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
The pursuit of domesticity continues! Having installed curtains, a new bathroom, and scary gas heaters that would be illegal in the United States in every room, I turn our attention now to the garden, and my desire for fresh vegetables and herbs that I can pick and eat just outside the front door. Am I allowed to call it “my” garden when it is actually my gardener who gets the seeds, plants the seeds, waters the seeds, weeds everything, and all but hands me local, seasonal eating on a silver platter? I’m going to anyway. And I do often insist on doing the fun part myself: skipping out into the garden with a colander and a knife to harvest what I need for the dinner salad. The gardener thinks I’m weird for doing this, and everyone seems vaguely uncomfortable that I’m not having staff cut lettuce and pull radishes for me. But this is the beauty of being a gentleman farmer, right? Someone else does all the work and you get to walk around and enjoy the fruits of their labor? Speaking of fruit, I never found my orange thief from last winter, but the tree is in blossom now and smells amazing every time I walk out the door, reminding me to forgive and forget, and also to tell the guard to be on the lookout for citrus felons. Who are we kidding, it was definitely the guard who ate them. Also speaking of fruit, it is strawberry season again, like it was when I first arrived here last spring, and it is heaven. Strawberries in Pakistan are delicious red little jewels, and they […] Read More
What better holiday to celebrate while living in Pakistan than…Persian New Year’s! (Otherwise known as the first day of spring.) I think Persian culture gets it right: starting the “new” year in icy frozen January doesn’t exactly engender the right feelings of growth and beginning. Spring does though, especially here in sunny Pakistan, where my orange tree is already covered in fragrant blossoms and little baby birds have suddenly appeared all over the hills. Friends of mine here in Islamabad celebrated Persian New Year’s in style last weekend, ordering tons of food from the local Persian restaurant (Iran is right next door, so it’s really not that big of a surprise that there’s a good Persian restaurant in town) and having everyone over to stuff our faces and jump over fire. The goodies on the table all represent blessings and wishes for the new year: coins for prosperity, vinegar for wisdom, eggs for fertility, pomegranates for more fertility, an orange suspended in water to signify the earth suspended in the universe, dried sweet fruits for (I think?) love, rosewater for…something good that I can’t remember, a goldfish for something else that I can’t remember (but how cool that you can get goldfish in Pakistan!) A mirror to see yourself clearly, flowers, sumac (if I knew what that was I would tell you), and I’m sure I missed a few more. Anyway, it’s a lovely tradition and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. The best part was jumping over the fire before dinner. Granted, it was really more like a “tray of candles,” but you really got that fire feeling. It is supposed to burn off all the […] Read More
The Subway addiction continues. Today I had the WORST craving for another Subway sandwich, so I went to the franchise down the street from the office. (There are seriously like 20 Subway stores in Lahore; they’re like McDonalds in New York City.) Based on my two visits in the last 24 hours, here are the following recommendations I will make should you ever find yourself inclined to visit a Subway in Pakistan:The quality of the veggie toppings is quite high: the tomatoes a deep red, the green peppers positively shining with color, and the red onions sliced fresh and looking vibrant. This may be because the franchises are not importing their produce, but are getting it locally. This seems like a good place to ignore that warning about not eating raw fruits and vegetables in Pakistan. The high quality of the veggies helps make up for the somewhat dubious quality of the meat. I wouldn’t say it’s bad, just that it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen at an American Subway. I ill-advisedly ordered a meatball sub last night. When he cut open the meatballs to put inside the bun and I saw that they were white inside (chicken meatballs??), I quickly ordered a 6-inch veggie sub on the side. Good move. On the other hand, the tandoori chicken is delicious. And there are about 15 different sauces you can put on your sandwich. Although, maybe it is already this way in America now too? I am old enough to remember when you could only get mayonnaise and yellow mustard on your Subway sandwich. And oil and vinegar, of course. That is the special dynamite secret […] Read More
