Frankly, from the security standpoint it is pretty dull (not that i'm complaining) here. Islamabad is the capital city and order is maintained by the military. The military headquarters is in Rawlapindi which nearby. (Now we know why Islamabad is located where it is)
We have been out to eat and experienced the local taxis. They are smaller than the mini cooper, kind of like a square volkswagon beetle. The engine sounds more like a lawnmower as we lurch down the wide boulevards, weaving around busses and bicycles at precarious speeds. Somehow they all manage to avoid each other but one wonders how.
Two concepts you don't find here "caffeine free" and "diet" I did manage to find a can of diet Pepsi on Saturday in a small shop. Caffeine free means I'm starting to drink green tea and lot's of bottled water. But the food is a treat, lots of open charcoal barbequed chicken and lamb. The thing that is hard to get used to is starting dinner about 8pm and often finishing past 10pm.
Present expat team members on the ground right now include British, Australian, Chinese, Scottish and the lone American (yours truely). We get on quite fine. This kind of work seems to attract rather unique personalities (having shared that, what does it say about me???). A most entertaining crew.
Islamabad is the capital and like a few other countries was created to house the government. There are wide divided boulevards with trees and greenery (or brownery in the summer) in them. The result is you need to travel a lot even in a city of a half million people. Tuesday I flew to Karachi which offically has 14 million (my Karachi colleague says it could be double that) and is best described as "teeming". Someone quipped "Karachi doesn't have traffic jams, it IS a traffic jam) This is the center of commerce and trade. Bumper to bumper through the smog as we wove our way to the hotel.
On the flight down I saw more black and white faces than I expected, then I noticed they were wearing matching shirts. Seems we were joined by the Zimbabwe cricket team. Cricket is the national sport and on the days when there is a Pakistan vs India test match the country grinds to a virtual halt. Since I have no clue how cricket works and it seems so slow, it is startling to meet fans a rabid as a died in the wool Packer fan or a Yankee's fan. I can't compare them to Cub's fans because they are too longsuffering.
The newspapers an TV are all filled with commentary on the US Presidential election, Pakistani's and other expats alike all seem to see this election as a watershed event which they see as shaping the future course of world events in a way they have not seen in decades. They even carry the various US presidential debates live on TV.
Departed Home on April Fools Day (Friday) and landed in Islamabad early Sunday morning. Met my colleague Yvette (from London) at Heathrow and we flew down together.
Having been here before the scenery was familiar and it felt more comfortable as we drove in from the airport. Something was different though because is was not as busy and strangely quiet.
This trip we have avoided the Holiday Inn and are staying at a private guest house instead. The Poet (as it is called) is in a different part of town in a residential area a short walk from a major super market area (might be a hundred or so shops) and in the other direction the Kohsar market where many of the expats shop and they have "foreign" goods. Even caffeene free diet coke which I have yet to find elsewhere in town.
The guest house is a converted private residence. It has a yard with real flowers and trees, a faint hint of jasmine in the air and a whole row of potted roses along the driveway as we walk in. Only 7 guest rooms but they have a small dining area where we have breakfast and can order lunch dinner or snacks around the clock. Not only are there phones in the room but a computer with 24 hour internet access (except when it goes down) so I can actually have a private chat with Helen using Skype.
So much more relaxing and secure.
On Saturday Yvette called in the early afternoon saying she was going cross eyed from reading Insurance reports and needed a walk. We wandered down to the F/6 market (the city is laid out in a grid) on our way to the Chemist (Drugstore) for me to research comparison prices for brand name items.
As we walked up the road Yvette grabbed my arm and said "watch out for that car". A white vehicle was acting strangely. Now if you have ever seen Pakistani traffic, acting strangely is what cars do here, but not ones with Anglo drivers waving at you. The car pulled up and Pippa (Yvette's friend from the Bitish High Commission hopped out and greeted us. She and her buddies were just back from a trip to the Hunza Valley. She was just out for a quick errand or two.
