“The Sodomite Calvary is notoriously unreliable” goes the quote – but I think the Pakistani Army has it all over them! I was supposed to be met at the airport before traversing customs, by someone from the Pakistani Army…so I wouldn’t be a poor little white girl standing out like dog’s balls (that little bit of slang was for you, Bonnie) at the airport waiting around and unable to speak the lingo. So much for Plan A!
I guess I had quickly get over the fact that nothing seems to work here and chaos seems to be the order of the day as I have never seen such a travel schmozzle as the Islamabad airport. First, due to an inability to read any signage, I found myself in the wrong queue – there’s a special queue for unaccompanied women and children so that women don’t have to stand near strange men. I got to the immigration counter and thank God – or Allah! We are talking a palpable sense of completely non-denominational relief here! – that my passport and visa met with satisfaction as I didn’t relish having to deal with problems with no Urdu under my belt. As it was they still made me stand around like they didnt know what to do with me for about 10 minutes!
After getting through the immigration desk, I started looking around for my escort from the Pakistani Army… but there were so many men standing around in so many different uniforms with so many machine guns, that I didn’t if any of them was there for me??? :S There were local police, airport security, more than one from the Pakistani Army and some ISI guys who are the Pakistani equivalent of the KGB (I know the different uniforms – NOW!). If there was someone there to meet me he must have been easily confused as there were about three blonde women on the plane (out of 300 persons), so he probably didn’t want to have to approach three strange women!!! The quote later from Mjr Dazzles – “The Pakistani Army are notoriously unreliable!”, feels like the understatement of the year.
So anyway, I waited for my baggage, which seemed to take an aeon due to the efficiency or lack there of, of Pakistani airport systems, and tried to shrink into the walls and not be too obtrusive – which was absolutely impossible as everyone here looks at me like I am some sort of circus freak, fair skin, blue eyes, blonde (covered) hair, and (extremely modest) western clothing! Finally got my backpack – filthy – I don’t know what they did to it but I have a feeling it involved a chicken coop and a restaurant floor. I then proceeded through the baggage check. Now, as it turns out, because I am female, I was not required to go through the metal detectors – there was no female guard there to frisk me down, so they just let me walk right on through… and they wont go through a woman’s luggage unless there is a female guard there either so I managed to sneak through Mjr Dazzle’s bottles of Southern Comfort that I picked up in Dubai with no problems whatsoever – something I had been panicked about ever since he asked me to pick them up for him.
After navigating the immigration and farsical baggage/’security’ checks (read ‘theatre’), I walked out the main doors of the Islamabad airport to be greeted by… oh about three or four HUNDRED Pakistani men all dressed in long pale coloured robes. The place went from a roaring noise of raised voices and rabble to an odd silence as every single one of them stared at me and elbowed the man next to him. It was like they’d all just seen a cat get up and walk out on its hind legs sporting a cane and top hat or something. I have never felt so inspected and scrutinized in my life. I stood there for about half a minute searching the crowd for Mjr Dazzle’s face and felt so uncomfortable that I just decided to keep on walking until I was out the line of sight of most of them so I could call him on his mobile to find out where he was. I don’t know how he failed to see me exit the airport doors, when every other man in the place managed to ogle me well enough! But I have never been so relieved to see a familiar face in my entire life!
We scooted out of the airport – the Embassy driver did a great job of imitating a licensed driver compared to everyone else on the road who drove like Turkish bus drivers 🙂 Driving through Islamabad the architecture and housing construction were a lot different to Turkey – but the standard of living appeared to be roughly the same as some of the less populated villages we had visited. Still plenty of donkeys and carts on the motorway… and people standing around waiting for the overfull mini buses that pass for public transport, but even as we sped along the roadway – people in other vehicles weren’t missing my blonde hair and were staring and pointing at me in the Land Rover we were driving. I imagine I could easy cause accidents if you stood me on a street corner around here!
