Finding Valium, Viagra and DVDs for Less Than $5

Pakistan suffers from terrorism and political instability and is on the verge of economic meltdown. The United States and most Western countries advise against unessential travel here.

But even burdened by the fear of suicide attacks, Islamabad is full of people trying to live normal lives -- and people looking for great bargains to fight against a global economic crisis that has helped push inflation to an all-time high.

Expatriates and locals look no further for cheap entertainment than Illusions, a four-branch chain that puts Hollywood movies on its shelves virtually simultaneously to their release date in the United States and sells them for a fraction of what they go for in the West.

It is nestled in Islamabad's Jinnah Supermarket, one of the more elite places to shop. Across the street, an Italian restaurant offers substandard food, six months after being bombed for serving alcohol to Westerners.

Next to Illusions, Western-style clothes are sold in shops named GQ, as colorful jewelry is hawked for a few dollars. Inside, the inventory is always appealing and immense, aisles filled with the best movies in the world for as little as a buck and a quarter.

"Iron Man"? $2. "The Dark Knight"? $2. "Giant," starring James Dean? $1.25. The entire fifth season of "The Wire"? $5.

Now, this being South Asia, you can be sure these aren't officially licensed copies of big-budget blockbusters. This is a shop that thrives off intellectual property theft, in a country and a part of the world so used to knock-off movies that locals consider buying original DVDs strange -- if it's even possible.

The movies are, more often than not, high quality copies of prints stolen from the studios. Occasionally, you'll find a dud, a copy made by someone sneaking a camera into a theater somewhere far away from Pakistan. (The store provides no warranties, so if you see flying popcorn in front of Heath Ledger's Joker in "The Dark Knight," you're out of luck.)

"We have the largest selection in Islamabad," said Omar Sheikh, looking over racks full of DVDs from behind the front counter. He sits in front of original 120-gigabyte iPods ($315) and Playstation 3s ($480). But it is the endless supply of copied movies and CDs on which the store thrives. You can even buy kids DVDs for a little more than $1.

Even cheaper than DVDs is medicine. You can find any drug in the world here for less money than you thought possible.

Need 30 tablets of 2-milligram Valium -- in the box stamped by Roche, the drug manufacturer? Ten cents. For all 30 tablets.

Pills of 100-milligram Viagra? Those will run you $4.50, still much less than they cost to ship illegally from a Canadian pharmacy into the United States.

Not far away, a young man with a perfect coif, the Reebok belt and Armani belt buckle applies face cleanser onto his customer's tan cheeks. Muhammad Qamar Abbas helps run the "New" Hollywood Salon in Islamabad's Rana Market.

"We take extra care of cleanliness," he said. "We do the same thing as all the other barber shops, but in a better way."

The shop is decorated with the kind of wood-mirror combination one might remember from a childhood 1973 Los Angeles home. But the prices are probably even cheaper than they were in California.

Haircut: about $1.75. Shave: $1. Face message: $2. Throw in a facial, hair "sticking," hair "glossing" and head message, and you might owe $20.

Asked whether he had any stories of recent extravagant customers, Abbas mentioned the man who paid him $13 for a 50-cent tab.

If you're really feeling flush, though, you can order what might roughly translate into "The Works," a full day of pampering for a bride and groom that features a makeup treatment for the groom to match the complexion of his face to that of his outfit. Cost: $50.

But sitting in this salon as the sun goes down, it doesn't take long to see that Pakistan is suffering from its worst economic crisis in more than a decade. As Abbas and the other men who run the salon speak, the electricity goes off. Chants of "Allahu Akbar," Arabic for "God is Great," fill the market outside, calling Muslims to prayer, and the generator kicks in.

During business hours, Abbas says he suffers from three hours of power loss every day. In other parts of the country, the "loadshedding," as rolling blackouts are known here, lasts more than 12 hours.

And because inflation has peaked at more than 30 percent, the highest level in decades, business at the salon has fallen by more than one-third.

"The Pakistanis from Islamabad, they've vanished," said helper Nasim Magbool, his gelled hair falling just perfectly across his forehead. "They don't come to the shop anymore."

Not very many Pakistanis are going to any shops these days.

Take one of the best cheap destinations for food: Shinwari Saltish Mutton House, a kind of lamb restaurant named after a Pashtun tribe.

More than 2 pounds of barbecue lamb chops will cost you only $4.

"We are famous for tasty Pashtun cuisine," Zafrar Ahmad said outside the restaurant as he prepared to open it for the evening dinner rush. "Our food is authentic and fresh."

But since the attack on the Marriott Hotel last month, business has dropped more than 40 percent, Ahmad says, from about $700 a night to $400.

"Before, it was very good," he said. "But after the bomb blast, many people are scared and not coming out for dinner."

At Illusions, Sheikh shakes his head at the drop in business.

"Last year, the business was very good," he said. But "the current situation of the country -- bomb blasts, that kind of thing -- people are afraid to go shopping, go to public places."

Just a few months ago those "Iron Man" and "Batman" DVDs would have cost only about $1.30.

The 50 percent price increase mirrors a 50 percent drop in some sales, Sheikh says.

"This is a time when so many people shop," he said one recent evening, looking out at aisles filled with DVDs but empty of customers. "Where is everyone?"

There is one area where it is nearly impossible to find a good bargain. The price of guns is at an all-time high in Pakistan's black markets. As the security situation worsens, people are buying fewer DVDs and more arms to protect themselves.

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