Excerpt from Geckos & Guns – A Trip to the Commissary

We had read parts of the Holy Quran before we went to Pakistan, so we had some idea of what to expect. We knew there would be no alcohol available locally. Imagine our surprise when we were informed of the booze allotment provided by the UN. Apparently, there was a UN Commissary in Rawalpindi, twin city to Islamabad, where we could get specialty food and alcohol since non-Muslim foreigners were allowed to drink alcohol in Pakistan in the privacy of their homes and at licensed venues. A UN peacekeeping force had been in the country for many years due to all the tensions between Pakistan and India since 1947, specifically monitoring the ongoing dispute over the territory of Kashmir. Both India and Pakistan have claimed sovereignty over Kashmir since partition, and the commissary had originally been built for these peacekeeping soldiers but was eventually opened to all UN staff.

Wayne and I excitedly made plans to have Nisar drive us to this magical place. It was a rare treat to get out of Islamabad together and just relax and enjoy the rural scenery. Lulled by the quiet of the countryside, we were suddenly jolted back to reality when a scantily dressed gaunt apparition with wild eyes, crazy hair, and a garland of roses around his neck jumped in front of our car. Nisar screeched to a halt and gave us terse orders to lock the doors and stay in the vehicle. With that, he was out the door. Wayne grabbed my hand. We were both visibly shaking. Would we make it out of this alive? Nisar walked up to this madman and started gesturing and talking to him. After a few minutes, Nisar reached into his pocket, pulled out some rupees, and handed them over. The road warrior disappeared just as quickly as he had appeared.

Nisar sighed as he started the car. We were jabbering, “What just happened?” “Is everything ok?” Nisar smiled and calmly explained that this “crazy guy” lived on the median and regularly stopped cars and asked for money, a kind of bizarre toll-collector. The cost was two rupees, less than five cents.

After this strange encounter, we were happy to finally reach the commissary. It turned out to be a dark, dank warehouse with sparsely stocked food shelves, just a few jars of jam and dated canned items. What a disappointment! Then we entered the “liquor store” section. To put it mildly, we were wowed! This was as well-stocked as any specialty store we had ever seen with wall-to-wall booze. The clerk handed us a slip of paper outlining our liquor allotment: 4 bottles of scotch, 6 bottles of other spirits, 12 bottles of wine, and 10 cases of beer. We assumed that it was for 3 to 6 months. But no, this was our monthly—yes, I said monthly—allotment!

Wayne and I had never been drinkers. We had barely kept one bottle of rum on hand at home in Canada and that would sit untouched for months on end. But what now? In that moment, we made one of our first big Pakistan decisions. We would start to entertain. We would have the best parties ever. We would meet more people and shore up some of our loneliness. And with that, we filled up our cart.