Islamabad, Pakistan, where even the power blackouts are orderly…
Islamabad must be exactly what Pakistan’s founder and architect Muhammad Ali Jinnah had in mind back in the 1940’s during the debate and struggle over colonial India’s future, the implied suggestion to Nehru and Gandhi being, “We’re not like you. We don’t want to be like you. We’re not part of what you are.” Islamabad is not only unlike anything India has ever produced, it’s unlike anything in Pakistan, also, with grid-like sectors traversed by broad boulevards and infinitely straight avenues extending for miles across the vast mountain-ringed plain.
It probably resembles some Persian Gulf fields-of-dream-cities or some planned Communist capitals more than anything else, for this is a modern purpose-built capital along the model of Washington DC, Brasilia, Astana, or Naypyidaw, something of a mock-up job, one thousand buildings in search of a city, something that takes time, sometimes a long one. That does have its benefits, though. For one thing: addresses are easy to find, since everything is strictly labeled by sector, street, and house number. The IRS would love this.
Something like this is usually the opposite of what I look for when I travel, but considering that my B&B is an unsigned unit in the suburbs, the precise directions are a help. I’m sick upon arrival, too, and this looks squeaky clean. I’ll get well here. The B&B has even got a heater in the room, so I crank that mother up straightaway, and proceed to torch whatever it is I’ve got inside me creating havoc. It’s a bit of a hoof into the commercial ‘Blue Area’ from here, but tolerable. The radio is playing Adele’s “Someone Like You.” Don’t do that. I came here to get away from that song.
The thing most travelers do here is secure visas for onward travel, and that’s my business, too—for Afghanistan, to be precise. The other applicants are a motley crew, mostly Pakistanis, but there’s a group of Chinese women, busily snapping pics of each other, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they’re entering a war zone. They’ve either got balls, or they’re clueless, or both. It’s all pretty straightforward, except for the security check. Mobile phones they’ve got a system for: deposit and register. Everything else must be deposited on the side of the road opposite, not encouraging.
At least it’s not raining, as most of the work is done outside in the street. Of course, being the master traveler that I am, I forget to bring my passport photos, always required for a visa application. Fortunately the photographer is standing there next to me by this time. So he takes me over to a white-washed wall, snaps my mug, and comes back a half hour later with four crisp ones, all for a buck fifty, helluva deal. Fortunately the whole process of being inside takes but a few minutes only, so not a real security problem for the bag-in-waiting.
The business district in this movie-set town isn’t much, bank after forex after travel agency after restaurant ad infinitum all lined up clock-a-block one after the other, one sector after the other. Honestly, though, after three weeks of India’s squalor, and the mixed medieval city of Lahore, this is blessed relief. They even have real taxis here; imagine that! Power blackouts here even seem orderly, if that’s possible, like two hours on, then an hour off—on the hour—or something like that. That’s progress!
The visa comes through like clockwork, but with only one glitch of a hitch. Instead of the $50 I already paid, I had to pay an extra $110 for a total of $160. That’s a pretty major bite in the buttock region. I guess that tells you how the US relationship with Afghanistan is going. Many countries charge US citizens the same, of course, since that’s what we charge them, without consideration of the fact that the US charge is for a 10-year multi-entry six-month-per-entry visa, if you get it. You have to pay regardless, but this is only a thirty-day one-tripper.
Then everything starts going wrong. My portable tea kettle fizzes out in a flash of light and a puff of smoke. Then my right boot suddenly develops an inch-long rip in the bottom seam, the one where water enters. Then my grey pants, one of only two pairs of long pants, pop a button, right on cue, all in the course of a day. There are cats everywhere, too, but that doesn’t mean anything. Cats are pretty typical in Muslim countries. They don’t like dogs. Still something is wrong. I can’t go to Afghanistan with a popped button.
I don’t actually have to use the visa for three months, to be honest. An onward Tajikistan visa is a hassle, too, easier on air arrival, if at all, the ‘Stans loop of my trip less important now that I can’t re-enter Pakistan on the Karakoram Highway from China with the single-entry visa I have. Still the new situation and the high charge make me want to maximize the experience. A flight from Delhi to Kabul is no more than from Islamabad. I can fly within two days to Mumbai for the same: less than $250. Temps there are hitting 32c/90f every day. I guess I should sleep on it.
The next day my diarrhea is gone, at least, but so is my voice. I use it so infrequently that I didn’t even know, until I tried to order breakfast and nothing came out. The radio is playing “Electric Feel” by MGMT; that’s got to be a good sign. So I book the flight to Mumbai. I’ll return to Kabul later, likely a day or two after India’s Holi festival mid-March. Weather should be nicer then (and my voice will probably be back). I didn’t see much of Pakistan, but then, I didn’t really expect to. They don’t seem to want tourists. If they did they’d make themselves—and visas—more available.
I have time to kill my last day, so I spend it in Centaurus Shopping Mall, three massive towers of concrete and steel that occupy the upper forty across from my B&B. It’s a revelation. There the women are in full abundance, and NOT in burkhas. There they seem just like any other normal women on Planet Earth, which leads me to believe that the ‘female problem’ is a perception problem, one in which good Pakistanis want to be be good Muslims, and just aren’t quite sure how to do it.
I’m sure the inane blatherings of the mullahs and that psychological pressure must carry a lot of weight, especially when Pakistan sees so few foreigners on a regular basis. The stares at me would seem to confirm that. Then when we actually interact, some Pakistanis must watch me go, scratching their heads and thinking, “We’re supposed to hate him? Why?” You see, I’m a pretty nice guy. I’m withholding judgment on Pakistan for the moment. It’s a mixed bag. Temps are supposed to drop precipitously in the next few days. I think I made the right decision. I’m outta here. Stay tuned.