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Pakistan

blog

Still About Cheeseburgers

Things are getting a little hairy in Pakistan these days, you may have noticed. The government’s attempt to retake Swat Valley back from the Taliban is supposedly only two or three days from over, and fighting is heavy. The last six days have seen a massive suicide bomb detonated in front of a police station in Lahore and seven more throughout the rest of the country. Islamabad has so far remained peaceful, or as peaceful as a city swarming with police checkpoints can be. We were restricted from visiting certain places this weekend, so we spent the last two days holed up in the guest house ordering take-out and…working. Apparently security threats are good for business productivity. So no need to worry about me just yet; I continue to live quite calmly in the bubble that is Pakistan’s capital city, my main personal worries still almost exclusively related to food, sleep, and getting work done–a far cry from the concerns of the people who live near the border, most of whom have been displaced by the violence. We all have our eye on the situation, even as we mow through boxes of Lebanese take-out and I tell the team about the latest candidate for best cheeseburger in Islamabad. (Current favorite: the Bacon Cheeseburger at the American Club at the Embassy. That’s real bacon, cheddar cheese, a nice bun, and pickle–especially good with the macaroni and cheese I strongly recommend you order on the side). I’ll keep you updated! […] Read More

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Incident at the Guest House

In lieu of a thoughtful, substantive statement about my life here or conditions in Pakistan, all I’ve got today is a cockroach story. Hey, it’s been a busy week. Yesterday, while thinking about the different steps needed to design a communications strategy for US government audiences, I looked over and noticed a cockroach the size of a small child crawling along the floor of my office. Attempting to make use of the head waiter that hovers around all day offering diet Cokes and being very disappointed when I refuse (I’m still trying to ixnay the caffeine), I pointed to the roach and asked if he would mind killing it for me.

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Issues

Yes, I’m a sci-fi geek. I’ve been looking forward to the new Star Trek movie since I heard internet whisperings about it early last year. I got all hopped up after I saw the special trailer that has Leonard Nimoy at the end. I love the director, J.J. Abrams (Lost!), I love the original series, hokey uniforms and all, and I’ve loved watching Star Trek movies in the theater ever since I snuck out of “An American Tail” to go watch Star Trek IV back in 1986. (Trek. Time Travel. Whales. That movie will be hard to top.) So in putting together my mental list of “Pros and Cons of Moving to Pakistan,” I have to admit that “missing the release of the new Star Trek movie” was sort of on it. But like so many things I thought I would have to sacrifice when I became a resident of Islamabad (Italian food, driving, jeans) it turns out I can get Star Trek too. However, there are a few issues. Issue #1: Film Quality. If I wanted to, I could be watching all the geeked out action this very second. This is because Pakistan has a healthy and flourishing trade in bootlegged DVDs, and all the big movies basically become available immediately upon release for like 50 rupees (about .60 cents) at Jinnah Market. However, quality varies widely, from a shaky recording of someone who snuck their camera into the theater to a movie you can actually watch. And I don’t want to risk it where Star Trek is concerned. Issue #2: Safety. So this brings us to watching the movie on the big screen, […] Read More

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Last Night, in a Hospital in Pakistan

Turns out my “I’m feeling better!” celebrations from the last post were a little premature. I thought I was basically cured, but as we know by now Pakistan is full of surprises. Instead of that 100% recovery I was expecting, I had a little relapse. It turns out that having a stomach bug for six straight days is the best way to become dangerously dehydrated and get people really concerned. This is how I found myself at one o’clock in the morning last night being hurtled toward the emergency room of Shifa Hospital in downtown Islamabad with an entourage of four: my driver, my boss, my colleague (and acting translator), and our security chief. Overkill? Maybe. But it was really nice of all of them to come to the ER with me. And know we all know how to get there for next time! So, What is the Emergency Room Like in Pakistan? Pretty much like in America, except that it is way better. This particular ER had the huge plus of no waiting. I was ushered right in immediately to my little curtained-off bed and saw the doctor within 3 minutes. When I went to Boston Medical Center in 2001 with what turned out to not be appendicitis, I waited for six hours in the ER with no water or pain meds before anything happened to me, unless you count being poked by med students on their first day of school “anything.” Granted, BMC is in Dorchester, and it is hard to pay much attention to the girl with the tummyache when all the gunshot victims are being wheeled by on gurneys. Advantage: Pakistan. What’s the […] Read More

