Could living in Islamabad be all that bad?
This month’s global parent in the hot seat is seasoned expat, Clara Wiggins. Clara has so far lived in eleven countries on five continents. She, her husband and their two young daughters are currently preparing to move again, this time to South Africa. Clara will be taking us back today to a brief posting in Islamabad, Pakistan – cut short by the tragic Marriott bombing in 2008.
BG: Hi Clara, could you give us a brief run down of your past – a life well travelled!
CW: I was born in Havana, Cuba to diplomatic parents – the third of what would eventually be four children (and the only girl). We left when I was still a baby so I have no memories of Cuba, although I did enjoy a trip back there when I lived in Jamaica as an adult.
After Cuba, we moved to the UK but my childhood was taken up with constant moves – to Manila in the Philippines for four years, Lagos for a short time, Caracas as I hit my teens. In between each move we would return to our home in Kent in the UK, then when I was 13 I went to boarding school.
Later on I moved overseas for work – to Gibraltar as a journalist, then spent a year travelling around the world, including six months working in New Zealand. On my return I joined the Foreign Office and eventually got posted to Jamaica.
Here I met my husband, got pregnant and returned to the UK to have my first daughter. I then had a second daughter before we moved to Islamabad, Pakistan followed by St Lucia. We are currently back in the UK but we are preparing for our next move – to Pretoria in South Africa.
BG: Let’s talk specifically about Islamabad, not your typical expat location! What were your first impressions?
CW: My first impressions were not very good. We had a terrible journey to reach Islamabad (which you can read about here), and arrived at the hottest point of the year. Most of the other families on the diplomatic compound were, quite sensibly, away for the summer.
Our sea freight with most of our stuff – including toys for the children – didn’t turn up for weeks. Although there was a pool on the British High Commission compound, as well as a play area, it was too hot to go out for most of the day.
I didn’t have a car at the start and I felt trapped indoors, pacing the floor like a caged animal. Little things were just so difficult – we couldn’t get our stove to work properly; you had to boil all water before using it, even for washing fruit. Pakistan was a very alien environment even for me – who has travelled so much – and it took a while for me to find my feet. Altogether, I can say the first few weeks there were not good.
BG: How much interaction did you have with local community or other expats?
CW: Sadly, not an awful lot of interaction with locals. My husband was luckier – he was working there so was invited out by local contacts and really enjoyed meeting Pakistanis. But it was very often an all-man affair and I just didn’t get a look in. Besides which, I had a baby and a toddler at home and it was a while before we found someone we could trust to leave them with.
When we did find this someone – Ansa, our helper-come-nanny – she was fantastic. She loved the children, was especially brilliant with the baby and made amazing curries to boot. She was also one of the only locals I ever really got to know. Her and her mum (who also worked on the compound and also made amazing food) were Christians, so they were able to work with us and I learnt a lot about local life from her. She worked to pay the school fees for her two daughters; I hope they are still getting their education back in Islamabad.
As for other expats, this was one of the best things about Islamabad. There was a huge international presence in the country and we mixed with expats from all over the world. I had friends from Estonia, Japan, New Zealand, UAE….I would have met many more had we been able to stay longer.
BG: What facilities and activities exist for young children?
CW: We were lucky in that there were a two pools (one heated), a playground, another outdoor play area and an indoor play area all on the British High Commission compound, which certainly made life easier.
Other spouses also set up activities for the children – dance classes, swimming lessons, etc. This was a good thing as there wasn’t much to do with the children otherwise (at least that I found within the short time we were there). I joined a baby group, and mostly we just socialised at other people’s houses. It got easier once their toys arrived – although Peppa Pig DVD’s and Wii were godsends!
BG: What schooling systems were available to you?
My older daughter attended the preschool part of the British School on the British High Commission compound. This meant we could walk to school every morning, which made life easier. It took her a while to settle in – she used to cry every morning for about the first two or three weeks. Sadly, she was just getting used to it when we had to leave.
I didn’t have much to compare it to at the time but it seemed a lovely little school run by friendly, local teachers. I think she would have been very happy there in the long run. On the last day before the school closed (semi) permanently, they made a time capsule and as my daughter was the youngest in the school at the time, she was invited up to put the preschool contribution into the box. I understand this was buried somewhere on the premises, before the school was closed and turned into a hotel for all the constant visitors Islamabad used to get from officials in London at the time (as all the families had to leave following the Marriott bombing in 2008).
It makes me feel very sad thinking about it now, and we weren’t even there for very long. It must have been extremely hard for those families who had been at the school for a few years.
BG: What were health facilities like?
CW: Again we were lucky in that there was a British doctor’s surgery right there on the compound, which we could walk to. I used it a few times – I had a persistent chest infection; my baby had some illness or another and just before we left my older daughter was bouncing on a chair, fell off and cracked her head on a table. She ended up needing butterfly stitches but luckily the doctor was able to come to us.
