7th May 2010
This week I have been in Pakistan on business. It’s a long journey, at the end of which I usually find myself standing in the Immigration Hall of Karachi airport at 2 o’clock in the morning. This time was no different. Even the non-working ATM machine in the Baggage Hall was still there, as it has been for my last three visits. What was noticeably different, however, was the increased security levels around major buildings in Pakistan. All international hotels have had extra walls built; security checkpoints for cars to drop off guests are further away from the Reception; concrete barriers make it much more difficult for cars to get even close to the hotel.
While all this provides a greater level, and feeling, of security (great for foreign visitors) it is also saddening to see that such a wonderful country is being transformed through the mindless and unjustified actions of a few individuals that do not represent the views or wishes of the vast majority.
One thing has struck me about the press here this week. Lots of coverage in the newspapers of the background and connections of the American-naturalised Pakistani “Times Square Bomber” – his background (ethnic Kashmiri-Pakhtun); his family, his friends, his political and religious affiliations… Meanwhile the verdict and sentencing of the Pakistani Mumbai terrorist went almost unnoticed.
Flying on Pakistan International Airlines is always a fun experience for me. The aircraft is trundling down the runway at ever-increasing speeds while the guy next to me is one of several people still talking on their mobile or checking email on their iPhone. I was once on a flight during Ramadan at which sunset occurred around take-off time. All passengers were given a box containing iftar as they boarded the plane. I will never forget seeing an entire plane-load of people tucking into food just as the plane is taking off!
Anyway, back to this week’s flight from Karachi to Lahore. Just before takeoff the young man sitting in the seat in front of me thrust his seat back leaving me little room to manoeuvre my newspaper. I had great fun over the next 30 minutes allowing the top of my large newspaper to dangle over his seat-back and continually ruffle his hair every time I raised or lowered the paper to read an article…. I guess he thought that this was a small price to pay for the convenience of laying back in his chair.
The flight was early morning so I was presented with my breakfast by a very nice steward who also ended the game with the chair and the newspaper; A scrambled omelette (that’s the best description I can give), some aloo bhaji (quite spicy), a tiny pot of keema curry (very mild) and… a croissant. Thik haaaaiiiiiii…
The food in Pakistan is always a source of great delight for me. The variety of flavours and colours is an assault on the taste-buds. I particularly enjoy going to the buffet-style restaurants where you can see the food being cooked – Lal Qila and Salt & Pepper Village are two must-visit places in Karachi. But even the hotel breakfast is a joy. Apart from the usual Western-style offerings there are delights such as Sooji Halwa Poori, Chicken Nihari, and even Brain Masala (which I do rather enjoy!). Trust me – if you’ve never tried curry for breakfast you are missing out on a real treat. Even Man – who is accompanying me on his second visit to Pakistan – always looks forward to breakfast here.
I shall be sad to leave. But I am always sad to leave this country. InshaAllah I shall return again.
14th May 2010
Lahories & The FREAK!
My visit to Pakistan ended with a day in Lahore and a few evening hours in Karachi before catching the final flights home. My friend Kamran took us to the Shalimar Gardens. I had been there a few years ago, but at that time the water had all been drained for cleaning and the effect was not quite as it should have been. It was nice to see it as it is meant to be seen.
I was standing under one of the impressive canopied buildings when a gentlemen asked Kamran if he could take my picture… In fact, this gentleman was accompanied by about 8 or 9 ladies of varying ages, all of whom lined up to have their picture taken with me! I can only imagine what they will say when they show the photos to their family and friends… “Then we found this giant white Desi woman. She was enormous! And so pale! Look! Look! What a freak!!!”
I love shopping in Pakistan! Not only are things so cheap compared to the same articles in the West, but I can get things that I just can’t get over here unless I want to pay waaaay over the odds for them.
The best bargains are always to be found in the markets, although it is with some trepidation that my colleagues take me to such places. “It’s not safe for Westerners”, they cry. What are they going to do? Decapitate me in broad daylight? Run up to me and detonate themselves? Fortunately my colleague Sharon is a little more pragmatic than the others and we took a short trip to Bohri Bazaar in Karachi. Dressed as usual in salwar kameez and with my dupatta wrapped around my head we entered the Danger Zone! A short walk in there was a pleasant little open-fronted shop run by an old man and (I guess) a younger relative. I wanted a handi – a small cooking pot – and the shop keeper showed me his wares then disappeared. When he came back he had a pile of other styles of handi, but my mind was already made up. Some haggling took place (Sharon is really good at that!) and I purchased my new handi for the princely sum of 600 Rupees (about 6 Euros). I took the opportunity to buy a spare haleem spoon while I was at it.
The two gentlemen were very pleasant, bidding us to sit while the selection and purchase took place. We were told to beware of two women in black abayas with faces covered who were in fact pickpockets. They gave me a good price, and we departed with a friendly “Allah hafiz”. No fuss, no mess, no intimidation, no kidnapping, just a pleasant half an hour in a very crowded market.
