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. While on vacation in Skardu, a group of us gathered around the TV all hopped up to watch “The Hangover” (based on Facebook status update buzz, I had high hopes), only to sigh heavily 30 seconds into the movie as the silhouette of a man walked across the grainy opening scene. Yeah, we were slipped a mickey: a recording off the screen by someone sneaking in a camcorder. You could practically hear the popcorn crunching. Most of the time, however, the “Illusions” experience is real enough to be satisfying.
It turns out that the expat-in-Pakistan experience means indulging in a few other illusions as well. For example: that the 200 lbs of food staples from the U.S. sitting in my pantry means I’m not going to miss Mexican food or my local farmers’ market. That running up and down the stairs at my office 30 times a day counts as exercise. That the purpose of the armed guard sitting outside my gate all day is to let the cable or water delivery guy into the house when I’m not home. That working 12 hour days or six-day weeks is normal.
What I’ve decided is that some degree of illusion might be necessary when you find yourself in an utterly different environment, one with its fair share of challenges and stress. A friend who once spent a year in Japan recently mentioned to me the Months 4-8 rule. In his opinion, these are the hardest months to live in a new place. After four months, the novelty has worn off (donkeys! samosas! Urdu!), but you haven’t settled in sufficiently to feel truly at home yet. Your friends back in the States no longer miss you at weekly happy hours, but your new friends won’t be broken up if you don’t show up at theirs. After 8 months, you’ve developed a groove, familiar traditions, and a real place to call home. At 4 months, you’re not quite there yet.
I agree with the Months 4-8 rule. And hearing it allowed me to relax. It helped me understand why I was feeling every so often like I was going just a little crazy, or why a few things that were so cute just a few months ago now sometimes make me want to hit something. It made me realize that during the 4-8 month window, retaining a few key illusions will help you survive so you can get to the next phase of loving Pakistan again. And it reminded me that it’s okay that so many things in life can be helped by buying an entire, illegal set of your favorite show on DVD, for the bargain price of a few sweet melon juices.