Now that I have your attention… 😉 I’ll just run with this spoiler: the extraordinary hospitality and friendliness of the Pakistani people is dangerously addictive; their cuisine, even more so. Leaving Pakistan was like wishing a good friend farewell, my heart heavy wondering when I might return.
It began simply enough: Tony mentioned that he had to lead a(nother) workshop in Islamabad and before the, “I’m coming, too!” had left my lips, his Pakistani colleague was compiling a list of everything I must see and do, and all that I must eat. Dangerously addictive hospitality.
Flights were booked on Turkish Airlines (blech, but I’ll get to that), and a visit was paid to the embassy to obtain the necessary visa. Tony and I presented our paperwork together, including the marriage license (I was on the invitation letter, but as we have different surnames we wanted to make certain the paperwork would be processed correctly). The staff spoke only to Tony, naturally, and when asked why I was joining him he replied, “Tourism.” My visa came back: “Accompanying Spouse.”
Anna Grace, in the final throes of the senior year IB underworld, recruited a similarly-miserable girlfriend to move in to our home for the week both for company and to help care for CTF. To ease their misery, a full supply of Pop-Tarts, Doritos, and boxed Mac and Cheese, rare earth elements for expat teens, was procured.
In packing for this trip I researched and re-researched, and then over-obsessed on clothing for some reason. We have been to Cairo and to Doha, where linen and cotton work just fine; everything I packed for Pakistan covered my shoulders and legs (no headscarf necessary), yet I felt that I hadn’t appropriately packed at all. I don’t know what that was all about, but thank goodness for the inexpensive Salwar Kameez I picked up once in Islamabad. A tunic-a-day atop linen ankle pants did not help this Westerner blend in necessarily, but in my mind I believed I stood out a teeny bit less, though this would be proven again and again an entirely incorrect belief.
Soon enough it was Departure Day. As we are wont, our farewell lunch was at the Johann Strauss café at VIE: two Schnitzels; a beer for Tony and a Veltliner for me. And then we boarded our flight, connecting in Istanbul.
O.M.Gosh. Apparently Pakistani schools were ending their half-term break, or something like that, and nearly one kabillion children were on our flight. That in and of itself would not be remarkable, except for the fact that most of the little ones took turns crying and screaming for the entirety of the hour we sat on the tarmac for reasons unknown; and for much of the 6 hour long haul from our connection in IST to Islamabad—you know, the overnight stretch where sleeping is kinda, somewhat desirable? Even Business Class felt like a stint on the Lunatic Express.
“Dinner” was served, a largely inedible dish of dried out macaroni doused with out-of-season tinny-tasting tomato sauce that assaulted my taste buds. The “Something Pink” for dessert was “Something I did not eat,” opting instead to close my eyes and pretend to sleep.
Trapped in that A330 for 7 hours, not even a cup of burnt Chai was offered before we touched down in Islamabad. A big thumbs down for Turkish Airlines, and I still had the return to consider (another spoiler: it was worse).
In the wee hours of the morning we landed at the modern and barely-a-year-old ISB. Its predecessor, Benazir Bhutto International Airport is now used by the Pakistani Air Force. Tony assured me this was a vast improvement, though as I would discover on the return, not all of the wrinkles at the new airport have been ironed out.
Our driver was waiting for us. And so was the security detail, an organizational requirement for Tony and his team when they travel to Pakistan; there’s no way around it. So just picture the N5 at 0600 in the morning: the sun rising; the plumes of toxic smoke wafting from the brickmaker’s columns; and a nondescript silver sedan cruising quietly along, being followed by the guys with the guns, occasionally (presumably because they were bored) flashing the lights at the one or two other cars on the motorway, requesting them to “make way.” It was all a bit much.
At the Serena Hotel I stepped out of the sedan and into a scene from a Pakistani 1.001 Nights: elegant doorman in crisp white salwar kameez and luxe pugrees greeted me with, ”Good Morning, Madame” in melodically accented English. Lush carpets rested against shimmering marble floors; a quiet oasis surrounding me.
The lobby staff took even my tote and ushered me to a velvety sofa beneath the soft morning light from the chandeliers while Tony checked in to our room. Perhaps I was jet-lagged, but this independent modern gal found the princess treatment dangerously addictive. A few moments later we were in our room, the bed having been turned down and the drapery closed against the sunrise over the foothills of the Himalayas.
An hour or so power nap was all Tony had time for before leaving for meetings; I lounged a little longer before pulling myself together and seeking out the royal feast breakfast room. More elaborate chandeliers casting a gentle glow on the handsomely carved dark wood dining pieces. Salwar kameez of every color floating past; and two Pakistani musicians on a carpet easing guests into their day with a Silk Road Top 40 set.
But what to eat? Clear golden chicken broth seemed like a good start. How about some Beef Masala? Why not. Aloo Dum? Just what my tired taste buds were seeking. Pistachio Cake with tea? Don’t mind if I do (have two slices).
Now to connect with my driver and guide. Though we had been WhatsApping back and forth the week before, there had been radio silence on the two days before I departed…