With a little help from the Concierge I was able to track down Zulfiqar, my driver/guide. He had simply gone away for the weekend, but was fully committed to being at my service for the next four days. Phew.
Feeling confident that everything had fallen into place, I walked over to the Bankomat in the hotel to withdraw Zulfiqar’s daily fee plus spending money. Except: “General Processing Error” flashed on the screen whilst my card, but no Rupees, was spit out. Oh, no. Tony had gone, taking with him the Euros we had brought with to exchange. And I had left my Visa at home with Anna Grace for emergency use. Oddly enough, for a non-rookie traveler this would not be the first time I was without cash on this holiday. (See, “Cashless and Starving at the Airport” in a later installment.)
What to do? Zulfiqar was on his way, and I had no cash. I tried ringing Tony but of course he was in meetings and could not answer, not that he could help, anyway. So I panicked and messaged Zulfiqar: “I must cancel today because the Bankomat is not working and I have no money.” His dangerously hospitable response: “I know you are an honourable person. You can pay me tomorrow. See you in five.”
I stepped outside to await Zulfiqar, but Valet with Fabulous Pugree shushed me back indoors. “Give to me his name, and I will call you when he is here.” Such pampering. While waiting I picked up a copy of the Pakistan Tribune and thumbed through the front section. “Man Tortures Wife for Refusing to Dance.” “K-P Mothers Lives Forfeit in Want for Sons.”(K-P referring to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province) I set the paper down.
Valet came to collect me. Zulfiqar hopped out of his Benz and opened the passenger door for me, gently requesting that I pull in my shawl lest it get caught in the door. A gal could get used to this. At first Zulfiqar was cautious with me, trying to decide what kind of traveler I was; that is, was I going to need (figurative) hand-holding all week? But by the time we had reached the nearby Lake View Park and its Aviary we had struck up friendly conversation, and I sensed Zulfiqar’s relief that I was not going to be high maintenance for him.
The Aviary was even more enjoyable than I anticipated: essentially it was an open space with netting high atop the trees, so most birds roamed freely. Obviously no birds of prey were on exhibit; that would have been a little too much Circle of Life.
Several families were in the aviary; the little ones squee-ing over the game birds that would scramble across their path, or the peacocks fluffing their stuff to impress the peahens. This poor guy was getting absolutely no attention from the ladies, much to everyone’s amusement.
A little further on, a double take when I heard a dad say, “American Turkeys” to his son. Indeed, before me appeared a posse of American turkeys! Whether they were Butterball wannabes for the expat enclave that never came to pass, or something else, they were certainly living the cushy pardoned life now.
A beautiful pink pelican near the pond.
Good ole Pakistani junk food in the park. Golgapa, Samosas…and French Fries?
My plan for this first afternoon was only to enjoy the park and the Aviary, then to spend the balance of the day in the hotel gardens, soaking up the sun (27C each day!) and reading and firming up plans for the remainder of my stay. But leaving the Aviary I spotted Zulfiqar waiting patiently in the shade with a purchased water for me. He suggested that if I were not tired, would I be interested in seeing the Bari Imam Shrine? Absolutely! Our drive to the shrine took us past the “Red Zone,” where Parliament and the PM have their offices and residences. Lots of walls and barbed wire, and guys with guns (a recurring theme) as one might expect. The Parliament was understated and quite elegant, built under Benazir Bhutto’s administration.
The road in front of the shrine hosts a market of sorts. Zulfiqar said the shopping here was, “not very good,” though I was practically salivating over the photos I would snap after visiting the shrine. He parked the car and pointed me toward the Women’s entrance, adding, “You can leave your shoes with the guards.” Yeah, no. Anna Grace and I didn’t trust the “guards” in Cairo (we carried our shoes with) when visiting mosques, and I wasn’t about to lose my favorite urban ballerinas in Islamabad, so I tucked them into my tote.
And this is when I officially became an item of curiosity.
Literally (and I do know the definition of the word ☺️) every other woman or group of women either bid me salaam alaikum (and I in return, as I have a solid grasp of about four Arabic phrases that overlap with Farsi and Urdu) or asked if they might take my photo, and sometimes both. The young girls, especially, wanted to touch me (my clothes) and my hair (again, no headscarf required. I asked the kindly security officer at the entrance, who assured me that I could enter the shrine without a headscarf), which I had drawn into a loose side-pony to combat the heat. Sometimes a group of women would ask if I would take their photo with my camera, I guess for my own memories. Several asked me from where I had come.
