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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Friday, May 30, 2008


Having sampled (for better or worse) the first seven days of my gruelling yet at times conspiciously lonely attempt at gauging the relevance of the Indo-Pak process amongst the Pakistani public, I hereby (rather belatedly-such has been my personal struggle) announce that the remainder of my diary will be incorporated into my forthcoming book; "The Road to Delhi."

I'm hoping that the book will be available for the public before the end of this calendar year. It is of course contingent on the eventual re-union of my maternal grandmother with her siblings living approximately 60 kilometres across the LOC (Line of Control) yet cruelly seperated since 1947.

Thursday, July 26, 2007



"No, I don’t really feel like getting up. What is there to get up for?" I feel like curling up and forgetting my existence. However, the open exhausts of the rickshaws and the trumpet horns of the buses remind me of where I am. The ‘wheels of industry and commerce’ are in full swing. I feel as if the din is forcefully telling me to pick myself up, tackle those viruses, find out about my replacement Nokia N95, check my emails, phone my wife and hear the sound of my eleven month old daughter, get some dairy in my belly, write my diary and probably most crucial of all, fight those emotions which have reminded you every day since you landed in Pakistan that you have yet to re-unite your heart-wrecked grandmother with her beseeching siblings across the Line of Control in Kashmir.
When I eventually manage to emerge out into the scorching sun, the newspaper stand to the left of the hotel draws my attention. There wasn’t any sign of me or my cycle ride in yesterday’s ‘AAJ’ paper, so it must surely be in today’s edition I thought. Sifting through a bit more carefully than yesterday didn’t make a difference. Could it be that Mr Riaz Khan (Peshawar Press Club President) was wrong on more than one count yesterday? He reckoned my ‘Ride for Movement & Peace’ would only induce coverage from local papers.
While I’m checking my emails at the ‘Fawarah Chowk’ (fountain roundabout- except that there’s no fountain) net café, I decide to phone my family to check on the status of my replacement phone. They inform me that the phone was out of stock with the vendor and that they are still awaiting delivery. This was too much for me to bear, considering I requested the phone on Sunday and that it was now Thursday.
They had told me then, that they would have it by Tuesday, whereupon they would send it via somebody travelling on the next available flight to Islamabad. I know I’ve put a huge burden on them in these past couple of years and I suppose it makes sense not to aggravate what’s already over-burdened.
I decide that I must look for an alternative, knowing full well that I will most certainly dig a hole in my limited budget.
I am entering one of those familiar moods that I’ve been accustomed to here in Pakistan. Where the urge of creative and penetrative thought clashes with the harsh practical realities of day to day life. The climate, environment, nature of people, the knowledge that virtually everyone else that you see is busy either trying to make ends meet or is hunting for that next big deal while you are merely existing, consuming, or thinking.
I realise that I have to snap out somehow, I always have done. What better way than to visit Khyber House where I can discuss the merits, possibilities and even dangers of returning to Torkhem and starting my ride all over again.
A rigorous security check takes place before I am allowed to enter. The re-appearance of the ‘Khasadar’ once inside, make me feel as if I have been transported back to the tribal areas.
The buildings inside have a colonial era look to them. In fact, as I pass under an arch connecting two buildings, I half-expect an English gentleman with a double-barrelled surname to trip past me. "Careful old boy, I would rather you watch where you’re going."
I do try and meet the Chief Khasadar here, maybe even find the very one who transported me to Karrkhaney on Monday. I’m informed by the reader (secretary) of the ‘Chief’ that he has left for a meeting in the city and the time of his return is a mystery. Sitting around and having a general chit-chat with some of the ‘Khasadar’ is reasonably useful I suggested to myself.
An hour later, the ‘Chief’ was nowhere to be seen or found. "Very well, at least I tried. I hope there are no surprised faces when the foreign-attired man and his cycle re-appear on the Khyber horizon," I muttered partly to myself and for the benefit of those in close proximity.
Apparently Gul Hadji Plaza on the GT Rd. is the place to sort out my virus problem. Well, having already tried a couple of ‘PC experts’ these past couple of days without much success, there isn’t much to lose in venturing out to this ‘computer wonderland’.
It’s an imposing building with five floors of computer, peripherals and software retailers. I am perplexed as well as spoilt for choice. Interestingly, one of the first shops that I go to is rather interested in my tour having studied the text on my T-shirt in minute detail. "This is a tall order sir, how do you know if the governments of India and Pakistan are sincere about peace?"
No progress to report yet. I need to return to ‘my locality’ before it gets dark. Rumours of looting at gunpoint are rife and although my exposure to such risks is pretty even wherever I am in this region, paying heed to advice in such circumstances is more or less unavoidable.
I do want to move back to Torkhem tomorrow except that I need to arrange for a video camera and preferably a cameraman on hire. I am led to understand that Nauthia is the very place for this type of service.
Conveniently, this area is a short walking distance from ‘Paradise’ (my hotel) and almost adjacent to the ‘Sunehri Masjid’ (A building quite pleasing to the eye, in sharp contrast to other architecture in the vicinity).
The negotiations that I had with a couple of cameramen were unnecessarily long-winded. They had reservations about filming in the tribal areas, highlighted the potential risk to their lives, asked about guarantees in terms of equipment and life and to put the proverbial ‘icing on the cake’ they were looking for 3,000 rupees a day!
Well, I did attempt to explain the ‘sanctity’ of my mission, that my resources were meagre and that I was relying on no-one but the Almighty to realise my ambition.
An attempt it remained.
Perhaps, the only bit of good news that I’ve had for a while. The hotel manager has pity on me and gives me a double room with a ‘helicopter’ fan at the same rate viz.120 rupees.
Is this the stroke of good fortune that turns the tide?
I really do think that I couldn’t possibly endure anymore than I have done.



