Coronavirus: Notes from the Field It’s Sunday night and instead of doing a menu plan for the week, organizing my work purse to grab in the morning, and remembering to tally up the money I owe for the kids’ Read-a-Thon because I’m fairly sure it is overdue at school, I’m trying to decide if it’s time to start panicking. Not really, of course: panic helps no one. But I am trying to decide how much “social isolation” to do in a country where we don’t yet have our first confirmed case of COVID-19. Botswana is a small, landlocked country with a population of 2.2 million.
Everyone can handle the expat lifestyle when it’s all famous international landmarks, breathtaking cultural experiences, and charming local children giving you presents. But what to do when your day hits the skids and you’re far from home? Last month I had the chance to find out (not once, but four times), which inspired me to come up with today’s list: the Top 10 Troubles you will face overseas and how to deal with them. I’ve faced every single one of them myself. 1. Car accidents I used to consider myself a good driver. Then I moved to Africa and promptly crashed my car into inanimate objects four different times in two years. My most recent crash involved a tree, a hungry preschooler in the backseat crying for pizza, and my least favorite gear: reverse. The quote to repair the bashed rear of the car seemed enough to cover the entire cost of a new car, but everything car-related is more expensive in Botswana and there aren’t many budget repair options.
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
Here is a list of great places to go away for a weekend trip: the Hamptons. Cape Cod. Santa Barbara. Hilton Head. Mackinaw Island. Miami. You will notice that Kabul, Afghanistan is not on that list. But I’m all about experiencing a little adventure, and I already live in Pakistan, so when I got the chance to go to Kabul, I thought…Afghanistan: can’t be that much more dangerous than Pakistan, right? An opportunity came up to go to check out a development project for the weekend, so I took it. I mean, you can handle anything for a year…would it really be so hard to live here? (Also, it is hard for me not to try anything once.) Everything went fine for the first 16 hours or so of my trip: I met a lot of nice people at the compound, I had a nice lamb dinner, I went out for martinis at a bar called “Martinis.” (Not so much with the inventive names here, apparently.) I saw some cool huge Afghan dogs, everyone was paying for things in American dollars, which I hadn’t seen for months, and there were tons of expats running around looking like they were having fun. It made it a little easier to overlook all the barbed wire. After getting to bed not so early, I was awakened at 6:30 in the morning by what sounded like the loudest crack of thunder I have ever heard in my life. I am never great in the morning at the best of times, but this rude awakening in a foreign country and unfamiliar bed (and the smoky smell) left me even more […] 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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