I promised I wouldn’t do it again. After effectively working through the Christmas of 2018, the festive season of 2019 was meant to be relaxing- sipping hot cocoa with my feet up, Hallmark classics in the background. Once more, life had other plans.
For family reasons, last Christmas had to be split between Poland and Pakistan. While I was looking forward to seeing both sides of my family, I was also conscious that the end of the year was turning to be just as busy as the 2019 had been overall. I could especially feel it when I returned to the UK from Poland on the 25th December to discover that there are no trains or buses (nor any bolts or Ubers), which proved getting home rather hectic and expensive. I then had to endure further logistical nightmare as I tried to retrieve my dog from her dog boarding about half an hour from our house. On the 26th I ensured my parents were all set in our London flat and ready to look after the furry member of our family while I joined my husband in Pakistan. Having checked in, packed and left the keys and instructions for the parents, I headed to Heathrow airport.
It was the first time I was traveling to Islamabad with British Airways. After the recent few horrendous trips with Pakistan International Airlines (which involved leaking toilet and a steward spilling yoghurt all over my husband amongst other interesting events on board), I was excited at the prospect of a direct flight with an airline that seemed a bit more promising when it came to the passenger’s comfort. I was 7 hours into the journey, reflecting with pleasure that BA was in deed the right choice, when the pilot announced we will be circling around Islamabad airport as we are waiting for the fog to clear, so that we can land safely. An hour into our rounds in the Pakistani airspace, I started getting a bit worried. My husband was waiting for me at the airport and I was meant to help his sister get ready for her wedding which was taking place that same day in the evening. Her marriage was the sole reason I was traveling to Pakistan for just 5 days in the first place and suddenly my attendance was starting to become uncertain. I went to ask the flight attendants what was happening, hoping that perhaps they would redirect us to the old Islamabad airport in Rawalpindi or reroute us to Karachi or Lahore, which although inconvenient, would have allowed me to still make it to the wedding. Unfortunately it was not meant to be – a blond lady in the BA uniform informed me that the BA are not allowed to land at any of the other Pakistani airports due to safety reasons and the pilot is speaking to the neighbouring countries to seek someone who would allow us to land. They considered taking us to Delhi, but apparently India refused to accept a plane full of Pakistani citizens, so the search continued. In the meantime we were beginning to run out of fuel.
The pilot had to make a quick decision. “We are flying to Azerbaijan” he announced. Azerbaijan…the country that’s nearly 4 hours away from Pakistan. The country with no direct flights to Islamabad…I burst into tears.
It was surreal. I have never expected something like this could happen. Not to me. Not when I was travelling for a wedding of someone really close. I was heartbroken, utterly shattered. I began to worry about my husband, who later told me nearly had a heart attack when he saw on the flight radar app in his mobile that instead of landing my plane turned back and began to head in the direction of Afghanistan. To make matters worse, in all its modern design, Islamabad airport still lacks an electronic information board and updates the crowds waiting outside (for safety reasons only those traveling are allowed into the building) with a printed note attached to the glass door of the airport, so it was not for another hour that my husband was able to find out I was on my way to Baku. In the meantime, I continued to cry my eyes out. I was feeling disappointed, angry and trapped – once you’re mentally prepared for landing the additional four hours of flying seem like eternity.
Surprisingly, I seemed to be the only person who took the news of our rerouted journey this badly. The rest of my fellow passengers could not have been thrilled about the change to their plans, but everyone remained calm and my continuous stream of tears seemed to attract curiosity and compassion alike. If it had been a plane full of Polish people, we would have heard a number of fights being picked up with the flight crew. Instead, the Pakistanis seemed resigned to their fate. It was what it was and they appeared to accept that no matter how annoying the detour was, there was nothing that could have been done about it. Perhaps they were better prepared for this eventuality (it wasn’t till later that I found out that fogs of this severity are common occurrence in Pakistan in the last weeks of December), or maybe the ever-present “Inshallah” uttered in response to any plans made their nation well-prepared for unexpected circumstances. Whatever it was, I was severely lacking their calm and composed approach and when we finally reached Azerbaijan my red and puffy eyes could barely see.
