Flight to US
As soon as my US visa was issued, I was notified by the USEFP. Ms. Nadia Omar, the assistant program officer, sent me a copy of my itinerary on the same day, inquiring if it was acceptable to me. With a few modifications, I approved the ticket. Within a few hours, I got my confirmed ticket. I was booked to fly on August 30th. I was relieved!
Quetta, the city where I lived, does not have a major international airport. Therefore, we are often required to travel to Karachi first to catch international flights. I was required to fly with the Pakistan International Airline (PIA) flight # Pk 363 at 17:00 pm to go to Karachi. The Friday morning on July 30th was too dusty in Quetta. I began to worry as what would happen if the flight from Quetta to Karachi was canceled. In that case, I would miss rest of my flights too. In case of cancellation of the flight due to bad visibility, I had a very few and hard options. One of these options was to drive to Karachi with a private van. I sent my peon, Inayat, to inquire about their timings, rates and duration it takes to reach in Karachi whereas I myself went to a friends’ office to get a print out of my ticket. You may be wondering why on the earth could I not take a print out myself at home. Well, I was homeless by now. I had shifted all my home items to my fathers’ house in Panjgur. I had been living in Quetta in a rented apartment to do continue my journalistic career. Everything had been packed and moved.
When Inayat called from the transport office, they told me that it would take at least ten hours to reach in Karachi if I traveled by road. It was out of question as I had barely eight hours left for my flight. My friend at whose office I had gone to get my ticket printed assured me that the weather would improve. We called the airline office and they said they were expecting the carrier to fly because one flight from Karachi had already arrived in Quetta that morning. Chances were, he said, bright for the five o’clock flight to go to Karachi.
I drove in cab to the airport with my office boy, Inayat, a reliable and hardworking young man who has been with me for a few years by now. My ex-press photographer Mazhar Ali Chandio who worked with me at Daily Times bureau, which I headed for three years, called up and said he would meet me up at the airport. Like everyone in Pakistan, Mazhar was equally obsessed with VIP protocol. Perhaps he wanted to give me a decent farewell. So, he had made arrangements with another mutual friend, who is a journalist-turned-aviation officer, to get me inside the CIP (Commercially Important Persons) Lounge before I boarded the flight to Karachi. I felt very strange and uncomfortable over this weird gesture. But I thanked them deeply for making me a commercially important person.
The CIP Loung in Quetta airport shows a very funny picture. There are fewer seats and more CIPs. It is not as if everyone, like myself, had purchased a Business Class or Business Plus ticket who would take a seat there. Even the CIP lounge also has its politics. You can get into it if you have political contacts and good relations with the airport staff even if you are flying with an economy ticket ( I wish there were cheaper tickets than the economy class!). So, in a society where a lot of people are very status conscious, passengers plan several days before which contact (say minister, secretary, clerk or airport official) to utilize to pass through the CIP in spite of having a ticket of a lower category. They feel very proud once they clear their throat loudly or speak on their cell phones to make sure rest of the passengers see them while entering the CIP lounge. It is often a big disappointment if they feel that no body ever noticed them when they “availed” the “historic moment”.
Balochistan is the smallest province of Pakistan in terms of population and seats of the provincial legislative assembly but it has the highest number of ministers in the provincial cabinet. Presently, there are around 50 ministers and advisers in the total legislative assembly of 65.Thus, the CIP lounge was crowded with provincial ministers and their cronies. I met Asghar Rind, the minister for social welfare and Babu Amin Umrani, the minister for civil defense in the CIP lounge. While we waited for our flight, four more ministers i.e. Maulana Abdul Wasay, the senior minister, Younas Mullazai, the information minister, Zafar Zehri, the home minister and Ms. Ghazala Gola, the minister of women’s welfare arrived from Karachi.
Balochistan could at best be called as Ministeristan.
The CIP lounge was crowded like a fish market. The trends out there are strange. The more cronies surround you, the better, popular and influential a minister you are declared. It is indeed very depressing to see such an sprawling CIP or VIP culture in the country’s poorest province where the masses are deprived of the very basic amenities of life.
