Off to Islamabad, Pakistan, to lead an implementation of Office 365 for the country office of one of our NGO customers. Herewith, some random notes, observations and musings.
- Got properly adjusted to Islamabad time by having three meetings and one fitness workout in the 12 hours before my flight. I'm at the airport feeling like I've been up all night because I have been up all night. That's one way to adjust to the 12 hour time zone difference.
- Ready to use the "Clear" card I've received so I can skip past the security line, but the TSA agent tells me that line isn't operating. I'm pretty sure she just doesn't know how it works. At any rate, TSA Pre means I get to go right through security. Pretty sweet.
- Lunch at Cat Cora restaurant. Who is this executive chef imposter?
- I can tell that everyone in my family is nervous about me going to Pakistan. It probably didn't help to watch an entire season of Homeland before I left. As Pakistan goes, Islamabad is about the safest place I could be going. Most of the violence is in the southern part of Pakistan, in Karachi and Balochistan. Even so, I understand the difference between "relatively safe" and safe.
- Brian calls. He's greased things for me with the State Department in Islamabad. Nice to have powerful friends.
- Prepared for my trip by reading CIA Factbook on Pakistan. Main issue is low GDP growth. Also poverty and illiteracy.
- My American Airlines flight to Chicago is delayed for an hour, then for six hours. There goes my connection… Now I'm f*d. Because I have checked bags (and people get hinky when bags fly without their owners these days) the best choice American can offer involves arriving one day late, after spending 20 hours window shopping in Doha airport.
- Thankfully, my virtual travel agent and airline expert Brian calls to tell me there's an Emirates flight leaving in an hour if I can get on it. I call the travel agent and, after a bit of work, get re-booked. Now, to find my luggage.
- In the Emirates line. I think this is what the American Airlines baggage agents were referring to when they talked about "lunch hour": the group in front of me is a family with about ten bags each.
- Emirates has this rule that your carry-on can't weigh more than 15 pounds. And they make a big deal about saying they'll gate-check your bag if it's overweight. From what I could see, that rule is not being enforced.
- 15 hours in a middle seat. Thank God there are free drinks on this flight. The hardest part about this flight? Sitting still. My iPhone is out of battery power (after all those phone calls rearranging travel) and I've put my laptop in the overhead bin, so I can at least stretch my legs out under the seat in front of me.
- Pre-flight announcements in Arabic—that's a first.
- Fake starry skies on the cabin ceiling--nice touch Emirates (or Boeing).
- Surprising, and refreshingly helpful, reaction to the woman behind me feeling ill. They arranged for a medical person to see her when we landed.
- The Dubai airport is like a Las Vegas hotel or a shopping mall. Marble floors, bright lights, indoor garden, boutique shops and food courts. And prayer rooms. Don't think they have those in Vegas.
Yes, those are real trees... inside the airport terminal
- Watching as people board flights for Riyadh, Bangalore, Delhi, Dhaka, Doha, Tehran… definitely at a crossroads point for the Middle East and Asia.
- I wish I could have taken a picture of that woman in the burka walking through the terminal with her carry-on bag on her head.
- My introduction to Pakistani culture starts with the flight to Islamabad--a Boeing 777 that's full. I expected that on the flight to Dubai, but not to Islamabad. The gate agent announces that the gate is open for boarding, and everyone--everyone--rushes to the gate. The agent keeps saying "business only" (which sounds like "B-C only" or "bees knees only") but it has no effect on the crowd. Eventually some security guard shows up and restores a bit of order to the line. I am going to have to get used to having people crowd around me. There's a very different sense of "personal space" here, meaning "there's no personal space here."
- The culture lesson continues as we board the aircraft. People are trying to sit in whatever seat seems most desirable, slowing down the whole process. The flight attendants are constantly telling people to go sit in their assigned seat. At least they're stricter about enforcing the 15-pound overhead luggage rule.
- Arrival in Islamabad. At once strange and wonderful, as I had expected. Islamabad has a layer of… what? Can't tell if it's smog, fog or a combination. The result is that the sunlight is filtered, which adds to the feeling that everything is a kind of tan-white color.
Islamabad, from the Capital Monument. They say that's "fog." I have my doubts
- We exit the aircraft in Islamabad, using the older style portable stairways that put you onto the tarmac. They load us onto buses; another opportunity to experience crowding. The sign for Benazir Bhutto Airport—block letters that look like they're perched on a wall—and the age of the terminal reminds me of a typical '60's James Bond film.
- Once in the terminal I have to pull out my laptop so I can look up the street address of the office I'm visiting. I need this to fill out the immigration forms. As a result, I'm literally the last person in line for immigration. There are several immigration queues (my favorite: "ladies and children") with the Pakistani's again ignoring the signs and jumping to whatever queue seems the smallest. I'm sticking with the (sole) queue for "foreigners and diplomats," wanting to avoid any incident, when the guard waves me over to one of the shorter lines. God takes care of fools.
- Next up is baggage claim. Now each of those passengers that were ahead of me going through immigration is crowded around the baggage belt, with the baggage carts three-deep behind them. It takes me about 10 yards from when I spot my bags until I'm able to dive into the line to grab them. And customs/baggage check? No more than a glance by some official as I walk past.
