Sunday, January 27, 2008

Monkeys and Other Stuff

My hike in the Margalla Hills.

We are fairly restricted in what we can do with our free time here in Islamabad. We cannot leave the city limits on our own, walk anywhere, take any form of public transportation or gather in groups of more than eight. We can, however, drive personal vehicles, go to restaurants on the RSO's approved list, gather in groups of eight or less, hike the approved trails in the Margalla Hills and shop. This week I took advantage of the freedoms we're permitted.

Anywhere I've ever rented a car I've had to sign multiple forms guaranteeing that I would basically purchase the company a new car if the one I'd rented was so much as scratched. I've had to hand over my driver's license, credit card, two valid forms of id and several telephone numbers. Then, reluctantly, the clerk would give me the keys to a car that was, inevitably, not the one I had reserved. The car I had reserved at $19.99/day with unlimited mileage would always be unavailable so I'd be forced to take one for 'only' $29.99/day. By the time they finished adding on all the surcharges, insurance, and fees, I never got away with paying less than $100/day.

I rent a car now on the weekends and this is how it works here. It's delivered to my door on Friday night and picked up on either Sunday night or Monday morning. Whether I'm home or not on Friday, a car is left in my driveway. When I'm finished with it on Sunday I call the company and leave the keys with my guard. Sometime between Sunday night and Monday noon the car is collected. Then when I have time, I take a motor pool vehicle and run over to the rental office to pay my bill. I'm charged $22/day all inclusive. I don't sign anything and I pay in cash when I have time. Having a car on the weekend enables me to join a group of 'eight or less' that meets regularly in an ever changing location to play poker. Sometime early in the day on Saturday a text message is sent out to a group of regulars advising one and all of the location and starting time of that week's game. You RSVP regrets only and if you miss too many games, you're dropped from the call list. Theoretically, this poker game doesn't have to be an expense, but so far it's worked out that way for me. Without the car I wouldn't be able to make it to the games, so I suppose it's fair to add the poker losses to the car rental bill and, you guessed it, I'm right back up to $100/day!

We can also drive to the trailheads for the hiking trails in the Margalla Hills and we're allowed to hike on Trail No. 3. The Hills and trailheads are literally right across the street from my house but I'm not allowed to walk outside my gate or cross the road on foot. So, I get in my car and drive down the street, make a U-turn, come back just past my house on the other side and park in the lot for Trail No. 3. The trail goes up into the Hills and is about five kilometers long. I hiked it with three friends and it took us just under two hours to climb to the top of the first set of ridges. The Margalla Hills are the foothills of the Hindu Kush which are the foothills of the Himalayas; so, indirectly, I was hiking in the Himalayas last weekend and, I'm pleased to say, I climbed the shortest peak in the tallest mountains on earth. The trails are surprisingly well tended and very popular with many people in Islamabad, especially on the weekend. About halfway up the climb we hiked through a troop of monkeys who seemed intent on surrounding us. Some of them would play and pose on the trail and while we were distracted, several of the bigger guys would try to sneak around behind us through the bushes. I do not know their intent, but from the look in their shifty beady close-set little eyes I suspect they had villainy in mind. While we had them in size, they were our superior in numbers so we hurried along the trail and left the monkeys to plan their mischief around another group of hikers.

These monkeys are, apparently, not under the same security restrictions as us and they regularly walk across the road to root around in my garbage cans during the night.

The most popular participation sport for expatriates in Pakistan is shopping. Carpets, furniture, brassware, pottery and jewelry are the Big Five for diplomatic bargain hunters. One of the first questions people ask each other upon being introduced is, "How many carpets have you bought?", then they begin to swap information on shops and prices and immediately plan a safari to acquire still more stuff. I broke down and bought two mid-sized carpets from a guy who does a lot of business with Embassy staff. They are hand woven kilims from Harat, Afghanistan and have an interesting pattern that I find attractive.

This doesn't really do the colors justice, but it's the best picture I have. The golds and greens seem to come up better if you enlarge the photo.

