Pakistan: Islamabad Serena Hotel

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So I went to Islamabad for a work-related meeting twice this year – July and October (spent my birthday there) – and stayed at the luxurious and expensive Serena Islamabad  Hotel. Stayed there because frankly, it was our only option as one of the ‘most secure hotels’ in Islamabad, according to our database, due to the fact that Pakistan is still considered as a high alert country for our organization. So, with no other choices, our meeting was held there.

Room rates include complimentary airport transfers for a no-fuss arrangement. Cars were really clean, drivers were polite and had good driving skills and they even offered bottled water once you settled inside.

Architecture wise, the hotel is really grand, immensely huge and lavish. It took me a few minutes towalk  from one end to the other.  High ceilings with chandeliers, engraved wood, and a lobby of marble flooring would meet you when you get inside.

The rooms – I was able to try both the Deluxe and Executive – was very spacious and really nice looking with the usual comfy bed and fluffy pillows, flat screen TV, huge windows overlooking the gated complex with guard watch towers (haha) and wooden tables. The comfort room had two sinks (for Exec), a tub and of course, shower area.

Complimentary breakfast was at the ground floor. The venue was really nice and big. Food selection was standard, though of course no bacon (Muslim country) and it would have been better if they had more fruit options.

Business Center was really nice and huge. Best part is that checked in guests can use it – net, printing, photocopy etc – free of charge.


But in terms of service, which for me is much more important, generally, I really wasn’t satisfied. I’m not even going to talk about the meetings itself (so much horror stories) but will focus more on my personal experience. To start off, check in took forever! Haha! An exaggeration, yes, so I’ll translate: check-in took more time than it should have. There was no urgency in their staff! Even the international staff I came in with said “Their service is always terrible” as he has already been to Serena more than twice. 


Room service was terrible. Took them a while to attend to my requests. Half of the time, they didn’t even replenish my drinks (by the way, all of their non-alcoholic drinks are complimentary). Complimentary nga, but they don’t automatically refill your fridge, so I had to call and remind them to do so. Generally speaking, they really moved slow. Can you believe it would take no less than 10 minutes for them to give me some hot coffee? Not to mention, I had to follow-up twice. This is not just based on my own experience as some – if not all – of my colleagues had a similar experience, even my boss! 


To be fair, their staff who replenishes my toiletries was perfect. Not a day without new shampoo and soap! Hehe.


Remember I said this hotel boasted of being the most secure in Islamabad? Well, someone stole our tarpaulin with our event meeting details and the hotel staff couldn’t even find it! No CCTVs or guards or whatsoever. How secure is that? And more importantly, why would anyone steal a tarpaulin with our event details and logo? It makes no sense. Hilarious.

As a side kwento, Pakistan and India are not on good terms (like historically) and once, I heard a hotel staff call me Ms India, which may be a reason why they are taking so long to attend to my needs (because they think I’m Indian and they don’t like me). I’m not a diva and I don’t even have special requests but would it hurt to walk briskly when I have a request related to our meeting?

On the other end, they love China (again, historically) so my Chinese boss experienced ‘good service.’ Some Pakistanis even asked to have their photo taken with him! Fascinating.

So glad that we shall no longer have events there for the rest of the year and for at least the next 10 years. Hopefully, I’d be in another project, if not better company, by then.

Halo-halong Discoveries Part IV

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Pretty gift bag. Bought this super pretty floral gift bag (P35) at National Bookstore even without knowing when to use it. Good thing I did because I used it to give something to my landlady on Mother’s Day (ganun kami ka-close. Hehe).
 


Sliced orange extension cord with USB ports. During my work trip in Pakistan, one of our usual problems was the shortage of sockets for our laptop and phone chargers. So when I saw this, I knew it would be super useful for our whole team, so that we can all just charge our gadgets at the same time. I wouldn’t leave it unattended though since I think it’s a bit shoddy. Haha! Super cute, lightweight, handy and affordable at P200 at shoppee.ph.

 

Drip Coffee. For the life of me I cannot remember where I bought this. Was hoping it would taste like my usual brewed coffee, however, it tastes different. A bit watered down with a nutty taste. Looks cute though. I saw some other local brands having something similar to this too.

 

Iron on Patches on Herbag. I finally did it. I finally customized by brown Herbag with fun quirky iron on patches for times when I wanna be silly and tote a not-so-formal-adult-bag. Haha!


Henna Tattoo. Played with some left over henna from India and the stencil I bought from Indonesia, right before my Malapascua trip. Smelled like petroleum. 



12 Buns of Swift Might Meaty. I normally like trying out new things as it comes my way – that fried isaw in Taft before it became famous, a DIY no churn ice cream, a new toiletry product, microwavable cake in a mug and even an unknown Indonesian restaurant. As I was walking around Robinson’s Galleria, killing time, I chanced upon this stall of Swift Hotdog.

