Friday, December 17, 2010

Comfort Aid International – The Beginning.

How did CAI start? What inspired you? I get asked this question very often. The answer is quite lengthy which I had documented way back in 1996. I share and blog this experience now; hope you will find it interesting, informative. 

It is a hot and humid monsoon July Saturday some 16 years ago; dark, pregnant skies above threaten to open up any minute and drench me, but worse, make my travel to Govendhi miserable and perhaps impossible. Govendhi lies about 15 miles northeast of Mumbai that takes about two hours to reach on a good day. It is very densely populated, stench - puke smelly, dirty beyond descriptive words dirty, and full of slum flies. And yes, it is populated predominantly by Muslims and by over 12,000 families of the Ahle Tashayyo persuation, overwhelmingly Sadaats. I get to Govendhi all hot and sweaty and harassed and almost swoon. This place is unreal; houses are made of rags with garbage bags for a roof, the lanes between homes squelch and slide wherever I delicately put my foot down, covering my once shiny shoes with a thick sludge of mud, the air is ripe with the stench of raw sewer and flies torment every open skin on my body. 

There are people everywhere, packing lanes, hurrying here and there, vendors shout their wares or vegetables or fruits amidst cows, goats, dogs and chicken. I sneeze once and two flies enter my mouth and I almost gag. I feel I cannot breathe, the world swims in my eyes and I stumble. My guide, who is increasingly alarmed at my distress immediately props me up until we reach the steps of a crumbling mosque where he parks me on a dry veranda and hurries to get me a cold drink. I take deep breaths and try to regain my composure, feeling silly and mad at myself for being so weak. I drop my head down, trying to get blood back to my brains and feel better. I look around and simply cannot fathom my surroundings; animals live better in the US. 

My attention is diverted to a pair of children, a girl and a boy frolicking in a shallow pond of rain water near the wudhoo area outside the mosque. They seem to be oblivious to their surrounding, filling empty water bottles and dousing each other with its filthy contents, and having a bloody merry time of it. They are both clothed in rags and have bodies so thin, I feel either one would fracture or break a bone, falling upon each other as they were. I get a sudden urge to run away from this misery, for the despair and sudden fear I feel makes me break in a cold sweat and I suddenly start shivering violently. 

I return to my luxury hotel room at the Leela Kempensky, tear off my clothes and have a long hot shower, trying to rid my body of the grime and sweat and the smell that still cling to it. I resolve never to go back to that hell hole, to hell with what Mullah Asghar has to say about it, the benefits of experiencing what the poor in this world we live through. I was not going back. Ever. Allah (SWT) however, has different plans for me; and who is the best Planner? That very night, as I nestle and snuggle amongst the lavish linens of the five star hotel I am put up, I dream of the two children frolicking in the filthy waters of Govendhi. I awake but strangely, cannot fall asleep again. I toss and turn amongst the bedcovers; I switch on the television, hoping it will lull me to sleep. Nothing works. Who are these children? Why are they not in school? Why are they so thin and in rags? Are they orphans? They look obviously happy…. On and on and on. 

Strangely, this dream reappears in my sleep the next day and I spend another night tossing and turning, restless and disturbed. And so it goes on for the whole week; my mind keeps me awake with the thoughts of these two children. When it is Saturday next and my day off, it is as if the skies have decided to open up and it pours non-stop the whole day; I stay at the hotel, brooding of the kids and Govendhi. So I make a covenant with Allah, a selfish covenant, thinking I can outsmart Him. I promise Him if it stops raining tomorrow, if the sun is out, I will revisit Govendhi and try finding the two kids and at least feed them. Now, the chance of a bright and sunny day in the middle of July in Maharashtra is equivalent of winning a lottery jackpot. Almost. When I walk outside the hotel after my workout and breakfast the next day, it is cloudy all right and I smile, smug I have won. But exactly at that moment, the sun reveals itself and keeps on smiling its hot rays on the humid air, making me sweat immediately.

I cajole and promise my guide a hefty bonus if he would leave his family this Sunday and accompany me to Govendhi. He does not look too exited; I guess he is unimpressed with my behavior from last Saturday. Money wins however, and off we go to hunt for my tormentors. I am better equipped this time around, with sneakers and a handkerchief doused in perfume. We spend a couple of hours looking for them and finally, when I am losing hope, we spot them very near the pond, engrossed in making a living. When we approach them, they scatter and run away, fearful. Much to the annoyance of my guide, I dangle a fifty rupee bill from my fingers and they return, cautious, but very interested. We take them to a local restaurant and both demolish a heap of greasy chicken biryani; I cannot believe such thin people had such appetites. When I offer them falooda after biryani is over, their eyes light up with undisguised delight. The falooda disappear in minutes; both wiping their glass bowl clean. Over orange Mirinda, we extract their life details. 

Sakina is seven (she thinks, not sure) and Alireza six (he thinks, not sure), both born in the slums of Govendhi and have never been to school. Both were put to work supporting their family of six by the time they could put razor to slice rubber. These two scavenge scrap electrical cables off construction sites and pull out its copper guts. The copper is then wound into a ball and if they have enough (cricket ball size), it earns them about ten Rupees. They give this to their paan guzzling father who would in turn purchase a little rice and daal and their mother would then feed them dinner, their only meal for the day. Sakina is so thin, I can see ribs jutting out from her skin through a rip on her dress and so is Alireza, who cannot sit still, constantly moving around in his chair, playing around with the salt and pepper shakers or dipping into the hot chutney container. I feel very sad for them, for I know this is temporary and they will be out on the streets as soon as we depart. On an impulse, I ask the duo to take me to their parents, to their home. They look at each other uneasily and balk. I reassure them, telling them that I may help them but want to talk to their parents first. After some more debate, they escort us inside the slum, with lanes getting narrower and the filth filthier. 

I see a girl child, totally naked, nose running, wailing at the top of her lungs with no apparent guardian around. I see two children sleeping out in the open, near a stream in which flow human feces…I make maximum use of my perfumed hankie. We arrive at a small hut, similar to hundreds like it around and enter a dark room; it takes me several seconds to focus before I can see clearly. The hut has dirt floor, I notice immediately, three charpoy beds occupy three corners of rusting tin walls and the remaining corner has beaten up pots and pans hanging from it. Clothes hang from strings strung across all four corners and a charcoal stove glows amber, emits sharp acrid odor that begin to sting my eyes. On one of the bed lie an emaciated looking aged woman, probably a grandmother, who stares at me unblinkingly and follows me with her eyes as I am made to sit on an empty charpoy. By her side, fast asleep, is a tiny baby, looks newborn, with a black streak of evil eye across a frowning brow. On another bed, sitting cross legged is Mr. Shahed Rizwi, lord of the hut. Rizwi looks as me suspiciously, does not offer a handshake, but does wave my guide and me to the empty charpoy. He looks very much like Sakina. I do not see Mrs. Rizwi around. 

