Of sexism and unflushed toilets: The Pakistani travelling experience
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.
And it’s not just because you have to fly PIA, with its duct-taped overhead 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.
All of that is an essential part of the travelling experience in Pakistan, but most important is how the travelling makes you feel like everything is ending; it takes you to that exact place when you lost your childhood pet – every single time.
I should probably not start about hotels, which are supposed to be the bubble in which you find escape from the dust and heat and debilitating energy-crisis. They are not, actually, a bubble.
When you walk into one, the first thing you're reminded 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.
Also read: PIA: Better than the local bus?
The body searches are rough, untouched by human courtesy. Purse checks are the most interesting. I am most certain I could pass through some 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 checkout 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 it is just about done. Expectation 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. In the bathroom, I had to flush out the residue of the previous occupant and make do with rusty lukewarm water, when I was hoping for clear and hot.
Proceeding this was a welcome from an uncomfortably short, springy strand of hair on my pillow. 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 through 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. 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 dialing home in the middle of the flight using the remote. It makes for good humour.
What is obnoxious, though, is the utter sense of ownership that women are subjected to when they travel alone, by men with the 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, a man thought he could tell me where to sit and left me no option but to tolerate catcalls or blatant harassment. If it wasn’t blatant, it was patronising, like all the times my luggage was picked up when I hadn’t even asked for help.
See: The perils of traveling by yourself
I remember travelling always being this traumatic, if not more. I was once visited Pakistan when I was eight. 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 one instance, he turned it to me and winked when our eyes met. It both confused and frightened me. He stared me down throughout the trip. Very little has changed, as is evident in the sick crisis in Kasur just this month, which made headlines worldwide.
So yes, wanderlust gets a kick in the shin in Pakistan. Someone 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.
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 the image of that unflushed pot out of my head. Mostly because I wasn’t expecting to see it. Oh, the horror of mismatched expectations and bad value for money.
The author is a public speaker, author, women’s rights activist and the co-founder of the NGO Women’s Advancement Hub. Her writings have appeared in Dawn, The Express Tribune, the BBC, The Guardian and NPR, and she has two published books on feminism. She lives in Islamabad and tweets @AishaFsarwari.