Islamabad, Pakistan Report of what it's like to live there - 06/19/22

Personal Experiences from Islamabad, Pakistan

Islamabad, Pakistan 06/19/22

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Far from it: I have lived in South America, Europe, and the Middle East.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Washington, DC. From the east coast of the United States you’ll probably transit through the Gulf; our current contract fare is one of those abysmal JetBlue-Emirates codeshares. It takes three calendar days to arrive (evening flight off the east coast, ~20 hours of travel, and middle-of-the-night arrival in Islamabad) but you can get back to the United States in a single day. Not the easiest.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Two years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Diplomatic assignment.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

I lived off-compound and would not have had it any other way. I lived in a large, beautiful house with a nice yard. I got to the Embassy early and tended to leave late, but commute was never more than 15 minutes self-driving. When there were shuttle requirements, it was longer, but only because we had to run around town picking up other people. When the Embassy consolidated the off-compound housing pool after the on-compound apartment buildings were completed, they gave up a *lot* of the nicest housing in the pool. If you are in an 02 or 01 position or above, you can still get some of the nicer standalone housing. If you’re an 03 and live off, you’ll probably be in one of the up/downs (houses divided in half by story, one apartment up and one apartment down). The only outdoor space tends to be balconies exposed completely to the sun and the view of passers-by on the street.

I was extremely happy off-compound. I was lucky to make a great group of local friends who could just drop by any time for a drink, a movie, or dinner (see below for the challenges on-compound).

A lot of people (especially those staying only a year) prefer living on-compound for the convenience of the short walking commute to the office and access to the on-compound amenities; some particularly sheltered people are scared to live off-compound. The best description I’ve heard of the SDAs was that they’re basically like a Big 10 engineering campus: barely any shade, no private outdoor spaces, your boss might be your neighbor, etc. All of the on-compound amenities are available to all employees, even those living in town. Entertaining/hosting local contacts is extremely difficult on-compound, as all visitors need to be registered three days in advance to clear both diplomatic enclave security and embassy compound security. They need to be escorted on-compound at all times, right from the CACs. They have to park in a remote lot and take a shuttle to the compound. Doesn’t exactly provide an easy, discreet way to meet with contacts who might want to have a drink.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

You can get anything you need in Pakistan, anything. Betty Crocker brownie mix, Cap’n Crunch, Huggies diapers, anything. You will just pay a premium and might find a couple of weeks here and there where supplies are low. The Embassy commissary is large and it has a decent variety of stuff (especially cleaning products) but food is often expired (not a big deal with the frozen stuff, but always a bummer to get Cheez-Itz home and find them all stale). A lot of things are also locally-procured and sold at a markup above the local markup, which I think a lot of people don’t know. It’s basically the only way to get alcohol, which is prohibited in official shipments.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Nothing, really. DPO is fast and I really never had a situation where either I or my housekeeper couldn’t find something I needed. I put on a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner for 40 people and the only thing I bought outside the local market was a turkey from the commissary (and only because I forgot to order one far enough in advance from the butcher).

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Your Pakistani friends from Lahore and Karachi will tell you there are no decent restaurants in Islamabad. They are snobs. There are a few pretty good ones. The Thai restaurant at the Marriott is well-liked, and the pan-Asian restaurant in the Serena is very popular for lunch with diplomatic corps contacts (though all of the Serena food establishments are crawling with ISI, so a lot of Pakistani contacts won’t meet there). Outstanding Neopolitan style pizza, awesome ice cream, and fancy hipster coffee shop in Shaheen Market in E-7. Perennial favorite Loafology on the compound and in the Blue Area. There’s a new sushi restaurant in F-6 markaz that even my snobbiest foodie friends love.

