Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Interesting Times

This is my front porch where I sit, read, smoke my cigars and relax!

Merry Christmas!

In Muslim countries the Christmas season coincides with the celebration of Eid. This celebration honors the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son upon God's command. After passing the 'willingness' test, Abraham was permitted to substitute a sacrificial animal for his son. Today, the Eid celebration, much like Christmas, involves family time, the exchange of small gifts and the sacrifice of an animal (or a badly behaved son). Goats, cows and camels are the preferred sacrificial beasts and there are two markets in Islamabad that sell these animals.

The other day I saw an article in the local paper about these markets and the high prices the animals were fetching this year. Goats were being offered at prices starting at $100! Cows were upwards from $500 and camels, well, don't even get me started on camels. Apparently, it's outrageous and the sounds of great and many lamentations were heard throughout the city. So, I thought I'd wander over and check the markets out. It would be an opportunity to see something unique and different and I'd try to take a few pictures. Prior to doing anything of this nature, we check with the RSO (Regional Security Office) to make sure it's okay. In the politest possible terms the RSO asked me if I was out of my cotton-pickin' mind and explained that the markets would be full of very disgruntled men who couldn't afford to buy the most critical component of their Eid celebration. Many of these men go about armed and could well resent having a Westerner wandering around photographing their plight. Under those circumstances, he explained, and because all Westerners are thought to be wealthy, I might just as well go into the markets wearing a sign on my back that read, "Kill me and rob me". Hopefully, this will explain the lack of some really interesting pictures of the animal markets on this posting.

The Eid holiday was Thursday and Friday and our Christmas break was Monday and Tuesday, so most of our locally employed staff were given a six day break. Because we were busy preparing for various visiting delegations and the Pakistan national elections, the Americans in the Embassy worked almost straight through the break. We were ordered to take Christmas day off and without that command, one Grinch or another would have surely called a meeting! Two of my colleagues hosted a Christmas dinner and invited thirty or so of us over to eat, drink and celebrate. The evening was a great success and provided some welcome relief from the pressures of preparing for our visitors and getting ready for the upcoming elections while attending to the day to day business of running an Embassy.

The following day (Wednesday) the first of our delegations arrived and we went into action like a well oiled machine. This particular group was headed up by Senator Arlen Specter and included Congressman Kennedy. They had a full agenda of meetings with various officials and dignitaries including President Musharraf and General Majid who is the new Chief of Staff of the Pakistan army. So, bright and early Thursday morning we hammered down the motorway to Rawalpindi to attend the first meeting of the day with General Majid. The good General thoughtfully provided a very nice room for the security detail, the drivers and me and we enjoyed his hospitality while the delegation met with him. Then, exactly one hour later, we were back in formation for the return trip to Islamabad and our appointment with President Musharraf at the Presidential Palace. It was a beautiful day so we opted to stand around with the cars rather than sit in the waiting room while the meeting took place. I'm sure you would be very interested in what took place in those meetings, but I don't actually attend any of them. However, I know from the people who do attend that it goes something like this...after greetings and pleasantries one or another worthy says, "blah, blah, blah blah" and someone responds with "yes, but blah, blah, blah blah" Then there is much nodding and shaking of heads and a few more "blah,blah blah's" It all gets summed up in the end with "blah, blah blah" everyone shakes hands and that's all there is to it.

The agenda had some free time for our visitors after their meeting with the President and I escorted Congressman Kennedy to the National Heritage Museum. It's a small facility on the outskirts of the city and is quite complete in its representation of Pakistan's culture and history. A Punjabi folk group played native instruments for the Congressman as we left and he had a great time. Then we escorted Senator Specter to the Islamabad Club where it had been arranged for him to play a squash match against a former world champion. The Senator seemed delighted with the competition and was in a great mood as we headed back into Islamabad so he could get ready for dinner with Musharraf and then a late night meeting with Benazir Bhutto.

