Re-writing travel rules in Karachi (Letter from Karachi)
Before setting out for an official assignment in Pakistan's largest and most populous city, my colleagues advised me to carry a sling bag, stuff it with important papers, passport and wallet to ensure I don't lose these essential things in a foreign land. Little did I know that if it is Karachi these rules have to be re-written.
I am in Karachi to cover Fashion Pakistan Week and when a friend came to pick me up from my hotel for breakfast, she was honest in her text message which read: "Don't come outside the lobby till I text you. I don't want you to be mugged."
Frankly, the message looked silly to me, firstly because the hotel is located in the heart of the city and secondly why would a person snatch in broad daylight?
The reality struck me later in the middle of a dinner conversation when a fellow fashion journalist described how she was recently mugged at gunpoint.
"I was sitting in a car, and two young boys came pointing a gun at my head. They asked me to remove all my jewellery and took away my purse and phone. It happened in broad daylight," Andleeb Rana Farhan said.
Incredulous it may seem: robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight - probably this might be a juicy news story for crime reporters if nothing else is happening in an Indian city.
But for Karachi's residents, it is a way of life they have accepted and moved on with it.
"The incidents of thefts and mugging have become quite common in the past few years. People holding you at gunpoint and snatching your belongings isn't scary any more. There are many who have been attacked twice and there are those who have never faced any such situation," shopkeeper Mohsin Iqbal told the visiting IANS correspondent.
The unfortunate one to have been robbed twice is Zenia, a fashion editor. But her close shave with death last December is something that throws light on the grave consequences of these muggings.
"They shot a bullet at my car that broke the window pane and missed me by a whisker. I was sitting at the back seat and my sister in front and a friend was driving the car. They stopped us at a traffic signal. Suddenly, the situation got out of control and they shot at the car," Zenia recollected.
"It was scary," she added.
Post this, I did a quick Google check, and the minute I typed "mugging in", the search engine throws up three options: mugging in Karachi (topping the list), mugging in Rawalpindi (second) and mugging in Pakistan (third).
This isn't astonishing, considering a Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) report of 2013.
It says that 21,885 cell phones were reported snatched or stolen from various parts of Karachi in 2013.
"Some of the cases even go unreported," said a PR professional.
"I have asked my driver to carry cheap replicas of phones. Muggers want your phone and money; they are not keen on the brand. So, hand over these phone dummies to them. Wear less jewellery and try to carry less cash. But if it is a bad day, none of these tricks can save you," he pointed out.
All this while I am in this constant dilemma: To carry the sling bag or not and whether to carry my passport in it?
As I cross the road to my hotel, scared and alert, I hold on to my sling bag tightly as if a mother is holding her newborn baby.
Travel rules indeed have changed for Karachi!
(Shilpa Raina can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 21-02-2014)