Or you can just do Taco Tuesday at the American Club. Your choice.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

I never found pests to be a significant issue. I never even had all that many ants. Monkeys caused problems when loquat and mango trees in my yard were in season. Occasional roaches, but nothing overwhelming.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

DPO works great for packages and letters. Of course, people convinced that they’ll get kidnapped if they set foot off the compound and don’t realize there are decent grocery stores in town will occasionally destroy everyone else’s mail by ordering hot sauce (6-7 kinds available at any fancy store in town) or almond milk (same).

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Lots available, extremely industrious. Be careful thinking you’ve hired someone full-time, as they all have many, many clients in addition to their “full-time” employer. Typically you’ll hire a man as your housekeeper, but he will expect to do shopping and cooking while his wife will come along and do the cleaning. Most housekeepers are Christians and will observe Christian holidays. Typical salary for an experienced housekeeper is $100 a month for every day of the week they work (so, three days a week, $300/month). They will also typically ask for a recommendation letter at the end of your tour and may be pushy about referrals to arriving personnel. Some will ask you to help find clients for their children or siblings. If you live off-compound, you are responsible for maintaining the exterior of your home as well, including the yard, so most people employ a gardener. They are of wildly varying quality (and many won’t really listen to your preferences in favor of just planting and replanting seasonal flowers a few times a year that they will overcharge you for), but some have relationships with housekeepers who will push you hard to hire them. Get recommendations from folks who’ve served in Islamabad previously or who have already been in the country for a year on which gardener to hire.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

The Embassy compound has an amazing gym with state of the art equipment and a beautiful lap pool, free to all Embassy employees. You can reserve overnight lockers if you live off-compound and want to exercise before work in the morning. There are running and cycling groups that meet on weekends for long group runs and bike rides. It seems there is a more realistic attitude toward the security situation in Islamabad, so those groups are able to run and bike to parts of the city that were off-limits even a couple of years ago. There are some fancier personal training-focused gyms in town that are popular with other expats and diplomats (Metafitnosis and Omifarious Fitness are two) and the Marriott and Serena offer memberships to their gyms and pools, but since the Embassy gym opened I haven’t heard of anyone joining those.

There are also nice, relatively well-maintained tennis courts at the Embassy and a team of tennis coaches. I took up tennis while I was there once I realized that I’d probably never again have the opportunity to take private tennis lessons for $15/hour.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

I was surprised by how many vendors could take credit cards (from the fancy hotel spas to carpet and furniture vendors to the coffee shops in the fancy parts of town). ATMs and accommodation exchange are available at the Embassy and I also found a few ATMs at banks in town that worked with my card; they’re perfectly safe.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

The Embassy of the Holy See holds mass on the diplomatic compound every Sunday. Religious sites in town are generally off-limits for security reasons.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

None, really. I had trouble talking to some of my guards, but my housekeeper passed messages as necessary. You can take Urdu at the Embassy if you’re interested.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes. The only really ADA-compliant buildings I’ve seen in Islamabad were on the Embassy property. It would even be hard for a person with physical disabilities to live in one of our off-compound houses.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

They are prohibited.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

It can take about six months to get your car imported, registered, and tagged. If you’re going to be in country for less than two years, it’s better to rent. You can rent a decent car for about $250/month if you don’t care about driving a newer model or an SUV. Now that there appears to be a more realistic approach to security and self-driving is allowed in more of the city, having access to a car is even more advisable. The weekend shuttle system never really worked all that well, so having your own way to get out into town to do shopping or go out to dinner or to a friend’s house in town will make life a lot easier.

