Rain


Last night we awoke to the sound of a storm. Thunder and lightening were a little unsettling, because one doesn’t really know how they will effect the already unreliable infrastructure on which one depends, but the gushing sound of the rain was soothing. In day light it seemed the Margalla Hills had inched even closer to our windows, all the ridges, rock outcroppings, and bushy ravines were visible for the first time. The mountain looked reassured and reassuring.

I took advantage of the fresh morning air to walk around our neighborhood. So far my experience of Islamabad is that of a dusty, smoke shrouded city, with yellow grasses and bare or wilting trees. This morning a new picture emerged. Crisp contours, vibrant colors, and fecund textures. Even the birds were out rejoicing, frolicking in the new puddles, chirping in the branches. There seemed to be a greater variety than the typical gray crows. Hawks sailed above the foothills, treepies and warblers bounced on their wiry legs. Even the monkeys seemed more like our distant cousins, chasing each other and swinging on the branches, and less like scavenging rodents.

It is Friday, and more people seemed to be out on streets. Of course, by that I mean men. More men seem to be out on the street. The back road, Hill Side Road, which acts as a border between the neighborhood on one side and chaparral hills on the other seemed busy. Mostly because the scrubby yellow fields which extend over a part of its length are full of boys from the neighboring madrassa running around. There is a game of soccer, a game of cricket, and a game that could best be described as “stick ball.” Some just squat along the periphery, cheer on their mates, others walk around, hand in hand. Some of them wear uniforms: sandy colored shalwar-kameez and a maroon sweater. Others wear random, dirt colored pants and shirts. One kid in a fluorescent vest looks like a neon molecule bouncing around the filed. Some of them run barefoot and I imagine how good the wet ground must feel on their feet. All of the boys wear white prayer caps.

Older boys from the madrassa come to the mosque by our house to pray. They stare at me as we pass each other in the street. I only register this out of the corner of my eye as I fix my gaze straight ahead, avoiding their eyes.

As I walk, the hills slowly grow darker. The details of their face disappear into a deep blue shroud, reflecting water filled clouds that had arrived from the south. Faisal Mosque, the largest, most modern mosque in the city, appears startlingly white against the background. It seems like one of its four sharp towers might tear a hole into the floating rain clouds. I stand for a few moments and watched the clouds approach the spires, the whole sky seems like a slow swirl of cobalt cotton. I cover my head with the blanket I am wrapped in. Men stare as they approach and pass by me. But the sight is arresting, I can’t seem to move. Everything is quiet. And finally, the sky, indeed rips open, and sheets of rain begin to fall.




I walk faster on the way home. Under a tree, two men huddle in their shawls, between them a sack and they scoop something from it with their hands. A quick smile flashes on one of their faces - the first one I’d seen since Tom left the house this morning. He points to the bag and with a gesture offers me some. I realize it is simply rice. I smile, thank them, and keep walking. I feel thankful that someone smiled. And I am sorry that I have to assume a hardness when I walk in public.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive


About seven or eight years ago I created my own New Year’s ritual. A simple affair, it consisted of staying home, reflecting on what had transpired in my life during that year and what I wanted to happen in the year to come. Usually this process involved writing, dreaming, gratitude and some tears. A good little ritual.

The list often contained things like: learn to play a new instrument, visit someplace new, finish my Master’s thesis, learn to paint with oils, make new friends, or take sailing lessons. I noticed at the end of each year, when reviewing the scribbles from my NYE Party for One, that indeed many of my dreams, ideas and goals had been met. At least those that were more inspiring than “lose 5 pounds.” I felt awestruck.

By doing this, I gained confidence in my dreams and my capacity to achieve them. I also grew faithful that the universe grants heartfelt wishes. My dreams became more elaborate and brazen.

“I will marry a man who is really smart, really good, really tall and who really loves me a lot. He will be someone I can talk to about anything. Someone who is fun. Someone to have adventures with. Someone who has lived abroad. We will live together in a city or town where we can walk to dinner...”

