It was the last week of December 2002, only a year and three months after the 9/11.The world was still raw after the attack on the Twin Towers. My daughter and I were travelling to USA under our surname Osama, a name that had become controversial, notorious and world famous overnight from a noble-man’s to that of an outcast and terrorist. As the plane landed at Los Angeles airport and we came out of the plane, I froze. On both sides of the chute armed soldiers carrying stein guns stood alert with their guns pointing down. I caught my daughter’s hand and whispered ‘We’ll die together.’ But of course, they were not there to shoot us down just because we were ‘Osamas’, the Americans were wary of all Muslim passengers and airliners. The 9/11 incident had changed the way the world looked at Muslims specially.
Los Angeles, or the ‘land of angels’ as the name indicates, is one of the most beautiful states of US, and Santa Monica is a jewel sitting in its midst. Not just because it houses the Hollywood and Universal Studios, but because it is not overly populated and congested like New York, it has a very peaceful and posh ambiance. My son was late to receive us at the airport, a habit that I find quite annoying in him as he still manages to be late- always. In my nervousness, I kept pushing a crumpled dollar bill in the machine in a bid to call him, while the bill kept popping out, until I heard a familiar voice, ‘Mom! I am here.’ ‘Where?’ I turned around. ‘Here, take your dollar, the machine accepts clean, un-crumpled bills, and sorry for being late.’ He picked my pilot bag and we moved towards the parking area. We were so exhausted after the long flight, that when he offered to take us out for dinner, we agreed but soon he drove back home with two sleeping females in his car.
There was a time when USA offered visas/green cards to people through lottery. I know quite a few people who went to America after they got visa and green card through lottery. When I applied for US visa, I was not even interviewed, I was informed by the agency to come and collect my visa for a mere Rs1000/- fee only. That was back in 1998/99. Such a liberal attitude by US government is unheard of now.
We were in US for a short time, and we wanted to make the most of it. Visits to the Hollywood and the Universal studios, the UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), the RGS (Rand Graduate School, where my son was enrolled for his PhD) were truly memorable. The grandeur, the cleanliness and organization of UCLA and RGS made me nostalgic. It reminded me bitterly of the condition of Karachi University, my alma mater. How badly it has been treated, yet it stands steadfast graduating students year after year.
The concept of a ‘Dollar Store’ was awesome. The things that we could buy from a dollar store were amazing. We could spend hours, much to the annoyance of my son, going around the aisles and choosing gift items for small children back home. In fact we combed through all the dollar stores that we could find along the route of the Big Blue Bus. The idea of a ‘Dollar Store’ sneaked into Pakistan also (the 50 rupee and 100 rupee shops at the Park Towers). The celebration of Christmas and new-year was in the air and the malls were literally crowded by buyers. The air resounded with Christmas carols and jingles. On days when my son could not accompany us, we would go around on the Big Blue Bus. We would go for a ride along the route of the bus, stepping down at places where we found any interesting thing to see, taking pictures, window shopping etc.
The visit to Holly wood and the Universal Studios were truly remarkable. We took a train tour around the studios. It was amazing to see the sets of famous movies like The Dante’s Peak, The Jurassic Park, The Jaws, etc. On the set of TV serial F.R.I.E.N.D.S, shooting was going on. It was more awe inspiring to know that the entire movie of Dante’s peak was filmed on a ramp and a jeep, and Jaws was filmed around a pond not more than 20 meters in length and breadth. The plastic shark gave us a shock as it suddenly emerged from the water.
Generally speaking, Americans are friendly people; they exchange smiles on eye contact and hold the door for you to enter before them. Their love for animals is obvious by the number of vet clinics appearing in almost every locality. It was very amusing to see an Animal Family Planning Centre. However there were things I noted with concern too. Muslims who went for Friday prayers to mosque were not allowed to park near the mosque. Although on normal week days parking was allowed in that particular area. On Friday special police squads would circle the area stopping people from parking.
The most memorable experience of this visit was our flight back home. It was January and the weather was very cold, heavy fog forced our plane to stop at Taipei much longer than scheduled; as a result we missed our connecting flight to Pakistan. We were put on another flight that took us to Dhaka, where after a night stay we were to board Biman Air to Karachi. My daughter was sceptical of Dhaka, and though I had never been to Dhaka, I told her all the good things I knew about it (pre-Bangladesh). But soon I was disappointed. The airport was the most horribly dirty airport I had ever seen. The washrooms were unbearable. We had to spend the night in that filthy place. It is impossible to relate how we spent the time till 5 am. There was a gentleman who was facing the same ordeal with us. He warned us not to touch anything on the plane. Not heeding to what he said, my daughter tried to adjust the air conditioning and Lo Behold! The entire unit with lighting and call bell system fell down. She looked at it in dismay but nobody bothered to help put it back. A little while later after the plane took off, a bearded man stood up and started giving azaan for Fajr, and all the men stood up and queued in the walkway to offer prayers. They did not bother that they were embarrassing the ladies with their protruding elbows. I had to tell one man to move forward or backwards because his elbow was touching me. A young boy, not more than 14-15 years old misbehaved with the air hostess for some unknown reason, and no one intervened. For once I too did not say anything despite the fact that the teacher in me was struggling to box his ears. For the rest of the journey we sat quietly praying to reach home safely.