If you do ship a car, I would really only avoid hybrids or fully electric models. The infrastructure and maintenance skills just aren’t available to make that feasible. Some people prefer high-clearance SUVs (and you’ll see lots of wealthy Pakistanis driving around in big shiny Toyota Fortuners) but Honda Accords and Civics are very common as well. The roads in the parts of Islamabad where we are allowed to drive are quite good. All off-compound homes have off-street parking, but if you drive to the markaz or park on the street at a friend’s house, your car is very likely to get bumped by a car or a motorbike. So I’d hesitate to bring a car I wanted to keep in pristine condition.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes. Your sponsor will arrange for installation. On compound, it’s up and running before you arrive. Off-compound, you’ll have to stay home for a day for installation, but you can generally get it installed pretty quickly. It’s reliable and robust; I never had any problem streaming Netflix and other services.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

You’ll be issued a local work phone. I didn’t know anyone who got a separate local account for a personal phone. Google Fi works in Pakistan.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

I don’t have any pets, but I do know that Islamabad is the only SIP that allows them (not Pakistan, just Islamabad). I think you’re limited to one cat or dog. Lots of people adopt compound cats or street dogs while they’re here as well. It’s my understanding there’s a trusted vet in town that everyone uses and who makes house calls. While lots of wealthy Pakistanis with experience living in the United States, UK, or Canada have dogs, in general, Pakistan is not a particularly dog-friendly country. Many people who have served in Islamabad tell stories about neighbors putting poison in meat and throwing it over fences to kill dogs. If you plan to bring a dog, you will need to live on compound or hire a dog walker. The rules about walking in the streets in the city are complicated and not really conducive to having an active dog who needs walks.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Spouses can only come to Pakistan if they have secured EFM jobs. I know there are plenty of EFM jobs in Islamabad and some in Karachi. I do not believe EFMs can accompany officers assigned to Peshawar (unless the officer’s position is resident in Islamabad) or Lahore.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

I am aware of some people volunteering with animal rescue organizations.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Business. There are more formal events in Islamabad than any other place I’ve ever worked, but they’re all social and not compulsory. It seems like the British Embassy throws a ball every other month.

It’s tradition at Embassy Islamabad for men (including Americans) to wear shalwar kameez with sandals on Fridays. There are many tailors in town where men get custom shalwar kameez produced. The dry cleaner/tailor who operates out of the commissary also makes custom shoes.

Women vary in their approach. Some USDH women go crazy buying lots of custom-made local outfits that they will never wear again after they leave Pakistan. It’s not necessary: standard, modest, American-style women’s business dress is perfectly acceptable in Islamabad. Women should anticipate wearing pants more than skirts. A few well-tailored local tunics and ankle-length pants will be helpful for the very few situations where women might need to wear local dress. There is a female tailor on the diplomatic enclave that most Embassy women use for that purpose.

Overall, though, while many people (men, in particular) come to Islamabad expecting to come away with a new wardrobe of bespoke suits, the quality of custom tailoring is very hit and miss (and most compare it unfavorably with what’s available in India or Thailand). People have had better luck having favorite clothing items copied exactly in luxury fabrics.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

The only time I ever felt unsafe in Islamabad was when pushing off advances of colleagues during happy hour. Pakistan still suffers from religiously-motivated violence and terrorism, but in my opinion it is exceedingly rare to see any member of a foreign diplomatic mission targeted or even caught up in one of those incidents. There are occasional incidents of violent street crime, but exponentially fewer than in Paris, London, Rio de JANEIRO, or D.C. When we weren’t allowed to walk on the streets in our extremely fancy and expensive residential neighborhoods (not to mitigate the risk posed by terrorism but rather because of the risk of being pickpocketed) we all just laughed. Basically, people hoping to bid ON Islamabad because they want to pocket danger pay better hope no one objective ever actually looks at the security situation because we’d lose it in a heartbeat.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Barely anyone escapes a tour in Islamabad without a few bouts of serious gastrointestinal distress, so be prepared. You’re expected to basically use your R&Rs and home leave to get all medical care. The only people I ever heard of being medevaced were HVAC contractors in their 70s with cardiac problems.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

The air quality is abysmal in the winter. Not as bad as Delhi or Beijing, but people do stop doing long runs outside.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Aside from the bad pollution, particularly in the winter, nothing environmental. As mentioned, you can get all kinds of food products in the markets: gluten-free and keto products were all the rage when I was there.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

In my opinion, COVID really destroyed morale and caused significant stress and anxiety among the Embassy population. For approximately the first year of the pandemic, and for a few months after we finally got vaccines, the community had, in my opinion, absolutely cruel restrictions, including a complete prohibition on having guests or household help in your home, or socializing with anyone other than another USDH employee. Morale really seemed to bottom out and many members of the community found it difficult to maintain their mental health and comply with the restrictions. It seemed this resulted in many being subject to what seemed to be unnecessarily harsh disciplinary measures. It was bad.

