Pakistan; almost any problem could be solved with a bottle put into the right hands. A bottle of Red sold for over a hundred dollars on the black market in "dry" Pakistan, while Black could fetch three or four hundred. A diplomat, back then, could get a bottle of JW Black duty-free for about twelve dollars. Saudi, yes, Saudi, diplomats, in particular, were famous for selling Johnny Walker to their fellow Muslims.

"Mike" and "Jeff" arrived next morning, and said we needed to head to Pishin to meet the muj. Off we went, forty miles or so through some spectacularly rugged scenery. The town, about thirty miles from the Afghan border, was a dusty Wild West sort of place with lots of heavily armed characters walking around or driving stolen Soviet military vehicles. We went to a "restaurant" to await the men from Afghanistan. A small, dark, smoke-filled, and dirty place, with benches made of rope beds, charpoys, the restaurant served greasy goat meat and sweet tea.

I felt queasy, maybe from the smoke, the stench, the lack of sleep, the lack of a bath, the pounding from the road, the goat meat, or all of the above. The three of us sat saying little, sipping tea, and poking at the goat meat.

"Mike" said to me, "You don't look so good. You gonna puke or something?" I assured him that I just needed to rest a bit.

In walked three Afghans, two quite tall, the third, however, the leader, looking like a wizened garden gnome. "Mike" and "Jeff" got up and introduced themselves. I was feeling the room starting to spin, so I smiled weakly, waved, and remained seated. Very unusual for Afghans, they wanted to get right down to business. No sitting for tea and chit-chat. One of the tall Afghans gave "Jeff" a piece of metal with serial numbers; it apparently came from the MiG. The conversation proceeded along with the gnome saying, "We have more proof." He signaled the other tall Afghan to step forward and open the bag he was carrying.

Just as I was gamely standing up to join the conversation, "Mike" looked in the bag, visibly blanched, stepped back, and uttered in English, "Oh my God!"

He turned to me, and said, "If you're feeling sick, don't look in the bag. Just don't!"

"Why? What's in it?"

"Pilot's helmet. His head's still in it."

"Yeah, I don't think I want to see that right now."

I sat down without looking inside that dirty bag.

Suddenly, it wasn't that much fun.


  1. Thanks for the trip. I am impressed with the Pakistanis ability to provide irrefutable proof. Less enlightened muja would have settled for a name tag, id and bailout bag.

    1. These were very serious guys.

    2. Well that's one way to make your bona fides. Like Kiplings' Peachy.

  2. Great story, thank you for posting it. As a kid I was in Morocco and picked up this strange little ball out of the sand, as I was examining it and it's construction I noticed a nearby camel producing a new "ball" from it's arse, this was my first, but not last introduction to the wrong end of a camel (Is there a right one?)

    1. You just cured me of wanting to eat supper. . . .

  3. Nope, no 'right' end to a camel.

    And here I thought I had a shot at the ad hoc Diplo-Hall o'Fame when I not only ate the goat eyeball the Saudi Ragib Awal swore to Muhammad was considered a delicacy in his country *and* smile after I swallowed (that silly ameriki Ragib Awal Yahyah ibn Alli, he'll eat anything...) but then asked for more 'qawa to wash it down. That liquid-ish crap tasted worse than the eyeball which was actually rather bland, coulda used some salt, mebbe some hot sauce...

  4. Rip off! They were about 5 or 6 dollars when I was there.

  5. You know, you can tell a lot about a society by the number of words it has for things. I've heard that there are more than a hundred words for camels in Arabic, whereas English has just three: dromedary, Bactrian, and unfiltered. That, more or less, tells an English speaker damn near everything he needs to know about camels.

    1. I like that. I am going to steal it and not give you any credit for it . . . .

  6. Whoa...shades of Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King"...a crowned head in a burlap bag...

    East is east, and West is West...and Never the Twain Shall Meet.


  7. Yes, he knew the Afghans. This was a canvas bag, so I guess there has been some progress.