Balu ushered me to the vehicle in bit of a rush. Balu? Was that really his name? I truly hoped it was though he did not have any easy going, saxophone loving idleness about him which his namesake showed. This short fellow, in a drab brown shalwar kemeez that failed to hide the fact that he looked like he was about to give birth to triplets, and adorned with a moustache that glistened in the sun, was slightly agitated and would have no messing about on the street. I jumped into the Toyota as directed, then Balu disappeared and was back again a few moments later with a holster and 45. Scrambling in he told the driver to get going, dropped the holster on the floor, chambered a round, eased off the hammer and tucked the pistol under his leg. He glanced my way and solemnly declared “This is for you” (he failed to see the humour in that, while I hope he meant “for my benefit”), and that he and his weapon are my new best friends in this dark city. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had decided, depending on the situation, on getting clear from his vehicle as fast as I damn well could. After patting his black betty a few times he looked me in the eye and without moving that moustache asked, ‘Now, where would you like to go?’
Ha, I had forgotten the lunchtime conversation the previous day when I had mentioned it was a shame the place was locked down and I couldn’t see the city. Here we were, about to get a tour by a guide who was not really interested in a tour but was indulging someone anyway. So I told him anywhere was good. Off we chugged, down some lanes to a shopping mall and a bazaar. No, you are not getting out. That’s a mall.
Oh, goodo I thought. Now my education is complete. Aloud “How about the port?’ He brightened up a bit, gave directions to the driver, we hung a “youeee” and headed to the port. That proved more interesting with its legacy of old colonial British buildings and teeming throngs of workers, but even I was getting nervous when we finally stopped and turned about. Pirates of the Caribean had nothing on these guys. Hard looking navvies the lot of them, and none of us wanted to get caught up in any melee down here. So we made our way back through other grand buildings looking tired and out of time but lending a serious air to places such as the stock exchange and banks. We troll past Napier Barracks (“I have Sindh”) but there is nothing to see except blank walls topped with broken glass and the occasional pair of eyes watching our passing from the slots of guard posts.
We stop for lunch. Pistol is hidden away. A new crew takes me to the airport. Before we swing onto the last stretch of airport road we pull over. I’m wary. A man steps out of the cover of young eucalypts, the window is wound down and the 45 is handed over. We pull into the checkpoints. Detectors tune into the laptop in my bag and there is an animated discussion about whether or not I will unpack it. We don’t. Pintle mounted machine guns track us from across the road. I am bundled out and a call is made. A “friend” appears out of the crowd. My driver and his friend leave to retrieve their pistol and no doubt wonder at my desire to drive around town. My new friend walks me through check in, takes me to the front of the line at immigration, defuses a “609” which is shouted when my passport is scanned (no idea what 609 means) and waves me to the aircraft gate. In no other third world country have I taken 11 minutes to check in and make it to the gate before. But in these sorts of countries it is always about the friends you have not the things you know.
Tongue in cheek I might say that I like my new found friends when they facilitate such things. But I genuinely like these guys for their ready willingness to speak so directly about the shortcoming of their political system, the mistakes their country has made and the instability which robs them of prosperity. The killing of the climbing party is on everyone’s lips. It’s a conversation I can never have in India. These guys are very informed of regional, global and of course US politics. That is refreshing. But so too the frankness of the dialogue. And so too the reassurance that none of them have ever heard a shot fired in Karachi. Given the unsettled atmosphere in the city, and my nervous friends driving around town with a round up the spout it was reassuring to hear that was the case. Or were they just facilitating my comfort? I was never really sure so getting ready to scamper means I am always on edge, assessing every lane and alleyway, wall and ditch that we pass looking for places to bolt – a perpetually changing escape plan forever unfolding in my head. Even, but especially when I am travelling in the dark with friends.