Last Days and the Problems of Pakistan

My Islamabad days coming to an end. This has very much been on my mind: the process of conclusion and preparing for the next phase. It seems that I am not the only person concerned with my departure; others are aware and want to talk about what this means.

My hairdresser, a foreigner who’s been working in Pakistan for five years, asked about my experience in Pakistan. After I shared he asked “but aren’t you going to miss having people do everything for you? The driver, the cook, the cleaners... When I go home, I really hate having to clear the dishes from the table.” When I explained we had someone come to clean our house twice a week he exclaimed in his hairdresser’s animated best “You did not have the full Pakistani experience! That’s the best thing about living here! You can have someone do everything for you!” Indeed you can.

Our guards found out that I am leaving. “I know it’s your last day in Pakistan, madam.” said Haider Rahman after he handed me the receipts from the laundry. “Madam, I have a request” he looked away in the manner of a 10 year old boy who got in trouble on the playground. He waited until I urged him to continue. Then pointing at the other guard seated a few feet away “Madam, me and my friend live in Pakistan.” Hmmm... where is this going? “We live below poverty line.” Again he looked at me, waiting for a cue. “Can you help us out Ma’am, so we can build better our family’s house or improve the education of our cousins?” Oh... I see. “No. I can not give you any money.” I did not apologize. “It’s OK, Madam, never mind” he said smiling bravely and backing away from me. Perhaps I was too abrupt.

The woman who comes to clean our house, is same age as I, has two children, drives a car and speaks English unusually well. Janniaz, one of the driver’s has observed that our “female servant is very rich.” Rehana knows our time in Pakistan is drawing to a close and has asked me several times to recommend her to other foreigners, “to anyone [ I ] know at the embassy.” Like most Pakistanis she overestimates my sphere of influence. She likes to share with me about the problems of her country. She told me about a disabled neighbor boy who can’t go to school. “Please, Barbora, tell people on your project that we need to get education for these people. He has not even a chance to be a sweeper. Nobody wants to take care of him.” When I expressed frustration about the frequency of loadshedding (power blackouts) she informed me that “this is the VIP area and loadshedding happens regularly. In area for normal people power goes off any time of day, for long periods.” Last week we had brown water coming out of our faucet, and again seeing my frustration she explained that at her house “now in the summer time there is very little water from CDA (capital development authority). So we call water truck and buy from him water for one week for 900 rupees (about $12, and about what Rehana makes in the 3 hours she cleans for us). This water is only for washing ourselves, our clothes and dishes. I have to be careful about using it. I don’t do laundry very much.” This week she shared about another “main problem in Pakistan” not related to education or power or water issues. I suggested that Rehana gives her phone number to the real estate agent who brings people here now to show the house. Maybe some of his clients could use her services. “No, Barbora, I do not want to give my phone number to any Pakistani man. Pakistani men are always bothering Pakistani women. Now you are leaving and I can tell you. Like that man next door who is always staring at me!” she pointed frustrated toward the house next door. I knew exactly whom she was referring to. The driver from next door, who aside from one or two errands a day, and the bi-daily car wash, does nothing except squat on a grassy lawn in front of the house, or loiter in front of our gate and stare into our windows. “Every time, I wash the dishes, he is always looking at me. When I get out of the car, he is always looking at me, and he bothers me when I walk by him. Pakistani men think they can treat women any way they want. I do not want to give my information to any Pakistani man. They would bother me and my family. That is the main problem in Pakistan.”

Right now, apparently, the biggest problem in Pakistan is Facebook. Protesters are out in front of the Parliament, not demanding clean drinking water, electricity for their homes, or education for their children. They are demonstrating against sacrilegious imagery on Facebook (which only 1% of Pakistan’s population uses). Perhaps this is the main problem in Pakistan.

Eight Days

Eight days left of my stay in Pakistan. In eight days, it will be exactly 5 months that I’ve been here with Tom, and it will also be when I will return to the US.

Only eight days left, to conclude one chapter in life, one chapter of our marriage. Such transitions are important, and should be commemorated, marked somehow. Sure, one can throw a party, but there must be other ways to prepare us for the end of one cycle and beginning of another? Without marking or acknowledging these transitions, our life would be like one long canal carrying water from point A to point B. But life is much richer and more complex, and hopefully in the process of getting from point A to point B we change and transform who we are; from a brook, to a stream, to river which merges with larger and larger rivers, until finally it becomes the ocean. I like this metaphor, because it implies that we get bigger. We get more expansive. As we navigate each life change, we are able to grow and expand. Also, like the water, we become deeper and more still.

