Detained in Bahawalpur
Nearly two months have passed since my ill-fated journey to Bahawalpur, since my sixteen-hour CIA interrogation in a dirty, Pakistani hotel room, since they threatened to shut down my website if I publicized the story. I’m hoping that their threat has expired, or that it was all just a bluff—because what I’m about to do might be the blogging equivalent of punching a beehive.
I knew the police were following me.
I nervously surveyed the crumbling, blue-tiled edifice of Bibi Jawindi’s tomb—a 15th century ruin of a Sufi mausoleum, evocatively ripped in half by earthquakes in 1812. As I stood amidst the turquoise bricks and detritus of the collapsed dome, everything seemed eerily quiet and still; still, save for the dust that swirled in golden shafts of desert sun, and the few village children who played amongst the graves.
I knew the police were following me.
There were two of them. I could see them watching me from the fringes of a date grove, no more than twenty yards away, whispering loudly, as stealthy as elephants.
What amazed me is that they hadn’t started following me sooner.
It was my second day in the deserts of southern Pakistan, and my quest for ancient Sufi shrines had led me to the village of Bahawalpur, an ancient outpost town on the arid fringes of Cholistan. It is home to a dazzling collection of ruined temples and shrines, all delightfully dilapidated and untouched by tourism…
…Untouched by tourism because Bahawalpur lies in a Restricted Militarized Zone off limits to all foreigners (rumors abound of a Punjabi Taliban).
I was there anyways though, and so far, it seemed my clandestine tomb raiding had gone unchecked. Perhaps it was my awesome Pashtun disguise. More likely, it was just luck.
And that luck was about to run out.
I was nearly asleep when I heard the knock at my grimy hotel room door.
“I need your Pakistan I.D. card,” cried a voice in Urdu.
I quickly threw on my salwar and opened the door.
“Check-in, please. You didn’t give me your Pakistan I.D. card,” said the young receptionist, who apparently thought I was Pakistani.
My stomach turned. If I told him I was a foreigner, I would be kicked out of the hotel—just as I’d been kicked out of a dozen other hotels over the past two days. Each one warmly welcomed me and showed me to my room, allowed me to settle down, before politely asking for my Pakistan I.D. card. Each time I revealed my passport instead, their faces would twist in betrayal and–
“You are foreigner!!” they would cry. “No foreigners here! Go, go! No foreigners!!”
Last night, I slept at a rickshaw driver’s friend’s house.
“Please give me your I.D., sir,” snapped the receptionist, holding out his hand.
Thinking fast (and unfairly assuming the man was illiterate), I handed over a Massachusetts Driver’s License. He looked at it hard for a minute, before I gave him a reassuring nod and he disappeared down the hall with my license.
BANG! BANG! BANG! My door pounded an hour later, and as I undid the lock, two Punjabi men wearing jeans and t-shirts rudely barged into my room. The darker man did all the talking,
“What are you doing here?” he roared in English. “Where is your N.O.C. Letter of Clearance?”
“I don’t have one. What are you talking about?” I feigned.
“Why did you come here?”
“To see the temples of Multan and Uch Shariff.”
“Without a permit?” he shook his head. “That is very dangerous and off limits to foreigners. You cannot go to those places, it is impossible.”
“But that can’t be true,” I mused. “I saw Multan yesterday and Uch Shariff this afternoon.”
The man grimaced. “I am only here because I care for your safety. It is extremely dangerous in Bahawalpur. Have you talked to anyone?”
“Of course I have.”
“It’s not safe to stay here. You need to leave Bahawalpur now.”
“No way,” I protested.
“Pack your things and go.”
Mistaking the two men as hotel employees, I reacted with indignation.
“Fuck you,” I said.
The man flinched.
“I already paid a hundred and fifty rupees for this room,” I continued. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“That’s just two American dollars.”
“So what,” I shot. “It’s like midnight, there’s no buses running anyways. I’m not gonna wander around the streets with a backpack on in the dark. Especially after you just said it was extremely dangerous.”
The man pursed his lips. “Fine,” he huffed. “But you must leave on the first bus in the morning, at six o’clock.”
“Okay,” I said.
The two men receded to the door, before the darker one turned back to face me. “Two more people will visit you tonight,“ he said. “The police, and then some people who work with us.”
“Wait,” I cocked my head. “You’re not with the hotel?”
He shook his head.
I stared for a moment. “Then who are you?”
The man hesitated for a moment, then muttered “We’re Pakistan Military,” and quickly closed the door.
I moved to the window and watched the two men stride out of the hotel, hop on a motorbike, and putter off into the darkness.
It was only half an hour before the door rattled against its frame again, drumming with frantically pounding fists.
I opened the door in my boxers, and what must have been half of the Bahawalpur Divisional Police force stampeded into the room, machine guns in hand.
The Chief stomped forward, a tall, angry beard with hands and legs, pointing an accusing finger in my face.
“You Americans think you can do whatever you want,” he spat. “You are very crazy, stupid man.”
“Sorry?” I sputtered.
“You don’t have a ‘No Objections Certificate!’ Don’t you know that Bahawalpur is a very dangerous place?”
“Who are you with?“
“What if you are kidnapped?”
“I don’t know.”
“What if you get killed?”
“Well then I guess I’d be dead.”
Furious eyes shone through the curly, grey beard, glinting with rage.
I raised my hands. “I’m sorry. I’m leaving on the first bus in the morning.”
The Chief shook his head. “Oh? Really? Who says? No you’re not.”
I raised an eyebrow, and then slowly sat on the bed.
“You’re not leaving this hotel room until you can show me an official N.O.C. Letter of Clearance from the Ministry of Interiors in Islamabad.”
My jaw dropped.