We went up a to a tourist look out for a while to have a view over the city – but there was so much dust, heat haze and pollution hanging over the city, that it wasn’t very pretty at all, and from up here you could see that a few streets away from the major arterial roads, were slums as far as the eye could see. The monkeys at the look out were pretty entertaining though… even if we were advised to stay away from them in case they were rabid. After a brief stop at the lookout, a flying visit to the Red Mosque, and a bomb check under our vehicle, Mjr Dazzles took me to The Serena – which is apparently one of the fanciest hotels in Islamabad, and in a startling collision of cultures, I found myself sipping English Breakfast tea from fine Villeroy and Boch china with danish pastries in a place with a wall to wall marble lobby and enormous crystal chandeliers?!?! After my experiences at the airport, this sort of opulence was the last thing I expected over breakfast in Islamabad. I was shaking my head in bemusement, such a stark contrast to the poverty right outside the walls of the hotel. We stayed at the Serena until it was time to go back to the airport for the flight to Quetta.
The domestic airport was even more ‘fun’ than the Islamabad international! When we got there, I was this time scanned and frisked by security – in a little curtained booth for modesty – by women security officers who were covered from head to toe. When we checked in they seemed to have lost my e-ticket reservation so I got left standing around at the checkout counter while Mjr Dazzles went to try to sort it out. While waiting for his return, I noticed several children here looking at me with curiosity… but there was something very odd in it, and it took me a moment, but it was a very strange realisation to notice that when I smiled at the children, they did not smile back. I’ve never seen that anywhere else in my travels – children always smile at friendly faces…. it was weird and unsettling. It turns out that PIA (Pakistan International Airline) do not have the technological capability to search for a ticket by a passengers name (I am not kidding here), they apparently needed the computer reservation number which we did not have available so we had to buy me another ticket…. blah blah blah… more bizarre Pakistani ineptitude… which is all systems normal apparently. Eventually we boarded our supposed ‘fully booked’ plane, only to find it was more than half empty!
Due to the stuff up with the ticketing, I found myself sitting in the premium economy section, while Mjr Dazzles was in the back of the plane in economy which was packed to the rafters. It didn’t take long for me to feel extremely uncomfortable under the intense scrutiny of some Pakistani business men who felt perfectly within their rights to openly stare at me with impunity… in a manner that would be considered very rude at home. It was unnerving to say the least. I eventually asked the flight attendant if she could find my ‘chaperone’ from the rear of the plane as the men opposite were making me feel uncomfortable, and she literally checked with the captain to see if it would be okay to move him to the empty seat beside me. His appearance immediately stopped the unwanted lascivious staring, but did not stop the oddities of flying PIA. As we came into Quetta, the flight attendant chimed over the PA system, “Insha’allah, we will be landing at Quetta Airport at 4:20pm”. If God wills it? If God wills it? I seriously hoped she was talking about being on time and not referring to a question of whether we will arrive at all!
Got picked up at Quetta and driven into the Balochistan Cantonment by some Pakistani Army guys, with their machine guns of course. The drive in was a bit of an eye opener… low mud huts with flat roofs that have a tendancy to cave in if it rains…. loads of donkey carts – probably more than cars here… meat hanging out in the open on the main roads… men standing around with nothing to do… women covered entirely with just their eyes visible (the ex-pats call them shuttlecocks, and while I can see why, it’s not a very flattering description of these oppressed women :S). This is much more how I pictured Pakistan in my head – somewhat more dust, evidence of poverty and repression everywhere, and slightly less marble flooring, chandeliers, fine china and concierges.
Finally made it to Mjr Dazzles little establishment on Road 4, called Australia House for obvious reasons. There is a guard post literally across the street from the driveway, and another one at the other end of the street – each staffed by a couple of men with AK-47s. There are helicopters and jet fighter planes frequently going over head and a rather largish military barracks a stone’s throw from here. Mjr Dazzles showed me around and made aware of where to find a handgun in case I needed it, and pointed out the windowless, bunker-like nature of the main bathroom, and almost in the same sentence, introduced me to the house staff who were excessively deferential and immediately offered to make tea and fetch me diced mango or biscuits!
First impressions??? Pakistan seems to be a place of stark contrasts… excessive luxury resides uncomfortably beside abject poverty. It’s quite shocking. I do however, feel perfectly safe here – other than being momentarily alarmed at potentially being abandoned at the airport and thoroughly disconcerted about being so invasively inspected at the airport exit and without a single female or friendly face looking back at me among hundreds of silenced onlookers. I went to bed absolutely shattered having had 4 hours sleep in the previous 48!! :S
Have just looked at how much I have written … rather longer than I had anticipated… but I didn’t want to forget a single bit of this rather strange day. 🙂