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Down for the Count

It finally got me. The deadly blister on the heel of the fantastic ex-pat experience. The reason, perhaps, why 70% of Americans don’t own a passport. The inevitable initiation that tests how much you really like your new exotic environment, all the beautiful sunshine, and the exciting development work. The devil-child birthed through the marriage of a new microbial environment and the occasionally dubious sanitation practices of my adopted country. It seems rude to talk about dubious sanitation practices, and it makes me want to retract that statement. On the other hand, many, many people who have lived here for a very, very long time have told me that the most dangerous thing in Pakistan is the food. (They usually say this as a way to minimize concerns about terrorists attacks. As in, “Nah…don’t worry about bombings. The most dangerous thing in Pakistan is the food.”) But, as we all know, I love food. I don’t ever want to be on the wrong side of food. So I started the relationship slowly and carefully, testing things out to make sure I wasn’t going to get burned. And everything went so well at first. I watched, sympathetic but relieved, as one by one, every member of our team went down except for me. It was immediately clear every morning whether a target had been hit: obvious in the haggard look of the haven’t-slept, the grimace at the sight of breakfast eggs, the cautious “Oooh, no thanks, my stomach isn’t doing so well.” I, however, seemed immune. As the days passed and nothing got me, I grew cocky. I thought my naturopath-recommended regimen of probiotics, herbal tinctures […] Read More

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Today’s Piece of Good Luck

Nothing perks up your work week more than the happy news that the anti-American demonstration that was planned at the intersection of right down the street from your Guest House for twelve noon Tuesday has been moved to the next town, over–Rawalpindi! Thanks, Rawalpindi! […] Read More

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What you Give Up…What you Get

So I have put myself in a pickle. Let me explain. While trying to decide whether to move to Pakistan, I made a list of all the little things I would have to give up if I came, just to make sure I was ready to make the jump. You’ve heard about them all many times already: pork products, vodka & soda, lettuce, cheeseburgers, driving, skirts, showing your bum in public, a totally Taliban-free life, etc. I thought it over carefully and decided it was worth giving up all these things for a great job and a new, exciting experience. Then I got here. I discovered, first of all, that not everything on my “banned” list was truly banned, thanks to three little miracles called the French Club, the embassy commissary, and bootleggers. Turns out champagne, bacon, and even provocative clothes are not a part of my distant past (you can wear all manner of sexy outfits to the monthly French Club dance party if that is what you are into). Then another thing happened. I realized all the things you can get in Pakistan that you can’t get back at home. This includes: people to drive you around, iron your clothes, plant a vegetable garden and exotic varieties of fruit trees in your yard, help you cook, give you a spa pedicure for $10, sell you beautiful handmade jewelry, patrol your house with large guns 24 hours a day, and carve all your salad vegetables into intricate little designs, all at very reasonable cost. (Is the ability to live like royalty all the time due to a country’s cheap labor conditions problematic? I’m sure it is. […] Read More

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Holla!

Update: I am no longer a woman without a country–my passport’s back. AND all my stuff arrived. AND all my Trader Joe’s stash made it through customs. Things are good. […] Read More

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Honeymoon Period

Lately I have found myself saying “fantastic” about twenty times a day. Undoubtedly this is the honeymoon period that several people have warned me about upon moving to a new country. Does this mean I should be bracing for the return to reality when my frustration at not being able to wear jeans in public or find a good burrito place erupts into a discontented malaise? Maybe. But just because you’re on honeymoon doesn’t mean you’re not in love. The energy in Islamabad is intense. This is partly due to the high-threat environment we are living in and the very legitimate concerns about security here. But it is also due to finding yourself in a place where decisions have high stakes and there is a real opportunity to have an impact. Yes, I miss Mexican food and the ability to walk around by myself on the street, not to mention all the people I love that are now far away, but I find that the word “fantastic” keeps popping out of my mouth every few minutes regardless. I just feel like this is my kind of place. Let me give you a few examples. They eat dinner here at nine p.m., ten p.m., whenever-they-feel-like-it-p.m. Last week, before I realized this, I nearly fainted at a work dinner that started at 7 even though the food didn’t arrive until 10. Before it came, I had to hint broadly for a snack and then inhale pound cake while trying to ask intelligent questions about program management design. But now I know better (Rule: Carry Food at All Times) and can just enjoy being around my kind of […] Read More

