I opened my eyes and gradually adjusted to my surroundings. The watch on my bedside table registered 8 a.m. A cool, artificial breeze blew through the cavernous room. Where was I? I breathed in the sharp odor of ripe fruit mixed with sweat. Faint shards of light pierced the cracks in the heavy draperies. The bed was large, hard, and flat. I stretched, rolled over, and there was Wayne sprawled out peacefully beside me. Suddenly, something green slithered across the wall and I jolted upright.
Wayne was instantly awake. “What is it, Sharon?”
“An animal is darting around the room.”
He took my hand and brushed my hair out of my eyes. “It’s only a gecko—a little lizard. They’re everywhere and completely harmless. They eat insects.”
With that, he folded me into his arms. “Oh Sharon, I’ve missed you so much. I thank God that our family is together again.”
Then it came flooding back, all the reasons that I found myself in this godforsaken guesthouse in Pakistan on a sunny February morning. I felt a sudden tremor in my gut. What were we doing here? Maybe our friends in Canada had been right after all. Maybe we were crazy to make such a drastic move at our age. Behind slatted wooden doors slept two resentful and disoriented teenagers who would have wholeheartedly attested to the craziness of their parents at this moment.
Yet it was something we had wanted to do—a new start, something all our own. Life in Canada had become lackluster, predictable. We had sheltered ourselves in the bosom of a sleepy, tree-lined suburban community for almost 15 years. I was teaching, taking university courses, and acting in a small theatre group with friends.
Wayne had worked for the Alberta government for years—21 to be exact—and was stuck reinventing the wheel in what seemed like an endless cyclical pattern. His boss was mean-spirited and difficult, never giving credit or the slightest ray of hope for the future. Wayne needed to get out from under this oppressive glass ceiling.
Sure, we had good jobs, the promise of a pension, medical coverage, vacation time, a “3-bedroom bungalow with developed basement in maturing and stable neighborhood,” friends, family. Many people would have given their right arm for this kind of life—to sail into old age on this secure and conventional vessel. Not us!
Or should I say, not me. Sometimes I think that Wayne would never have attempted to apply for this UN job—which happened to come across his desk like so many other bits and pieces—if it hadn’t been for my constant and infectious sense of adventure. However, that may be unfair. Maybe we had both just reached a pivotal point in our lives.
I was 42, Wayne 44. God knows we were working on our demons. I’d been in therapy for two years dealing with family of origin and personal issues. Wayne was dealing with baggage from his past as well and our marriage of 22 years had hit some rocky roads that merited counseling. Just to add more spice, our sixteen-year-old son, Jason, was rebellious, stubborn, and out of reach much of the time. We felt helpless in the face of this tall, skinny enigma.
We needed a change. We needed to eat together again, exchange ideas, and expand our minds beyond our tight little circle. Why Pakistan? Well, as they say in Pakistan, “Why not?”
We spent the better part of a year getting ready: negotiating the deal, selling things we could no longer keep, including the house and the car, deciding what to put in storage, giving away the cat. Jason stayed firmly in denial, talking for hours on the phone, shutting himself away in his bedroom, and going out with friends.
He wasn’t interested in being removed from his comfort zone. Our daughter, Julie, at fourteen, was a different story, conscientiously and quietly negotiating the landmines of her parents’ passionate and sometimes stormy relationship and her brother’s burgeoning anger and rebellion.
On January 15 of 1991, after months of deliberation and preparation, Jason, Julie, and I found ourselves sitting on our beds with two suitcases each and the clothes on our backs, poised to fly away. Wayne was already in New York for work orientation, and we were to join him in London, then travel together to Islamabad.
Two teenagers and one mom had found their patience strained in the threadbare highway motel with the greasy spoon restaurant where we waited out our final Canadian moments. Then, just hours before we were scheduled to leave, the telephone rang.
“Wayne? What’s going on? Why are you calling? We’re just about ready to head for the airport.”
“I’m so sorry, hon. I’m calling from the UN offices in New York to let you know that the UN has canceled your flight. The Gulf War has started, and it’s been deemed unsafe for you to travel.”
My heart stopped. “What? What do you mean? What are we supposed to do? When will they let us travel?”
I put down the phone, stunned. What to do? How long would this war with the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, last? We unpacked. I rented a car. Days passed. Wayne moved on to London and then to headquarters in Vienna. More days passed.
Jason and Julie went to stay with friends. Finally, they went back to school, mortified after all the goodbyes and best wishes. They were in Limbo School—there but never really there. Weeks passed. Should I go back to work? Should I rent an apartment? Saddam was running my life.
