The vexing challenges a typical Karachi motorist faces often start in their vehicle's workshops. Usually, motorists have the option of handing over their vehicles to either the more expensive authorized dealerships, where you practically need to sell a kidney to cover a mere oil change, or try their luck with a roadside mechanic.
The professional workshops are often reliable, but require far too much time in a city where functioning without a car for a day is almost impossible.
To make matters worse, you could walk in for a simple tire rotation, and will be told about a few dozen other things wrong with your ride. Ever had Google convince you that you were dying of a terminal illness after checking a simple coughing symptom? Well, it’s the same.
Roadside mechanics on the other hand are highly unpredictable. Having such a mechanic work on your vehicle is often like getting surgery from a drunken doctor with a qualification from an Axact university: “Haan, I went to fix your hose pipe, but I discovered a few other problems. One thing led to another, and you should just probably buy a new engine now.”
Several years ago I took my Nissan Sunny to one such mechanic, who replaced my fuel pump mistakenly with the wrong model from a vehicle with twice the horsepower. Unfortunately, this one was so powerful; it burst petrol through the fuel injection system, which he had also messed around with, lighting a spark that set my vehicle on fire.
Yes, this actually happened.
Thankfully, I managed to escape just in time, though ended up having to sell my Nissan for scrap. Meanwhile, all the mechanic could manage was: “Ooops."
I suppose this is as good a time as any to speak of all the other frustrations drivers face on the road.
1) Traffic signals
Normally, stopping at a traffic signal is a good way to contemplate what you have been doing with your life, or fantasize about how you would like to cover your ex-mechanic in delicious honey and toss him into a bear cave.
Unfortunately, traffic signals are no time to relax in Pakistan.
As if by instinct, I instantly start shaking my finger at all those walking around me at a traffic signal as if to say, “No…no…no!”
Traffic signals are a little like Formula One pits stops, where you are quickly harassed by squeegee boys armed with wipers and water bottles, ready to ‘clean’ your already spotless windshield with their dirty soap water, or members of the well-meaning transsexual community, who will wish you the best, tell you how handsome you are even if you have a face that leaves little children crying, and openly pray that you have a dozen children with the woman sitting in the passenger seat next to you even if it happens to be your sister, at which point you politely remind tell them: “Our last name isn’t Lannister.”
More frustrating in the congested traffic is how some genius will decide the green signal is the right time to slowly shuffle across the street at a speed reserved for Hanif Mohammad, or to be stuck at this go time behind a driver screaming, crying or pleading for a gang of inspired squeegee boys to leave his vehicle alone.
On the rare occasion you find yourself unmolested at a traffic signal, you sit back and relax in your car, enjoying the peace in silent bliss, when you are suddenly delivered a heart attack by a beggar who chooses this exact moment to sharply rap on your window like a target killer high on angel dust.
Traffic is often congested in the city, with honking cars having the luxury of very little space between them.
Sometimes, it seems as if a motorcyclist see the tiny gaps between vehicles and says to himself, “challenge accepted.” He is determined to drive through these small spaces by doing as much damage to rearview mirrors, paint jobs and bumpers as possible.
No, you haven’t driven in Karachi without your rear view mirror smashed by a motorcyclist who turns back to glare at you in anger.
Yes Mr. Motorcyclist, after zigzagging across the road like an intoxicated snake, you hit me, and it is somehow my fault.
There are two moments when citizens of Karachi drop whatever it is they are doing and rush home with the uncontrolled energy of a dog at a park.
The first is when Altaf Bhai is angry – because when the brother from London is upset, you know you have to head back to the safety of your house – and the second is when it starts to rain a little.
Unfortunately, everyone else in the city also has the same bright idea at this time, leaving the city resembling a race between water buffalos across a lake. No, there isn’t a citizen in Karachi who hasn’t narrated a long horrific story of nearly drowning on the street to their therapist.
Worse still is how muggers take advantage of these catastrophes to make a killing. When dark clouds form on the Karachi skyline, regular people look forward to a change in weather, but thieves see the formation of opportunity. To them, a long traffic jam is nothing but a nice tasty buffet: “Honda, Toyota, Mercedes, Honda, Toyota, and Suzuki… yum!"
4) The VIPs
Few experiences are as frustrating as getting caught in a traffic jam because of a protocol of government cars driving through the streets, or even getting stuck in front of one.
Here, no courtesy is shown by law enforcement officials as they blast their sirens and scream and shout on their loudspeakers for you to move and let them pass, even if there is no space for you to safely do so. Clearly, the only life they are concerned with preserving is the VIP tasked to them.
5) The big boys
The two largest predators patrolling our urban jungle are minibuses and big Prados. Neither is to be trifled with.
Minibus drivers, usually high on some stimulant, make their own rules, driving and stopping when they please, squashing whatever comes in their path. Essentially, they are like fast moving, slow thinking elephants.
A minibus is only more dangerous when its driver decides that a perfectly busy road, full of men, women, and children, is the right time to race another bus. Unfortunately, the resulting traffic hazards are no laughing matter. I have, myself, witnessed disturbing scenes where a minibus crushed a poor motorcyclist on one occasion, and fell on a rickshaw on another.
Similarly to minibuses, the drivers of Prados have a bad reputation. These SUVs coast through the night as if the rules do not apply to them. Worse still is how dangerous men sometimes use these vehicles to prey on unsuspecting people.
In late 2012, there were rumors that the inhabitants of a black Prado were kidnapping women. These rumors, spread across text messages as well as Facebook, resulted in fear across the port city.
I can’t verify if these reports were true, but I can share an experience where my wife escaped a black Prado during the peak of these reports. I can confirm, because I was driving right behind her during the chase.
My future spouse and I met at Zamzama Commercial Street one evening, arriving at the location separately in our own cars.
For those unaware, Zamzama is a popular double-street in Karachi, on the either side of which are many eateries and clothing shops. There, we met at around 8pm, and spent the next three hours together, until we decided to call it a night.
As usual, I decided to escort her home by driving behind her Khyber in my own Nissan. As it turns out, it was a great thing I did.
As my wife-to-be drove out of the Zamzama parking lot with me on her tail I noticed a hulking black Prado behind us, snarling through the night like a mechanical beast. What happened next was nothing short of a Fast & Furious-style car chase, albeit with decidedly less glamorous vehicles. For several minutes, the black Prado proceeded to stalk my wife, speeding up when she sped up and slowing down when she did.
At one point, the Prado accelerated ahead of my wife's car and parked in the middle of the road, as if to block her path. We only escaped the situation by taking a U-turn at a poorly lit spot that the Prado had obviously overlooked in its pursuit.
Later, I learned from my wife that she only saw the driver of the vehicle who was a man in his late 30s. But I had certainly seen more than one occupant, and I'm loathe to think what would have happened if I hadn't been following her...
So there you have it… the good… the bad… and the ugly… of driving in Karachi.