Thursday of last week: dinner at Cafe Lazeez, a fancy-pants expat restaurant that's right by my house. Damn good baba ghanoush, tasty chili-sauce lamb.
Friday: violently, violently ill. Arc-vomiting with impressive force and distance, although with not so good accuracy. Doubled over on the bathroom floor with crippling stomach cramps, pretty much in agony. Good times.
Saturday morning, decided that even the beast in the stomach ("Babar," I've decided to name my parasite. Like the elephant, only everyone in America sadly mispronounces said elephant's name -- it's not bah-bar, it's bau-bur, to rhyme with clobber or slobber, heavy emphasis on the first syllable) couldn't keep me from leaving Islamabad for the weekend.
So I flew north, one hour, to where the Hindu Kush ("Killer of Hindus," the name means) meets the Karakoram meets the Himalayas. Three mountain ranges, loads of fun. It includes the Karakorum 5, five mountains of considerable size, the most considerable of which is Karakorum-2. Most people know it by it's abbreviation -- K-2, second highest mountain in the world.
We fly through said mountains. We're in PIA economy-plus, and we're the only ones there, leaping from one side of the plane to the other as the views change. The stewardess tells us: you can't see anything from back here. If you go up to the cockpit, you'll be able to see K-2.
So we do. Chuckling the whole time, of course, because if you tried this on an American plane, you'd be shot dead in a heartbeat.
So then, good plane ride, go team, etc. Arrive in the village of Skardu. Clear customs (at which we notice that there are exclusively -- literally, exclusively -- men. Not a single woman, outside of the Americans, took the flight.
A sign outside the airport reads: "Dear Sisters! Hijab is our culture. Cover yourselves to be respected." The females amongst us bristle at this. I suggest a bare-breasted photo by the sign, but they, unsurprisingly, balk. "May as well be wearing hijab," I mutter.
Drive to the PIA office in town to reconfirm our tickets. Quoth PIA: we've decided to cancel that flight. It seems our stay in Skardu will be extended by a day. I am thrilled by this news.
Drive 45 minutes to the next village over, Shigar. Check into our hotel, a 400 year old fort that's been restored. The hotel is nice, to say the least.
Lunch: tasty. Hike: Lovely. Dinner: delicious. Tea on the veranda, sunset, all the trappings of a colonial lifestyle, in place.
The next morning, back to Skardu to wander the bazaar and go hiking near a mountain lake that's got Buddha statues. On the drive, are temporarily stopped by a herd of about 50 sheep, in the road.
Learn in town: flight's been uncanceled. Send someone back to get our bags. Wander Skardu. Females buy scarves to approximate hijab, halfheartedly. Zip to the airport and fly home, feeling rather deprived of my extra day off.
Total length of vacation: about 28 hours. Not nearly long enough.
Babar the parasite: still very much with us.
More updates: no doubt pending.
Thanks to all who sent their greetings on Tuesday, a day which I vehemently denied existing, claiming that festivities therein fall technically on March 10th. Sadly, my coworkers and I have access to the full and complete passport database, which allows us to look up vital stats on any given person who holds a US passport. DoB: hoisted by my own petard.
Regardless, I do wish you all the very best of days.
Posted by Dakota on 6:38 AM link |
Assuredly the greatest comment from happy hour last week:
You wouldn't ever really guess it, but I swear to you -- Thai hookers are unbelievably good at Connect-4.
Posted by Dakota on 5:55 AM link |
Yesterday I came home early because the embassy indicated that my stuff had arrived. Shakeel, my previously mentioned Dhobi and all-purpose house guy, was in the house, since Tuesday is one of his days.
I asked after his wife -- at last check very pregnant -- and found out that she had given birth 2 days prior, to a healthy baby girl. He had wanted a girl, and I congratulated him on his luck. His wife was still in the hospital, recovering from her C-section, and I offered him the rest of the day off to go be with her. He told me that the hospital only lets in visitors after 5, so he'd prefer to stay and finish the ironing. And then the following discussion took place:
I: So, what are you going to name her?
He: We haven't decided yet. What do you think are good names for a girl?
I: Hmm. I don't really know.
He: How do you feel about Hina?
I: I like the name Hina. It's a good name. Also, I really like the name Leila.
He: Ok. We'll name her Leila.
I of course back-pedaled quickly -- I'm not looking for the responsibility of naming someone's child -- but he was having none of that. "We're naming it Leila," he said.