In the eight days still left in Pakistan, while I continue to recover from typhoid fever, I shall mark the end of one chapter and prepare for the next.

Call to Prayer

“Allahu-akbar!” (God is Great!)

The call to prayer. Oddly, one of the things in Pakistan that have brought me comfort. “Oddly” because I am not Muslim, nor Christian, nor religious for that matter. But there is a certain quality to the call, the muezzin’s voice inviting and pleading at the same time.

It inspires a similar feeling to one I had years ago while in Oaxaca for a summer. Dealing there with bouts of illness, loneliness and various existential crises of the mid twenties, I sought solace in churches. The silent, cavernous structures, brought me peace and stillness. I had been brought up areligious, atheist, and this behavior, these experiences were incongruous with my upbringing. And yet they brought me solace.

There is, in the heartfelt call to prayer, in the solemnity of a church, something that grabs at me. Something that grabs, right at the center of my chest, and says: this is home. This is home. And the breath gets pulled inside by my lungs, almost involuntarily swirling right into my core, expanding and resting there. And for a brief moment, just before the exhale, I know: this is home.

Baba Nityananda, a holy man of India, once said: Heart is the the hub of all holy places. Go there and roam in it.

I can’t quite roam there yet. But I can steel glimpses.


The muezzin’s voice carries from an amplifier just a few feet from our windows. It is an invitation to pursue the breath into the center of my being, and there find home, just briefly catching the holiness of it. And then I exhale. It is an invitation I did not expect from Pakistan, the invitation to my own heart.


It feels like a long time ago since I felt happy. Really carelessly happy, about nothing in particular - the best kind of happy. It’s been so long, that I can’t really remember it. I mean my body can’t remember it.

It has also been weeks since the temperatures have been around 100F, with the unrelenting sun beating down from morning till night, with the occasional sweetness of rain as reprieve from its intensity. Knowing that this is only the beginning of summer, doesn’t help. There is no escape from the heat, not the air conditioned mall or movie theater, nor the breezy beach. Only turning on the wall mounted air conditioning units around our house cools of certain rooms.

It has been a long time since I felt well. Reliably, well. For weeks I have been like a slug: thick, slow and sad. The inside of my head feels hot and heavy. Sometimes there is a sharp pain behind my eyes. I’ve had fevers and chills and night sweats and cramps and bloody noses.

So many things in Pakistan have been so unfamiliar and so jarring, that even these symptoms I took as par for the course. When hearing my health woes people would even say “I felt like that the first six months I was here”. “Really?” I’d feel the urge to ask “because that sounds pathological!” I mean why do that to your self? For so long? For what? Because Pakistan needs you? Or because you need Pakistan? In the short amount of time I’ve been here, it has been very hard to understand people’s motives for being here. To help? To have a story to tell? To use their skills where they are needed? To have something to do? To have a Pakistan on their resume? To have a job? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes to all of the above. All legitimate and valid reasons. But put up with six months of illness for any of them? That’s pathological.

I just want to be better. That is all my sluggy brain can manage to wish for. I want to feel better. I want to feel well. I want to feel healthy again and remind myself again what it’s like to feel good.

I think I am on my way. A second round of testing of blood, urine, stool, and an ultrasound finally showed that I have typhoid fever. Though we suspected it, first blood and urine came back negative so we feared it might be something weirder. After first course of antibiotics I still had 102 fever, still the night sweats, cramping and chills. The typhoid diagnosis brought a relief of sorts - knowing what it is, that it is treatable and a specific antibiotic for it, all made me feel good. But still, it has been weeks since I’ve been well, since I’ve been happy and in that time feeling like a slug has worn on me.

It seems like it might take a while to slither my way out.

Midway Point

It has been several weeks since our midway point came and went. I wanted to take time to reflect on what has happened so far, and reassess the meaning of this journey. I thought I would have the perfect opportunity since we were heading to Chitral for several days. Chitral is one of the regions of northern Pakistan which is very mountainous and beautiful. I packed my computer, and imagined relaxing in our hotel room with sweeping views of the Mount Kalash and its valleys, or perhaps on the deck of the alpine style hotel where we would be staying and type away, having the distance and perspective required for that kind of reflection. It was to be our first trip outside of Islamabad in two months, and the words of my hairdresser definitely rang true “you’ll want to leave Islamabad every two months” as if it were somehow related to the color of my roots. Yes, it had been about 2 months since our trip to London, and we were definitely due for another getaway. We were ready.

