Day 18: The Restaurant With No Name

Islamabad, April 8, 6:02pm

I went behind the counter, holding a microphone, with Mal filming behind me, and asked the owner what was the name of his restaurant. After the translation kicked in, he shrugged his shoulders in puzzlement. There was no name.

The roof of the restaurant was propped up by crooked wooden posts. The tin roof was just high enough off the ground to stand under, with a lot of stuff stored on top of it: tires, generators and boxes. The tin roof was so low it kept the heat from all the burners and pans inside, so it seemed like the three men in the kitchen were being cooked as they cooked. They had red eyes and drank water from a metal cup.

I hung back at first, sitting at an outer table, underneath a blackberry tree. There were blackberries all over the ground. No one picked them. There were about eight metal tables, one without chairs. People sat on top of the table without chairs with their bare feet up on the table.

I sat alone at the metal table until two men came up in shalwar kameez. They sat down at my table and one of the men said to me, "Salaam alikem," like I was a normal guy. Instead of answering "Wa Alikem salaam," I blew it, and repeated, "Salaam alikem."

One of the men held up two fingers. A thin, tired, middle-aged man brought two cups of milky tea on saucers. The men unhurriedly poured the tea into the saucer by tilting the cup slightly, holding the bottom of the cup against the saucer so none would spill out. Then they removed the cup and held the saucer like a disc on five extended fingers and tipped it slightly, sipping the sweet milky tea from the saucer. I guess this was done to cool the tea, or because it was more fun to slurp like this. Men at other tables were drinking the same way. One held a ring of keys on one finger of the same hand he was slurping with. He used a small key from the ring to pick something out of an upper left molar. Later I saw him flip through the keys, again selecting the small one, and attack the molar again.

The man to my left slipped off his sandals on the dirt and pulled his feet up to the side. I looked casually at the sole of his left foot. The skin on the heel was dry and cracked, with a hole in the skin that was a few centimeters lower than the rest of the skin. Everyone had their sandals off.

A few feet away a man was getting his haircut, also sitting outdoors, his reflection obscured in a very dirty old mirror, listening to the distorted sound of a cricket match on a very old radio.

Spicy lentils and potato dumplings were on the menu. There were a lot of flies. Dough was pounded out and slapped on the side of a stone circular oven that went down a few feet. The naan bread baked quickly on the side of the stone and was flipped out with metal tongs. Flies covered the balls of dough before they were pounded out. Each ball of dough had multiple flies on it.

There was only one metal cup per table and it did not get washed between clients. The water came from old metal oil drums along the front counter. Dirty dishes were stacked on the dirt next to a tree, where ravens picked at the remains. A boy came to rinse them off with a plastic container of filthy water.

The bread was hot and good. If you waved the flies away you could dip the bread in the curried dumplings, which were spicy. I tried some so as not to offend the owner, then poured tea in my saucer and tried to sip it, but there was a chip in the saucer where I was about to put my mouth. We passed the curried chicken leg to Happy, who ate it with no hesitation. The meal for four cost one dollar.

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