"Schlaraffenland", the German Arcadia.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Night Flight to Pakistan - Part Two

Flying over Pakistan in the black pre-dawn is very disorienting. In North America and Europe the lights of houses and street-lamps are uniform in brightness and generally form a pattern allowing you to trace highways and the rough grid patterns of towns. In Pakistan the few lights below were of widely varying intensity and were scattered in such a haphazard fashion that it provided the very compelling illusion of looking at the night sky, except below us. Stars above and stars below. Like flying through outer space.

The plane touched down at Karachi Jinnah International Airport just as the eastern sky was beginning to color. Lorraine and I were quite nervous at this point and not knowing what to expect were relieved to see that the terminal was very modern looking. This impression was carried through into the customs and immigration area where everything was new and gleaming and clean. Nothing like the mental image we had had of Karachi. The immigration officers were very courteous and friendly and directed us to a set of doors leading to the transit area from where we would catch our onward flight to Islamabad.

We opened the doors and stepped into a different world. Immediately five men ranging from short and round to tall and bony rushed us like linebackers. Before we could blink, let alone say anything, they had grabbed our bags shouting all at once, "Hello good sir! Hello good madam! Where are you coming from? Where are you going to? I am helping you! I am helping you too! What is your nice name sir? I am carrying your bag! I am carrying your bag too!" and so on. We had four bags so three of them had a bag each and two made a show of carrying a small bag together. The verbal barrage continued as they moved forward in a seemingly random direction until I had gotten my wits together sufficiently to interrupt, "No, stop! Please stop!".
The five men looked bewildered, but stopped. After a brief moment's silence one of them repeated "I am helping you sir!"
"Yes, thank you, but we don't need help and in any case we don't have any Pakistani money."
"That is being no problem sir. We are helping and we are showing you and madam to the money changer where you can be changing your money into rupees."

And off they went again, weaving through the airport crowds, eventually ushering us to a barred wicket marked "currency exchange". We needed to change money anyway, but doing so with five porters crowding around and gawking at my money belt was not what I had in mind. Sleep deprived and my brain gradually turning into goo, my resistance crumbled and I gave the extravagantly mustachioed currency exchange officer a $50 traveler's cheque for which he gave me a two inch stack of worn Pakistani bills in varying shades of brown. The five men smiled hugely and nodded vigorously.
"Where is your next destination good sir?" one asked.
"Islamabad. But our flight isn't for four hours."
"On this particular case you cannot be going through security yet sir, so you and madam will be comfortable waiting here." He gestured to the curbside of the open terminal amongst gigantic burlap-wrapped packages and assorted unidentifiable detritus.
I was still clutching the brick of rupees and was beginning to thumb through it, trying figure how much to pay the men, but they were very eager to help with that calculation and after a baffling discussion I was left holding a one inch stack. They trotted off waving and smiling.

 Lorraine and I made a little space in the dust on the curb and sat down. The sun was coming up now. It rose like a pale yellow coin trying to shine through the dense morning cooking fire smoke that hung over Karachi. A hundred thousand cow dung fires. The smell was unmistakable. It was seven in the morning and already hot. People were continually jostling past us. Lorraine was looking upset and I was thinking, 'Four more hours of this? I don't think I can stand four more minutes.'

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