Before the flight from Singapore landed in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, Filipina Corazon switched from rubber sandals, shorts, and a tank top, to long beige pants, a long-sleeved batik shirt, and formal brown shoes. The headscarf she bought at Changi Airport was stuffed in her pocket in case of police spot checks.
The next morning, good weather permitted us to take off on the once-a-day flight to Gilgit. The ride on the twenty-seat Cessna was frightening and bumpy, but the views of the mighty Karakoram Range from the window were superb. On the runway in Gilgit, the October air at 4,900 feet altitude was bitterly cold, biting through our thick wool sweaters and jackets. Snow-capped mountains were everywhere we looked. Inside the terminal, while waiting for our baggage, Corazon pointed out the waiting-room signs in English and Urdu. “Women Only” said one. “Man” said the other.
Dadu Khan from the Aga Khan Foundation had a minibus waiting for us outside. Corazon had to sit up front with two other girls. I sat in the back with the men. Male-female contact was not permitted, even in a private vehicle. The hotel in Gilgit, despite its spectacular sunset views of Rakaposhi and K2, was deserted, with no guests braving the winter. The room heater, fueled with kerosene, gave off fumes, making sleep difficult.
Corazon and I clasped together, freezing through the night, till the sun crept over the mountains and into our room. Outside, the pink and purple slivers of dawn sky over the majestic, snowy peaks took me back to Kilimanjaro.
Next day, our jeep bumped through huge potholes on dirt roads only inches wider than the vehicle itself, as we visited one village school after another. In each classroom, a gold-framed picture of the Aga Khan—with the Ismaili insignia in red and green (just like the ones in the mosque and school in Kampala)—hung proudly above the old blackboards facing the rickety tables and chairs. Teenage boys and girls, many of them blue-eyed and fair-haired, stood to attention and sang in unison, “Good moooorrning, sir.” Descendants of Alexander the Great and his Macedonian armies.
Corazon taught one of the classes the English words to the song “Ten Green Bottles” while I sat with Dadu Khan on a wooden bench outside to learn more about my potential job. Mastering the song rapidly, the students sang their hearts out, “Ten Green Bottles” echoing in the hills and valleys below the mountains. As we were leaving, I saw one of the girls take out a small tin charcoal heater from under her skirt and replenish it with fresh coals from her school bag.
There was a lot of work to be done here, and I spent the next two cold and rainy days talking to teachers and Foundation staff in Gilgit. On the third day, the weather cleared, so we had to fly back to Islamabad while we could. Dadu Khan saw us off at the hotel.
At the airport, the plane was delayed for a few hours, so Corazon was hustled off to the women’s waiting room with two other female passengers, their headscarves revealing only their beady blue eyes. The only other male passenger with me in the “Man” section was a dark-skinned Muslim with a bushy black beard. He wore a fine-bladed scimitar that stuck out from his long woolen coat. Bored at the delay, I looked for my book of poems by the well-known Pakistani author, Iqbal, only to realize that it wasn’t in my bag. It must be with Corazon, I thought, and wandered over to the women’s section to get it from her.
Corazon was happily chatting away in sign language with one of the women who, by now, had taken off her headscarf. She had beautiful rosy cheeks and a fair complexion. Upon seeing me, Corazon screamed with a look of complete terror on her face. Her eyes were focused behind me. I turned, just in time to see the man with the bushy black beard, two feet behind me, scimitar raised in the air, about to slash my head off.
I swerved to avoid the blade, but it cut through to the skin on my elbow, and blood trickled out slowly. Petrified, I screamed “Help!” as loud as I could. A crowd, including airport staff, appeared at the women’s waiting room. Some of them pulled off the black-bearded man, who had now grappled me to the floor. It took two solid hours of animated persuasion in Urdu before an airline staffer could get it through to the man that I had not purposefully walked into the women’s waiting room to see his wife’s unveiled face, that the only reason I had
gone there was to get my book from Corazon. When she produced the book from her handbag, this was of no consequence to him. He only backed off when it was time to board the plane to Islamabad. He forbade his wife to get on the flight - I had already seen her face, and that was more than enough for him.
During the flight, I was shaking all over, imagining all the worst-case scenarios if the blade had caught me on the head.
In Islamabad, I was supposed to get on a flight to Karachi and then board a later return flight to Geneva for my interview. I never got on either flight. Instead, I mailed the tickets back to the Foundation in Geneva with my apologies and regrets