Monday, May 9, 2011

7 Days Of Tea In Afghanistan

I have blogged a considerable amount about my forays into Afghanistan, to a point further narrative, from me, perhaps, might seem excessive repetition. So I will let someone who accompanied me this last trip in April (my 18th, his 1st) tell the story of our adventures in rural Afghanistan, perhaps the most beautiful and cruel place on earth.

I was lucky to have the company of 2 very capable and successful businessmen accompany me this time; I will be ever grateful for their dedication, patience, forbearance and delightful company over 7 days we were together. Dear GVSS and HYL, the 7 days without your company would have been long and humdrum, at least; so thank you for coming, for your advice and solidarity, and for your company, off course. So here it is, a chronology of our days in Afghanistan accompanied by some wonderful photos, in the words of HYL:

I am a long term, diligent supporter of CAI and her worldwide projects, but the prospect of accompanying Yusufali to Afghanistan filled me with dreadful, fearful excitement. The whole trip was filled with escapades, certainly, but it was more than only adventure. Afghanistan a country of contrasts; beautiful and beastly. It took my breath away, soaring above 15,000 feet, the mountains of snow and valleys of pasture green, populated by sheep and goats feasting on fresh, delicious springtime pasture. But I also witnessed non existing, impassable ‘roads’ where we had to give our vehicle a helping hand sometimes, the appalling poverty of countryside Afghans, absent sanitary or medical facilities and mind-boggling lack of education opportunities for her children, always a heartbreaker, for me. And the tea, off course; Afghans drink lots and lots of tea; for warmth in the winter, one reason. I had more than enough to last me a lifetime in my 7 days of tea in Afghanistan.

Day 1: The flight from Dubai, delayed by over an hour, lands in Kabul, a military stronghold of sorts, with NATO choppers seemingly landing or taking off all at once. The airport is security wacky, the only spot we are not body searched is where the sun does not shine. We walk a considerable way before Yusufali and his teams of 2 engineers greet us, beyond another security corridor. We drive through a grimy, potholed city to inspect the massive Imam Hussein School built by CAI which educates over 3,400 children. Evening is at a rented house in a ‘safe’ neighborhood where we have lamb barbecue, Africa style. The bathroom door does not close; we have to leave footwear outside to let others know it is occupied. We drink lots of hot tea.

Day 2: Fajr namaaz is at 3:45 in Kabul late April; I am relieved I do not spend Ramadhan here! We have to be at the airport by 5:45 for our 60 minutes chartered flight to Yawkawlang. The security process is somewhat relaxed because CAI is a registered NGO and we fly a UN subsidized aircraft. The single propeller Kodiak 100 aircraft has weight restrictions so all of us and baggage are scaled, we all pass; GVSS gets to sit by the pilot, lucky him. The takeoff is smooth, the flight smoother and the view, oh, a super, super delight. The pilot, a terrific, soft spoken, very polite American with an unlikely name of Aziz treats us with a slight detour over Band Ameer, an enchanting cluster of lakes with startling blue green water. Aziz has to make a very low pass over the dirt track runway to make sure it is clear of large stones or other obstructions. So we drop, drop and almost touchdown before Aziz abruptly turns the aircraft into a sharp vertical assent; we turn around and make a bouncy landing into a cloud of dust minutes later.
A battered but somewhat comfortable vehicle drives us to delicious breakfast at a local businessman’s home; yummy warm naan, cream, cheese and eggs; we drink lots of hot tea. The crisp, cold air of Afghanistan keeps my metabolic rate elevated, my stomach ready hungry. We then drive 2 hours to Sachek where CAI operates a small medical clinic that caters for about 9,500 most wrenched families I have ever seen. These are dirt poor, traumatized people who at times have to start by 4AM from remote areas to walk to the clinic – in the spring and summer; winters are impossible. I get a good feeling I am a part of this healing process.
We retire at the clinic in the doctor’s room; the nights are chilly, the washroom outside, a hole in the ground without a roof and a curtain for a door, I carry ice cold water in a lota. I make sure I cough adequately to warn others whenever I am in it; there are 16 sharing others that may possibly want relief.

Day 3: We start driving at 5:30; the sun is up and bright, providing much needed warmth. We are going to Belkhaab, about 10 hours away. A 7.2 miles (12 km) water distribution system by CAI for 30,000 people without drinking water is nearing completion and we want to inspect it. This is grueling drive through toughest non existing roads I have ever seen. At times, we have to leave the car and give it a push to overcome steep curves. We stop at a tiny village that has a battered elementary school, perhaps CAI’s next school project? About 300 children study is horrible facilities (see photos). We drive into Belkaab dog tired and dirty. A rented engineers quarters with a sauna like (charcoal heated Bukhara) bathroom is our home for 2 nights; we refresh and have a sumptuous dinner in the presence of the local Governor of Belkhaab Province. We drink lots of hot tea.

Day 4: 8AM and we are out to inspect the water project; I am very impressed. The engineers have done a superb job with the project (see photos) which is almost complete and will insha’Allah be fully implemented by end of June 2011. We rest plenty, catch-up on sleep; tomorrow is another hard drive day. We also drink lots of hot tea.

Day 5: We start early again; the drive becomes steamy as we leave the mountains and enter lowlands. We cannot lower the windows, which will allow fine dust to choke us, so they are wound shut, cooking us. Goshfundi welcomes us after 5 hours of hard driving; we proceed to a brand new medical clinic where CAI is to start services for the poor and destitute beginning Rajab 13, insha’Allah. Rest, dinner, lots of hot tea and sleep at a local supporter house with bathroom about 100 yards away from sleeping quarters, within animal quarters. Yusufali gets a nasty scare squatting next morning, for he looks up to see a pair of large round saucer eyes focused on him; a curious cow wondering why a human squats for relief, perhaps?

Day 6: An important day; grand opening of a brand new school for CAI, mashaa’Allah! A beautiful 7 classroom elementary school in Sarepole, about 2 hours from Goshfundi; home to about 3,200 refugees twice over, once from Afghanistan to Iran and now recently expelled from Iran. Penniless and destitute, they rot in a desolate plain, living in cheap tents provided by UNHCR supported by handouts. Yusufali stumbled upon children shivering in the open last year, using dirt as study material from teachers and volunteers; a dream for a modest school becomes reality. After an hour long opening ceremony at a neighborhood mosque that includes plenty of hot tea, a ribbon is cut and the school becomes official. We proceed to Mazar Sherriff for my final day in Afghanistan. I see asphalt roads for the first time in 6 days; we drive into busy, hot, chaotic and stinking Mazaar – back to civilization?

Day 7: We get a proper bathroom with hot running water at a local hawza, finally; although it is still on carpets and stone like pillows we sleep on; but there is lots of tea…. We inspect a poor neighborhood north of Mazaar where CAI has a few seep water well projects. The community is parching dry, with inordinate time taken in water procurement, mainly by women and children. CAI will take on additional well drilling projects if funding and other logistics allow. With a leisure visit to the shrine of Ali Ibne Abu Taalib (not the Imam) in the afternoon, we retire very early for our next morning’s very early flight to Kabul and onwards to Dubai with GVSS; Yusufali will stay behind for another day to tie up loose ends.

Afghanistan is an eye opener, her problems myriad and complex, impossible for any one person or entity to solve. But there is promise, and amazing progress, from the likes of Comfort Aid International. If we continue doing our part and focus support primarily on education, the future will definitely reap a healthier community; it has to. For now, my conscience will only allow me to do my share for these people who are not only the poorest of the poor but oppressed due to no fault of theirs.


Watch photos here.

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