It’s that time of the week again folks, the time when I write my blog and the world reads on in awe. At least that’s the theory. So I guess the question is are you ready for another mammoth post? Can you handle the pressure? If you answered Yes to the above, please continue. If not, well I feel sorry for you, I personally can’t think of anything better to do that tops it. So I shall continue where I left off many moons ago on the afternoon of Friday the 15th. My second week in Pakistan began with quite a relaxed evening at an Afghan restaurant with Danny and two of his friends from school, Elliot and John. Afghan fare hasn’t exactly got a world class reputation as haute cuisine so I didn’t expect much but was rather satisfied with the meal.
On Saturday, Danny and I woke up extremely late (readers of this blog will know about my new-found fondness for napping – that’s what you do when it’s hot – but it’s bad when your regular night’s sleep sort of blends into an extended nap and you find that lying with your eyes closed doing nothing encroaches on your general ability to do anything during your day) and went to the American club to go swimming. Danny said “You’re in America now!” in a retarded Southern yank drawl (on reflection I think that’s just how he was born). It was quite surreal how true this was: inside the compound there were more people with annoying accents but it was a small price to pay to be granted the privacy to strip down to your swimwear and bathe, taking respite from the heat which got up to 50C we hear. Let me tell you more about that. Wow. In the UK when it’s 25C people start taking all their clothes off sitting in beer gardens and/or braving the English seaside at Blackpool/Bournemouth/Newquay and when it gets to 30C the papers go crazy with headlines featuring words such as “heatwave”, “blistering” and “scorcher”. So let’s try to imagine what 50C feels like – let me help, it’s roughly what you imagine the surface temperature of the sun to be like. Then of course there’s the searing ‘breeze’ – which you expect to refresh you but in this case blows at you like a giant celestial fireball, like you did something really really bad and deserve to roast.
Anyway I digress. ‘ America ’ was great and every bit as liberal and tolerant as I imagined. The afternoon was punctured by mouthfuls of authentic blueberry cheesecake which I can’t complain about. In the evening Danny went off for an evening for Elliot to mark his leaving and as a sort of early stag do ahead of his (Elliot’s) wedding. Not wanting to trespass into Testosteroneland I did what any good Pakistanisized girl would and stayed at home to wash and iron Danny’s underpants. Okay, that’s obviously not true. I met a woman at the Internet café the other day and we had talked about meeting up and she had accidentally left some of her stuff there and so she came round. I was about to show her round when I realised I had locked myself out. Luckily it was later that evening and I had brought my mobile out so I sheepishly called Danny and asked him to come and let me in his house.
On Sunday we went to the Pakistani International Church again (where they recognized me as a ‘regular’ and asked me to join the band, pouncing on me as I played piano after service). After, we went to America again, where this time I tried ‘grits’ a traditional Southern breakfast made from cornflour which tastes of kind of nothing, but in a satisfying kind of way. That evening, Danny went to volleyball, and I met up with Sophia of Internet café fame, this time with a little more success. We went to Pizza Hut with her young daughter Georgiana. There was a waiting list such is the popularity of this place (particularly with families) in these parts. At the end of the meal, Sophia insisted on paying and then to top it produced a pair of silver earrings (which I can’t decide look like weird trees or marijuana leaves?) as a gift. This is not abnormal, just Pakistani hospitality for you… I hope! Or else she’s part of some weird underground mafia and I owe her big time.
Monday was pretty interesting. Last post I mentioned a birthday dinner at Jason’s steak house but probably not the fact that we got propositioned with an offer for work. Before I came out to Pakistan , I toyed with the idea of working for part of my time and then gradually the notion became more and more fantastical, and when Danny quit his job it was the final nail in the coffin. Anyway, the offer came on Friday and by Monday we were attending training. It was only going to be a short one week consultancy with the Asia Foundation so we decided to go for it, since the money earned would come in useful on our venture up to Hunza in the next few days. This year is the first time in the history of Pakistan that the electoral roll is to be computerized. Up and down the country there are around 45,000 display centres open for three weeks where people can come to check they are on the electoral roll and if not, add their name to the list. Static Observers (SOs) have been appointed by the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) to monitor various centres and check the accuracy of the roll. We were to be election monitors moving round the country to see that SOs were doing their job, correcting them and reporting any suggestions or concerns. We were monitors of monitors if you like. The training was interesting to say the least. Either I have the attention span of a six year old or the training really did go on for ages. Or both. Anyway they were trying to explain some simple maths. The objective is for the SO to take a random sampling of 15 voters thus: take the total number of people on the electoral roll…let’s say its 150. Then you divide it by 15 = 10. Then you take every 10th person on the list for your sample. ONLY, the examples they choose to use involved numbers like 693, 5423, or 88,406 which suddenly made the mental arithmetic just that little but harder, and a simple principle just that little bit harder to grasp. I swear it took about an hour. I couldn’t even look at Danny for fear of bursting out laughing like a woman just released from a strange institution after 40 years.