When I moved to DC and married Tom, I congratulated myself and thanked the universe for a job well done.

I proceeded to dream with Tom. “Maybe when you work abroad on a legislative project, I could go with you and work on an education project.” I felt drunk, giddy while voicing the idea over dinner sometimes last July. It seemed so distant from what my life had been just a week or two before. Tom seemed confident and encouraging “That’s completely plausible. I think that would be great.”

Less than 6 months later, we are in Islamabad. Tom is working on project that strengthens the legislative bodies of Pakistan’s provinces. And, miraculously, I am indeed working on an education project.

I spent a lot of time in the last six months thinking about where, if not abroad, do I want to take my education career. “Communication” kept popping into my head. Despite the vagueness of that word, I paid attention to it and to the way it inspired me. I have practiced careful listening throughout my life. The expression, the speaking and writing, of my own voice was what I wanted to practice. Communication seemed like the professional name which captured that.So, I was even more flabbergasted when my colleague introduced me as a “communications consultant.”

So far it has only been four days, and I am just having glimpses of what I got myself into. Nonetheless, it is not too early to celebrate and rejoice about another heartfelt wish granted by the universe.

Big Day



“Wave ‘bye to the Serena!” Janniaz said as we pulled through the metal gates of the hotel. I confessed that I would miss the shower, the comforting water pressure and temperature dousing my head. I doubt Janniaz understood my woes. I would also miss the cakes, those delicate, moist, perfectly sweetened layers of alternating deliciousness, served at the Executive Lounge, merely steps from our room. I don’t think I said that aloud.

“How far do you think it is to our new house?” I asked Janniaz. I guessed it to be about 3 or 5 kilometers, but since I haven’t walked anywhere, my sense of distance feels crippled.
“One side or two sides, Ma’am Sahib?”
“One way.”
“Eight kilometers, Ma’am Sahib.”
I constructed an explanation for why I don’t have a sense for distance.
“Walking is very good. Very good for health, Ma’am Sahib.” Janniaz offered.
I asked if he walks, already knowing the answer: there is no time.

We drove the 8 km north toward the Margalla hills. On this particularly smoky day, the edges of the mountains never materialized. Janniaz drove along the back road, which I think of as the hypotenuse, not only because of my affinity for geometry, but also because it is the only hypotenuse street in the city. All others are perpendicular and parallel to each other. The hypotenuse, called Hill Road, is the last of the city before the mountains. North of it is “the jungle” which means forest in Urdu.

“Look Ma’am Sahib. The monkeys!” Janniaz slowed the car, rolled down the window waving his hand toward “the jungle” and made a small sucking sound with his pursed lips, the universal call for “come here animal!” universally recognized by all wild things as the signal to scurry away or stare blankly toward the origin of the sound.

It took a few seconds for my eyes to distinguish the camouflaged bodies from the dry shrubs along the road. I made out the first one, sitting next to his compadre, picking over some trash or dried seeds, and soon noticed another one ambling toward them. And two more much closer to the road, just a few feet away, one staring our way, they other engrossed in picking at his buddy’s fur. They were the same color as all animals of dry regions: coyotes, mountain lions, kangaroos. But their faces were pink and wrinkly, kind of like a cross between a newborn and a dried apricot. And there were dozens. Seeing monkeys in “la jungla” of Guatemala seemed like a treat; seeing them sway in the trees on the shore of Costa Rica, was a delightful surprise. Somehow seeing these creatures scavenge at the edge of Pakistan’s capital, reminded me more of opossums in southern California, then monkeys in the jungle.

Janniaz dropped me off at our house, the last house on one of the many cul-de-sacs of sector E-7. He and Bilal, who is the care taker of the house, helped me bring stuff upstairs. So far, I have seen reactions to our house from several locals. It is as if they had the wind knocked out from their chest for a brief moment. They inhale in awe and praise the house without a hint of malice or jealousy. It’s always awe. The most striking was Janniaz’s assessment that our house is like “Taj Mahal.” Janniaz, has never been to the Taj Mahal of course, imparting our house with particularly mythical proportions. Even our real estate agent, Irshad, while handing over the keys, told me in a very modest tone that this is the nicest house in Islamabad.

