Saturday, October 25, 2008
A friend and I went up to Murree last weekend. It's a resort town in the mountains about an hour and a half outside of Islamabad. We went up for the day and thoroughly enjoyed walking around, poking in and out of shops and eating in a restaurant. It's difficult to describe what a treat it is for us to be allowed to just walk around and act like tourists. My friend speaks Urdu so we decided to identify ourselves as Italians when people asked where we were from, nobody seems to mind Italians. I even spoke such Italian phrases as, "The small boy is falling off a big yellow umbrella" and "Those birds are wearing sunglasses" to add authenticity to our claim.
It's the end of the season in Murree because the snows will begin next month and close the road, so we went up there just in time. I've learned that if the opportunity to do something presents itself here, you have to grab it because you never know what will be prohibited next week.
Negotiating about to begin.
Old Murree buildings.
The shopping alley.
This is the local dentist, unfortunately he doesn't participate in our Medical Plan.
This restaurant boasts a minus four stars in the Michelin Guide!
This man was selling some terrific peanut and cashew nut brittle candy.
Murree is up in the mountains and is quite a bit colder than Islamabad.
I'm four days and a wake-up call away from heading home. On November 7th I'll take my last run out to the Benazir Bhutto International Airport to catch an Emirates Air flight to Dubai. It'll be my last ride in a fully armored vehicle in a high threat environment for quite a while, unless we designate Washington DC as a 'high threat' environment. My orders to report to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) for further training have been cut and my ticket home has been issued. I've rented a furnished apartment in the Court House area of Arlington and am looking forward to nine months of the comfortable routine at FSI.
I divided my things into three piles for packing and shipping. The bulk of my things, my Household Effects (HHE), will go to a government storage facility in Belgium and remain there until I head off to Rome. Two metal trunks of clothing and odds and ends will be shipped by air to Washington for me as Unaccompanied Air Baggage (UAB) and, finally, I'll have my two duffel bags of things I'll need when I first arrive in DC. My pack-out took place earlier this week and all my things, except the stuff that will go in my duffel bags, are gone. I have the Welcome Kit that was loaned to me when I first arrived and, although it made my house seem warm and homey then, now it doesn't help as much and the place feels as empty and impersonal as a cheap hotel room.
The Warehouse guys have come by to inventory every single item in the house to make sure that I haven't, inadvertently, had Embassy furniture shipped to Rome or destroyed anything in some wild drunken party. Then the Facilities people came out to inspect the place and fix, at last, all the minor things that needed repair so the next guy will get a clean start. I've paid my final gardener's bill, written letters of recommendation for my guards, turned over my internet account to the guy who's taking my house and set him up with my old housekeeper. I've completed all the things I set out to do at work and intend to spend my last four days at the Embassy just walking around shaking hands with the guys and doing that air-kissing thing with the women.
Among the last things I had to complete was my EER. This is the comprehensive formal evaluation of my entire performance while at Post. My immediate supervisor writes it, the DCM reviews it and adds his own comments and then I write a page of self-evaluation (aka the suicide box). I served on a review committee that checked the EERs of first tour officers for inadmissible statements, typos and grammatical errors, so I've seen quite a few examples of good, bad and indifferent suicide boxes. Rather than draft a laundry list of my accomplishments, I thought I'd be really clever and just quote Macbeth, "What's done, is done". That's all I put on my page and then I gave it to our HR Officer to get her opinion. She was stunned, but finally managed to say, "Ya know, Larry, there's a reason this is called the suicide box. It's because you can commit career suicide more easily than you can possibly imagine just by being too clever." It turns out that your first two EERs are really all the Tenure Board has to go on to determine whether they'll give you tenure or not. I was assured by the HR Officer that they would not be amused by my single Shakespeare quote and would definitely want to see more from me.
So I added the laundry list, gave full credit to my team and expressed my honest appreciation for all the people who helped guide, coach and mentor me through this first tour. I stuck in a quote from Hamlet (Though this be madness, yet there is method in't) and called it a day. The HR Officer approved it and now my EER is in the hands of others.
It will be a while before I can step back and put this year in perspective. It's flown by faster than I ever could have imagined and I'm not really ready for it to be over. Unfortunately, things are not improving in Pakistan, the economy continues to deteriorate, the government is still unable to establish any sort of rule of law in much of the country and the security situation continues to worsen. Measures will always be taken to keep our own folks safe, but that will inevitably mean further curtailing movement and exposure. Trips to Murree may not be allowed down the road and while we're currently allowed to drive privately owned vehicles, I won't be surprised when that privilege is withdrawn and the Embassy moves to a 100% armored motor pool policy for all transportation.
I got to see the Khyber Pass from a helicopter gunship, Peshawar and Lahore from armored vehicles, Skardu and Murree on foot and Islamabad in great detail. I didn't get to Taxila or the jingle truck factory in 'Pindi, nor did I get to drive along the Grand Trunk Road or take a rental car down the back roads that run alongside the Indus River. I didn't get to Karachi, Sindh or Baluchistan but I did get to see the Crossing Ceremony at the Wagah Border. In the balance of things, I did okay.
These are a couple of 'jingle' trucks. Virtually every truck on the road in Pakistan is decorated this way.
During my tour, we managed to increase the size of our motor pool by almost twenty vehicles and we added six drivers. Most of the time I felt like a big kid who had the world's most amazing collection of armored toys. Our drivers have suggested that they should all take me out to the airport in a twenty-five car motorcade. Twenty-five black or white fully armored Land Cruisers in formation with lights flashing and horns blaring isn't really low profile, but I haven't ruled out the idea. If I decide to do it, I'll add one of the spare BMWs in the middle as a 'target' car and I'll ride in the Straggler. However, my replacement is here and she will probably not feel that this small twenty-five car gesture is necessary. I've enjoyed being a GSO and providing support to my colleagues. It's a great position from which to see just how an Embassy is put together and how the whole team operates. I honestly believe that we are doing important work in Pakistan and that we need to be here doing it. Places like Pakistan need the very best of our people, the most talented and the hardest working. With one or two exceptions (whom my career aspirations prevent me from identifying by name) we do have a talented hard working team in place.
These are the cars I intend to use for my departure ride to the airport.
My Motor Pool drivers!
Now it's time to sit back and enjoy the waning light over the Margalla Hills, smoke a cigar and watch the parrots fly in and out of my trees. I'll miss my place here. I'll miss the good friends I'm leaving behind, Americans and Pakistani, and the pace of work at the Embassy. I'll miss Islamabad and the adventure of trying to find a way to get to the Diplomatic Enclave amid random road closures every day. I'll miss the men who work for me and the people to whom I report. I might even miss my guards, given time.
I will certainly miss Pakistan. It's been an incredible year.