New temporary digs

The company I work for here in Pakistan has kept me and half a dozen others in a hotel for nearly seven months – telling us we’d “soon” be moving into some lovely furnished apartments. But it never happened, there was always some obstacle – leasing, furniture, security measures, faulty this or that. The apartments were under construction and, as often happens in developing countries, it went on longer than planned.

Last week I let them know I’d accepted a new position in another country, and had two weeks to carry out a handover of my job. So, of course, they insisted on moving me and the other expats from the hotel to the apartment – effective immediately. “We have to show Value for Money,” I was told. (That’s one of our client’s buzzwords, and a good one. But if they had been concerned about Value for Money over the last seven months, they would have cut their losses with the builders and gotten us settled in units that were available, sooner.) For the 12 nights I will spend in the apartment, the company will save 1748 pounds – HEFTY. But I’ve spent 14 fortnights. Makes this 12-night savings seem a bit paltry.

I arrived yesterday afternoon, already outfitted with attitude about the move. The client might get a little Value for Money, but the burden would come out of my time and pocket, not the company’s. For the record, I was one of the ones clamoring for an apartment throughout the seven months spent in the hotel. I like having control over my laundry, my fridge, my free time. But to insist on it now is such a hassle.

“Now” is summer. Islamabad in summer is a thing to behold – every day over 110 degrees, nights are better but still un-sleepable. The problem is that Pakistan has a major electricity problem. Or, better said, it’s got an electricity bill problem. It’s called circular debt, in which payments to the electricity companies are made only to cover the interest accruing, while the principle grows – basically because no one feels compelled to pay their electrical bills, not even the government. In this weather, well, probably 90% of the population goes to bed without so much as a fan to stir the air. There are literally riots in the streets as this hot season has started in earnest. A disturbing quote from the Pakistani press last week read something like this: “All it takes to turn a reasonable citizen into an animal is a string of nights without sleep because of the heat, and no end in sight.”

Pakistan’s energy companies use a method, called “load-shedding”, whereby they rotate service to various parts of a given constituency. Rolling blackouts. In the hotel where I stayed, the power would cut several times a day for a minute or two, followed by the kicking-on of Hesperus-like generators as they returned light and power and – all importantly – aircon to the pampered guests. If you don’t have a generator, you just live through the next hour, two hours, six hours – whatever amount the company decides for you to suffer. In the most populous parts of the country, most people have only four hours of electricity a day. Some places post a schedule, like my new apartment.

So these are the hours we will not have electricity, and the building must fire up its own generators. Better not get in the elevator then, a point reinforced by the panicky front desk fellows who stop lift service five minutes before loadshedding begins.

The aircon sounds like a blender full of ice and squeaky rodents. I’m quite sure the reason it never gets cool is that the system has to keep that blender cool, before it can pump anything like air conditioning into the room. Also, the dead bugs. Generally I prefer dead ones to live ones. But there were so many – probably a result of a recent bug-bombing, but then again, not so recent: when I tried to kick one of the dead bugs out of my path, it disintegrated into a puff of dead bug dust and some wings.

The fridge was not plugged in, which made sense since the plug was not compatible with the outlet. Neither, however, were a series of hastily purchased adapters, since the real problem was not the shape of the outlet but rather the wiring behind it. The TV was also not plugged in, because the nearest outlet was occupied by the router. There is not another outlet for thirty feet, so it was “either-or.” I chose TV, to get the news. When the guard came and fixed the wiring behind the fridge, the TV shut down. I think I’m only allowed one appliance at a time.

There was no remote control for the TV. When I asked the maintenance fellow, he searched futilely for fifteen minutes before telling me, “Oh, this TV just has no remote.” When I pointed out that that was not possible, he said, “Oh, I just remembered. We looked for the remote and couldn’t find it last week. Insha’Allah, we will have it for you tomorrow morning.” I don’t know why looking now will make any difference, but that’s where he was with his story, and sticking to it.

I asked him how to turn the knob to get hot water. “Ma’am, we do not have hot water here during this season.” When I pressed, he changed his story. “We have hot water only in the days, not in the nights.” I asked why. “It is because here and in Rawalpindi the temperature gets above 35 degrees during this season. For that reason we do not use the geyser (pronounced “geezer”) and we do not have hot water in the nights.” That didn’t really make sense, but I pressed on. “What time of morning will the water would be hot?” To which he replied, “At 9:00 a.m. it will not be cold. But it will not be hot. We have tanks on the roof where the sun heats the water, so by 11:00 a.m. it will be hot.” Until what time of day, pray? “Until 1:00 p.m.” If the sun actually were to go down at 1:00 p.m., it would be a boon for all the people in Pakistan suffering this horrifying heat, but alas, the sun burns on till at least 6:00 p.m. I had lost my will to argue, so I opened a book and a club soda and settled in for the night.

If I stopped the story here, it would give a pretty good picture of how this place is. But the real story is the bed. Oh, what a bed. It’s low, creaks like an old man’s knees upon entering, and then… is quite literally as hard as an ironing board. When you lie down on it, because there is no give and your butt does not sink in as it would into any softer surface (like an anvil), it actually feels as if you’re sleeping on a slant with your head at the bottom of the hill.

So, this is when the importance of the pillow comes into high relief. Emphasis on “high”. The pillow is stuffed into a sprightly gingham case, which belies the durability of its contents. It’s not feather, it’s not foam… it’s more like… bowling ball. On a regular bed that would put my head at 90 degrees to my body, but with this bed, the angle is much more acute. It’s as if I’m trying to eat my own neck. And speaking of 90 degrees, did I mention the air conditioner? It’s right above my head, pumping all night like an oil rig in an empty well, putting out air that’s only slightly warmer than that found in the non-working fridge.

When can I go back to the hotel???!?

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