Tonight in Lahore I checked out a fashion designer’s latest collection at her house, picked out some great fabric to have stitched into a fancy shalwar kameze, and bought a pair of shoes at Charles & Keith (flat, shiny, greenish-black, for work). The shopping choices are much more plentiful in Lahore than in Islamabad, so I have to take advantage of that when I am here on business. Before going out shopping, I went to Subway to pick up a quick veggie sub and white chocolate macadamia nut cookie, which all tasted pretty close to how Subway tastes in the U.S., and reminded me instantly of road trips, since that is pretty much the only time I go there under normal circumstances. To sum up: the evening was nice and normal, not loud, not dangerous, and involved cookies. More points for Pakistan! (Sorry, Kabul: give it a few years and maybe I could try you again…) […] Read More
It turns out you CAN go to the movies in Islamabad. There are still no movie theaters here, but for ten days a “film gala” is running at the Pakistan National Council for the Arts. The PNCA is housed at a beautiful building right by the Parliament in downtown Islamabad, the film nights are free and include an extensive buffet of tea and fried things (samosas, egg rolls, fish fingers) before the show. I couldn’t pass it up.I went to the opening night of the festival with a group of friends. The movie was “Tin Cup,” telling you right away what kind of film festival this wasn’t (artsy, independent, serious) and what it was (sponsored in part by Pakistan’s new movie cable channel, “Filmax”). Even still, I thought “Tin Cup” was a strange choice. I happen to like the movie, and I know at least one person who considers it his absolute favorite, but a golf movie starring Kevin Costner from 1996 is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think “film festival in Pakistan.” Looking at the brochure, I realized the movie choices only got weirder. Girly teen flicks seemed to predominate, with “What A Girl Wants” and “A Walk to Remember,” but the festival redeemed itself by ending on a high note with “The Wedding Singer.” On Night One, the crowd seemed excited about doing something a little different on a Thursday night in Islamabad (Hong Kong or New York, this isn’t), pleasantly stuffed with fried food, and ready to settle into the adventures of Roy McElroy and his leggy love interest. Things hit a small snag when the disc […] Read More
I’m redecorating. After living in Pakistan for nine months(!) I guess it’s finally time to really settle in: hang curtains, paint rooms, remove old cabinets, get new lighting, replace an entire bathroom. Somewhere along the way, while trying to entertain myself in a country without bars, malls or mini golf, things may have have gotten a little out of control. But you know how it is with home improvements.I got the landlord to let me renovate the upstairs bathroom in lieu of paying rent money for a little while. It’s a good deal for him: I do all the heavy lifting of finding a contractor, designing the bathroom, picking out the fixtures, finding another contractor after the first contractor turns out to be sketchy and incompetent, managing the second contractor, making the second contractor go back and fix all his mistakes while he tries to blame them on first contractor–you know, the usual. Perhaps home improvement is always an adventure. I don’t know: I’ve never tried it in the United States (I’m a renter, not an owner.) But let’s just say putting in a whole new bathroom in a country without access to Home Depot, IKEA, the Yellow Pages, the Better Business Bureau, or the ability to speak Urdu offers a whole new set of challenges. There was the tussle over where to put the Muslim shower (if you don’t know what that is, google it). There was trying to figure out how much a reasonably-priced toilet should cost in Pakistan. Or calculating how many ceramic tiles I would need for the floor in meters, when math isn’t my strong suit on the best of […] Read More
I feel like I should say something about Christmas…about spending Christmas in a different country for the first time in my life, about spending Christmas in a Muslim country where they don’t celebrate it, etcetera. But instead I am just so excited I am going to Thailand on Friday that I am feeling over Christmas. (Quick highlights version: it was very nice, I had a few lovely holiday events with the other random few expats still left in town over the holidays, I didn’t buy one single Christmas gift or hear one single Christmas song in an elevator or store. Certainly a first.) The end of the year (decade!) is almost here and it has certainly been one of change for me. A year ago, I had no idea I would be moving to Pakistan, would be starting a new career in international development, or would know how to say “I’m hungry” in Urdu. I didn’t know any of the many people I now know in Islamabad, both friends and colleagues, and I had never even been to Asia. I went from never having paid anyone to clean my house–ever–to having a housekeeper that comes in almost every single day and even does the dishes. I also have a gardener, a driver, a guard, and a house manager to keep this massive effort together. This is worthy of an entire post all by itself, titled: “Move to Pakistan and Ruin Yourself for a Return to Middle-Class America Forever.” I went from eating a nearly-vegetarian, largely organic diet of mostly salads and whole grains to eating the kind of thing that most Americans eat: refined flours […] Read More
