Pakistan

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The Last Cheeseburger in Pakistan

One of the many misconceptions I had about Pakistan before moving there two years ago was that I might not get a cheeseburger during my time in the country.  I pictured a diet solely of rice, spicy curries, barbecued meat on skewers, and a few other dishes that I found on Wikipedia under “Pakistani cuisine.” But where would I get a regular old hamburger with cheese? (Other misconceptions I had for those keeping score: 1. That Islamabad would be in a desert wasteland like the Middle East, which it is nowhere near, 2. That I would always have to wear a head scarf in public, and 3. That I would definitely want to live in the “cool” diplomatic enclave near the Embassy which turned out to be neither cool nor a place I would ever live.)

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Pregnant in Pakistan

A few months ago, I faced an interesting dilemma.  Laid out on the couch with a sore throat so painful I could barely swallow, I tried to decide which was worse:  hauling my sick body out of the house for the first time in a week to accomplish an important errand, or sending my housekeeper, driver, and/or bodyguard to the drugstore to buy a pregnancy test.  I didn’t love either of my options. With my significant other in the U.S. (nice timing!) I decided to take the “do nothing” approach and wait for the throat infection to pass.  Five days later I made the trip to the drugstore myself, with driver and bodyguard in tow of course.  There was nothing I could do about the entourage, but at least going myself spared me from having to pantomime “pregnancy test” to two gruff-looking Pakistani ex-military men. I chose my most conservative Pakistani outfit for the errand: full shalwar and long sleeves. For some reason this made me feel better braving Shaheen’s Chemist.  At pharmacies in Pakistan, a line of male employees stands six-deep behind the register watching your every move.  Don’t bother trying to figure out how all of them are necessary for the ringing up, packaging, or payment of your order: they are just there, and always will be.  The drugstore is also so brightly lit one could perform surgery on the counter. I blew by the freezer case of Snickers ice cream bars (my normal reason to visit Shaheen’s) and entered the shop, accompanied only by the bodyguard lurking by the front door and the driver idling out front, to ask for a pregnancy […] Read More

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Upstairs, Downstairs

There is one specific feature of my life that makes it really different from yours, assuming you are living any kind of typical American or European existence. It is not what you think:  it is not the threat of terrorism, it is not living on the other side of the world from my family, it is not living in a Muslim country where I hear the Islamic call to prayer five times a day, it is not my residence in a city full of wild boars and monkeys that often feels one step removed from the jungle. This feature is servants.  Servants! The very word conjures up an 18th-century manor, scullery maids in the kitchen, footmen in the stables, and a butler hovering with a silver tray. At least it does to me. In Pakistan, this word means something completely different, something standard and normal even for the middle classes. When I moved here and started searching for a place to live, I would go around with a realtor every Saturday to tour houses all over Islamabad. They all had the same basic amenities: more rooms and bathrooms than I would ever need (for the same rent as my apartment in the U.S.), cool smooth tiling in every room to keep down the heat, high ceilings, and “servants’ quarters,” which the realtor would helpfully point out at each location. He would always point them out…I would always look away uncomfortably and mumble that it wasn’t important. We would never tour the servants’ quarters, but he would always take care to highlight them as a useful feature of the property. After a while this also explained […] Read More

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Take Away: Thai Food in Islamabad

There is a new Thai restaurant in town called “Mango Tree,” and I tried it for the first time on Friday night. I didn’t go there though: I invited a few of my closest friends over and had the food delivered so we could sit in a cozy room, spread the feast out over a long table, fill our plates, loaf around on the sofas, and catch up. Delivery is called “takeaway” here, not take-out, one of those sneaky remnants of British culture that linger in Pakistan like driving on the left side of the road and the popularity of teatime. We had satay and green papaya salad and tamarind red snapper and curries and noodles. We had chocolate cake for dessert and I steeped a pot of hibiscus tea from Vietnam, the tight buds turning into loose, floating flowers in the hot water. There is only one other Thai restaurant in town, and it is at the Marriott, which has good food but lost its atmosphere after the bombing in 2008. We exclaimed over the peanut sauce, decided we ordered way too much, and pronounced Mango Tree a success.

