Monday, June 13, 2011

The Last Cheeseburger in Pakistan

One of the many misconceptions I had about Pakistan before moving there two years ago was that I might not get a cheeseburger during my time in the country.  I pictured a diet solely of rice, spicy curries, barbecued meat on skewers, and a few other dishes that I found on Wikipedia under "Pakistani cuisine."  But where would I get a regular old hamburger with cheese?

(Other misconceptions I had for those keeping score: 1. That Islamabad would be in a desert wasteland like the Middle East, which it is nowhere near, 2. That I would always have to wear a head scarf in public, and 3. That I would definitely want to live in the "cool" diplomatic enclave near the Embassy which turned out to be neither cool nor a place I would ever live.)

That is why I titled the blog "Cheeseburgers in Pakistan."  (Also because of that Jimmy Buffett song.)  I had no idea what to expect, I was willing to give up all the normal comforts of home including American food, and I was ready to have an adventure.  It turns out, after two years, my house in Islamabad, boisterously full of dogs and housekeepers and guards and geckos, was a place where I was totally comfortable, happy, and made only a normal amount of crazy by beeping UPS batteries on their last leg or the occasional lack of hot water. 

Pakistan was like nothing I expected in many ways, even though I tried so hard to prepare thoroughly before I came.  I did in fact use the karaoke machine I brought to town with such high hopes for various raucous and hilarious get-togethers. I never once plugged in the fancy "Progression Alarm Clock" that I bought specially for Pakistan so I could be gently awakened by a simulated dawn, because once I understood the electricity situation I feared it would blow a fuse (I was awakened by squawking crows instead, mostly).  I was wrong about being able to buy live chickens off the street in front of my house (lots of guardshacks and shotguns, but no hen vendors), and I was also wrong that I wouldn't see any marshmallow peeps in Islamabad (the Embassy commissary specializes in processed American seasonal food). 

I never once used the hand sanitizer I so carefully packed, I skipped all the recommended vaccinations and didn't come back with any strange illnesses, but I did learn through a few battles with food poisoning the truth of that saying "the most dangerous thing in Pakistan is the food."  I consumed an average of three cheeseburgers a month since my arrival of varying quality, happily none of which made me sick, and finally settled on the one from Mocca Cafe as my favorite, even after Salman Taseer was assassinated right in front of the restaurant a few months ago.  (This did make me veer more frequently towards take-out rather than eating in).  

It has been a little over a month since I left Pakistan and came to the U.S., which means right about now I would usually be heading back to Islamabad.  But this isn't my regular home leave or vacation situation, and I'm not returning; I'm staying in California this time. My house with its breezy terrace, my daily breakfast mango smoothie made with care, the overgrown vegetable garden, and my stacks of messy paperwork about outreach campaigns to the Pakistani public...they're all gone, packed up, or inhabited by someone else now.  

I learned a lot in the last two years: how to flourish in a developing country, how to work around government bureaucracy (sometimes the government of Pakistan's but much more often our own), how to say "No problem!" in Urdu (pronounce it "coy baat naHEE"), how to make your own fun on lockdown weekends (answer: DVD marathons of "The Office," Domino's pizza, and buying a kiddie pool for your puppies to swim in), how to make your bodyguard double as a dog-sitter/casserole holder/personal shopper, how to get used to being stared at constantly all the time in public without getting creeped out, and how to wrap a silky dupatta over your head, neck, and shoulders in the most flattering way (Okay, I'll admit: I never really did get the hang of this one. Usually I would go a few steps and turn around to see the scarf lying mangled a few feet behind me in the dust so generally I left it at home.)  I starred in a sitcom called "Welcome to Pakistan" (which sadly never aired since I moved before we could finish taping more episodes), I sang in a band, I threw lots of themed parties.   

Most of all, I made a home.  I made friends--not just with other Americans--and learned how easy it was to accept the hospitality and graciousness of my Pakistani hosts.  I was invited to weddings, went on weekend trips, learned to blow shisha smoke rings, and was honored to be brought into people's homes and lives.  

Which brings us back to cheeseburgers.  I can confidently say I am the world's foremost authority on the range and quality of cheeseburgers in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.  At one point I even considered starting a website called "" to review the city's restaurants since I frequented them so much, and of course there would have been a special cheeseburger section.  (Feel free to poach the idea now that I'm gone.)