I was not at all uncomfortable; in fact, these kinds of exchanges are what makes traveling so special to me, and I even felt brave enough to ask one beautiful young girl holding her baby brother if I might take her photo. She asked her mom, who proudly smiled her approval.
The shrine to this patron Sufi of Islamabad is located rather near to the Muslim Colony, the Islamabad equivalent of illegal slums, so there were many small school-aged children who swarmed me as I was leaving the shrine. Zulfiqar looked horrified, and jumped in to shoo the young beggars away. But my heartstrings had been tugged, and I asked him if it would be okay to give a few Rupees to the little girls who had been following me. Zulfiqar then told me briefly about the Mashal School, a project begun a decade ago to help get children off the streets and into the classrooms (classroom attendance is now near 1.000), though the students are free to work in the afternoon as they need to help support their families. He said that giving the girls a few Rupees would be fine.
But what happened next was not fine. I placed my tote and camera safely in the car, and began to offer small Rupee notes to the girls, some as young (looking) as perhaps 5 or 6. Suddenly older boys rushed in, pushing the girls aside and ripping the notes from my hands. Zulfiqar sprung into action, shouting aggressively at the boys, who turned on their tails and slunk away. I managed to give a half-dozen girls some notes, but the incident weighed heavily in my thoughts for the remainder of my stay, and when I returned home I sent a donation to the Mashal School.
The late afternoon now upon us, Zulfiqar brought me back to the Serena, stopping along the way whenever I would exclaim, “Cow!” or “Painted Truck!” and needing to hop out and snap. “He is just like you!” I would exclaim to Tony that evening. “He knows when to stop the car so that his crazy Western charge can take snaps of cows walking in the road.” I can only wonder what Zulfiqar told his wife about me each night.
Zulfiqar also apologized over and over, though I was not upset with him at all over the incident in the Muslim Colony. Once at the hotel, and still a little travel-weary, I ordered a room service Tandoori Chicken Salad, twice checking the cost because it seemed absurdly low. A quick shower, and then I settled in to absorb the events of the past 4 hours and write some notes. On an aside, whatever I have been labeling as “tandoori” at home is but a sad, sad, impostor.
Tony rang, entirely worried about my well-being (let me just write that cell service has its moments in Pakistan) as he had been unable to reach me. The Pakistani team he was working with was all prepared to outfit me with their guides (and the guys with guns, natch) but I assured everyone that all was well. I would have to do this each and every day. It appeared that I had confounded the Pakistani team; they did not know quite what to make of a spouse who was roaming their country with just a regular guide.
We sat for an early dinner at one of the five restaurants on the Serena grounds. To leave the hotel would have meant ringing up the guys with the guns, and neither of us were in the mood for that. In fact, all but one of our dinners were at the Serena for that reason. The restaurant Dawat was our choice. We began with the wine water selection: a 2018 vintage San Pellegrino. Remember, dry country. Entirely sparkly, entirely quaffable.
Prawn Pakora, silky and spicy, began our meal. Tony ordered Murgh Tikka; I selected a White Murch Karahi from the Khyber region. A second bottle of San Pellegrino was ordered. After all, we only had to walk upstairs. A basket of Naan like we have never tasted before wafted onto our table; the housemade special chutney something I wanted to lick every tart and savory drop of, decorum preventing me from doing so, however. We shared our dishes; the flavors were like none we had ever experienced. I made a note to scratch each and every Pakistani recipe in my collection after our meal as they, too, were but rogue impostors.
So where are the photos of this illustrious meal? Well, the dangerously hospitable restaurant staff did not just present the food at our table. They even plated it for us, leaving me no occasion to snap. I broke protocol the following night, however, so there will be photos.
Shortly after dinner had we returned to our room when Ashfaq, our head housekeeper, gently knocked. “Do you like your room?” “How many bottles of water would you like?” Where are you from?” “How do you find Islamabad?” “Is this your first visit?” “Do you have the proper pillows?”
Ah. On the night table was the Pillow Menu, which we had overlooked when we tumbled into bed earlier in the day. Tony promptly ordered his two lumps of concrete while I burrowed into my dangerously comfortable feather-pillowed nest. Sleep came quickly.