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.

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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.

31 in Pakistan

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Not exactly my idea of a celebration but this is by far the most interesting birthday I’ve had::
1. Spent the day with ADB President

2. Breathed the same air as IMF Managing Director

3. Rode armored & police escorted ADB cars to airport due to security concerns


Thank you Lord for your traveling mercies (& for everyone’s greetings!) So good to be back in my homeland! 

2 weeks in Pakistan

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I’ve been mistaken to be Indian one too many times (including in Pakistan the last time I visited).So, please pray that there will be no hostility when I stay there in the upcoming weeks, now more than ever, with the two countries’ on going feud.

In other news, Magnum has a Pink Pomegranate flavor! 

#Pakistan #MsIndiaLookAlikeKasi #MagnumPinkPomegranate

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! 

Vacationista: Dushanbe, Tajikistan Day 2-3                                                                                                    

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Woke up around 8am to have breakfast with my teammates at 9am. This was my breakfast every single morning I was there – two sunny side up eggs, assortment of hams, sausage and cheese, croissant, coffee, fresh juice and fresh plum, peach and grapes.
 


After working, we then went out for our super late lunch/early dinner at a local restaurant our colleague recommended called Toqi. Outside, it looked like a boring building with some camel statues but inside, there were artificial trees decorating the place. 


Plus, we had to eat in a small stone room on a low table and sit on the floor with their carpets and plush pillows, making us feel like locals.

 

My colleague ordered some bread, salad and pilov for us. Pilov is like their version of biryani – flavored basmati rice topped with spiced beef, fish and quail egg. Ended with some fresh watermelon and cantaloupe.

 

We still had some time to spare before our next meeting so we did a quick stop at this huge building (again, yes they love huge buildings) with tons of columns. 




Inside they were selling.. Every kind of nuts and spices! But as you can see, the place was huge but empty. It’s a new building so there weren’t a lot of merchants yet. Still, I can’t imagine the place being filled with sellers and buyers and being a hustling and bustling market place. Perhaps in 10 years or so. 

We then went to our scheduled meeting which was with the venue for our upcoming conference in October. They call it the Kokhi Navruz or the Navruz Palace. They had extra large roses all over their gardens.

 


We did an ocular of the place and again – the building, or should I say palace, was over the top! Think carved wood, glass filled rooms, chandeliers, huge round tables you only see in movies or in international media, tons of columns, hand painted walls and ceilings, all in all giving it a grandiose feel. Kinda weird for a developing country, if you ask me. I’ll let the photos do the talking, though they hardly do any justice.

 






Worked again until I fell asleep on the bed. 

The next day, all our other colleagues including the bosses started arriving so we were definitely on war mode. Again, we had our super late lunch/ early dinner at Rokhat Teahouse since our other colleagues haven’t been there. We walked going there from the hotel which was a bit far (and too hot under the afternoon Tajik sun) but my Spanish colleague really wanted to walk. We passed by this almost dry lake (?) with the second largest flag in the world (the largest one belongs to Pakistan).

 

Good thing my friend was with us since he interpreted and ordered for us. If we didn’t have a Russian speaker with us, we’d be lost with the menu! By the time we got to the restaurant, we were famished. We ordered a variety of salads, flat bread, soup, huge dumplings with meat inside and sour cream sauce and of course, shashlik. My favorite salad is the beets with Japanese mayo. For 8 people, we each shelled out TJS50. Not bad at all.

 

The rest of the day was spent working and the night was spent chilling with my friend.

Vacationista: Dushanbe, Tajikistan Day 0-1 (plus, Dubai International Hotel)

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When one of my foreigner colleagues found out I’d be going to Dushanbe for a work meeting, he immediately said that there is absolutely nothing to do in the city. Me being an optimist and lover of travelling, I didn’t believe him and just thought I’ll make the most of my trip. Turns out, he was right. In Dushanbe’s defense, I didn’t actually try to explore the city, mainly because everything was so far from each other and you actually needed to take a taxi to go around. Plus, there’s the language barrier so you needed a Russian speaking person to be with you. This is the same meeting we had in Bangkok last year which though was pretty light compared to our Georgia or Pakistan meetings, still, I wasn’t really able to go around.

 
But first was the long-haul travel. I was so excited to fly via Emirate’s Business Class because I’ve heard so much about it. It’s even on my bucket list. Unfortunately, I was so disappointed. The seats were not as big nor as comfortable as Turkish Airlines, you couldn’t move or customize the seat as much as you wanted to, the restroom was tiny, in-flight wifi was limited to two hours, no complimentary toiletry kit (which I guess is good since it could be a move to be more environmentally-friendly, you know) and service was just so-so. What happened to all the great things I’ve heard about Emirates? Perhaps they were pertaining to First Class, which is still in my bucket list. The only ‘special’ thing about them was the ceiling of stars they turned on at night which let’s face it, has no added value to my traveling comfort.

