I have managed to survive the first 10 days in Pakistan and I am even coping quite well with Ramadan. On Sunday, 23 August, this holy festival, a month of sunrise-to-sunset fasting, began. It is quite interesting to be, and work here during this month, as I have never been to an Islamic country during this period. People seem very tired at work as they normally get up at 4am to eat something, then they go back to bed for another hour or so, and then go to work. In the afternoon, most of them leave at about 3pm in order to rest before the traditional ‘break fast’ starts, which is currently at around 7.45pm. At that time, the streets are empty, most shops are closed and everybody seems to be in their homes to endeavour that meal they had been longing for for the whole day. And this is, of course, a very long meal and I have the feeling that people probably eat more during Ramadan, or Ramazan as they call it here in Pakistan, as they have to make the most of the hours they are allowed to eat.
Non-Muslims are allowed to eat, however, it is quite tricky at work as we do not want to eat in front of our colleagues. So, when Fotini – my Greek colleague – and I want to indulge in some food, we normally close the door to our office. I even feel guilty drinking coffee in front of my poor colleagues, who do not even drink the whole day despite the excruciating heat of about 40 degrees. I am not sure how healthy this cleansing period is but people do not complain as this is part of their religion and they value it.
On Monday, I moved into my new abode. I have found a wonderful two-bedroom flat near the Margalla Hills, and the best thing about this place is its terrace with a view of the hills. The air in Islamabad is actually very clean compared to Kathmandu, and it is so beautiful to get up in the morning and look across the field over to the hills before I put on my Nepali Kurtha and my running shoes to go for a jog.
I also went for a hike in the hills with a few Swiss colleagues on Sunday at 6.30am. It was another beautiful day, however, you have to start quite early due to the humidity and heat that hits the town after 9am. We walked up ‘Trail 5’ and had an amazing view of Islamabad.
Unique on my bike
In the meantime, I have also got used to probably being the only woman in the whole of Pakistan, who rides a bike. It is great to have it here as I have already seen quite a lot of the city and I think that most policemen guarding the checkpoints know me by now.
On Wednesday, I biked to the posh Serena Hotel to drop off my application form for the swimming pool there, however, the guards at the hotel were out of their depths when they saw me on my bike. On that point I have to explain that getting into a big hotel like the Serena Hotel in Islamabad is like getting into a fortress or on a plane. After the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott Hotel on 20 September 2008, during which at least 54 people died, security in hotels is very high. When you arrive at the ‘Serena’ in a car, it is being checked from top to bottom and then you have to go through three more security checks before you are allowed to enter this amazing compound.
I don’t think they get many people on a bicycle and when I arrived the guards did not quite know what to do with my two-wheeler. So, we decided that I would park it at the back entrance before I was allowed in. It is a beautiful 25-m pool and the good thing about it is that you can wear your normal swimming gear and do not have to do your lengths in a Burqini! So, I am hoping that I will soon be the proud owner of a membership card of the swimming pool there.
Another nice episode on my bike happened to me on Thursday morning, when I was riding my bike to work in the pouring rain. Well, I thought that I had caught a lull in the rain but little did I know about Pakistan’s monsoon. When I was half-way there, the skies opened and all I could do was find shelter underneath a big tree. It did not take one minute until a security guard – and they are ubiquitous here – walked towards me with a huge umbrella and a chair. So, I sat down on my little chair and the umbrella and waited for the downpour to stop. I have to say that so far I have only experienced kindness from the local people in Islamabad and I hope it will remain that way.