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A Normal Monday

I’ve been waiting to post until I have time to sit down and write a proper update, but if I wait for that it may never happen. So, I’ll just give you a quick snapshot of my Monday instead. Today was like any other start to a normal work week, except my 8 a.m. meeting was at the Islamabad Gun Club. The Gun Club sounds like a scary bunker shooting range kind of deal, but it’s actually a lovely spot just outside of town with rolling green lawns, stretched skins of leopards adorning the door jams, and a very civilized breakfast buffet. Once there I watched a PowerPoint presentation. That part is probably not very different from your day. While watching the presentation, I had my choice of coffee, tea, or a tall glass of unfiltered apple juice to go along with a breakfast that included chickpeas in tomato sauce. That’s probably a little different from your day (except for the coffee thing). After the Gun Club, my favorite driver, Abdulrahman, drove me back to the office in a car with screens over the windows so I could get back to work designing a plan for my next six months of work. Everything there sounds pretty normal except for having someone designated to drive you around at all times, although in New York they just call that a “cab.” So maybe…not that different. After eating lunch at my desk (not different), I went to the US Embassy (different) for a meeting that went on a little too long until I started getting sleepy and my stomach started growling with hunger (not different). I drank a […] Read More

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First Impressions

So many new experiences, so little time to report them. I’ll do my best with a few bullet points for now. After four days in Pakistan, this is what I’ve learned: I wanted a challenging, exciting job that would stretch and engage me intellectually, and I got it. I also got ten-hour workdays. (When am I going to have time to blog?) For some reason I am totally okay with these hours right now. It is a myth that there is no salad in Pakistan! True, there’s no lettuce, but what else can we call that little pile of artfully carved and zigzagged carrots and cucumbers dressed in oil and vinegar that comes with every meal? I am ecstatic to see my old friend – vegetables. Coffee = Nescafe. When’s the last time you poured a heaping teaspoonful of flavor crystals into hot water to get your caffeine fix…like 1980? Welcome to the time machine. I can pull any wrinkled item of clothing out of my overstuffed suitcase and get it ironed, just about any time of the day, for 40 rupees (about .50 cents). It is always men who do the ironing. This is not what I expected. My new favorite thing to do at four o’clock is to have tea and homemade macaroons. I don’t like having a driver on call as much as I thought I would. I miss driving, and I’m itching to try out one of those tiny little cars on the wrong side of the road. The US Embassy in Islamabad reminds me of Disneyland. Equal parts Jungle Cruise ride and those flower beds in the shape of Mickey […] Read More

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Unaccompanied Lady

First communication breakdown: hot milk with my breakfast cornflakes. But if that’s the most I have to complain about on my first day in Islamabad, I have to say things are looking pretty good. My 27 hours of travel time took me from Boston to Washington DC to Doha, Qatar and finally to Pakistan, arriving in the middle of the night. I have only good things to say about Qatar Air, which has nice wide seats, Jet Blue-like entertainment options, and sweet little candies and warm hand towels passed around at every possible opportunity. During my trip I watched 3 sitcoms, one episode of “House,” the pilot of “Life on Mars,” an entire movie (Marley & Me), and read an entire book (Eat Pray Love). (Hey, it’s about an American woman in her 30s who travels abroad alone for a year and learns all sorts of important lessons. Seemed too obvious to pass up.) A quick note about this glut of entertainment. I figured it would be my last American TV for awhile, so I really ate it up. The episode of “House” was fantastic–it guest-starred Mira Sorvino as a scientist with a mysterious illness trapped at the South Pole–and I enjoyed the pilot of “Life on Mars” way more than I thought I would. It’s about a cop who gets into a car accident in 2008 and wakes up in 1973, only no one is surprised to see him there. He finds himself in utterly unfamiliar surroundings, and yet he is immediately presented with a complete set of useful things: an apartment, keys, a car, and a job, and everyone seems to know his […] Read More

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Craziness

Looks like I missed all the excitement in Islamabad this weekend. Blockades around the city, a convoy of protesters marching towards the capital, last-minute negotiations, and finally, celebrations in the street. While I was busy picking out the best probiotics to pack for my trip, my very soon-to-be-home country was in turmoil, agitating for the reinstatement of the chief justice who was booted from the Supreme Court in 2007 by then-President Musharraf. Oh, you didn’t know presidents could fire judges? Welcome to Pakistan. Although at least on this day, it appeared to be a different Pakistan, as lawyers and citizens took to the streets to demand justice, and Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was returned to his post. What I don’t know about current Pakistani politics could fill several large, heavy volumes. Today’s storyline has a lot behind it, including old rivalries, new political tensions, past judicial proceedings, and lots of bad blood, but it can also be summed up rather simply by a novice like me: Something fishy happened. Today it was rectified. People rejoiced. (Come to think of it, the same words could be used to describe the events of January 20, 2009 right here in the USA!) Today’s situation in Pakistan can also be summed up in another way, as in the short yet comprehensive description my friend in Islamabad sent me earlier, in words that I’m only reprinting because my dad doesn’t know about this blog: The past 48 hours have been maybe the most tumultuous of my 3.5 years involved with Pakistan. Islamabad under siege, cell phones service cut off, gas stations closed, marching lawyers, trips canceled, embassy closed, everything dead quiet for the […] Read More