To be clear, this is the ritziest neighborhood of the city, and therefore, maybe of the country. It is where all the bureaucrats, politicians, and nuclear physicists live. And along with them a whole army, literally, of servants. There seems to be no middle class, and therefore the gap between the rich and their help is very wide.

Next, the movers came. Two men, with a truck, arrived and removed furniture from one of our rooms, to make it almost empty, and prepare it as a “Yoga Palace.” They also moved a few other pieces around the house. They spoke no English, but knew how to say “One thousand” as in 1,000 Rupees for the job. This seemed like a lot to me (about $12US) for the local standards. They were very eager to leave their phone number in case I wanted anything else moved. Overwhelming underemployment plagues the country.

Bilal is probably considered lucky. He gets to look after one of the nicest houses, in the poshest neighborhood of the city. He wears a very nice shalwar-kameez made of brown linen and a sweater that smartly matches. It’s almost like a uniform, but nicer and more comfortable looking. Less stuffy. He is young, early 20’s maybe, and has round, gentle features. He owns a black bike with mud flaps, as do most other working class men, which looks a lot like the Raleigh Tom and I owned for about two weeks before it was stolen from Dupont Circle. Bilal does not speak English and looks me in the face only after I speak to him and say his name, usually casting his eyes towards my feet the rest of the time. He lives in one of the two servants rooms in the back of the house. Irshad took me to “the little man’s house” to proudly show me where our house help will live. Up a swirled red staircase, was a room about the size of one of the bathrooms of the main house. No furniture, no bed. A straw mat on the floor. Two blankets to form a sleeping bag of sorts. A few random bits of clothes strewn on the floor. No books. No phone. No dishes.

So far, I’ve seen Bilal plant a little bushy palm in the garden. And I suppose he sweeps our driveway. He opens the gate and helps me carry stuff. He talks to the neighbor and other passersby. That is his life. When does he see family? When does he spend time with friends? What does he eat? What does he think about?

While I was unpacking our things, Shazad, “the admin” as Janniaz calls him, arrived from Tom’s office. He had been here the day before to do a “security check.” I am not exactly sure what that means, other than a walk though the house, peak out the windows and proclamation that this house will need only 2 guards, contrary to the previously feared 4.

“These are your security guards.” Shazad announced and motioned at two men dressed in the usual dark navy blue pants, sweaters, black beards and hats. The taller, younger, rounder one seemed eager to make eye contact and a connection, maybe even a hint of smile glimmered on his face. The other, smaller more bony one, averted his gaze from mine. Neither were introduced to me by name, neither extended their hand to shake mine.

“One will be on duty for 12 hours, and the other will be resting up there.” He pointed toward the servants quarters. I gathered, that Bilal had to move to the downstairs room. “You are now safe and sound,” Shazad proudly assured me.

My mind was swirling from this servant craziness. “Wait - one rests and the other guards? Where do they live? When do they go home?”
“They are from remote areas. They go home once a month.”
I asked nothing else, but surely still had an incredulous look on my face.
“Ms. Carolyn only goes home once a year.” Shazad offered hoping to put things in perspective for me.

Carolyn is Tom’s boss, and therefore Shazad's boss too. While it may be true that her visits to family are less frequent than that of the guards, her life is probably not as dismal as spending 12 hours “resting” in a 4x6 concrete box and 12 hours sitting in front of a house watching for... I am not really sure what.

I called Janniaz to take me to a store, so I could buy a few more things we needed. Since he couldn’t come for an hour or so, I decided to venture out to the neighborhood grocery store. Everyone assures me this neighborhood is safe for walking. I covered my hair, put money and keys in my pockets and walked past the school and the mosque, to local market. It was around 3 pm and the load-shedding power outage was in effect. All the stores were dark. About a dozen men lingered around the store fronts.