Yet another miserable morning riddled with problems. Despite repeated attempts to get the hotel management to either fix the fan in my room or give me an alternative room, I have now spent two nights in a small and stuffy room with little ventilation, underneath a fan that cannot really be described as a fan and on top of that, it has now dawned on me that electricity is in extremely short supply. My troubles have piled up so much in the past few days that issues such as the non-availability of electricity have almost passed me by. For example, while sauntering through Saddar yesterday, there were many power outages, which I can only now begin to digest in the cold (hot rather) light of day.
Yes, my laptop has also been infected by the ‘Peshawar’ virus. Can my situation get any worse? My day is no doubt going to be consumed and/or overshadowed by this dilemma.
I decide that the first thing I must do is to get that letter for the President printed and sent to Aiwan-e-Sadr. In these past two years and three months, I have monitored his interaction with India as closely as possible. What particularly caught my attention amongst the various sound bites emanating from him was the phrase ‘Thinking out of the box’ on Kashmir. I think this summed up the desperate need for fresh thinking in Pakistan. However, in my opinion, amongst the public and most disturbingly within the ‘think-tank arena, creative thought has been sparse. For example, editorials in some Pakistani newspapers that I read on Kashmir today are almost identical to editorials that I read eighteen years ago. I hope I can meet the president when I get to Islamabad next week. I humbly believe, all my thinking has definitely been ‘out of the box’.
At last, I finally manage to get that letter sent via registered post, having tip-toed through those viruses. It is now time for me to make the short cycle ride from the GPO (General Post Office) to Nawai-e-Waqt’s (A National Urdu daily) offices to meet it’s Peshawar bureau chief Mr.Riaz Khan, who doubles up as the Peshawar Press Club’s President.
As I enter the paper’s offices I notice a Nestle water filter in the foyer. As I’m spending up to 100 rupees a day on bottled water, I may as well fill up half my bottle here and save myself 12.5 rupees. (Every little helps)
Mr. Riaz Khan listens to my story very patiently before embarking on a fiery outburst of his own. The gist of his argument was that, as India and Pakistan are enemies, they need a mediator to resolve their issues. He believed that the ‘West’ holds the necessary negotiating tools to give Pakistan what they wanted. In turn, I opined that the track record of the ‘West’ resolving conflicts was pretty dubious. On the contrary, one should look inwards, make oneself more productive and constructive in relation to solving the problems faced by the common Pakistani, concentrate on improving one’s image with the rest of the world and develop a constituency in India, which works to improve the general perception that Indians have of Pakistanis.
I suspect my ideas didn’t resonate with him. He finished off the conversation by relating a discussion he had in the U.S.A with some American politicians. When they propagated the virtues of democratic government, he immediately rebuffed them by pointing out that that the American government was solely and always responsible for installing dictators in Pakistan!
I felt his comment vindicated my ideas more than his.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in the midst of ‘PC experts’ seeking options on killing those viruses on my laptop and USB. As the clock struck five, it was time to get back to Medialinks to see how well my T-shirts have been printed.
Not very well, unsurprisingly. However, I have to make do and come to terms with the practical realities of this country. Which, at times I have admittedly struggled to do.
I spend some time in talking to ‘Peshawarites’ about life in general. Most conversations tend to veer towards the topic of civic amenities such as water, electricity, public baths etc. Someone suggests that up until some years ago, water was so plentiful in the city that it was available even at a hundred feet above the ground. Now, one has to dig down as far as eight hundred feet to find that oh so essential ingredient in our lives.
The theory on the current electricity problems ravaging the city is that some ‘criminal elements’ have destroyed a major electricity-generating base near Kohat (approx. 40 km south of Peshawar). The supply has apparently been diverted from elsewhere, hence the intermittency. For those that don’t have a generator, conducting business has been virtually impossible these past few days. In a strange way, experiencing first hand the problems that the normal, average Pakistani endures every day makes my own problems quite remote in comparison. Thus, I’ve never felt tempted to play the ‘populist’ card and get people behind me because they have so many problems of their own that they must attend to.
My message, which I will probably re-iterate time and time again, is for the power structures in both India and Pakistan to divert resources away from security and concentrate on providing solace to the common man. Give him/her the opportunity to educate themselves, to develop their thoughts and conscience in whichever way they see fit, provide them health resources that minimize their disruption of normal life and perhaps most importantly, promote and facilitate economic opportunity in any way possible. The need to spend on security and defence will recede proportionately.
I’m tired, with that small, stuffy room on the third floor of the ‘Paradise’ Hotel beckoning, it is high time that I retire from this world, albeit and alas, just till the morning.

