May 5th-June 7th: Rawalpindi, Pakistan
'The Case of the Missing Phone.' 'Guaranteed delivery.' Frustrating times in Rawalpindi.
'The package has not arrived. Please phone back tomorrow.' Perturbed by a sense of foreboding, it will be some days before the true futility of these words comes to light. For this is a tale of stubborn customs, stifling heat and The Will of Allah.
To recap: A change of plans points us towards the post-Soviet intrigue of Central Asia and away from Persia's oppressive summer. First, a return to the lowlands is needed to procure a Chinese visa and collect a couriered package: a rear wheel for my ailing steed, and a new communication system from sponsors Psion and Ericsson. But there are powerful forces at play - the equally mysterious ways of the great Allah...and Karachi customs.
Away from the time-lapsed world of the Karakoram, cars, buses and trucks enthusiastically jostle to out-pollute Punjab's city of Rawalpindi. Yet the bustling market streets that add flavour to these smoggy ingredients are uncannily quiet, silenced by a shopkeeper's strike. The hot breeze that blows like a hair dryer down its empty streets signals Pakistan's approach to the summer months: 43 degrees and climbing...
Eager to be back on the bikes, we contact the courier company receiving the parcel. Once. Twice. And yet again. The usual series of phone passing, the usual reply: 'Please phone back tomorrow!' What about the tracking number,' I plead. 'Could you at least tell me where it is?' A pause over the phone, confused mumblings to a colleague. 'Please phone back tomorrow...'
I know Pakistanis are loath to impart bad news; it's time for a more personal but equally fruitless visit. Information is strangely scarce within the Overseas Courier Service despatch office. I retreat to the air conditioned sanctuary of the many 'internet clubs.' Emailed nuggets of information ping pong between Rawalpindi, Dorset and London...and my worst fear is realised. The package lies within the clutches of the arch enemies of all couriers: customs, a law unto themselves. Money is needed to cover an import tax. As it stands, no one seems to know the amount in question...or perhaps Karachi customs aren't decided on what they might get away with.
After roaming the open mountainscape of Northern Pakistan, impatiently padding the hot city streets drives me stir crazy. We overplay our new Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan albums and discover a string of old fashioned Muslim restaurants tucked in backstreets, where we are hastily curtained off in the 'family' section. Clearly, no one dares incite my wrath with a lingering glance towards Rosal. The wait goes on... I begin my twice daily pressure visits, settling in for tea, waving to the courier drivers around town, and hearing the time worn phrase: 'The package will definitely arrive tomorrow.' Enshallah. If Allah Wills It...
Indeed, a deep sense of religion is very much intertwined with day to day events in Pakistan. Within the folds of this Islamic nation, other religions co-exist uneasily. In the midst of this routine, my contact disappears on leave. His replacement strides over, pulls out a crucifix from around his neck with a smile, and offers his hand. It feels like some kind of Masonic greeting, and for a moment I'm lost for words. 'Thank God! I'm dealing with a Christian!' Are these the words he expects me to utter? Instead: 'Er... great! Do you know how much customs want yet?' Thrown by this un-Pakistani directness, my Christian hope leafs blindly through his notes and hastily excusing himself, never to emerge again.
It's time to get stern. 'I'd like to speak to Head Office,' I say icily to manager Mr Javed, who nods solemnly. It takes a further 20 minutes of cell phone fumbling before he's through to the Karachi head tentacle of OCS. I dare not pick up the tone of the conversation. Is it good news or bad news? It's my turn.
'Sir! I am currently looking into this matter very personally. The agent has been sent this minute, to fix the price with the customs. It will be done at whatever cost. He will return by 4 o'clock. Unfortunately, the banks will have closed by then to deposit the fee...' The parcel will be released the following morning; needless to say it will have missed the freight plane which travels by night. But at last, a lead that feels like progress. The cogs are turning.
Morning comes and a question mark still hangs over customs, but by mid afternoon... the unthinkable. I stroll over to the office, heart pumping strongly. 'Mr Javed is expecting me,' I tell the preened male secretary. A pause. 'The manager is praying. Please wait five minutes,' comes the reply. Praying for my package, perhaps?! Whatever next! As the Azans that provide the daily melancholic street soundtrack drift into silence, Mr Javed emerges with a relieved smile. 'Congratulations!' he says with a lottery-esque handshake. And then these words: 'The Parcel Has Been Released.' At last!! The rest of the day drags by like Christmas Eve, as I await the morning pickup. It's hard to describe the emotions I feel when the box that has come to mean so much is handed over to me - a blend of relief, inner peace and a streak of barely contained craziness.
In true Asiatic style, the story doesn't end there. We check the contents; everything is accounted for...EXCEPT the crucial cell phone, used to send emails with the Psion. 'Confiscated' by customs. 'We will look into the matter', say the OCS staff, with a resigned look of continued torment. I almost feel sorry for them. 'It will be sent back to the UK. Enshallah...'
Gratefully, I bid a final farewell to Rawalpindi and prepare to move on once more, eager for the adventures that await. As for OCS, a new slogan with a religious twist comes to mind:
Delivery Guaranteed: If Allah Wills It!!
Postscript: Miraculously, the cell phone has indeed been tracked down, sent back to England and subsequently sent back to me in Kazakhstan by the ever together Paris of Security Despatch. It had been stolen while held in a bonded warehouse by a baggage handler and retrieved by Pakistani police! The £20 worth of calls mysteriously picked up along the way are the only proof of its long journey!