This is one of a series of Life Junctions posts. Each tells a story from my life that illustrates a wider human issue. This tale concerns trust and security. If you’re interested in writing or publishing stories from your own experiences or from family and friends, I can help you. Just get in touch.
Thankfully my incarceration coincided with Eid el-Adha, Feast of the Sacrifice.
The day before, I’d left the family-run hotel to stroll through sunny city streets and tree-lined boulevards to Karachi station. A family petted a calf in their garden, festooned with Spring flowers. It was Friday of the holiday weekend but, after some youths stared at me in sullen contempt, perhaps the atmosphere seemed fraught. The Victorian station was gloomy and unwelcoming, and the transport police asked me to leave after a few minutes. As I walked the half hour back to my hotel, a House Crow swooped past a tree far too close to my head. I noticed the family were in their garden starting a barbecue but when I looked down at the pavement there was their calf’s head – the crow’s target – staring up at me with glassy eyes.
Back in the sanctuary of my 7th floor room I made a cup of tea and watched the smoke plumes rise from the city’s roof-tops where families were slaughtering sheep in ritual fashion then cooking them as tradition demanded. Two cute young children, a boy and a girl, emerged onto a nearby balcony. They took turns to scoop bloody offal out of a bucket to throw into the air where, in extraordinary feats of acrobatics, the legions of House Crows would swoop and catch the morsels in their beaks. The blood, and the morsels the birds missed, fell onto the city street six storeys below, spattering the parked cars and the mercifully few pedestrians. To my Western eyes it was grotesque but mesmerising. Their bucket emptied, and with blood up to their little elbows, the children retired indoors to wash.
To pass the time I watched the Cricket World Cup from Malaysia and, for the first time, began learning the rules of the game. The next morning I went down to breakfast, ready to go from there to the office, but the manager politely said he couldn’t let me leave. The company I worked for hadn’t paid the bill for a while and then its cheque had bounced, which was a serious matter in Pakistan.
I wasn’t surprised. After six weeks as General Manager, I’d realised the company was failing. Everyone knew, even the founder whose tantrums grew worse with the situation. I was paying unpaid staff a few rupees with my own money and I’d never get back the plane ticket or other expenses. The Arab backers were less investors than gamblers expecting to reap huge dividends when their horse won the race. The problem was we were a business not a horse.
In Karachi in 1997 nothing worked very well. There was little water. Even in a reasonable district of the city you had to pay bowsers to deliver it. There was often no electricity or it was erratic, which played havoc with the computers. There was casual lawlessness, and the Canadian insurance company downstairs was held up at gunpoint one afternoon. Dacoitery was rife. Worst of all for a business, there was no money. Tony had decided to sell advertising space in an online magazine called BigMag that would rival the Yellow Pages. The trouble was in this first dot com boom, few people understood what that meant, almost nobody had internet access and fewer still had any money to buy advertising.
I watched the cricket but nobody from the company responded to my phone calls. People had stayed in my hotel room for weeks before I arrived but now I was the only representative at the hotel and the manager couldn’t take the risk of letting me go without some resolution. He stationed a security guard outside the door that day and the next two, but also came up with cakes about 4 o’clock and we chatted pleasantly. He had responsibilities and suggested, apologetically, if the company couldn’t pay perhaps I could. By that stage, I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be in Karachi except confined in this hotel room. I stayed until after the holiday weekend, finally figuring out the rules of cricket.
After three days, the company paid some money and I paid a small amount myself. I went to the office, said goodbye to the sad loyal staff and went immediately to the airport to try to get a flight out. I used my elbows and finally got one of the two stand-by tickets for the flight that very same day, only because I had a connecting flight back to London. There were just two flights out every week, and I had no plan for where to go if I hadn’t got out that day. After a few hours I was at Dubai Airport, where I suddenly found myself disheveled in a linen suit amongst the smartly dressed Westerners and Arabs. The next day I was back in England, in my little house and wondering about those extraordinary six weeks.
As the adventure receded, what stayed with me was the revelation that instead of judging people according to my own criteria, I could try to understand their lives and their motivations and even perhaps anticipate their reactions and their behaviour. I was wrong to rush to judge people: it just led to bitterness. I started to realise most people, like the worried hotel manager and the irascible boss, were just getting on with their lives in their own ways, in their own cultures, stressed by a lack of money or services or time. That realisation, what some call empathy, has been valuable over the years.
When I told the cheery woman in the bank that my last payment had kind of been made under duress, she explained apologetically there was nothing she could do. Then she asked me if Karachi was in Japan. I smiled at her and explained it was Pakistan’s port city on the Indian Ocean.
This post is part of the Life Junction series. Each part seeks to expand from a vivid fragment into a more general observation about values, in a way that might help the reader draw positive conclusions from events in their own life.
Photo credit Steven Lewis here.