Eventually he recanted and said -- ok, maybe we'll nickname it Leila -- and for that I was grateful, but it's nice to know that absent children of my own (and more or less bereft of the possibility of ever having children of my own), that the possibility of leaving my indelible mark in the form of a name (or nickname) is still a possibility.
Posted by Dakota on 7:27 AM link |
Having already presented the concept of Chokidaar, I'll toss in another brief vignette on life in Pakistan:
Shopping in Pakistan is done in Super Markets. Not supermarkets, mind you, but Super Markets. I was under the impression I'd be living near the latter, but no, the Jinnah Super is in fact a rough collection of shops cobbled together. Having spent quite a bit of time there, I'll also mention that I do, indeed, think it's super.
Whenever one pulls into a market, for whatever reason, one is invariably instantly swarmed with kids. They run the guantlet from grubby street children who look genuinely hungry and are usually being overseen by an adult who's forcing them to keep working, all the way to preppy fresh-from-school kids still wearing their heavily starched uniforms.
Invariably, they're looking to work for a couple rupees (10 to 50, depending on the generosity of spirit the car owner is in). So when you pull into the market and get out of your car, you're invariably mobbed by 7 year olds, crooning the line "ok chokidaar? I chokidaar, goooooood chokidaar, ok sir, ok." It's kind of endearing, and I always take them up on their offer (whether or not this is socially responsible is a common topic of debate). It's one of those little things about Pakistan I keep meaning to mention in passing but have yet to get around to.
Enjoy your day.
Posted by Dakota on 6:37 AM link |
Das Earthquake Update (which, I believe that everyone who bothers to read this blog has already gotten via email, but whatever):
Because I've been indoctrinated by the government and am now wholeheartedly into covering my tail, I will must mention here that the views expressed herein are exclusively my own, and are not in any way meant to represent the views or policy of the United States government.
So then: on Saturday, October 8th, at 8:55 in the morning Pakistani time, an earthquake of 7.6 on the richter hit Pakistan, about 50 miles north of Islamabad. In standard Saturday morning form, I was still in bed and very much asleep when the earthquake hits.
I woke up, thoroughly convinced that cats were fighting under my bed (I own exactly zero cats), and then went on to wonder what in god’s name my guards were doing below my house. I have three guards, all of whom live in the back of my house, directly under my bedroom, and while they (and their shotguns) are normally quiet and unassuming, I wouldn’t put a little lighthearted house rocking past them.
I finally figure out that an earthquake is taking place, and run to the window to see what's happening. I remember that this is absolutely what you're not supposed to do in such a situation, and begrudgingly back away from the window. This is my first earthquake, and I want to watch what’s going on.
I never got that memo about standing in a doorway. That was completely news to me. In the end, I respond to the earthquake by getting back in bed and hoping fervently that my bed stops vibrating, not because I'm scared the house is going to collapse (the thought honestly never occurred to me), but because I had had too much gin the night before and quite frankly want to go back to sleep.
More sleep is impossible. I head outside, check to see if the guards are ok (they are -- one informs me that he's already washed my car and if it needs rewashing after the earthquake, he'll take care of it), and then shower and get dressed.
Shakeel, my housekeeper, shows up for the day. He and his family are unhurt, and he's more interested in borrowing cash than talking about the earthquake. He mentions that he in fact did manage to find the abortive pot of lentils that I tried to cook for myself before discovering that I don't know how to cook lentils, and then forgot to ask him to clean for almost two weeks. He mentions that the pot is disgusting, and that he wouldn't be so grossed out in keeping my house tidy if I wouldn't hide pots full of lentils and leave them sitting around for two weeks at a time.
The pot was on the stove the whole time. He never bothered to look inside it. I feel justified about this.
I at this point have no idea that the earthquake was anything of consequence. Shakeel shines my shoes for me, and I head in to the embassy, not to do work, but just because I have no internet at home yet. My boss came in shortly after me.
We go through the routine motions of after-disaster accounting -- unconvinced that anything major has happened, we still contact each of the 50 or so employees in the section. No one is hurt, no one has lost a house or had a family member injured, and we very much assume that nothing is out of the ordinary.
We learn that a building has collapsed in northern Islamabad. We check our register, and while we find out that no American who has registered with us lives in the building, it puts more of a pallor on the day as we begin to realize that the earthquake really isn't as small a matter as we all assumed it was.
The Ambassador indicates that he wants us to check with every American in the country registered with the embassy -- about 5000 people, the majority of whom are Pakistan-Americans who live in Pakistan permanently. It is the obligation of the US embassy to inform next-of-kin in America of the death of a family member abroad -- a procedure mandated by Congress after the botched handling of the explosion of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. We have mechanisms in place to contact 5000 people, but it verges on impossible since the cell phone networks are down or overloaded. We begin the process but make little headway.