One of the most common desserts in Pakistan, kheer is a smooth rice-based pudding, quite firm, that is served in little clay pots. It’s delicately spiced, with cardamom usually, and a thin layer of beaten silver is often laid on the top for decoration. (Yes, real silver!) Or sometimes nuts. You can find kheer at many restaurants, but I think the best versions are homemade. The kheer in the photo was from a dinner party that one of my former staff members had for a group of us at his family’s home. There were about 15 delicious dishes to choose from for the main course (I kid you not), and three desserts, meaning that I only had room for one small pot of kheer. […] Read More
Hi. Can I put in an order for take-away, please? Hello? Yes. Can I have one Mongolian Beef Noodle please. Uh-huh. And one order of chicken wings. The six, not the twelve. Six, please. Yes. And the Thai Noodles, you know the one that’s like Thai noodle curry, it’s not curry but it’s like vegetables and pasta, noodles? Thai chicken pasta! But no chicken just vegetables please. NO chicken. Right Thai Chicken Pasta no chicken. Yeah, Thai pasta, right. And…Also one piece of Mudd pie. MUDD PIE. Okay. Can I actually make that twelve chicken wings, not six? Yup. Uh-huh. Yup. Yes. No drinks. Sara. Sara. S-A-R-A. Zero three hundred eight double one xxx xxx xxxx. And the driver will be Nisar picking it up. And how much time? 20 minutes, okay. And how much money? (Four minutes pass.) Two thousand nine hundred rupees? Thanks! […] Read More
Pakistan is now celebrating the second Eid holiday of the year, which is a little quieter than last time around and has a lot to do with goats. This Eid marks the end of the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and commemorates the sacrifice of an animal that Abraham made instead of his son (thus the goats). The most interesting thing to me about this Eid is the way that old religious traditions adapt to a new, urban environment. The point of the goat is to make it feel like a real sacrifice: you’re supposed to bring it into your home, love, feed, and pet it, let your children grow attached, and then kill it. Letting the butcher do it someplace far away is a no-no. Thus last week, Islamabad was a city of goats. Goats tied up outside apartment buildings, in parking lots, being walked around the neighborhood at dusk by groups of kids. Like a final week of fun before the end. My friends who grew up here talk fondly of Goat Week and how much they enjoyed having their goats as pets before Eid, and how much they cried when the goats were killed. Apparently the system works. Once the deed is done, one-third of the meat goes to the poor, one-third to relatives and neighbors, and one-third to your own family. This ensures that the poor get to eat meat at least once a year. You might say that the goat tradition seems a little sad and cruel, except that it totally reminds me of our own annual festival of turkey sacrifice that occurred just a few days ago. […] Read More
Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday. I have an extensive list of favorite recipes I like to use, and I am in full support of a holiday whose sole purpose is gathering together to eat yummy food and feel grateful. Things may be a little different this year. Not because I don’t feel grateful, but because I live in Pakistan where our quaint American Turkey Day ways don’t apply. Here is a short list of things I am most worried about sourcing in time to cook the big Thanksgiving feast I am planning: Cranberries Fennel Sausage (we’re in a pork-free country, remember) Butternut Squash Goat Cheese Apple cider (to brine the turkey) About 100 other essential Thanksgiving items Things I am not worried about: Turkey. Thanks to my friend Jamie who is working at the Embassy, I scored a nice Butterball from the commissary that even now awaits the big day in my freezer. Thanks Jamie! Pomegranate seeds (for my famous goat cheese & pomegranate salad). It is pomegranate season here, and the big, fat pomegranates that lie in heaps on every corner put all of our sad little American versions to shame. I drink fresh pomegranate juice here almost every day when I am traveling. Ginger, oranges, cloves, peppercorns (key ingredients for turkey brine). They do spices well in Pakistan, and we’re coming into citrus season now. Update: I went to a highly-recommended veggie stand in F-10 today and found the following treasures–shallots! arugula! And a large gourd like none I have ever seen that nonetheless should stand in nicely for the butternut squash. We’re in business. […] Read More
