A new journey
Dr Rana Jawad Asghar
It was a warm summer evening and once again I was leaving my country for a longer period. I had not planned for it but sometimes, there are certain developments in one's life which he can't help about. My first part of this long journey was on a PIA flight from Lahore to Dubai. Friends and family members came to the airport to say goodbye, which is always a difficult thing. As our national flag carrier is notorious for giving confirmed seats to their 'privileged' passengers so, I went inside quite early where as always, there was a big line. After nearly 45 minutes, it was my turn to get the boarding card. But the guy told me that my seat is only booked for Dubai and there was no booking from Dubai to London for me. As I had personally reconfirmed my seat from the British Airways office, I wasn't convinced and I told him to check again. But he was adamant that my travel plan is not on his computer. Computers are being programmed and run by humans so I never surrender by a reference of a computer, so our disagreement carried on.
Eventually I recalled that on my ticket, there were two computer numbers - one for the PIA and one for the BA while he was only looking by the PIA number. He needed to use the BA computer number to find my next part of the journey. Now everyone agreed and I was allowed to travel. But they were unable to book my luggage up to my final destination, Seattle, USA. I had a UK visa so I agreed to pick my luggage at the London airport and re-book from there again.
After all the waves and the goodbyes, I was finally inside the departure lounge. I had one backpack and a big, warm American jacket. I was so dejected by the attitude of those people that I sat in the very first row and tried to relax. After some time, I made some phone calls to some friends and to my home. These were going to be the last calls before my departure so I was a little relieved after talking with them. The time of departure was fast approaching. Most of the fellow passengers were real hardworking Pakistanis working in Dubai, and their families. There were a lot of kids who wanted to play everywhere and their parents were trying unsuccessfully to control them. Our flight was announced and again there was a long queue. Instead of standing in line, I went to a cassette shop and bought a few Urdu music cassettes. I am not very found of music but I knew that while living in a foreign land, it would be refreshing to hear some ghazals and Urdu geets.
In the plane, as always I chose an aisle seat which I prefer because it gives you the liberty to roam about without disturbing fellow passengers. I took a medicine for airsickness which made me drowsy (and hungry too) so I slept while the plane was still on the ground and woke up when dinner was being served. The dinner was - a small quantity of badly cooked rice and boneless chicken, with a small piece of bread and butter. Raita however, was good and kheer reasonable. With it, we were served a glass of tasteless (and gasless) beverage. Food was clearly quite below international standards but I wanted to sleep and I slept until we reached Dubai Airport.
I have been to Dubai several times so it was not difficult for me to go and walk it's very long corridor to the transit lounge. Half way to it, I realised that I was missing my new jacket. The next moment, I was running back. When I reached I was told that since every passenger was out, the doors had been closed. I was told to contact the PIA ground staff. I had no other choice but to contact PIA groundswoman. She changed my opinion about the airline by handling the situation pretty nicely. She called both at the aeroplane and the central office. I also wasn't sure as to where I had left my jacket, in plane or in the bus? Eventually, a guy came smiling along with my new jacket. I was overjoyed that I even forgot to thank that nice Pathan lady.
Before entering the transit lounge I needed a boarding card. The guy told me that I would get it by 1 am but allowed me to go inside. I roamed in the famous duty free shop for some time but did not buy anything. I don't know why the Dubai duty free shop has never impressed me. Things may be cheap there but they don't have the variety. At one, I went to the counter. The staff told me that I had no reservation on that day's flight. I had myself made sure that the seats were reconfirmed but in a foreign land where I didn't have a visa, I was told that I didn't have a connecting flight. I requested the guy to look again but he was adamant. He was using a 'computer', after all. Eventually, after painting some dreaded scenarios, he 'mercifully' re-booked my seat on the same flight and I was given a boarding card. I was so upset after it that I went straight to the plane even though there was still some time left.
As we boarded BA we realised that we were truly now in an international flight - a smiling, welcoming courteous staff and pre-flight juices. We were distributed amenities - packs of tooth brush, tooth paste, socks and eye shades. It was a big and new plane - Boeing 777 with a TV screen on every seat to watch different programmes on different channels. Emirates introduced this facility in its economy class many years ago and now many airlines are following it, but now Emirates is on the downhill track of its service, which once made it everyone's favourite airline. Next to me was sitting another new student of the University of Washington like me - Munir from India. We were amazed by the coincidence that both of us are seated together. We started to talk about our university and our. Again, we were served sandwiches and cakes with juices, tea and coffee. Shortly after take-off, we got time to watch our favourites programmes.
We were served breakfast near London - eggs, fresh fruits, muffins, jam, butter etc., with juices, not a very excellent breakfast, I must say. We landed smoothly at the London Heathrow airport. I told Munir to go to the transit lounge while I went to the immigration counter. It was a long queue but the staff was quite efficient to handle it quickly. A young and beautiful lady asked me how long I intended to stay. I smiled and told her that my visit was for one day only. She started to laugh and gave me permission to stay in the UK for six months. Now, I went to collect my luggage as the PIA ground staff in Lahore had failed to book it for my final destination. I collected the luggage, came out of the green channel and was out in the lounge. No questions asked.