Unfortunately, our excitement was stilted, twice, as the flight was cancelled two days in a row. The second day we were completely duped, because the flight actually took off, with all passengers on board, and flew for the expected 45 minutes or so, through clouds and turbulence, although when we landed, the realization that we were in fact back in Islamabad, crept in very very slowly, culminating in a very blunt thud in my gut. The plane had turned around mid-flight, and which was not deemed necessary to share with the English speaking passengers. Living in a country so different from the one you consider your home, the one you are familiar with and think you understand, you come across these disappointments which catch you completely off guard.

So here we are. Still in Islamabad. Way past the midway point. To sum up, we’ve lived through several phases:

1) Serena: the many strange days at the hotel, our first set of sicknesses. At least 10 days it took to adjust to the time. 17 days at the hotel all together I think.

2) House: Moving into our house and settling into a routine of life and work in Pakistan.
Adjusting to the culture, language, climate, food, city... finding restaurants and stores we liked. Starting consulting work. Discovering our surroundings: the ZOO, Said-Pur Village, the Markets,

3) London: the first trip out of here, which was so good, so uplifting, and such a great reminder that in our “regular” life, we can walk in public and feel relaxed, hold hands, and wear jeans, and have our hair fly willy nilly free in the wind, and smile completely openly and be unabashedly happy. And see other men and women doing the same!

4) After London: coming back was much easier, as if London gave us a new perspective, a new light. And indeed there was new light in Islamabad. Spring had arrived after some weeks of rain. For the first time we saw clear skies, and crisp outlines of things, especially leaves and ridges. We started to go on the hiking trails in the Margalla hills.

But here I began to get sick sporadically, going through some sort of a diarrhea bout every two weeks or so, which ultimately has culminated in this (I say that with the hope of finality) whatever I have now.

Sickness apart, what has it been like so far? There have been many highlights, unexpected moments of wonder and appreciation. For example the first time we reached Ficus point on our hike into the Margallas and sat on the big boulder underneath the enormous ficus tree and listened to the brook and looked into the sunlit haze over Islamabad. Or when we hiked to the ridge thirsty, sunburned, cranky, and found the old man selling cold bottled water, then laid on the pine needles and looked up at the swaying pines. Or when Z took us to Khanpur for the first time, and later hiking there, and swimming in its cool blue water. Or when Tom and I danced together, for the first time ever, at a jazz club event at Majlis. Or the many mornings we’ve practiced yoga together in our yoga room.

There have been many difficult times too, not marked by such acute remembering, but worth noting as well. Chiefly for me, the frustration of feeling trapped. And the recurring illness.

What has this meant over all? It has given Tom and me a lot of time to spend together. Time without much distraction. Other than work hours, we are together all the time. There is no TV (except for the 2 dozen pirated movies we bought at Illusions), no constant stream of public radio (except for the podcasts we listen to occasionally to remind us of home and bring in the news), no friends and acquaintances to be inviting us to drinks, or dinner (except for the infrequent dinners we’ve had with folks here), nothing to fix or organize around the house, no piles of magazines to keep up with, no concerts or museums to go to... it’s just a very simple life, distilled down to its most basic: work, food, sleep. Although it might sound boring and oppressive, and in some ways maybe it has been that, what this simple life has also done is provide us with the opportunity to get to know each other in a way we did not have a chance to before we were married.

Before we came, Tom used to joke that Pakistan is our second honeymoon. In an unexpected way this has turned out to be true. Not in the way a honeymoon usually signifies: tropical drinks with umbrellas, wearing very little clothing and lots of sunscreen. But in a way where we just get to focus on spending time together, in a regular life, removed from our regular life. Tom still leaves for work, and sometimes I do too. When he comes home we hug and kiss and just spend the evening together. Doing what? I don’t even know, talking mostly. Getting to know each other. Not getting to know the neighborhood, or the latest new restaurant on P Street. But getting to know each other. That is the honeymoon of it. Sweet.


Living outside Pakistan, there isn’t really any reason one would hear of PIA, or know that Pakistan International Airlines exists. They are not known for their efficiency like Lufthansa, or for their extensive movie selection like Emirates. But if one were to hear about PIA, here are some of the things one might find out:

First, PIA is the only airline offering a direct flight between Islamabad and London. This fact alone is enough to ignore all others you might hear about the airline.