Even without the lights, I could see that the “General Store,” next to Dr. Rana’s Vet Clinic, was spic and span clean, with all the goods arranged perfectly floor to ceiling. It was a tiny store, without a single customer aside from me, but 4 men huddled around the counter, and one squatted on the floor, dusting and arranging items. As I shopped, three of the men acted as my personal shopping cart, shuttling food from my hand to the counter, where one calculated feverishly. I bought staples like lentils, beans, rice, sugar, salt, flour, oatmeal, oil, eggs. It stacked up to be four bags of stuff, and I was 500 rupees short. One of the men helped me carry the food back to our house. On the way he asked what country I am from, and if I work for the UN. I hesitated for a moment before answering, and considered saying I am from Czech. But I guessed he would not know that country (as Czechs don’t play cricket) and it seemed too much of a stretch anyway. I was relieved when he repeated “America” with an approving nod.

Bilal met us half way and took my load of groceries. Having everything done for you, is a very strange experience. I don’t quite understand it, but it feels like some of my power gets taken away in that process. As if some integrity were lost. That is only a fledgling sense, and I don’t quite know how to interpret it yet.

Janniaz eventually took me to Best Price, which is a two story department store if you will. Home goods, baby goods, food stuffs, cigarettes. I was getting tired from all the impressions, all the new input of the day. Fatigue wore on me on the ride home with Rasheed, a driver I hardly know. By now it was getting dark, but I still wanted to make one more stop to get flowers.

“No problem madam. As you wish.” And after a pause “Do you know that I am a Christian, Madam?” When I assured him that I did, he announced “May God bless your home and Jesus bless you and Tomas from all sides. Praise to Jesus!”

“Thank you.” I said, looking straight ahead.

My first nighttime power outage occurred while I unpacked. The house turned pitch black and completely quiet; electricity turned off in the whole neighborhood, our radiators fell silent. A moment later, a generator began to purr in the distance. A beam of fluorescent light illuminated the school yard, barely penetrating our curtains. Making my way though our enormous house like a zombie, arms extended, feeling my way, I found candles, set them up in an empty ice tray, and placed them in front of a class cupboard which reflected their light. I turned on my computer and found some music to sing to. I put the flowers in the hallway to welcome my husband and announce our presence in this house.

When Tom arrived, looking handsome and happy, I felt so thankful to be together. Kissing my husband was the first familiar thing I did that day. It was a day full of new experiences. I was exhausted, felt scared and reluctant to sleep in our new, echo-y house.

To my surprise, I slept completely soundly.

Isolation


Before coming to Islamabad people often asked if I was scared or worried. Most likely these questions were inspired by headlines such as “40 Killed in Religious Procession in Karachi” or “14 Feared Dead in Mosque Bombing in Peshawar.” Completely legitimate concerns. What I feared most when coming here was isolation.

I struggled with isolation when I first moved to DC: not knowing anyone at all, and hardly knowing my husband-to-be. Sometimes the isolation became painful and overwhelming. I would cry from the loneliness of it. I knew in time it would get better, but realized, with Tom’s help, it would require effort to move things along more swiftly, and avoid getting stuck in isolation for too long. Taking classes, going to my internship, getting to know Tom’s friends and staying in touch with my friends and family in CA, all made a big difference.

Without work, without an external purpose, without meaningful conversations and connections with people that pull me out of myself, I feel isolated. That leads to loneliness.

Coming to Islamabad, I knew all these conditions would create a perfect environment for isolation to grow like bacteria in a petri dish. However, for these reasons I was hopeful about overcoming the dis-ease: I know and trust my husband a lot more; I feel much more comfortable and safe in our relationship; navigating the experience in DC gave me more confidence, strength and self-knowledge to prevail this time.