 

I honestly didn’t rest well on their seats. It was so uncomfortable even with the extra mattress. After 8 hours of unrest, landed in Dubai. Since we had an 11 hour layover, me and my colleagues availed of the Dubai International Hotel, which is actually a 5-star airport hotel. Paid about $200 for my stay but it had all the amenities of a regular hotel: tea and coffee, shower and toiletries, TV and wifi, and even a small gym, Jacuzzi and pool outside (plus an empty barber’s room). My room’s view was still just the airport hallway. Haha! I didn’t bring my swimsuit so wasn’t able to take a dip but will definitely make a mental note to pack it next time I stay with them.

 

Went around their Duty Free stores which had the usual perfume, chocolates and souvenirs. Only bought a P1,700 mousepad that looked like an actual carpet, for my brother’s diorama, per his request. And some Loacker wafers. So random.     

We then went on our Dubai-Dushanbe 3 hour flight and arrived in chilly Dushanbe. We landed around 3am but arrived at the hotel at 5am since we had to get our visas on arrival, waited for our luggage and for our airport pick up to leave the parking lot.

 

I think Hyatt upgraded me because when I compared to my colleague’s room, the standard room was smaller and didn’t have a couch. Perks of being an organizer (and the one who bugs the hotel), I guess.


Had a great view of the fountain in the middle of the man-made lake too.

 

Woke up at around 9am and had some breakfast. The spread wasn’t as varied as most hotels but they had a lot of fresh fruits like whole pears, grapes, plums and my favorite, peaches so I was more than happy. We worked for some hours where hotel staff gave us some coffee and pecan pie (so good!).

 

We needed a break and some fresh air (plus some super late lunch/ early dinner) so our local counterpart brought us to this small building called Tsum (?) selling lots of cellphones on the first floor and souvenirs at the second floor. Bought a small magnet (TJS13) and two small plates (TJS70) as décor for my mom and brother.

 

Our super late lunch/ early dinner was at a huge white building with columns called Rokhat Teahouse. Its name is more complicated than Rokhat but that’s the easier version (we also just pronounce it as Rohat).

 

The place was two floors and overlooking a small garden where the kitchen was located. The ceilings were painted with some colorful design and was already peeling and showing age, which I loved because it gave the place an authentic feel to it. 


My colleague ordered salad, bread, compote and shashlik – grilled meat – for us. Shashlik is known in Tajikistan and it was really good. Rice was no longer available after lunch hours so bread was our carbo.

 

We then had some vanilla ice cream as dessert from the store downstairs. My boss paid for everything so I don’t know the prices. Haha.

 

Walked back towards the hotel but not before stopping by our resident mission office there (which looked like a mansion complete with a winding staircase and chandelier) and a local grocery store. 


Didn’t find anything extremely interesting so I only bought 6 bars of chocolates and some wafer (TJS62.2) to give away. 

Blessed: Reminder to be thankful

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I keep saying that I do feel blessed with my life right now. It’s not perfect. Probably not where I thought I would be. Definitely didn’t expect all the blessings I’ve received so far. But really, I feel grateful, blessed and content. Or at the very least, I keep reminding myself of this.

For my recent Georgia trip, not only was I able to visit such a gorgeous country sponsored by the organization I work for, what made this extra special was that I was able to save a 6-digit figure from our daily allowance provided by my work. This is on top of my salary. Last time in Pakistan, I only got to take home about $1,000, which I used for my US trip, since our allowance then was small but hotel was expensive.

But this time, so blessed to have taken home a fairly large amount. I know for some people a 6-digit figure is nothing but to me, that’s something. So what did I do with this amount? I didn’t spend it all, if that’s what you’re thinking. I gave to my tithes at church, increased my financial support to some missionaries and deposited into my investment. Of course, I also know how to balance my money so I bought something for myself too – a maroon bomber jacket, a floral jacket, a royal blue winter coat and a green blazer (yes, all outerwear).

There are times at night when I’m alone, I look around my room and think, “I like where I am right now.” I’m not saying this is how I feel everyday, all day, 24/7. Sometimes I get sad or lonely or frustrated too. But more often than not, I really enjoy being who I am in the current situation I am in with the people I am with right now.

But you know what? Sometimes, I’m afraid that I’ll suddenly wake up and everything would change for the worse. I don’t mean this in terms of suddenly losing my money or job or house. My security isn’t there, since I know in a snap all our material things can be taken away from us. I always say I can live on kangkong and galunggong forever. Haha! But I’m more afraid of something bad happening to my relationships – family and friends – or to me personally, particularly, my health. Things that are out of my control and are not easily replaced. It’s been awhile since my last tragedy in life (read: my dad’s stroke then death). Like, I’m living such a good life right now that something bad is bound – or is supposed – to happen.

But I know I can’t be paralyzed by this fear or any kind of fear – bomb threats, terrorists, assholes you meet – for that matter. So I guess the best way is simply to live my life – my own life – and spend time with people who matter the most and of course, pray.

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.