Sometimes I am shocked by how normal my life is in Islamabad. Go to meetings, work in front of a computer, hit the gym, run by the grocery store for a dozen eggs and some broccoli. On these days I think, other than wearing pants under all my dresses (=how to turn American clothes into shalwar kameeze) and having my own driver, I could almost be living in a U.S. suburb. Except for nights like Monday, when I had dinner with Eve Ensler at my friend Dania’s house. Ensler was visiting the region as she often does as part of her campaign to end violence against women around the world. She is most famous for writing the play “The Vagina Monologues” and, although I did not ask her about them, is friends with all sorts of famous women like Susan Sarandon and Oprah who star in productions of her play. She is an extremely cool woman and someone you would definitely want in your bookclub, your yoga class, or your extended family (although it rarely works out that way). After dinner, Dania gave us all an impromptu belly-dancing lesson and I had an extra thick piece of delicious date cake with custard for dessert (okay, so some things remain constant). […] Read More
I’ve always said the most dangerous thing in Pakistan is the food. But perhaps it is time to also add “the water.” First of all, let’s be fair: it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten sick from any cause at all in this country. (Why do I tempt fate like that? why?why?) Ever since I’ve arrived, I’ve examined every stick of celery, every unwashed apple, and every dish containing mayonnaise with an eagle eye of doubt and mistrust. All the while, however, I have been blithely filling my mouth every morning and every night with something that I have recently been told is far more dangerous: untreated, unchlorinated tap water. There is a cute little notice in one of the hotels I frequent that says “Tap water is unsuitable for drinking.” This is putting it mildly. Like those college trips you took to Mexico, you’re not supposed to drink the tap water here. Or eat lettuce that is wet from being washed in it. Or let a piece of ice float in your drink that has been made with it. I totally get it, and I have been diligent. Except for one exception: I brush my teeth with it every day. No, I don’t swallow it. But doesn’t a teeny tiny little bit of it go down in the process? And is it possible that, perhaps especially during monsoon season when waterways flood and septic systems run haywire, a little bit of that teeny bit might have nasty things in it? This is the question I am thinking about today, when what I should be thinking about is the media outreach workshop I need to put […] Read More
Why is it, in a country often lauded as being as IT-savvy and advanced as India or the United States, THAT I CAN’T PAY MY BILLS ONLINE IN PAKISTAN?This is a mystery to me. No online bill payment, period. Not your phone bill, not your electric bill, not your rental car, not your gallons of clean water to drink bill, not your super cool Wi-Tribe bill. What is Wi-Tribe, you ask? Just a great little service that lets you connect to the internet anytime, anywhere in Pakistan’s major cities using just a little gadget on your laptop for only about $15 a month. Cool, right? Progressive, cutting-edge, technologically modern and up-to-date? Until you have to march down to the store to wait in line for 40 minutes to pay your bill, in person, in cash every month. What? Does anyone have any answers to this one? […] Read More
One thing that is the same all over the world? McDonald’s. Well, kind of. The ubiquitous McDonald’s sundae is actually a hundred times better at its Islamabad outpost: the ice cream is creamier and the whole thing is drowned in hot fudge (U.S. franchises being stingy when it comes to toppings for some reason). There’s another difference: remember when Big Macs came in styrofoam, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper were battling it out for supremacy, and you had never heard of global warming? You don’t have to imagine that here. Except for the Cyndi Lauper thing. Pakistan is very up-to-date when it comes to pop music. And finally, there’s one item on the menu that lets you know you’re not in Kansas anymore: the “McArabia” sandwich. McDonald’s answer to local ethnic food is a vaguely Middle Eastern chicken wrap. I haven’t been brave enough to try this yet. Of course, these days I don’t know if I’m brave enough to go to McDonald’s. It has, you guessed it, recently been added to the list of places likely to be blast targets. I’ll be finding my cheeseburgers elsewhere for awhile… […] Read More