Finally, Wayne was flown into Islamabad. Life there was tense. Many Americans had been evacuated and all remaining expats were warned to stay inside their homes and shelter in place. “Hate Americans” and “Kill Jews” slogans were painted on walls; mullahs screeched over the loudspeakers, tension pulsed in the air. People were afraid of being attacked or even killed by angry mobs. Saddam was running their lives too.
The UN Resident Representative in Islamabad at that time was a powerful and rather formidable German. Wayne started regularly showing up at his office and insisting that the rest of our family be sent to Pakistan despite the Gulf War. The separation and uncertainty were affecting all of us. Wayne, in particular, felt like he had been parachuted into an alien land without a compass. We needed to be together during this time of stress and change.
After a month of exasperation, Wayne’s steady stream of visits and threats of returning to Canada were wearing down the resolve of the local UN authorities. Meanwhile, the three of us back in Canada were trying to decide what to do about creating more permanent circumstances. Then, one frigid February morning, after five weeks of anxiety, the call came through. The kids and I could fly to Islamabad!
Awash in the teary goodbyes of Jason and Julie’s teenage friends, we boarded the plane in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, bound for Islamabad by way of London. As we soared through the clouds, each of us absorbed in private thoughts, I don’t think we had any idea that we were flying into another dimension of life from which we would never return. As individuals and as a family we would be profoundly altered by our sojourn into the subcontinent and beyond. But we knew none of this then.
Meanwhile, our stopover in London offered a temporary distraction from fear of the future. The city would be our halfway port for many trips to come, but this visit was special. It was the first!
The first time we learned how to hail an elegant black London cab complete with dapper driver, our first time attending London theatre and dancing in the aisles, the first time we discovered Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus, the first time I would run behind my two young, cool consumers shouting, “Don’t buy anything. It’s too expensive!” and the first time for Sale e Pepe, our favorite Italian restaurant, where the waiters burst into arias as they served us. Those first London memories would always belong to the three of us—warm smiles in the corners of our minds.
But our smiles slowly faded as we packed our bags and prepared for the next leg of our journey. Security was tight, cases were searched, and batteries were confiscated. Now we take these measures for granted, but in 1991, this kind of airport security was highly unusual. Very few people were traveling—the Gulf War had sent shockwaves around the world. It wasn’t until a few years later that my mother admitted to me the overpowering anxiety she felt knowing that we were flying toward war and terrorism.
Groggy from a long tense flight, we emerged in Islamabad still hermetically sealed in our protective Canadian façades—safe, ordered, pristine. But for how long? The heat melted away our layers of clothing and we were greeted by a sea of bearded men in loose, flowing trousers and tunics pressing, shouting, and clamoring for attention of one kind or another. As we stood, numb, in the painfully slow customs queue, we were assaulted by a cacophony of smells—body odor, jasmine, urine, pungent fruit, and sewage, all subtly undercut with a hint of ghee and curry.
Heavy-limbed and burdened with luggage, we finally emerged into the blinding sun. As we fought our way through the surging masses, I caught sight of Wayne and a tall, lanky, bearded Pakistani with slicked-back dark hair and the essential beige shalwar kameez, a sadri, and sandals. This was Nisar who was to be our driver—both intrepid and irresponsible—for the duration of our stay in this country. He gave me a quick nod and “Hello madam” as Wayne formally made introductions.
I turned to Wayne and my heart dropped as I was hit with a sudden realization that I wouldn’t be able to hug, kiss, or otherwise touch my husband until we were in the privacy of our hotel room.
Expressions of affection between men and women were considered inappropriate here.
Thus began my first experience with TIP—This Is Pakistan! There would be many more to come. Steve Martin’s roller coaster ride in the movie Parenthood could not hold a candle to the one we were about to begin.
After a few weeks in a guesthouse with peeling brown stains oozing down the walls eating oranges, guavas, and chicken fried rice, drinking innumerable cups of tea, and sleeping under quilts rancid with the odors of previous users—we were finally in our own home. The gigantic, cool white edifice with an ultra-modern design had been Jason’s choice. I was so glad that he’d taken ownership of some part of our lives. I hoped acquiring a permanent home might help establish some sense of normalcy for the family.
Because of the Gulf War and the evacuation of many American families, the American International School classes were being held in a few embassy houses. The children were safer there than at the regular campus farther out of town. However, the situation was far from routine. Teachers were doing double and triple duty because some of their colleagues had left. Everyone was wondering if and when the large percentage of students who had been sent away would be coming back.
Jason and Julie, as newbies, had arrived more than halfway through the school year only to find themselves in an entirely different educational system. This caused a lot of fear and frustration. Julie narrowed her focus and worked harder than ever. Jason embarked on a marathon of watching pirated videos—readily available at local markets—while avoiding schoolwork.
