17 January 2006

Impressions of Pakistan

ISLAMABAD - Being in Pakistan during this period of post-CIA-air-strike tension has been quite surreal. On the one hand, we are in this extravagant hotel with plush beds, clothes press machine (!) and complimentary mini-bar in our rooms, but on the other, scenes of protests and devastation loop on the 42" plasma TV and travel advisory alerts scream from my LAN-connected inbox:

"1. Travel to Pakistan should be for essential business reasons only."
-> Hmm... National interests at stake here, so I guess it must be "essential" enough.

"2. International SOS Members traveling to or currently in Pakistan at this time of heightened anti-US sentiment are advised to avoid American diplomatic missions and those of its allies, as well as US-brand commercial establishments. Minimize time spent in lobbies of buildings of multinational corporations or hotels. "
-> Okay, I agree. No McDonald's dinners for me while here, especially given that there was an attack on a McDonald's in Karachi a few months ago. But we are staying in Marriot and our meetings are held here all day long, so there is no chance of minimizing at all on the hotel front. On a sidenote, I must say that McDonald's does not seem to have a foothold here (thankfully). So far, I have only seen KFC and Pizza Hut and I am glad to announce that I have not had to resort to either yet.

On this last night of my stay in Islamabad, I can safely say that Pakistan in words or pictures have seemed much more dangerous, or exciting if you prefer, than my reality here. Of course, my reality is also a deceptively biased one. I shop at the biggest of the market areas, but not the market for the typical man on the streets. I see the clean lines of modern Islamic buildings (King Faisal Mosque below) but not the ghettos of the countryside.
Faisal backdrop Faisal afar Faisal close-up

That said, Islamabad is a well-planned and elegant city. Even with jet-lagged eyes and the darkness of night, I already like what I saw in my first hour while being whisked from the airport to the hotel. What is more impressive is that so far, I have seen no slums or beggars. Pakistanis are also quite mild by nature - they are not the pestering or aggressive sort - so it is quite a pleasant experience when bargaining. (I actually derive zero utility from bargaining, so I do it more as a formality to satisfy my Singaporean self.)

men wave woman waves
My biggest grouse is that the free-wandering soul in me is still not used to having to look for a male to accompany us when going out in the evening. (Post-script: Ms L, Ms O and I did progress to heading out as a trio on our last day - fun!) I usually poof at such advice, but here, I actually feel the need. 95% of the people out on the streets are men and some areas have no street lamps. The few women out are by far accompanied women. (This social norm is perhaps why the immigration counter at the airport has a special lane for 'Unaccompanied Women and Children'? We tried asking two of our Pakistani colleagues to confirm this but didn't get a proper reply.)

The other thing I have been left perplexed was the fact that at the Taxila museum, the staff approached us for pens. How unusual - pens! Unfortunately, I didn't have any spare ones with me then. Ms O mentioned that children approached her for the same thing too in Syria. We checked the prices of pens later on when we passed by a bookstore; they were not expensive. Did they want them as souvenirs or something? I am still perplexed, but will make a mental note to bring along pens along next time.
Food-wise, Pakistan has rather late dinners (9 pm) and its cuisine is quite meat-based. But we must give them the credit - they do their meats very well. Very tenderly roasted, and when coupled the indulgently fragrant US$1 briyani... Simply sedap!

Other memorable tidbits about Pakistan:
  • Vehicles have different honks from one another. And instead of rude monotonal beeps, Pakistani honks are usually short quick melodies, making it quite fun to listen out for them. Imagine - a symphony of honks in a traffic jam :) (But Islamabad is so sparsely populated for its land area that there is really no serious traffic jam.)
  • The knowledgeable bookshop attendants would recommend you books on their own initiative. What a delight! I was particularly impressed because the shop we were at looked like a nondescript neighbourhood bookstore from the outside. Upon their recommendation, I bought my first book of Urdu poetry. (Is Singapore going on the GEMS campaign? Bookstores should really take a leaf out of the Pakistan book.)
  • The very thorough body search at the airport is done by hand. I must confess that at the end of it, I felt like telling them, "Must pay money one leh...". But I will also say that poor the males in our team had a tougher time dealing with being frisked so thoroughly ;)
  • They use textbooks from Singapore. We saw them in a bookshop and my counterpart also attested to this.
  • Pakistan has very close ties with China. I thought this was anecdotal until I saw a Zhou Enlai Avenue... Alright, I get the point.
  • "Okay-maybe". I am still trying to understand what this phrase means. Is that a yes or a no...?
My impression of Islamabad would have remained rather dreary (mainly due to the weather) if not for the car ride in the beautiful weather of the last day which really set things right. The Himalayas in the horizon, the Margallah national park just minutes away, the silent yet impressive architecture of the Supreme Court and Parliament...

It has been a good initiation into South Asia.

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