In some ways it is getting harder to write about pound cake and muddy feet and the search for a good cheeseburger these days in Pakistan. These are still the things of daily life that are on my mind, but in the background is news, lately every single week, of terrorist violence. Close as it is in some ways, this violence still doesn’t touch the routines of my daily life; I don’t go to the kinds of places that are being attacked, and I am not one of the many Pakistanis who have lost family members in the last few weeks. When you see reports on the news of violence in Pakistan, please don’t be alarmed for me; my insulated bubble is holding up just fine. But of course we think about it. Yesterday an attack in a crowded market in Peshawar killed over 100 people, many of them women and children. Americans generally aren’t allowed to go to Peshawar anymore, and I have never been there. I’ve heard it is a beautiful, historic city. Even though it is only a two-hour drive from here, it seems like a different world, and these days not the safest place to be. This week the Taliban is targeting Pakistani citizens, normal, everyday people, in an attempt to unsettle the government and the nation. Last week it was college students in a cafeteria at an Islamic university. Before that it was an army headquarters building, and before that a UN food program office. I think these things make all of us want to work harder and do more to support stability in this country in any way we […] Read More
It’s like someone at the Avari Hotel has been reading my blog. This time around when I checked into the “Lady Avari” wing, there was my pound cake, snug in a little box waiting for me to devour. It’s the little things that make my stay in the woman-only floor worthwhile, Avari. Good work.I was in Lahore for half the week on a short-term assignment. The work was good, even if the beginning of the trip started inauspiciously. Here I am seconds after stepping into a huge, squelchy, and deceptively innocent-looking pile of mud upon arrival at the Lahore airport. I survived with the aid of my very helpful driver who tracked down a bottle of water and helped me wash off my foot and flip-flop, though the latter will never be the same. This photo also shows way more skin that can ever be shown appropriately in a public place like the Lahore airport. But, ah, American habits–like showing flesh above the ankle–die hard.
It’s felt a little different for me to be in Pakistan lately. This is probably due to the looming specter of my unemployment starting on October 17. It turns out it is slightly more anxiety-producing to be here in the land of the foreign and the unfamiliar without the reassuring comforts of company-sponsored security detail, visa sponsorship, and danger pay. This is the case even though I will be working as a short-term consultant and things are not as grim as this paragraph makes them sound. Short version: despite my griping, it’s not time to worry about me yet. In the meantime I am taking the opportunity to do all of those things in Islamabad that I could never do when I was working 12-hour days. This week that included: Sleeping in. Getting 8 pairs of pants hemmed. Trying a new restaurant other than Nirvana. And most importantly, attempting the grand experiment of cooking for myself. There are all sorts of obstacles to cooking my own meals here, even though cooking is one of my favorite things to do. First there were the rumors of bacteria run amok on everything raw–various sources made me fear for my life were I to get crazy and do something like, say, eat lettuce. I have decided these fears are overblown. Then of course there was the issue of living in a guesthouse for three months. During that period any personal “cooking” was relegated to burning popcorn in the conference room microwave or spraying fresh cherries with a hydrogen peroxide solution before gingerly eating them one by one (see above, dire fears re: bacteria). After getting my own place, […] Read More
No, it totally does not. But that’s the best I can do at an American equivalent. In fact, Eid is actually more like Christmas and Easter rolled up into one. Most significantly (for a hungry expat such as myself), Eid signals the end of Ramadan, a month of religious observation that includes fasting during daylight hours. Ramadan is a little rough–Muslims don’t eat or drink during the day, but then stay up late into the night breaking the fast with an iftar dinner. You can imagine the effect this has on worker productivity. My team was in fact a little groggy all month, but were still so cheerful I could not believe it. Anyone who has seen me delay breakfast by even 30 minutes knows what a grumpy, rotten mess I would be if I had to fast for a whole month. As it was, what Ramadan meant for me was feeling guilty mowing down Chinese noodles in the hallway every day at lunch so my staff couldn’t see or smell them. So that’s all over now, and all the restaurants are open again for lunch. (yay!) Since there are only about 7 restaurants in Islamabad that I go to on a regular basis, having most of those cut out of the mix during Ramadan really hurt. Maybe it is the month of fasting beforehand that makes Eid seem especially joyous and welcome. It lasts for two days, has something to do with a new moon sighting, and is a general time of religious celebration and eating and gifts and spending time with family. (See? Sounds like Christmas.) Women decorate their hands with henna like […] Read More
