Here I Come

By Sonya Rehman

The past few weeks have had me reeling.  I left Lahore on the 1st of August with a crazy, extended travel itinerary planned out ahead of me. Little did I know I was going to be air-bound, airport-bound and nauseated for over 24 hours.

I was super amped about my departure. This was because I’d waited for two years to finally attend Journalism School at Columbia University in New York. The wait was primarily due to a lack of aid to cover my fees for the year (a typical, run-of-the-mill student sob story – boo hoo).

Until however, the Fulbright Scholarship came along – like a buffed superhero – and swiped me off my feet.

So this is what my travel itinerary looked like: Lahore to Islamabad – Islamabad to Dubai – a 9-hour wait at the Dubai International Airport (yikes), followed by a 14-hour flight to Washington (double yikes) – a connecting flight to Albany – a two day stay at Albany (for the Fulbright Gateway Orientation) and then my final destination: New York City on the 5th.

‘Okaaaaay’, I thought, ‘I can do this’. I felt tough and independent, until PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) began ‘descending’ into Dubai’s International Airport.  Feeling like I was sitting on a razor-edged gangsta rap song, the plane literally plummeted, twirled and tumbled thousands of feet below to the tarmac. Holding onto my seatbelt and wheezing in utter panic, my mind raced: ‘I can’t die. No I can’t. God does NOT have sadistic tendencies. Uh oh – turbulence, air-pockets! Okay, okay, so uh, make eye contact with someone…anyone! Okay not the Arab guy, NOT THE ARAB GUY. Uh oh is the Arab guy staring? Yes he’s staring! Air-pockets! I’m a good girl I am!’

Minutes later, we had ‘descended’.

I don’t think I’ve ever loved PIA’s signature jingle as passionately as I did when it started playing, as the plane inched its way slowly down the landing strip. Quivering like a jellyfish with a bad case of hypochondria – I was suddenly a happy trooper.

But let’s not get started on the 14-hour plane journey to Washington. I will NOT go there! It was utter madness. By the end of it, I felt like one of those mutant chickens grown in the kitchens of KFC. Shiver me timbers!

On my way to Albany, however, I met with a few other wonderful Fulbrighters. Looking back now, I can’t help but laugh out loud when, as our little plane sliced through dense clouds and an overcast sky, I looked at this girl from Hunza (who was sitting next to me) and asked her worriedly, my brow furrowed; “Think we’re gonna crash?”

Suddenly, the poor girl, like me, was frightened out of her wits. That comforted me.

But anyway, onto happier things – I arrived at the JFK airport in New York on the 5th of August after getting over my jet-lag in Albany (in addition to making some wonderful friends during the Fulbright Orientation program).

Hailing a yellow cab and loading in my suitcases, I took in as much of the city as I could – as the cab hurtled its way down the road. My senses were overloaded. The skyscrapers made me feel like a choonti, an ant.

The city was congested, throbbing with energy, pulsating with life. How clichéd. But so apt when describing New York.

In my initial few days, apart from everything else, two things about the city truly stuck out for me. Firstly, almost every second person on the street was walking a dog.

Dogs – in all shapes and sizes. Shitzus, Labs, Bloodhounds, Great Danes, Chihuahuas, Spaniels, Terriers and more. I simply couldn’t get enough of stopping almost every dog walker on the street and petting his/her pooch. So much so that I missed, and continue to miss my furry little companions back home immensely.

But it made me convinced that throughout my nine months in New York, I would continue kneeling down, giving a tail-wagging, wet-nosed, cheerful fella a quick pet and belly rub.

The second thing which stuck out for me in New York was that at night, the city looked like something out of a comic book: the mammoth skyscrapers, the lights, the slim winding roads, the sign posts, the shops and the people.

At night, the city is surreal, loud, mystifying. Like a trippy, artsy, bohemian sci-fi.

Or maybe I’m just an inexperienced traveler. But it’s true. To the foreign eye, New York is a mind-trip. And when I’d arrived, I was way past the ‘tripped out’ stage.

People from all walks of life, wearing everything and anything imaginable, tourists, New Yorkers – the city is a medley of cultures and colours.

And how can I forget the first time I walked by the Journalism School’s building. How my heart soared! I couldn’t stop smiling! The first few days of orientation went by like a breeze. Sitting in the school’s Lecture Hall amidst young, energetic journalists, each one of us was asked to introduce ourselves. When it was my turn, I stood up with a lump in my throat and looking over at the hall of students; I told them how happy and overwhelmed I was to have made it, to be with them – J-School’s Class of 2010!

In New York, and in Journalism School, I find myself inspired continuously. From my professors to my class fellows – it is almost humbling to be in the presence of so much brilliance. I’m also astounded by the approachability and humility of my professors and deans. Such remarkable role models they make, and how I value their constructive criticism.

And regarding my batch mates, one of them for instance, a girl from Hong Kong (called Ivy) has interviewed seven Nobel Laureates. One of whom was John Nash! And Ivy’s only 24-years-old.

She has to be one of the most unassuming, down to earth, young journalist’s I’ve ever met. Lacking even an iota of arrogance.

Living and studying on your own in a foreign country can be awfully overwhelming for an international student. Even though it’s been a little over a month that I’ve been here, I’ve only now felt myself acclimatizing to the way of life in the Big Apple. It was hardly instantaneous, not like I had imagined it to be. I didn’t take to it like a fish to water – more like a fish to a skateboard! But the freedom has been liberating, from the most basic of things such as walking down the road to a bookstore or a restaurant, or meeting a friend at a park or the movies. And apart from being overwhelming, for an international student, studying in another country can be astonishingly empowering. So empowering that with time, it can make one become a little haughty.

But last night, while looking out of my window, and letting the view of the Hudson River fill my eyes, I made a silent promise to myself: that no matter what happens; I’d never forget my roots. That I would remain humble and persevering and that upon my return to Pakistan next summer, I would remain tolerant of my surroundings.

Home is Home. How I miss Lahore and my loved ones. But I remain wistful, homesick, in joy.

The Friday Times

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