Ozbus football frenzy
16.03.2008 - 19.03.2008
Travelling through Pakistan makes me realise how far removed I am from certain aspects of everyday living for most of the planet: food preparation and hygiene. As always these issues depend upon perspective. Perhaps in Ireland we are too fussy about how our food is prepared and conversely this has led to most Europeans having a low tolerance to bacteria in food. The food in Pakistan is very good, however, it's the sheer number of flies and seeing steel dishes rinsed under water pumps that concerns me. I have not a high tolerance for spices or bacteria. So quite often, I skip lunches. This becomes required action in India; mostly for the sake of my health. Yet at the same time, seeing food prepared in such basic settings is refreshing from the slick,sanitised surroundings of most fastfood places in Europe. Another common trend on Ozbus, are what we get (if lucky) for breakfast. Eggs are fast becoming a treat; with scrambled egg or omelette being the ultimate.
We are greeted in Multan, at the Sheeza Hotel, by all the staff with fresh fruit juice and rose garlands for us. It is very much welcome after the dead heat of the day. A football match has been arranged between us and a local league football team in Multan. It's safe to say that our team weren't at their full strength. With one player even throwing up on the sideline halfway through the first half. Once again, we are an attraction for some of the locals that evening. The guards, unfortunately, keep them at bay. Even the press show up to take photos. So between the locals and the press, I have been photographed from every angle imaginable. There were prizes. A mammoth plastic gold trophy, and special gold (plastic) dishes for a few of our players. Two of the team made a big impression in the match because they were women. Aparantly, they were the first women to ever play on that pitch, and mixed matches are not a common sight, if at all, in Pakistan. Our team were also given special mention the following day in several newspapers. Some of the press had labelled the team as a visiting German football team. Considering nobody had proper football boots, some played in flip-flops, and many had been ill, believe we did quite well. We lost 4-2. A little box with food was given to each Ozbus person present, I decided to give mine to a little local boy who one of the guards had tried to chase away. A few weeks later, we discovered that the football team had sent a bill to Ozbus for the food and trophies. It did explain why we received them despite having lost.
There was another wedding underway in this hotel. Despite an invitation I decided to pass. My cheerleading at the football had left me drained, and I needed it for St. Patrick's Day.
Most of St. Patrick's day, Ireland's patron Saint, was spent on the bus. It was a long drive day, not too long thankfully, but long for Paddy's day. Lahore is cloaked in pollution. It's the first sign that you are approaching it. In the areas surrounding Lahore there are many brick factories continuously pumping black smoke into the air. They are kept going all night and day as it would be too expensive to relight the fires to the proper temperature everyday. In acknowledgement of it being St. Patrick's day, the Elites Hotel has special green cream soda with apple chunks floating in it. It is a lovely gesture for them to have made.
The majority of us travel to the Wagha border, the border between India and Pakistan. I had previously seen footage, courtesy of Michael Palin, of the ceremonial pageantry which takes place here every evening when both countries lower their flags. Basically, it's a elaborate display of oneupmanship. India and Pakistan are major rivals in all fields ever since they gained independence from British rule. It has the atmosphere of a derby match between rival football teams. In fact, both sides have specially constructed stadia for the spectators/participants. Because everybody is expected to participate. The semi-circular Pakistani stadium has a monumental archway at it's centre topped by a pediment from which some of the border guards begin their special procession. Tourists are usually placed either side of the road which leads from the stadium up to the border gate itself. We arrive and wait to the sound of both countries playing local pop music very loudly at each other. After the loudness and the up-tempo beats it's hard not to feel revved up for what I saw as the evening's entertainment. To heighten the mood of the spectators further three male cheerleaders take to the 'stage'. They all carry large Pakistani flags which they acrobatically swivel in all manner of shapes. One of the men is quite an elderly looking gentleman, with a long flowing white beard and under 5 feet tall. He is the loudest of the three men. They lead the crowd in chants of "Give Pakistan" (pronounced "gee-vay Pakistani". All the while India, during the breaks in-between our side's chanting, are doing similar things. Intermittantly, the Pakistani guards had been going to the gate singularly as if sizing up their opposition. T
he evening's climax begins with the entry of the Pakistani guards en-masse. The Pakistan Rangers wear black uniforms with, what looks like, a mohawk fan on their helmet and a flap of material hanging from the back of it. They also are the tallest Pakistani men I have ever seen. All of these emphasis the nuances of every move they make. Their shoes are of the hobnail kind, which they use to great effect by performing high kicks that would put any Can-can dancer to shame, and resulting in a very loud stamp to the ground. The Indian guards, the B.S.F., in my opinion, do not look as intimidating. They are dressed in khaki uniforms with gold butons. Their helmet has a horizontal mohawk running across it in bright red. The Indian stadium does look larger and has more fixtures that glisten in the setting sunlight. The standoff between the countries reaches its climax with the race´´ to lower the flags. It is all highly impressive, and even I feel patriotic for Pakistan. The tensions between Pakistan and India are thus vented every evening with a touch of the theatrical; "highly choreographed contempt"
Pakistan has been a definite eye-opener. Despite the troubles and how they are portrayed by the foreign media, I would recommend a visit to Pakistan. It has been the highlight of mmy trip so far. The people are the most genuinely friendly. They are a proud nation and are not out to ´ripoff the tourist´, as can happen in many countires. The history of this country has helped me to further unerstand tensions in the middle East and how they have developed (or been created) due to interference from the USA and Russia/U.S.S.R. at various times. Thankfully, any negativity I may have felt toward Islam, due to what I experienced in Iran, has been balanced out by my visit to Pakistan.