Paranoid in Pakistan

Islamabad, Pakistan - 6 / 6 / 2002

The Marriott had begun to feel like an American federal penitentiary, day in and day out, pacing the halls of the fifth floor, studying what kind of sweet cakes were laid out with the instant coffee. The room service had become bland and uninspired, while the constant checking of my email account left me as empty as my mailbox. Luckily, this time of self-reflection and self-pity had allowed me to take stock of the little idiosyncrasies that have occurred since I began my tenure in Islamabad.

The thing that I have noticed since the last time I was in Pakistan, is the overwhelming courtesy bestowed by the service staff, almost to the point of maliciousness. When attempting to prepare my own instant coffee, I have had my cup forcibly removed by a “helpful” steward, so that he could do it for me. I, as a Westerner, apparently am so lazy or so inept that I need all the help I can get. There also are the comment cards that are thrust in front of me as I sip my caffeinated beverage, that the wait staff insists I fill out for their managers. They coach me along when filling out the questionnaire, mentioning numerous times what their name is, and where to put my signature. I was very diligent at first to put glowing remarks on the cards, but after the twentieth one, I began to realize that most of the staff could not read English. I began to have some fun at this point, and began to write complete nonsense on the comment cards, such as, “the banana has one shoe, ea! t the strawberry patch” and, “the apple in my back has begun to fester, I like cheese”. All these comments were signed, “J.R. Bob Dobbs” with the room number 523. Thankfully I will be leaving before my terrorist activities are exposed.

The attempts to make the Marriott as Western as possible, make the endeavor satirical. In the basement of the hotel, the unwashed infidels can have a drink at the super hip Bassment. It is the hottest dance club in Islamabad, which makes me wonder why it looks like a dingy airport lounge and why I have never seen more than five people in the establishment. I thought this might be due to the current situation in Kashmir, but I was reassured that it was actually much busier now than before the conflict. Then there is the dinner themes held in the main restaurant throughout the week. I thought there was nothing funnier than to see Pakistanis dressed in ponchos, but I was quickly corrected by the CBS cameraman, that in fact Sri Lankans in ponchos was much funnier. I look forward to seeing what they do for Italian night.

I have had the opportunity to eat outside the hotel the past couple of nights and see the city beyond the roof of this building. Two nights ago, I went with the CBS camera crew to a nice little outdoor establishment a few miles from our compound. Traditional Pakistani cuisine including a wonderful dish called “tuka-tuka”. Tuka-tuka is prepared on a surface similar to a Mongolian grill and gets its name from the sound of the knives against the grill. There is a musical quality to the sound of fifteen tuka-tuka grills all being used in unison. There is something primal, something exotic to the rhythm, which is only enhanced when you find out that the main ingredients of tuka-tuka is brains and heart. That is some good eatin’.

Last night the CBS crew ventured to a hilltop restaurant overlooking the city. I was instructed by my superiors to smuggle beer to the establishment, which I dutifully accepted. Once again we partook in the local cuisine, minus the tuka-tuka, drinking in the beer and the view. In the near distance, jackals and monkeys could be heard fighting for dominance in the forest dwelling and farther off, the sound of automatic gunfire from a wedding. The power went off a couple of times during our meal, giving the opportunity to take in the stars above us and the flashes of light in Kashmir to the east. The restaurant provided such a beautiful vantage point over the city, and it was commented on once or twice that it was the perfect place to view the future nuclear explosions. That and it is about twelve miles from ground zero.

We leave tomorrow to go back to Kabul, flying on a chartered Russian cargo plane. Certain events and rumors have once again made me aware of how volatile this region is. ISAF, otherwise known as the International Security Armed Force, has made it known that if war breaks out between Pakistan and India, they will pull out of Afghanistan, thus removing the sole stabilizing factor in Kabul. The US embassy is supposedly a target for a car bomb the day after the Loya Jirga, thus making me a tad bit weary about going down and registering as an American citizen. I have decided it is in my best interest to quit wearing my cowboy hat for the time being, although I do enjoy being called the Pansheeri Kid. I feel that the next couple of weeks are going to be a bit tense, as history is being made for better or for worse.

- Mike Brandenburg