"Step across this line..."


I wrote about boundaries and imagination in an earlier post, stealing the title of Rushdie's other collection of non-fiction.

On Sunday I arrived at the Gilgit airport, a small stone building on the edge of the alluvial fan that is Gilgit's resting place in the world. The airport stretches away between rows of tall pines and beyond are the ever-present parched hills (now with snow dusting their worn down ridges). The clouds were high and the sun warmed the waiting lounge. It appeared the flight would go that day. And it did. At around 9:30am, the C-130 military transport, succunded to PIA, touched down with a roar and disgorged passengers and baggage and Gilgit's supply of newspapers.

As I sat in the waiting lounge I realized how thankful I was the flight was going that day. The previous two weeks were characterized by bad weather and about one flight each. Finally they called us to get on the plane - ladies first. They piled out of a doorway at the back of the waiting lounge that I hadn't noticed before and stood in line at the door that led down two or three steps to the tarmac. Suddenly the whole line of ladies did an about face and retreated behind a wall into their waiting room again. The rest of us (men) sat down. No explanation. I started to get nervous. But the weather still looked good.

About half an hour latter, the ladies were called out and again formed a line through the aisle in the waiting room. This time they were let out and the men followed, forming another queue by rear door of the transport plane. We piled in strapping ourselves into the seats fashioned out of canvas webbing clipped to aluminium stays running the length of the plane, one of the modular configurations for the cavernous interior, big enough to drive tanks into when the seats are

The captain came on the air, then and said there would be a delay. And then, a few minutes later, we were told to exit the aircraft and return to the waiting lounge. There, the PIA rep told us we would have to wait for 20minutes until we were given permission to land in Islamabad (Chaklala Field is the name of the military airbase there). I was greatly dismayed at this. First of all, NOTHING in Pakistan happens in 20 minutes. And secondly, permission=bureaucracy and that definitely takes longer than 20 minutes - it could be 20 days, I thought. But somewhere, deep inside me there was an inexplicable glimmer of hope - maybe it sparked when someone in the waiting room called for chai and the PIA chap refused on the grounds that there would not be enough time (and, that there was no good hotel nearby from which to procure the stuff).

Sure enough, at around noon, we were again called to the plane. This time it was a free-for-all and so the men (me included) pushed to the front of the line. I took my chances and walked quickly, once we were on the open tarmac, hoping to get one of the five seats in the whole plane that offer a view of the spectacular mountains we would fly over. But I was out of luck.

This time, however, the engines were started and the bare-bones interior reverberated with the howl of four big turbo-props. And then we shot down the runway and lifted off above the dust and cold and grey water of the Gilgit river. We passed Nanga Parbat (I caught a glimpse as we turned South, but missed most of it) and then headed over the shrinking mountains to the plains and smog.

I walked across the tarmac to the arrival area in Islamabad glad to be back - surprised at how glad I was to be back. Maybe when I stepped up beside the baggage carousel I crossed this line. And suddenly I saw myself arriving in Islamabad on a hot summer day with plans in my head to stay long time and I shrank inside myself thinking, "I can't do this". Again, I surprised myself. And then the feeling passed.

I walked into the perfect early afternoon and sat down beside my taxi driver for the half hour drive to my gracious hosts who once again have invited me into their home for the duration of this week.

That evening I was in a bookstore in Jinnah market in the purple haze and gathering cold of a November evening. I felt removed from myself, pulled in to the evocative sensual experience of being in a place that was once so iconic to my experience. As I was browsing through the V.S. Naipaul section, a dreadfully tasteless version of Seal's (who's Seal? I haven't heard of him for ages either) "Kiss From a Rose" started to play on the store's PA. The subtle combination of all that gave me a very strange feeling, as if I would walk out the door and meet someone I knew, as if there would be a (Toyota) Coaster waiting filled with sunburned, hot-blooded teenagers and I would jump in and travel with them back in time, up a river of shadow.

And then it passed. I remembered who I am and who I was and walked out to the photo shop where my prints were waiting and then in a taxi back home. The sky was dust and orange and grey and the call to prayer floated in through the windows on cool air and lush green dark in the musty shadows.

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