Operation Badaber, Part 4 – Spytuna – Medium
Peshawar, Pakistan 1965–66
One of the few highlights of Peshawar was the shopping since there was certainly no night life to speak of. You didn’t really want to be downtown after dark anyway.
There were several ways to get from our base to downtown Peshawar. There was the usual blue bird military bus. This was probably the safest and surest way to get there. If you were feeling adventurous you could flag down a chingchi. It was basically an oversized three wheel scooter. The driver sat in front and the two passengers sat side by side in the back. They were very colorfully painted and had a canopy to provide some shade but the air conditioning depended on how fast you were driving. They could be hazardous on tight turns too but navigated the busy downtown streets quite well. Supposedly they drove on the left side of the street reflecting their long history of British occupation. But, as I said earlier I wasn’t always sure who had right of way. It really did seem to depend more on courage than actual traffic laws.
There was also the unknown factor when taking local transportation, “Was I safe?”. For example, on one trip with a fellow airman our driver suddenly turned off the main road into a small canton with the excuse that he needed to get something from home. He stopped suddenly in front of a group of mud huts, jumped from the vehicle, ran down an alley and disappeared. We looked at each and without saying a word followed suit but in the opposite direction running back towards the main road. I don’t know if the stop was legitimate or setting us up to be rolled, but I think we made the right decision.
Another even more harrowing mode of transportation was the tanga. It consisted of a single horse drawn, open cart with two wheels. It had kind of a jerky, swaying ride. They weren’t as maneuverable as the chingchi and were subject to the occasional tired or even dying horse. It was exotic for westerners though.
Dean’s hotel was one “Western” hotel in Peshawar. It was where we usually congregated when off duty. They actually had toilets and urinals in the bathroom. Of course the urinals drained into a small trough on the floor along the wall and through a hole in the wall that drained into the garden. But, hey, at least they were urinals.
We were warned not to eat too much of the local cuisine as they tended to fertilize their gardens with human waste and there was always the intestinal parasites that resided in the soil and water to contend with. Amebic dysentery could put the strongest man on the toilet for several days crapping and drinking electrolytes. In some cases, if not treated properly it could even kill you. Do you really want your cause of death to read, “He shit himself to death”? So we mainly stuck to the chicken curry and Beck’s beer. Beer seemed to be the only thing that put out the fire of the curry. It was so hot that your eyes would start to water as soon as you ordered it. Dysentery was not an uncommon cause of death in that part of the world.
At least we were told it was “chicken” curry. But I remember the large crows that were always hanging around the grounds of the hotel. I guess we figured the spices would kill anything too lethal and the beer would sanitize what was left.
I met my first Australian in the Dean’s hotel bar. Of course I made the mistake of asking him if he was English. It seems that was very offensive to an Australian. But a dozen Johnny Walker Black’s later he was ready to forgive my ignorance. I met several foreign and American military “advisers” on their way to and from Vietnam while in Pakistan also.
Now if shopping was more of what you were looking for, Peshawar was the place. Off the rack was unheard of. Suits, shoes, even shirts were all tailor made. You could get a suit of raw silk for about 20 bucks. Shoes were cowhide and, if you wanted, accented with cobra or camel. But most of the soles were 100% leather which made for some problems keeping your footing on concrete sidewalks. I didn’t fully appreciate this until I tried to navigate a cobblestone covered slope in Berlin. Let’s just say it’s a good thing I grew up skiing.
The suits were beautifully made. Unfortunately the thread was poor and tended to give way after about a year or so. But if there was a particular style you liked all you had to do was show them a picture from the Sears & Roebuck catalog and they could duplicate it. One of the guys even had a Mod style suit made complete with silk brocade lining. “Groovy”. It was the same for guns. If you wanted rifles, shotguns or pistols. Take a trip to Kohath pass and two weeks later, there you go. I’ll write more about that later.
They also built beautiful handmade furniture. We were told that John F. Kennedy had a rocking chair made there. They did very intricate bone and brass inlay too. Actually some of the brass was Schlitz beer cans cut into thin strips and pounded into the wood. Schlitz lined their cans with a brass like lining. We joked that you could be standing in the middle of nowhere, without a solitary soul in sight and toss a beer can in the air but it would never hit the ground because some Pakistani kid would come out of nowhere and catch it.
One particular shop keeper that we bought a lot of merchandise from, both clothes and souvenirs, offered to show us his factory one day. We thought that would be great and graciously accepted. He walked us across the street and into a large courtyard. There was his “factory”. It consisted of a couple of dozen men in several groups, sitting on the ground working with archaic hand tools. And yet they were turning out the most beautiful pieces. One fellow was working on a large brass, circular coffee table top. He was using a small chisel and hammer to make small circles around the edge of the top. One after the other he carved the circles, free hand, and each circle touching the next until he went all the way around the table. The last circle touching perfectly to the first circle. It was so impressive.
Another guy was working on the traditional camel saddle frame. He was drilling holes in the end pieces for mounting screws. The drill he was using was an old brace and bow. I had never seen one in use before. He was standing with one foot on the ground but holding the piece on the work bench with his other foot because the drill required the use of both hands. The drill was a straight shaft with a rounded knob on one end that fit the palm of the hand and the other had a flat, small spear like bit that was rotated, not around but back and forth as the bow with the string wrapped around the body of the shaft was drawn back and forth.
Another advantage of shopping in Pakistan was using greenbacks. We were supposed to exchange our dollars for rupees but there was a lot going on in Pakistan in the 1965/1966 period that resulted in a very unstable currency. Therefore merchants would almost triple the exchange rate if we would use dollars for purchases. They were worth more for international purchases and the black market.
I bought two suits, a nice Kashmir and a raw silk, also a white tux dinner jacket with traditional black trousers, two pair of shoes, suede loafers and black patent leather for wearing with my dress uniform and a pair of cowboy boots with cobra inserts running up the sides. I was from Utah after all.
I think my total investment was about $150. It was still about a month’s salary for an E3, sergeant.
The Pakistani businessmen were very proud of their accomplishments even in the midst of their ancient culture. There was still a huge amount of poverty and disease. I wasn’t a real fan of vaccinations. We had plenty before going to Pakistan including yellow fever and plague. They used the vaccination guns on us in basic training since there were so many. But they used the good ol’ needles from then on. Air Force medics were excellent at giving inoculations though. After my first trip downtown, I have to admit I was thinking about going by the clinic and asking for a few more shots.
The worst were the beggars. That was a class of people that had been beggars for generations. I’ve told people that the children were maimed sometimes at birth to make them more effective. A broken limb that wasn’t reset or gouged out eye made the child or adult very sympathetic. We were advised not to give them alms but how could you refuse? No one really believed me about this until the movie Slumdog Millionaire where it was portrayed.
Medium Readers: These stories are my experiences during my 14 years in the U.S. Air Force Security Service. They will be related in serial form, each one a different Air Force assignment. Please forgive me if a story ends awkwardly, it will be continued. Thanks