Sunday, August 21, 2011
I drove a supercar today. It was awesome.
The gang gifted me an experience for my b'day a good few months ago (thank YOU! you know who you are!), and it was only now that I got around to redeeming it. While there was an array of machines to choose from, I went with the conventional - a bright electric blue Lambo. Why not eh?
As I write this, I can physically taste the coppery testosterone that resulted from three laps of one of the best experiences I've had in recent times.
It was awesome.
Got there and got fear-closed into buying insurance (£25 for 4 mins is a bit steep, especially as I later discovered they have safety brakes too! hmph!) but the £5K excess if I clipped someone's bumper was enough to make me sign on the dotted line without much of a protest.
Then the waiting. A guy drive you around in a Range Rover so you can see the track prior to getting on it, and then more waiting. And the moment of truth.
I settled into the bucket seat of my purring Italian wildcat:
Lamborghini Gallardo. 5.2L V10 engine. 6 speed single touch electrohydrolic manual transmission.
And what do I do? I get my wrist slapped in the first 10 seconds. "Mate, you're on a race track. You don't need to indicate to get outta the pit lane!". Whoops. Bad habits die hard.
Anyway, lap 1 - decent; just getting to grips with it all. Realising that the car actually does make a sharp left even if you're at 110mph. Nice!
Lap 2 - confidence well high. I get asked to floor it. I gently tap it. 'FLOOR IT!', he says. And oh BOY do I floor it. The velocity literally makes me lose all sense of gravity and I am buried deep into the back of my seat. S-WEET! Lap 2 over in a jiffy.
Lap 3 - My confidence is sky high. Using all of the track, the car is now an extension of my very existence. Brake, Floor. Floor. Floor. Brake. Brake? Hang on a second? A loser in an Ariel Atom is creeping slowly ahead of me. WTF! What a sad end as I have to pull into the pit lane. Oh well..!
My score (dunno what the matrix is): 85/100. Comment: 'Good smooth drive' - read: first timer. didn't really push the limit, but hey, did alright and didn't kill anyone.
Then a high speed lap in the back seat of a modified ford with a rather bored driver.
Now the dangerous bit - getting back into MY Ford and having to drive back home. Roads. With people. And rules. Shyte!
The closest that this experience has ever come to is a stint at the go-karting track last year.. must be done again!
The whole thing was a bit orgasmic, but in a very teenage-boy-buys-sex-in-amsterdam kinda way. It was regulated, incredible, and ended too soon. But still left me beaming.
Needless to say, the reflection is simple - No I don't want a £45 picture of me in the car, I want one o' dose!
There's only two kinds of smell in this world:
The smell of burning rubber. And the smell of failure. Make your choice.
Thursday, June 30, 2011
Missing 'a guy'..
I just spent my morning at the Ukrainian Embassy in London, trying to hack my way through an incredible complex visa process. Unsuccessfully. May or may not write a review on how best to get it done, once I've cracked it.
But right now, I can't help but reflect on something quite simple, that has been at the core of many of my challenges since having moved to London - the absence of 'a guy'.
Before people start taking this any other way, allow me to elaborate.
Having gone to university in Pakistan, and then running a startup social organisation dealing with foreigners, has meant operating successfully in an environment of imperfect information, clientelism, and incredibly thick red tape. How did I get by?
By knowing 'a guy' of course.
I knew 'a guy' to sort out visas, 'a guy' in government board of investment, 'a guy' in the intelligence (or so he said - effective still), 'a guy' for cheap laundry, 'a guy' that could deliver anything from any part of Karachi, 'a guy' for my haircuts, 'a guy' that fixed my car, 'a guy' that could sort us out with substances illegal (still living in times of prohibition), 'a guy' that could fix the doorbell even if it broke at 1AM and woke everyone up, 'a guy' that knew stuff of fashion schools, 'a guy' for sound systems for events..
Hell I even had 'a guy' in case I needed 'a guy' for something!
