Sea story: East meets West in Karachi (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. She was definitively distinctive.

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. I was pleasantly surprised to find that 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 Boukhara rugs and a triptych rosewood screen. I had already bought an Isafhan 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 32 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.


Fast forward to the present (Trip update): After spending Saturday catching up forty years with three dozen of my classmates from the Naval Academy, I slept in a dreamlike bed as the guest of my classmate Dennis Plank and his wife Emily. On Sunday, I went to Emmanuel Episcopal Church, where old friend and Music Director Bobby Sullivan slapped me into a choir robe and put me to work. Dozens of friends remembered me from our years as members of that church.

The Delmarva Peninsula is agricultural and the roads are broad and smooth.

The Delmarva Peninsula is agricultural and the roads are broad and smooth.

Monday, I set out for the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT) operates what is essentially a free shuttle service for bicycles. I simply rolled up to the building next to the toll plaza, where I tossed the bicycle into a State Police pickup truck. The CBBT officer drove through the toll booth, where I paid a simple one-car toll and took me 50 km across the water to Cape Charles. If I had packed my EZ-pass ® from the car, I could have used it.

On the Delmarva Peninsula, I rode the wide, smooth shoulders of US 13 and US 113 to Exmore VA, Pocomoke City MD, and Lewes, DE, where I caught the ferry to Cape May, New Jersey. I am spending Memorial Day weekend with my friend and colleague Stephanie and her husband Richard.

This month, the horseshoes crabs are climbing ashore by the millions to lay their eggs. The beaches by Drew's Creek are off limits to humans for two months.

This month, the horseshoes crabs (brown smudge at the water’s edge) are climbing ashore to lay their eggs. The beaches are off limits to humans for two months.

Being the guest of a working translator is ideal, because we each have our jobs to do. No need to entertain, especially because our clients are in Europe, which means focusing on work in the morning, then doing other things after the clients close up and go home. After lunch, Stephanie and Richard are showing me around the Cape May area. Richard is a retired merchant mariner, so the sea stories have waxed heartily this weekend.

Next week, I plan to explain my work as a translator on a bicycle, and how I do that. Please let me know if you have questions, or suggestions for another topic. Until then,

Smooth roads & tailwinds,


3 thoughts on “Sea story: East meets West in Karachi (1982)

  1. Ah…Such a life you live…I envy your travels and adventures, but I am unwilling to leave the comfort of my home. For now, I shall continue to live vicariously through you. 😉 – Michele

    Liked by 1 person

    • The flagship of the Middle East Force was our only white ship that was not a hospital ship. The Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf are very hot and sunny, so ships homeported there are typically painted white. Air conditioning was a recent luxury in warships, and even today, white paint is necessary to control the heat load on those massive hulks of steel sitting in the sun.
      The other ships are grey, because they are destroyers that deploy from the US. A squadron of destroyers back then might spend four months in the Gulf escorting the MEF flaship, part of their total nine-month deployment to the Mediterranean.
      Thanks for asking,


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