I am now swimming in the petri dish: Isolation in Islamabad. I can’t walk out on the street and wander around the city to become familiar with it. I am driven everywhere by male drivers. While out at a market I avoid making prolonged eye contact with people - lest I be perceived as a floozy or worse. I do not have any friends or work yet. We live in a hotel. I am in a foreign country and don’t speak Urdu.

It is very isolating.

I am not writing this to complain or to gain sympathy, but to squarely confront this feeling. To externalize something that might otherwise eat at me silently. To be sure, it will still eat at me, but sharing about it openly, makes it a more transparent and less powerful of an enemy.

A house? A home?


We found a house! It seems quite miraculous that it would happen so fast - I was preparing for a longer sojourn at the Serena since we heard from several people that finding a house could take a month or two. But it seems the stars were favorably aligned and Tom and I must have done something right, for it to work out like this. Turns out we can move in on Monday!
The house is in a lovely, quiet, part of the city, romantically called “E-7.” While all the quarters of Islamabad are perfectly squared, E-7 is a triangle with its hypotenuse pushing against Margalla hills. We’ll be living at the very end of Street 14, across from an elementary school, next to a small park. It’s an upstairs flat of a very new and large house. It’s so vast, that it can be intimidating. But I heeded the advise of Dr. Jenny, who said not be afraid of the big houses, and to consider most carefully the quality of the kitchen. She was right. In the 15 apartments or so that I saw, the kitchen was the quality predictor of the rest of the house. In this case, the kitchen is brand new and has a beautiful view of the hills. The same hills are also showcased in the window of the dining room and living room. They look similar to Southern California hills: alternating between gentle slopes and jaggedy edges, covered by dry chaparral. They seem just meters away. Trees surround the house and bird calls resonate from their branches. The light, the hills and the trees, the newness of the house, the sleepy location, make it a wonderful home for us.

Yes, home. It is much easier to feel at home now. Much easier than it was six months ago when I moved to DC, to a new life, to a future husband I hardly knew. I suppose it’s easier now because in my heart I feel more comfortable, because in our relationship, in our marriage, I feel more comfortable. All of it is still new, just a few months old, just an infant relationship, compared to those that last 10 or 50 years. And Islamabad is its play pin.

It's the little things


Once you’ve been in one place long enough to settle down, the little things start to emerge from the obvious ones. This reminds me of yoga, where you quiet down, and transfer your attention from the gross to the subtle. In changing our focus, there is grace, wonder and beauty. These little things are what we remember, and what we ultimately appreciate.

Like the way my husband now greets people, pressing the palm of his hand to his heart, bowing his head ever so slightly, as if he’d been greeting men like this all his life. Tom amazes me in many ways, but it is these subtleties that make me love him most.

Or, the small distinctions between our drivers: Alam Gir and Jaan Niaz. They are both about Tom’s age I guess, though it’s difficult to say. Both refer to Tom as “boss” in the third person. They call me Ma’am Sahiib, which means something like Madam Sir, the first word referring to my gender the second to my class, which they presume is higher than theirs, so they essentially call me “Sir.” Both drivers are loving people, with a great sense of humor. Both are similar in stature, a little bigger than the typical Pakistani, or at least they seem like it to me, since they protective of me. Both are from Peshawar, have 5 or 6 kids, whom they leave behind every week along with their wives, their households of 20+ people, several cows, dozens of chickens and take the bus to Islamabad to work as drivers on the PLSP (Tom’s) project. Both drivers speak some English, about as much as I speak Spanish. Both seem very serious at times but are quick to smile and joke when the social situation seems safe to do so. Both like to talk to me as they shuttle me from Serena to town, about a 10 minute drive. They assure me that “Pakistan is a very good country, Ma’am Sahiib. Only this time, Pakistan not very good. Many bomb blast.” Jaan Niaz speaks slowly and annunciates his words, making it easier for me to understand. I think this is indicative of his careful, fatherly nature. He always wears the traditional Shalwaar-Kamiz, with a sweater keeping out the winter chill. On the several trips to market, he walks ahead of me opening doors, or ten feet behind me, giving me privacy, but letting everyone know he’s “got my back.” Alam Gir’s speech is much more rapid, the final syllables of words often disappearing into laughter. He seems more free-spirited and youthful. He wears western style shirt and pants, has the mic of his phone clipped to his pink knitted vest, and waits for me in the car while I shop. They are both fond of Tom and think he is “very intelligent.”

