Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Holy Grail

I like a cup of coffee in the morning. I almost never have more than just the one cup, but I really enjoy that cup. Our cafeteria doesn't open until 7:00am and I am often on the compound before then and am forced to wait for my coffee. Many of my colleagues have those insulated coffee mugs made for commuters and bring a cup with them from home. This seemed to be a good idea to me, but I couldn't find one. I kept going to the commissary hoping to find one but, because they don't carry them, I never found one. Nonetheless, I looked for one each and every time I shopped at the commissary sometimes even making a special trip down to that end of the compound just to see if one had magically materialized.

Then one day before we destroyed my fleet of beat up vehicles and I lost my car to the vagaries of the Diplomatic Security Driver Training course I came up with a plan, I'd go to the market and buy my insulated coffee mug there! It's brilliance like this that has seen me become the successful Foreign Service Officer I am today. So I fired up my metallic pink KIA and headed for Khosar Market and a very nicely stocked kitchen supplies store. You can well imagine my disappointment upon discovering that this very nicely stocked kitchen supplies store carried everything from French coffee presses to Italian espresso machines but not a single insulated coffee mug.

Nonetheless I had come all this way and I felt fairly certain that the mug would appear if I put a little more effort into the looking for it, so I prowled the aisles, moved sundries, peered into gaps and spaces on the shelves and in general made a nuisance of myself. Then, quite reasonably, I got mad at the owner and clerks who were following me around and basically accused them of hiding the mugs from me. The Urdu word for "get out!" is "Jao!" but I didn't quite catch the correct pronunciation of the word for "lunatic".

The grocery store I frequent is right next door to the inadequately stocked kitchen supplies store and they carry Hagen Daz in limited flavors which would help take the sting out of my unsuccessful search for a mug. While paying for the ice cream I remembered that the grocery store had a small drug store type section upstairs and I climbed the stairs without any real hope of actually finding a mug. However, on a shelf directly opposite the top of the stairs was the last commuter's insulated coffee mug available for sale, quite possibly, in Pakistan. Between me and the mug were two Swedish diplomats, women who were looking at the mug, but, and I stress this point in my defense, they had not actually touched it yet. Using every inch of my reach I managed to wedge myself in between them and grabbed the mug. Diplomacy be damned, the mug was mine.

I paid for the mug and took it home. It was only several days later when I did the math that I realized I'd paid just over $35 for a mug that the Marriott Hotel routinely gives away as a promotional item. Of course, my mug doesn't have the Marriott logo printed tackily on the side. It has SIGG printed on the side, which turns out to be a Swiss company that manufactures mugs, water bottles and other promotional giveaways. All I can say is that my coffee has never tasted so good.

This week was a holiday week, someone left the doors of Congress unlocked and we had a surge in congressional delegations. Members of both Houses of Congress visit Pakistan with great regularity, never more so than over a holiday, to confer with various senior Pakistani officials including the President, the Prime Minister and the heads of the other two major political parties. That these Members are Honorable men is an indisputable fact, for it says so on their business cards, and they come in an honest attempt to educate themselves on the situation here to help them formulate our policy towards Pakistan in a way that best reflects our national interests.

A week when five separate delegations descend on us 'en masse' means two things to me; first, I will get very little sleep and second, my motor pool will be given every opportunity to shine. This week, between Monday at 3:00am when the fun began and Saturday at 10:00am when the last delegation boarded their military transport for home, we staged fifty-one separate motorcades and moved the five delegations around like pieces on a chessboard. Every vehicle was where it was supposed to be, when it was supposed to be there. Every Honorable Member was transported in safety and security, often at high speed, without incident. Our drivers did an outstanding job! I rode the Control Vehicle or Straggler in most of these movements. When the principal delegate and his/her party are strapped in, the motorcade moves out whether all of our embassy officers are in vehicles or not. The Straggler is there to make sure that anyone missing the move gets brought along to the next stop.

President Musharraf has a beautiful compound in Rawalpindi known as the Camp Office and the drivers, security people and I often sit there enjoying a cup of tea while the Honorable Members meet with him to discuss policy and have their pictures taken. The Prime Minister's residence is in Islamabad on a hill with a glorious view of the city and the Margalla Hills and he prefers to meet with our delegations there rather than in his office, leaving those of us who don't make policy in either Pakistan or America to sit outside and admire that view while hoping that the Honorable Members, against all odds, get it right. It is fairly evident to the committee of us who sit outside the meetings and don't take part in the photo opportunities that the problems here are huge and complex and won't begin to be solved until the grinding poverty in this country is addressed. Pakistan is a nation that needs schools and hospitals, an adequate power supply, a massive infrastructure building project, jobs and food. It has a nuclear weapon, a corrupt bureaucracy and an army that is 0 for 5 since 1947.

High speed motorcades out to the airport and the government offices in Rawalpindi with police escorts front and back and all traffic pulled aside to let us pass were very exciting when I first did them. Now I bring a book and my iPod along. I really enjoy sitting in the Straggler, reading my book, listening to music, sipping my coffee and looking out the window at this very green and beautiful city. It's quite similar to working for a living.

Standing on a hill overlooking the NWFP (Northwest Frontier Provinces).

The fabled NWFP, land of brigands, bandits, terrorists and a whole bunch of people just trying to eke a living out of rock and dirt.

We're in the Monsoon season now, it's come early this year. It's hot and humid and it rains nearly every day but the rain doesn't cool anything down. When the rain stops, the humidity in the air builds up until it rains again in a constant cycle of humid mugginess and torrential downpours. Surprisingly, I don't mind this at all. I find that I like the monsoons and that the heat doesn't bother me. It makes me feel like I'm living in a W. Somerset Maugham/Joseph Conrad sort of foreign place and I should be smoking cigarettes in long holders and drinking gin and tonics on a bamboo porch cooled by slow moving ceiling fans while complaining about the lack of 'good help'. This is also the beginning of the mango season and mango milkshakes are available at the restaurant on the compound, as are mango pies, mango ice cream, mango smoothies, mango ala mode, mango tea and mango smothered in fresh berries. Fresh mangos make the monsoons all the more bearable.

My blue aluminum commuter's insulated coffee mug works very well with mango smoothies and is, therefore, almost worth what it cost me. By the way, it turns out that the Swedish phrase, "alltfor dyr" translates as "too expensive", not "look, Sally, there's the mug we've been searching high and low for!".

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