It pains me just to think about it. Well, that evening we relaxed at David and Mehrs, two of Danny’s friends who were holding a Mexican themed rooftop soiree. The food was truly delicious, but after arriving close to starving at 8pm and having dinner at around 10.30pm, eating mud might have been equally as tasty. Danny definitely looked like a rabid dog – with this wild ‘me-must-eat-now’ look. And I’m sure I noticed some foaming round the mouth.
Next morning (Tuesday) we prised ourselves out of bed and went to the AF offices to sign our contracts and get on the road. Luckily they are right next door to Danny’s house which is rather good. All the same, we got there at 9am and only left at 1.30pm after many a complication. We stocked up on bakery goodies and finally hit the road for a 6hr-ish jaunt to Mingora. I don’t think our driver was that familiar with the concept of antiperspirant because we were greeted by a rather noxious odour on entering the car. Later we also realized he wasn’t that familiar with washing either since he wore the same shirt-trouser combo for six days straight. Yes, I did say six.
We had heard about (and seen several thousand advertisements) for a hotel called The White Palace (Sufaid Mahal) just outside the city, but anyone who knows me knows my cynicism regarding hotels with “star” “paradise” or “palace” in the title. Normally it involves sharing a room with a family of rats who resent you invading their space and an unstable ceiling fan that looks like it might fall and lop your head off at night if you’re not careful. Plus the Lonely Planet describes it as ‘luxury’ but we all know that these Lonely Planeteers stay at these places after 6 days continuous traveling by yak and are so optimistic they get excited by the presence of a plug socket.
When we arrived it didn’t look quite as deluxe as we might have hoped but it was quite nice. Apparently the Queen stayed here once. It also had a mini zoo that had a parrot I was convinced was saying “hello” and “help”. The leaflet was hilarious stating (and I quote) “Visitors are struck by wonder and beauty on his first step in to White Palace…not just an ordinary but great wonder…which will not only satisfy but inspire.”
Our first day of work on Wednesday took us to Uch, Bandegai, and Lower Dir. These are all very conservative places where if you can spot a woman (we made it into a game) she would almost certainly be burqa clad. In one town we counted 9 women and about 9000 men. One of the guys even had an “I HEART JESUS” cap on which cracked me up. I’m guessing he doesn’t realise he’s subliminally proselytising to the Muslim masses.
I donned a black chaddar like a good girl and we went on with the task in hand. Danny keeps on saying I looked good in a chaddar and then laughing so I am starting to think he has a not-so-secret chaddar fetish. It was pretty incomfortable because I know about 6 words in Urdu, one of which is slaughterhouse so I relied on body language and Danny translation for most of it. Luckily some of the Urdu forms used codes which corresponded with the English so I could pretend I knew what was happening. But on every occasion I was the only female in the room I not a 50mile radius so it was interesting to say the least. That evening we stayed in Dir town which is famous for knives and this too made Danny quite happy which, given his passion for the hijab makes me wonder why I am even friends with this guy. Dir is a complete dive. Don’t go there. The first hotel we stumbled upon had several different types of mould growing on the walls/mattresses so we hoped and prayed for something better. We found a slightly better room at the creatively titled Dir Hotel Dir, but the ‘host’ was just as hostile. We ventured out into the bazaar for all of about 15 minutes (literally) until the somewhat malevolent stares became a bit too much. Retiring to our room we spent the rest of the evening reading by the light of one candle and fending off over-enthusiastic staff who came by every five minutes with offers of chai/biryani.
