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Coming home

Returning to Manila from Afghanistan last year, it was the only time I nearly kissed the ground after an overseas trip – I was so happy to be back in my own country.

Returning from Pakistan this week I was depressed to feel a tinge of envy for some of what that country has that we don’t. The first are modern, spacious airports, especially the one in Lahore. Outside the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, a giant TV screen, displayed like a massive billboard near the main entrance, welcomed arriving passengers with news from CNN and local advertising.

I can understand the capacity of oil-rich countries to build mammoth airports. During our stopover at Dubai International, for example, the shuttle ride from planeside to the transfer terminal seemed to take forever. The airport was so huge, and there was more construction going on. But Lahore, Pakistan?

In our country, one light plane skids on the main runway and all international flights must be diverted to Clark.

The sorry state of our premier airport is always a source of depression for any Filipino returning even from a brief overseas trip. Unless you’re returning from Kabul, where the veiled female security officer frisked me in a special room for women passengers where she had a toddler with her and she was cooking lunch on a portable gas stove.

But we’re not supposed to be comparing our country with Afghanistan, which could erupt any time into fratricidal warfare. We should be comparing the Philippines with other countries of the same level of economic development, such as Thailand.

We are supposed to be ahead of countries such as Cambodia, but look at how the Cambodians are developing their airports and Siem Reap, the site of Angkor Wat and stomping ground of Lara Croft.

We are supposed to be ahead of Pakistan, never mind if it’s a medium-range nuclear power. It looks like we’re ahead when you see all the Pakistanis in their long flowing tunics and pants, sitting crowded together outside the old, small airport in Peshawar, looking like menacing Taliban mullahs (or perhaps they felt menaced by the foreign she-devil looking at them with unabashed curiosity).

But then it’s Peshawar, on the edge of the Khyber Pass near the border with Afghanistan, where Pashtun tribal and ultra-conservative Islamic customs have been preserved. The airport scene is part of the unique character of the City on the Frontier, once a key trading hub along the ancient Silk Road.

Elsewhere in Pakistan the airports are much more spacious and modern. And even in Peshawar, capital of the North Western Frontier Province, the airport air-conditioning works fine.

I guess visitors must be acclimatized quickly to tropical heat, but really, something must be done about the cooling system at both the NAIA Terminal I and the Centennial terminal. An airport should not leave visitors, whether arriving or departing, with memories of discomfort from poor air-conditioning.

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Another thing the Pakistanis have is a well-planned capital. Islamabad is full of smoothly paved tree-lined roads with traffic islands teeming with brilliant marigolds. Along a wide avenue all the modern government buildings have been built, including the offices of the president and prime minister, the Supreme Court and the federal Muslim court.

Our government buildings, on the other hand, sprouted up as the need arose, as unplanned as the rest of the country. There is no government center to speak of; if one will be built, I am sure I will no longer be around to appreciate it.

Pakistan is developing ports and positioning itself as a transit point for South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and China. It is exploring the possibility of installing an oil pipeline to China direct from the Arabian Sea.

We should also be positioning our country as an entry point from the Pacific to Southeast Asia. Instead visitors are simply bypassing us and heading straight to Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, where they don’t have to emerge from the airports sweating in their business suits.

Another thing that distinguishes Pakistanis: they are genuinely bilingual, like their Indian neighbors. When they speak English, it’s pure English. No falling back on Urdu or Pashtun the way we rely on Tagalog when we run out of English words. English is a medium of instruction in Pakistani schools.

One last thing: the Pakistanis have a deep sense of history and are proud of their nation, which was born of the partition of the Indian subcontinent. The Muslims did not want to be treated like second-class citizens in the land of Mahatma Gandhi and decided to form an Islamic state.

National pride is often much stronger among those who have had to defend the creation of their state, and who like the Pakistanis are still trying to claim territory. War could still be rekindled any time between Pakistan and India over Kashmir.

But we have also fought for an independent state, rising first against Spain and then against the United States, and later against Japanese invaders. What we developed was not nationalism but colonial mentality.

Our road network is substandard and cannot keep up with the growth in vehicle density, a wall in our premier airport crumbled yesterday and we can’t open a third terminal that has been rotting away for years, and everyone is in a hurry to leave the country for better paying jobs overseas.

The Philippine diaspora is everywhere, including Pakistan. We met a Filipino who works for a United Nations agency there. Several Pakistanis told me about having neighbors who are married to lovely, friendly Filipino women.

There is also a growing number of affluent Pakistani households that are employing Filipinos — as maids.

And that’s one reason for my depression upon my return.

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