Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Fear, Flies, Chai And Drama

The UN chopper hovers a few feet over the runway in Kabul, wobbles tentatively, gathers momentum, soars over the badbakth city and then speeds towards Nili, our destination. It is about 75 minutes uncomfortable but uneventful ride in this 1968 Russian monster. The alternative is a 7-hour drive through very dangerous Taliban-controlled territory to Bamiyan. And if we are lucky to survive this, another 16 hour drive through treacherous roads to Nili. Nili is the capital of Dykoondy Province, a shockingly poor, disadvantaged province where CAI has the bulk of projects. CAI runs four remote medical clinics, has constructed four schools, drilled over 100 water wells and now is building 73 homes for indigent and destitute families. Two of the medical clinics are modern units, equal to or better than any in second world countries. The other two are in the process of converting to tailor made, current structures, to be completed in about one year insha’Allah.

With me is Sohail Abdullah, CAI Trustee from New York and the core CAI Afghanistan team of Wasi, Basheer, and Assef. We follow the routine – our eternally genial, apt and best in the world driver Sher Hussein is waiting to ferry us around the traitorous terrain, complete with cheerful chatter and claps of laughter that is a shot of beneficial adrenaline to our spirits. Trailing our vehicle is a District Governor provided police guard, packing five heavily armed policemen, each with a loaded Kalashnikov, always behind us, like a shadow. Indeed, we are told to alert them if any of us want to step out of the room to use the outhouse at night. I fortify my bladder and sleep through the evening, not wanting a half asleep irate cop with a loaded Kalashnikov to be looking over me squatting.

We visit Oozmuk, a 2-hour drive and then move on to Dayaroos, both newly constructed medical clinic packing an average of 95 patients a day. Patients come from all over, some trekking over 8 hours by foot or on a donkey. I am concerned the MD’s are not giving enough attention to the sick if he is only giving them an average of 2 minutes of personal attention. Both shrug their shoulders, saying they cannot turn away the sick. Nevertheless, I firmly instruct them both to turn down the numbers; I would rather they choose quality over quantity. The nurse can attend people coming in for minor colds or cuts. 

It is the 12-hour drive from Dayyaroos to Kiti that’s a pain, where CAI has just begun the 5th medical clinic in a rented mud house. The chatter and laughter in the car cabin eventually dry up as we all sober up to the unyielding treachery of the terrain ahead. Sher Hussein’s brows pucker up, and his chin sets in a determined thrust as he maneuvers his Toyota Hiace 4X at less than 5 MPH through some of the most rugged mountain passes in the world. The vehicle lurches through rocks, muddied by water from melting snow and revs on the 4-wheel drive on seemingly impossible riverbeds. There cannot be any room for error. A slight miscalculation and we can plunge thousands of feet into the raging river below. Sher stops near an impossible bend, shakes his head, changes gears and with a prayer on his lips, skillfully takes us through. The air of apprehension among us all, so thick I can smell it, lightens, and we can afford to talk and jest again. Until the next set of challenges begin.

Even though I have been through this ordeal several times - this is my 31st trip to Afghanistan - the experience leaves me with woozy legs, still. Through the jostling of Sher’s vehicle, my thoughts wander to these people, women, and children especially, who do not have the luxury of a vehicle or even a donkey, and the fittest ones to survive the brutal winters of this wretched land. Why are they so deprived? Why are they so stepped on? Why is there apathy to their suffering?

Kiti clinic is up and running, although with the inevitable chaos of a new setup. Patients line up at sunup, and our staff is pressed into service immediately after subhaan, which starts annoyingly early; Fajr is at 3:30! We are supposed to inspect a site for a new school the next day, and I am told the drive there is 14 hours and another 12 hours the day after, returning to Nili, in time for our chopper return to Kabul the day after that. We haven’t bathed in almost three days, and all of us are beginning to avoid each other. It means we will not have a chance to shower for another two days. Hmmm. Unacceptable, since this plan leaves no room for contingencies, a no-no in Afghanistan. I preempt the school inspection; opt to inspect another school site just outside the Kiti clinic, a dilapidated mud building, home to about 200 children. If CAI constructs a scheduled, Afghan regular school (CAI’s 19th in Afghanistan), it can grow to about 600 children in 2 shifts; this is a no brainer.

