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.

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