We accept dollars

A part of my childhood was spent in a lovely house in a cul de sac in Street 47 in Islamabad. There were a few strategic bricks missing in the boundary wall between us at house no. 7 and our lovely neighbours at house no. 9. Those missing bricks meant we could check with each other when we would go out to ride a bike, play hide and seek, swing on each other’s gates (to what end I am still not sure), or simply to peer through to see if our friends were home. Those were good times, we would play till the evening call to prayer wafted through the air, and that was time to say goodbye to children of all ages until we met the next day. Sweaty and tired and sometimes muddy we would arrive back in our respective driveways, feet hosed down with pipes before being dispatched to change and get ready for the evening.

Every other summer our neighbours with the missing bricks in the boundary wall would receive their cousins from far-off England. There would be much excitement in the air, as they arrived from the country of the Queen and the newly married Princess Diana. I remember being allowed to stay up late to watch the royal wedding that was beamed across the world on crackly TV sets. As the regular transmission of the only TV channel finished quite early, this was understandably a fascinating evening. A living fairy tale of a shy young girl turned princess. I was even given a Princess Di haircut which didn’t do much for my gawky teenage years, but it was the hairdo de rigeur and so one couldn’t be left behind.

With much anticipation, everyone awaited their arrival. These cousins from a far-off land. They would arrive in their Sunday best. I would notice that somehow their hemlines were not in sync with those around me. When shirts went long in Pakistan, theirs would still be short because that was the season in which they last visited. And when hemlines were long, theirs would be slightly short. When the trousers were flared, theirs would be tight and vice versa. It always made me smile until I too became an immigrant to the same far-off land.

I often think of them, their excitement, the presents, the reunions, the hugs and stepping back to look at how the children had grown. The tears and the laughter. More hugs.

And everytime I land at Lahore Airport; I too am filled with the same joy. When the plane lands and I peer out of the window, the sunshine embraces me as if to welcome me home. My friends tell me that this is not sunshine, but the sun trying to break through the pollution and dust, but to me it is sunshine, warm and pure even if dusty and tentative.

I don’t keep up with hemlines and opt for an all black outfit to leave Heathrow where it is snowing. But arriving in Lahore where it is warm, the black becomes a magnet for the heat. But I don’t mind.

As the plane door swings open and I step onto the bridge, I am always slow in my pace. Gazing out of the slightly oblong windows I want to hug my home. Around me, people walk briskly because the lines form quickly at immigration yet tend to move slowly.

The escalator doesn’t work and so the carry on with it’s wheels is now a brick to be taken down the steps. At the base of the steps are men in blue uniforms. They are protocol officers dispatched to meet their special guests. The man behind me in the pink t-shirt is welcomed profusely by the protocol officer. He takes his passport and walks past the queues to the top of one of the lines. His client is still walking behind me. I watch with interest as he jumps the queues but the gentleman in the pink t-shirt is in no hurry. He is on his phone.

There is a ladies desk, where interestingly enough there are only men. There is a diplomat’s line which is full of families. There is a foreign passport line. Just then, I notice an immigration officer walk up to an unmanned desk. I pick up my pace and walk swiftly and am now first in that line. The protocol officer catches up with me. I understand he has a job to do, and offer him to go first, but the gentleman in the pink t-shirt is still not there. So I go first, and walk through with my passport stamped in a matter of seconds. The gentleman in the pink t-shirt is still walking through at his own pace.

Once past the first immigration, there is a second check. It has always fascinated me this second check. It is a cursory glance at the passport and gives the porters enough time to assess each incoming passenger.

Ten or so porters approach me and then move in unison to the next passenger. If anyone ever needed a crash course in body language, it is right here. A subtle nod, a movement of the eye, a flick of the wrist, they will pick it up. But I keep walking through this second check and notice a porter approach me separately asking if I need help. It is easier to talk to one person than to ten and I nod.

In the arrivals lounge, some people are wearing masks like a necklace. Others are wearing a mask like a chin piece. Some are wearing their masks like a bracelet. Most people however are not wearing masks. The media and governments tell us that Covid is over and I hope to dear God that they are right.

As I reach the top end of the conveyor belt, it springs to life. Through the flaps, black bags appear in all shapes and sizes. The conveyor belt shaped as a W is now full of cartons, bags, appliances, and I am looking intently trying to pick out my bag when suddenly from the other side of the W, a porter does an olympic leap to my side. A shortcut across a moving conveyor belt to come and collect his client’s bag. Even James Bond would have found that tough, but he manages to balance and check the bag. Disappointed he leaves it, only to leap back to his client.

Suitcases with gold ribbons, plastic wrapping, and the names written across the front all appear side by side. Somewhere a box has leaked its contents onto the conveyor belt. Dried rose necklaces are resting on most trolleys. My trolley too has a necklace of dried roses. Roses bloom differently here, they are more fragrant even as they wilt.

A young couple is rocking a baby in turns and craning their necks to find their suitcase. Mostly people are standing at a thirty degree angle looking for their suitcase. My porter explains to me the merits of buying an oddly coloured bag. You see Samsonite and Delsey are all far too common and black. What colour is your bag, madam? If he had high hopes from me of standing out with a neon pink bag, it only lasts a second. My suitcases are all black. Though I think to myself, I did try to personalise them by searing my surname into them with a gold sharpie.

Men on phones, women holding babies and adjusting their scarves. Elderly people leaning on their walking sticks. Toddlers throwing tantrums. Families shifting from one foot to another. Businessman standing back and doing deals. Waiting makes people impatient and delays even more.

My porter asks me for my baggage tag and quizzes me on how things are in England. Heathrow is not a very organised airport, is it? It is more of a statement than a question. And I nod. Do they have the same inflation that we have? Yes, I say. Sadly, it is so. He smiles and says you can pay me in dollars madam. It is no problem. We accept all currencies. I nod with a smile. Times are tough and in an era of steady inflation, today’s rupee is worth much less tomorrow.

I am now eager to get home. The bags have become a slow trickle. The W of the conveyor belt is now becoming emptier. At last my final bag arrives.

I turn on my heel. There is no fan or air conditioning and the heat though not intense is palpable. We stop to pay for the porter’s fee, and I open my wallet. I should have prepared the right amount earlier, but my wallet opens like an accordion and the porter glimpses inside.

I hand over the fee and he looks at me amused. Madam, these bills are no longer in circulation. Of course they are not, and I knew that. I feel like this is my Rip Van Winkle moment. He can see I am surprised. Yes, they were phased out during Covid. Oh, I think, in a hurry, I must have picked up the outdated rupees and left the correct ones in my drawer at home.

But he smiles at me and looks at my still open accordion of wallet. It’s okay madam. We accept dollars.


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