After an inspection of only seven homes possible out of the previous 95-home-project that CAI has constructed for the poor in and around Kiti that takes 6 hours, we collapse into a deep slumber and are off towards Nili early next morning, eager to embrace the comforts of a public hammam seven hours later.

Looking and smelling better than I naturally am, we check into the only available hotel room in Nili, abandoning it within an hour. The flies torment us to no end, relentless in making every act of ours a misery, from sitting still to sleeping; the flies of Afghanistan can make a grown man weep in agony. I remember a line out of one Bollywood movie… eek macchar aadmi ko hijda banaa detaa hai… the fly has replaced the mosquito in this instance. The only alternative is a ‘guest house’ in a local NGO, which is reasonably more comfortable, except for the toilet, which is way outside the compound; it smells evil. The hole opening is so small, I have to be very, very accurate, or else disaster. So I try and avoid going to it, preferring the cramps of a full bladder and pain of a bursting rectum gladly. Until I can stand it no more, and run towards the shithouse to void my insides; shitting and barfing at the same time.

We are invited to the Governors house for dinner and accommodation the next evening, so we look forward to more comfortable digs. Afghans drink a lot of green tea; I mean a lot! The tea requires an acquired taste, not all that great. I drink it to detox, but Sohail hates it with a passion while Basheer and Wasi take it in like Brits to Lager. With nothing to do for a few hours, we drink tea and compete in squatting flies. The Governor’s dinner is the standard fare of fatty lamb and greasy chicken. I have not touched lamb or rice the whole trip, sticking to yogurt, naan or chicken, hoping to offset the inactivity and no exercise for a whole week. The digs are better indeed, with a modern toilet nearby, shared among 20 odd people. We get notified to be at the ‘airport’ by 1 PM for our chopper flight to Kabul the next day.

I wake up with a strange sense of premonition that something is going to happen today, something unpleasant. Nine times out of ten, my portents are on the dot. All of us are at the airstrip on the dot, at 1 PM, after a hurried lunch of more chicken and broth. Alas, it is all in vain. The UN agency has canceled the flight, citing bad weather, although clear skies above tell me a different story. Fear gnaws in my stomach; I have feared such a day. We have a grand school / orphanage opening in Kabul the day after tomorrow, and subsequent flights to Dubai, Iraq, Ethiopia, Tanzania and India for more CAI project inspections all planned out, all in jeopardy as the next available UN flight is a week later. There is no way I am going to stay in Nili for a week, squatting flies, drinking chai and barfing in toilets for a week. No way.

I have to make a quick and snap decision. We can drive to Bamiyan, 16 agonizing hours away. There, we will change into Afghan attire, give up all semblance to NGO work, surrender our cellphones to a courier and try our luck driving to Kabul, seven hours away. If we are lucky, we won’t be stopped. If not, there is real danger of being kidnapped, or as Shias, worse. Against the local team advice, who are very reluctant, fearful, I make a decision to go; I have no choice.

Sher Hussein hurriedly readies his car; he looks unhappy; apprehensive. A 16-hour drive in harsh terrain, plus another 7 hours through enemy territory can make the most hardened adult into kachoomber. It is while we wait for the car to be readied that Dr. Assef has a brainwave. There is a charter service that may be able to rescue us. The cost is steep, more than double that of the UN chopper. We are told to wait. The next eighteen hours of my life are the most trying for me; I think I age a hundred years in that time. The anxiety of getting confirmation of an available aircraft, the logistics, timely payment, ideal weather for landing and takeoff all play havoc in my mind.

It is not until the chartered Pactec aircraft takes off to Kabul from Nili early the next morning that I relax a bit and allow myself the optimism of seeing my current mission through.

