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 days. Or the morning I realized I was brushing my teeth in a pool of water (the new sink was draining directly onto the floor). Or the shower floor that slopes away from the drain, leaving a perpetual mini lagoon in one corner. Or finding scratches on my brand-new mirror left by the housekeeper’s overzealous scrubbing. Let’s just say the bathroom, now finally completed, feels like one of my most incredible accomplishments since moving to Pakistan.
Another huge personal accomplishment was getting curtains up. I’ve been talking about needing them since July. After all, the guardshack is directly outside my front window, and I’m sure the last thing the guard needs to see is me lounging on the couch eating bon-bons in comfy pajamas as he comes off the 12-hour overnight shift protecting my life for $1 an hour. My point is that a little discretion seems called for.In the U.S., if you want curtains, you scoot over to Target (recession) or West Elm (if you’re still living large), plop a few rods and some pre-measured, clearly labelled curtain panels in your cart, and throw them up on your walls when you get home. What is it, a 3-hour job, max? That’s not exactly the case here.
After living in Islamabad for a few months I tried going to the “curtain store,” which was a huge warehouse room full of bolts of fabric and about ten men sitting around drinking tea. Was there something for sale here? It was unclear. How would this fabric become cut, stitched, united with rods and hardware, and installed on the walls of my house? It was unclear. What was clear was that the tea-drinking men didn’t like their party interrupted by some girl yammering in English. At that point the power went off and the store went dark, putting the damper on my curtain hunt for another few months.
Next I tried a new curtain store that came highly recommended as being posh and helpful. Too posh and helpful, it turned out. The store very helpfully sent men to measure all the windows in the house, offer fabric suggestions and swatches, and then very poshfully (is this a word) wrote up an estimate of 260,000 rupees. (That’s $3,000!) After blanching white with shock, I said no thank you and pictured living exposed forever, like a living art installation or a damning example of American failure to be modest.
Ultimately, like everything in Pakistan, it took word-of-mouth, insider knowledge, and the dedicated and vigorous efforts of a crew of locals to get curtains up on the windows and decorum back to the neighborhood. (Thank you, Pilar, for hooking me up with your powerful underground curtain-making operation). There was measuring, there was scribbling, there was Mr. Moktar taking a bus to Charsadda in the NWFP (the part of the country I am not allowed to visit), there was picking up 9 gaz of hand-woven cotton linen panels made with wooden looms on the river by Pakistani women (I really wish I could have gone on this part of the trip), there was washing what felt like 3 tons of hand-woven cotton panels in hot water and picking what felt like 6 tons of the lint it made out of the dryer, there were multiple hunts for rings and curtain ends, there was spraypainting of curtain ends to match the rods, there was more measuring, there was hand-stitching by Mr. Abbas, there was inserting of rings, there was installing, there were curtains. It feels like a miracle.
So, whenever you picture my dangerous life in Pakistan, dodging bullets and living on adrenaline, and that makes you nervous, gently replace that vision with reality: me hanging curtains, thanking Mr. Abbas, picking lint out of the dryer. Definitely my biggest rush of the month.