Clearing immigration at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport is now a piece of cake, since I have done it so many times, and I am at the Leela less than ten minutes later. My mind reeling with jetlag after almost twenty-four hours of flying, I am dead to the world the moment my head hits the fluffy hotel pillow, only to wake up sharp and alert less than four hours later; jetlag has commenced.
But it is not fatigue that bothers me the next day. No. Being a frequent guest at the Leela, my birthday has been broadcast to every employee in the hotel. From the perky gym assistant to the Manager, I am felicitated for my sixtieth (in wisdom only, mind you) birthday with generous handshakes and strenuous head wags. Happy returns of the day, Sir, is the catchphrase I get all day long, until I begin to dread being stopped for another handclasp and lengthy chitchats. I must give it to the Leela, however, for they have class. I return to my room late that day to find an adorned table with a slab of calorie busting chocolate cake and a bouquet of flowers. All this attention is not free, of course, but lovely nevertheless, and embarrassing, as a group of cute girls from reception gather around to clap and sing happy birthday to me.
Jet Airways is tardy for the flight to Kathmandu due to the incompetence of its ground staff. What makes this fact significant is that the pilot admits the fault and apologizes once we take off. Profoundly. Now that takes guts. And integrity. So, my hats off to Jet Airways; I’ll certainly fly you guys again.
I’m back in Kathmandu to help with CAI’s education support for the families of fourteen Afghan refugees trapped in the country. You can read about their plight from my earlier Blog by clicking here.
Unlike September 2016, when I was here last, the arrival hall is packed with tourists, all clamoring to process visa-on-arrival applications from the only three out of six working terminals. I join this mob and manage to clear immigration and customs ninety minutes later in one piece. Phew.
Kathmandu was and is built haphazardly, with very little or no regards to the safety of her inhabitants. It is a dirty, dusty and polluted city, ready to poison my lungs with every breath of toxic smog; I can taste the pollution in my mouth five minutes into the taxi drive to my hotel about five miles away that takes forty-five minutes due to snarled traffic. Every harassed traffic cop dons a mask, so do thousands of motorbike riders braving the assault on the clogged roads.
Joining me on this trip is Mujahid Sharif of Orison UK, the charitable NGO that will help the Afghan families with rent and living expenses. Joining Mujahid is Ashiqali Kareem from London and Syed Ziaya Hassan from Brampton, Canada, both as helpers and observers. Ziaya has lived and worked in Katmandu for about twenty years before migrating to Canada. I meet this trio at the hotel, and we head out for our mission after zohr.
The clouds suddenly thicken, thunder rumbles and the skies open up with ferocious rain. The rain helps with clearing some of the smog, the already battered, torn roads take additional beatings, and the cold air gets even chillier. Bundled up in a tiny car borrowed from Ziaya’s friend, we visit seven families that day, assess their plight and Mujahid distributes aid to the miserable and hapless families. The look of relief on the faces of the recipients is palpable.
Nepal is a very beautiful country, of course, but only after you get away from Kathmandu and into the mountain ranges, for a challenging trek, perhaps. Some of the benefits of visiting Kathmandu (there aren’t very many) are the abundant, inexpensive body massages available all over the city. The challenge is to find masseurs, since most of the spas have very pretty, almond-eyed masseuses, unsuitable for sharee conscience individuals; I am lucky to strike gold very close to our hotel. The receptionist offers me a short, hefty and mean-looking masseuse and eyes me oddly when I insist I want a masseur only, but shrugs her shoulders dismissively when I stare her down. I get a rejuvenating therapeutic Ayurvedic workover treat for an hour for about US$20. I can honestly state that a painful and nagging runners lower back nerve inflammation that has bothered me for over three months feels a lot better afterwards.
We offer to feed the protein-deprived Afghan community, especially the children, with dinner the next day. Funds from CAI donors to support about twenty-five poor children with basic education fees for the entire year are disbursed to the beneficiaries. Since the Afghan community, refugees but not recognized by Nepal cannot work, indulge in business activities or have other means of self-support, this education support is vital. Their legal status is left to the snail-paced UN and or bureaucracies to act on.
With the community taken care with the basics of life for 2017 between the joint efforts of Orison and CAI, we have a free Sunday to explore the city. Ziaya takes Kareem and me to see some museums and temple relics in the grimy city, but I am not impressed, and we return to the hotel shortly.
While the city revels and celebrates the colorful festival of Holi by plastering every unwary person with a deluge of dirty colored water, we remain safely within the confines of our rooms, and I observe the mindless (to me) hurling of the multicolored bags of dye from rooftops to people walking below. The impact can be painful, I imagine, but the (mostly) western tourists take the pain (not that they have a choice, or it couldn’t hurt or matter if you are oozing alcohol) in stride and join in with the fiesta.
I indulge in another round of not-as-good-as-yesterday’s massage session from an anemic masseur (perhaps he was still recovering from the effects of Holi induced blotto?). Later in the day, we trio have a vegetarian (again) dinner at the hotel before retiring to bed. These trivial challenges, and that of not finding readily available palatable halal food notwithstanding, the trip to help these trapped fourteen Afghan families is rewarding. Alhamd’Allah. We depart for our respective destination the next day.
I am headed to the severely drought affected areas of East Africa to render aid of grains and high calorie, protein biscuits to the starving masses there. You may want to see this video and this photo to get an insight of the severity of the catastrophe overwhelming these hapless people; CAI will do its small part, obviously. I will keep you updated in two weeks insha’Allah.
Please click here to see photos of our Nepal trip.