We learn that the new nurse who just started at the embassy, a Swede, lived in the Margalla towers. By this time, one of the Pakistanis with whom we work has come in. He, a networking dynamo, is able to locate someone who's with the nurse; she lived in the other wing of the building and is unhurt. She said that when she opened her door and looked outside, the building across the way just wasn't there any more.
We later learn that an NGO worker – NGO Amy, who's dating a guy at the embassy – lived in the building that collapsed. By some miracle, she was in Delhi during the quake and even though she lost everything she owned, she was unhurt.
The Urdu news and CNN at this point are reporting casualty figures in the low hundreds, a number that's certainly high and certainly tragic, but on a natural disaster scale, is not massive. By the next morning, the numbers had climbed to 18,000. I heard the number on the radio, but was really quite surprised at how little buzz there was in the streets. Parts of the city -- particularly those near the collapsed building -- were closed off, but aside from that life continued as normal. There was almost no damage anywhere else in the city.
I again ask all of my guards, though, to double check that their families are ok. One of my guards tells me that his house collapsed and broke his son's leg. He is sort of overjoyed as he tells me this, peppering his story with Allah-ke-shuk'r, Thanks be to God, because he is thrilled that his son is still alive.
On Monday morning (a holiday, you'll recall), I’m getting dressed to go shopping when the Public Affairs section called, said they're short handed, and asked me to come in to answer phones and direct calls. On the drive in, the radio station (we have only one, City FM 89) reports that an estimated 38,000 people are dead. The DJ puts out a call for pharmaceuticals and doctors and mentions afterwards that what's really needed is Kaffin. Kaffin is plain, unstitched white cloth that's used in traditional Islamic burials, and there's a shortage of it in Pakistan now due to the earthquake. Her voice cracks when she calls for kaffin, and it's heartbreaking.
I rush to the office to play the role of impromptu secretary, picking up the phone when it rings and talking to organizations like Good Morning America. I was tragically forbidden from giving interviews (it requires clearance from Washington), so I had to tell them (and later on the BBC, Fox News, NBC, and a slew of others) that someone would get right back to them. But hey -- it's not just every day that Good Morning America appears to want to talk to ME.
Any given Ambassador can authorize up to (I believe) 100,000 dollars in emergency funds. The Ambassador here (Ambassador Ryan Crocker, one of the longest serving career ambassadors as well as one of the most respected officials at State) authorized this money almost immediately after the earthquake. The President authorized 50 million shortly thereafter, but everyone was focusing on that 100 thou and ignoring the bigger aid package overall, accusing the US of being cheap. Thus, the media storm for which I played the role of secretary.
The BBC really wanted me to comment. "I don't need the AMBASSADOR," she told me, "just SOMEONE from the embassy. You're from the embassy, aren't you?"
I am, indeed, from the embassy.
It would've cost me my job. But if you're going to go, go with a bang, right? I still decide against it, but only begrudgingly.
I am asked to staff a UN Flash Appeal meeting. I don't know what a UN Flash Appeal is, so I of course agree. Zip home, throw on a suit, head to the meeting. The meeting is maybe 20 people sitting in the conference of the Islamabad headquarters of the World Food Program. I catch the last hour and a half of it.
The flash appeal meeting was the most remarkable thing I've ever seen. There were a few other people from the embassy there -- our refugee coordinator, for example, and some people from USAID, and to them it was just another meeting that seemed unremarkable. But the flash appeal meeting basically takes the first six months of the disaster and divides the work and the responsibility amongst UN Organizations and some of the more well-known NGOs of the world.
Every disaster is a lessons-learned sort of experience, and pretty much everyone in the room had spent the past 10 months in Aceh, rebuilding after the Tsunami. So they divided the work into 9 different categories -- food and nutrition, health and sanitation, refugee camps, that sort of thing -- and then wrote out a brief summary of what's needed. Refugee camps, for example, require (off the top of my head): tents, food, camp management, vaccinations, latrines. The flash appeal asks: who will be in charge of this? And all of the various NGOs and UN organization in the room -- OxFam, the UNDP, UNAIDS, the International Organization of Migration, and about 15 others -- all of these have developed expertise in various different facets of disaster relief. So they ask -- who's doing camps? And the correct people raise their hands, collaborate, and write a one page or so summary of what's needed for the camps, and then asked for money -- dollar amounts in the millions.