DAY 5 TUESDAY 101007


So, this is my first morning in Peshawar. The single room that I’ve slept in has been expectedly hot and stuffy. I’m still trying to come to terms with the loss of my phone. "When will I receive my new phone?" I repeat to myself?
I may as well use this time to try and get up to date with my reading and do something about my T-shirts. I originally had some stickers made last year, which haven’t proved very sticky in the heat of the Khyber. At the time I didn’t have enough time to get the T-shirts printed. As it transpired, I couldn’t set-off then in any case.
Anyway, I make my way to Bilaur Plaza on the main Mall Rd. in Saddar Cantt. On the third floor, I stumble across Medialinks who promise to get my T-shirts printed by tomorrow evening. "How much are they going to charge me for ten T-shirts?" I wondered aloud. After much haggling, the manager settled for 1200 rupees. "Well, that’s exactly 1 pound a piece, I’m quite certain it’s cheaper in the UK," wondering quietly this time.
A familiar proverb in this country is "Where you solve one problem, a few others emerge." As I trudge along the main road, (Not too dissimilar to a High St. in the UK, I hasten to add) I decide to pop in to a printer and get a letter addressed to the President of Pakistan printed. Lo and behold, the computer operator immediately notifies me of a heap of viruses on my USB (portable PC storage device). What’s worse, some important files have totally disappeared! I begin to curse the T-shirt printer under my breath before calming down safe in the knowledge that I have duplicates of those files elsewhere. Unlike the audio, video and photos that I had on my Nokia N95, which have in all likelihood disappeared forever.
I arrive at the offices of the Peshawar Urdu daily ‘AAJ’ to meet Shahab. Upon arrival, the receptionist relays to me that he has sent me a text message, asking me to come at 5pm. "He must have sent it to my other number," I gathered. I am now of course using one phone and alternating between two sim cards that I have. Yet, another inconvenience that I have to bear as a result of losing my phone!
I have time to kill so I decide to venture out to a nearby internet café. I soon learn that most of Peshawar’s PCs are infected with viruses. A local suggests that most computer users in Peshawar are oblivious or unwitting of the hazards. He half-jokingly suggested that Peshawar was itself a virus.
"Well, that came from him, not me, I hasten to clarify.
What’s next? I’ll be damned if my laptop is affected too."
Shahab ushers me into his office. He appears distinctly excited about writing an article on my bicycle ride and doesn’t waste any time in taking a couple of snapshots. We go over the whole raison d’etre of my exercise. I make it clear that I feel my ‘back is against the wall’ and that this ‘Yatra’ (Hindi for tour) is probably my only means to highlight the difficulties that normal people in India and Pakistan have endured as a result of the cold attitude that the governments have shown each other for sixty years. His questions are pretty routine and our meeting finishes with him notifying me that the article would appear either tomorrow or in the following day’s edition. I take this opportunity to ask him about the likelihood of me being able to conduct a press conference on my return (or rather re-return) from Torkhem. He informs me that the Peshawar Press Club normally charges 5,000 rupees for a slot but if I were to explain my plight and discuss the ethical aspects of journalism with the Press Club’s President, I may get lucky!
The rest of the evening is spent gallivanting around the malls and markets of Saddar Cantt. where modern and traditional forms of retail vie side by side viz. the street trader’s white vests pitching outside the modern retailer’s orderly variety of apparel illuminated by glass, aluminium and marble.
It’s not long before I begin to dread the prospect of that single, stuffy room in the ‘Paradise’ Hotel (as stark a misrepresentation as could be imagined) and what may turn out to be another uncomfortable night.