Things have improved with some leadership changes. In general, officers who make it a point to get out and make local friends (which was easier and more rewarding in Islamabad than at any of my other posts) tend to be happier overall.

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Very hot in the summer, mild in the winter. “Winter is party time in Islamabad” was the common saying.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

The International School of Islamabad is very good and the preferred school of choice for every other diplomatic mission. Of course, except for adult EFMs with jobs, US mission personnel can’t take family members.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Sizable, but not as large as it was in the early 2000s when media organizations had big teams of foreign correspondents in Islamabad to cover the war in Afghanistan and U.S. development money was pouring in. Outside the Embassy USDH community, morale among expats is very good and was throughout the pandemic.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

House parties remain the primary vehicle for socializing. It won’t take long to get invited to one where you’ll meet the local crowd. Pakistanis (particularly those with connections to the United States) are eager to welcome newcomers into their social circles; there’s a reason so many U.S. diplomats go back to Islamabad for repeat tours.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Married couples can bank a lot of money over the course of a two-year tour, but geographic singlehood is the norm. People date in the local and expat community. Islamabad would be fine for families with young kids; teenagers would have plenty of opportunities to get themselves in trouble.

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4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

I made local friend for life in Islamabad; I did not expect it, but I relied heavily on a close group of local friends as my primary social and emotional support during my tour. Indian-Americans tend to face professional discrimination.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

There’s a relatively thriving gay scene in the expat and elite local community. Gay officers have found Islamabad a very comfortable and even welcoming place to serve.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Not among elites or the diplomatic community, except for a fair bit of prejudice against Indian-Americans.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

The friends, the friends, the friends. I never thought I’d consider doing repeat Pakistan tours but I am compelled to try to get back to visit, at least. I wouldn’t serve there again unless the security seemed to be more in line with the rest of the diplomatic community and allowed officers, in my opinion, a more reasonable amount of freedom to travel around Islamabad and the rest of the country. In my opinion, our diplomatic efforts suffer enormously under the current restrictions.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

House parties, barbecues, CLO trips.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Yep, but plenty of people overspend on stuff they end up regretting, so buyer beware. You can get beautiful carpets, furniture, and jewelry, but don’t get sucked into dropping cash on stuff just because you see everyone else doing it.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

There is a vibrant, welcoming local social scene. Pakistan is a large country with a big economy, meaning Islamabad has many (but certainly not all) of the resources of a major European or North American city. Regional travel is pretty easy, especially now that direct flights to and from Bangkok are back. Regional travel would be a lot easier if we were permitted to transit Karachi, but hopefully that will come in time.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

That it would be so hard to leave the people.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

As noted above, I would love to return when we adopt a more realistic security posture.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Preconceived notions of Pakistan. Your family will be convinced there’s an Osama bin Laden on every corner. You will quickly discover there is not.

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4. But don't forget your:

Running shoes, bicycle, cocktail glasses and tools, especially if you live off-compound and will be doing a reporting job. Many of your contacts will be “western” educated and largely secular and your relationships with them will be even more productive if you can invite them to drop by for a drink on occasion. Dinner parties are how you’ll build social capital.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

The Nine Lives of Pakistan (Declan Walsh)
A Case of Exploding Mangos (Mohammed Hanif)

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6. Do you have any other comments?

Go to Islamabad with an open mind and a positive attitude. Don’t approach an Islamabad tour as something to suffer through; if you make an effort to get out, meet people, and learn about the culture, those efforts will be returned many times over.

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