Sunday, November 18, 2007

Ghurr Meetah Ghurr

It took me twenty-three hours to fly from Washington DC to Islamabad, Pakistan. The laws governing State Dept. travel allow us to fly in Business Class provided that our elapsed travel time exceeds fourteen hours. Whenever possible, we are required to fly an American flagged carrier. So, I took United Airlines to London, transferred there to a British Airways non-stop flight into Islamabad and got to fly Business Class on both carriers. I left DC on Nov. 13th at 10:00pm and arrived in Pakistan on Nov. 15th at about 7:00am local time. While I didn't really sleep on either flight, having all that extra room allowed me to stretch out and get a bit of rest and I got to use the BA lounge for my eight hour layover at Heathrow.

One of the benefits of traveling on a diplomatic passport is that you get to use the 'special' lines at the host country immigration point. However, flying into Islamabad these days you will find that virtually everyone on the plane is either a Pakistani national or a diplomat elbowing his way into the 'special' line. Fortunately for me, I was met by our Embassy 'expediter' and was taken to the head of the line, rushed through immigration, waved through customs and tossed into an armored Land Cruiser for a dash into town. I was shown my new home ("ghurr" in Urdu, "meetah" is sweet) and given a couple of hours to unpack, shower and change into fresh clothes. Then the motorpool sent a car for me and I headed off to meet my new colleagues at the Embassy.

My responsibilities will include overseeing the motorpool and the shipping/receiving sections, as well as backing up the other two GSOs on their portfolios (housing, travel, procurement, etc.). After I'd filled in a dozen or so forms advising all and sundry that I was now a permanent member of the American mission, had my first cup of decent coffee and adjusted the chair in my office to the 'that's just perfect' height and tilt, I was given a look at the upcoming schedule. I saw that we had a motorcade to the airport set up for the following day (Friday) to meet an important visitor and asked if I could tag along. Lita, my co-GSO and de facto mentor, gave me a funny look and said, "Sure, it's your job to run the motorcades so you might as well get started." Okay, I didn't want to come right out and ask what my job was, but now I knew.

Friday morning I ran around getting processed and badged and then we headed back out to Islamabad Airport to pick up Mr. Negroponte, the Deputy Secretary of State. Mr. Negroponte arrived on a small military jet and used the Chaklala Air Base, which gives a whole new meaning to the word 'special'. Chaklala and Islamabad Airport share a runway and nothing else. The arrivals area at Chaklala is beautiful, open and very tastefully decorated and was reserved on this occasion for Mr. Negroponte's exclusive use. Islamabad Airport is packed, old, down at the heels and teemed with at least one hundred thousand people when I arrived. Our VIP was met at planeside by the Ambassador and her entourage, his passport was given to an expediter for processing and he was sitting in the Ambassador's car within ten minutes of the plane touching the tarmac. As soon as his door was closed, we were off. His bags would be in a van right behind the main motorcade, no standing at the carousel saying, "Oh, oh I think the black one with the piece of duct tape down the side is mine!" for him.

This was a high speed motorcade. That meant full police escort with lights and sirens, all intersections closed, all traffic pulled to the side of the road and all vehicles in convoy with about ten inches between bumpers. We were traveling over eighty miles an hour with bursts up over one hundred, I felt like I was in NASCAR (except that we made right hand turns too). A high speed motorcade completely redefines the phrase "road hog". Without going into detail regarding the security arrangements, I will say that any external vehicle attempting to join our motorcade uninvited would have been severely chastised. It took less time for us to collect Mr. Negroponte, clear him into Pakistan and drive him to the Embassy than it took for me to get my bags the day before and I had been rushed through by our expediter.

I was given Saturday off so I could start putting my stuff away and get settled into my new home. I'll take some pictures of my house as soon as my camera gets here. I have four guards who are permanently stationed here, in fact, they live in the servants' quarters. Most houses have three guards, but I have four. They are Saqib, Ali, Sher Mohammad and Shabbir. It's like having my own personal army. I also have cable tv and internet. Next week I'll be interviewing housekeepers, cooks and gardeners. This is very similar to the Peace Corps except for the guards, the beautiful house and garden, the servants and the motorpool driver assigned to me. Yep, just like Peace Corps.

On Sunday we took Mr. Negroponte back to the airport and I rode out ahead with the baggage instead of in the high speed motorcade. After his plane was airborne, I spent several hours exploring Islamabad. There are small shopping centers in each neighborhood and they are each known for one thing or another. For example, the market in my neighborhood has the best meat in town. I bought a two pound fillet mignon ready to slice into medallions for just under five dollars. The market in Sector 7 has the biggest bookstore in the city and I picked up a couple of novels that looked interesting. My local grocery store carries Skippy peanut butter and Hellman's mayo, so I'm set. 

I live across the street from one of the many mosques in Islamabad and get reminded to pray five times a day by the Imam with his very very loud speaker. The first time I'm reminded each day is just before 5:00am. The next three reminders come while I'm at the Embassy but I catch the final call to prayers at the end of the day.

Now I think I'll take one of my new novels, a cigar and my glass of juice and head out to the patio to enjoy the remains of the day. The birds are all in full song and the sun is shining off the Margalla Hills. So far so good, but tomorrow I have to start work because my 'new guy' dispensation only lasted one day.


Jimbo said...

Fascinating; keep up the posts.

mgseamanjr said...

Very interesting. I love this blog. Please keep posting. I am just a bit confused about Negroponte's position in 2007. You state that he was Deputy Secretary of State but the bio on Wikipedia (admittedly not the "last word") states he was by then the Director of National Intelligence.