DAY 4 MONDAY 090707


An extra-ordinarily peaceful night was followed by a hearty breakfast only for reality to emerge once more. I cannot curse myself enough for losing my phone. I would have to spend a few days in Peshawar waiting for a replacement and then return to Torkhem to start all over again. "After all, how would my ride be documented? A written diary, no matter how well written (and I am not that good a writer, at least not yet) is surely not suffice."
These frustrations plague my mind as I prepare to proceed towards Peshawar.
The ‘Chief Khasadar’ explains that they will transport me along with my belongings to Peshawar. Accompanying us in the back of the open-top/off-roader are a couple from Iran who had been detained for lack of appropriate paperwork.
Driving along the dusty plains of the Khyber Agency, the mountains in the background remind me so much of Afghanistan and how remarkably similar every aspect of life is on both sides of the border. Language, customs, diet, art, attire, ammunition etc. While I’m pondering over the similarities, the Iranian gentleman asks me whether I have the same problem as him and his wife. "I shouldn’t think so, I have a Pakistani ID card and I was born in Pakistani-administered Kashmir," I clarified. "Are you coming from Afghanistan on this bicycle?", was his next question. I further explained the purpose of my travel, which had started from Torkhem only to be rudely interrupted in Landi Kothal. For the rest of the journey, I retreated into my own thoughts, occasionally interrupted by the odd rock or pothole uncouthly negotiated by the driver.
Upon entering Kharkhaney and effectively exiting the Tribal Areas, the driver brings the jeep to a sudden halt. Out comes the ‘Chief Khasadar’ and directs me to alight along with my belongings. "You have now left the danger area, from here you are safe to ride all the way to Calcutta. Please do not enter the Tribal Areas again."
I did attempt to protest at his final remark but he appeared in no mood to listen. Before I could order my belongings in a fashion that would make it possible for me to ride my bike, swarms of local people descend upon me to begin their customary inquisition. That along with the heat was too much to bear and after gulping a glass of sugar cane from a vendor nearby, I leapt on my bike and made a dart for Peshawar.
The sun is excruciating, though not half as much as Torkhem a couple of mornings ago. The relative smoothness of the road once entering Peshawar has an almost soothing effect. While riding along the main University Road, I decide to pop in to the University to see if I can grab a desperately desired intellectual though academic discussion on Indo-Pak relations. In passing, I also notice that Peshawar is markedly cleaner that Rawalpindi and Lahore.
The registrar’s office at Peshawar University is kind enough to make a few phone calls to determine who would be the appropriate academic for me to meet. After helping myself to about four glasses of ice-cold water, I am directed towards the Centre for Regional Studies where I meet Professor Hayat.
About ten minutes into our engrossing conversation, a colleague of the professor beckons him to some impending engagement. "Could we resume at about 2:30 Mr.Tanveer?" Well, yes of course Professor," I courteously replied.
I rush back to the Professor’s office after having caught a bite and some net. However, he is not in his office and his staff inform me that he has probably left for the day. I do remember him mentioning that he would be leaving for a conference in Turkey tomorrow. Perhaps he needed to spend his limited time in preparation. Well, it’s a pity we couldn’t continue our dialogue. It felt like having eat a few morsels of a well-prepared meal.
Cruising into Peshawar city, it’s time to make contact with some friends who I met in 2004 during the Indo-Pak ‘Goodwill’ cricket series, which I was covering for a newspaper in the UK at the time. Little did I know then that this is where I would be in 2007! One of them (Shahab) was a local newspaper correspondent who I thought I would surprise by going directly to his office. I obtained the address from another friend who happened to be ‘out of town’.
When Shahab comes out onto the street to greet me, he is well and truly shocked. In fact, he finds it difficult to formulate a sentence to ask me the 5W’s! (Journalistic jargon for who, what, why, when & how) The ‘who’ wasn’t that difficult of course.
After helping him out of his misery, he gives me a time for tomorrow to meet, when we can go over the details of my ‘Ride for Movement & Peace’ for the purposes of a news write-up. I respectfully decline his offer to come in for tea and decide to proceed to the cantt. (cantonment) area which I understand is adjacent to Saddar (Major shopping hub, not unlike other large Pakistani cities). I really want to concentrate on my work and finding a cheap and clean hotel is my next task.
Riding back from Nishtarabad along the GT Rd. towards Saddar Cantt. a motorcycle in full throttle narrowly evades me while weaving and gliding through traffic. At this point I stop by the side to philosophise, "Losing my phone has turned to be a whole lot more tolerable than losing an arm or a leg."
Finding that hotel has been hard work indeed. Climbing up steep and uneven stairways, sometimes three or four flights had to be negotiated with sixty kilos of luggage in tow, only to find that the room offered is utterly unbearable or the price is inappropriate. Eventually, out of sheer frustration I settle for the ‘Paradise’ Hotel’s dingy single room on the third floor at 120 rupees a night.