I went to the BA office to reconfirm my next flight after the experiences at Lahore and Dubai. But the lady told me that as my ticket had been issued by the British Airways, I didn't need to reconfirm my flights and that they always honour their tickets. It was like a strange revelation.
As I was free to roam with my backpack, I came down to the subway station as Piccadilly line comes straight to the Heathrow. I realised there was still some time left before I could get a London day card. I waited for a while and bought the card which was valid for the whole day of travel. My first destination was Russell Square which is famous for good and economy hotels. It was peak of tourist season and most of the London hotels were full and the room rates were quite high. I checked from the airport, the minimum offer was of £ 70. At Russell Square, there were very nice and clean hotels with reasonable rates of £ 20 but they had shared facilities while I wanted private facilities. I went to the bigger class hotels like Hotel Russell but it had no vacant room. I was known to the manager of another famous hotel The Gore but he was not there anymore. Then I realised that I could stay at the Royal College of General Practitioners as I was their member. I phoned them and was joyed to hear that they had a place. I reached there thought it was quite difficult to find. It was located in front of the Hyde Park. It wasn't a hotel but a guest house for its members. Certainly, it was not cheap but it was better and nicer than hotels. I was tired, I took a hot shower, fell on the bed and was asleep in no time.
I woke up by four pm and was overwhelmed by the feeling of loneliness. I started to question myself that why had I left my settled life and had decided to become a stranger in a foreign land. I was going to a foreign land with not much in my hands and was putting myself completely on the wings of destiny. I had to meet my former teacher at Bristol University UK, Dr A W Macara, who is also Chairman of the British Medical Association. He was in London and we agreed to meet at BMA House by 5 pm. Dr Macara is a very nice person and a thorough English gentleman. With the passage of time, we have developed a strong family relationship. I dressed up quickly and went to the Russell Square to find the BMA house.
It was a grand Victorian-styled building. I told the Guard on the gate about my appointment with the doctor. One of his secretaries was also there. She told the guard that the doctor was expecting me. The BBC camera team was also there to interview him. Within few minutes, Dr Macara came and embraced me. He said he was pleased to see me and that all his family too, wanted to see me. We went to his flat which was on the top floor of the BMA house. There was also another senior representative of BMA living there. The doctor introduced me to her and told us that we three, would have dinner at a famous club - Abneham at Piccadilly but only after he had watched his interview, scheduled at 6 o'clock news. In the meantime, I availed his courteous offer of using his phone to talk to my parents back in Pakistan.
His interview came in the lead stories and though he was not quite happy by the editing, but said that the overall image was good. Then he called for a taxi and told me that there may be some difficulty to enter the club as I was wearing sneakers, baggy trousers and a T-shirt. I borrowed one of his ties and put it on my T-shirt. When we reached Piccadilly Circus, I immediately recognised the building. I had seen it many times before and always wondered about it.-Please see below for the second part.
As we entered the building at Piccadilly, everyone at the club greeted Dr Macara as if he was a regular member. Dr Macara asked one waiter about my dress and that if I could enter the Dinning room but he said 'no'. But he had a solution, as Dr Macara is one of their very distinguished members and I was his guest. So he took me to the locker room and offered me to try one dress shoes. The problem was thus solved and he also gave me a jacket. Though now I was looking quite colourful but at least was eligible to enter the dinning room. In dining room, we found the elite of Britain dressed up and dinning. Dr Macara is a known British figure so he was greeted by everyone and a table was arranged for us. Menu card came but there were no prices on them. The elite eats there by deciding what they want to eat and not by their price. I ordered smoked salmon as an appetiser and grilled salmon as main dish. This smoked salmon was one of the best salmon I have ever had and I really enjoyed it.
After that, a lady and her two assistants came near our table. A salmon was grilled right next to our table and served. Well, it was a good experience. After dinner we went upstairs in the lounge which looked like a grandeur set of an old Hollywood movie. It was quite difficult to move for Dr Macara as he was stopped by everyone to have a chat. During that single night, I was introduced to a large number of British intellectuals and academicians like registrars of different Royal Colleges and deans of several universities. Eventually, we were left alone and started our own 'gup shup'. My host was aware of the circumstances in which I had decided to go to the USA and he felt quite sympathetic. But he was also delighted that I was going to pursue higher education in one of the highest ranking universities of the world. That night, he told me that he was not happy when I was settled in Lahore and was doing my practice as according to his opinion, I was wasting myself by not utilising my full potential. It was quite encouraging for me to hear this from one of the top in the medical profession.