I’ve been back in Islamabad for 10 days. During that time, the following things have happened: The development project I work on was denied funding by the U.S. government and has been told to close down. I accidently bought a $15 pint of ice cream.
Most things are cheaper in Pakistan. Fresh-squeezed sweet melon juice (.80 cents), getting a couch delivered to your house ($2.40), a housekeeper to come in and clean once a day ($50/month), pedicures ($6.50). Nowhere, however, is this more true than in the realm of home entertainment. Every expat in Islamabad knows about Illusions. It’s an unassuming 2-story storefront in Jinnah Market crammed with a wealth of the latest in movies and TV shows, always guaranteed to be busy on a Saturday night. It’s where you can pick up the entire “Six Feet Under” series for $10, or “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” for 100 rupees (barely more than a buck). The only catch is a certain lack of, how shall we say…legitimacy. The covers do an adequate job of keeping up appearances, but once you pop them open, the plain DVDs numbered in black magic marker inside do little to pretend that the bootlegs you are buying are the real deal. And yet the lack of formality doesn’t affect the viewing experience one bit. This state of affairs utterly changes your relationship to American entertainment. On one hand, I couldn’t tell you on pain on death any movies coming to the screen anytime soon. (I haven’t seen a preview for 4 months.) On the other hand, I’m more caught up on Californication and Weeds than anyone I know because there is only a week lagtime between when episodes air brand new on Showtime and appear in their shiny ghetto packages on the other side of the world at Illusions. I’m both saturated by media and totally out of the loop. Occasionally the gamble does not pay off. […] Read More
No, I didn’t fall off the face of the earth. I just took a vacation, had an especially crazy month of work, and spent an inordinate amount of time trying to do very simple things like 1) get rid of the ants in my kitchen and 2) figure out why the internet hasn’t worked at my house for 6 weeks. So at present I’m short any substantive update about the grooviness of life in Pakistan over the last month. But I figured at least I could show you a few vacation pics! The idea was radical: take a long weekend off in a place with no cell or functioning internet service, where no one could do work of any kind and everyone could relax. I got away from the city, gulped down a ton of fresh air, visited the highest plains in the world, and read two books front to back. After four months of working weekends, putting in more than the occasional 12-hour day, and living and breathing my job, getting away felt like a long drink of water in the desert: much needed. The only bad news is that I got trapped in the mountains and started to despair of ever returning to civilization. A ticket to Skardu will cost you about 8,000 rupees, (or 14,000 rupees if you’re an American and don’t have one of your Pakistani friends pick up the ticket for you which luckily, I did. Thanks Fahim!!) Either way it’s a steal. The only downside is that the sole air carrier to the mountain towns is PIA, the government-owned airline of Pakistan where service is indifferent and your trip […] Read More
For the last two years, I have made an effort to eat with the seasons. That means no strawberries in October, no apples in April, no tomatoes in December (when they are hard and smell vaguely like plastic…big sacrifice). If it isn’t immediately clear to you why those items don’t go along with those months, it only means that you live in the U.S. or a similarly developed country and you are a product of your Costco, have-everything-now, big box store environment. It’s true we can certainly have everything now. If by “everything” we mean perfectly shaped, tasteless fruits and vegetables and the crazy desire to fly asparagus in from Chile in August even while a bounty of sweet corn, rich red peppers, or juicy cantaloupes are easily plucked right in your own state or even town during that same month. I understand you’re pretty busy and just reading this blog may count as your requisite non-fiction for the month. You’re probably not overly interested in reading “Omnivore’s Dilemma” or any of the other excellent books on this subject. In that case, just trust me when I say there’s a better way. As soon as I realized that the way we eat in the US is crazy, I decided to stop.