DAY 3 SUNDAY 080707


Predictably, it’s been a difficult night. It’s too humid inside the room I’ve been given in the ‘Musafirkhana’ (traveller’s lodge). I therefore decide that it’s marginally cooler outside in the hallway where a gentle breeze occasionally provides solace. I lock the room with all my possessions scattered, I am too tired to even download material from my Nokia N95 to my laptop, secure with the thought that nobody would possibly attempt to take anything, particularly judging from my experience thus far.
I am woken by someone who appears to be a member of staff of the ‘Musafirkhana’. "I would like to take a spare ‘khaat’ (bed) from this room please," he requested politely. I almost immediately acquiesce, thinking that there must be some tired and weary traveler waiting desperately to put his head down. He was in and out in what seemed so short a time that becoming suspicious was akin to insulting him, I felt.
Sleep is eluding me and despite my body aching from the previous day’s toil, I wonder, just wonder, "Are all my possessions intact?" As I trudge into the room, my mind tells me to look for the most important item first. Alas, I cannot find my Nokia N95. This is my only means of capturing audio, video and photos of this trip. "Damn! It’s not here, the ‘slimey so and so’ was too clinical in his approach!" I angrily explain to myself.
This is virtual despair, I find my other phone underneath some clothes and nervously dial the number of the stolen phone….Yes, it is ringing and I can hear the phone ring from somewhere in the ‘Musafirkhana’! My heart races with excitement as my mind attempts to figure out the puzzle. "Do I try and apprehend him myself or should I alert the ‘Khasadar’. To make contact with them I would have to exit the ‘Musafirkhana’ and inform the ‘Chowkidar’ (Security Guard) by which time the ‘Phone Thief’ could make his escape. " While I deliberate over my dilemma, I decide to ring the stolen phone once more….Yep, still ringing, though I’m struggling to make out where the sound is. "Is it coming from the roof of this 2-storey building or the 1st floor where I am?" I groggily try to make out.
I take the plunge and exit the ‘Musafirkhana’ to alert the ‘Chowkidar’. He in turn almost dismissively suggests that I contact the ‘Khasadar’ myself. Through gritted teeth, I explain that by the time I fetch them, the culprit could disappear. That’s if he hasn’t already!
When he eventually agrees, I rush back to the ‘Musafirkhana’ praying that the thief has frozen in embarrassment.
By now, I am a nervous wreck and when the ‘Khasadar’ eventually arrive, their lackadaisical approach adds to my torment. "This is a resting place for dacoits, smugglers and drug addicts. They merely stopover here before disappearing into the Afghan wilderness," harped their chief. "Absolutely charming," I retorted.
They led me to the roof where at least twenty people were seemingly fast asleep and hence oblivious of my plight. I rang the elusive Nokia N95 once more. Although connecting from my phone, I could no longer hear it ring. Many thoughts raced through my mind, "Could he have worked out how to put it on silent? Has he thrown it somewhere to evade being caught red-handed? Or perhaps, worse still, has he escaped?"
I took a good look at each and every person sleeping on the roof but couldn’t for certain make out the culprit. However, one ‘Khaat’ was empty and the person accompanying the ‘Chowkidar’ who appeared on the scene soon after I had informed him, looked eerily similar to the person who had entered my room a few hours earlier. However, I couldn’t be 100% certain. I nevertheless asked him where he had been sleeping. His nervous and inaudible answer raised my suspicions but I decided not to commit myself. I would rather tell the ‘Chowkidar’ in private and request that he and the ‘Khasadar’ politely extract the truth from him. After all, I am just desperate for my phone.