The flight to Karachi boarded on time. Honestly, I had never been that scared of flying as I was this time. It was just two days ago when an Airblue passenger aircraft had crashed into Margala Hills on its way from Karachi to Islamabad, killing 152 people. It was the same day when I had boarded a flight from the Islamabad airport where the ill-fated plane was supposed to land in 15 minutes. Of course I knew that accidents were beyond anyone’s control, it took me a few minutes to relax on the plane. Ironically, the landing at the Karachi was very bumpy and one felt as if the aircraft would overturn once it landed.
At Karachi airport, I met my friend Ismail Khoso, a former journalist who has now joined the Civil Aviation. He was very gracious to help me in different ways. My first international flight was to with Emirates Airlines flight No 603 at 22:30pm. As the boarding started, I went to one of the money exchangers and got my Pakistani rupees exchanged for US dollars. The USEFP had already provided $200 as traveling allowance which I presumed would suffice during my trip.
At the airport, I made phone calls to all my family members and close relatives before boarding the flight. Even before doing that, I grabbed a burger at the airport as I was starving to death.
On the plane, a young Pakistani lady sat who would put on the headphone and laugh aloud at the cartoons she watched without realizing how loudly she was laughing. She seemed to be enjoying every part of the cartoon show. We never spoke until fifteen minutes before landing at Dubai.
” So do you live in Dubai?” I asked.
” Nope,” she replied.
” Going where?” I inquired.
“US,” she answered so fast as if someone was asked about their blood group in the emergency ward.
“For studies,” the journalist inside me had woken up, I felt.
” Yes,” she added.
We started talking more comfortably as both of us shared a lot of things in common. She was not a Humphrey Fellow but a part of another Fulbright program which is equally administered by USEFP. We spoke about our pre-departure orientations, placements, the starting dates of the programs. She said she was going somewhere in Washington as a part of her program.
Maria, as she introduced herself, and I were going to catch the same next flight (British Airways flight number 106) from Dubai to London.
I was greeted and offered a seat by a young man of African origin who was going to be sitting beside me for rest of the journey. The reason for his kindness was not ungrounded. He asked if I didn’t mind sitting on the middle seat rather the side one. I said I had no problems. The guy introduced himself as Mohammad and a citizen of Somalia. He was carrying a copy of the Holy Quran which confirmed his being a Muslim. We spoke briefly as he told me the supported Islamic Sharia for his country. I felt too tired to continue talking to him. It was around 2:00 a.m. I was feeling very sleepy. Decided to sleep for the next many hours.
As we landed at London’s Heathrow Airport, the captain made a special announcement asking all the passengers to remain seated until further instructions. It was strange. I had never heard such instructions from a pilot in the past. Within a few minutes, two police officers walked inside the plane. They walked slowly until they stopped near our seat. They read out the full name of Mohammad (the name he had mentioned with me but was not used by the cops). On confirmation, they asked Mohammad to take his things and walk with him. I don’t know what happened next.
I flew from London to Dallas, which was my first entry in the US. Unlike my previous trip, the immigration process this time went very smoothly. The officer asked a few questions and then directed me to another desk. When I went there, a woman, who told me she was Iranian, was already sitting whereas we were soon joined by another Pakistani and India family. The Indian family comprised of a couple and their daughter. The man told me he was from Chennai, an Indian city where I spent the longest period outside home. The Pakistani family consisted of a mother, one son and a little girl. As they sit beside me, the lady started the conversation. She said she was from North Nazimabad in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, while her husband, a civil engineer like her, had been living in the US for the past ten years. It was the first time she was coming to Pakistan after successfully immigrating.
I said goodbye to the Pakistani and the Indian families once I was called by the immigration officer, who had asked me to remain seated and wait for a while. Finally, I was granted entry inside the United States of America!
After taking my luggage and putting it on the domestic cart, I checked my boarding pass which said I would have to go to gate C21 which was located at a long distance. Thus, I had to take the light rail to go there. I still had at least three hours. After a while, I learned from the information desk that I would have to go to gate C-6 to board the aircraft.
The flight from Dallas to Phoenix was very comfortable. I felt very sleepy and slept on the plane in short intervals.
As I stood to collect my luggage at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, my host professor, Dr. Bill Silcock approached me. He had come to pick me up from the airport. After collecting the luggage, we proceeded towards the city.