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The Hen Experiment

It has begun. I’ve lived in Pakistan for almost two years: a country so full of chickens that you couldn’t walk into a village without stumbling into a squawking pack of hens. A country so full of chickens that even my house guards can tell me about the three most common breeds of hens in the country and a proper feeding schedule. And yet every week I have eaten pale, perfect, sterile-looking huge eggs in a styrofoam package from the expat grocery store that I’m sure are flown in from Dubai or someplace equally ridiculous. I’m also sure the word for a group of hens is not a “pack,” but this is exactly my point: I don’t know these things and haven’t taken the trouble to learn. (Flock? Clutch? Let the education begin.) For two years I have paid the price of my ignorance with tasteless, watery and rather expensive eggs. I said as much at work the other day, and a woman on my team turned around immediately and said, “Well, how many hens would you like?” I was headed more towards the where-can-I-get-local-organic-eggs? question, but apparently that was the wrong question. The right question was where-can-I-get-local-organic-chickens-to-lay-eggs-for-me? and now I have my answer. My first two hens were deposited yesterday, much to the wired, intense interest of Marlo and Kima who looked at first like it was Christmas (chickens arrive) and then like I had cancelled Christmas (dogs are told that the chickens should under no circumstances be played with or eaten). Two more hens are coming later in the week to make a merry little band of four. Today my throat felt a […] Read More

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The Art of the Chick Flick

I’m afflicted with what may be strep throat, tonsillitis, or just punishment for something horrible I did somewhere, at some time in my past. It feels like gravel or tiny shards of glass are going down every time I swallow, so I try to do it as little as possible. However, I have discovered that telling yourself “not to swallow” is like trying not to think about a pink elephant. It makes it irresistible to do so. Tylenol, ginger tea, and gargling with salt water have only gotten me so far. During this bleak time, especially in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, I have found my greatest comfort in an unlikely place: the Romantic Comedy. Being out of the U.S. for two years and not a huge movie watcher even before then, it turns out I have missed hundreds of them! Hundreds of movies with cheerful upbeat music, situations that always resolve themselves positively, and lots of cute handbags and shoes. After 20+ hours of exposure to the genre, I can state with confidence the few basic requirements of the formula in case anyone is interested in writing their own to great profit and acclaim. I’ll make it easy for you. Based on my research, a successful romantic comedy should: Be set in New York City. There’s not a lot of room to maneuver on this one. The glittery high-rises for the opening sequence, the bustling, the taxicabs, and the impossibly huge stylish apartments with views of the Park prove too much for the genre to resist. The only acceptable alternative is a quaint and rustic small town setting into which […] Read More

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The Town

On this lazy, rainy Sunday afternoon in Islamabad, I got around to watching the movie “The Town.” You know, the one where Ben Affleck finally decides to do a movie in/about Boston just to shake things up a bit? (Sorry: too easy a target, Ben.) Once you’ve lived in a place, it is imprinted on you. I know a real Boston street in my bones: I know the specific blue and white striping on the police cars, the sound of Joe Castiglione calling Red Sox games, the smell of roasting sausages at Fenway. I know the brick-paved sidewalks downtown, the exact look of a T stop sign, a Southie accent, and the newsstand in Harvard Square. I lived in Boston for ten years before moving to Pakistan, and watching the movie was like having a two-hour visit with an old friend, because “The Town” got all the details right. Most movies manage to flatten out the quirks of a city into an easy blandness that could be Anytown, USA. But no one can fake the details of a place you know well. Say what you will about good ‘ol Ben (who also directed the film), but he has Boston down: the security guard sitting in the armored van reading the Herald, how beautiful the Zakim Bridge is at night, the hoop earrings on the trash-talking townie girlfriend, and of course, a scene in a scruffy Dunkin’ Donuts. Of course it makes me wonder what details will stick out most vividly about Islamabad when I eventually leave here. I have a few guesses: the guy who bikes around the neighborhoods all day yodeling for everyone’s old […] Read More