It's the ride from the airport to the guest house that really tells me I'm not in Kansas anymore. Some of the scenes:
- Women riding side-saddle on the back of Honda motorcycles (the basic form of taxi here)
- Beggars at the window when we stop for a red light
- Horns honking the instant the light turns green
- The trucks and passenger vans decorated in all sorts of bright colors and jewels
- Five guys riding on the roof of a passenger van
- The police security checkpoints designed to reduce the flow of cars to one car per lane, so police can decide if anyone needs to be detained for further questioning
- People playing cricket in a dirt field
- As in India, drivers using their horns to say "I'm here" to anyone ahead of them changing lanes
- Armed soldiers in front of sensitive locations
- Barbed wire, and lots of it
- It turns out that I have just enough time to get from the airport to the guest house, unpack and take a shower before I'm headed to the customer's office for meetings with local staff. Feels like my Nortel trips to Paris and London, where we'd go from the airport straight to an all-day meeting. I'm OK with not doing that anymore.
- Apparently there's no extra charge for the next-door rooster that wakes me every morning.
I'm pretty sure this tells you where to face when you're praying in the direction of Mecca
- I'm beginning to wonder why I so enthusiastically said, "I love spicy food!" at lunch, when I eat something that freezes my vocal chords for about 20 seconds.
- Hearing the call to prayers for the first time as it broadcasts from the local mosque and echoes across the city is an experience. And I have to admire the devotion of Muslims as they take the time for prayers. I have enough trouble getting to church on time once a week, much less multiple times daily.
- First text message on my local mobile phone? An announcement about the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leader, by a US drone the day before scheduled peace talks with the Pakistan government. Yeah, that should complicate things.
- A visit Saturday to the Capital museum. Interesting spin on history: the exhibits basically say, "India was decaying, but then we took over and now it's flowering". Plus lots of stuff about benefits of Islam. Still, it's interesting to realize that Pakistan has only existed as a country since 1947.
Capital Monument, Islamabad. Kind of a lotus flower design
Detail of bas-relief on one of the lotus petals, highlighting people and events in Pakistan's history
- It seems that all the police checkpoints have an advertising deal with Wazir Fabrics. Way to monetize, police force!
- At Daman-e-Koh Park. High enough to be above the "fog". The sight of women in burkas is surprisingly normal. Yes, there are men with monkeys on a leash. And yes, that was a monkey I saw running across the parking lot.
View of Islamabad from Daman-e-Koh park
- Lunch at Jahangir Balti and BBQ. Slightly awkward moment when we suggest to our guide that we invite the driver to have lunch with us. They're fascinated that I know and like some many kinds of Indian food. Our guide excuses himself for afternoon prayers.
- Actually posted on the lunch menu: "Smoking, photography, pets, arms, ammunition and eatables from outside are not allowed."
- Shopping trip cut short by request from customer's Chief of Security to return to our hotel and stay inside, as a result of the Taliban killing and fears of a reprisal.
- Let's see. There's cricket, soccer, and a tennis match. Oh, and 10-year old World Wrestling Federation.
- My wake up text message: "is it advised to avoid Centaurus (a large mall) and Kohsar Market. It is also advised to be extra vigilant while visiting markets, parks and public places." You don't have to tell me twice.
- And just to hit the trifecta, there's going to be a solar eclipse today. I'm sure the population will take that in stride. Or not.
- Hierarchy is a big deal here.
- My kingdom for a vegetable.
- As we sit working in the customer's basement conference room I'm invited to share lunch by one of the employees. Lunch consists of oranges, persimmons ("chaponese [Japanese] fruit") and pomegranate seeds. We compare notes on farmer's markets, local food and family vs. factory farming.
- Migration team "thank you" dinner at Saidpur Village. A reconstruction of a village from times past, set up as a tourist attraction. I can tell it's a tourist spot because the guy I saw Saturday at Daman-e-Koh with the balloon target shooting game is here. Favorite dinner menu item among the team? Hamburgers.
New culinary experiences:
- Mix tea, made by boiling tea in milk (apparently condensed milk)
- Pakistani food for breakfast every morning. One day there were labels to indicate what the food was, but most days you just lifted the lid on the warming tray and took your chances.
- Mutton karahi, a spicy stew made from hacked-up pieces of mutton. You could also get a chicken version. I couldn't help but think the mutton had a slightly slimy feel to it. Still, it was quite good.
- Lahore fish, fish fillets fried in a spiced flour coating.
- So the Taliban have selected another hard-line radical as their new leader, someone nicknamed "Mullah Radio." And, naturally, they swear off any peace talks with the Pakistan government. This should end well.
- Headed to the airport for our 3:30 AM flight to Dubai. The place is chaos. Driver tells us that everyone is returning from the Haj, which means there are 5,000 relatives waiting outside the terminal to pick up someone. I get a few I-hate-Americans looks.
- My traveling companion, David, and I stand gawking in the terminal, trying to figure out which way to the departure area. Two Emirates baggage handlers show up, grab our bags, and instruct us to follow them. They proceed to plow through the crowd, cut to the front of the baggage screening line, throw the existing bags off of the conveyer belt and insert our bags. Next, they push their way to the ticket counter and get us checked into our flight. I tip the guy $10, figuring it's money well-spent. His reply? "What about for my partner?" I'm tempted to suggest he share the $10 but decide this is not the time to cheap out. Best $10—no, make that $20—I've ever spent.
- Another tip: for $10 each we get to stay in a sort of "Red Carpet Club" and wait for our flight. For the price of admission we get all the water, tea and juice we can drink. Oh, and free Wi-Fi. In keeping with the Wi-Fi network security practices we observed all week, the Wi-Fi password—naturally—is 123456789.
- David, former Marine, spots the defense contractors in the VIP Lounge. Two of them can stay, but the one that looks like he carries the weapons is asked to leave. Ohhh-K!
Back in Dubai, headed to SFO. Welcome to the middle seat. 15 hours of opera, old Disney movies, Dubai tourist videos, and Bruce Springsteen's entire music collection. None of that matters—I'm on my way home.