An Expat’s Account On Life In The Capital

World.jpgRecently an expat was able to send me an account of living experience in Islamabad from the eye of an expat. It was reality check on many of the prevailing preceptions. Here it is for you (and the other expats for help, if any). The contributor is affiliated with the U.S. Embassy and has lived in Islamabad for seven months

Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US (check flight schedules with Expedia) : Over 14 hours from the East Coast via London and/or Dubai. Islamabad is a difficult place to get in and out of because of limited flight schedules; so long weekends out of the country are a challenge.

Pollution index? Good. The city is clean and green, with very little industry.

Security concerns? Enormous. Although Islamabad doesn’t get as much hype as Baghdad and Kabul, or even other Consulates in Pakistan, the risk of attack is ever-present. In some ways, Islamabad can be more dangerous because the city appears to be somewhat cosmopolitan and one can get lulled into a false sense of security. However, there are frequent-enough incidents to be concerned.

Housing: There are small (1-2 bedroom) apartments on-compound. Many of these are designated for certain positions. Everyone else lives in enormous free-standing homes in the city, at a distance of 2 to 10 kilometers from the Diplomatic Enclave. All houses have a yard (usually small) and a carport. Homes have a minimum of four, and usually five, bedrooms. Houses here are designed for large extended families, so each bedroom has its own bathroom. All homes have quarters for maids and guards, who are on duty 24 hours a day. Most houses have marble floors. It may sound fun to live in such palatial digs, but it’s really not. This is an unaccompanied post, so you end up rattling around in a huge house all by yourself. We also have a limited shipment, so you can’t really decorate to give your home any warmth or personality. Most people end up living in just a couple of rooms, choosing to set up a TV room in one of the bedrooms instead of the enormous formal living room.

Is this a good city for families/singles/couples? Couples who enjoy quiet evenings at home and occasional dinners with colleagues should be fine. It’s tougher for singles, whether legally single or separated from a spouse due to the unaccompanied tour, and it is easy to feel lonely and isolated. It should be noted that we are not allowed to receive visitors in Islamabad, not even from spouses or other family members. This certainly increases the isolation many people people feel. It’s a great post for singles who like to hang out with hard-drinking military types. The club on the compound is the social hub of the embassy. Personally, I don’t enjoy the club scene, but many people thrive on it. Post management does not seem to recognize the hardship of being separated from family in Islamabad, and there seems to be little effort to improve morale by getting our minds off of work now and then. I have the sense that in Iraq and Afghanistan there is more of an effort to take care of the people, because everyone understands they are living under difficult and stressful conditions. That is not the case here.

Is it a good city for gay/lesbian expats? If you are a gay man looking for sex without emotion or commitment, it’s great. Some Pakistani men, even married ones, are eager to meet foreign men.

Are there problems with racial, religious or gender prejudices? There is no evident religious intolerance. In general, I find the Pakistanis to be warm and welcoming toward everyone. However, this is obviously a male-dominated society. It is not as extreme here as in many Middle Eastern countries; there are some women in professional and leadership positions. In addition, Pakistani men treat women, especially Western ones, with courtesy and respect. Nonetheless, foreign women can expect to have a very different experience in Pakistan than men.

What difficulties would someone with physical disabilities have living in this city? Since we are not allowed to walk anywhere, it really makes no difference. However, most homes are 2-3 stories.

Interesting/fun things to do: Fun? You’ve got to be kidding. Assuming that you have the time and energy to do anything after working a 12+ hour day, six or seven days a week…well, you can shop for carpets or go to one of a limited number of restaurants. On compound, you can swim, play tennis, or drink at the club. There is some hiking possible in the nearby hills.

What fast food and decent restaurants are available? There are probably a dozen decent restaurants frequented by Westerners. Food here is quite good, combining the best of Indian spices and Middle-Eastern grilled meats and kebabs. In addition, there is a KFC, Pizza Hut and Dunkin Donuts. A McDonald’s recently opened in Islamabad.

What is the availability (and the relative cost) of groceries and household supplies? The commissary on compound is decent but somewhat pricey. There are several international-standard grocery stores in the city that are surprisingly good, carrying a wide range of imported products at reasonable prices. I have not found it difficult to find everything I need–though not necessarily everything I want–on the local market. I’ve also grown very fond of a number of local products; some of the pre-packaged meals are delicious!

What comments can you make about using credit cards and ATMs? Don’t use them. There is an ATM machine on the Diplomatic Enclave that some people use, but in general, the use of credit cards and ATM cards should be avoided due to the high risk of fraud. You can cash a check for $500 once a month and not spend all of it.

What type of automobile is suitable to bring (or not to bring) because of rugged terrain, lack of parts and service, local restrictions, carjackings, etc? Any kind of car is suitable and permitted, except those with tinted windows. The roads in Islamabad are good and we aren’t allowed to drive anywhere outside the city. However, I would recommend bringing car that you wouldn’t mind getting dented. The local driving style, including the tendency to run red lights and swerve in and out of lanes indiscriminately, makes it fairly likely that your car will not escape its tour in Islamabad unscathed. Many people purchase cars once they arrive, either from other diplomats or through one of several Japanese companies that sell used duty-free cars via the internet at very reasonable prices (delivery can take 1-2 months). Cars can also be rented locally for short-term use, but the price is quite high. Motor pool service is available to anyone who does not have a car at post. This includes daily shuttle runs in the morning and in the evening, with times that vary widely due to security concerns, as well as for personal use. Because of the security restrictions, you can use the motor pool for anything–going shopping, to a restaurant, to visit a colleague, etc.–at your own expense (I think it is about 40 cents per mile plus driver overtime, but I’m not sure). Driving in Islamabad is scary, but having a car can really help to ease the feeling of isolation. Aside from going to and from work, I use my car perhaps once or twice a week to run to the store—but the mere fact that I can leave the house whenever I want to makes a big difference. In addition, relying on the shuttle (and coping with the shifting pick-up times) can really be a hassle after a while, as you find your life revolving around the shuttle schedule. In my opinion, there are security concerns with both the shuttle and your own car. The shuttle is armored, but it seems to me that a van full of Americans makes a much more tempting target than little ol’ me in my private car, although I’m not sure the RSO would agree with my assessment.

Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left? Officially, left; unoficially, anywhere there is space for a car.

Are local trains, buses, and taxis safe? Affordable? Not safe–but that is irrelevant, since we are not permitted to use them.

What is the best way to make phone calls back home? Embassy IVG line. Some people have IVG lines in their homes, although I do not.

Do you have any recommendations regarding cell phones? The Embassy issues one to every employee and we are required to carry it at all times.

Items you would ship if you could do it again? We are limited to 2,500 pounds, so it’s necessary to pick and choose what you ship. I would ship fewer practical items, such as kitchenware (since I eat most meals at work anyway), and more personal and decorative items to make my house feel more like home.

Availability and cost of domestic help: Cheap and indispensable.

How much of the local language do you need to know for daily living? None. Everyone at the Embassy and all official contacts speak English, and you won’t really be meeting anyone else.

English-language religious services available? Denominations? After the church bombing here, the only services we are permitted to attend are a non-denominational Christian service at the U.S. Embassy and a Catholic service at the Vatican Embassy.

English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost? There are a couple of decent English-language newspapers available, although they obviously won’t provide a sufficient range of international coverage. Most people get their news from the Internet or CNN. Cable TV is adequate but not great. Every sector of the city has its own cable TV monopoly, so there is no choice. There are several worthwhile channels, including CNN, BBC, Star, National Geographic and Discovery, as well as several local English-language stations that carry some U.S. programs. The rest of the channels seem to be either cricket or Muslim clerics chanting prayers. Service is sporadic, with regular outages and frozen images.

Internet access cost and quality: Internet quality is excellent and basic DSL service is extremely cheap (about $15 per month). However, there is a limited amount of download capacity with the basic service, and you will use it up very quickly if you do anything beyond e-mail. Upgrades can be costly.

Size of expat community: It seems very large in relation to the relatively small size of the city. Although we are all crammed together in the Diplomatic Enclave, there is surprisingly little socialization among the various Embassies, which I find disappointing.

Morale among expats: Low among the Americans. The long hours, relentless pressure to work more and get everything done yesterday are taking a toll on the Embassy staff, most of whom are burned out. The attitude at post seems to be that there is nothing else to do in Islamabad, so you might at well work. Saturday is basically considered a workday, and most people work on Sundays as well. Even though most people are working extremely hard, there seems to be very little recognition or appreciation for what we accomplish–they just keep demanding more. The combination of the heavy workload, social isolation, separation from families and post management’s apparent lack of concern for the well-being of the staff makes this a very unhappy Embassy.

Are there decent job opportunities for expats on the local economy? Hah!

Entertaining/social life: As stated before: the Embassy club and dinner parties.

Dress code at work and in public: Similar to Washington, DC for work. The dress code in public is not as strict as in some Muslim countries, and foreign women (also men) wearing shorts or sleeveless shirts are tolerated but stared at.

Any health concerns? What is the quality of medical care available? Water is unsafe for drinking, so all residences have a water distiller, although most people prefer bottled water. We cannot even brush our teeth with tap water. All fruits and vegetables must be bleached, which makes it challenging to know what to order in restaurants. (All food served on the Embassy compound is considered safe.) It is virtually impossible to avoid regular bouts with intestinal distress.

You can leave behind your: Preconceptions that Pakistanis are unfriendly or anti-American. The average Pakistani, at least in Islamabad, is very pro-American and eager to meet us. They are warm, hospitable people, and our staff at the Embassy are, for the most part, delightful.

But don’t forget your: Aspirin and Tums.

Weather patterns? Extremely hot during the long summer, rainy in fall, cool in winter, and pleasant in spring.

Can you save money? Between the hardship pay, danger pay, and the fact that there is nothing to do in Islamabad, you can save enough to buy a house.

What unique local items can you spend it on? Carpet, carpets, carpets, and intoxicating beverages.

Knowing what you now know, would you still go there? No. If I had known the hours would be so long and the pressure so intense, I would have gone to Iraq instead. Why come to Islamabad to work like a mule and live in a dangerous environment when you won’t get any recognition or career enhancement from it? If you’re going to make this kind of sacrifice, you might as well go to Iraq and get rewarded for your service.

4 Comments so far

  1. JayJay (unregistered) on February 9th, 2007 @ 3:16 pm

    This account has published before at Tales from a small planet

  2. Purple_Haze (unregistered) on February 10th, 2007 @ 7:51 am

    Very interesting comments. Its gives a an interesting perspective of the perceptions (or misconceptions) – Keep in mind that this is apparently from an American. And the security issue was brought up a few times. According to the recent studies (in the US) the Americans are (& feel) more in danger then other nationalities. The American attractiveness has dropped dramatically in recent years. A fact that has been discussed several times in the recent “World Economic Forum” I am sure any other nationality will have much less or no security concerns as the Americans, thanks to their president who has an IQ of a 5 year old.

  3. Phil (unregistered) on February 10th, 2007 @ 3:13 pm

    It weird rather astonishing to see that drinking is not considered a taboo in our society anymore. Definitely a mis-interpretation of the word ‘progressive’.

  4. Anita (unregistered) on February 13th, 2007 @ 5:18 am

    Good information. When you are travelling to foreign countries much of tips like these help us and know what to expect.

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