The following day, our work took us to Swat which by comparison is a beauty spot. In fact, in its own right it is a rather magnificent place. The drive was long, but the scenery, which included lush green valleys, rolling hills and the impressive Swat river made it much more bearable. We saw Buddhist ruins – a stupa which we named the stupendous toupeed stupa on account of the grassy mane about it’s crown and we stopped for yummy fish along the river where we ate behind a curtain to protect my modesty.
It’s a strange phenomenon that occurs when you do work and get up early after any amount of time spent lazily napping. Suddenly the days seems twice as long and you have time to do things. That evening we settled into the PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation) Motel in Saidu Sharif. It was a lot nicer than it sounds. Thing is, in these parts of Pakistan the thought that two work collegues might share a twin room is up there in the unthinkable realm. Danny came back to the room with a ‘what-was-I-supposed-to-do’ look on his face and informed me that he told them I was his wife. (The alternative: ‘er yeah we kind of went to uni together ages ago and were an item for a bit and now and sort of are working together on a consultancy…and yeah…that’s just how we scandalous Westerners roll.’
Only, they took his middle name for his surname when noting down passport details so we were unofficially Mr. and Mrs. Luke. Well I found this hilarious, so I did what any exploitative wife would do to her under-the-thumb spouse and proceeded to ask my hubby to fetch me tea, and bring me things that were just out of reach and so on and so forth. In the afternoon we went to a Buddhist museum – we had about 80 rupees on us – the price tag for Pakistanis was 10 rupees, foreigners 200 rupees. After a small debate during which Danny contested that he had lived in Pakistan most of his life (I just sat back and looked Pakistani) they called a small board meeting and let us both in for 100 rupees. The visit was followed by dinner at the amazing Serena hotel which is on another stratosphere in terms of luxury. Staying at the motel and dining at the ‘posh’ hotel is admittedly quite pikey which is what most of our conversation around dinner centred on. I wanted to jack the salt and pepper shaker set (obviously I wouldn’t have) so Danny said I’m a pikey but with a name and face like his, that’s pretty rich right? Haha. If he came from the UK , it would most definitely be Romford. No Basildon . Anyway, who’s the most pikey – YOU decide. Cast your votes please.
We continued, to the consternation of the PTDC staff to take our meals at the Serena. Buffet breakfast at 300 rupees a piece? Oh go on then. The conversation took a nosedive:
Danny: “Yeah, that’s what ants taste like, plum skins” [after an apparent conversation in his head with himself]
Me: *incredulous look*
D: “I’m just saying” [he used to eat ants as a kid]
That day we visited 4 display centres, all in primary schools where I was way more interested in the cute Pakistani schoolkids. The staff at the centres were as generous as ever presenting us with bottles of neon Mountain Dew (it’s banned in most countries because a single hit can bring on ADHD) and offers of khanna (which I worked out means food).
We dined at the Serena. Actually first we went to the kid’s playground which had a tree swing with the biggest arc ever. It was so fun. At first we were the only ones seated for the BBQ buffet so it felt like a feast fit for a King and Queen. There were about 100 varieties of salad, meat and dessert and it was pretty delicious with the exception of the soup for starters. Someone got happy with the lemon and ginger and it made your eyes water so Danny waited for an opportune moment to lose most of it over the side of the tablecloth, and I was crying tears of laughter when the waiter came over two seconds later and asked us if everything was alright. Conversation continued to plummet reaching an all time (juvenile) low:
Me: This is boring
Danny: You’re boring
Me: Your face is boring
Danny: Your mum’s face…
Me: Your mum… etc etc
After a stroll around the beautiful grounds of the Serena, we went back to our hotel to sample the pure delights of cable TV. We found a penguin documentary which was scrambled with another much weirder channel – I’m guessing Russian hip-hop TV. And it was like that really creepy moment in Happy Feet when the penguins are grinding which is so many shades of wrong… We also mocked a made-for-TV movie called Mayday starring Dean Cain (Superman, remember?) which had terrible CGI and involved a missile going into the side of a plane and everyone gets sucked out and dies a hideous death and by the end they all miraculously survive (cue ambulance scene and cheesy music/oneliners). He is a bit of a chubmonster these days…
On Saturday we went to Shangla where the skies opened and the sunroof leaked and for a while, my white Patiala pants looked a little scandalous. After hours on roads that felt like you were the first people to navigate Mars or something, and 1/8th of a paratha all day, we reached Mansehra, home of the Cutherell family and Danny’s parents’ hospital.