Sakina serves us water from dented tin glasses but I decline and sip from my safer water bottle supply. I ask Rizwi if he is well, but get the typical wag of the head from the neck and bare of paan stained teeth for an answer. I ask him why his kids are not in school. “School?” He asks, surprised, as if the thought has never occurred to him. “If I send them to school, who will bring roti home?” he asks, gesturing with pinched fingers towards his mouth. I feel a sudden rash of irritation for this man so I promptly and recklessly reply “You?” My guide finds this funny, for he giggles shrilly and as quickly, covers his mouth, stifling it. A flash of anger spreads across Mr. Rizwi’s face and he lets out a string of protests; that he is sick, that his mother, gesturing towards the old women, is old and sick, that he cannot find decent work, that his wife has natal problems… But I insist that education is important, that his children will not stand a change in adult life doing what they did. Mr. Rizwi shrugs his shoulders and exposes paan stained teeth again “Allah’s will…” he mummers. I honestly feel like slapping him silly. 

So I bribe him, this Mr. Paan Rizwi. Through my guide, I promise him Rupees 300 a month to keep the kids in school at the nearby Jafri English School. I also arrange to feed Sakina and Alireza one hot meal a day. We arrange to get the kids to school the next day; I take the Monday off. I bring along a local social worker from Bandra mosque and we take the children for a bath and Alireza for a haircut. After the bath, both Sakina and Alireza have haircuts, for we cannot comb through Sakina’s hair, they are a mess of impossible tangles from years of neglect, so we chop them off very short; now, she looks little different from Alireza. 

Much has changed in Govendhi since this episode took place. The slum with its decay, hovels, filth, flies and smell still remain. There has been startling development in the edges of the slums, as if an attempt to cut off and hide the eyesores at the core. The roads are mostly asphalt now but hovels still have no running water and most power lines are stolen by gangs and crudely distributed for profit. Sakina, masha’Allah, turned out to be a brilliant student, scoring above average marks all her school life. We enrolled her in computer programming studies after high school and she excelled here as well. She got married in November of 2006 and now works for a multinational company as a computer programmer, earning about US $1,200 a month. She speaks excellent English, one reason she secured the nice job position. She migrated away from Govendhi with her husband and recently called with good news she is a mother of a daughter and owns the apartment she lives in. 

Alireza does well, not as well as Sakina but reasonably well, working as a sales representative for a mobile company, earning about US $250 a month. He moved out of Govendhi as well. Mr. Rizwi still whiles away his time, talking to cronies in Govendhi, consuming paan supplemented by Sakina; Alireza has stopped giving him money but secretly gives to his mother every month. 

Mrs. Rizwi had three more children after the one I saw sleeping by its grandmother. Mrs. Rizwi misses Sakina very much. All other siblings of Sakina attend school; CAI supplements their fees, Sakina helps out with food and clothing. The grandmother passed away some years ago. I tell this story because it was my first investment in humanity that paid off handsomely; because the experience gave birth to CAI. 

Contemplate the results; for very little investment: 1. Two innocent kids were pulled away from the gutters of slum life. 2. Both got an opportunity to a decent education. 3. Both succeeded, pulled from the brink of poverty and destitution. 4. Both broke the cycle of poverty; for them and their posterity. 5. More importantly both will ensure their kids are never denied an opportunity to education. CAI focus on education in India has paid off exceedingly well, thanks to Allah and CAI’s very many donors and well wishers. I am trying to repeat the successes in Afghanistan, which is facing many more trails and challenges, more so than India ever did. For more information, please visit and insha’Allah be motivated into action. 

Ali Yusufali

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Corruption galore

Living in India, I have to deal with hundreds, thousands, lacs (one hundred thousand), ten lacs (one million) and then caror (ten million). One caror, that’s a tidy sum of money, especially in India. About US$225,000 at today’s exchange rate. To put this amount into perspective, I just sold my apartment (they call it flat here) at about 2 carors Rupees. So you can buy a comfortable 3 bedroom 1,250 sq ft apartment for about UD$450,000. Yes, tiny size and steep in price by US standards but pretty normal here in the upper middle class neighborhood of Andheri West, Mumbai.

Why am I yapping on about Indian money, you wonder? Well, what if I told you that a minister in the current government (allegedly) stole, yes, stole 176,000 caror Rupees. He gave away licenses for mobile phone technology to corporations at 2001 rates, causing the exchequer the colossal loss. That is 176,000,000,000,000 Indian Rupees or US$ 39 Billion, almost two times the entire GDP of Tanzania (2009 statistics). This is a toenail curling amount.

I knew this country was knee deep with corrupt officials; what I did not realize how deep, brazen and unconscionable the politicians involved are. This dude got caught with his pants down, literally. But watching his demeanor and haughtiness on television makes my blood boil. He knows, he bloody well knows nothing will happen to him as the culpability of colluding officials benefiting from this scam run deep. Yes, the newspapers will scream murder, yes there will be an inquiry, yes he will be banished for a year or two. But he will return, yes Sir, he will. Just like past ministers, chief or otherwise, caught with their dirty hands in muck, dismissed, banished and then incorporated back into the system; cleansed and laundered like black money to white.

Tragedy is, citizens of India don’t care. These things happen so jan do, yaar, chalta hai. Not a day goes by without the media lambasting Pakistan, China as enemies, out to destroy India. I suggest these countries may not cause as much destruction to India as, sadly, sleaze will sink her faster, deeper.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Painful Pakistani Plight

The distance between Mumbai, India and Karachi, Pakistan is about 550 miles; maybe less than an hour’s flying time. But because these two sister countries born from the same clot are estranged, there is but one flight a week between them, PAI. I would stand a better chance winning a Lotto jackpot than secure a seat in this flight and I don’t want to be in Pakistan for a week anyway. So I fly to Dubai instead and then onwards to Karachi, which takes 10 hours instead.

Karachi, surprisingly, has changed from my last visit here, changed for the better, I mean. I am out of the airport terminal in less than ten minutes, the streets are relatively clean, traffic reasonably well behaved and air breathable. There is tight security everywhere however, with heavily armed police at virtually all street corners. The Embassy Inn Hotel driver tells me a massive bomb had exploded outside the Sheraton Hotel about a week ago and hence the heightened alert. He shrugs when I ask him how secure Embassy Inn is; this could mean anything; disquiet sets in on me. Experience in Afghanistan warns me a hotel is probably the worst place to stay in terms of safety in these regions.

