Between a school and an ice-cream shop

How much does waiting in an air conditioned car cost when picking up your kids from school, and is there a better option?

Being subjected to the terrors of the midday sun in Karachi while you do daily school runs amidst soul-crushing traffic is bad enough without being subjected to the mental gymnastics of everyday financial considerations.

But for those with children, this extreme-sport is an everyday phenomenon. And when parenting and the weather join hands with a troubled economy an unholy trinity is formed, and calculations become a necessity. 

For those of you who don’t have children, imagine standing outside the school gate, with one, two, three or however many little ones you have while you wait for your car. The beads of sweat that were forming earlier when you were going inside the gate are now full-fledged globules hurtling down your spine. It is, as the French would call it, qiyammat. Except this happens five days a week. 

And things can get even more complicated. Those who have kids in different schools or with kids at least four years apart in age, it is a different kind of hell – that of different home times. I, like so many others, pick up my youngest from school at 12.45pm but I don’t leave. Because the second child’s home time is too close for us to leave, and far enough to be more torture.

That is where a decision must be made. Do I go home and come back again or slug it out for the extra 30-40 minutes in the car with the engine running and the AC on. With petrol at nearly Rs 240 per litre, it isn’t as easy a call as one might think. For most people it will depend on how close home is to the school. In my case, I wait. 

I sit there. I sit and I wait. My second one walks out languidly by 1.15pm. We weave through parents (mostly mothers), older siblings, grandparents, domestic staff and all the while I have a manic smile plastered on my face, desperately trying to appear pleasant to people saying hello. 

We can now wait for the car to drive up to us or walk to it. The heat makes it difficult to decide. Sometimes the driver will decide for us while we squint at him confusedly, brain melting at 100 degrees centigrade. If I’m driving myself there is no decision to make and we trudge forth. 

There is a lot of traffic, a lot of honking, a lot of students with obnoxiously large bags that bump into you. Did I mention it’s very hot at this point? We get into the car, sticky and tired and wonder why the AC is cooling so slowly.

I only wish, dear reader, that the challenge was just physical. It isn’t. It’s financial as well. And this is where it begins. 

You see, one more child has to be picked up, from a different school, at a different time. Until May, I was just going home, dropping my younger ones to change, eat and do whatever they wanted with their lives while I rushed back to pick my eldest. She gets off at 2.15pm but makes it to the gate by 2.20pm. 

Come August, and the rise in fuel prices made me reconsider our routine, because going back and forth costs an arm and a leg. Sorry for the cliche. 

(Damn you, Miftah Ismail. No, wait… damn you, IMF. No wait… damn you, previous PTI government. No wait… damn you, Putin. You know, you can damn whoever you want, depending on your political opinion, but it won’t make much difference to today’s trying economic realities.)

We’ll wait, I decided, now that the new school year has started. It’s financially prudent. The options are waiting in the car or hanging out nearby. 

On day one, I decided we’d go to a convenience shop in a strip mall across the road, get snacks, Gatorade, crisps and so on. At checkout I realised I’d spent Rs2,600. I quickly returned the 750-rupee packet of almonds. It was still too much of a bill to do five days a week.

Mental calculation: Rs1,900 into 22 days of school a month equals… Rs.41,800! Err, that’s no good. 

On day two, I decided no convenience store. Ice cream, perhaps. So we went to Baskin Robbins, where child number one got two scoops of chocolate ice cream, child number three got one scoop, and well, I got excited when I saw that there was a sugar-free variety and decided to treat myself to a scoop too. We spent approximately Rs1,200.

Mental calculation: Rs1,200 into 22 days of school a month equals… Rs26,400! Still too much. 

On day three, I thought let’s just wait in the car. I kept falling asleep while child two and three argued, cried, growled, said ‘I will never speak to you again’ to each other and then fell silent from sheer fatigue. Of course this meant keeping the car and AC on for almost an hour. This day I was told I’m ruining the car, I’m destroying the car, how can I leave it running for so long and so on. 

Google throws up about 1.2 litres per hour, but not with an AC. So let’s call it an even 2 litres per hour. Or Rs 460 into 22 days… that’s Rs 10,120 per month for sitting around. And another cost is the apparent long term one to the car. Profit’s resident auto expert, Daniyal Ahmad says, “keeping the car on for long periods with the AC on increases fuel consumption in the long run, including your engine and battery maintenance.” 

On day four, I brought the kids home and then went back to get child number 1 from school. Leaving aside the torment of getting through traffic, dropping the kids and then rushing back in traffic to the crowded school area, all while the sun burns your head and your very being is one thing. But like I’ve said before, there’s a financial cost.

Mental calculation: about 14 kilometres to and from school, my 2006 Civic gives me at best 7 kilometres to the litre these days, less if the traffic is worse. So that’s about… who am I kidding, I’ll ask a friend to calculate this for me. He says it will be about Rs 500 just for the fuel, at minimum. So 500 into 22 days… Rs 11,000 a month. Sigh. And the cost to my soul is priceless.    

Outside the school gate, I ran into a parent who is also a friend, and she said ‘God these petrol prices are insane,’ and then, ‘wouldn’t it be better if you just hung around in the area instead of going home?’

It would, wouldn’t it? But inflation is 25%, and my budget is shrinking faster than Pakistan’s FOREX reserves, thanks to rising fees, electricity bills, and grocery costs. But what would she know? She’s wearing a handbag that is worth more than my monthly budget. I can’t say that, of course. Not to her, not to anyone. Not at such schools. 

Femme Finance
Working woman. Mother. Survivor. Teri maa, bhen

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