KARACHI — No one would ever mistake this city for a safe one. At dinner parties, people one-up each other by trading tales of the last time they were robbed at gunpoint.
Paranoia that you'll be mugged is widespread. People in posh Karachi neighborhoods employ private guard services, stationing men with AK-47s on their front lawns to ward off thieves. Every house that can afford one has an alarm system, and every child in those homes learns how to operate it — from arming to disarming, to punching in a special alert if there is an intruder, to knowing where the safety switch is located in each room of the house.
In short, this city is home to a population highly sensitized to security. Which is why I was baffled to learn recently that in the city's most crowded areas there's an honor system of valet parking that defies all common sense.
Karachi is a densely populated city, and the parts of it that were built during colonial rule appear designed to terrify claustrophobics. The numerous indoor markets, selling everything from plastic buckets to spices, aren't near ample parking — and hauling your wares back to the car in an area where motorcycle and rickshaw drivers freely cruise the sidewalks can end in disaster.
So instead of dealing with the parking madness, here's what people do: First, they drive up to the area of the market where they're most likely to shop. Then they roll down their windows, waving over one of the random men standing on the side of the road who've all leapt to attention. The shopper gets out and heads to the market, and the man drives off with their car, finding a narrow alley to park it in. Once the shopper is finished, the driver finds them and drives the car to wherever they are. All for a paltry tip.
The system could be laden with problems. The drivers wear no uniforms; you may or may not learn their names. There's no formal operator running the show, no insurance agreement. Drivers simply trust that the stranger who takes their car away will kindly return it — something you'd think people in a city like Karachi would worry about.
But, encouragingly, I've never heard of anyone's car being stolen this way. In fact, friends and family swear by the informal valet method, preferring it to hiring a driver or trying to park a car themselves.
I have to say, the entire experience fills me with a sense of hope. In the United States, no one would ever hand a car over to a valet service unless the driver was wearing a special vest and offered a receipt. Yet in Karachi, a place where people are normally so distrustful of one another, a system of practical interdependence flourishes.