Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pakistan Zindabad!

While our schedule is tight, me and the team were able to convince our Pakistani counterparts to take a little time off yesterday to drive the 30 km to Wagah, better known as the border crossing between Pakistan and India. Dean and I had read about it in the Lonely Planet, and it sounded like it shouldn’t be missed.

According to the guide, every day, approx 30 minutes from sundown, guards at each crossing gather to try to out “pomp” the other side. For Rp 10 (about…well, less than 1/7th of a dollar), people are allowed into the stadium surrounding the official gates between the borders to watch the guards march up and down, and growl at each other from across country lines. The crowd claps and cheer, and chants “Pakistan Zindabad! (Long Live Pakistan!)” or “Al-LAH! Al-LAH! Al-LAH!”

It. Is. Spectacular. I got chills watching the crowd being whipped into a frenzy.

On the Pakistani side, men are separated from women, but there is a special seating arrangement for tourists, down front, where both sexes mix. After a long and dusty ride, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I’m certain it wasn’t throngs of Pakistan men chanting, throwing their hands in the air and yelling “Allah wa Akhbar!” (God is great!) In comparison, the women sitting like colorful peacocks in their sparkly salwar kameez’s could barely muster a clap. For our part, the tourists were kind of stuck in between.

We arrived to much confusion, and pushing, finally finding a spot for our group down front. A tiny old man and a middle aged fellow dressed head to foot in Pakistan green waved enormous flags down the center of the stadium, and lead the preliminary chanting. Across the floor, about 200 meters from me to my left, the double gates were closed and behind them, you could vaguely make out the roar of the Indians. To my right were the gates we’d walked in on and, well, the rest of Pakistan.

Suddenly, 15 Pakistani solders wearing dark blue garb and turbans with giant starched folded paper fans (but out of cloth) tucked in the top, rapidly marched out in square formation to the middle. Their steps were quick; and every moment or so, one would jump up, kick his toes to his head and stomp ceremoniously on the ground. It looked like bulls going out to a fight, stomping and blowing hot air. I swear one guy was like, 8 feet tall.

The crowd roared.

Much more stomping and crowd frenzy ensued. Two men marched down to the gate, kicked up their heels some more and, in perfect synchronization with the Indian side, opened the gate. One soldier from either side stomp-danced forward, they shook hands, and then the real fun began. A few more soldiers from the back came forward (again, perfectly mirroring another set of soldiers on the other side). They stompled and growled and even put their hands menacingly up in the air like tiger claws. The Indian side did something similar (but in brown costume).

Finally, after much more of this, the soldiers moved to take down the flags on either side. Atop the stadium to my right, where we entered, was an enormous portrait of Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan. Below him, three soldiers stood with their arms, and called out several times in a long, deep drone. I’m not sure what he was saying, but after several more minutes of this, the flags were lowered, there was more cheering and then it was over.

Our team streamed back to the car, kind of awestruck. One of our consultant’s remarked – ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if all international conflict could be solved this way?’

Judging by the recent bombings in Mumbai and the subsequent blame on Pakistan, plus the historical tenseness (they were once one country; it’s a long story!), I can’t say that this has worked in either countries favor.

However, I can enjoy the tradition.

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