As we descend onto the street, the ‘Khasadar’ dutifully apologise, sympathise and request leave before I have time to have a ‘quiet word’ with the ‘chowkidar’. In the meantime, a car pulls up, the suspect jumps in and before I can say "1,2,3" the car is whizzing away in the direction of Torkhem.
I discuss my suspicions with the ‘chowkidar’ who seconds my opinion and re-assures me that the culprit is a local who will be back to open his shop at around 9:00am. I am too tired and confused to talk any more and decide to ‘hit the sack’
I am gently woken by the long-bearded owner of the ‘musafirkhana’, with the suspect in tow. I immediately sit up and hear out the owner’s apology for the distress that I’ve been through. He re-assures that if indeed this is the person who has stolen my phone then he would whatever was necessary to ensure I retrieve it. "But, you must be sure," he emphasised.
The suspect solemnly and repeatedly pledges his innocence, affirming to divorce both his wives if he is found to have done this dirty deed. "My father and younger brother have been detained by the Government of Pakistan. This is my concern at the moment. Why would I take your mobile phone and bring more problems onto myself?"
As I cannot be 100% certain that he was the culprit, I beg forgiveness and resign myself to the fact that my phone has been stolen and the chances of me retrieving it are pretty much nil.
Could this be the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’ I wonder in isolation. I had dearly wanted to make a video documentary of my cycle ride. Lack of resources on my part and interest from commercial sponsors ensured that to be impossible. I was relying on my Nokia N95 to function as a strong stand-in replacement. This is despair indeed.
Having managed to sleep on my despair, I wake up to make a phone call to my family to enquire as to whether they can send me a replacement. I know that I have put a lot of pressure on them these past couple of years, this loss just piles it up. Nevertheless, they assure me that they would try and arrange for a replacement as soon as possible, though it’s difficult to know when I would receive it. I am in a dilemma as to whether I should stay in Landi Kothal where the longer I stay, the more suspicious locals will be of me. The tribal areas are unpredictable in that violence can flare up at any time and although peace has it’s price, I would prefer not to pay just yet.
I’ve spent the last few hours touring the bazaar of Landhi Kothal, which is littered with ammunition retailers and meat sellers. Talking about peace between India and Pakistan with the locals brings out a chuckle or two, but overall they sympathise with my mission and wish me the best of luck.
I feel it’s time to get on my bike and proceed towards Peshawar where I may be able to get some substantial discussion on the merits of my ‘Ride for Movement and Peace’ while I wait for my replacement phone.
A few kilometres down the road, a passing ‘Khasadar’ jeep enquires as to where I’m heading. After explaining the purpose of my ride, the ‘chief’ suggests that I spend the night at their compound as there maybe danger ahead.
The rest of the evening is spent chatting to what seemed to be a whole unit of ‘Khasadars’ who were extremely hospitable albeit surprised at my determination to achieve what I was trying to achieve. "How can you do this all alone?" one asked. "Well, I can only try my best, I don’t feel like living for anything else," I patiently explained.
I was given the best bed in the ‘house’ and air-conditioning ensured that this was the most pleasant night of rest that I’ve had in a long while.