All goes fine however and all my meetings go well; I am off to Islamabad the next day for a tour of flood affected Punjab region. Saleem Abedi of Husseini Foundation is waiting for me outside the terminal and we are off Kot Addu, our first stop. It takes us a good eight hours of steady driving to get there; we reach well past dark so can see nothing. After salaat and a delicious meal of spicy teetar (partridge) curry and hot naan, I fall blissfully asleep. Our host, Syed Sajjad Hussein Kazmi, is one of those individuals that our community is blessed to have. Dedicated, tireless and self sacrificing, he and his family have put in everything they possess and more into the relief efforts for the flood victims. He apprises us of the relief efforts, from food to medical to housing. There are 19 homes either complete on under construction at Kot Adu; 40 will be constructed here sponsored by donors of CAI.

The water has receded or completely vanished since my last trip here in September. Although it is gratifying to see the progress so far, it is still heart wrenching to meet the victims. Many are still in shock and unbelief at the devastation that befell them, some have shaken it off and looking ahead and few that are totally devastated by the enormity of it all, especially the elderly. Everybody asks us about warm clothes and blankets; an old man, hardy able to walk unaided, wails that he is freezing at night; and for us to help. I try and calm him down, assure I’ll try my best to get them warmth as soon as possible.

We travel all day; from Kot Adu to Basti Shah Walli to Laiyah to Basti Shadoo Khan and Basti Morani, inspecting CAI initiated housing reconstruction projects, ending up in back in Islamabad at about 1AM the next day. It is a grueling, energy sapping trek but I have little choice as I must be back in Mumbai by Friday as other commitments wait. We are drowned with pleas for homes from those that still wait funding and always for blankets. CAI has received funding for 350 homes from our target of 1,000; let’s see where we end up. CAI has also pledged 2,000 high quality blankets sourced from Multan. These will be distributed no later than December 15, insha’Allah.

The departure entrance at Benazir Bhutto International Airport next morning resembles a zoo with mayhem prevalent; nobody knows (or cares) what is going on and I get no directions from loitering officials. It takes me over an hour just to get inside the terminal, scared silly I will miss my flight. Not to worry; although Emirates is on time and wants to depart, Air Traffic Control insists a tarrying PIA flight to Istanbul gets priority status. So we wait and wait and wait…

CAI is still short funds for both the housing and blanket drives for the flood victims. These are hapless people who have suffered unimaginable grief and lost everything they owned. Please consider investing in their future at $500 a home and $15 a blanket. The new home is made of reused bricks and materials; labor provided by victims.

Please click here for photos from my recent trip for photos from my recent trip.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Mother of 24 children.

Sirsi is some 240 miles east of New Delhi, in Uttar Pradesh, about six hour drive. An impoverished community where basic education is a challenge for most, CAI supports the Bahman School just outside Sirsi town. CIA began with construction of 7 classrooms, laboratories and will soon embark on construction of additional 7 classrooms to enable students who sit under stairs and in corridors the proper environment to learn and prosper.

CAI has also constructed a beautiful and sturdy boy’s orphanage, Zahra Boys Home, nearby; 24 orphan presently live and flourish here with a decent education and a fighting chance for a better life. This orphanage will eventually cater for 50 boys, insha'Allah.

I meet Aarifa Khatoon at the orphanage during my recent visit there. A motherly figure, Aarifa is the manager of the boys. I observe her operate and can only marvel at what she does. On her feet almost 24 hours, Aarifa Khatoon balances the task efficiently, nimbly. I decide to talk to her, find out what makes her so good at being a mother of 24 children.

Here then, is Aarifa’s story in her own words:

I was born in Sirsi, child of very poor parents who had eleven children in all; I have six sisters and four brothers. Daily survival was a struggle so the easiest solution for my parents was to marry me off at age fifteen. She looks at me in astonishment when I ask her if she went to school, then laughs at the absurdity of my question. In a period of five years, I had three children, one slightly deformed boy and two girls. I was a widow by age 20, my husband died of illness we could not afford to cure at age 35 and my hardships went from awful to unbearable. She weeps then at the memories but quickly recovers. I worked continuously rolling bedis for which I got paid Rs.50 per day (about US$1.10). It was hard, very hard raising 3 children on Rs.50 per day; you realize how difficult that is Saheb? I remain silent as I have nothing meaningful to say. I then did the next best thing; I married off my daughters at the same age I married. Classical poverty cycle pattern amongst the poor and destitute.

I heard about a vacancy at the Bahman School about three years ago and was hired as a cleaner; life improved where I could at least take care of my challenged son. My fortunes changed again when this orphanage was built and I got a chance to work at what I do best, be a mother. Now I am a mother to 24 children. They are good children, hungry for love and affection but even more eager for any opportunity to excel. Sure they give me a hard time sometimes, whose children don’t? But they listen to me when I reason with them and guide them.

My day never really ends. I wake up real early and wake the kids for prayers after which time all hell breaks loose. While they brush their teeth, take a bath, iron clothes, make their beds and fight each other, I am busy preparing breakfast, listening to their many needs and trying to pay referee. I check them out before they head out to school, make sure they have ironed their clothes properly, ties knotted right, shoes shined glossy black and hair neatly oiled and combed. I relax a bit when they leave before I head home to tend to my sons needs. I am back before they return so that dinner is good and ready for them. I make sure they behave afterwards; playing, reading or going for extra tuition. My energy levels are maxed out by the time they are tucked in bed. I get to sleep about midnight.

I ask her how she would feel it if the boys go from 24 to 50 as planned. She thinks for a moment, smiles. Well, I’ll be a mother of 50 then, no?

As told to me on the morning of November 01, 2010 at Zahra Boys Home, Sirsi, UP, India.

Click here for picture of Aarifa and orphans / orphanage.

Dear President Obama, welcome to Mumbai:

Dear Mr. President:

Wow, you are coming to Mumbai today! Welcome, Sirjee, most welcome. You know what; I was so thrilled when you won the elections. Man, I never in my wildest dreams ever imagined a Black American with a Muslim sounding name preside over the most powerful country in the world. I know, I know, you are a Christian, I heard you saying this enough time during your campaign gigs around the country. Still, with a name like Baraak Hussien Obama, wow, isn't it something? Perhaps there is hope for my daughter, Maaha Zainab Yusufali, now 10 in about 25 years? She has an interesting background resembling yours somewhat, born in the USA from African and Indian parentage. HE does work in ways most mysterious, no?

I would love to meet and welcome Michele and you to my house in this host city of mine but I have about the same chance of that happening as a ban on honking and fireworks in this city. Now, you may be shielded from wrecking your ears from endless, addictive honking in this country what with you in an armored vehicle but please hold on to Michele real close when you retire for the day. It is Diwali here and firecracker blasts that go off at night would put the bombing of Bagdad to shame. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate; a little. So do not worry if you hear loud bangs that make you jump out of your skin or Michele scream in terror. I wonder how they are going to insulate you from the smells, however? Mumbai, at least here in Versova where I live, throws up a terrible pong when the wind changes direction in the evenings, but this is common all over the city, I am told. Ah, well, perhaps the armored vehicle and sealed hotel rooms at the Taj will take care of that.

