First of all, Islamabad is relatively a small city. Most of the places we frequent are within 15-minute driving distance, although traffic to school during peak hours can extend it to 30 mins. There are few industries so pollution is moderate, but can be hell for allergy sufferers like me during pollen season in spring. The sky is often blue and on good days one can see the Margalla Hills clearly. Most of the time though there’s a lot of dust from road construction and haze from wood-burning and brick factories.
Even though several areas were cleared during construction of new roads and buildings (ongoing) the city is still full of trees. At any time of the year there are colorful flowers blooming on sidewalks, avenue islands, and parks.
We live in three-bedroom, two-storey duplex unit with two balconies, a front and back lawn. Compared to our apartments in Mississippi and Bangkok this house felt like a mansion when we first arrived in July 2005. Decorating and furnishing it soon became an enjoyable pastime. Why? Because Islamabad is one of those places where if you can’t buy it, you can have something made-to-order cheaper — especially wood furniture.
While there may not be much of a nightlife here people compensate by throwing house parties. These are not just regular parties, there are also carpet parties. Some will host artists and artisans to sell paintings, jewelry, ceramics, etc. Clubs and organizations also hold melas, or fairs. Our school does the same during Pakistan Day, and we have bought many souvenirs and presents from this annual event.
On other days one can also visit the numerous shops and stalls selling local handicraft, gems, antiques, Afghan jewelry, carpets, ceramics, brass ware, and pashmina shawls at Super and Jinnah markets.
Although there are no malls here one can still find international brands like Nestle, Dove, Surf, Maggi, etc. readily available in groceries. There are, after all, a significant number of foreigners here who work in embassies, UN, NGOs, international agencies, etc. In fact one will find more unusual brands because items are imported from different countries like glass noodles from Thailand, olives and olive oil from Spain, and soy sauce from the Philippines. We were also delighted to find when we had our baby that Avent, Pampers, Huggies, Cerelac, and Gerber are also available.
We enjoy entertaining occasionally and inviting people over for dinner. Good steak is surprisingly cheap here. Best of all they’re usually fresh, meaning just slaughtered that day or the day before due to lack of refrigerated trucks and storage. There is a decent variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, and when these are in season fruits like strawberries, grapes, mangos and honeydew are amazingly sweet. A few fruit stands sell these in street corners but they’re even a lot cheaper at the market. So we always have two or more kinds of fresh fruits everyday for breakfast.
If we feel like eating out we usually go to either the American Club or Canadian Club, or our favorite restaurant (before the Luna Caprese restaurant bombing). We also used to eat or order take-outs at other restaurants like Cafe Lazeez, Pizza Hut and McDonalds. Truth is so many people throw parties and organize activities like poker and board games that one’s social calendar is always busy. Even the embassy clubs sponsor theme-parties like casino night, seafood night, Mardi Gras, and Cinco de Mayo specials.
Besides shopping and parties we’re too lazy or busy to do anything else but watch DVDs or read books. Videos are cheap in Islamabad because they’re all pirated. One can buy, for example, the entire season of “CSI” for $12-15. And satisfaction is guaranteed, you can always return/trade a bad copy. This city also has several bookshops, including second-hand book and magazine stores. Every famous author is sold here, from J. K. Rowling to Grisham to Khaled Hosseini.
Our friends engage in more active pursuits such as hiking or biking at the Margala Hills, working out and taking yoga and pilates classes, visit museums or art galleries, etc. Others join tours and events organized by the Asian Study Group. This includes cooking sessions, film showings, lectures, and hiking trips.
A former colleague bought a horse and spent as much time as she could riding it after work and on weekends. She befriended some locals who regularly invite her to horse-dance and bull-racing events in villages outside Islamabad.
Now that we have a baby, we’re more interested in parks and playgrounds. Islamabad happens to be full of these so we can vary the places we take our baby for walks on weekends.
So while Islamabad is smaller and has less to offer than most capital cities, there is clearly enough to do after work and on weekends.