In the beginning, I stuck pretty close to Nirvana, the trendy salon/cafe frequented by expats which was located near my first office.  It offered a strange but fairly yummy burger (hallmark qualities: cucumbers instead of pickles and an artful smear of ketchup and mustard diagonally across the plate for the sake of presentation).  Nirvana was the only restaurant to stay open during Ramadan and also had the most delicious smoothies in town, including the Triple Strawberry which one of our consultants on the project called "better than sex."  (I am only quoting here.)

In time and with the greater courage to bend security protocols, I branched out.  I tried Cafe Lazeeze (two thin patties stacked on top of the other to form the burger, an incomprehensible choice that luckily didn't affect its taste), the Serena Hotel (burger best enjoyed by the fancy pool but most often eaten during rushed work meetings), and the Great American Steakhouse (Two words: stay away. Neither American nor great.) 

The trajectory of my burgers followed my greater familiarity with Islamabad and my process of settling in.  Eventually I was having Sajjid the cook make burgers at home, although more often than not they were veggie versions made from chickpeas or pinto beans. New restaurants opened, new discoveries were made, takeout menus picked up, and even occasional sabbaticals occurred. For brief periods the cheeseburger was abandoned as a staple food, like during the Great Equinox Detox of the fall of 2010, or the long winter of 2009 when a hot wing streak pushed out all other competition for a time.  

But the cheeseburger always came back.  A few weeks before I left, when winter had given way to a typical 85-degree spring day, I was invited to do something very normal: go over to a friend's house for a barbecue and to watch the game.  The game was cricket and the friend and his family were in Islamabad, but other than that it was exactly like what you have done yourself a hundred times: our host presiding over a smoking grill in the front yard, kids running around shrieking and getting ketchup on their clothes, mustard and tomatoes lined up on a side table and liters of soda condensing in the sun ready to pour. 

On that day I sat in the breeze, loosely fitted in a Pakistan-appropriate outfit but wisely having left the dupatta at home, and chatted with our friends.  I knew I would be leaving soon, so I soaked up every detail of that peaceful, sunny, normal afternoon. It turns out the best cheeseburger in Pakistan can't be easily ordered in an expat restaurant on your first weekend in town.  It is earned in a different way, through months of immersion in a culture, a city, and the process of making a home and a life.

Charbroiled, slightly misshapen, helpfully topped by one of the kids with a slice of cheese, and offered with hand-made secret sauce, my last delicious cheeseburger in Pakistan was eaten in the intimacy of someone's home, surrounded by great company, in the relaxed vibe of good friendship. I thought if I moved to Pakistan I wouldn't get to eat cheeseburgers while I was away.  I was wrong about that and lots of other things. I got plenty of cheeseburgers, and much, much more. 

Thanks for reading.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Pregnant in Pakistan

A few months ago, I faced an interesting dilemma.  Laid out on the couch with a sore throat so painful I could barely swallow, I tried to decide which was worse:  hauling my sick body out of the house for the first time in a week to accomplish an important errand, or sending my housekeeper, driver, and/or bodyguard to the drugstore to buy a pregnancy test.  I didn't love either of my options.  

With my significant other in the U.S. (nice timing!) I decided to take the "do nothing" approach and wait for the throat infection to pass.  Five days later I made the trip to the drugstore myself, with driver and bodyguard in tow of course.  There was nothing I could do about the entourage, but at least going myself spared me from having to pantomime "pregnancy test" to two gruff-looking Pakistani ex-military men.  

I chose my most conservative Pakistani outfit for the errand: full shalwar and long sleeves.  For some reason this made me feel better braving Shaheen's Chemist.  At pharmacies in Pakistan, a line of male employees stands six-deep behind the register watching your every move.  Don't bother trying to figure out how all of them are necessary for the ringing up, packaging, or payment of your order: they are just there, and always will be.  The drugstore is also so brightly lit one could perform surgery on the counter.  

I blew by the freezer case of Snickers ice cream bars (my normal reason to visit Shaheen's) and entered the shop, accompanied only by the bodyguard lurking by the front door and the driver idling out front, to ask for a pregnancy test.  I half expected the Counter Men to demand a marriage license, a man, or at least a wedding ring.  They did none of this, and instead one of the twenty men behind the counter promptly walked me over to a corner and rummaged around in a box.  He handed me a test and said, "How many?"  