Why would I want you to visit my home, you ask? Well, you are my President for one so I am being polite but it is the subsequest publicity I fancy. Can you imagine?! Your visit will be the key that opens so many doors in this city! Bollywood? Also, I want to share some secrets with you, secrets CIA and FBI cannot or will not tell you. You see, not everybody is excited as I am with your visit here. Apart from Government officials and the media going gaga over the official visit, I have yet to meet a single Mumbaite who is even a bit thrilled. My driver, who is a staunch conservative Muslim made a sour face when I mentioned that you are coming, but said nothing. The watchman at the gate of my housing complex gave me a puzzled look and asked, 'what's that?'

'It's a person,' I said, 'the President of USA'.

'Really?' said he, 'interesting', and promptly lost interest.

These few individuals were indifferent, but thousands other are disgusted if not livid, I assure you. I thought visits by heads of countries were intended to bring goodwill and friendship but this is not the case here in Mumbai, Sirjee. I went to buy some fresh fish yesterday and the Koli women selling me the seafood had some choice powerful, colorful words for you that I feel embarrassed to pen here.

Here are some of the people aggrieved by your visit:

Thousands of drivers; there is a virtual security clampdown in and around the airport all the way to Colaba where you and your entourage have taken over the Taj and neighborhood hotels.

There is no taxi service in and around the airport and the hotels; you cannot imagine Mumbai without taxis, Sirjee. It is like New York without the Yellow Cabs.

This is Diwali and Guajarati New Year season, when small time traders make most of their yearly profits. All these traders along your official route have been ordered shut for two days.

No fresh fish in Mumbai. That's right, the Sassoon berthing docks where fresh catch of the day arrive have been sealed for three days; its chicken, mutton or veggies, Bwana. Did you retain some Kiswahili words from your Dad? Bwana is Mister if you didn't.

The Chief Minister of Maharashtra is pissed off because your schedulers did not allow a private meet; so are several other states Chief Ministers.

Aditya Thackery is even more upset for not been invited with his schoolmates to meet you. You do not want to mess around with the Thackery's in Mumbai; you can read about them on Google.

So you see, Mr. President, I have yet to meet anybody real happy with your visit. I am sure Government officials will give you a great time, together with the Tatas, Birlas, Ambanis, those that do not drive a taxi for a living or earn from selling fish or saris or shoes. You will dine grandly (mind that curry though, known to clear sinuses from both ends) but never anything from the streets, you do not want to end up with the Delhi Belly. Oops, I forgot, the foods vendors have been chased off from your route, never mind.

Anyway, I just wanted to share these secrets with you, my President. Again, Michele and you are most welcome to visit my home. It is modest by USA standards but very comfortable middle class Indian home. You will be very proud to see how a US citizen family lives in Mumbai. I for one am genuinely happy you have come; but then I have not been inconvenienced in the least; I can eat chicken or mutton anytime. Most welcome.

PS: Try and come in the morning, the winds shifts after about 4PM and I do not have facilities like the Taj or your armored vehicle.

PS again: If you come, please don't mind Maaha Zainab's acquired Indian habit of wagging her head every time she agrees with you. I am sure she'll be adequately Americanized by the time she becomes the Democratic Party's candidate for your current job.

Yusuf Yusufali
Mumbai, India

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Afghanistan x 17 – I (still) despair.

This is my 17th trip to Afghanistan in 5 years. Much has changed (for the better) in Kabul but so much has remained the same or regressed in remote areas. The airport is brand new, paid for by the Japanese but the attitudes of personnel remain ancient as perhaps the city itself. All 5 immigration counters have a sign that says “Open” but only one is manned, causing a serpentine line of irritated arrivals. Those with connections with higher-ups in line behind me send their passport through officers lounging around and my wait is prolonged even more they are stamped before mine; I seethe.

Aliakberbhai Ratansi of Al Imaan Charitable Trust is accompanying me this trip and we are early to the airport next morning for our flight to Heraat where CAI is sponsoring the construction of 36 additional houses for the victims of Talibaan massacres. Aliakberbhai, apart from being genial company, is wise in many years of school construction and administration, CAI task at hand in Sar Pol later in the trip. The housing project is on time, on budget and surprisingly, so is our flight back to Kabul a day later.

We encounter a pretty scary incident on return to our hotel from the housing complex that day. I have my laptop bag containing our passports and some cash by my side, covered up by a keffiyeh, just as a precautionary measure against theft and the ever omnipotent dust of Afghanistan. We are stopped by a 5 man security team who order Wasi to pull up. The country is tense due to parliamentary election on Saturday, with frequent security stops and checks of vehicles everywhere. A bulky solider approaches our vehicle and spots the wrapped bag between me and Basheer and freezes. He frantically gestures a signal and barks something as all 5 soldiers train their automatic M-16 rifles in our direction; it is time for us to freeze.

The scariest part of being in Afghanistan is the apparent flood of arms; countless Afghan men carelessly tote a machine gun; my paranoia is for one going off by accident and somebody (me?) innocent falling prey. Using his machine gun, the officer gestures for us to get out of the car; the thing is ugly looking and very scary, making me so nervous, my tongue feels as dry as the arid terrain outside. He orders me to bring out my bag which he roughly throws on the roof of Wasi’s car. He then orders me to open it; I do with trembling, nervous fingers as all the rest of them now have their weapons pointed at me with fingers on the trigger. Satisfied I am not wired or carrying a bomb, the officer relaxes, takes his finger off the trigger and apologizes, orders us to leave; we do so with extraordinary haste, did not realize we could move so fast.

That night, September 17, as we sleep on the floor of our engineers Wasi and Basheer’s dilapidated office, Kabul hotels much too dangerous as targets of attacks, the ground beneath us shakes. The first jolt is quite severe as I actually feel the cement ripple under my spine followed by a less intense jolt and then tremors and shaking of the structure. Both Aliakber and I rush outside and join the others from the other room. I am surprised the office is still standing; it is a pretty old building in need of major repairs. Our engineers have got the use of it for free so are happy with the status quo and don’t spend any money on it. Wasi, Basheer, Aliakberbhai and Khaleeqdad, the servant, are off and asleep soon afterwards. I spend some time out in the cold alone, contemplating, before it gets too chilly and I head back into the blankets.

The next day is spent doing absolutely nothing as the city is virtually shut down due to the elections; we spend time surfing the internet that loads so slow, I can see and feel my fingernails grow. We do, however, have an excellent open air barbecue; I marinated some lamb chops yesterday and it turns out very tender and yummy. Have that with fresh hot Afghan nan and you are in lamb chop heaven.