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I’ll Be Home for Christmas

My long visa saga over, I finally came back to Pakistan, exhausted but happily clutching my stamped passport in hand, just in time to celebrate Christmas. Last year at Christmas I felt very far from home, as the holidays can make you feel when you’re living abroad. I had a lovely dinner with some American friends, but the city seemed a little cold and empty (even though it was 65 degrees) and definitely lacking in the “festive” factor. No presents and no tree: it seemed like any other day. Being stuck in the US for a month changed all of that this year. Trying so hard to get “home” to Islamabad made me love and appreciate my life there all the more. The long journey back was sort of like an international “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” but picture Christmas instead of Thanksgiving, Islamabad instead of Chicago, and recalcitrant government bureaucracy instead of a rental car on fire. My 14-hour layover in the most boring airport in the world (Frankfurt, Germany) intensified the feeling, especially after I walked out of customs in a sleep-deprived haze only to realize I couldn’t get back into the main terminal for another seven hours with only the unwashed masses and a German internet console for entertainment. (Try typing emails without using the letter “y.” Just go ahead and try it.) Just the sheer act of getting back into the country felt festive and put me right into the holiday spirit. A tree (small and fake, but still) and presents followed, as well as peanut butter dog treats for Marlo and Kima. You can see where the tree came from in […] Read More

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Do It Yourself Flood Relief

After my blog post in August on Pakistan’s flood crisis, you responded. Six of my friends back in the U.S. wrote in to ask how they could help. There are tons of great relief organizations working in the area of course, but my friends were looking to do something a little more “hands on.” Enter our grand plan: collect some funds, gather supplies, and get the stuff driven to the flood relief areas ourselves to deliver items by hand to families there. A wee bit more ambitious, but totally do-able with the support of a few friends stateside, a rented car, and my energetic house guy who took three days off from managing my life in Islamabad to launch operation flood relief. The flood-affected families have been receiving a lot of food and water, thanks to the aforementioned flood relief organizations, but it’s starting to get cold in Pakistan (yes, it gets surprisingly cold here) and warm clothes are an unmet concern for people who have lost everything. So we concentrated on getting as many fluffy sweaters, comfy sweatshirts, and woolly pants in the hands of people who would be needing them soon. Our stash looked pretty good before send-off, in Islamabad, complete with (subtly American color-coded) sign. Coming Next: Part II, Handing Out the Clothes. Thank you, everyone who pitched in!! […] Read More

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Sunday Afternoon Observations

Fall has come to Islamabad. You hardy East-Coasters and Midwesterners will scoff, but after spending 18 months in Pakistan including monsoon summers, the low 60’s feel chilly and yesterday I hauled all of my boots and sweaters out of the closet. I met the Swedish Ambassador to Pakistan and she is HOT. How does Sweden do it? A large strip of my lawn has been removed to extend the vegetable garden; there are now 20 different items planted, getting me one step closer to my goal of turning the house into a commune where we can all live off the land. The snow peas are already 5 inches tall after their first week. I made my debut on Friday night in local Islamabad band “Gigistan.” I sang an ’80s classic, “Time After Time” and got a lot of kind comments both on my singing and on my rhinestone-studded True Religion jeans. Sometimes I think the most important thing is looking the part. My vacation to Vietnam starts in two weeks. I still need a visa, but luckily I can see the Vietnam Embassy from the terrace of my house, and will be popping over there tomorrow. I am most looking forward to the food and have heard that Saigon is a foodie paradise. I love the green smoothies from my detox so much I am continuing to have one every morning for breakfast. I am also, however, eating pizza on the weekends. Here’s to everything in moderation! […] Read More