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It’s a Bullet and it’s Magic

I am staring at a long, nasty list of things I need to do before moving to Pakistan (which could happen in as little as two weeks, I found out today). Clean out my closet. Buy hand sanitizer. Give back that book of yours that I read or that skirt I borrowed. Set up my Power of Attorney. Get shots for tetanus, polio, typhoid fever, and hepatitis B. [Side note about tetanus. Does everyone know you are supposed to have a tetanus booster every ten years, even if you’re not moving to the Indian sub-continent? Am I the only one clueless about this? You should have seen my doctor’s face when she found out I hadn’t had a tetanus shot since the late ’80s. I guess it’s a good thing I’m going to Pakistan, so I don’t die stepping on a rusty nail right here in the good old U. S. of A. Back to the list.] Use up all the root vegetables from our farm’s winter share. Catch up on Battlestar Galactica. Go to the dentist. Get a haircut. Eat lots of raw vegetables and salads while I still can. Buy everything I can’t get in Pakistan so that I can ship it to Pakistan with me. [Sidenote about buying everything I can’t get in Pakistan and shipping it to Pakistan with me. I know this screams bad idea. And yet, I really want to do it. Moving someplace for a year, especially a foreign place where you’re pretty sure they’re not going to have that sunscreen you like or whole wheat pasta or Dagoba dark chocolate in roseberry flavor, has given me a sort […] Read More

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The Latest

The short version: I have accepted an amazing job opportunity in Pakistan and should be leaving in early March for Islamabad. Other than my irrational fear of shots (and the wide array I am supposed to get before departure to guard against things like yellow fever and malaria), there is now nothing standing in the way except for the final signing of the contract between USAID and the contractor who has hired me. The contract is 99% a done deal, but that means there’s still a 1% chance that after all this careful decision-making, I’ll end up in the U.S. after all, jobless and eating tons of cheeseburgers. But I’m getting mentally prepared for that more likely 99%. I want to say thanks so much for all the wise words, advice and encouragement you have all given me via blog notes, emails, and (only slightly freaked out-sounding) phone calls since I first opened up the floor for comments. I would highly recommend all of you to anyone I know who is currently deciding whether or not to move halfway across the world. And, as those of you on Facebook who read my “25 Things” note already know (is that thing on fire this week or WHAT), I can’t catch malaria anyway because of a rare red blood cell disorder that I have. So that’s one less shot I have to take. It’s almost like I was destined to move to South Asia to do strategic communications for a USAID consultant as part of the effort to shore up Pakistani infrastructure and thus undermine the instability that nurtures terrorism. No? Well, maybe just the malaria thing […] Read More

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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I always loved that song by The Clash. It’s so peppy and full of fun little rhymes: If I go there will be trouble And if I stay it will be double …etc. I’m stealing from the Clash’s eloquence to refer to a decision I have to make in the next two weeks. Volunteering for the Obama campaign the month before the election confirmed my long-term interest in the political process and made me want to finally stop stalling and get involved. I decided once and for all to pursue a career in politics, specifically in strategic communications: something I like and am good at. I put out feelers in Washington DC and started to get in touch with all my old contacts there about a possible job on the Hill or in the Administration. I’ve already rustled up a few good leads and a lot of great advice from people who know the city and the system. But my job hunt there is in its earliest stages. In the meantime, I got an offer. It’s for a fantastic job–strategic communications for a USAID consultant, exactly the kind of work I want to do, with a great team of people, working towards powerful initiatives, in a challenging, stimulating environment. In Pakistan. Yeah, the job’s in Islamabad. Is this a huge plus or a huge minus? Depends on who you ask. On one hand there’s being apart from everyone I love for a year. On the other hand, there’s being involved in interesting work that makes a difference in people’s lives. On one hand, there’s leaving most of my favorite clothes behind so I can shroud […] Read More