We heard about the attack on Bhutto on the way back to the hotel and spent the rest of the evening trying to sift the facts from the rumors. As the truth gradually became known, all further meetings and events were cancelled and the delegation decided to depart the next morning. We took them out to Chaklala air base under heavy escort and saw them safely out of the country. Our return trip to the city was temporarily delayed because demonstrators had set fire to the road. For those of you interested in precisely how you set fire to a road, tires soaked in gasoline will do the trick. As soon as it was safe, we drove back without incident. The country was locked down in anticipation of widespread violence and we returned to the Embassy to wait, watch and plan. Later that night we were all safe in our own homes watching CNN or BBC. Communications with the States were nearly impossible because the sheer volume of phone calls and internet usage overloaded the systems here.

Things are quiet in Islamabad and the violence in the other cities has subsided today (Saturday). Bhutto has been buried next to her father in their family plot in Karachi and there is no indication as to whether or not the elections will go forward as planned on January 8th. The current debate on the local news broadcasts questions exactly how she was killed. Early reports suggested that she was shot prior to the bomb explosion but now the government maintains that she wasn't hit by bullets, shrapnel or pellets and that she died as a result of hitting her head on part of the sunroof as she fell back into her car. She had been standing up through the sunroof waving to the crowd as she left the rally when she was attacked. I suppose it's important to know the details, but the end result is the same; there was a successful assassination attempt on Benazir Bhutto and it has thrown Pakistan into even more turmoil than usual. Many nations have expressed outrage at the act and sympathy for the Pakistani people and the Swiss government announced today that it was dropping its money laundering charges against her...but would continue to pursue them against her husband. Hey, business is business!

I'll be back at work tomorrow (Sunday) trying to figure out how to run a motor pool without gas as all fuel deliveries have been temporarily halted by government decree. Maybe I can requisition some of those unsold sacrificial animals to lug people around? "Yes, Ambassador, the big camel in the front is yours, Ma'am. Watch your step and don't ruin your shoes in that pile of ..."

I've settled into my house and find that I like it more and more. It seems that, for one reason or another, several other diplomats were offered my house before me but turned it down. In fact, it sometimes feels like everyone I meet had a shot at living here before getting a place they deemed more suitable. For some it is too noisy, for others too small and for one woman it was, "not a place where a single woman would be comfortable". It is on the main Margalla Road, but that puts it across the street from the Margalla Hills and the afternoon sun lights them up beautifully. There is noise from the road, but not more noise than you'd find in any similar city. It has two very comfortable bedrooms instead of the six or seven commonly found in our houses here, but we are all here alone so how many bedrooms does one 'single woman' require? The furniture is Embassy furniture and, while very nice, is exactly the same in every residence, big or small. The yard is among the largest in our inventory of houses and has been whipped into shape by the gardeners in a very short time. It's true, I have a mosque across the street and the Imam leads prayers with an impressive sound system but show me a street in this country that does not have a mosque on every corner. All in all, I think my house is just fine and legions of diplomats to come can reject it again after I'm gone, but for now, I'll live here quite happily.

These are some of the bananas ripening on the tree in my back yard.

These are the trees I look at while I'm sitting on my front porch.

And this is the interior of my "too small, unsuitable, oft rejected" rent free house.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


This is a picture of the front of my house and my front yard.

Friday I hiked the perimeter of the Embassy. That meant walking around the outside of the compound walls with a security detail, checking the surrounding area. We look for blind spots between guard posts, evidence of tunneling, encroaching vegetation or cover and any other obvious security concerns. Although there weren't any security issues, I did come upon a family of wild pigs. A river runs along the back wall and, I suppose, these pigs were on their way down for their late afternoon paddle. They ignored me and I didn't intrude on their personal space. The boar was HUGE! I'm told they can be quite dangerous, but I'm a very non-threatening type so they left me alone. Interestingly enough, although pork is strictly prohibited ('haraam' in Urdu) for Moslems, wild pigs are hunted, butchered and sold as 'Mountain Game'. Perhaps they taste like chicken?

