Park Road, Islamabad–the Telephone

Here is an excerpt from my book, Geckos & Guns: The Pakistan Years, that describes some of our early frustrations and culture shock.

As for the telephone, it had a story all its own. We had the remarkable privilege of having an international telephone line in our home, but it came with an unusual price. Pakistani cities are thick with wires and cables that take indiscriminate twists and turns with no regard for efficient usage or safety. In keeping with this tradition, telephone wires are rolled and stuffed into little boxes that pop up here and there along the streets. We discovered that the guts of the telephone box outside our gate were commonly rearranged/reconnected by various passers-by who could then conveniently place calls using our phone line, “borrowing” it for a while.

As a result, trying to dial out from our house bore an uncanny resemblance to shooting craps in Las Vegas. If we attempted to call our friends down the street, we might connect with a tailor’s shop or military headquarters. Similarly, if someone phoned us, they might be confronted with a flurry of Urdu from a far-flung sector of the city. Often, the wires were just left disconnected and we would wake up in the morning to find the phone dead. Each time, these problems were solved by weaving our way through a labyrinth of bureaucracy and under-the-table payments until someone wandered along and restored the wires.

Add to this the regular occurrence of calls being inexplicably cut off in midstream, static and interference overpowering the strongest of voices, or a sleeping telephone operator rendering the connection with anyone overseas impossible (in that small window of time when humans are awake on both sides of the ocean). I got aggravated at times, slamming the receiver down or even throwing the phone across the room.

Some days could only be described as culture shock on steroids