"Um, probably just one is enough?"  The stoic look on his face told me I was wrong about this.  "Okay, then maybe three?"  This was met with approval.  As the tests were 70 rupees each I figured I could swing it. Then he reluctantly pointed out a different brand and mentioned that it too was an option.  "What's the difference?" My drugstore guide explained to me that the first brand required the use of a syringe and carefully orchestrated drops.  The other was even more complicated.   

Upon returning home and inspecting my purchase, I discovered that the code for deciphering the tests was more complicated still.  There were options for dark lines, light lines, dark lines on top + no line on bottom, light line on top + dark line on bottom, no lines on top or bottom, and one that had a tiny smiling picture of your future baby's face.  Okay, not really that last one.  

After wrestling with a syringe the size of a toothpick and following the directions exactly as written, I found myself two minutes later, alone in my house, staring in wonder at the tiny stick.  How could my test possibly result in the one combination not listed on the test key?  How could my particular combination of line length and color not correspond to any of the seeming 100 options posted?  As it turns out, it merely needed to marinate a little while longer before giving me the good albeit surprising news.  But for those first few minutes, I confronted what was to be only the first of many befuddling questions about being pregnant in Pakistan.

Here are some others:  

Why can't women be trusted to handle their own doctor's appointments? When the clinic had to change the date of my ultrasound, they called Drew.  He looked amused and then handed his phone over to me.

Why does every (otherwise hard-ass) security officer in Islamabad completely fold at the checkpoint and wave you through when you pat your belly and say you don't want to go through the scanner...and why doesn't every woman do this just to avoid the hassle?    

Why is it so difficult to figure out exactly how to make the big announcement?  Hint:  the following two ways are not acceptable:  1. "I'm pregnant." (Why not: Nobody in Pakistan uses the word pregnant. "In the family way" and "expecting" are possible alternatives.)  2. "We're having a baby in October." (Why not: No one would ever say this because it is presumptuous to say exactly what is going to happen in the future. Babies will only be born insh'allah, if God wills it.)  

And, I know I'm back there again, but:  why the syringe??  What happened to good old fashioned peeing on a stick?  This is classic Pakistani over-engineering at work.  I wish I could show you a picture of this delicate plastic instrument that would work well as a prop in a doll hospital, is only in use for about 2.5 seconds, and requires manual dexterity at a time when your thoughts really are elsewhere.  Why Pakistan, why?  

But I don't want to make it sound all bad: there has been some serious upside too.  Shalwar kameeze are roomy and billowy, making maternity clothes unnecessary for at least a while and ably hiding the bump until you're ready to tell the world.  Each doctor visit at Islamabad's premiere maternity clinic costs less than $20, paid straight out of pocket, with no pesky insurance forms to fill out and including a nice ultrasound every time for your viewing pleasure.  (Yes, every time.  I have already had five ultrasounds.)

Given Pakistan's family-oriented culture, your big news is always greeted with the utmost excitement and delight, and people's reactions make you feel like you are the luckiest person in the entire world.  And finally, your entire retinue of staff, drivers, guards, etc. continue to make life easier so you can relax and not worry about doing dishes, laundry, housecleaning, driving, parking, grocery shopping, or cooking while doing the job of growing a baby.  

So, why not stay?  Why not live out the nine months in Islamabad, soaking up the sun on the terrace while being brought healthy smoothies on trays and indulging in endless ultrasounds?  My yoga teacher does pre-natal classes, any tailor in town could easily whip up maternity shalwar to clothe an expanding frame, and I've already developed relationships with all the staff at the maternity clinic (although they all still look at me funny, as if to say: why aren't you using the Health Unit at the Embassy? Answer: I don't have access privileges).

Pleasant as it all sounds, there are some flies in the ointment, such as being on the other side of the world from my family, facing language barriers and total uncertainty about labor and birthing procedures in the hospitals of Pakistan, and the fact that 35 of the "100 Healthiest Foods to Eat During Pregnancy" aren't available in Islamabad.  Coupled with my job ending, the news seemed a clear sign that it was time to head home for awhile.  