Yesterday I played golf at the Islamabad Country Club, Members Only. It seems that, as diplomats, we receive courtesy memberships and can play simply by ponying up the greens fees. There are no carts and we are required to hire the local caddies to carry our clubs. We also hire one or two fore-caddies to stand down the fairway to keep track of our golfballs. Our caddy displayed an amazing talent for finding the balls that were in the fairway but didn't prove to be so adept at locating the balls that went hither and yon. If I ever actually hit a fairway, I'm pretty certain that I could find the ball all by myself but I tend to lean more towards the hither and yon side as a rule. After I'd lost the third ball to the dense rough I suggested that he might try to watch where my ball was going, that being his job and all.  He said, "Yessir, but it would be much easier for both of us if you would just hit it into the fairway!" I've been playing golf for forty years and that simple solution has, apparently, never occurred to me. No wonder I lose so many golf balls. The weather was absolutely perfect for golf and I was playing with my own clubs, so most of my prepared excuses were invalid before we began. My caddy, Nassir, agreed with all of my club selections and consistently told me to putt to the "right side" of the cup. It wasn't until the fourth hole that I realized that the only words of English he knew were "good club" and "putt right".  He could, however, shake his head in eloquent disgust at every shank, hook and slice. In spite of my state of play, I had a great time and was surprised to see peacocks roaming all over the course. They are not dangerous, not haraam and probably taste like chicken. The whole day cost a little less than twenty dollars with gratuities thrown in. I think I'll play again.

Today we held the semi-annual embassy auction. Twice a year we auction off computers, furniture, appliances, equipment, rugs, and surplus items to the general public. The GSOs are responsible for the auction and I'm a GSO. We had a crowd of about 400 people show up to bid on 307 lots. We arrived at the site at 7:30am, the auction began at 9:30am and ran, non-stop, until just past 4:30pm. Every single lot was sold and we netted a bit over 7.8 million rupees, which is almost $128,000! It was my first opportunity to mingle with and talk to Pakistanis who were not part of the diplomatic community. We had very tight security around the compound we were using and the day went off without a hitch. Tight security is just a fact of life here given the current political and social unrest. The men, and the crowd was virtually all male, were a mix of small businessmen and odd lot brokers. We had a pile of broken stuff and assorted junk piled against one wall to a height of about fifteen feet. This was called the Junk Pile and it fetched the highest bid of the 307 lots. The Junk Pile went for 900,000 Rps. When we closed the doors and left, a group of men were gathered in the park across the road from our compound auctioning off the contents of the Junk Pile piece by piece. The next day we learned that the auction in the park lasted all night and the owners of the Junk Pile made a profit of almost 100,000 Rps from the resale. Here are some shots of the auction yard and a few of our customers.

This was the crowd gathered to bid on the big blue/green generator we put up for sale. It went for 610,000 Rps. You can just barely see it in the photo because a large percentage of the bidding audience is sitting on it.

This man is trying out a Stairmaster that the Health Club put up for sale. He seemed to be disappointed that he wasn't actually gaining any altitude no matter how hard he climbed. Frankly, I completely understand.

These gentlemen were quite willing to shout out their considered opinions to anyone who asked and many who didn't. Their opinions invariably fell along the lines of, "You paid too much, you dumb ....!".

Not everyone appreciated those considered opinions!

Nor did everyone find the auction to be a riveting and compelling experience.

I think Osama bin Laden just bought two used air conditioners, an office desk and a chair in reasonable condition.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Breakfast at BB's

As you may or may not know, Benazir Bhutto is commonly referred to as BB. She is back in Pakistan after fleeing the country to avoid prosecution on corruption charges. Nawaz Sharif has also returned (early) after agreeing to spend ten years in exile abroad to avoid jail time for his conviction on treason and terrorism charges. Each of these individuals was, at one point or another, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Now, however, the primary difference between them is that I haven't had breakfast with Sharif.