Riyaz from Canada and Nabeel from UAE join us for the grand opening the next day. Although Riyaz lands at Kabul from Istanbul without incident, Nabeel’s Emirates flight from Dubai has to return back to Dubai; the pilots decides that sheer winds battering Kabul airport from surrounding mountains have too many risks. It is not until the next morning that Nabeel lands at Kabul. Wasi, who is at the airport to pick him up, stops to repair a flat tire on the way to SGH. With both Wasi and Nabeel occupied, a thief creeps up the open car window and Nabeel’s suitcase is history.

Que Sera, Sera… no?

Please click here to view Sohail's wonderful photo Blog.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

CAI’s India Thru My Eyes – Sabira H. Pirbhai

5th April dawns pleasant and bright, perfect for my trip to India. This is my third trip to Sirsi, India working in Bahman Public English Medium School. I shall always be thankful to my Lord and to Yusufali of Comfort Aid International (CAI) who trusts me and allows me to work in their sponsored school.

I train teachers to use student centred teaching methodologies. Bahman School is located in Sirsi, Sambhal, a small town in Uttar Pradesh. The setup is impressive; we have the school, an orphanage, a small mosque and a clinic, all set in a large field.

This trip has an added excitement. I get to observe another full-fledged school in Lucknow. I am to train Ms. Roya, CAI's Principal at the new girls' school in Kabul. My entire journey involves every mode of modern transport - planes, train, cars and a school bus. The spunky New Delhi airport is our meeting point. Aliakberbhai, Yusufali and I wait for Roya whose flight from Afghanistan is delayed. Since we have limited time for our connecting flight to Lucknow, we are tense. Aliakberbhai checks the arrival screen for Roya's flight frequently but with the same results. She makes it, however, and our short trip to Lucknow is uneventful, each one of us tired and quiet, in our thoughts. Lucknow, here we come. The hotel is comfortable and the food scrumptious, although I am very cautious with what I eat. However, the inevitable Delhi Belly strikes me upon return home.

The visit to The Unity College, Lucknow is to observe it's professional setup and the way the school is managed. The taxi driver is excellent; he knows exactly how to maneuver his car through the maze of traffic. Occasionally, he opens his door to spit out the remains of chewed tobacco (how gross) and Yusufali cringes back, trying to protect himself from any wayward red dribble.

The CEO and management team of the school give us a warm reception; they share their experiences and advise Roya on different aspects of running a new school. The school is impressive, corridors and classrooms are dotted with information boards as well as students' displays. Like most Indian schools, I find the classrooms overcrowded, especially the lower nursery and kindergarten sections, where students have little or no space to freely move around. It is interesting to know that the school encourage the use of computers every year and have also equipped three classrooms to use the interactive board. 

Our task in Lucknow over, we are ready to travel by train to our next destination - Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh. But before that, we must taste the famous 'tunde ke kebab' of Lucknow, a local 'global' speciality. Origins of this kebab go back almost a hundred years, when Haji Murad Ali, a lad with stunted arms pounded ground beef and mix of masalas into fiery kebabs to feed the then nawabs, unembarrassed to make a living by his defect. The recipe flourished, making the kebabs gourmet history. They melted in my mouth but left a fiery trail going down my throat.

The railway station at 11.00 pm is as busy as it is at 8 AM; men, women, children, dogs, cows and cats crowd the platform. The air is a sour mix of human and animal waste and sweat. Breathing is a challenge for me but not for others, so I accept it. There is a kaleidoscope of a shrill female voice announcing a string of stations stops - Ituanja, Sidhauli, Sitapur, Maholi..... as the trains approach, listing the locations of arrivals and departures. I feel a moment of melancholy; my thoughts go home to London at the Baker Street platform. Similar, conflicting messages. There - mind the gap, here - mind the (shit) cakes... Families sit in groups and share their meal with one another, and with meandering cows that nudge them for more. Here, holy cows are fed oily puris or pakoras, not grass... The stray dogs of India are as timid as cats, they just sniff and go away; I never heard them bark. Women in colourful sarees tug along their young ones bogged down with tiffins and baggage of all sorts, rush to jump on the train before it halts, uncaring of the obvious dangers (to me) but miraculously escape any injury.