When purchasing your ticket, it is very helpful to be white, as you will most likely get whisked away from the indefinite queue in which all others are waiting, and have your own window opened up just for you. Oh, sorry, would that make you feel uncomfortable? You can always protest and insist that you will await your turn with everyone else.

The same characteristic helps when checking in at the airport: you get ushered into the person-less line labeled “business plus” regardless of what kind of a ticket you hold.

It helps to be a single (the technical term is “unaccompanied”) female because in the three subsequent security, immigration and baggage checks, you get to go to the “ladies” line, where... you guessed it, no one is in front of you! You dare not look back at the line of 50 + men and families who are shifting their weight from one foot to the other, waiting for their turn.

Once you’ve used up your “get out of queue for free” card, you can seat yourself in the lounge area along with all other travelers. There are no gates, no signs to indicate if you are in the right place, except one that says “Facilitator.” Hmmm...

You sit and a tea boy comes around and ask you “coffeetea?” which is pretty much a compound word here. When you say tea, he arrives 15 minutes later with a silver tray, containing your beverage and a selection of saran-wrapped white bread sandwich and sponge-looking thing ominously named “yellow cake” neither of which you should dare to eat. You sit and wait for your 10:35 departure while the lounge swells with hundreds of people. At 10:25 the “facilitator” announces it’s time to board, whereupon all 300 passengers, strollers, wheelchairs, crying babies and children, grandmothers who are actually trying to fly to Karachi or Birmingham form a massive herd at the facilitators’ desk.

You funnel your way down the ramp onto the tarmac where your passport and ticket, is checked for the fifth time, and those going to other destinations are sorted out and sent back upstairs through the herd. Nothing but a small inconvenience.

You board a bus which screeches up to your plane. As you exit the bus your ticket and passport get checked one more time, and 10 meters later, as you ascend the stairway to your plane, a guy with a black beret, gray beard and aviator glasses gives them another once over. He shakes his head “no” and hopefully by this time you’ve realized that in Pakistan that actually means yes, and you don’t panic.

Finally, you’ve made it on board. You are the 10th person or so (thanks to your unaccompanied white female status), and because you’ve heard the horror stories about the toilets on PIA flights, you might hurry to use a clean one and prepare your bladder for the trip.

In the toilet there is no soap, but there is a huge sign over the toilet imploring that you not throw metals, glass, razor blades, cloth or plastic bottles into the toilet. Sanitary napkins are apparently fine.

Later on you will discover that smoking in the lavatories, is in fact still tolerated and practiced on PIA flights, despite the typical red-strike over a smoking cigarette picture on the mirrors and side panels.

Some other air travel norms you may have taken for granted also do not apply on PIA. For example, you are welcome to stroll about the cabin about 10 seconds after take off. You are also allowed to keep piles of stuff right in front of your feet, and your neighbors’ feet. You are not required to sit and buckle up until the wheels have been prepared for landing, and even though you will most likely stand at the luggage carousel for two hours, it’s frowned upon (literally) to get out of your seat while the plane is still taxiing and start rummaging through the overhead bin, but no one will try to stop you.

After a Koran recitation the plane ascends smoothly commencing the 8 hour trip to London. Heading northwest over Afghanistan, the pilot speaks lengthily in Urdu, of which you only understand “In-Sh-Allah” and “Maharbani” and “Shukria” (“god willing”, “please” and “thank you,” respectively). In the English translation you learn that the captain gave very detailed explantation about the winds, weather, turbulence and adjustments he prepares to make and how that will effect our trip. Very nice. He peppers his lecture with announcements of how many more miles you have until the Afghan airspace has been traversed. You imagine in Urdu that went something like: gentlemen (not ladies) we are about 300 km from Ashkhabad and Inshallah will make it over the airspace of Afghanistan. Not too reassuring.

The cabin crew is pretty much male. And not gay either. Also not too reassuring.

Children of pre-school age are allowed to sit on your lap. Or your neighbor’s lap.

Lunch is served and, you are offered choices. “Vegetarian, please”. You are delighted to receive a tray of steamed jasmine rice with curried peas and potatoes and perhaps one green bean gingerly laid across the top. You dig in. Oh shit! Not a green bean! That was a chili pepper! Whatever they say about PIA, they can’t say that the food is bland.