“I’m leaving an armed officer here to watch you until then. Give me your license and passport,” he snarled.
I fumbled for words, but nothing came. I’d been to the Ministry of Interiors before and witnessed their unthinkable inefficiency first hand. Getting an N.O.C. could easily take weeks—weeks confined to this dismal, claustrophobic, cockroach-nest of a hotel room (the ‘shower’ of which was literally a sharp, broken pipe protruding from the wall).
The Chief held out his hand and I shakily surrendered my passport.
“But—“ I gasped, “How am I supposed to get an N.O.C. from Islamabad if I can’t even leave my hotel room?”
“That’s not my problem,” the Chief said flatly. He produced a notebook, jotted something, and tore the page. “Here’s my fax number. Send the letter to me here.”
“But I don’t know who to call!” I shouted. “I don’t even have a phone!”
“I’ll send a messenger boy to help you in the morning,” he said coldly, and turned to march out the door.
No messenger boy came the next morning.
Around ten o’clock, I poked my head out into the hallway to find a young man (about my age) standing watch with an assault rifle.
“Psss! Hey,” I whispered. “I’m hungry.”
“What do you want?” he growled.
“Fried chicken,” I whispered.
He turned in bemusement. “Where?”
“At the convenient store, across the street.”
The man considered, shifting his weight.
“If you come with me, I’ll buy you some,” I baited.
He stared at the ground for a long moment. “Okay.”
Ten minutes later, I sat on a curb, happily wolfing down drumsticks with my armed captor, an avid soccer fan whose name was Hazar. When we finished, Hazar quickly shooed me back to the hotel—where I stared at nothing for three hours before there came a knock at the door.
“You said you would leave on the first bus!” cried a familiar voice.
I opened the door and the men wearing t-shirts and jeans barged in again. There were three this time, and they looked very, very angry.
“You took my passport and license and said I couldn’t leave without getting an N.O.C. letter from Islamabad!”
The men stopped, and their eyes widened in shock. Suddenly the darkest one whipped around and they began bickering amongst themselves in Panjabi.
Obviously they had no contact with the police.
“You’re not Pakistan Military, are you?”
The men glared at me, and a long, black silence followed. The darker man shook his head, no.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Don’t ask questions,” smiled the darker man.
“Who are you,” I stammered.
The men looked around for a minute, before the quiet one in back barked in flawless English, “We’re C.I.A.” At which point, I practically fell over laughing.
“Why are you laughing?” yelled the darker man.
“Because this is so fucking ridiculous,” I howled.
They watched as I shook in hysterics, seemingly unsure what to do, before he insisted, “This is not so ridiculous!”, and I tried to collect myself.
Over the next two hours, the three men interrogated me—asking repetitive questions about who I was and what I was doing in Bahawalpur, while one of them intermittently snapped photos of me with his cellphone.
At one point, I casually reached for my camera, before they all lunged at me, shouting, “Don’t!! If you take a photo of us, we will need to take your camera away.”
When the men finished their questions, they thanked me, shook my hand, and shuffled to the door. “We’ll have you out of here soon, but maybe after some time,” the darker one reassured. “And to be clear, you don’t plan to write a story about this on your website, do you?”
“To be honest,” I confessed, “I’m extremely, extremely tempted to.”
The tall man crossed his arms. “You know that if you write about us, we’d be forced to shut down your site.”
“Of course,” he shrugged. “And then you wont be able to log onto your website with that computer, or any computer.”
I sat stunned for a minute, before the men nodded and stepped out the door.
“Be patient. We’ll have you out soon.”
After four or so hours, despondently staring at the wall lost its novelty. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was Cabin Fever. I began walking quick, sad laps around the room in my boxers, while my sanity imploded before my eyes. At one point, I decided to explore under the bed, where I discovered a fossilized, half-eaten plate of sabzi and naan, as well as a green, plastic sandal, which I used to implement cockroach genocide in the bathroom.
When there finally came a knock at my door, I had collapsed on my bed and was hungrily contemplating the atrophied naan I had found.
The three CIA agents quietly ambled into the room.
I sat on the bed as the darker one outstretched his fist, smiled cockily for a moment, and then dropped my passport and driver’s license onto the table.
I jumped to my feet. “How did you get it!?”
“We talked to people,” smirked the quiet one.
“Yesss!!” I pumped my fists. AMURICAA!!
“Pack your bags now, you must leave immediately,” the darker man ordered, and I instantly scrambled to collect my things.
I was just tightening the last straps on my pack when Hazar strode in with an older lieutenant in a white salwar. After plying me with a few final questions, the two of them escorted me from the hotel, put me into the back of a police cruiser, and drove me directly to the bus station.
At the terminal, Hazar kindly offered to carry my bag, and the old lieutenant smiled and waved to me as I bought my bus ticket at Hazar’s gunpoint. Then Hazar and his AK sat next to me in the waiting room, and when my bus finally arrived, he wished me a good trip and abruptly gave me a hug. The lieutenant hugged me too.
A minute later, the bus lurched forward and the dingy village of Bahawalpur slowly receded behind us. Soon rivers appeared, and I watched out the window as the desert sands transformed to verdant crops of melon, corn, and wheat. After sixteen-hours of police detention, I was free at last, riding northward, kicking up dust on the long and winding road to Lahore.
For more travel stories from Pakistan, India, and Burma, click the ‘Travel Stories‘ link at the top of this page.
For more photos and videos, check out the Photo Travelogues page.
To learn tips and tricks to traveling the world on a shoestring, click the ‘Backpackology 101‘ at the top of this page.
Good news! My court case is settled (more on this soon) and I’m flying back to Beijing soon! Backpackology will return on October 1st.