Well that little walk turned into an all afternoon escapade around town. We went to Pippa's house for refreshments and to see her Hunza treasures and then they took me shopping to find some bells. Seems Santa ran short last Christmas eve and I was to procure some extras. Not easy to find. We did locate a few and I walked out with a small bag of 10. The ladies however left with bags of cashmere shawls, misc other things and 6 pair of shoes between them (2 for 1 sale). The we went to the Punjab museum. A misnomer as it is a jewelry store not a museum. But on the other hand their "collection" reminded me of a museum. I had left with one dress shirt that has french cuffs and my only pair of cufflinks are safely in my dresser drawer at home. We looke briefly at cufflinks (one pair of which I bought) but the ladies were soon transfixed as the proprietor brought out package after package of beautiful stones from under the counter. Best I not reveal what the ladies spent but someone is going to look very nice when her earrings and pendant are finished.
We can often take relationships for granted when we are at home and settled. Pippa and her friends Kim & Doris are all career foreign service works who are single and have lived in different parts of the world. Having landed here in Islamabad at different jobs within the British High Commisssion they hang around together and have become extended family. They refer to themselves as the "Golden Girls" presumably after the TV comedy show by that name. Friends, family and just buddies to hang out with take on a whole new meaning when you are dropped into another culture. Some like the Golden Girls adapt well and enjoy the adventure, others close up inside themselves or thier nuclear family units.
David (Austrailian) and were the only ones in the office as it was a public holiday. This means the only air conditioning is opening the window and even the water pressure is gone. Thankfully the network and internet are up and funtioning. They are our lifeline to the world.
Thought it was very kind of the Pakistani's to declare my birthday a holiday since I was away from home, family and friends. After basking in the glory momentarily I deduced that since my name was not Mohammed the birthday celebrations at the local Mosques and the non stop singing and chanting were not meant for me. About noonish the fireworks started and went on for a while.
Friday prayers are always longer than normal midday prayers but due the celebration our driver will not be back to collect us until about 4:30 pm. We have the "right" to be picked up any time we want but have worked around the driver's prayer times as a way of being a respectful guest in this country. Besides the driver will take me to the airport at 5:00 am Sunday morning so we like to keep a good rapport with him.
Ahmed went back to Karachi this week. He had shown up by surprise the first day I arrived. Errol was supposed to arrive but his aunt had died the previous Friday and as the eldest son with aging parents he was in charge of the funeral and arrangements. (we rescheduled Errol's 3 presentations to the following week) Ahmed was new to their firm and new nothing about our project or this industry. He is a tall young devout muslim lad with a stocky build, a long black beard and traditional muslim dress. He was very timid and hesitant at first. I decided to have him do a data collection and organization project that Errol was to have done last year. He seemed surprised when I told him what I wanted the outcome to be and asked him how he thought he wanted to approach the project. We discovered the following week when his boss was here that people do exactly what they are told and how they are told to do it in this culture. He sat next to me in the office and we had many good chats about ways to get what we needed accopmlished. He made good progress.
The following Monday his boss appeared and his demeanor changed dramaticly. He went back to calling us both sir and bowing his head slightly when addressing us. He had to move into the next room with Alex (Austrian) and Yvette (British). That created another situation. As a devout muslim he would barely look at Yvette much less address her. Yvette of course cheerily asked about his family and found he was the only son with two sisters living at home. His parents live in Rawalpindi which is near the Islamabad airport. So he stayed with his family while working for us. By the end of the week he was engaging the foreigners in conversation in the other room while still deferring to his boss in our office next door. This was another case where I told him he was free to go off to prayers as needed and we scheduled around him.
In the end Ahmed got the job done (Errol was a bit miffed) but the change in his attitude towards us was striking. Our task includes "capacity building" and sometimes it is not the government organization we affect but individuals who see us (and and the western world) differently now because of the experience. Hard to move institutions but heartening to see individuals change. .