So I say, "I have two, but they're very special hand-woven kilims from Harat" and the response, inevitably, is "Oh yeah, I've got a few of those and twenty-seven other, nicer, carpets too!". Like I mentioned, it's a participant sport. It becomes a full contact participant sport when we move into the area of furniture. There are several businesses in Islamabad that cater to the dip community's insatiable thirst for old furniture. Brand new antique pieces are being made in factories all over town as we speak. Old doors and windows are piled in heaps in basement stores under every carpet shop and people like me have tables and cupboards, chairs and desks, swings and mantle pieces made from them. Until I began getting the rental car, I was excluded from the Saturday hunt for treasure. Now I'm a full fledged member of the "I had an old window made into this cool table" Club.

The lattice work is from an old window and the bronze inlay on the sides is all new. The lattice work will be covered with a big piece of glass. My 'new' antique coffee table will be finished and delivered in a week.

There is a matching end table to go with it and if I want a second end table, "We'll find you a matching one by next week, Sahab!". There you go, antiques made to order. Half the fun of going to these places is finding them. One store is so hard to find that its location is passed on from one person to the next by taking them there because it would be nearly impossible to find from any set of directions. It is behind the PIA bulding, not the first PIA building, the white one, and then you have to make a U-turn on the 'new' Jinnah Blvd. and park in the front parking lot. You walk down an alley in the northeast corner and look for a small black sign pointing down. Follow the stairs down to the heavy iron doors and ring the bell. A man will look out the peephole and then let you in. Sort of like a speakeasy. You know what, it'll be easier if I just take you there.

This is what's behind the heavy iron doors. This store is called Tribal Arts and it's a favorite of the big-time shoppers. Lots of old doors and windows waiting to be turned into custom made furniture.

These old trunks are from PakTurk, another furniture dealer. I've been told that they're the next big thing. I bought my two tables from PakTurk.

One more thing the rental car gives me is the ability to just wander around and take pictures.

I go to Saeed Book Bank every couple of weeks because they have a great selection and a frequent buyers discount card.

The Faisal Mosque is right down the street from me and is one of Islamabad's landmark buildings. It's set up against the Margalla Hills so the Call to Prayer really reaches every corner of the city.

Jingle buses and trucks are everywhere. In addition to the wild paint jobs, they have these metal disks on chains hanging down in the back and on the sides that give them their name. You can just see the chains on this one below the license plate.

So, until next time, remember to drive on the left, don't pay the asking price and never, ever let the monkeys circle in behind you!!

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Week When Nothing Worked

This was the week when nothing worked. It started on the weekend when the car I was supposed to receive from a rental company failed to show up. Our Procurement Section has arranged to have a rental car delivered to my house every Friday evening and picked up again on Sundays. After ironing out the details all week long, I sat waiting for my first car like a kid on Christmas Eve. It turned out that the phrase, "your car will definitely be delivered tonight, sir" didn't actually mean that my car would be delivered that night, or any subsequent night either. Language nuances, communication mix-ups, cultural misunderstandings, gross indifference, who knows?

On Monday morning the telephone at my house died and, apparently, in its death throes took my internet line with it. That caused me absolutely no concern for two reasons, a) this sort of thing gets fixed very quickly by my able and competent staff in the Housing section and b) I worked an eighteen hour day that day and had no real need for either the phone or the internet. Senator Lieberman arrived for his visit and I spent most of the day working with the inevitable changes to his schedule. Islamabad received its first rain of the season and the cold rain came as a welcome relief in this dusty dry country. I spent most of the day with wet cold feet, but that's just part of the territory. I was a bit surprised when I got home just before midnight and discovered that the phone/internet was still out and I made a note to remind the guys to look after it in the morning. The rain on the roof was quite soothing and I slept like a baby.

