Sunday, March 30, 2008

Random Bits & Pieces

I have bought some things since I've been here. Five carpets, four camel skin lamps, three tables, two pieces of old brass and one set of Multan pottery. I am assured, primarily by those who sell these things, that I've gotten incredible bargains on them all. Each of the carpets was purchased at the vendor's shop and was selected from the hundreds of samples he'd unrolled for my inspection.

The four camel skin lamps were an impulse purchase made during a Vendors Day on the Embassy compound. As their name indicates, they are made from camel skin that has been shaped, then hardened with shellac and painted. There is no subtlety in this artwork and should I ever decide to open a bordello, four of the lamps stand ready now to light the bawdy rooms.

The three tables, a coffee table and two end tables, are made of old carved windows fitted with legs and covered with glass. The furniture maker also inlaid some brass scrollwork around the edges for an effect that I like. I had a choice of having them finished with a dark stain or left unstained and oiled and I chose the unstained and oiled option.

I bought the two pieces of brass when they were grey-brown with age and dirt. The vendor cleaned them and polished them and they look very nice, but I probably wouldn't have bought them if I hadn't seen them looking all old and nasty.

Multan is a city in central Pakistan where they make pottery. Samples were brought up to the Embassy and I picked out a pattern I liked and ordered a set of dishes. About six weeks later, my pottery arrived packed in a flimsy cardboard box tied up with yarn. I managed to get it home without breaking anything and opened the box. Inside, my seventy-eight pieces of hand thrown, hand-painted Multan pottery were packed in Pakistan's most plentiful resource, dirt. It took the better part of a day to get it all sorted out and washed and then another couple of hours to clean up the entryway to my house.

My tables have long since soaked up the original application of oil so I went back to the furniture shop to ask if I could buy some and oil them up again myself. I learned that they use plain old cooking oil, "like olive oil?" I asked. "Sure, but that's very expensive, we just use any cheap cooking oil." Today I'll re-oil my tables with some inexpensive sunflower oil and we'll see. My concern is that I'll be reminded of french fries each time I walk by them.

My house and yard are receiving the Phase III security upgrade. The walls around the property have been raised to a height of approximately ten feet and topped with long steel spikes. Concertina/razor wire has been added to the spikes on the wall in the backyard and the front gates to my driveway have been replaced with taller ones made from a much heavier gauge steel. All the windows in my house have had heavy steel grids welded across them and my wooden doors are being replaced with solid core steel. To get into the Embassy, you have to pass through delta barriers and 'man traps' and I'm half expecting those to appear in my driveway soon. If the phrase 'man traps' misleads you into picturing alluring young women in silk shalwar kamisses beckoning you forward, I'm sorry to have to tell you that they're a series of gates that open and close in sequence rather than simultaneously and can thereby trap a man trying to run through an open gate onto the compound. Even without these, my house is more secure that it ever was and I feel perfectly safe in it.

The flowers have bloomed and the yard looks great. My gardener has done a terrific job and I enjoy sitting on my front porch with a cold drink, smoking a cigar, looking at my flowers, reading a book and watching the birds fly through the trees. The only negative to this peaceful way of passing a Sunday afternoon is that there is a type of wasp, the size of a small airplane, that seems to be attracted to men sitting quietly on their porches. The first time I saw one of these beasts was when it landed on my book. When I yelled, the guards came running up to see what was wrong. I pointed the wasp out to them and they said it is a very dangerous type and very aggressive. I told them to shoot it. Apparently, they are more mature than I am and one of them killed it with his sandal.

At work I have been awarded the position of Parking Czar. We have 134 legitimate parking spaces on the compound and two parking lots just outside the walls that hold more than 600 additional vehicles. More than half the 134 on-compound spaces are reserved for one VIP or another which leaves roughly 60 temporary spots for the masses to use. On any given day there are anywhere from 150 to 200 vehicles scattered around the compound because anyone with a red (diplomatic) license plate can bring that vehicle through the gates. My solution is to issue exactly 134 on-compound parking passes and restrict access to only those vehicles exhibiting them. The powers-that-be are unanimous on two points A) my plan will work and B) I will be the most hated man in town once it's implemented. Perhaps that's why I'm getting the security upgrades done on my house. As with most things to do with the Department of State, where status is everything, to the great unwashed there is status in having a delta barrier lowered and the man-traps opened to allow them to park in the inner sanctum. The parking lots are guarded, fenced and barricaded, but they are not on-compound and require a walk of ten or fifteen yards to the pedestrian entrance of the compound. When the 134 spaces are filled, vehicles are currently left in fire lanes, in the motor pool area, against the warehouse, blocking driveways and over paths. Vehicles have been left in temporary parking spaces since the Eisenhower administration and would probably fall apart if the dirt were ever removed from them. After the permits have been issued, any vehicle found parked illegally will have one of my forklifts positioned with its blades under the chassis. The owner can then come and find me and wait while I locate the keys to the forklift and move it. I like to think of it as a "US Embassy Islamabad boot". The fun and games begin next week.

In a recent bombing that made international news one woman was killed and several of my friends and colleagues were badly injured. Our already restricted movements have, understandably, been further curtailed as our security measures have been tightened. A delegation of elected officials expressed considerable annoyance at not being allowed to wander through the markets to go shopping and even questioned our nerve. It is my unassailable belief that we could elect monkeys to replace some of our members of Congress without suffering any noticeable decline in the level of competence of that august body. Our people are recovering from their injuries in hospitals abroad.

The weather is getting warmer now and the Embassy pool is open. We also have a brand new Cardio Gym with state of the art treadmills, bikes and stair-steppers. I've got to begin getting some exercise one of these days so I'm thinking seriously of lying by the pool with a cold drink and watching my colleagues go in and out of the Cardio Gym. I think I'll use my on-compound parking permit to get a spot near the pool.