And that's how the work gets divided. It's amazing how much can get done just by snap judgement calls done by experts in their fields -- hey, we'll partner with you on refugee camps, we'll spearhead tents and distribution, 60 million is way too high for that, knock it down to 15 million, you'll NEVER be able to build houses in the first 6 months ("What'll get accomplished as far as construction goes in the first six months? Do you REMEMBER Aceh? We're going to build SWEET BUGGER ALL!") – it was incredible. No US governmental agency would work so well with one another. The whole time the clock was ticking ("Geneva needs this in an HOUR!"), and it all just came together, millions of dollars moving around without thought ("we’ll need another 7 million there"), and overall -- I suppose my takehome impression was just being stunned, both by the ease with which it seemed to happen and the overall combined ability of people in the room to help make things better.
My role in all of this, in case you're wondering: I did math. They were busy dividing work; they needed someone to add all the parts together and give them a total figure. No one else wanted to do it; you pinch hit when they need you, so my job in all of this was to listen to dollar figures and, in the end, add them up. Total amount of the appeal: 309 million dollars.
One of my colleagues spent the day typing the Flash Appeal, cobbling it together from different people's computers. At the end of the day, the person in charge applauded everyone in the room, and then nodded to she and I and said: "and thanks to the US embassy, for their typing expertise and ability to add." The next morning, after being slimmed down by Geneva to 272 million dollars, the report was given to Kofi Annan for approval. No doubt he noticed my incredible arithmetic skills.
There's an excellent book on disaster relief, a biography of Fred Cuny who worked in the field until he was killed in Chechnya. (Only the first half of the book is worth reading; the second half is a painful chewing-over of mid-90s Chechnyan politics). Cuny always hated the UN and their interactions in disasters, but more than that he hated a group of people he called "do-gooders." That is, freelance disaster relievers who hear about a catastrophe and show up en masse to try to help things out.
On Wednesday I was at the airport to meet someone newly arrived in Pakistan. The first flight arrived, and I was quite amused to find it chock full of do-gooders. Dozens of people were milling around, wearing matching jumpsuits from their different organizations, clearly out of place with cameras around their necks, broad smiles and a general air of tourism about themselves. They came with cases of food and the best of intentions, but I couldn't help but wonder how horrifically in the way they'd ultimately be getting.
And that's all the news from the Earthquake as of now. Thanks to everyone who wrote to ask how I am (no problems, thank you). I'll write again should anything of substance happen, but things are swamped here, and honestly, pretty routine despite the earthquake.
Posted by Dakota on 7:49 AM link |
There's a long update re: das hurricane that's on it's way, I promise. But I'm crazy busy and it ain't gonna write itself, so the world must wait.
This post is to tell you that I am:
1. less disgruntled with the foreign service, despite the occasional kick in the pants,
2. less disgruntled with my onward assignment, and
3. no longer on my way to Shanghai from Islamabad.
Next post: August, 2006: Hong Kong.
The reason for the less disgruntledness is that in HK, I won't be processing visas. And for that, I say: alhumdullilah. I'll be doing economics/business reporting, which actually doesn't really interest me all that much, but at this point I sincerely feel that nothing could be worse than consular work, so here we are.
More from me shortly.
Posted by Dakota on 6:50 AM link |
Major earthquake in Pakistan -- 7.6 on the richter, epicenter 100 miles from Islamabad.
If any of you are the worrying kind, let me reassure you: embassy housing is ridiculously sturdy. While I did wake up wondering what the hell my Dhobi was doing downstairs -- and then, and a hungover sleep fog, stopped to wonder if there was a cat under my bed -- before realizing that I was being gently shaken awake by tectonic action.
The point here being -- don't worry. Dakotasosturdy remains intact.
Posted by Dakota on 1:01 AM link |
Happy first day of Ramadan -- or Ram'zaan, as they call it here in Pakistan.
I normally get to work before 8, but this morning dabbled to drink my coffee at home so I wouldn't have to drink it at the office and feel guilty and caddish about walking around (or even sitting at my desk), flaunting my non-Muslim status. The radio program on our one radio station (city 89 FM) from 6 to 8 is called Jumpstart, and is hilariously misnamed because the Jumpstart DJ (or RJ, as they call themselves here) insists on playing music that's 'mellow.' As in "We're gonna keep it pretty mellow here this morning..." which, let's be honest here, is really not what ANYONE is looking for at 6 in the morning.