On Tuesday my hot water joined the phone and internet in what was, apparently, a sympathy walkout. I showered with invigoratingly cold water and set off to work shivering but wide 4:00am. Our second group of visitors, three congressmen led by Congressman Mitchell, arrived and I spent the day shuttling between their schedule and Senator Lieberman's. I got back home just after 11:00pm, noticed that the phone/internet was still out, washed my face in wretchedly cold water and hit the sack. It had rained all day and while I slept my cold wet shoes were drying out by the heater. The heaters were warding off the damp cold and I slept soundly for five solid hours.

On Wednesday I had hot water!!, but still no phone and the lights went out, well technically they never went on. Sometime between midnight and my driver arriving at 5:00am the electricity joined the phone and replaced the hot water on the walkout list. I got dressed in the dark which explains the tie I chose that morning and left for work in a hammering thunderstorm. I got home late and the phone was still out. At least one call a day had been put into the maintenance folks and they assured me each and every day that it would be working that same night. They lied. However, someone had made my electricity work again. Unfortunately, the heaters were now in the non-functioning mode so the house was pretty cold but I climbed into bed in my sleeping bag and passed out. The rain pounding incessantly down on my roof was no longer soothing.

On Thursday morning I didn't give a damn. I got up in time for my 4:00am pick-up and began the busiest day on the schedule. Phone still dead, heaters gone, hot water (shamed into solidarity) now back on strike and, when I climbed into my waiting vehicle all the lights in the house went out as the electricity died again. Senator Lieberman left on an early morning flight and the rides to and from the airport were uneventful. Congressman Mitchell was due back into Islamabad from a side trip to Afghanistan in the early afternoon so at about noon we saddled up and headed back out to Chaklala.

They say it was the worst storm in Islamabad in five years. I was sitting on a highway in Pakistan in a blizzard not moving an inch. The drivers in our motorcade were very excited and I was happy for them, but we were not going to be on time to meet our VIPs so I wasn't quite as happy for me. We position expediters at the airport to assist us so I just called our man on the scene and asked him to meet the delegation, put them in the lounge and explain that we were on the way. His response was, "Sir, they are already here, they are in the lounge and they are fine".

We arrived at Chaklala thirty minutes later to learn that they were not in the lounge, they were not at Chaklala, in fact, they were not in Pakistan at all. They were still on the ground in Afghanistan. Language nuances, communication mix-ups, cultural misunderstandings, gross indifference, who knows? For the next three hours we received a continual stream of incredibly bad information. At one point we were informed that the Afghan controllers had handed them off to Pakistan but that the Pakistani controllers could not make contact with them. During the half hour that we lost contact, in truly nasty weather, with a small aircraft containing three U.S. Congressmen for whom we were responsible I instructed anyone who would listen to refer to my colleague Alex as "Second Secretary Whittington, the man in charge of this congressional visit" and to refer to me as "a low level embassy functionary" without using my name. Of course, as soon as it was determined that they were safe I became, "Larry, the guy who got the motorcade to the airport on time in the worst storm of the decade". I got home very late, I couldn't care less what was or wasn't working and I went to sleep. It had rained and/or snowed all day and my mood matched the weather.

On Friday Congressman Mitchell and his group left. I got up at 3:00am to see them off and watched the sun come up over Islamabad as we headed back from the airport. By midday my phone/internet was working, the hot water heater had been replaced, my generator had been fixed and all my heating units were up and running. My Vonage phone seems to have died, but I'll deal with that in good time. I had three hundred unanswered work related emails on my queue and most of the afternoon free to read through them.

From Monday to Friday I logged over 75 hours covering two very successful congressional delegations and a third, also successful, VIP visit. The guys who work for me took care of business and I ended the week in a position to catch up by putting in just a couple of hours in my office over the weekend. The rain has stopped and the sun is shining on the Margalla Hills across the street from my house. Best of all, the car rental company has promised me that my "car will definitely be delivered tonight, sir", so I have that to look forward to.

Sunny downtown Islamabad!

This is a link to a video I made about the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery. The video is grainy and small because the file was huge and I had to reduce it substantially to upload it to Yahoo Videos.