'A guy' is now missing. I am getting to know him for some purposes, but less so for others. I'm becoming lazy, and relying on (silly) things like websites, notice boards, and even letters in the post for information, because it exists.
Ever so often though I realise that I need 'a guy'. Especially when operating within microcosms of society even here that operate under principles similar to Pakistan. This whole experience with the Ukrainian Embassy should, at the very least, prove to be a good exercise in getting out of my comfort zone and of relying on systems! Now all I need is 'a guy' who can sort out some docs for my visa.
Monday, May 16, 2011
For those familiar with the content of this blog, it will come as no surprise, that yet again I find myself impossibly stuck in the core of bureaucratic machinery involving visas.
I like/need to travel a whole load. Most of my recent travel has been in Europe, and my travel history is airtight. I ran out of space for visas on my last passport. I go to countries. I spend money. I see stuff. I do stuff. In a nutshell, I'm an average guy in travel terms.
Yet again, they're giving me hell, and lots of it. It's tough being a young male with a Pakistani passport. And getting tougher. And in all likelihood, I will miss a wedding that I want to be at quite badly.
But this rant, you'll find as a reason to be relieved, isn't about visas. It's about haircuts. Now, long before I became the average traveller, I've had two obsessions - the perfect pair of shoes (GRR! Manly!), and a perfect haircut (GRRR.. oh what the hell).
Mediocre haircuts have been the bane of my existence ever since I was tall enough to look in the shortest of mirrors. The first real argument I remember having with my dad involved my staring wayyy up at him and screaming, "I hate your hairdresser. He's old and has no sense of what a good haircut is!". And I cried.
As I grew older, I got to make decisions on where I got haircuts. But I learnt quickly and harshly that it wasn't my dad's fault - there was just an incredible void in the market for a good barber. I stumbled from one place, to the next, yearning for that perfect hand of scissors - a never-ending quest of epic proportions. And I kept failing.
And then there was a glimmer of hope. I met a man.. (I really HAVE to stop with these references). Lahore became my favourite city, because every time I walked out of his saloon, I had the confidence of a peacock! It was done. Even when I was in Karachi, I would find ways to coordinate work trips around my haircut cycles. I knew the value of this, and I would pay any price to retain this shiny new object - salvation was achieved.
And then I moved to London. Square one. I'm still stumbling. This is the story of Today.
I needed a haircut. There was a fancy hairdresser down the street I was walking. I am due to go to that wedding in 4 days (the visa to which I will not get in time anyway.. but I promised to shut up about that). I walk in, and am greeted by someone with a questionable association to the male or the female gender. Alarm bells were soon replaced by curiosity - surely this person knew how to give me a damn fashionable haircut. WRONG!
I shoulda left. I didn't. I stayed.
Still unsure whether to refer to her/him as a he/she, I shall call use the colloquial reference: sHe. Bear in mind, I am not discriminating. Hell, I let this person near the thing so dear to me - my hair. Anyway, sHe took my jacket, and reached straight for my shirt buttons. Woah. I acted calm, but sHe was clearly uncomfortable and inept at it, so I took over and unbuttoned my second button myself. sHe played with my collar for a few seconds, and that was that.
I shoulda left. I didn't. I stayed.
I sat down on the barber's chair. Flashy red synthetic leather. Oh well. And the scissor work began. I spent the next few minutes dividing my attention neatly between observing the clumsy hand movements on top of my head and trying to figure out whether it was a scar, or an Adam's apple. I didn't care either way (about the latter that is), but I was curious. I like knowing. sHe exclaimed, "my.. you have such a beautiful neck.. my my!". My my. Nothing to do but to ignore that.
I shoulda left. I didn't. I stayed.
The assault on my hair continued. Snippaty snap. This was disastrous. Ok ok. Breathe. Breathe. Focus on happy bunnies. Wait. No. Bunnies being chopped by scissors. EW. I stopped looking at the mirror. sHe came over in front of me, put me chin up with a forefinger (eep EEEP!), and said, "hey look in the mirror. Sexy, no?". No. I said so. Mistake! "Ok - I do something else to it I like."