 

I try not to eat too much processed food nowadays (Tita vibes) but what caught my eye was the 12 different ways to eat the hotdog bun. They had 12 different combinations of hotdog toppings which include the classic cheese sauce, salsa, coleslaw and con carne to the more unique ones like pork floss and egg salad.

 

I was up for the challenge. Then and there, I decided to try all 12 combinations and immortalize my experience here. Haha! For only P32 per bun, I knew this was going to be fun without hurting my wallet (but hurting my diet). Unfortunately, or fortunately, I only got to 5 buns (eaten at different times, mind you). Haha!

 

For a quick and filling pantawid-gutom snack, this is a great choice. You may also choose to have the brown/chicken hotdog for a small additional fee. Perfect pair with their mango juice. In fairness to them, they do not scrimp on the toppings so you really get your money’s worth. The hotdog and bun are both big and very filling. As long as you are not choosy with the hotdog, go ahead and try all 12 flavors, and then some.

Parking for women

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Spotted in a small mall in Islamabad, Pakistan because according to my local colleague, ‘women are considered worse drivers than men.’


On the bright side, I’m definitely looking at this as an advantage for both women & the elderly. 

Blessed: Pros and Cons of traveling for work

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As much as I love traveling, I could never be a flight attendant nor did I ever want to be one. Aside from the fact that I could never imagine myself taking orders and bringing blankets and coffee to total strangers and being at their beck and call and basically being a highly paid server (no offense but we all know it’s true), I think excessive and constant traveling for work ruins the whole “traveling part” for me. I could never be like the character George Clooney plays in ‘Up in the Air.’ I don’t want to live out of my suitcase and a big part of me still needs to “go home” and recharge, in the arms of loved ones, including pets.

But, I have no qualms traveling for work every now and then. So far, my work as part of an international development financial institution for the past four years has brought me to Guangzhou, China; Melbourne, Australia; Bangalore, India; Bangkok, Thailand and Islamabad, Pakistan.

On one night during my Bangkok trip, as I laid on my plush hotel bed and feeling content (hahaha), I realized that I did like traveling for work once in a while and so this post was born.

Based on my personal experience, here are the pros of traveling for work:

1. Business Class Seats. I ain’t even gonna lie. This is THE best part. Because I would probably never be able to ride Business if not for my work, which is under our travel policy. This was what I looked forward to during my Pakistan trip. Haha!

2. Fast Track at Immigration. Related to item #1, business class travelers usually have a designated lane at immigration which as expected, is faster. I saw once before in NAIA that there was a lane labeled as ‘Business class’ and I actually hated seeing it because it seemed as if you can just ‘buy your way into a country.’ I haven’t seen it again, I guess they changed it. In other airports, they label it as ‘fast track.’ Other people who can use this lane are usually the diplomats, those in need of assistance and APEC card holders.

3. Business Class Airport Lounge. Still related to item #1, what better way to wait for your flight than in comfortable cushy chairs in an uncrowded room with unlimited food and drinks, clean restrooms and free wifi? Other lounges even have massage spas and shower rooms.

4. Daily Subsistence Allowance. On top of my pay, we are provided daily allowance to cover our meals and accommodation. Plus points that we can actually have cash advance, unlike other companies that would require their employees to pay first then they’ll reimburse later (which is, if you think about it, really unfair for the employee. What if he doesn’t have any cash to spare?). Thanks to my substantial DSA and awesome budgeting skills, I was able to buy my Longchamp Cuir and Herbag, without shelling any of my personal money.

5. Hotel Accommodation. We have a list of accredited hotels and so in effect, we only stay at some of the best hotels around the continent. Since we have mid to high level meetings there, a 4 or 5 star hotel is a must.

6. Rewards Points. A thousand more points (a lot actually) and I could actually buy my mom business class tickets, which is one of my short term goals (but don’t tell her). Because everytime I fly a certain airline, we get points. Hopefully I get more work-related travels so I can reach my goal. On the other end, one of my hotel points can now actually be converted into an ipod, which I am seriously considering doing.

7. Passport Stamps. The more stamps you get, the easier visas are approved whenever you apply.

8. Exposure. I think this is the best part career-wise. Exposure in the sense that you get trained on how to deal with different kinds of scenarios and people in different countries and cultures and learn from it. Being part of an overseas meeting will always look good on your resume.

9. Meeting people. As introverted as I am, I do enjoy meeting people and seeing and observing how they are. Meeting people from all walks of life from all nationalities and cultures is something I consider as training for my career, similar to point #7.

Cons of traveling for work:

1. Work. Duh. Haha! Of course, you’re there to work so basically, that’s the major bummer. At the end of the day, you can’t 100% enjoy your trip since you have work to think about. Except maybe perhaps on your way home. But I think this part is manageable since I work with such great people. Speaking of…

2. Thinking about other people. Since I usually travel with my colleagues, I have to keep them in mind. Example, I’m a fast walker but since we’re in a group, I have to slow down a bit so they could keep up. Or the fact that we do group check-in, which takes more time as compared to if I was alone. Or deciding meals to eat, wherein I have to take their preferences into consideration.