Still, I will miss almost everything about living in Pakistan, and most things about being pregnant there.  I will miss being the only pregnant American woman in town (in the country?). I will miss my guards' extra special solicitation when I get out of the car, holding the gate open for me gingerly while watching every step of my progress up the driveway with care. I will miss all my friends and their good wishes, their excitement to be the baby's aunties and uncles, and their rock-solid belief (predicated on nothing as of yet) that she is sure to be especially good-looking.  

As one of my going-away presents, I received a tiny shalwar kurta in baby-size that I carefully packed away in my suitcase.  Even if she isn't born there, insh'allah our baby will always be a little bit Pakistani.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Weekend Away

One of the cool things about living in Pakistan is that you are smack in the middle of South Asia.  What this means is that if you want to get away for a few days to celebrate a friend's birthday, you can easily jet off to the Himalayas, Dubai, Thailand, or Sri Lanka.  Dubai is boring unless you like wandering around cavenous, freezing malls containing only stores you can't afford.  The Himalayas are awesome but you are definitely going to be delayed by an extra day or two when you try to return (due to "weather" "overbooking" or "computer problems": thanks PIA), and Thailand is a dream but was hit by severe rains a couple weeks ago.

That left Sri Lanka!  Our group of three cancelled our tickets for flooded Koh Samui and made new ones for Colombo with only four days to spare.  We got hotels, ordered taxis, packed our beach bags, and in one short flight from Karachi we were there.  

The trip was special because I will be leaving Pakistan in two weeks and returning to the U.S.  My job has finally ended and it's time to go.  I hope that I will be back, but for now it is goodbye, and goodbyes always make me sad.  So I couldn't pass up the chance to go away with two of my best friends that I made over the last two years here.  I also found out I don't get any compensation for unused vacation days: perfect time to go!

We stayed one night in busy, bustling Colombo that didn't seem all that different from Lahore or Karachi but offered a gorgeous old colonial estate-turned-hotel that made us feel like Mick Jagger.  We took advantage of the jacuzzi on the porch and the 20 foot ceilings before heading down the coast to Bentota.

Sri Lanka is lush, green, and bursting with fresh fruit like papayas and sweet bananas.  The people are friendly and hospitable and the prices are good.  Our hotel in Bentota didn't have air conditioning or a TV, but had a gorgeous open-air bathroom and the lovely, relaxed vibe of a fancy spa with flowers at every turn and palm fronds in the shower.

We talked and laughed, reminisced and predicted, drank fresh pineapple juice, played Ludo, went snorkeling and ate grilled prawns on the beach with Sri Lankan flatbread slathered with tomatoes and onions.  I didn't think about having to leave in two weeks, about saying goodbye to so many wonderful people, about the movers coming and getting my security deposit back and closing out my work files, and about starting over to build a home somewhere else.  It was a good vacation.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Upstairs, Downstairs

There is one specific feature of my life that makes it really different from yours, assuming you are living any kind of typical American or European existence. It is not what you think:  it is not the threat of terrorism, it is not living on the other side of the world from my family, it is not living in a Muslim country where I hear the Islamic call to prayer five times a day, it is not my residence in a city full of wild boars and monkeys that often feels one step removed from the jungle. This feature is servants.

Servants! The very word conjures up an 18th-century manor, scullery maids in the kitchen, footmen in the stables, and a butler hovering with a silver tray. At least it does to me. In Pakistan, this word means something completely different, something standard and normal even for the middle classes.

When I moved here and started searching for a place to live, I would go around with a realtor every Saturday to tour houses all over Islamabad. They all had the same basic amenities: more rooms and bathrooms than I would ever need (for the same rent as my apartment in the U.S.), cool smooth tiling in every room to keep down the heat, high ceilings, and "servants' quarters," which the realtor would helpfully point out at each location. He would always point them out...I would always look away uncomfortably and mumble that it wasn't important. We would never tour the servants' quarters, but he would always take care to highlight them as a useful feature of the property. After a while this also explained why, in houses where each room was routinely the size of my entire apartment in Boston, the kitchens were invariably cramped, dark, and without air conditioning. I soon realized no one expected me to spend any time in there.

