Its 2:30 pm on a warm and humid Sunday afternoon. The budget airline from Abu Dhabi has just decided to bless our humble airfield in Islamabad. The flip chart Information window, a relic of some 3 decades ago, whirls round and round like some cheap slot machine. I sweat it out standing there praying for the big kitty, anything but ‘DELAYED’ I pleaded. The airline Gods must have tired of this silly game they played everyday at this small shack of an airport. Finally the yellow light turned to green and I blinked back the anguish in my eyes.
At last! The pilot had finally found us. Its hard to blame the flight crew when your city’s airport shares its airstrip with the national air force. Rumors abound that the navigator had simply refused to endorse any sort of landing of their 757 on this lonesome and somewhat run down looking piece of land. He must have thought that he had bungled and steered his team to some sorry excuse of a landing place 50 miles off course. This could explain the tardiness for most foreign carriers that decide to include Islamabad in their route. But for our sole national airline it has been a different story all together. It must be the sense of despair I suppose when they put their eyes on this place and their thoughts flash back to those misdemeanors they got away with in flight school. Karma is a ghost that doesn’t have an afterlife to look forward to and plenty of time to kill with such lives.
I turned around and negotiated my way through the crowd of onlookers. Taking a deep breath to inhale the bits of clean and odor free air I could capture in my lungs I quickly steered through a floor filled with an impatient audience. They were all here from the far corners of the city. Some huddled in circular groups, others pitted against the walls sitting crossed legged in a line as if they were labor workers waiting for a pick up truck to come haul them out to their next construction job. Taking the sheer amount of people in attendance you could easily pass this place off as the first stop in the number of places listed on the travel brochure for Destination Pakistan 2007—and hey! Why not? Its popular—Its got a healthy amount of human traffic—and you get exotic beings to look at three times a day. We have the biggest competitor of our time honored Lucky Irani Circus right here.
Jokes aside, if you really want to enjoy your trip to this zoo I would suggest huddling to the left or right flanks of the arrivals section. This way you get to see everything the doorway spits onto the floor and you can evade the BO monsters as well. Don’t stand right up front next to the support rails. You will only succeed in sandwiching yourself between that and an eager army of well wishers. Stand a few feet from the support rails if you don’t fathom molestation. Do not overstep this demarcated line. You will have the local handler pounce on you immediately. Brandishing their walky-talky in your face they will point their static sounding gizmo with an intent to cast a vanishing spell on you and your friends. Such threats seldom work on the legions of enthusiastic fans that have made this holy pilgrimage to the capital’s sole airport. But why leave a bad taste in the mouth and have numerous hecklers ogle at you?
After some weaving in and out of the human traffic lanes I finally made it to my regular spot. I firmly planted my feet into the ground and silently proclaimed this 4 foot perimeter as mine.
The floor was empty. The bouncers had done a good job of keeping riffraff away today. Still there always seems to be some innocent first timer who clearly does not understand the unspoken laws that govern the sacred arrival walkway. I can understand the touchy nature of the handlers when it comes to unwanted materials on the ramp. The sweeper has just done his round for the hour and they want a nice sparkling piece of land over which the newest aliens would pass. We can’t have emotional mothers and wailing babies creating a nuisance.
The scenes of scuffles and cork squeezed people are a customary precursor to the eminent inauguration of the foreign fashion parade. Today’s runway models will comprise of potentially the best and the worst of world travelers. Such scenes would even outshine the best in the business. A few eager beavers decide to upstage this event with a confident looking stroll up to the main door way.
The handlers are wary of such regulars and clearly know how to dispel with such belligerence. They don’t care if you’re carrying flowers and candy. It’s a one way street. You can only come out of this door. Having said that I must admit there is a certain creed of workers clad in brown uniforms making their way in and out of this holy temple of an entrance quite regularly. Sometimes they are pushing trolleys two and fro, a small price for their cart Blanche access.
When the door keeper kicks the other half of the gate open you can dig in your heels in anticipation. Here they come.
