Smugglers' Bazaar

Nut Vendor: Smugglers' Bazaar
PESHAWAR, Pakistan
December 25, 2010

Where does that special gift donated to the G.I. serving in Afghanistan go? That pound of coffee purchased through some "Support Our Troops" drive, or the handwritten note expressing sentiment from back home? Not to mention those MRE's and other materiel sent through NATO convoys?

There's a fair chance that it never makes it to the battlefield but ends up at the Smugglers' Bazaar on the edge of Peshawar.

Over previous visits I felt that the Smugglers' Bazaar didn't live up to its name. Even if its merchandise came through routes dodging duty and tax, more junk than exotic goods still flowed through its stalls. My first time visiting was in the early '90s, back when low-quality goods manufactured in the Soviet Union did brisk trade. My last visit in the early '00s saw kitsch from the USSR supplanted with low-quality goods from China.

Looted Junk Food
This afternoon, Irina and I took a bus from Peshawar out to the edge of the Tribal Areas to tour the Smugglers' Bazaar. We found various shops still trading in all manner of technology that would be obsolete other parts of the globe. More than one shop dealt exclusively in blocky laptops, most with internal floppy-disk drive. Other stalls had mountains of gigantic fax machines available. The most antiquated item on offer appeared to be in shops dedicated to the sale of treadle-driven sewing machines. Now that I think about it, a sewing machine that doesn't rely on electricity isn't such a bad idea in Pakistan. All cities endure daily hours of scheduled "load shedding" when, neighborhood by neighborhood, power is cut on account of inadequate grid infrastructure.

It wasn't until we got to the very edge of the Smugglers' Bazaar, at the checkpoint just the other side from the Tribal Agencies buffering Afghanistan, that the merchandise acquired a more illicit aura. That's where goods looted from NATO shipments were on offer.

Military equipment was plentiful: handcuffs, canteens, camouflage-spotted slickers, and binoculars. I could have been convinced those items had come straight from manufacture in China if it weren't for the adjacent stalls selling food. Most of what was sold was familiar American junk food:

Coffee Intended for Troops
Current exchange rates set $1 USD equivalent to Rs. 86 PKR.

Among other goodies, I bought a package of coffee--a "Special Blend to Honor our Troops". Taped to its back was a note, handwritten in felt-tipped pen:


Another bargain on offer was the My Kind of Meal® (UPC 16816-59990) accessory pack. These were pre-packaged pouches made up of the type of snacks that might line an aisle leading up to a U.S. supermarket checkout counter: Sunflower seeds. Granola bars. Bagel chips. Banana chips. Chewing gum. Mints. All assembled together in one heat-sealed plastic bag at only 60 rupees.

The My Kind of Meal® pouch I picked up additionally included a sachet of Maxwell House® instant coffee and a single-serving box of Frosted Flakes® with Tony the Tiger™ on its front. I didn't know what to do with the other enclosed item, an envelope containing an MRE (MEAL, READY-TO-EAT) HEATER (US 06421 8970-01-321-9153). This appears to be some sort of chemical cocktail that will combust to cook up a My Kind of Meal® when stationed far from the mess hall. The envelope has scary warnings printed on it that make me wonder how anything it heats up could remain fit for human consumption:


  1. Vapors released by activated heater contain hydrogen, a flammable gas. Do not place an open flame in the vapor.
  2. Vapors released by activated heater can displace oxygen. When ten or more heaters are used inside a vehicle or shelter, ensure the ventilation system is operating or a top hatch or door is open.
  3. Hot water leakage can burn and cause a cold-weather injury. Use caution if carrying activated heater in pocket.
  4. After heating, the heater bag and MRE pouch will be very hot. Use caution when removing MRE pouch from bag.
  5. Discard heater and bag after use. Do not drink the water remaining in the bag or use it in food items.

Cannisters of US
Vegetable Oil
Rather than tear open the dubious envelope I've prepared my MRE's in the more traditional way--by immersing the foil pouch in a pot of boiling water for five minutes. I don't envy the troops. All MRE's are bland. The best of the lot has to be the "Florentine Lasagne" which approaches the flavor found in a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli. "Mediterranean Chicken" (whose regional claim appears staked on the inclusion of a few sliced black olives) is rubbery and utterly inedible.

Irina and I are now off to Christmas dinner. It may not be traditional, but thankfully, it won't be another MRE. We're going for a meal of kebabs and pulau at local restaurant chain Shiraz.

A merry Christmas to the troops and to the smugglers alike!