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Detox

I am one week into a three-week detox. That’s 21 days of no caffeine, no alcohol, no dairy, no eggs, no sugar, no wheat. And a few other random no-no’s, like tomatoes, citrus, and soy sauce. No, I have not gone insane and no, I am not hungry all the time, to answer 99% of the questions you will immediately be asking about this process. I got inspired to do the cleanse after months of feeling tired, stressed out, heavy, and headache-y. Would surviving on a liquid meal for breakfast and dinner and a small, wheat, dairy, and sugar-free lunch do the trick? That was the experiment. I have to say so far it has been fantastic. I miss coming home to a yummy dinner (cold carrot ginger soup, anyone?), but I have twice the energy, none of the headaches, and am almost completely relaxed even though work continues to be hectic, stressful, and speed-of-light fast. So it may not be crazy to do a detox, but what about doing one in a country without salad bars, health food, or the concept of eating dinner before 9pm? A breakdown: HURDLE: My detox book (“Clean” by Alejandro Junger) includes 21 recipes at the end for all the smoothies, cold soups, and healthy lunches you will need to make on the cleanse. The recipes are full of ingredients like quinoa, buckwheat noodles, sprouted chia seeds, and blueberries. Yeah, right. ADVANTAGE: The recipes are also full of ingredients like mango, coconut water, and nut milk. Instead of spending lots of cash on packaged, stale versions of the last two, I turn the bounty and resources of Pakistan to […] Read More

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Flood

Right now where I live, in Islamabad, the wide, clean streets are dry as a bone, the air is clear, and the sky is sunny. In the rest of Pakistan, massive and continuing floods are threatening to take over the whole country. It’s been raining a lot here in town over the last few weeks too, but Islamabad is in a secure little spot nestled right at the foot of the Himalayas so we’re on high ground. The most flood-related inconvenience I’ve had to endure was stepping in heels over a 4-inch deep puddle in the driveway of my office, which disappeared pretty quickly. Does everyone around the world know how bad the flood disaster in Pakistan is? It has already affected more people than Haiti’s earthquake and the Asian tsunami combined, but maybe because it is a slower disaster, it’s a less exciting story for the media. There isn’t one, dramatic moment of destruction where the buildings fall or the wave hits the shore. Just hour after hour of unrelenting monsoon rain, water inching up slowly and then faster to cover people’s homes, possessions, and millions of acres of crops. The death toll will climb more slowly as well. The first case of cholera was reported today, and children are already dying for that slow, very undramatic reason of lack of clean drinking water. The aid pledged for Haiti and the tsunami victims was in the billions; here the total pledged is about 209 million so far. It certainly doesn’t seem fair that Pakistan has to face this, as if natural disaster ever is fair. (Although how “natural” is this, or the Russian heat […] Read More

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Eureka!

I finally figured out why I am having such a hard time putting up a post lately. It isn’t the new puppies, or the fact that I’ve been sick pretty much the whole month, or the oppressively hot weather that makes me want to lay around like a vegetable, or the news of catastrophic floods all throughout Pakistan that is just more and more depressing each day. No, it’s because I’ve been here too long. I don’t mean that I want to leave or that I don’t like it anymore. What I mean is that I’ve been here too long to give snapshots of what life is like in exotic Pakistan. Pakistan isn’t exotic to me anymore. It feels, in a lot of the ways that count, like home. Here is a list of things that I am totally and completely used to: machine guns, mosques, fancy Pakistani clothes, women carrying large loads of things on their heads. At one point all of these things seemed the height of exotic and cool. After living here for one and half years, I have even caught myself saying “we” and “our” and “us” on occasion when referring to Pakistan. This is the kind of stuff that gives the US government nightmares and is the reason they insist that their diplomats go back home on a regular basis to connect with America. Because of this adopted ownership and my appreciation for the real Pakistan, I now also feel like I have the right to voice complaints about “my” real Pakistan too. But I really don’t. At the end of the day it isn’t actually my country. So here […] Read More

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Fashion Show

Today’s picture of the day explains in part why I haven’t been posting any pictures of the day lately. All my energies were a little wrapped up working on the event in the photo, which went well. Who says fashion shows can’t come to Islamabad?? Check out the U.S. ambassador in the front row. I’m hiding right behind the model and her abundant hair. The event showcased 25 women-owned businesses who underwent a months-long training program to get their products ready for the international export market. 14 international buyers attended the show to place orders and bring these fabulous clothes to the U.S. Look for them to appear soon! […] Read More