Part of my job here is to set up the vehicles and drivers for motorcades. Last week we had a delegation of Senators, Congressmen and staff come to Islamabad for a visit and they required transportation to and from their various appointments. They were invited over to BB's place for breakfast and, because I ride in the control vehicle, I had to tag along. Among her many homes, here and abroad, BB keeps a surprisingly modest house in a typical Islamabad neighborhood. For security, the entire street is blocked off and only pre-cleared vehicles are allowed to enter. Our motorcade was expected and we drove up the street and pulled all our vehicles into her private compound which was actually somewhat smaller than my own private compound. Had she but asked, I'd have happily loaned her my house for her breakfast meeting.

While our dignitaries met with her, I waited outside the house in the rain with the drivers and security people. Quite thoughtfully, BB sent out tea and sandwiches to us. When the meeting ended and everyone was leaving, I wound up standing next to her in the driveway. I thanked her for the tea and sandwiches, opened car doors for assorted congress people and staff and we left. From BB's we split the motorcade and sent the staffers back to the Embassy while the 'principals' went on to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Again, someone, very thoughtfully, sent tea and biscuits out to the drivers and security people. An hour later we were back on the road and headed for ex-General now Mr. President Musharraf's offices in Rawalpindi. As the 'control' vehicle I take up the last position in the motorcade, except of course for the battalion of heavily armed police and military escorts following us. We made the run to 'Pindi in no time at all in spite of the rain and heavy traffic. High speed motorcades are really the only way to travel and I highly recommend that you acquire one for yourself.

At the president's compound, my vehicle was denied entrance because an incorrect license plate number had been called in. While the proper information was being relayed to his security detail, we pulled into an adjacent alley and waited patiently. No one sent us tea.

It took about half an hour to get my vehicle cleared into the compound and we were then allowed to join the other drivers and security guys waiting at ex-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's old house which is the building right next to the President's office. Zulfikar was Benazir's father and was hanged instead of exiled, which pretty effectively ensured that he wouldn't return early or at all.

The proprieties were once again observed and the President sent out tea and some very tasty little cakes. An hour later we were pounding our way back to Islamabad on the 'Pindi Road. It occurred to me that the drivers, security people and low level Embassy staff (that being me) really had the best of the deal. We received the same tea and snacks that the 'principals' got and didn't have to sit and listen to assorted politicians offer each other their deeply sincere assurances. Diplomacy, from my perspective, is all about the quality of the tea and cookies.

I'm getting settled in now and I've hired a housekeeper/cook guy by the name of Saqib. He works for a couple of people at the Embassy and comes highly recommended. He'll come here twice a week to do laundry, clean the house and cook enough food to last me until he comes back. In addition, he'll be able to run errands for me, let in various service people and do my shopping. When I asked him for a reference, he told me that Floyd Cable at the Embassy is his boss. That's a coincidence because Floyd Cable at the Embassy is my boss too. I'm still a little unclear on what I'm paying Saqib, but we'll sort that out later.

I only have my telephoto lens at the moment but I wanted to put in a couple of pictures before my yard is finished. I have a gardening staff now and they are hard at it, digging and moving dirt and cutting stuff down. They are very industrious and seem like pleasant enough guys. They assure me that my yard will be "bohaut hoob surat" which means very beautiful. I'm not sure what I'm paying them, but we'll sort that out later.

So, all that now remains is for Nawaz Sharif to invite someone to a meeting and I'll have an opportunity to have tea and scones at his house. I'll keep my calendar open in case his people call.

This was the Thanksgiving table at my co-worker Lita's house. It was an excellent dinner!

This is Sher Muhammad, one of my 'permanent' guards. Apparently, I have three permanent guards, three temporary guards and a reliever corps. I give them 'tea' money once a month but I'm not certain how much. This too will be sorted out later.

This is the gardening crew.

My front yard. I'll take better photos of the house and yard after my wide angle lens gets here.

These are the banana trees in the front yard. There's a bigger grove in the back.

Lastly, this, for my Peace Corps friends, is my always on, built in, hard wired, automatic water distiller.