11 January 2012


Date: 8 Jan 2012

Place: Benazir Bhutto International Airport, lsamabad.

“ Panic”:  A physical and mental condition marked by a loss of control, a fear of what is coming next because thought-processes have reached the ineluctable conclusion that whatever happens next will make matters much worse.  Panic is an individual state of mind.  An individual conclusion.  But nevertheless contagious.  And when shared by large numbers of people, potentially catastrophic.

Word has been out for 24 hours:  The government is collapsing, the Taliban fighters are pouring  through the mountain passes separating Pakistan from Afghanistan, while the Jihadi  elements of the shattered Pakistani military establishment  turn a blind eye to the incursions.  And several high officials of what was once the government of Pakistan are said to have  boarded private jets bound for Bahrain, which has offered them, for a “customs entry fee” of 100,000 Euros per family member (gold certificates accepted) a two-year “official Visit” visa.  Fundamentalist  factions are rumored to have already gained control of the a major part of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and  have vowed to settle accounts with their hated Hindu neighbors to the south, while the Indian government has declared a state of emergency and put its nuclear and conventional weaponry elements on Alert Status 5, the highest category.

The 5% of Islamabad’s population that enjoys substantial wealth and have the means to flee their homeland are in the process of  making every effort to do just that.  Suitcases are packed to the bursting point, infants are swaddled, the two-year olds in folding strollers, older children clutching the hands of their younger siblings while parents manage luggage carts piled to the utmost reach of the tallest family member.
The locale is predictable.  Even before the panic set in, Benazir Bhutto International Airport, serving the greater Islamabad area, was deemed inadequate, and a new, larger facility was under construction with an opening date set to 2013. While the civil airport authority shared the airport with the Pakistani military, there were only civilian Pakistani National Airlines planes operating that morning.  It was becoming evident that most of the would-be travelers would not get out of Pakistan that day.  Aside from the overwhelming numbers, half of the  crowd was in the wrong terminal because signs outside had misled international travelers to the domestic terminal, which was now so crowded that the revolving doors could no longer turn because of the pressure of people inside and outside.

All the senses were offended.  The decibel level inside the terminal increased with each frustrating hour. Smells of spoiling food, body odors, dirty diapers, filthy bathrooms, uncaring airline personnel, crying children, shouting  adults, pushing, shoving—in short, universal panic. Chaos.

“Wait, wait”, you say?  How would the Londons know about that?  Were they in Benazir Bhutto  International Airport earlier this week?  Well, as my grandchildren would say when asked if they did their homework last night, “Well, not exactly.”

But we were in Terminal Three of Liberty International Airport in Newark this past Sunday morning.  Virtually the same scene, but I have engaged in a bit of  blog-license to change the locale.  Okay, the people we encountered were not fleeing Islamabad; they were trying to  get out of New Jersey.  But the description of everything else is almost fair.

How did we get there?  Well, we made a few small mistakes in coming home: i)traveling on Sunday, ii)traveling  from EWR, and iii) traveling on Continental Airlines.

It will take a lot of Paradise, a lot of beach, sun, warm seas, and  Tanqueray  to erase the strains of our most recent trip to SBH.

Just a few travel notes:

Ahh, the benefits of airline consolidation.  So Continental has merged with United.  The corporate lawyers have done their bit, but the people who operate the airlines, not so much.  For example: our advance-check-in boarding passes said we were to depart from Terminal Three, but the airport signs directed us to Terminal Two.  Arriving at Terminal Two, we had the good sense to check with a curbside baggage guy before unloading our cab.  “Oh, no, you gotta go to Terminal Three.”  We did. But were again misled.  There are two levels to Terminal Three, and while the sign at the threshold of the ramp told us to go to the upper level, when we got there we found a sign telling us to go to the lower level.  Something about a United flight in one place and a Continental flight in another place, both going to the same destination an hour apart.  Of course, this meant a third circumnavigation of the airport ring road serving all the terminals at Liberty.
When we finally got to the correct departure terminal, see above: Bedlam, chaos, confusion, lots of pissed off shouting people—and that’s just the airline employees.

We had selected Continental because they have a baggage agreement with Winair, so one can check the luggage all the way through to St. Barths.  This has significant advantages for transfer passengers at Princess Juliana airport  in St. Maarten. But first one must check the  baggage at Newark.  Reaching, at long last, the agent behind the counter charged with the responsibility of accepting and tagging customers’ luggage, the following dialogue ensues:

She:   “We don’t have a baggage carriage agreement with Winair,  so I can tag your luggage only as far as SXM.” 

Me: “You do have  such an agreement, I have it here in an email, and you can ticket the luggage all the way through.”

She: “Well, I don’t care about  your email, if it is not on my computer, we don’t have such an agreement.”
Me: “Did  you check your computer?”
She:  “My computer is down.”

You get the picture. Ultimately, the computers came up, they tagged our two suitcases to SBH ($25 each—remember the day when airlines gave a crap about what customers thought of them?)  and we actually  recovered one of our pieces of luggage here in St. Barths the same day!

Enough of that.  Some news from Paradise:

The island has had a lot of rain so far this season, and is very green. Lush.  There is expanded parking at the airport, and the really big news is a new parking lot across the road from St. Jean Beach.  This is huge: there are no longer parked cars on the roadway, and the two- lane beach-side road now actually has two lanes devoted to moving vehicles.  Drivers no longer need close their eyes when passing opposing traffic, west bound cars no longer terrify pedestrians by driving on the sidewalk, and the sale of replacement  side-view mirrors has dramatically declined.

One more observation, and I am off to Saline Beach to  commence my recuperation.

There are lots of  give-away glossy magazines in a rack at the  SBH airport, and elsewhere on the island.  They are, as you might expect, long on advertising and short on textual material. Almost all the ads are for wristwatches and feature either George Clooney or naked women. But, with some of these publications, there is actually some editorial  material, which is traditionally presented in English, and then repeated in French.  This is, after all, France.  Well, maybe, but this year the articles appear first in English, then are repeated in Russian, then  “threepeated” in French.   Hmmm.  This is not a case of “The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming.” Ils sont arrivee.

A bientot.

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