After all is said and done, I am super grateful to be working where I am working right now with my current colleagues. I like how my work brings me to different countries to meet different people in different settings. It’s not too much that I don’t have time left to spend at home but enough for me to have exposure as well as sneak a bit of leisure in it. I don’t think I could travel for work every week or even every month, but I know that whatever or wherever my work brings me, I’ll make sure to try to enjoy it as much as I can, learn from it as much as I can and at the same time, deliver work excellently in the best way that I can.

 

Vacationista: What (little) I was able to experience of Pakistan

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As Pakistan is still considered a high alert country for the organization I work in, roaming the streets of Islamabad as if it were Bangkok is not possible. We were only able to go out when a colleague from our resident mission office would offer to take us out and in effect, bring a car. Here’s what I was able to experience in Islamabad, with such limited access and time:
 

Scarf and Pakistani Chips Shopping

We were able to go to two shopping centers. One was this strip of small shops, where we didn’t buy anything because our ‘guide’ said better to buy in The Centaurus, a small mall near Serena Hotel which not only houses local stores but also international brands like Charles and Keith. My colleague wanted to buy scarves so we went to this local shop at the 3rd floor. I wasn’t planning on buying anything – I have so much scarves and stuff already! – but I remembered my mom wanted some authentic Pakistani pasalubong so I bought this really nice, thick and pretty scarf. I wanted something embroidered and non-generic. It was originally $50 but was able to bargain to $20, which in the end, my Pakistani colleague bought for me. Hehe.

We also passed by this dried fruits and nuts store which was so gorgeous! Look at all those goodies! I’m not much of a nut or dried fruits person but the shop was so pretty. We tasted a few of their produce, including these Pakistani chips which we liked. Great thing about the shop is you can buy in bulk then they divide and put it in small plastic bags, for you to give away. So I bought a kilo of the Pakistani chips (PKR280; roughly $3) then divided it into four – instant pasalubong!

KFC Pakistan

 

One of our meals outside of the hotel was KFC, simply because my colleague wanted to try their local fast food and see how it fares. I ordered their Chicken and Spice rice meal while my colleague ordered the Chicken rice meal. Truth be told, there was no difference in the two and both were super spicy! Haha! And this is coming from a person who loves spicy food. Had to drown the heat in my mouth with soft drinks.

Pakistani Dinner

Our colleague brought us to this dinner place (I have no idea what it’s called) and he ordered for us typical Pakistani food – kebabs, some mutton with boiled egg and tomatoes, chicken biryani rice, naan (bread), and fresh vegetables with yoghurt. I really enjoyed the kebab as well as the biryani, even though it was super spicy! Drowned it with some fresh apple shake (no photo though).

Pakistani Barbeque

Two of our other Pakistani colleagues brought us to this special barbeque place, simply called Bar B Q Tonight Restaurant Islamabad. Very straight to the point, di ba? Haha. We went there on a Friday at Manila lunch time, meaning 1230nn, but it was actually Pakistani prayer time (which lasted for 2 hours), so the restaurant was empty. This was my favorite meal! Honestly, Serena Hotel’s food wasn’t good and my colleagues said it’s because it’s not really authentic Pakistan food.

They ordered this huge BBQ platter comprising of various meats in different marinades. We weren’t able to finish it! There’s shrimp, fish, chicken, kebab and lamb. It came with a special yoghurt and balsamic sauce. I really enjoyed the chicken. We also had some fresh vegetables, naan (bread) and this yellow sauce that came with it. Drowned the spicyness with some cola marked with their beautiful language/ characters.

Pakistani Ice Cream

After our BBQ lunch, we were brought to another dessert place called Scoop which served really good and really heavy ice cream. On my first visit there, I tried their Kulfa and Almond Roasted ice cream. On my second visit, I had their good ol’ chocolate and pistachio. It was really good, albeit heavy like they used heavy cream instead of regular milk (think Carmen’s Ice Cream times two). I could hardly finish my small cup of two scoops, which I gave to my colleague to finish. Hehe.

Pakistan Birthday

As mentioned, I spent my birthday in Islamabad. It wasn’t really special, which is fine with me since I really don’t celebrate my birthday. I didn’t even tell my colleagues though of course, they found out. Was pleasantly surprised though when in my room was a bouquet of flowers, a small birthday cake, freshly refilled bowl of nuts and a simple purse. Haha! I’ll give that to Serena for going the extra mile.

With all its headaches and problems, I’m still glad I was able to go to Pakistan. It’s great exposure for me in terms of work and also something unique for me to experience. This is definitely one for the books.

To Pakistan

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A week before my work mission to Pakistan, went grocery shopping for some “baon.” Chanced upon a single serving of Lays & when I checked the back, well, it’s a sign.


Pakistan is not a usual tourist attraction & with all the security issues abounding, I understand why. But part of my work is to help such countries to “develop” & so I feel very privileged to be going to this country. I really thank God for  placing me in this job

Pray for us? 

Islamabad, here I come!