Says T.S. Eliot in his haunting poem Waste Land, "April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire…."
If so, December is more than just the end of the year in terms of a timeline of things we do in Pakistan. Or at least for a certain demographic. It’s perhaps more of an insurance policy in terms of dumping assignments that we otherwise push back towards the end of the year. More so considering December is also the end of the last quarter of the calendar year and, therefore, more manic than any other part of the year.
For many in the development sector -- invariably also labelled as the civil society sector, the entrepreneur sector or the activism sector -- in Pakistan, there is a mad dash to tie up loose ends of their work, in December. And that includes a lot of travel -- planes, trains and automobiles, the whole shebang. Now who wouldn’t love travel -- it supposedly takes away one from drudgery and routine and allows one to grow wings over one’s desk, or bed, depending on where you’re coming from, or going to. And yet travel in December may not take you where you want to go carefree -- assuming you are from the sector mentioned above.
From my observation and experience, the most traffic in Pakistan in December -- activists seeking to lay their final deliverables of the quarter and year to bed -- is between Islamabad and Karachi, with destination Lahore from both ends coming second. Peshawar and Quetta have over the past two years, or three, lost the primacy of civic activism fuelled by funding. That’s the bulk of development sector travel in December in Pakistan. Sure there’s a lot of good work going on elsewhere -- in south Punjab, Balochistan, interior Sindh and northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa -- but not at the same scale as in the safe civic activism zones. So less travel to these regions than ‘activism safe’ zones of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, albeit not necessarily in that order.
Then there are the favourite foreign locations for Pakistani organisations and activists for conferences, seminars, workshops, trainings and consultations -- Bangkok, Dubai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, New Delhi, Colombo, Dhaka and Manila. Not because the West doesn’t welcome them but because it’s easier to get visas for these regions than for Europe or Americas and also because they’re relatively closer, cheaper and facilitative. Hence anyone you ever know from the development sector in Pakistan is either going to or coming from one or the other of these locations in the east or south of Indus, particularly in December.
Your choices for carrier include Emirates, Qatar, Etihad, Thai, Air Malaysia, Sri Lankan and Singapore Airlines. PIA is more often than not a choice miss than a favourite for here you won’t get hard drinks and better food (on your way out of or into the country) than you would on the foreign carriers. The choices if you are travelling in-country now, other than PIA, are Air Blue, Shaheen Air, Bhoja Air and Indus Air -- local carriers between whom there is little to choose.
December travel for Pakistanis evokes a strange mix of the indifferent and excitement even if a tad subdued. Indifferent because many travellers are frequent flyers and they’re starved for variety in terms of locations which is why they get adventurous after a few visits to the Far East by taking extra days to venture to luxury resorts and more exotic locations with some naughtiness on the mind that capital cities may not satiate one with. Excited because they are leaving the annoying December cold of Pakistan for the pleasanter weather in tropical foreign locations that can warm the cockles of one’s heart just when it needs some warming. It’s the more temperate weather that makes the burden of work bearable and the average 4-hour flight to the region worth the frequent flying.
One key test of bearability of frequent flyers is the airport service.
Sure Karachi and Lahore airports over the past decade have become better but you can’t even buy a newspaper of the day from inside them, leave alone a quality cup of coffee (the mysterious drink of choice of Pakistanis operating in the development sector -- perhaps the outcome of financially beneficial osmosis with donors who frown upon tea as a drink of the lesser mortal). Or even tea for those among us terrorised by coffee.
The less said about the Islamabad Airport the better although it deserves a separate report on all that it doesn’t provide. Absolutely pathetic, to put it mildly.
Buying fiction, even pulp fiction? Forget it! About the only books you’ll find at airports in Pakistan are religious tomes that are supposed to make you stop thinking rather than you taking wings even before boarding a plane. So bring your own books if worming through pages of stories are your thing.
And what’s with TV sets at airports screening either cartoons or wrestling? Or the never ending, no longer funny Mr Beans reruns?
The cold of December makes these Pakistani airports a searing shudder of pain in parts of the human anatomy that are not visible here but are on ample display from Colombo to Bangkok to Manila. No wonder these foreign airports are in themselves treated as a destination -- standalone locations to be enjoyed for their myriad distractions even if you are tight-fisted and not inclined to spend on anything other than food because you are in the crippling habit of making mental maths of converting the exchange rates, which may prove problematic for your heart.
And what is with Pakistanis travelling with children in tow -- the average is three to four children per couple. The Pakistani airports are not different in that sense from its railway platforms and bus depots, crawling with children craving candy and bawling their guts out near one of your ears when the plane takes off. That’s why you find the single item being sold more than Sohan and Multani halwas at airports are children’s toys. It’s just astounding. You curiously don’t see too many children at the airports Pakistanis are flying out to, willingly or unwillingly.
And Pakistanis may enjoy themselves as much as they can -- although one can be astounded at their average range of what constitutes fun -- when abroad but the truest test of nerves and reality check is when they land back home. You have the sense of coming back to chaos, crowds and a land of killjoys. If you’re a Pakistani, you may travel anywhere on the planet (although not many are aware of the existence of regions other than America, Europe, Gulf and some parts of the Far East) but when you come back home, it’s never for fun. Leave all that behind with your finished food tray on the flight.