My Voyage of Discovery
Rummaging through my old papers recently, I came upon a letter I wrote over 50 years ago. The letterhead read Admiral Hotel, Washington DC, and the letter was addressed to my parents back home, in Mansehra, Pakistan. Reading it evoked both nostalgia and amusement, as old letters usually do, and I found myself reminiscing about the day I landed in the US as a young student.
My long journey had started on a cold December night with a train ride from Peshawar to Karachi and then by an Air France flight to New York via Paris, and an onward domestic flight to Washington, DC.
Arriving in DC, I checked in at the Admiral Hotel where I was put up by my sponsors. It was a modest hotel, in the hindsight, but back then it looked luxurious to me.
Up until then, my exposure to the world was limited to Mansehra and Peshawar — and what lay in between. Karachi, where I stayed for a couple of days on the way to the US, impressed me with its tall buildings and traffic lights, which didn’t exist in Peshawar then. Qamar House was one of the taller buildings of Karachi. I went there for my paperwork and rode an elevator to the 3rd or 4th floor — my first elevator ride. Similarly, the clean and efficient atmosphere of the Air France office, in PIDC House, where I bought my air ticket, seemed awesome.
Arriving in Washington DC, my immediate concern was to inform my parents back home that I had reached safely. A letter was the only practical and affordable means of communication in those days. Much as it might sound unbelievable today, there wasn’t even a direct dialing phone service between the US and Pakistan. Besides, there were no phones at the other end in Mansehra, except one at the local post office.
Sending a telegram would be costly and a hassle for someone who had just landed in a foreign land and hardly knew his whereabouts. Also, a telegram would raise an unnecessary alarm at the receiving end because telegrams those days were generally assumed to bear bad news.
So, I sat down at night to write a long letter to my parents informing them that I had reached the US safely and describing, among other things, how luxurious my hotel was. That my room had a carpet, a sofa chair and a TV (it was a black-and-white TV, and when I turned it on, a black singer was singing, “Smoke gets in your eyes …” I still remember the lines). And that, in spite of the cold weather and snow outside, the hotel was warm and cozy inside. And, the 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 had stayed at in Karachi — Nigar Hotel — somewhere in the vicinity of the city railway station didn’t have any of these ‘luxuries’. No carpet or a sofa, no TV (TV hadn’t come to Pakistan then), not even a radio. The only electrical gadgets it had were a bare light bulb and a ceiling fan, which, to my surprise, was whirring 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 at the Admiral Hotel, Washington DC.
I wrote the letter at night on the hotel stationery I found at my bedside table — another luxury that Nigar in Karachi didn’t have. The next morning, I went down to the reception to enquire if I could find postage stamps to mail my letter. Since the post office was some distance away, the receptionist directed me to a nearby hotel across the street where, she said, I could buy stamps. It was The Mayflower on Connecticut Avenue, a much bigger and fancy hotel.
The entrance to The Mayflower was through a revolving door. Not the kind we have these days where the door moves automatically and you freely walk through it with your luggage. This was a hand-pushed door with three narrow compartments. People moved in and out of the door keeping it in perpetual motion. The revolving door was also something new for me.
After watching the door for a few seconds, I quickly stepped in one of the three compartments that opened up in front of me, only to find that a man had already stepped in before me. He was a large man, dressed in a dark suit and black, shining shoes. The moment I stepped in, the door jerked to a halt. The man in the black shining shoes tried to push the door forward, as he should have, but I was blocking the movement of the door panel behind me by just being there.
So, there we were, four people stuck inside a revolving door meant for three — I being the fourth. After much effort, pushing the door into jerks, and breaking our stride into small goose steps — I actually stepping on the heels of my “roommate” — we both stumbled out into the hotel lobby, he with his shoes barely on, and I thoroughly embarrassed. The man turned around, looked at me, then looked at his shoes, and then again at me. He was more bewildered than annoyed. “Son,” he said, “it’s customary to step one at a time in a revolving door.” He was obviously a polite man.
I purchased the stamps, and before going out of the hotel, stopped at the revolving door, carefully watched its movement, and swiftly slid in like a mouse, this time in an empty compartment, and came out on Connecticut Avenue on a cold, crisp and sunny December morning — a worldly-wise man.
Postscript: I visited DC in 2013, and tried to locate the two hotels. The Mayfair is still there, a prestigious hotel, with the old revolving door replaced with a contemporary entrance, but I couldn’t find the Admiral.