We have been asked to report at the airport by 7AM next day to catch the PACTEK chartered flight to Sar Pol but nothing happens until 9AM when we are finally airborne, piloted by Andre the Swiss. I always pray to God to never make me despondent, even if He chooses not to enrich me, for despondency is a terribly horrid feeling to have. And despondency is exactly what I find in Sar Pol among the 2,000 or so internally displaced refugees that Iran has expelled back to Afghanistan. They live in flimsy UNHCR handout tents that I cannot even imagine what will be like this coming winter. This community in Sar Pol has many, many problems, from food to housing to education. CAI has chosen to address the education problem. About 400 students, from grade 1 – 10 study out on the open, literally under the mercy of elements. So schooling is possible only for about 5 months of summer, if not raining, the rest of time is too cold and windy for classes. CAI will begin construction on a modest elementary school that will take care of children not having to fight the elements and study in relative comfort. I leave Sar Pole with a very heavy heart; for the misery of these hapless people is gut wrenching. After presentation of 5 sheep each to 14 widows in CAI sponsored Widows Economic Empowerment at a village 1 hour drive away, we retire at a local home and fly back to Kabul the next day and onwards to Mumbai the day after.

There is apprehension in the air after we land in Mumbai; it is the last day of Ghanpaty festival with loud firecrackers and throngs of people with multicolored streaks in their hair and bodies everywhere. There is also the Ayodhya Masjid verdict on Friday with schools closed and the country bracing for violence. The drive from airport to home is an adventure in itself as we get bogged down in the Ganesh processions that snarl traffic. Our vehicle, a brand new VW Polo that Aliakberbhai’s son Abbas is driving ever so carefully is scratched by an errant rickshaw driver in the melee we find ourselves in. A large group of pulsating teenagers are jerking about, as if possessed by the devil, to very loud throbbing music. Amidst this fracas of teeming people, the dancing and loud music, huge firecrackers are set off, setting off palpitations in tender hearts. For a moment I think I am still in Afghanistan and perhaps have finally made rendezvous with an explosive. But the mass of humanity, grime and filth outside, relentless sewer stink, hopelessly snarled cars centimeters away from each other fenders and noise pollution reassures me I am in Mumbai, India indeed. I will be all right, Insha’Allah.

You may be interested in watching these photographs.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pakistan drowns – A personal experience.

Emirates flight from Dubai to Islamabad is uneventful but delayed, typical Emirates style; the pilot wakes up 15 minutes after scheduled departure, tells us how sorry he is and blames late arrival of this aircraft for the delay. As if I care; you are late, period, I don’t care an ant’s ass why; save me the sob story. Would Emirates care if I told them I am late checking in because my driver was delayed picking me up? The food served on board is so bad, my neighbor takes one bite of his chicken korma, makes a face, hurriedly covers his tray, pulls a blanket over his face and is fast asleep in about two minutes; lucky guy. I eat the salad and bread, for I am hungry, this is my iftaar and sleep afterwards is impossible. There is commotion on board after we land, people are on their feet, emptying overhead cabins before the aircraft comes to a full stop; cabin crew franticly force them to cease, but my fellow passengers are in a hurry, they ignore pleas to sit down; the crew give up.

A strikingly young attractive lady immigration officer, scanning through my passport wants to know why I go to Afghanistan so much; I explain I am an aid worker building schools and taking care of orphans, widows there. A sad look clouds her pretty face and says in very heavy accented Pinglish, they kill you American, be careful, no? Some Pakistanis too, I want to add but bite my tongue instead. She waves me towards a desk where I am to apply for visa on arrival. I leave her reluctantly; not sure why, maybe a feeling of shared camaraderie between us in the few seconds of our interaction.

A young, smart looking officer asks me to complete a visa application form, which is difficult, as the form is so light from frequent photocopying, I can hardly read the questions asked. The officer then asks to borrow my pen so he can fill out my visa sticker, his pen has gone missing, he says. I hand it over reluctantly; my pens share common traits with my ex wives; have this nasty habit of divorcing me. Visa sticker complete, he attempts to coax stubborn glue out of a bottle but it is adamant, refuses to come out. Frustrated, he slams the bottle to the floor and storms off, looking for a fresh bottle somewhere inside the adjoining office. I take this opportunity to replace my pen with an inexpensive one that is lying useless in my laptop bag. He returns with mission failed, no replacement glue to be found. He retrieves the abused glue bottle from under his desk and takes off the cap, scoops out some with a pinkie finger and lines the edges of the visa sticker and applies it to a passport page with a look of triumph on his face. He has to validate the visa sticker now but cannot find a suitable place to wipe excess glue off his fingers, so it goes on his jet black thick head of hair. I wish I was with him next time he combs his hair, only because I am suddenly envious of the healthy head of hair he sprouts; puts my barren scalp to shame. It is 3AM when I leave the airport and arrive at my hotel an hour later. I can sleep for three hours only after fajr namaaz as representatives from Husseini Foundation are here to pick me up for our tour of flood affected areas in Pakistan Punjab.

The 3 lane highway out of Islamabad towards Punjab and Dehra E Ismail is smooth and very well maintained; the South Koreans have done a splendid job. It is after we cross a major dam and power plant at a key junction on the Indus River that separates Punjab from Dehra E Ismail that the enormity of the floods slaps me, hard. Everywhere, as far as the eye can see, is crippling devastation. Homes flattened, belongings washed away, people and animals drowned, mosques and imambargahs flattened and miles of fertile agricultural land, crops destroyed. The water that came gushing into these flat lands was so immense, it defies all logic; 600mm or 25 inches of rain fell in one day!

For the next 3 days, I see repeat horrors that I would not wish on anybody. I am besieged in every village we visit, throngs of fatigued, pitiful people in tattered and dirty clothes wanting, waiting, complaining, beseeching. Unanimously, all of their faces have one look in common, hope. Hope I would be their savior, pull them out of their predicament and this makes me feel sick to the pit of my stomach; awfully awful, crush me to a point I internally break down in despair repeatedly. Saidalain, Shadau, Thatta Balochan , Taunsa, Basti Shero, Tehsil, Jampur, Basti Guddan, Chawk Qureshi , Basti Sobay Wala, Basti Kumar, Biat Bogha and Basti Muhammad Ali, tragedy after tragedy, tales of horror that numb me so much I begin to block it all out after a while, else it will drive me insane. Most passionate lament is for lost harvest and homes destroyed; all men, without exception, beg me to help rebuild their homes. It is crushing feeling for village men not to be able to feed and house his family, his honor.

At Jampour and Laiyah, I am so traumatized at the sight of what greets my eye, I become angry at Allah and stupidly question His justice. Why, why, why? We are the first outsiders these victims see since they escaped rising waters; hundreds had to be rescued by makeshift boats pulled by male family members wading or swimming through muddy water. For miles, families with destroyed belongings squat, blocking roads. The Day of Judgment; will it be similar to this? The enormity and hopelessness of it all is suffocating. These people live on the road itself and then bathe and defecate in the flood waters still to recede. It is difficult to draw the line between humans and their animals, as they try to share meager resources rescued.