My dramatic performance on the plane however seemed to have worked out in my favour – while the rest of my fellow passengers were applying for the emergency visas so they could be taken by the BA representative to the hotel in Baku where they were to spend the next 18 hours until the pilot and the flight attendants could fly again (as BA don’t usually fly to Baku there was no alternative cabin crew or a plane that we could travel with earlier than the compulsory resting period allowed), I was given an alternative. Having felt sorry for me, one of the flight attendants had contacted BA Operations team who booked me on a Qatar Airways flight to Doha, from where I was meant to travel the same day to Islamabad. I had to make a decision – do I take the little note she passed on to me before we left the plane, hoping that indeed I am in the Qatar Airways’ system and will be able to fly from Doha as planned or were my odds of flying better if I stayed with the rest of the passangers in Azerbaijan? Reasoning that at least Qatar has regular flights to Pakistan (and UK, which was important in case the fog was unlikely to clear anytime soon), I decided to take my chances and boarded the plane to Doha. After another four hour flight, I spent a day at the airport waiting for the 8:20 pm flight to Islamabad. I was still there at 10 pm when it was announced that due to the fog we don’t have the permission to fly. Another melt-down, another hour wasted waiting for anyone with information to show up and tell me my fate. At midnight we were taken to a hotel in Doha, where at 3 am we were going to be driven back to the airport, hoping that by morning the weather conditions would have improved.
I don’t know what was more exciting – being able to breath fresh (albeit smoggy) air for the first time in 30 hours, having had a chance to at least catch a glimpse of a new country or the promise of stretching out on a bed and getting some sleep after almost two days of sleep deprivation. The joy was not long lived – after 2 hours of slumber we were back at the airport, awaiting further news regarding our flight. The waiting lounge was filled with uncertainty – will we fly? will we not? Even as we began to board the plane I didn’t want to let my hopes up. Four hours in and we are about to land in Islamabad when I hear the familiar “we are circling around the city to see if the fog lifts off”. My heart sinks, but luckily soon the plane follows suit. We are landing in Pakistan at last!
At the successful touchdown my heart was filled with euphoria. I missed the wedding but I made it! After over 40 hours of continuous travel I was finally in Pakistan, reunited with my husband. It no longer mattered that as soon as I saw him we had to spend 6 hours traveling in a car to Lahore to see the family and attend the dinner hosted by the groom’s family to celebrate the marriage. I was running on adrenaline and absurd levels of relief and happiness. I had two days in Pakistan, I wanted to make the most of my time there. And so I filled the next 48 hours with extroversion, the milky sweetness of doodh patti and the sugary ladoos. On the way home, I finally crushed.
Sometimes travel isn’t fun. Sometimes it takes everything out of you mentally and physically. Sometimes it goes wrong and you’re stranded in unfamiliar places, feeling stuck and scared. But in all the horrific experiences there are lessons to be learnt. You discover how you react in new situations and no matter how tough it is, you soon find out you’re tougher than you had expected. You discover that human body and mind can function on very little. You discover that although they do function, you need to take care of them afterwards to let them recover from the experience. Most importantly however, you discover the hectolitres of kindness that pour your way from all sides when things start to go wrong. It can be in a form of a hug from a baby who somehow senses that you’re upset and extends their tiny hands to you, or their mother who trusts her daughter’s instinct so she gives you the baby to hold. It can be in the form of a young Pakistani boy who asks if you need to use his phone to call someone as you’re leaving the plane in Azerbaijan and there is no wi-fi. Or simply an elderly lady who buys cookies in a duty-free shop at the Baku airport just to distribute them amongst the tired crowd, hoping to make their day a tiny bit better.
No matter where you are in life, no matter how hard things get, look for that kindness and learn your lessons. Because that’s what turns a horrible experience into a good story.