The days could all look the same, with an ever present layer of hazy smoke nestled upon the city. Denser, thicker, lower than So Cal air pollution. The air sat completely still for days. Nothing stirred. From our window everything coated with a “fade out” quality. Two days ago, the slightest drizzle blessed Islamabad. Winds kicked up the flags along the hotel barricade, the branches of trees were enlivened, clouds clumped together. For the first time we saw swaths of blue sky above the clouds. Contours of horizons emerged. For half a day we could see what surrounds us: ridges of hills, crowns of trees, cranes of a construction site... it was marvelous.

It took years of living in Southern California, before I noticed that there really are seasons. That the landscape changes drastically. I wonder what else I will notice here, as I become more still.

Islamabad - Jan. 2nd, 2010



Holy Shit, it’s 2010!

I can’t comprehend it, just accept it. It has been a blur of week, a week speckled with resting in the hotel, sleeping off the sweats and caughs, getting used to the ins and outs of the Serena, and occasionally getting outside the hotel walls to venture into the the town or the diplomatic enclave. So far, my favorite places are the neighborhoods around Tom’s work, where there are many people (read - men) walking around, carts with various goods for sale, trees lining the streets and lots of flowers for sale. It feels lively and occasionally one can even see a female! Even from my limited encounters outside the hotel, so far already there have been very striking experiences, the most poignant of which is that one simply does not see very many women. It’s not that there aren’t any, it’s just that they make up about 2% of the public in view on the streets. It feels very strange. Unbalanced, to say the least and most the most obvious. I don’t like it at all. When I do see a woman, I rejoice internally and try to connect with the feminine energy.

One of the days I was sick, I ventured into the diplomatic enclave to the Canadian High Commission to see the famed Dr. Jenny, a British dame who’s been here for about 30 years, and seems to know all the expats and the ins and outs of Islamabad. Actually getting into the enclave on foot through the walled, barb wired, machine-gun armed checkpoints was an adventure, and once I was in, it didn’t get any less interesting with the labyrinth of streets and reiterations of checkpoints, tents and barbed wires. But I was determined to see the doctor, and trusted that she wouldn’t have told me to walk over if it weren’t safe enough for me to do so. I covered my head, put on my best “don’t fuck with me look” and continued to walk in the general direction of the High Commission, by the British, the American, the Iranian, the Indian embassies, none of which are labeled, and all of which look like fortresses. When I made it to the clinic, Dr. Jenny diagnosed: “well you made it here on foot, you’re smiling and you look pretty good. so I’d say you’re not all that sick.” This made me thankful for my persistence. It was a great thing to meet Dr. Jenny with whom I ended up spending several hours, and had tea with her and her son. She confirmed my instincts about living in the enclave, and encouraged us to find a house in town, saying it would be important to have a life as close to normal as possible. It was also somehow encouraging to know that finding housing is always tricky and can take a month or so. She gave me some tips and other useful advice for beginning a temporary life here. I felt a sense of accomplishment after she dropped me off at the Serena. I felt more grounded and secure.

Islamabad Journal - Dec. 30th, 2009



We've been here almost a week.
The last two days Tom has been at work. I have been recovering from jet-lag/cold/respiratory issues/diarrhea/period/etc. I spent almost 48 hours in my pajamas huddled in bed, sleeping. Yes, traveling is glamorous.