"Wow your hair is so nice".
I shoulda left. I didn't. I stayed.
After what felt like an eternity, my ordeal was soon to end. My hair was ruined. But at least this would be over. No! Shampoo time. Ok. New chair. No mirror. Fine. Breathe. Breathe. As the head massage began, she launched into 'personal stuff'. "Where are you from?" "oh you look Brazilian" "you have no accent, were you born here?". yada yada. More my comfort zone with standard responses I could issue with a facial expression that suggested this was the first time I'd heard someone say that. And then.. sHe decided it was only fair I got to know more from the other side. "My ex-husband is Pakistani", sHe exclaimed, "what a nice guy. He was so open-minded. Like you...", "..and so pretty. Like you...". Uh oh.
I shoulda left. I didn't. I stayed.
Shampoo done. The towel work begins. And continues. And goes on. Then the waxwork begins, along with another session of unnecessary caressing. Time to go. NOW.
As I half run out of the shop while considering just leaving my change behind, sHe plays the final card. "Hey - I can't wait for your hair to grow back very soon. Do come back, and ask for me!". Hell, I'd rather ask for Sweeney Todd, than this, buddy!
I left. I didn't look back. I ran.
Now as I stand in front of the mirror, a pair of scissors in one hand (I have never risked this, but there's no way I'm going back to another saloon after this, for a WHILE!), I suppose it's a good opportunity to bring baseball caps back in fashion eh?
Thursday, March 03, 2011
So, it's all gone a bit wrong, hasn't it?
Things have been rough for a good few years, but I found it particularly hard to sleep last night, having started the day of the news of the minorities minister being assassinated in Pakistan yesterday. This had followed a really disturbing article yesterday from 'George', our symbolic white man that loved Pakistan - alas it was mutual not. We've still got a few of them lurking about.. Only a matter of time? I hope not!
The issue is that this 'war' is being lost, and lost badly.
Redefinition is required on the concept of war itself though. Conventional armed forces are organised to prevent loss of territory and to gain some. Guerilla warfare isn't concerned with territory, nor organised to gain and retain it (read: Swat bad scene), but to create sporadic burss of terror in cities. It's an evolving virus, rather than a tumour that you can apply chemo to. It's not a blogpost, it's a facebook poke (ok - that one was a bit much..)
America's already contemplating an exit strategy but the true levers of stability lie in how that exit actually plays out. A few different scenarios that some academically advanced friends and I were discussing last night (gosh, I miss the luxury of being able to have such deeply informed quality conversations nowadays) -
1. [Not in our control] America exits Afghanistan, but installs some relatively moderate taliban in power, that are on the payroll. The t-dawg's win on a symbolic level, but the West gets to dictate ideology. Risky, but positive.
2. The Pakistan armed forces continue to play the 'long game', still treating the western border and it's agency as a strategic depth with India still being public enemy no.1. Ultimately settle for autonomous areas where they radical boys can do 'their thing' as long as they don't try to gain territory.
Risk: long term radicalisation of the army. This issue crossing right back up in a few years. Continued challenge to writ of state in northern areas.
3. Dismantle the structure that operates and feeds the growth of these organisations. Do away with madrassas, provide only strictly developmental help. Weed out radical viewpoints from literature.
Risk: oh so painful and difficult. Some massive sacrifices required, including peace with India. Some loss of control from the armed forced. Long term success, and I can make that long-awaited trip to the northern areas.
The scariest bit is the fact that this is now, for the first time in over 60 years of existence, beginning to seep into the foundations of society. It's appalling to see average Pakistanis voicing such intolerance so openly. There's an argument to suggest that, perhaps, people always have held such a hardline view and in fact it is the fact that there are forces that are actually encouraging debate on prior 'unsaid' issues like the b-word, that the common man is feeling somehow threatened and feels the need to voice their defence of faith.
The trouble is that this is making us look very very bad indeed. The rules of the debate are not defined clearly enough and it's resulting in people being divided and silo-ed into two camps that are radically different.