In a larger emergency, we would have been medivacced out – probably to Bangkok (as happened to friends of ours when their daughter had a similar accident to ours, but with more dire consequences).
Several women were pregnant or had very recently had babies when we arrived – they had all returned to their home country to give birth. I don’t think there were too many problems for things like antenatal checks on the compound; to be honest, I think the biggest problem was that the doctor was a bit of a gossip and couldn’t keep the news to herself when she found out someone was pregnant!
BG: Describe a typical day living in Islamabad
CW: In the time I was living there I just didn’t get to know enough about the day-to-day life of the locals (apart from the fact that it revolved around the mosque/call to prayers for many). A lot of places were out of bounds to us, for security reasons, but we were able to shop locally and visit a few other places. Because of the heat in the summer, a lot of socialising was done at night – you would go to local markets at 10pm and it would be as busy as if it were the middle of the day, with kids playing, people eating etc.
As for the expats, some of the partners did have jobs and I was hoping to get work – possibly in the Australian embassy as I knew they were looking. But most of the time was spent looking after the children or hunting down food – you typically had to visit several shops to find what you needed for a meal. This was particularly hard for the children, as my husband and I were more than happy with the local curries etc. I fear that my younger daughter’s fussiness might have stemmed from this time as we were weaning her and she ended up with a fairly limited diet.
Weekends were more of the same but with my husband there. As the days got slightly less hot we spent a lot of time at the pool with the other families; we were also venturing out of Islamabad as far as we were allowed, up into the Murghalla Hills.
There weren’t many places to eat out in Islamabad – a couple of hotels where the restaurants were supposedly safe, but one of those was blown up (the Marriott) so it obviously wasn’t as safe as we thought. We had plans to make lots of breather breaks to places in the region via Dubai; in the end, we still managed one trip to Phuket before we came home.
When out and about, I did have to think about what I wore (on the compound it didn’t matter) – but found that as long as I covered up from above the knee and over shoulders, plus didn’t wear anything too tight, it was fine. Islamabad was as modern a city as you are likely to get in Pakistan so I didn’t get any hassle being a woman out on her own shopping etc.
BG: What are the biggest challenges as a parent in this country?
CW: There were so many challenges I don’t know where to begin. Except I do want to say that I think things would have got a lot better had we stayed there longer and had security not have been such an issue. I know families who were there during the time just before we arrived (when things seemed relatively stable) had a fantastic time and loved it. But for us, it was tough.
Not having anywhere to go with the children when we arrived, not being able to find food they liked, being isolated, lonely, ….and then, just as we were starting to get adjusted to it all, the Marriott bombing happening and going into limbo while they worked out what to do with us.
It took the powers-that-be two weeks to decide to send all families home and we then had two more weeks to pack up and leave. During those four weeks, we didn’t know what our future would be, we had to sort out somewhere to stay when we got home, I didn’t like taking the girls anywhere off compound in the car because of the fear of more suicide bombings….
…it was terrible and I think I am still affected by it today. But putting it into perspective, I always think of those poor people in Pakistan who have to live with this sort of terror every day, and aren’t protected like we are by compounds and gates and guards. The overwhelming victims of terrorism are local people – even though they don’t tend to be the ones we hear about. It’s heart breaking really.
BG: Would you recommend Pakistan to the expat family?
There isn’t much I can recommend about living in Islamabad to parents as I think it is mostly considered a no-family posting these days. I think some parents do take younger children or babies but I imagine schooling would be an issue for older expat children. However, if this changes, Pakistan is a fascinating country. The travel is meant to be amazing, there is some beautiful scenery and the curries are out of this world!
BG: So tell us a bit more about your book, The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide?
I started the guide after living in St Lucia, with my husband and two young children. Every time I mention living on an idyllic Caribbean island, everyone, without exception, sighs and tells me how wonderful that must have been. In fact, it was hot, lonely, frustrating and often very boring – as well as beautiful, fascinating, and ultimately life-enhancing. But had I not lived abroad before, I am not sure I could have lasted even the 20 months we lived there for. I wrote the book for all those women and men who move to a strange land – and then watch their partners walk out of the door to work, leaving them coping alone.
Want to hear more from Clara? A great contributor in the expat community, not only buy her book before you make a move abroad but follow her blog too for some light-hearted fun, great reviews and the latest on her pending move to South Africa
Thanks to Clara for taking the time to be part of the Global Parenting series. If you would like to read more family expat adventures then come and check out the Global Parenting home page.
Have you had any experience living in Islamabad, or have any events or disaster seen you need to flee your expat home and live life in limbo? Please comment below or get in touch [email protected]
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(Photos courtesy of Clara & family)