I occasionally get private messages through my YouTube channel from men (young and old) who indicate some… er… attraction. Usually the messages are subtle, or there is a sense of fishing for my “availability”. This week I had the most direct offer yet from a young gentleman somewhere in Asia. It said, quite simply, “You, me, sexytime?” It’s a bit strange to realise that at 40-something years old I may the cause of RSI in some men!
21st May 2010
At this time of year Man, Dog and I get in the car and take a long weekend somewhere in France. This week’s blog comes to you from central, rural France. The sun is shining, the cicadas are chirrup-chirruping all day and Dog is happy exploring every little hollow in the hope of finding a small lizard to play with. The cottage we are renting is simple but adequate for our needs.
There are two great challenges when self-catering. The first of those challenges is… the KITCHEN! Don’t get me wrong; there is nothing to complain about. It’s just that everything is not quite where you want it to be, and the range of pans and utensils is not what you are used to. Don’t laugh… I brought my own sharp knife away with me. If there’s one thing I feel lost without when I’m cooking it’s a good, sharp, well-balanced knife. Man was a little worried when he saw me packing a large knife…
The second great challenge is a very personal one… the FOOD! I am fortunate to live in a very cosmopolitan part of France where halal meat is fairly easy to obtain. That’s not always the case in France, especially in central France. I usually bring enough meat for the first meal of the vacation, but from then on I’m reduced to a diet of vegetables and fish. Even the restaurants can be challenging; a couple of years ago we were out for dinner and I ordered a meal of poached salmon with vegetables. When it came the plate contained a beautiful piece of salmon, some delightful baby potatoes… and some peas mixed with tiny bits of bacon. Bah!
By the Grace of God the number of people who subscribe to my YouTube channel continues to increase. There is a very interesting phenomenon which I’m sure you’ve noticed too. On Facebook people use their real names, or something like it (I am an exception, but that’s a long story). On YouTube people use the most amazing user names which somehow must tap into their deep psyche. Here is a small selection of some of my favourite YouTube user names:
SleepyFacedAngel, DreamBubble, MrEggcake, Deathanator, TobascoTimmy, DivineMediocrity, WearNotSheep, TheSeaFrog, ShapeShifter2007, and the mysteriously named ShadowKitty!!! I thank you all!
28th May 2010
Are you guys trying to kill me? I’ve had so many requests to make baklava that I’m beginning to think that there is some kind of conspiracy going on. And you are doing this at a time when I am TRYING to lose a bit of weight after all the other sweet things you’ve asked me to make.
OK, OK, I give in – I’ll make some baklava. Fortunately many of the large supermarkets in this part of France have a small section where they sell Turkish sausages, cheeses, yoghurts and (most importantly) phyllo – or filo – pastry. The strangest thing about this is that most of these Turkish products carry Turkish labelling but are in fact made in Germany!
Someone also asked me if I could provide a recipe for baklava without the pastry because they can’t get it where they live. I’ve done some research on trying to find a suitable recipe. My conclusion is that making baklava without pastry is like making biryani without rice.
And what am I going to do with the baklava when I’ve made it? I’ll probably end up force-feeding it to my work colleagues. Or some angry beavers.
Near where I work there is a large Carrefour which has a reasonably good fruit and vegetable section. There is both variety and quality in the produce. But that’s not the thing that I want to tell you about.
Each big supermarket chain has it’s own procedure for weighing and pricing the fruit and veg. In Migros there is a man with 4 sets of scales in the fruit and veg area. You hand your fruit to him and he weighs and prices them. It gets quite amusing when four people are handing him their stuff and his arms fly everywhere, desperately trying to service four customers at once. In Intermarche it is often the cashier who does this for you. The usual process in Carrefour is that you weigh things yourself on the scales provided in the fruit and veg area. Let’s say that I’m buying apples. I put 4 apples into a small clear plastic bag and place them on a nearby set of scales. A screen above the scales provides me with a sequence of options with which I can finally choose “apples”. A small sticky ticket pops out of the side of the machine with the price on. Job done.
The scales in this Carrefour are amazing. If I put a bag of apples on the scales I immediately get a choice of the types of apple to select from – Granny Smith, Pink Lady, Golden Delicious… If I then put green beans on the same scales I only get a choice between green beans and something like long green chillis. These scales have EYES! Not very good eyes, but good enough to tell the difference between an apple, a bean and a banana. I wonder which options I would get if I put my face under the detector. Cabbage?
Last week I gave you some of the more interesting usernames of my YouTube subscribers. I deliberately left some out so that i could present you with my own “Top Five”. So, in the interests of completeness, I offer you the remaining 5 whacky usernames of some of my subscribers.
At number 5 – OuchOuchGrandma! (I am left to wonder what prompted that as a username.)
At number 4 – AngryLlamas (Bad experience, or statement of personality?)
At number 3 – LovingBundleOfHate (I don’t think I would like to meet this person in a dark alleyway.)
At number 2 – WifeOfCaptainChaos (I fell about laughing when I saw this one. I can really relate to it.)
And my absolute Number 1 goes to the amazing… BilliePipersTeeth