At that point I didn't know if I was ever going to get a housekeeper. I didn't think I needed one.  After all, hadn't I always done my own cooking, cleaning, and general house management in every other place I had lived my entire life? What was all of a sudden about to change? As it turns out, everything.

The slippery slope began as a gentle curve. Right after I moved into my new place (selected as a result of its relatively small rooms, large kitchen, and huge yard), one of the drivers at work shyly presented his wife to me as someone who would make an excellent housekeeper; she was very hard-working, honest, and furthermore had three children to feed so could I maybe considering hiring her?

At the offered rate of 7,000 rupees a month (about $80) for daily housekeeping, this seemed like a good deal and I went for it. It turned out to be an even better deal than I thought, since Zafer always accompanied Musart when she came to clean (to protect her honor) and made himself useful while he was there. His usefulness included mopping all the floors and picking all the hairs out of my hairbrush every day, a real shocker the first time I saw it happening. All of a sudden I had two "servants," a word I still shunned in politically-correct horror while using the word "staff" instead.

It wasn't long before we added Adeel to the mix. Adeel (or "Roger," his Christian name) was another driver from work who got fired when he discovered that the security manager was having an affair with the lady searcher. This incident alone and the phrase "lady searcher" is worth an entire post but sadly must be glossed over here. I quickly realized that I did not have time in my ten-hour workday to wait 45 minutes in line to pay my cell phone bill; go to separate stores for meat, bread, cheese, and apples; that my lovely house would be afflicted with at least one major upset per day involving water, sewage, electricity, and/or general breakdown; and that I needed Roger.

In the U.S., you don't need Roger, because there you don't have to fill a water tank on the roof to take a shower, keep the generator stocked with fuel every day, make almond milk from scratch by soaking the raw nuts for three hours, procure avocados only by developing a special relationship with the vegetable vendor, make sure the batteries on the UPS stay charged, buy stablizers for all your electrical appliances, get mineral water delivered twice a week in huge barrels for drinking and cooking, or have someone drive by your house in the middle of the night to make sure the guards aren't sleeping. Yes, Roger does all these things, and many more. Turns out, in Pakistan you need servants staff.

Obviously, with my huge yard I also needed a gardener. I figured I would recoup this cost in the abundance of fresh vegetables and herbs that would soon be produced, and furthermore the flower beds could use a little landscaping, couldn't they? Two security guards were required and paid for by the company, as were drivers, but as the guards were paid approximately $70 a month for grueling 12-hour shifts guarding my life, they got kicked a little extra by way of bonus every month and of course they get Eid cash gifts twice a year like everyone else for Pakistani's major holidays, so let's go ahead and add them to our staff calculations. The guard bonuses were Roger's idea. It was my idea to call Roger our "Chief of Staff," since by this point an important part of his job was managing everybody else.

But what to do with all those glorious vegetables that started popping up in the garden courtesy of Pakistan's amazing climate? And did it really make sense to keep ordering out expensive food from restaurants night after night after arriving home late from work and flopping on the couch too exhausted to even make my standard quesadilla? Time for a cook! Sajjid was added to our happy band, three nights per week, and started churning out pesto lasagnas, mushroom risottos, biscotti (did I mention Sajjid used to work for the Italian Embassy?), lamb skewers, coconut curry, and any other recipe I would pull off and present to him at the beginning of the week.

I didn't think we could add anyone else to the mix, but then I brought the puppies home, who soon needed to be walked every day and taught how not to be crazy undisciplined animals. Enter Shahzad, dog-trainer! He came highly recommended as the trainer of General Musharaff's dogs, the former President/military dictator of Pakistan, but this wasn't really a selling point in my book as I was hoping more for cuddly, friendly labs as opposed to lean, mean attack dogs. Nonetheless, he did a good job. Shahzad contributed even more crew to our operations: apparently he was too senior to actually walk the dogs himself so he outsourced the walking and shampooing to underlings while taking on the training alone.