I anticipated finding a better sense of balance now that we were in a house, even though its size made it feel more like a hotel. Pakistanis lived in extended families with lots of relatives to occupy the many rooms of their homes, but there were just four of us. Imagine dropping the house from the movie Sleeping with the Enemy into Pakistan and covering it with a bit of grunge and grime. That would be the visual for our Park Road home.
Our grand residence was 7000 square feet on three levels with adjoining walkways, swirling overhangs, and tall pillars. There was a “Juliet” balcony off the master bedroom that overlooked most of the house. A series of tiered windows on the west side caused shafts of brilliant sunlight to scatter amongst the pillars at different angles throughout the day. The house was barren and hollow in the beginning, but we planned to fill it with family and fun.
The living room and dining room were joined by a bridge over the solarium and the four of us had five bathrooms and five bedrooms! Our expansive kitchen was pure white as were all the walls of the house both inside and out. The driveway was a bridge over a sunken yard, 10 feet below street level, in which our landlord had planted all kinds of fruit-bearing trees—oranges, lemons, mangoes, guavas, bananas. Rose bushes unfurled their blooms of deep red and creamy alabaster down one side of the garden wall.
Jason and Julie loved their bedrooms, and I gave them carte blanche to design and decorate as they wished. They each had ensuite bathrooms, Julie’s room had a large window overlooking the banana tree and Jason’s room had a private balcony, as did several other rooms. A large patio outside a sunny glassed-in lounge/solarium on the bottom floor looked out onto the garden.
Our Park Road home was a magnificent structure and more imposing than any house we had ever lived in. We were lucky to find it after looking at many dingy places that had fallen into disrepair. Many houses in Islamabad were huge, stately edifices meant for large families but, in our eyes, they appeared to be depressing rectangles with box-like rooms. Then we found ours—lofty and airy with bright clean lines.
All this magnificence wasn’t quite as it appeared at first glance though. Our “marble” floors were composed of a porous off-white stone that absorbed dirt and stains, with just enough marble-like properties to send a piercing cold through the feet and legs during the winter months. Carpets were high on the shopping list! The tiered windows were breathtaking, but a crumbling decay had set in along the casements and down the walls.
There were open wooden shelves in many rooms, which regularly collected dust and bugs, and some of them had cracked and buckled in the humid weather. We were told that, during the rainy winter, mold would collect in all the corners of the house and the folds of the draperies. The outside walls of the “white” house were also collectors of all the tones of brown and gray in the polluted air.
As for the surroundings, the empty lots on both sides of us had overgrown into jungle. After we moved in, some of our new expat friends informed us that “Everyone knows you shouldn’t rent a place beside an empty lot in Asia.” I guess we didn’t fall into the category of “everyone.” There were just too many unknowns. Completing this pastoral image was the nullah, or small stream, which flowed behind our property. Good in Canada—not so good in Pakistan. The nullah was also a carrier—it carried all the neighborhood sewage and garbage.
The water and dense foliage provided a great environment for snakes, especially the ever-popular cobra. One morning Julie woke up to find an entire mongoose family walking on the wall below her room. At first, she thought they were huge rats, but after calming her down, we explained that these animals were good news—they depleted the cobra population.
On one of our first drives through Islamabad, I was marvelling at the wide streets and boulevards as well as the abundance of trees and flowering bushes.
I noticed what I assumed to be a treed park and exclaimed, “Oh, look that’s a perfect place for a picnic!”
Nisar rather stiffly responded, “No madam. No picnic. That is forest.” I later learned that forests and streams provided quite different functions in our new country. No one wishes to dine in the lavatory.
From there, we entered the realm of things that didn’t work. The toilets often leaked or didn’t flush, brackish brown water oozed from the faucets, the showers dribbled, there were intermittent gas leaks, and the power went out with great regularity.
As for the telephone, it had a story all its own. We had the remarkable privilege of having an international telephone line in our home, but it came with an unusual price. Pakistani cities are thick with wires and cables that take indiscriminate twists and turns with no regard for efficient usage or safety. In keeping with this tradition, telephone wires are rolled and stuffed into little boxes that pop up here and there along the streets. We discovered that the guts of the telephone box outside our gate were commonly rearranged/reconnected by various passers-by who could then conveniently place calls using our phone line, “borrowing” it for a while. As a result, trying to dial out from our house bore an uncanny resemblance to shooting craps in Las Vegas. If we attempted to call our friends down the street, we might connect with a tailor’s shop or military headquarters. Similarly, if someone phoned us, they might be confronted with a flurry of Urdu from a far-flung sector of the city. Often, the wires were just left disconnected and we would wake up in the morning to find the phone dead. Each time, these problems were solved by weaving our way through a labyrinth of bureaucracy and under-the-table payments until someone wandered along and restored the wires.
Put simply, we were adjusting to a way of life that we had never known and could never have imagined. We had a case of culture shock on steroids.