At a refugee center inside Masooma Qoom mosque in Laiyah, about 600 people have taken refuge. Women and children sit and while away their time doing nothing but stare blankly into space, the shock of what occurred still incomprehensible, even after 6 weeks. Children play or cry all around me, some want to see their photos on the camera screen while others want to touch me, as if I am some sort of celebrity. I meet 3 brand new babies, 2 girls, both aptly named Masooma and a boy, Mohammed, born as refugees inside the mosque. What does the future hold for them?

I get out from my air-conditioned vehicle to take pictures in the suffocating heat and humidity while people lolling around with their families stare at me blankly; the stench of rot and decay is overpowering, disease cannot be far behind. What good will these pictures you take do, asks a very old man looking up at me from a charpoy. I squat next to him and try explaining that I will share it with worldwide community and this will, insha’Allah, bring some help for him. It is okay then, he says, nodding his head in approval, better than these bastard politicians of our country. This, distressingly, has been a universal complaint from victims throughout my tour.

The 3 days and 2 nights I spend on the road in Dehra E Ismail, Dehra Ghazi Khan and Laiyah Districts are exhausting, retiring at about 2AM. The hotel generator at Dehra E Ismail is so noisy, I feel I have been hit by a sledgehammer the next morning. The bathroom is a mess and towel smell of cow dung from yesterdays visit to the devastated farms. Sobering is news from my host that Dehra E Ismail and Dehra Ghazi Khan are hotbeds of secretion violence, with Shias targets of Wahaabi groups. Why, 3 Shia Muslims were gunned down just this morning and a decision is made to avoid going to Dehra Ghazi Khan proper; I become tense and fret about either a bullet or bomb making us targets, even though our trip here has been kept secret just for this reason. The going is slow and laborious, with frequent stops at destroyed roads and pauses to calm or just listen to traumatized victims along the way.

What I experience in these 3 days is unique, I cannot understand it, and so it makes me mad. There are tragedies that are manmade (Afghanistan) and I can blame humans for it. But here, I don’t know, just don’t know; must accept Allah, the Mighty, the Powerful, the All Knowing and the Most JUST has a reason and accept His doing. Ya Allah, please accept our small sacrifices in the service of Your humanity, for Your pleasure, have mercy on these victims, relieve them of their trauma and speed them to full habilitation. You do what You will, there is no might except Yours and nobody worthy of worship but You.

As for CAI, we promise, as usual, full accountability, transparency and hands on involvement – all at zero administration cost. Of course.

Instead of bogging you down with all statists, I list the loss of lives and property from just Dehra E Ismail District. Remember, this is just one district in Punjab; there are 5 more (Dehra Ghazi Khan, Rajanpour, Muzzaferghar, Laiyah and Bhakkar) not included. And Sindh of course, an area I did not visit.

Area of flooding: 140 by 60 miles, affecting 950,000 people.
10 people died.
20,000 homes destroyed.
136,000 acres of land destroyed – 50,000 wheat, 50,000 rice, 36,000 of corn, millet, etc.
2,000 animals perished.
45 villages completely washed away
40 mosques destroyed.
10 Imambargas destroyed.

CAI, like many other NGO’s, funds Husseini Foundation of Pakistan, a credible and active organization, with good logistical and local area committees that oversee the relief work. There are, obviously, many needs that the victims have; some are already being met; food and medicines are generally being met by many NGO’s and the government, with some exceptions. CAI will concentrate the following:

Destroyed homes still have about 60% material that can be reused; bricks, wood, iron frames, doors etc, CAI will not provide these. Labor will have to come from the victims and family, friends. If this rule is strictly applied, a damaged or destroyed home (12x18 sq. ft.) can be rebuilt for an average of USD500 each. If each family where this email reaches blesses these wretched families with one home, CAI can participate in at least 1,000 homes. A tall order perhaps; I am, however, optimistic as we enjoy the blessings of our Eid, we will dig deep to come up with the funds. Insha’Allah. This is 1 room home, nothing else. As long as we can get these people inside a protective environment that will give shelter from approaching winter, we will insha’Allah, save lives.
The coming winter will take its toll. These victims are defenseless against elements as they have lost everything. For this year at least, CAI is changing focus of blankets from Afghanistan to Pakistan. We might still target a smaller group for blanket distribution there, if funds permit, but focus will be Pakistan where we are sure lives will be lost if we are not proactive. One good, warm blanket that accommodates 2 people will cost around USD14.
Economic empowerment for widows / single mothers:
As proved over and over again, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, sheep rearing by womenfolk is one sure way out of grinding poverty. 5 sheep that cost about USD550 awarded to a widow or single mother and well administered will see the victim out of desperation within about 6 months as she will have regular income from milk and byproducts and 100% profit from resale of new babies.

Your USD50,000 contribution so far:
Because of the situation and immediate needs, funds that were advanced to Husseini Foundation went for purchasing grains to feed the victims; 6 trucks of food grain fed 8,500 families with rice and pulses. All future funds will be now directed towards the priority items listed above.

Please click here for a library of photographs from floods areas I visited.

I thank Hassan Aboolo and Brig (R) Zamurad Khan of Hussein Foundation for their assistance and hospitality during my brief stay in Pakistan. Thank you guys - could not have done this without your invaluable assistance.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Leh, India – The skies rained misery. Part Two.

Part Two. Death, decay and despair.

The district of Ladakh in Indian Kashmir is beautiful, simply beautiful. Kargil and Leh comprise Ladekh with a combined population of about 300,000 people spread over a very large mountainous area. The religious (mostly harmonious) divide is 52% (mostly Shiite) Muslims, 45% Buddhist and 3% others. Very much like the Hazaras of central Afghanistan, people of Ladakh share similar facial characters, both probable decedents of Mogul stock. The views of this entire region, especially from the air, never fail to take my breath away; this happens again as my flight, avoiding traitorous mountains tops, banks steep to make her adjustment for landing.

But there is murkiness that obscures this beauty this time; mud. I can see the destruction easily, tons of slimy mud that descended from surrounding mountains when clouds burst over this tourist town on the eve of August 6. Within minutes, most of this picturesque town was covered in smoldering goo of mud and water, killing at least 200 and leaving thousands homeless; 500 people are still reported missing.

I am met outside the airport terminal by Syed Rizwi and Ashraf Ali from Imamiya Mission and Imamiya Trust, both very active in relief efforts for the victims currently underway. It is still early, 8AM, the streets deserted and eerie. I smell rot and decay all around me as we drive to the hotel I will sleep the one night. And then there is the fine mountain dust from dried up mud, dust that is omnipresent, filling my already congested lungs and setting me up for allergies right away. The damage I see is devastating, unbelievable and bone numbing; I cannot even imagine the horror of it all as the disaster would have unfolded. Entire neighborhoods washed away, people, homes, building, cars; all picked up and washed away by the advancing mud, as if mere toys.