Today I went to look at some apartments in the diplomatic enclave. Whatever images "diplomatic" invokes, are shattered. Perhaps, the fancy license plates and nicer cars are true to hype. Beyond that, the actual "enclave" seems more like a prison, soulless concrete buildings surrounded by barricades and barbed wire, desolate open space dotted by canvass army tents on a grid of asphalt road interspersed with seemingly inert but abundantly staffed checkpoints. The real estate agent showed us about 8 apartments in two housing complexes. They seemed like a multi-national communist housing development. The common areas were particularly dismal. Dark. Damp. Cold. Hallways lined with cracked concrete and tiles. Smells of gas and food swirled through stairways and elevator shafts. I asked one of the group of 4 men who made up my motley entourage for the afternoon (2 from Tom's office, one real estate agent, and always one other random person who was presumably somehow connected to the apartment we were going to look at) "who lives here?" I wondered, motioning to the compound in general. "The big shots" was the reply of the youngest member of the group. Hmmmm. Occasionally a Chinese or Thai emblem hung above a door. The insides of the apartment bore the scars of the "big shots." Imagine your Pakistani grandma's furniture used for decades by strangers from all corners of the globe. If I were a cockroach, it's just the kind of place I would want to call home.

Who are the "big shots?" I wondered. Who are the "diplomats" from countries all over the world? What does one have to do to become a "diplomat" in Thailand? Or Russia? Hmmmm. Do I want to live next to these people?

Maybe we could stay at the Serena for 4 months...

But probably not. Only 6 days into our visit and already we avoid Zamana restaurant with its overbearing wait staff. We've cut back on room service, preferring to take snacks from the "executive lounge" upstairs which has a continental array of sandwiches, potato pancakes, cold cuts, fruit and surprisingly delicious array of delicate pastries and cakes. And of course, tea. I do love the tea. And the delicate pastries.

It could feel strange being cooped up here, really separate and isolated from ordinary life. And when I leave the hotel, I feel very vulnerable. But we are two, Tom and I, and in the space of our marriage it feels comfortable and good. And makes it easy to be in touch with my own heart, which feels good. I am very thankful for this experience. It is something I want to know more of. Love in awkward and challenging circumstances.

Islamabad Journal - Dec. 28th, 2009


It's noon and I am still in my pajamas and writing in bed. I have a cold, and still recovering from jet lag. Tom slept all night last night and looks good. He brought me two fruit plates and two pots of tea to our room and a mini donut & croissant.


It is the last day of a four day holiday. The day when sadness induces some Shi'a Muslim males to self-flagellate in commemoration of the day Muhammad's grandson was martyred. For us, self-flagellation aside, this is very convenient, as it has given us time to rest and to adjust to the time.


On Saturday, Moussa, one of PLSP's drivers took us to town. My impressions of Islamabad were very positive. The climate is dry, but there streets are tree-lined and park-lined, with the greenery reminding me of California in the fall - more yellow than green, but still very pretty. The trees are wispy and warm looking. You see lots of men on the streets, laying on the (yellowish) green space, resting, talking, waiting? Many squat along the sides of roads, in a positioned envied by many a yogi, with tools displayed in front of them to signify their craft: paint brush, pick axe, shovel. We went by Tom's work, the PLSP office, which is essentially a marble mansion behind a gate with two guards, in a residential neighborhood with many comparable houses. We visited Kosar market, a little shopping area with maybe a dozen stores. We sat outside, and I had a chance to enjoy my first afternoon in Islamabad outside the Serena walls. The marketplace had outdoor seating areas anchored by a water and surrounded by trees. The pet store had a large bird cage on display and the wild birds were flaunting their freedom in front of the caged birds. It was also my first sight of local teenagers, three boys and three girls, maybe 17 or so, sitting at a table near us, wearing jeans drinking tea or coffee and some smoked cigarettes. The girls sat cross legged on their chairs, and their shirts were provocatively short, covering only their hips, which seemed to earn them some disapproving looks from adults going into the shopping center. Sitting there in the afternoon sunlight was enjoyable and refreshing. Tom and I browsed through the meat/fish store, the dry goods store, the home appliance store and planned for what we would buy once we get our own place and leave behind the "suite" life of the Serena.