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Book Reading

People sometimes complain that there isn’t anything to do in Islamabad (no bars obviously, no movie theater, not a ton of restaurants or shopping, and not nearly the night-life of Lahore or Karachi). But this week I did something that felt so normal and fun, and also reminded me of college. A book-reading!My friend is writing and editing “God’s Goldfish,” a collection of short stories about Muslims by Muslims. The reading was at the hippest coffee house in town, with free cookies and coffee cake for all. Everyone lounged around by the tealights for the reading of two stories, one about the wedding between a London-raised Pakistani girl and her village husband, and the other about an office romance. Yes, the stories were about Muslim experiences, but so easy to identify with. Maybe that is the point. Other than the carrot cake having raisins in it, the reading was a perfect way to spend the evening. I look forward to reading the rest, S! […] Read More

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A Little Game for Ya

Today’s photo is more like a puzzle, called “What is this?” Free samosas for the first person who guesses right. […] Read More

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Gup Shup

Everyone says that Islamabad is a sleepy, quiet little town. Compared to Karachi and Lahore, that’s true. But compared to say, Whittier, California or Brighton, Massachusetts, it isn’t. This is because every single night of the week you will find people up late, eating dinner, having shisha, and of course chatting. Another way to say this here is “gup shup,” a Punjabi term that means something like chit-chat, but encompasses more than that. Gup shup is friendly, open, relaxed conversation and hanging out, and Pakistanis excel at it. It is one of the reasons I feel very at home here: what is better than staying up late at night, eating yummy food and chatting? Today’s photo is of one of the many places you can go for some good old fashioned gup shup in Islamabad. And also, as it turns out, stroganoff pasta, which was the special of the day. I ate dinner there at 10:00 pm (I know, Oprah recommends no eating after six, but I haven’t started my detox yet). My friend had grape shisha and a cappuccino, and a lovely time was had by all. […] Read More

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Loaded Down

Yesterday I spent the day driving back and forth from Islamabad to Lahore, which is like driving back and forth from Boston to New York City (4 1/2 hours each way). I could probably post all 40 photos I took en route on Pakistan’s major highway as they were all so interesting, but the rule is one photo a day so I will comply!As much as this photo says something compelling about the state of highway regulations in Pakistan, the upper limit of engineering and physics, and most of all, the question of WHAT is in those bags, it is also impossible for me to post a photo like this without drawing some metaphor out of it. As the truck rolled by, laden with as many goods as I have ever seen on a truck, I happened to be reading a book called “Clean” about doing a three-week detox. The author of “Clean” was making a persuasive case that the continual and repeated onslaught of toxins we ingest through our food, water, and environment loads your body down, becoming a burden that makes you tired, cranky, and miserable. His evidence and argument really made me want to do the detox, despite the fact that I will be eating quinoa for breakfast and something called a “Green Drink” for dinner. Watching this truck roll by just in the middle of this dramatic passage really reinforced the message. Anyone else feeling loaded down? Want to do the detox with me? I could use the moral support. And someone with whom I could compare the finer points of green drink dinners. […] Read More

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Lychees!

It is lychee season in Pakistan so they are everywhere. They are one of the things I remember most about first moving here a year ago…everyone in our temporary office used to walk around, peeling and eating them, while we made start-up decisions and tackled the work issues involved in launching a new project. Sometimes we would be too busy to eat lunch right away, so we would subsist on lychees for a few hours instead.Lychees are a very sweet little fruit, a clear-ish white color inside once you peel off the thin scaly skin, with a pretty big seed. So not a lot of fruit for your effort. But they are delicious once you get there. Also just now noticing the fingerprints in the thick layer of dust in the fruit bowl. Try not to judge the housekeeping. […] Read More

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Bird Flu

Now we know that Pakistan is prepared! Today’s photo is from the avian influenza lab at Pakistan’s National Agricultural Research Council in Islamabad. We got the full tour of the lab, saw lots of complicated machines that spin DNA and so forth, and heard about how the lab is working to prevent outbreaks of bird flu. It was pretty impressive. The colorful display of chicken fetuses and bacteria in the hallway outside the lab was pretty impressive too, just in a gross way. […] Read More