Danny’s mum Nancy is the most wonderful cook ever so we were greeted by a veritable feast. On Sunday, our day off, we sat around doing very little, giving a cursory glance every now and then just to acknowledge others in the room. We took a stroll around the compound which is a little haven of peace from the bazaar outside, and I got to see where Danny grew up and heard stories involving guns, treehouses, traps and wild boars (4 boys and they had no playstation or TV). In the evening they had church at their house and then had some friends (Sohail and family) who were just a bit insane and refreshingly reminded me of the Babla family back home.
On Monday, we spent another 5hr round trip in the car (after finding a display centre located on a picnic rug with dudes sitting round drinking chai) which left me busting for the loo and evil Danny pointing out water related things of interest (Oh, what a lovely stream! Is that the first spot of rain?, Wow I fancy a swim in that flowing river etc). We couldn’t find the SO in Mansehra so we took the afternoon off. We went shopping with Danny’s parents during which I purchased some long awaited barfi, and we witnessed a mini domestic dispute at the carpet shop (they are moving house) during which Danny added a very unhelpful comment every so often (what about this rainbow striped/camouflage design?). I also looked for glasses but they were all really huge and fifties style and would have required a beehive hairstyle and Jackie O suits to complete the look…
For supper we had meatballs and mash (Mrs Cutherell’s cuisine is always worthy of mention) and tested each other from the “Superior Person’s Second Book of Weird and Wonderous Words”. Here are some of my favourites:
Neoteny – indefinite prolongation of the period of immaturity, retention of infantile or juvenile qualities.
Engastration – the stuffing of one bird inside another (I hope you NEVER have to use this)
Malnoia – A vague feeling of mental discomfort – waking up and remembering yesterday’s unsolved problems (put this on your sick leave form!)
Pantophobia – Morbid fear of everything (ponder this for a second)
If you don’t know at least three of the above words, I am clearly the superior person. Muhahaha.
On Tuesday (19th), after our work in Mansehra was done, we headed up into the hills with our driver to Murree where I saw Danny’s old boarding school and met his Uncle (who is the director) and Aunt and his cousins, one of whom just graduated…They were really welcoming and she makes a mean cake and iced tea. Mmmm
We headed back to Islamabad . We spent part of the journey behind a chicken coop truck. One of the chickens escaped and created quite a scene, clucking and flapping his wings eagerly while his friends chirped (roughly translated we reckoned they were saying “Go Bobby, run for the hills!”). I might have spent the last hour or so annoyingly asking ‘Are we there yet’ to which Danny responded ‘ Yeah, 15-20mins’ every time. So I responded by pointing at things gleefully and asking whether he had been there over and again. It helped pass the time.
Finally that brings us to yesterday and our de-briefing session which was anything but brief. The meeting was of the collaborative work ethic style which meant nothing was really planned and we made it up as we went along. This would have been fine if it weren’t for the overenthusiastic twins that insisted on detailing every moment of their trip in real time. They would start every sentence with “Actually [Pakistanis, like Indians love this word], I have 7 points to make…” Shahnawaz, who was the teamleader has one I-don’t-DO-enthusiasm facial expression which he used to the fullest yesterday. I asked the guy next to me how long he thought it would be before cabin fever set in and Shahnawaz went crazy and killed one of the twins. We managed three and a half hours without incident. Pakistanis are clearly just as verbose in person as in print despite Ashley entreating them to ‘summarise’. Plus there was a huge clock that reminded us in red LCD how long we’d been there and the AC was set to arctic exploration levels.
Now I am sat comfortably in the lounge of the Serena Islamabad taking advantage of their free wireless Internet which we decided we are owed considering breakfast buffet costs 500 rupees. They were nice though they only charged me 250 because I had only tea and a pastry. Please send ideas to get Anila’s appetite back on a postcard, it’s not right, I always have room for food! I am just about to go and get my eyebrows sorted out at the Nirvana spa – it is known as a boutique kind of a salon so that generally means I can expect to pay the average Pakistani monthly wage for this…but I look like a cavewoman and you gotta do what you gotta do. Adieu, I hoped you enjoyed reading. Come back for more next time, and don’t forget to send in your comments and suggestions. If you were reading this at work and it took two hours and you just got fired, I’m sorry!