Recollections of that first journey to the US some 40 years ago
Recently, while rummaging through my old papers, I came upon a letter written by me, over 40 years ago, on the letterhead of the Admiral Hotel in Washington, DC. It was addressed to my parents back home in Mansehra.
Reading it evoked feelings of nostalgia and amusement as old letters usually do. I found myself reminiscing about the "discoveries" I made and new things I learnt when I landed in the US as a raw young student.
I had started my journey with a train ride from Peshawar to Karachi, then an Air France flight to New York via Paris, and an onward domestic flight to Washington, DC. I checked in at the Admiral Hotel, a modest hotel in hindsight, but it looked pretty luxurious to me back then.
My exposure to the world until then was limited to Mansehra and Peshawar and what lay in between. Karachi, where I stayed for a couple of days on my way to the US, impressed me with its tall buildings and traffic lights, which didn’t exist then in Peshawar. Qamar House was one of the taller buildings of Karachi, where I went for my paper work, and rode a lift or elevator to the 3rd or 4th floor. This was my first elevator ride. Similarly, I found the clean and efficient atmosphere in the Air France office in PIDC House, where I went to buy my air ticket, fascinating.
On arriving in Washington, DC, my first priority was to inform my parents that I had reached safely. Since there was no internet, email, smartphones or free apps we have these days, not even direct dialing landline phones, a letter was the only affordable means of communication. A long distance phone call would be too costly and, besides, there was no phone at the other end, in Mansehra, except in the post office. A telegram would also be costly and a hassle -- and would raise unnecessary alarm at the receiving end.
Telegrams those days were generally assumed to bear bad news.
I wrote a long letter at night in which, among other things, I described how luxurious the hotel I was staying at was. That it had an elevator, and my room had a carpet, a sofa chair and a tv. And that, in spite of the cold weather, the hotel was warm and cozy inside, and that, wonder of wonders, my room had an attached bathroom with running hot and cold water.
The Admiral looked splendid to me because the hotel I stayed in at Karachi didn’t have any of those luxuries. No elevator, no carpet or a sofa in my room, nor tv or even radio. The only electrical gadget it had was a light bulb and a ceiling fan, which, to my surprise, was running even in the month of December. Peshawar was shivering cold when I had boarded the train. In Paris, I had spent the night at the airport lounge because I didn’t have a visa for France.
Equipped with this much knowledge of the world and hotels, I landed in Washington, DC on a cold December morning and checked in at the Admiral.
The next morning, I went down to the reception to enquire where could I find postage stamps to mail my letter. Since the post office was at some distance, the receptionist directed me to a nearby hotel where, he said, I could find postage stamps.
It was The Mayflower hotel, across Connecticut Avenue, a much bigger and fancier hotel.
The entrance door to The Mayflower was a revolving door. Not the kind of electronic doors we have these days where you can freely walk through with your luggage. This was a hand-pushed door with three narrow compartments. People moved in and out, and the door was in a perpetual motion.
After watching the door for a few seconds, I quickly stepped in one of the three compartments that opened up in front of me, but where a man had already stepped in before me -- a large man, dressed in a dark suit and black shining shoes.
The door immediately jerked to a stop. The man tried to push the door forward, as he should have, but I was blocking the movement of the door panel behind us by just being there.
So, there we were, four people stuck inside the revolving door meant for three, I being the fourth.
After some effort, pushing the door into jerks and breaking our stride into small goose steps, and I actually stepping on the heels of my "roommate", we both stumbled out into the lobby, he with his shoes barely on, and I thoroughly embarrassed.
He looked at me for a few seconds, a bit bewildered and annoyed, and said. "Son, it’s customary to step one at a time in a revolving door". He was a polite man.
I purchased the stamps, and before going out, stopped at the door, carefully watched its movement, and swiftly entered it like a mouse, this time in an empty compartment, and came out on Connecticut Avenue on a cold but crisp and sunny morning -- a worldly man!