First up you have the obvious foreigners. Its not the color of their skin, or their unique languages and fancy clothes that give them away. Its simply the naive expressions on their face, as they stroll down the walkway pushing their neat trolleys. Another trivial giveaway these days is their wire connected ears, accompanied by a slight two and fro motion of their necks followed by the occasional self-murmur of the lyrics of some song. Their eyes are wandering in the crowd, squinting to focus on signs and banners with their names on them. Their stay on the ramp will be short lived. In the time honored tradition of most air travelers, they do not dwell on airport floors for too long. Whether they manage to find their reception party or not, they shuffle along. Their faces epitomizing the picture perfect expression of enthusiasm and very quickly one of bewilderment as they realize that their passage leads to the huge mass of humans. They leave breathing a sigh of relief as the handlers wildly wave the zombie like strangers out of their path. This type of traveler is scarce in numbers and is always the first to disembark. First class comes with benefits—standard.
Next up you can lay your eyes on a varied version of your fellow countrymen. The only thing that can probably address the missing link in this breed of Homosapien from our own is probably a familiar skin and hair color. The clothes, the swagger of a walk and the bewildered look of desolation scream of despondency. This quite convincingly explains why most make their entrance always wearing a pair of sun glasses that mask the horror in their eyes, or they stroll in wearing their shades like crowns upon their heads exuding an aura of indifference as if they really didn’t belong in this country in the first place. They continue to take small baby steps slowly easing themselves back into the world of Pakistan. The cautious and calculated strides towards the exit tell a tale of a reluctant journey back to the land of the pure, until they are rescued from their agonizing march by relatives who greet them with the widest of smiles.
These are followed by a set of heirs known as the pretenders. They are clearly an adulterated version of the last lot. Inevitably when a creed is faced with the loss of it’s leadership there always come forth a certain contingent of people who don’t fit the charter. Yet as history reminds us time and time again, such folk still manage to climb atop a pedestal that is not theirs to claim. Such personalities merely wear the clothes, mimic the speech and audition as transformed beings that came into the world under a western sky. They plead amnesia when it comes to their roots and they will often be the worst dressed entity in this entire lot.
Their sense of style orphans them into a grey area that leaves them without an association or respect of any sort. Its akin to dumping a bucket load of foreign culture on someone and then saying that the environment has rubbed off on them the wrong way. A blind man can see what these poor souls just can’t seem to own up to. When you come across these victims nothing will speak more loudly than the fact that they have not found an identity to call their own, and the ones they were born with were long shed by them as if it were some distasteful piece of cloth. The kind that you end up buying during your late night-last minute Eid shopping, only to look at it in the light of day and bemoan how you got conned into thinking you had netted a bargain.
Before the curtain drops, the show is brought to a close by probably the more genuine of people and the sort that truly deserve a standing ovation. You can identify such people not by their attire, or sense of fashion. What gives them away is their train of trolleys passing on the ramp one after the other loaded with boxes of computers, folded quilts, roped up travel trunks and a sense of relief of breathing homely air once more. Their entrance is greeted by the majority of people in attendance as if they were some UN flood relief convoy. Their throngs of admirers immediately begin to disperse and head towards the nearest through way to hug and hold these souls. Some onlookers wave frantically as if it were hard to spot their manic gestures of joy in the pool of closely packed sardines. It is just as well that this lot be the last to get off, since the amount of luggage coupled with the bucket loads of emotion they express there and then on the walkway reeks of hallmark moments. I had the pleasure of witnessing an elderly lady abandoning her treasure trolley and lunging for every head she could lay her two hands on. Kissing them fondly and warding off the evil eye from her sons, daughters, grandchildren, cousins, second cousins, step sons, step daughters, their children, their neighbors and a few strangers as well.
This is when its starts to get crowded on the walkway and the remaining citizens of this bruised and battered country burst onto the ramp. The runway is quickly lost amongst this onslaught of tired travelers and their super sized shopping carts. This cues onlookers like me to start searching for my own guests and emulate the acts of affection I myself have just witnessed.
At the end of it all, the wait, the odors, the crowds and the amusing showcase of different sects of travellers a sense of belonging and reuniting with one’s own family is what it’s all about.