At this point the house was bulging: no one was living in the "servants' quarters" except one of the guards, but somehow I had gone from Low-maintenance Girl who Cleans her Own Toilets to Woman who Has Someone Brush her Dogs' Teeth Every Morning. As lovely as it sounds, it took a little getting used to. At first I could never find anything. Zafer and Musart had particularly strange ways of deciding where things went: I found sports bras hanging up in the closet next to my cocktail dresses and a box of Christmas ornaments in the kitchen, my favorite sweater used as a drape for the dog crate. One time I discovered half a rotten watermelon that I had set on the counter to be thrown away two weeks later, in the freezer.  At first it was unsettling to be sitting at my desk checking email and having someone come sweep a broom under my feet, or to stumble sleepily into the kitchen in pajamas to find two Pakistani men rearranging the entire contents of my refrigerator.

But after the initial adjustment period, I got right on board. It is hard to explain the glorious feeling of deciding in the morning that you would enjoy some homemade pumpkin bread that night, that the terrace would really look better with five more potted palms on it, that you needed the black pants dry-cleaned before the weekend, that some fresh flowers in the dining room would be nice, and coming home after work to find all of these things done and delivered, as if by magic fairies. No, it is not a perfect system: the grater still ends up in the laundry room sometimes, when the shopping list specifies spaghetti sauce I might get a can of stewed tomatoes, and my extra fancy artisanal olive oil has been used by the cupful for frying cheese fritters. But really, I can't complain.

A few years ago, when I was still in Boston, a friend of mine remarked that, had we all been born several centuries earlier in European feudal society, she felt sure that she would find herself the hard-working, curly-haired wench while I enjoyed the pale and quiet life of luxury as lady of the manor. This was not based whatsoever on our financial circumstances at the time (both of us being broke grad students), nor on our abilities or refinement, but simply on some other kind of gut feeling she couldn't explain.

I thought her prediction was ridiculous. I had never even had a once-a-week housekeeper, let alone a retinue to manage. I scoffed at the idea of depending on other people to take care of my basic needs. Promoting outmoded values of social hierarchy! Acting like Marie Antoinette!

Cut to this moment: a tray of pancakes and scrambled eggs has just been delivered upstairs to my desk so the lady of leisure can write in peace while listening to Debussy. Sajjid is downstairs making appetizers for tonight's party while elsewhere laundry is being done and sinks scrubbed, the almonds are soaking for tomorrow's detox smoothie, the dogs are trotting happily around the neighborhood with shiny coats and glistening teeth, and Roger is out buying ice and gladiolas. Welcome to Pakistan.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Take Away

There is a new Thai restaurant in town called "Mango Tree," and I tried it for the first time on Friday night. I didn't go there though: I invited a few of my closest friends over and had the food delivered so we could sit in a cozy room, spread the feast out over a long table, fill our plates, loaf around on the sofas, and catch up. Delivery is called "takeaway" here, not take-out, one of those sneaky remnants of British culture that linger in Pakistan like driving on the left side of the road and the popularity of teatime.

We had satay and green papaya salad and tamarind red snapper and curries and noodles. We had chocolate cake for dessert and I steeped a pot of hibiscus tea from Vietnam, the tight buds turning into loose, floating flowers in the hot water. There is only one other Thai restaurant in town, and it is at the Marriott, which has good food but lost its atmosphere after the bombing in 2008. We exclaimed over the peanut sauce, decided we ordered way too much, and pronounced Mango Tree a success.

There was one thing we keep saying as we ate: how long it had been since we had seen each other. Obaid, still a newlywed; Umayr, gone to Canada for a few months; Fahim and Natalya busy with work and salsa dancing lessons and the million other things to do in this small, supposedly sleepy town. If you don't do it, plan it, make the time, these nights don't happen. You become engrossed in work, flop on the couch afterwards, get lost in the routine, skip the important things.

A friend who used to live in Islamabad asked me recently what three things I would do right now if I knew I was leaving Pakistan soon. One of the things on the list was to spend more time with this particular group of friends, this special group of people who make this country feel like home, who tell me the truth, who I trust absolutely.

When I do leave here, I want to take these times with me. I will remember nights in like this one, taking the back gate into the French Club, our bumpy drive to the highest plains in the world, a brilliant thunderstorming night high on a hill in Nathiagali, lounging on red cushions on my terrace.

After my friends left, I packed up the leftovers, put them in the fridge, making a little stack of perfect boxes you could take on a picnic, on a drive, up a mountain, to a party. I always want to take things with me, but that is so seldom possible. You can only call your friends over, ring up for some food, spend the night laughing, and eat as much as you can.