There's someone new every day, belonging to a more 'moderate' approach to it all, that tells me, 'Pakistan - it's increasingly not for us anymore'. Neither is any other landmass, though - it's all we've got.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, really. What's our version of chopping off our right arm in an attempt for survival...?
On a lighter note, someone suggested that Zardari might actually be sent from 'the future' to help dismantle Pakistan (in the form of an ugly ogre) - a necessity for humankind's survival. Are we skynet? Is he Arnie? Dang!
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Case of the trigger-happy police state
Libya's plastered all over the news, the Bahrain Grand Prix has been called off, and I stand corrected on my analysis of Mubarak's resistance.
The astounding reality of Arabs taking to the streets is beyond doubt an unimaginable reality coming to life. It's comic to see the defiance of the rulers' faces while the fear in their eyes is evident. You may be waving your finger threateningly, but the image of a glistening forehead (that goes on forever) is worth a thousand words.
The UN is calling the Libyan situation a genocide, and the BBC is playing back-to-back images of Cameron getting in bed with the military in Egypt and Tony Blair's loving embrace of Gaddafi. Go back a few decades, the West was doing nothing different. History, she repeats herself.
As we chatted out the scene over dinner, my housemate had some profound thoughts:
"What? The Libyan government is doing what? Killing civilians? What? With British weapons? damnnnnn...."
"Oh crap... What's that you say about the Bahraini military? Shooting civilians? British weapons again... Shhaaaeeeettttt..."
Rock and a hard place, really.
"Oh well, they'll be coming back soon asking for ammo."
"It's great for the economy, Osbourne says."
Putting my neck out on this one, I'd say that Gaddaffi's done - quietly exploring (or already exercising) his exile options, Bahrain's rulers will buy some time due to their slightly more flexible approach and their relatively affluent citizens having more at stake with an economic shut down, and this movement will continue to proliferate.
Nothing will change in Iran, as broadly speaking, the underlying institutions are democratic even if their transparency is clear as mud. Pakistan's hopes of a revolution are likely to be crushed as the military steps in moments before the tipping point to 'save the day', although one has to really hope .. not again. Please, not again.
Here's a thought...
How will this mood of revolution - this transformation from decades of status quo - likely to impact the West, specifically Western Europe? Nearly every election in the region is churning out a right-wing government. Some of it has to do with the economic climate, and people's need for change, but the rightist campaigns often prey on xenophobia with regard to extremism and the internalisation of its Middle Eastern connection.
It feels like a tricky turnaround is on it's way. Embracing the principles of democracy, and bucked up by Western governments, the next 'democratic' regimes are likely to be slightly more conducive to their democratic peers in the West, especially as they get lent a hand or two for the creation of their institutions. Historically, dictators, by and large, have been pretty great at singing to the West's tune, at the cost of their people, but rest assured the US and the EU will be quick to change course and realign to this new movement.
Is this likely to kickstart a slow but hopeful process of de-radicalisation? Possibly? Are the fighter pilots that escaped seeking asylum in Malta on account of refusal to bomb their people going to get it? Probably. Are citizens of Western Europe watching closely, sympathising with the protesters and celebrating their success? Definitely.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Thoughtful and disconnected..
Funny enough, as one would expect, I had to go back to pick up my passport from the High Commission of Pakistan.
Leaving office at 2pm on a Tuesday is hard work, but one has to believe you do it for the important things. Like your passport.
Long story short, I got there and there was a sign on the door -
The Pakistan High Commission will be closed on 15th Feb 2011 on account of Eid Milad-un-Nabi.
First response: Panic!
Had I missed Eid?! Every year, twice a year, I had craftily managed to figure out Eid dates while being away from home in order to ensure that phone call was made and the ones received were not met with overt surprise. Now I'd really outdone myself.
But wait, which was the Milad-dun-Nabi one? I mean there's the bakra eid and the.. eid eid.
Second response: Self-loathing
What an idiot! It's the other name for 'bara rabi ul awal' right? Prophet's b'day and all. Phew! Close call.