I refuse tea that my hosts insist; it is Ramadhan and they fast. We talk about relief efforts under way and how CAI can assist before embarking on a tour of the most affected areas. It is painful to see so much destruction, so much misery, so much despair. The Imamiya group is struggling to help families of 19 killed and 9 still missing; however, the biggest challenge is lost livelihood from inundated and wasted farmlands and washed away / destroyed homes that will have prolonged affect on the livelihood of so many more.

I meet 2 individuals; both named Hussein Ali, grieving by freshly marked graves at a remote village of Schuzbo in Phang, outside Leh. One Hussein Ali lost his wife and all 3 children and the other a wife and his only child. Both are grief stricken and inconsolable; I am unable to do anything but hold them, there is nothing I can say that will dull the pain anytime soon. The scenes are horrid with bridges, homes, land and roads that have simply disappeared in thin air. An Imambargah, wrecked, its concrete walls small stones and dust and twisted iron. The Sheikh, Gulam Hadi, a petite, frail man frets all the time. What will happen now? How will we complete Ramadhan? What about Muharram? We cannot rebuild here, we must move… He is however, astonished I have come to take stock and ask after them; cannot stop parting with duas for me; he makes it all, oh, so worthwhile.

This scene is repeated everywhere we visit that long hard day. My hosts insist I have some tea at least; we are welcomed into a home nearby and agonizing sweet tea served. As I try to drink the steaming, extra strong, sweet liquid away from the gaze of my fasting hosts, a mournful anguished wail from a grieving woman fills the air and I freeze. The sound is so painful that I leave the tea alone as men folk shush and kindly rebuke the source. The door is shut to block out the sound but I still cannot make myself drink the tea.

Late that night, spent and exhausted, I commit CAI to rebuild 5 completely lost homes and clean / repair 10 at the cost of about USD30k; I’ll think of ways coming up with funds from our magnificent and kindhearted donors. Later. Somehow. Insha’Allah.

Click here to see the devastations in Leh.

Blog concludes.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Leh, India – The skies rained misery. Part One.

Part One. Perhaps this is why Pakistan is in such a mess…?

Reports are pouring in about death, maim, unimaginable anguish and heartbreak for peoples of Pakistan and Leh, going through devastating flooding and mud slides that have cost so many lives and destroyed so much. Even though it is Ramadhan, I cannot sit still; as head of an organization dedicated to try and help in exactly such disasters, I am on the move; I make plans to fly to Leh via New Delhi (only possible air route), obtain a visa visa to Pakistan in the process. I call Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi; the person in charge of visas tells me if I can bring a letter from US Consulate in Mumbai (I am a US citizen), Pakistan High Commission will grant me the visa. Next day, I visit the US Consulate and they give me a generic letter stating there is no objection in me visiting Pakistan.

New Delhi is a mess, hot and sticky with traffic so messed up in preparation of the (un)Commonwealth Games now so much in disrepute, I feel the city will need genuine miracles for the games to commence. The Pakistan High Commission is about an hour from the airport and I reach it after some trouble; the rickshaw driver a little upset I don’t know the exact location. The place is heavily fortified and I reach the visa counter after having being carefully scrutinized by different sets of armed security men. I find myself to be the only one in line; a pleasant surprise. The widow that separates me from the person inside in similarly fortified with steel bars, the glass pane is one sided, I cannot see anything or anyone inside except the balding head of a person bent on reading something. Hello, I say in greeting; the bald head does not move. Hello!!! I shout a little too loudly. The bald head rises ever so slowly and a set of eyes regard me in irritation. Bolo, kya hai, says invisible lips for I cannot see anything except the man’s eyes; I feel very uncomfortable, feels I am talking to somebody in a neqaab. I explain my reasons for a visa and slide my passport and other papers through a slot to him; the head falls again and I am exposed to a barren pate once more.

The head stays down for a while and I seriously feel the guys fallen asleep when he pushes the papers back towards me and the eyes reappear. Sorry, I cannot grant you a visa. The letter from US Consulate is not specifically asking us to issue you a visa. I am stunned, unable to speak for quite a few seconds during which the head falls back again and I am exposed to white pink scalp once more. I swear, had that window been open, I would have slapped that thing silly; it would give me immense satisfaction. I protest verbally instead; loudly. Window Number One , says the bowed head and I am dismissed.

Feeling bruised and smarting from the insults and brush off, I go looking for Window Number One which turns out to be the main entrance for Consular Section. I explain my predicament to a more sympathetic male attendant who rings for somebody and I am met with assistant Consular Kamal. Kamal is an emaciated, well groomed polite young man, with a thin face and a wobbly Adams apple that seems to have a mind of its own. The man has very little to say; he mainly listens to me, takes my documents and advised me to call him in about three hours; he will discuss the merit of my case with the Consular and let me know. Ah, there is hope, so I return to the airport and check into a nearby hotel.

I call Kamal three hours later and I am told he is out of the office, call back. I call back five times; Kamal is either not in his seat or busy. I fret; he has my most important documents and being Ramadhan, the Commission offices close at three and I am flying out of Delhi very early tomorrow. When I finally get to him, he is abrupt, not so polite. You please go to the US and apply your visa from there; they happy to give you a visa, not possible from New Delhi. You are a US citizen, not Indian. Instinctively, I go on the defensive, but… but you guys promised, I am a US national but I live in India, I have given you my resident permit, I have come all the way from Mumbai for this, it makes no sense for me to fly all the way to the US just to get a visa…. There is a pause; I can just hear Kamal breathing at the end of the line; I am so mad I could just reach out and strangle that Adams apple that must be dancing away at the end of the line. After what seems to be an entirety, he speaks, You wait, commands Kamal, you talk to the Consul.