So, it’s the Fourth of July! Well, almost. Though if all the buzz on Facebook is to be believed, everyone in the U.S. got a healthy head start celebrating the holiday weekend. Here in Pakistan, things are a little less festive, seeing how they’re not celebrating anything here. It’s not that Pakistanis don’t recognize the significance of a group of people shaking off the chains of colonial oppression from Great Britan and becoming their own country. It’s just that they did it themselves 60 years ago, and they’re understandably a little more excited about that. Let’s see what that super reliable source Wikipedia has to say about it: Pakistan’s independence day (also known as Yom-e-Istiqlal or یوم استقلال ) is observed on August 14, the day on which Pakistan became independent from British rule within what was then known as the British Raj in 1947. The day is a national holiday in Pakistan, celebrated all over the country with flag raising ceremonies, tributes to the national heroes and fireworks taking place in the capital, Islamabad. (oooh, goody!) The main celebrations take place in Islamabad, where the President and Prime Minister raise the national flag at the Presidential and Parliament buildings and deliver speeches that are televised live. In the speech, the leaders highlight the achievements of the government, goals set for the future and in the words of the father of the nation, Quaid-e-Azam, bring “Unity, Faith and Discipline” to its people. So I have that to look forward to.
Today I am enjoying the feeling of being a law-abiding citizen. It may be the last day of that for awhile. I entered Pakistan on a three-month business visa that expires tomorrow, at which point I have no official documentation to demonstrate my authority to remain in the country. Good times! It’s not like I didn’t do everything I could to follow the rules. I turned in the proper forms, signed the proper stuff, and endured an awkward visit from an agent of the Pakistan government’s Minister of the Interior (MOI). He stopped by our offices a month ago to check me out, presumably to verify that I was, in fact, a development professional and not a high-class Russian hooker. (After the Avari, I feel anything’s possible.) He was then supposed to forward my application to the proper authorities so they could issue me a nice, shining new two-year multiple entry visa. Our office has worked to renew my visa through all the proper channels. So far, they have not been successful. As I contemplate the kind of living quarters one would be assigned should one find oneself on the Pakistani government’s bad side, let’s do a quick scan of my office’s efforts to keep me legal:
Even before I got here, I was told it was important that I get invited to a Pakistani wedding. The social scene in this country revolves around private homes and the family structure, and if you’re a foreigner moving to town, you’ve got to break in somehow. Otherwise, your life is limited to the circle of embassy clubs, one of the two expat coffee shops in town, dinners in the sparsely populated restaurants at the Islamabad Marriott, and, of course, working 12 hour days. So I was happy to be invited to my first Pakistani wedding last week, even though it was, ironically, at the Marriott. Pakistani weddings take something like four days to complete, and I don’t understand them at all. Actually, it’s about time for a disclaimer. Disclaimer: This entire paragraph and pretty much the remainder of this post is a mixture of hearsay, limited personal experience, and inference, and I can’t vouch for the accuracy of any of the information. (Go to wikipedia if you want to become even more seriously confused on the subject.) But from when I’ve gathered: Each night has separate rituals, separate bridal outfits, and separate things that all the guests do. I attended Night #4, which is the night where, apparently, all the guests sit and watch the bridal couple and their families up on a dais and then disperse to eat a lot of food. The bride wears a really ornate (and very heavy) gown and is supposed to keep a downcast face as she enters and exits. Brides do not generally wear white as that is associated with funerals rather than marriages. Usually they are in red […] Read More