Yesterday, Sunday, after another largely sleepless night, we stayed in the hotel. I was very happy to discover that the gym downstairs also has a steam and a dry sauna. The steam room is much like the one I remember from the public indoor pool mom and I went to in the winters in Czech, tiled, dark, and hard to breathe in. But I just love the steam and cold shower. At night we played Scrabble, and I again, lost. But it was the most satisfying game yet, with really great words and interrupted by a delicious Pakistani/Indian room service dinner.

All of this resting feels good and important, in preparation for the days ahead. Our days at the Serena consist of long breakfasts at the Zamana restaurant downstairs, where we try various foods from the buffet which never taste the way one would expect (we like the chickpeas and curried potatoes with an egg on top) and reading the two local papers The News and The Dawn. We've been studying Urdu, practicing the script, listening to DVD and quizzing each other. We watch TV, about 60 channels, about 15 of them English speaking like BBC, Al Jezeera, HBO, Stars, the indispensible Fox News and National Geographic which shows Jailed Abroad - a show one should never watch while abroad.

Islamabad Journal - Dec. 26th, 2009


We've been here two and a half days.


On the flight over due to a combination of good fortune and "being too tall" we were seated in the emergency row which meant enough leg room to do a yoga series. Instead we slept. On the second leg of our 15,000 mile journey, the flight from Doha to Islamabad, we were part of a plane full of northern Pakistanis returning home from Hajj. The plane was delayed, the cabin was chaotic, chatty, with the atmosphere of fatigued but excited villagers returning home from arduous and very important business. During the delay, caused by careful organizing of sitting arrangements among the males and females, Tom and I played Scrabble. A man came to the space in front of us, and put down a white blanket. "I think this guy's gonna sit here" I mumbled under my trying not to stare and focus on my Scrabble tiles instead. This idea seemed completely plausible, given the general disorderliness of the cabin, but it turned out that it was prayer time, and he began to bow, kneel, stand, in a continuous display of piousness. Another man soon joined him. If a third one had come, he would have to perform these ablutions in Tom's lap.


Once the plane ascended, men, all of them wearing light colored shalwaar-kamiz and turbans, took off their leather sandals and stretched their bare, swollen feet on the arm rests in front of them; they slept, chatted, rested, contented. As soon as the wheels touched the tarmac in Islamabad, around 3:30 am on Christmas Eve, passengers got up, and began pulling luggage from overhead compartments. Diminutive Chinese flight attendants did not stand a chance pacifying the grizzled Hajists in their seats. After a long wait at the luggage carousel, we emerged from the terminal around 4:30 a.m. to witness hundreds of people waiting patiently around the entrance. They had brought leis with colorful plastic flowers and other flashy ornaments for their family members returning home from having fulfilled the fifth pillar of Islam. The crowd's display of devotion and support for their dear ones seemed particularly sweet in the early morning hours in this unknown land.


In our hotel room we fell asleep right as the call to prayer sounded through the window. We had in effect lost a whole day during the journey. By all accounts adjusting to the trip over here is easier than on the trip back. It is day 3 in fact, and we've had a few nights of midnight awakenness, talking and laughing, strangely enjoying our jet lag. According to Tom, this is our second honeymoon.


The quest for home continues - in Pakistan?

It is 2010.
It has been about a year since I met Tom (though the date, in both senses of the word, is debatable).
6 months since I left Orange County and moved to my most recent home in Washington DC.
4 months since Tom and I got married.
2 weeks since we left DC and came to Islamabad.
2 weeks since my 18th address: the Serena Hotel in Islamabad

OK, that's not quite fair, and not quite accurate. A hotel can not technically be a home, right? Unless... what if you spend 30 days at a hotel? 50 days?

We are looking for our official new home, but for now it is the Serena. A south facing room, on the fourth story, of a luxurious, fortified hotel, in southeast corner of Islamabad, Pakistan.

As they say, wherever you go, there YOU are. And so with me, I have brought all my questions, my doubts, my tensions, but also my experiences and my faith that home is where the heart is.