I am excited beyond belief! National Geographic is giving me money to collect fossils in Pakistan: my very own field project, the first time ever. For years, it has been great to collect fossils in exotic places--Wyoming, Sardinia, and Colombia. But this is different. Now I can run my own program, decide where to collect, and study what is found. It’s exciting but also daunting. My friend Andres Aslan will come with me. We’re perfect complements: He loves geology and I love fossils. We’re both just out of school, freshly minted Ph.D.s, and together we’re ready and able to set the world on fire, or at least vacuum up any fossil between Attock and Islamabad.
It is Andres’ first trip to Pakistan. I first went there as a paleontology student in 1985, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when the CIA channeled much of its support against the Soviets through Pakistan. Trucks full of equipment would travel the highway, the Grand Trunk Road, from Islamabad to the Afghan border at night—the very same road we take to our field area. The Soviet-backed Afghan government retaliated by trying to disturb the stability of Pakistan. Car bombs were the weapon of choice, and my hotel room in Islamabad offered an excellent view into the courtyard of the police station next door, where a line of charred, exploded mini-busses were evidence of their success. With mirrors tied to long poles, the police stopped every vehicle entering the city and checked the underside for bombs. This didn’t bother me, as long as I could collect fossils, studying life from a very exciting period in earth’s history, 50 million years ago.
Now, 6 years later, Andres and I arrive in Pakistan just before the New Year and we receive our permits to work in the Kala Chitta Hills, west toward the Afghan border. The television in our Islamabad hotel broadcasts CNN stories about the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait last year, but that conflict seems distant. I am here to immerse us in the greatest excitement paleontology has to offer: collecting fossils, being the first see and figure out each one I pick up.
We check in at a hotel in the town of Attock, and fieldwork starts on January 1. We travel to remote sites that I chose from decades-old reports from other paleontologists. The rocks here in the shadows of the Himalayas have their own distinctive charms. They are gnarled, bent, twisted, and overturned, all the result of the mountain building to the North. They are silent witnesses to the incredibly violent forces that raised the Himalayas to be the world’s highest mountains. With a sense of poetry, my Pakistani colleague, Mr. Arif, calls the limestone that has been tossed into tight bends ‘the Dancing Limestone.’
We search the dry scrublands every day, but fossils are rare; things take time. In my field book I have logged 51 fossils. None seem exciting—small pieces of fishbone, crocodile armor, fish teeth, and piece of the casing of the ear of a whale, the tympanic bone. It is not the first whale I ever found. When growing up, in Holland, I lived close to a fossil locality where my father used to take me. A river had dropped rocks here that it collected as it cut through mountains upstream, in Belgium, France, Switzerland. There was everything from sea lilies hundreds of millions of years old, to plant fossils from coal swamps, and large fossil whale bones from when this area was covered by ocean, just a few million years ago. It cemented my interest in fossils, and for my 12th birthday I got a rock hammer, which is still the hammer I use now.
I have never studied whales before, and, now too, whale bones are no good for me. The money from National Geographic is to study how land mammals migrated between Indo-Pakistan and Asia across the Tethys Sea some 50 million years ago. Whales are of no use for studying migrations on land. I need land-dwelling mammals, and many more fossils, if this grant is to be successful. I am very aware that a failing to deliver on a first grant can sink a career.
On Day Five the dream collapses. The U.S. is threatening to invade Kuwait, and the U.S. government is worried about the safety of its citizens. Mr. Arif is told by his superiors at the Geological Survey of Pakistan to escort us back to Islamabad, the capital. All my plans are crumbling before my eyes. The reason for going back to Islamabad seems ridiculous: the conflict is in the Gulf, not Pakistan. The physical dangers seem much smaller than when I first visited. Why should politics end the field season?
Reluctantly Andres and I return to Islamabad and check into a hotel. The hotel is in the Blue Area, Islamabad’s broad central avenue with shopping areas, as well as the buildings of the President, Prime Minister, and Congress. It’s a mile or so from the American Embassy.
We moon about our hotel room, waiting for news. On TV, the foreign minister of Iraq, Tariq Aziz, and the U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker, are sparring. Mr. Arif tells us that we will be kicked out of Pakistan if war breaks out, and we will not be allowed to go back to the field. We visit the American Consulate, pleading, hoping they will support our cause. The Consulate is a fortress, with a concrete moat around it, double gates with Pakistani guards, and a second gate with U.S. marines and watch towers.
Inside, the mood is tense. “Too dangerous for foreigners,” says a trembling scientific attaché who is younger than we are. “Who knows what might happen? They burned down the American Embassy here in 1979.”
I am Dutch by birth, so I also visit the Dutch consul who works in a small office suite in the middle of the bustling Blue Area. Here the mood is different. He laughs at such comments. “There might be demonstrations, but it is unlikely for Pakistanis to turn against foreigners if the U.S. attacks Iraq in Kuwait. Just keep a low profile and stay away from cities. In the countryside you will be fine.”
Ironically, our Pakistani colleagues have moved us from the countryside into the city. I am so frustrated; I feel like an irrelevant extra in someone’s movie script. In the hotel room we watch CNN nervously. The talks between Aziz and Baker collapse on January 9. We are told we must leave. Dejected, we wait as my Pakistani friends find a flight for us. It goes through Moscow. As the plane takes off from Islamabad International Airport, it flies right over our field area in the Kala Chitta Hills. I don’t look out the window. On our second stop-over, in Amsterdam, I hear that Operation Desert Storm has started: the U.S. is invading Kuwait.