Sea story: East meets West in the desert (1982)

Dust. Great clouds of dust. It rises above the clumps of traffic like a column, to be blown sideways after it clears the walls of the homes lining the avenue that leads away from the Port. Then it falls into my face, my clothes, and my hair.

Sun. Blinding sunshine. Not as hot as the desert to which I was accustomed, but too bright not to wear sunglasses.

Traffic. Heavy traffic. Mostly mopeds, jostling for position with jitneys and bicycles, and the occasional sedan or taxi. They gather at the edge of the crosswalk, revving their engines, waiting for the green light.

Waiting at the light in downtown Karachi

Waiting at the light in downtown Karachi

The light turns. There is a roar of engines – and nothing happens. As I roll out into the intersection, I see a massive, dark cloud of black smoke in my rear view mirror. It rises from the crowd of motor vehicles, as the mass of metal stirs ever so slowly into motion, like leviathan awaking. By the time I reach the next block, the crowd has finally gained some speed, with the sedans and some of the newer motorcycles passing me. Their riders grimace with determination to beat the next light, and the clump begins to spread out. To the great disappointment of the leaders, the light turns cruelly red before anyone reaches it, and the performance repeats itself.

This is Karachi, the biggest city in Pakistan. Not only was it the historic capital before Islamabad was built, it remained the de facto capital when I was there. Government agencies maintained their important offices there, and some of the Consulates were bigger than their respective Embassies up north. It was the commercial hub of this part of South Asia, where East and West met to trade. In one place, I could find the heights of luxury and the depths of squalor – and everything in between. This was in contrast to some cities on the Indian Ocean, where there seemed to be only squalor and wealth.

USS Coronado as CMEF

The Flagship of the Commander, US Middle East Force, was known as the Great White Whale, for her distinctive paint job.

USS Coronado, the Middle East Force flagship, was making its diplomatic swing around the Indian Ocean, and Karachi was the farthest East we planned to go this year. While the Admiral and his senior staff went ashore to call on local dignitaries, I was free to try to knock off a couple of items on Carol’s shopping list.

I had switched my rear-view mirror from the left handlebar to the right. Simply having it on the right kept me ever reminded to ride on the left with traffic, and I was used to the British system before I had ridden out the gates of the Port.

Part way across town, I stopped at some Western-style hotels that had shopping malls associated with them. There, I learned about the different styles and provenances of carpets and of rosewood furniture, and what to look for in the manufacture. I also practiced the basic Urdu phrases I would need when I struck out north of the city.

Power lines carry light and modern conveniences to the city, over the slums by the Indus River.

Power lines carry light and modern conveniences to the city, over the slums by the river.

Riding by the river, I watched the city’s poor washing, bathing and living on the muddy banks of the polluted stream. I wondered how little that scene may have changed since the Greek and Roman armies marched through here, on their way to discover the limits of their power.

Up in the hills, I found what looked like a middle class neighborhood of apartment buildings. Carpet mills and woodworking shops were interspersed among them. Tourists and sailors were coming by in taxis and jitneys. The naval officer on a bicycle was a hit, and attracted the attention of the owners everywhere I went. As soon as they established that I was a serious customer, I received the red-carpet treatment everywhere (pun intended).

Karachi carpets

Rug merchants showing their wares.

It took visits to two or three places and a few hours of bargaining to acquire a pair of Bukhara rugs and a triptych rosewood screen. I had already bought an Isfahan carpet in town. For no extra charge, the merchant had them wrapped and delivered to the ship. Thus went our shopping savings for that year, but it was worth it. Daniel still has those rugs and the screen 38 years later.

There were other aspects of the port call in Karachi that I remember fondly: the garden party at the Consulate, dining at the hotels, practicing Urdu in the street, and riding around a city with even more history than my own hometown of Rome. The purchases that week remain with us today as physical tokens that easily bring back the other memories.

Muscat mosque

Muscat, Oman

A few weeks later, the Great White Whale eased into Muscat, Oman, the next port visit on our semiannual swing around the Indian Ocean. Blue-gray mountains ringed the harbor and towered over our ship. Nestled at the foot of the hills and ringing the bay was a brilliant, white, low-lying string of houses and buildings.
Over the next few days, we were hosted by the Royal Oman Navy at their base. The Admiral accompanied the ambassador to call on the Sultan in his palace. Meanwhile, we junior officers were free to visit the marketplaces, and, in my case, to ride out into the desert.

All manner of wondrous things were on sale in the souk. Omani daggerThe Omani khanjar daggers particularly impressed me. This was the first place that I saw men wearing them in public. I had no doubt that the steel of their blades matched the workmanship of their decorated hilts.

Into the mountains of Oman

The road to Hormuz

Outside the immediate ancient city, I found a sprawling suburb of well-paved roads, beautiful, clean buildings, and imposing mosques that featured varied architecture in a wide range of brilliant colors. There was a relatively flat area between the steep hills and the coast. I rode about 5 km outside of town, where the city suddenly ended, and the road continued straight into the mountains. There was no vegetation except for the palm trees planted on the highway and in walled gardens. Everywhere lay the talcum-like “sand” (dust, really) that covers the entire Arabian Peninsula. It could insinuate itself into the best-protected machinery in the world. If I had been able to continue riding east, I would have reached the Strait of Hormuz. This was a lucky day for me. The weather was comfortable, and the wind was calm. No sandstorms arose, nothing broke on my bicycle, and I encountered no potholes or sudden ends of the road. I had to get back for the evening meal, so I turned around and rode back through the city, admiring the variety and beauty of the buildings and sharing the happiness of the crowds who were clearly enjoying the day as much as I.

Next week, another story from the Indian Ocean.

BOOK SALE: Remember that Emily & Hilda and Lockhart are on sale in all formats for 75% off to the end of October. Pick them up this week, so you can have them read when the next book in each series comes out.



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