8 o'clock brings on the breakfast show, which features a guy who screams good morning Pakistan, usually in triplicate, a la Good Morning Vietnam. This morning, he did so as usual, wished all the listeners a happy Ramadan, and welcomed them to The No-Breakfast Show.
This little snippet of Islamic Humor KILLED me.
So anyhow, happy ram'zaan (pronounce that like "rum's on"), and do keep in mind that it's commanded that you be nicer to people for the next lunar month. I personally don't think that systematic daily starvation (followed by systematic overeating -- overall calorie consumption during Ramadhan goes up by about a third) really leads to being nicer to people, but then, no one asked me and I'm not the one fasting, so it doesn't matter all that much. Regardless, all of you people in America should assuredly take advantage of eating and drinking and smoking and having sex during the day and being mean to people, all without worrying about offending your co-workers.
Posted by Dakota on 10:19 PM link |
Yesterday I went to buy plane tickets for Thanksgiving, only to find the office of the travel agent more or less dumped on to the sidewalk. After inquiring why all of their furniture was in a heap and not inside the office, they informed me: sir, it is the Tuesday before Ramadan.
Which seemed to make sense to me at the time.
Regardless, today we try again. Cross your fingers that the displaced furniture will be replaced, so that I can buy my Thanksgiving plane tickets:
November 23rd -- November 28: Sri Lanka.
Posted by Dakota on 10:28 PM link |
I've commented extensively on the driving here in Pakistan, and won't really dwell on it too much further. But on the radio, now, they've started playing public service announcements to try to bring the driving a bit more in line with standard international norms here. They're usually pretty basic, but address a much needed facet of Pakistani driving -- for example: Can you see with the bright light in your eyes? Neither can anyone else. Don't drive with your high beams on.
This sort of thing is appreciated, given that I, who am not road rageous, often find myself screaming obscenities at the drivers around me because they constantly drive with their high beams on.
This morning I heard a public service announcement that pretty much summed up the road situation in Pakistan. Specifically: Red means stop. Green means go. Don't confuse the two.
One month down, eleven months to go. TBOD!
Posted by Dakota on 10:23 PM link |
The thing about this whole "being abroad at a hardship post" game is that it SEEMS impossible to spend money. Specifically, it's pretty hard to unload cash (it's not like I buy much anyways -- and big purchases (you might know them as "rugs") have been delayed until I pay off my credit cards entirely. The majority of my meals are eaten at the American club on compound (they deliver!), which isn't expensive (but also isn't cheap), but it doesn't matter because all I have to do is sign a little form, cruise ship style, and they just bill my account.
I have no idea how much I owe the club. I'm a little scared how much I owe the club, in fact. But gin and tonic goes for a buck fifty and the most expensive beers they've got only run as much as $2.25 (Corona!) (With lemon!), so it can't possibly be all that high. Although in all fairness, when I have a few cocktails I can't stop buying rounds, so I've had a few really expensive nights at the club (once going so far as to spend thirty (30!) dollars in a single evening of revelry.
The other problem is that if you want to drop some money into your commissary account, or if you want to get some cash, you do so by writing a check.
A check. Hilarious.
Suddenly I've got to balance my checkbook. I mean, how nerve wracking is that? I haven't done it since I was sixteen. And yet, in the last month I've written more checks than I have in the last 10 years.
Anyhow, the point of all this is, it FEELS like I've got a zillion dollars to spend at any given time. And moreover, it FEELS like there's absolutely nowhere in the city (aside from that chinese restaurant where spring rolls are 6 for a dollar -- 10 rups each!) where you can spend money.
So when there's a chance to throw good money after bad, I can't help but buy in.
Shuffle up and deal: Sunday night poker
Let's get this out of the way: playing hold with limits on the betting (two pre flop, two post flop, four on the turn and the river) is a TOTALLY DIFFERENT GAME than no-limit. (Chip value: 50 rupees. 50 rupees value: 83 cents).
Also, the buy in was WAY higher than anything I've ever experienced. But -- the whole point of playing with chips is that you don't realize that it's money, right? But when chips don't even translate to dollars, making you make calculations through another currency, then it REALLY seems like you're not actually using money.
Initial buy-in: 3000 rups. (Dollar amount: $50)
Total losses: just over 8000 rups.
Total losses in dollars: 140.43 cents
Total losses calculated in ramen-noodles during those few glorious times when ramen noodles are on sale at the safeway for 12 for a dollar: 1685.
So... yeah. About that. Blinded by the light. Bad stay-in, Dakota. Bad, bad stay-in.
Posted by Dakota on 8:31 AM link |