Third response: Reflection
After having already vented on Twitter after my first response, I got an @reply from another overseas Pakistani. I could tell he was in my first response mode too. While I replied to him, I couldn't help but think.. damn.. how awful is this?
Ever since I learnt to think for myself, and stumbled upon the thought that I knew best, I had embarked on a journey of distancing myself from traditions in general and those I'd grown up with, in particular.
I do wonder now, whether this was just a step too far. Recently, while I find it hard to connect to these traditions when faced by them, I can feel a bit of envy creeping against those that whole-heartedly immerse themselves in them and have managed to preserve and grow them in their immediate surrounding.
With the trajectory I'm on, there's a real chance this connection will fade further, but while there's still a flicker, I thought I might as well acknowledge is and at the very least give it some due respect.
Confused; alienated; defiant.
Labels: random musing
Tuesday, February 01, 2011
Renewing a Pakistani passport in the UK
[Public service info post]
A few easy steps to minimise the amount of hassle that you have at the High Commission for Pakistan in London, when renewing your passport:
High Commission for Pakistan
34-36 Lowndes Square
Nearest tube station: Knightbridge (Sloane street exit)
10.00AM-12.30PM for submission (get there early)
3.00PM - 5.00PM for collection
- Current passport with a valid UK visa [Original]
- CNIC (Computerised National Identity Card) or NICOP (National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis) [Original]
- 1 photocopy of CNIC or NICOP (both sides)
- 1 photocopy of passport page with UK visa
- 1 photocopy of passport front page (the one with your picture and information)
- (only in case of work permit) 1 photocopy of work permit
- Cash - The embassy does not accept cards or cheques [£28 for normal, £48 for urgent - this includes the bank surcharge of £2]
- A full morning
- Yourself (You cannot apply for someone else)
(No photographs are required)
- Behind the embassy, in the lounge there is a marquee/tent. There are signs pointing to there.
- Go to counter labelled M.R.P. (machine readable passports), where you will get a set of slips after the administrator look at your documents
- Tell the administrator on the counter whether you want an urgent or a normal application
- Take slips and your documents to the building next door and go all the way to the basement following signs that say 'Bank'. Make sure that you again tell the cashier whether your passport is urgent or normal
- Take remaining slips and documents upstairs and go to counter #1 - Here you will be issued a token with a number on it - you need to present your CNIC/NICOP and passport as well as give your fingerprints at this stage. Make sure your token has the correct name and information and says Urgent or Normal
- Go to the next counter to get your photograph taken - if it's horrible, as the person to take it again
- Go to the next counter called 'Data capture'. Check all the details on the computer with the person there and make sure they are all correct. A form will be printed out and you just have to sign it. The person will attach the rest of your photocopies and slips to that form. Make sure you check all the information on this form and get anything changed that is incorrect.
- Final stop - the officer. You will go into a room after this where your form will be attested by a public officer and he may ask you some basic questions. He will take your forms and photocopies, but will give you back the token with a collection date on it. He will also return your passport and ID card to you.
- Be happy, you've done it!
(Note: Unless you're a diplomat or from the military you have an 'Ordinary' passport)
- Get there early - If want the process of waiting to shortest (funnily enough) make sure you get there early. I got there at 9AM and had completed my entire process by 10.45AM. If you're ahead in the queue, you wait less, even though you wait to start with.
- Make 1 friend, preferably the person right ahead of you in queue. While this helps pass time, it will also mean you will know where to go because you can simply follow him. Make a smart friend, not someone that looks clueless. Do not socialise otherwise. Mindless chatter delays things for everyone.
- If you can afford it, it is completely worth going for 'Urgent', which takes 6 working days (8-9 calendar days). While the 'Normal' process is supposed to take 3 weeks, in reality it can take between 5 and 8 weeks, probably because everyone is trying to get ahead by giving urgent applications.
It's relatively painless if you've got everything and know what you're doing, and the staff is actually quite courteous.