It was an impulsive act of love, almost bordering on obsession, which led Waseem Haider to do the unthinkable: smuggle a harmless, yet forbidden, substance across the U.S-Canada border.
The goods - two cases of sweet and juicy Pakistani mangoes of the chaunsa variety - didn't get very far.
Haider hid the tropical fruit, banned in the United States due to restrictions on agricultural imports, in his luggage in the trunk of his car. He knew it was a risky move, but one he was willing to take, so his family in Virginia would also have a chance to taste the coveted fruit.
But when he reached the border, the aromatic delicacy was sniffed out, confiscated and thrown out.
"I got busted," said Haider, a federal government worker. "They didn't even tell me they took them away. I only realized when I went back to the car."
"It was really quite upsetting and my family was really sad."
It is difficult for some to understand the obsession that drives those in mad pursuit of the Pakistani mango. Two popular varieties, chaunsa and anwar ratol, are often described by mango connoisseurs as a sweeter version of its popular Indian cousin alphonso, commonly available in the U.S. But for those who have an acquired taste for the former, the difference between Pakistani mangoes and those from India and Mexico is like "apples and oranges."
"You can't even compare the taste. If you really have a knack for mangoes, you won't like anything but Pakistani mangoes," said Haider, who made the 12-hour drive last weekend from Virginia to Toronto, his third trip this summer, just to eat the seasonal delicacy. After his past failed smuggling attempts, he brought his family along this time for a weekend binge.Reference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/health-and-nutrition/31635-mango-diplomacy-americans-flock-toronto-buy.htmlReference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/showthread.php?t=31635
The U.S. has banned Pakistani mangoes for decades because the fruit doesn't meet United States Department of Agriculture requirements for pest management at the orchard and post-harvest level. So, like Haider, a number of mango-crazed Americans, mostly of Pakistani descent, make the trek to Toronto where Pakistani mangoes are found in abundance in ethnic groceries from the beginning of May until mid-August.
It's a national obsession that the American government has also gotten a whiff of. In a move toward sweetening diplomatic relations between the two countries, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently offered Pakistan help with exporting mangoes to the U.S., part of a $21-million program to boost the country's agriculture industry.
During a visit to Islamabad last week, Clinton enthusiastically endorsed the mango - considered to be the country's national fruit - and said Americans could get a taste of the Pakistani mango as early as this winter when the first trial shipments are planned.
Shahzad Shahid, who runs a home delivery mango company through buymangoes.ca in the GTA has been profiting from the U.S. ban on mangoes for the past four years. Many of his clients are Americans desperate to get their hands on mangoes from the homeland. So incessant were their demands that a few years back he too tried to smuggle a few crates across the border.
"I was getting a lot of response from U.S., so I tried to take some boxes over. But I got caught, so I never tried again," said Shahid, who gets a shipment of 600 to 700 crates of mangoes every Tuesday directly from Pakistan. He charges $11 for half a dozen and sells out in two days.
Since he can't get the mangoes to them, his American clients preorder the crates and drive north to eat the coveted fruit a few times a season. "Two weeks ago I got a call from a guy in Chicago who was coming to Ottawa and wanted me to send four boxes through a courier service so he could have them when he arrived. We somehow got them there by road instead. I don't think they would have been in a good state if they went by mail."
This isn't the first time mangoes have influenced politics on the subcontinent. Three years ago, the Bush administration bolstered relations with India when it opened up the U.S. market to Indian mangoes - just days before the two countries finalized a civilian nuclear agreement.
Within the region, the two nuclear-armed rivals, India and Pakistan, have also used mangoes to soften tensions in the past, although they still argue over whose mangoes are better. Former Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq is believed to have started the tradition when he swapped mangoes with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the '80s. And in an ironic twist, conspiracy theorists say it was a crate of mangoes sprayed with a poisonous gas placed in Zia's plane before takeoff that led to the crash that killed the military general in 1988.
Haider says news of the thaw in mango diplomacy and the arrival of the first shipment will be closely monitored by thousands of Pakistanis in the States.
In the meantime, he might make another trip to Toronto just before the season ends to satisfy his craving - despite questions from co-workers and friends who still don't quite get it.
"My friends always say to me, ‘what's wrong with you man, it's just a fruit.' I tell them it's not just a fruit, it's the mango."
[Courtesy: The Toronto Star]
July 28, 2010