"Schlaraffenland", the German Arcadia.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Night Flight to Pakistan - Part One

Lorraine and I flew to Pakistan in the fall of 1993. It was the first time we'd been to Asia and the first time we'd been to a true "Third World" country. This was a bit like never going to an amusement park and then hopping straight onto the Drop of Doom, followed by the Zipper and then the Ejection Seat. This is a longer story, so I'll break into several more easily digestible chunks.

At first it was all very exciting. We were the only Westerners on the Gulf Air flight from Bahrain to Karachi, Pakistan. The plane was full and every other passenger was a Pakistani man wearing a white shalwaar kameez (long loose tunic over baggy pants). I should correct the previous statement though, we were the only Western passengers, the stewardesses were all tall blonde Nordic women. It looked like the aircraft had been hijacked by the Swedish women's Olympic volleyball team. That is, the Swedish women's Olympic volleyball team dressed in gauzy pastel "I Dream Of Jeannie" harem outfits. The effect was as striking as it was ridiculous.

The view out the window was fabulous though. The Persian Gulf slid below us like a sheet of polished black obsidian, gleaming in the full moon and punctuated by bright orange natural gas flairs from the otherwise unseen oil drilling platforms. Iran was to the north and Saudi Arabia was to the south. Pakistan was straight ahead in the east. I looked out the window for a good long while and then, as it was approaching midnight and we had a long day behind us flying from Cyprus, I dozed off. Lorraine was already asleep.

At 2:00 a.m. the shouting began. And I am here to tell you that there are few things in life that get your attention as quickly as being woken to loud shouting by exotic strangers in an aircraft dangling 30,000 feet in the air over the Middle East. My eyes popped open like a cartoon character's and were greeted by the extraordinary site of an old man walking down the aisle, hollering and waving his arms. His pupils were wide and bone-white with cataracts, but his voice was strong. Perhaps even more extraordinary, nobody seemed to be paying any attention to him. Lorraine and I looked at each other and then I fingered the stewardess call button for a moment while casting nervous glances at the emergency exits. But neither of these seemed to be particularly intelligent options.

I don't recall exactly how long the shouting went on. Studies have demonstrated that the perception of time slows down drastically when our mind registers a serious threat. And my mind registered a serious threat. In any case, after a few seconds or a few minutes or however long it was, people started handing the old guy money. Crumpled bills were handed up the aisle and across the rows to him while he continued to shout and wave and then just as suddenly as he began, he stopped. Without saying a further word he turned around, found his seat and sat down.

Were they paying him to shut up? Was this a freakish performance of some sort? Was he begging for alms? It's hard to think of an explanation that isn't bizarre, especially in the context of an international airliner. Now we were wide awake and the coast of Pakistan was approaching out of the night.

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