Our train arrives almost at midnight. We occupy the first class air-conditioned cabin with bunk beds and clean bedding. It is a challenge to climb for me while a piece of cake for an agile Roya.  The rocking motion of the train is a lullaby and puts everybody to sleep. The WC is another story altogether; the washing lota is chain locked, for safety perhaps or just to keep it stationary? Whatever the case, it is too short for a comfortable wash.

We arrive Moradabad soon after fajr, recited sitting due to all the rocking. Asghar Bhai has come on a school bus to take us to Sirsi. I have never sat on a school bus, but I close my eyes and visualise girls and boys travelling in it, a racket of exciting voices talking together, sharing the day's events.

The usual warm welcome awaits us from the orphanage kids at Sirsi, presenting us with roses picked from their garden. It is great to be "home" amongst people who have changed my life. I look at each one, secretly greeting them as they shyly acknowledge it with a smile. My eyes look for the two brothers I met last time, Abu Dhār and Qambar, but they have moved on to a better place and school since they are 'big boys', now doing their 'A-Levels'; it is sad to lose them but life must go on. Naseem Baji, as usual, has prepared a hearty breakfast, which is served by Zakirbhai (Baba). After a much-needed shower and feeling rejuvenated, I make my way to Bahman School.

It's always a pleasure to be at the school, greet the students, sit and observe classes and discuss the teacher's problems. I cannot say the teachers are as enthusiastic at meeting me, as I am they, since I always 'pick' on them, continually challenging and advising. I do this because I care for the students and the school. Being a perfectionist, I believe anyone who takes up responsibility should carry it out with diligence.

My days in Sirsi are spent between the school and orphanages, while the nights are sometimes sleepless due to the continuous drone of the mosquitoes. A few claps occasionally punctuate the silence of the night. This is applause all right; for the murder of an escaping, bloodsucking mosquito. Roya has a mission to kill every mosquito that passes by her, and that leaves me wincing with pain as the survivors attack me. Never go to India in March or April; it's the mosquito season. I wonder how Yusufali is doing outside, having given up the air-conditioned 5-star room for us, while he has to contend with a monstrous and cankerous deafening portable air cooler. I think he was glad to depart for other challenges in Mumbai.

Mornings in the orphanage always begin with the sweet melody from orphan boys reciting 'Laab pay ati hay dua...' tear-jerking, eloquent words penned by Alama Iqbal. But today my eyes are dry, the soul is missing from the poem, the new reciters have yet to master the eloquence of Abu Dhār and Qambar. The rest of the week is pretty much a routine; mornings are spent at Bahmain School where I observe teachers teach, make notes of recommendations and teach English in a few classes. Afternoons are spent with the Zahra Boys, conversing in English and making some 3D wooden models and puzzles. The boys and I both look forward to this time where we can all relax, talk, laugh and play without reservations. I once asked them about Roya, a Hazara, and they said they like her very much... because 'she looks Chinese'. Evenings are spent with Roya, going through the kindergarten syllabus, planning the layout of classes, toys and furniture for the Kabul School.

After dinner, we go and spend some time with the girls' orphanage at Sakina Girls Home. The girls enjoy doing craft work, making bead jewellery and playing games; they don't let us leave unless we promise we'd return the following day. A new computer has just been set up; some of the girls have never seen a keyboard or a mouse, they watch with awe and eyes sparkle with excitement at the new toy of knowledge in their lives.

The week passes by very quickly, and soon it is time to leave Sirsi and 'my boys'. Roya and I both have memories of our time together, we communicate, and I cannot wait for her to show me the pictures of the opening of the new school and her first students. The last leg of our journey is a five-hour drive to New Delhi. Roya is going to spend a day at New Delhi with a friend while I am making my way to Bangladesh in search of another project, another school...