It was nearly 10 pm and as my friend Marty was waiting for me in his house, I decided to leave. Dr Macara offered me to drop me where ever I wanted him to but I told him that I would like to spend some time in the Piccadilly Circus and would manage my way back. I had to change my dress again and return that outfit to its owner. When I asked Dr Macara that how much tip should I pay to the waiter, he told me that the waiter would feel insulted if I gave him a tip (remember this was not a hotel but a very prestigious club). He told me that there was a fund where members contribute for the staff and they get bonuses and presents on every Christmas.
I said goodbye to the doctor and walked for a minute or two before I was in the Piccadilly Circus. It was a weekend and there were so many people. I called Marty to tell him that I won't be able to see him and instead he should see me the next morning at my place. He agreed and added that Patra (his girlfriend) also intended to see me. I had met her earlier. She was a very nice Spanish girl but unfortunately, she had to got to her office next morning and couldn't come next morning.
In the morning, when I came downstairs for breakfast, I met another doctor from a Latin American country. Marty also came by then and we had a very good chat about old times. Marty is a Canadian who studied with me in the Bristol University. He did masters in Shakespeare and is now working as a reporter of London stock Exchange for a celebrated news agency, Bloomberg News. He was kind enough to tell me that the next time I visit London, I should stay at his place. Shortly after he left, I picked up my luggage and moved towards Heathrow.
Heathrow's terminal four was as busy as usual. First, I bought an aerogramme to write a letter back home as from UK letters are delivered quite fast. Then I joined the long queue to board the plane and my turn came nearly after one hour. It was a Boeing 747 which was completely packed. Next to me were two American women, quite talkative and friendly. We started to talk but our flight to Seattle was too long (ten hours flying time), we got tired and started watching TV. The BA service was good as usual. They served us dinner with grilled salmon (not like 'Abnehams'), fruit jelly, bread rolls, mashed potatoes, cheese, ice-cream and soft drinks. Ice-cream was good and it seemed they had plenty of it because they were offering it every hour. Before landing, they served Chicken tikka sandwiches (quite popular in UK nowadays). But ten hours of light is too boring no matter whatever you do and no matter what you are being offered. It was natural that everyone felt relieved when the pilot announced landing.
It was SeaTac airport which is between Seattle and Tacoma. I was one of the first out of the plane and went to the Immigration officer. Contrary to my impression, he was quite nice and did not ask me anything and just checked my papers and allowed me an entry. Now I was at the luggage area where I found dogs sniffing it. A dog pinpointed a piece of luggage and the lady officer asked the owner couple that if they had any food in their luggage. They said no, so their luggage was searched and an apple was found which was confiscated. Good work, Doggie! I put my heavy pieces of luggage on a trolley and had to pass through customs. There was a young officer standing there and when he realised that I was a student at the University of Washington, he helped me out of the way. He himself was a former student of the University, was a wrestler and he studied there on a scholarship. After I was over with all that, I started looking for my hosts. Universities have arrangements with local families who offer to pick the international students from the airport and provide their first weeks' stay at their homes. I had contacted her on email but she was no where.
Someone suggested that I better to the BA office and tell them to make an announcement. It helped. It did not take long before Elizabeth Pelehan, my host approached me. She was waiting for me all the time at the customs counter. We put the luggage on the rear seat of her car and our journey to Seattle started. American roads are very much similar - big but crowded. But as we were two persons in one car, we were allowed to travel in express lanes (to encourage people to travel together so that pollution could be reduced).
Seattle is famous for its landscape, not so high mountains and beautiful lakes. But for me it had so much similarity Bristol. We reached her house and she to my surprise told me to leave my luggage in the car as this was considered as a safe neighbourhood. I just picked my backpack and she showed me my room. It had a sofa-cum-bed with a TV with a shower room. She had to leave for a rehearsal of a play she was directing. She also offered me to join if I liked, but I was too tired. She showed me food in the oven and juices in the fridge and a computer with Internet. She told me to consider myself at home and left. I was not in a mood to eat so I just made a quick sandwich with Mexican sauce which I enjoyed with two glasses of juice. I sent email to my parents back home and came down to my room, watched some TV and went asleep.
I woke up around 5 in the morning. I started to watch TV but I slowed its volume to the minimum as I knew that her son was sleeping in the next room. He John came to see me at 8:30. He was a truck driver by profession but was also an honorary consultant to the University Museum. He was quite a knowledgeable person and unlike most Americans, he knew a lot about the world. He was also very frank and we had a good conversation. We had our breakfast together with half boiled eggs, fruit cakes and juice. After breakfast, Elizabeth took me to the University office where I paid my dues and got keys of my apartment. When I found that I had bed-sheets but no blankets, she took me to a JC Penny store from where I bought a duvet and pillows. She then took me to Safeway, a grocery store nearby from where I bought some other necessities. Now, I was ready to survive on my own. My first week in Seattle out of many to come, had begun.
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