Travelling domestic is perhaps the worst experience one could have in Pakistan. It beats threading nose hair and trying to find a good tax lawyer. It’s not just because you have to fly PIA, with its duct tape over-head compartments; it’s cold stale sandwiches; its missing buckle on the seatbelt; the tone the stewards take with you when they want the shutters up or down or even what I saw on this trip I took today to Karachi from Islamabad – where the in-flight entertainment showing the flight route was displayed upside down. It’s also the fact that it makes you feel like everything is ending. It takes you to a place you were when you lost your childhood pet – every single time.
I should probably never start about hotels. Hotels are just the best, because apparently they are the bubble in which you find some escape from the dust, heat and melancholy of the debilitating energy-crisis, over-populated, under resourced country orientalists like to call resilient. They are not, actually, a bubble. When you walk into one, the first thing that it reminds you of is that you are in a war-zone. The security check is extensive and extravagant. On your lucky day you’ll go through unscathed but on most days, when the terror alert is high, you will have to pay. You’ll be treated like a common thief caught and tried, found guilty. All for passing through the security gate with something that didn’t agree with the detector. The body searches are rough, un-touched by human courtesy. Purse checks are the most interesting. I am most certain I could let though arms because they invariably search for tiny objects in the nooks and corners, ignoring the obvious culprits. But I have not tried it.
Last week in Lahore’s posh hotel my check-out took well over an hour and that too, at the executive table. The clerk was away for half the time, the system was down for a quarter and the printer malfunctioned for the remaining quarter. I almost missed my flight because I kept being told I am just about done. Expectations management is as unknown a phenomenon as the UN charter of democracy, as do-it-yourself models and as personal space.
Ditto in Karachi’s matching brand name hotel, I had to flush out a turd when I had just checked in; proceeded by an uncomfortably short springy hair on my pillow and rusty luke-warm water when I wanted it clear and hot. Not only did I have to keep attending to housekeeping checking in every now and again when the door said private but I also had to keep up with this corpse-like smell from the carpets all though my stay. Lucky for me I am not superstitious. Just upset, that as a country, we have terrible service industry standards, even in our metropolises, let alone our smaller cities. That this means we can really be sure we are chasing off anything remotely close to tourism in this country.
The upside is that there is never a dull moment. I have seen a rope-fastened laundry pile on the conveyor belt; a man get sick in his sock and someone dialling home in the middle of the flight using the remote. It makes for good humour.
What doesn’t is the utter sense of ownership that women are subjected to when they travel alone by men with a wannabe-guardian complex. And before I am accused of privilege, let me say that I have taken a weekend bus between Lahore and Islamabad for more years than I can forget, or forgive. Each time some man thought he could tell me where to sit and leave me no option but to tolerate cat calls or blatant harassment. If it wasn’t blatant it was patronizing. My luggage picked up eagerly when I hadn’t asked for help and assuming I needed help when I was pretty good being solo.
I remember travelling always being this traumatic, if not more. I was once 8 and visiting Pakistan and my extended family took the bus from Hyderabad to Karachi, and I learned that these super-sized rear-view mirrors were not to see cars but was for the driver to watch the ladies section upfront. At this one instance he turned it to me and winked when we locked eyes. It both confused and frightened me, this didn’t change the fact that he stared me down all the trip and I got stared down. Very little has changed as is evident in the sick crisis in Kasur just this month that has made headlines worldwide.
Back to how wanderlust gets a kick in the shin in Pakistan, somebody somewhere needs to change the travel and hospitality industry in this country radically. This country is just brilliant for hosting mountain expeditions and treks, mega sports contents, marathons, science festivals and races. Just the opportunity cost of not is staggering. Some argue that the festivals need to come before the standards of the industry can rise. Fact is, even the scoping teams that come to investigate if Pakistan can handle it, leave mortified.
I just can’t get that turd in the pot out of my head. Mostly because I wasn’t expecting to see the furry monstrosity. The horror of mismatched expectations and bad value for money.