So, they put me on the whore floor. Let me explain. It started out as innocently as any other business trip: board a plane in the morning, arrive in the not-too-distant city of Lahore armed with a full agenda and a small suitcase of hopefully not-too-wrinkled suits. It wasn’t until reaching reception at the hotel after a full day of meetings that things turned a little strange. The front desk cheerfully and efficiently checked in my boss and then turned to me and said, “You’ll need to check in on the third floor.” Confused but ever courteous, I decided to go with it and headed up the elevator alone. Upon arrival on the third floor, I suddenly found myself in a very different environment: one with lots of flowers, soothing music, and the presentation of a glass of cool, sweet melon juice. Third floor check-in isn’t so bad, I thought to myself. It turns out I had arrived in “Lady Avari” land, which is the name the Avari Hotel has given for their women’s only wing of the hotel. The reception desk on the third floor already had a print-out of my passport (weird), but they asked me all the right questions, as in What newspaper would you like delivered in the morning and Do you know about all the different restaurants in the hotel and What is your bust size. Wait, no they didn’t ask that one. But it was starting to feel like it was possible. I was escorted to my room, which was pink and girly and full of small bud vases. It was pointed out to me that all my calls […] Read More
I finally found a place to live. After hours of driving around Islamabad’s various sectors, tramping up lots of stairs, and poking in corners of countless empty houses, I have found a spot to call home. It’s totally unfurnished, which is crazy because this means I have to buy everything, including such luxuries as a refrigerator and heaters. But it was either this or live in a cramped apartment with furnishings that resemble brothel decor or rejects from a seedy motel in Reno. I just couldn’t do it. This does mean I may be sleeping on the floor for a little while. As I imagine a near future that doesn’t include me living in a hotel room surrounded by 739 pounds of my personal effects in cardboard boxes, let’s take a moment to look back and reflect on the guest house that has been my home for two months. After all, this is the place I have spent the vast majority of my hours upon moving to Pakistan: living upstairs, working downstairs, and trying not to eat anywhere due to my deep suspicions about the sanitary conditions of the kitchen. We’ve all made the joke a million times: “This is the true story…of seven strangers…picked to live in a house in Islamabad, work together and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite, and start getting Real.” Other than the “taped” part (well, I got what I could on my little Flip camera), that’s scarily accurate. And we’ve managed to have some fun along the way. In addition to putting a roof over my head, this guest house has been […] Read More
Or, When the Guest House starts to look like Prison. Because of the security situation, we’re not really allowed to go anywhere this week. No restaurants, no hotels, no public markets, no crowded places, nowhere much farther than the few thousand square feet of this guest house that I could now describe in painful detail even with my eyes shut. This means we’re forced to get a bit creative when it comes to entertainment. We’ve already compared and swapped all the DVDs we brought from home (oddly, no one seemed very interested in my collection of sustainable agriculture documentaries. ?!). We’ve sent the drivers out to pick up watermelons so we can remember it’s summer here even though we’re in an air-conditioned cave all the time. We’ve checked out despair.com’s collection of demotivators and picked out our favorite. Mine, most definitely = “It’s Always Darkest Just Before It Goes Pitch Black.” To make things even more boring, today is the day that pandora.com (free, perfectly customized internet radio that I love and am addicted to) decided to stop working in Pakistan. Something about not being “licensed.” Tell it to the shops with the thousands of bootleg DVDs! Since when do we care about licensing around here when I can get a copy of “I Love You Man” for $3? Anyway, my source of hip-hop is now shut off and it looks like I will have to start buying music like everybody else. We can’t go to the gym to work out, so today I decided to solve the problem of the lack of exercise AND the lack of entertainment in one fell swoop. After the “workday” was over […] Read More