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Chapati

Lately I’ve been using chapatis in place of the flour tortillas that you can’t get here. They’re along the same lines: round, floury, good to make quesadillas with. Perhaps every culture has its version? Anyway, chapatis come freshly made right from the bakery, only cost about 10 rupees each (12 cents) and come wrapped in the newspaper of the day, offering a little leisure reading while you eat. I have to admit that I don’t read the newspaper here very often, but it’s nice to catch the headlines when you unwrap your bread. The headline peeking out from under the chapati–“Who killed BB?”–refers to Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan who was assassinated in December 2007 right before she ran for re-election. The investigation into her death, which occurred during a rally in Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s sister city that’s about half an hour away, is Pakistan’s version of the “who killed Kennedy” conspiracy. Although here, of course, the crime scene was hosed down immediately after the shooting. So, there’s that wrinkle. […] Read More

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Working from Home

The terrace is my favorite part of my house. It has a nice breeze, a great view of the mountains, big scary birds circling around and landing on the railing every so often to keep things interesting, and occasionally the sight of monkeys climbing around the balcony next door. The cot is called a charpai, very popular in Pakistan but especially in the villages for lounging and sleeping. I love it. The Punjabi (dialect) word for this small cot is manji (sounds like “mungee”), but when I say this word my guard and driver laugh. I think it is funny for them to hear random Punjabi words coming from a foreigner. It has also occurred to me that I am accidentally saying something like “I enjoy kissing horses.” You never know. You will notice the ashtray on the second shelf of the little table. It’s not for me: I don’t smoke, but you have to have one for visitors. You will also see an empty smoothie glass. The terrace is the best place to enjoy smoothies. All of this helps when you are working 12-hour days. […] Read More

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Boredom is Universal

On my commute home from work, I saw this commute home from work. Isn’t it great how they have to stop at the red light too? […] Read More

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A Photo Every Day

I’m back! My trip to the U.S. was exhausting and invigorating all at the same time, and now I’m officially back in Pakistan for Year 2. In honor of the new start, I would like to announce a new change to the blog. I like to call it, “Quantity, not Quality.” Just kidding. Hopefully we can do both. Every day, I will be posting one photo of my life in Islamabad so you can see what it’s really like for me to live here. If you’re like most people around the world, all the photos you have probably ever seen of Pakistan involve heads of states/terrorism/war. I haven’t seen any of those things here firsthand, happily, so I’ll be able to show you a different side. I hope you enjoy! Today’s photo is of my vegetable garden. You can grow food here year-round, because the climate is amazing and the soil so fertile you/your gardener can basically just throw seeds in the ground and huge bushes will appear a few weeks later. The lettuce, cabbage, radishes, and peas are all gone now, and have given way to eggplants, tomatoes (still green but coming), and lots and lots of basil. I’m planning to make vats of pesto as soon as I have a chance. Pakistan friends: should we have a pesto-themed dinner party?   […] Read More

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Anniversary

How do you celebrate an anniversary with a country? It certainly feels like a serious relationship that I am currently in with Pakistan, so reaching our one-year mark felt like something to acknowledge with a nice dinner. The answer was to go to the Treehouse, a new-ish Italian restaurant up on the hill overlooking all of Islamabad. I went with a group of close friends; we ordered fancy pasta dishes, molten chocolate cake, and two different shisha pipes to enjoy after dessert (double apple and strawberry mint). In the cool breeze, with all the twinkling lights, in the company of good friends and good food, it was hard to look down at the city below with anything but a feeling of peace. It was hard in that moment to remember all the different stressful high points of the last twelve months: the crazy work environment, a steady stream of people leaving or getting fired, projects shutting down, going to the hospital for dehydration, my first bomb blast experience in Kabul, lizards on the walls and roaches on the floor, no salad for six months, etc. That’s what anniversaries are all about, I suppose. Remembering the good stuff, skipping lightly over the bad, and eating cake. I’m looking forward to Year #2, Pakistan. If I make it to our next anniversary, I want champagne. […] Read More