There are clicks and humming at the other end; I despair the line will be cut off. India, you see, has very good cell phone technology but woeful land lines, as stable as Kamals Adams apple. A commanding, crisp voice, not unlike an Englishman with a stiff upper lip identifies himself as Akram, and how can he help me. I try and stay calm and relate my predicament to Akram in a pleading, emotional manner, that I am CEO of CAI, residing lawfully in India, do a lot of humanitarian work in India, Afghanistan and elsewhere and wish to go to Pakistan and possibly help there. There is a pause while Akram, I guess, digests this data. Our discussion and demeanor is straight downhill from that point, with the conversation going something like this:

Akram: Well, I understand you want to help Pakistan, but I have no authority to issue you a visa.
Me: You are the Consul General; surely you do have the authority and can make an exception for the betterment of suffering Pakistanis. Please understand I am not a visitor to India, I LIVE here so I have the same rights to a visa an Indian national would have.
Akram: Really, so you want to teach me the rules of visa issuance by Pakistan, do you?
Me: Well, it makes no sense for a resident of India to travel to the US to obtain a visit visa for Pakistan. Does that make sense to you Sir? You are in your position because you have a good education and can make an informed, rational and wise decision. I am sure you will agree with me? I’ll tell you what, you issue me that visa, only 3 days visa and I’ll donate the USD2,000 it will cost me to travel to US to get the visa (It’ll cost me much more but since I am intrinsically a Wania, might as well try save some bucks) to the flood victims of Pakistan.
Akram, after a long pause: Well, that is very generous of you, but no, you will have to go to the USA and Pakistan will be happy to grant you a visa. I am sorry I can’t help you. I will have your documents waiting for you at the reception, please pick them up.
Me, with my blood pressure at unprecedented high levels: Can I appeal your decision? Is there anyone else that you report to that I can talk to, anyone else who can help me, who has the authority to grant me the visa?
Akram, with a mocking laugh in his voice: Not even Obama.

The line goes dead. Oh, I am so frustrated and disappointed, I could cry. I take a rickshaw to the High Commission with a heavy heart and my lungs filled with New Delhi motor vehicle fumes. The receptionist hands me my documents with a kind sympathetic expression on his face. I return to the hotel and wait for very early tomorrow for my flight to Leh. Ya Allah, I tried; I tried very, very hard.

Next stop Leh…to be continued.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Ye hai mera (H)India….

Sirsi UP, India, site of CAI sponsored school and orphanage:

Just as I decide to leave the relative comfort of the orphanage, it begins to pour. The school bus has no air-condition, so the windows must stay down or I risk being suffocated in the heat and humidity that is all powering this midday early August. So I get wet and wetter as the rain intensifies.

The distance between Sirsi and Samble, an administrative center of sorts, is only about 10 kilometers but the drive is a fight for space in the narrow tar-top that leads us there and school bus driver is as aggressive as any as we near my destination, the District Registrar of Moragabad. You see, I have to register a Power of Attorney given to Lozi, our school administrator, so that a piece of land I have purchased in Sirsi can be registered in my name without me having to come all the way from Mumbai during the month of Ramadhan. Simple little exercise, so I thought.

When we do get to the building that has the Registrar Office, there is no parking in the packed streets and it is raining profusely. Well, there is no choice so I bravely, but very carefully, run the 300 odd feet to get to the building. Discarded plastic bags and bottles, cigarette butts, tobacco paan sachets, a discarded used condom (eeekh, yes, that’s a condom all right!), wet and miserable stray dogs and a lone monkey, its behind red as a Washington apple greet me as I turn into a filthy narrow lane that leads to the Registrar’s office. A few steep steps up and a string of open stalls line the building, lawyer’s offices, perhaps 20 of them, eagerly wait for customers. They are full today, people seeking shelter from the downpour; I join them, frantically trying to shake water from my soaked clothes.

Lozi assures me all forms are ready, typed, checked and rechecked; we won’t have to wait too long - he is oh, so wrong. As I try to stay calm in the crowded lawyer’s “office”, amongst the dampness and smell of unwashed feet and untamed armpits. Lozi advises me the lawyer is seeking shelter elsewhere due to the rain, he should be back soon; my God, “soon” could mean an eternity in India. We wait for about 20 agonizing minutes in the dampness and smell, I slapping persistent flies away in irritation and anger while those around me watch me closely, probably wondering why I am so agitated; why, they don’t seem to mind the dampness and flies at all! When the lawyer does come, he folds his hands at everybody in respect and wants to give me priority but my file has disappeared in thin air! Another 10 minutes go by; the file is finally located on top of a support that holds up the office walls, an assistant felt that was the safest place against the rain. My signatures, 10 of them, are taken, I am fingerprinted and we are ready for registration.

We troupe up to the Registrar’s office, a dingy, airless, pan stained hall with a dingier smaller room inside where the Registrar sits, smoking. I am told to sit inside this room while we wait for the documents to be recorded. I enter into a cloud of cigarette smoke and a nasty stench of stale tobacco; a pair of eyes behind thick, heavy lens regard me cautiously. I do Namaste; the man wags his head through the cloud of smoke and finishes his cigarette, discarding the butt on the floor and stamping it dead. A garland portrait of Mahatma Gandhi sternly frowns down at us from the wall above the smokers head, perhaps not too happy with all the pollution.

In the hall, something is amiss; Lozi and the lawyer are frantically gesturing and arguing with the clerk about something. The stench in this office is nasty, so when another cigarette is lit and the man gets busy with new visitors, I escape to the hall and fresher air. Lozi has a pained, embarrassed expression on his face, explains the clerk has made a mistake and stamped a “wrong” page of the POA; will have to fix it. I go back down to get some fresh air; the rain has abated. Exactly opposite the entrance, atop the wall that fences the building, sits the monkey with the red behind, observing everybody and everything. It eyes me uncaringly, I look at it warily. Not wanting to be near an animal that is an expert and wily thief, I try to shoo it away. It is unmoved, stares at me defiant, mocking, as if laughing at me, then bares vicious looking fangs; I hurriedly retreat back up.

There is another argument developing between the lawyer, Lozi and the main Babu (clerk) about the amount of facilitation (bribe) I have to pay to get the POA registered. The Babu, seeing I am not “native” to UP, is asking double the amount, about USD26; Lozi is adamantly refusing; the lawyer agrees with both parties, depending on whose argument would benefit him. The Babu argues that he has expedited the POA matter, seeing I was a guest and that “seniors” above him want a bigger cut every time. He waves the thousand Rupee bill in the air and cries in agitation. See that man inside? He wants a bigger share. And his boss, and his boss’s boss, all the way to the top. How can I divide this thing so many ways?! Still, with a hurt, sour look on his face, he carefully folds the bill and adds it to several others in a memo book, then notes down my contribution below a long list of names in the log. Our job done, we leave the building, I leading in a hurry to get out of the suffocation I feel. The monkey is still there, observing everybody, everything.

I choose to return to Sirsi on Lozi’s motorbike so I can pass by and inspect the land I have purchased. I pled Lozi for some strong chai, so he stops at a grimy little restaurant along a busy intersection. Everything about the restaurant screams a warning for me to stay away. Outside the restaurant, atop a wooden crate, sits a samoosa maker, next to a skillet dark with boiling, bubbling grease full of samoosas that are scooped up by eager customers as fast as he can fry them. He sits cross legged, barefoot; one big fat dirty toe with an overgrown nail full of grime acts as an anchor to a pile of thin pastry pockets that he fills with a mixture of boiled potato mix and spices. He has not a care in the world at the unhygienic, appalling picture he paints and his customers either don’t care or are pathetically insensitive.

I want to drink some boiled tea, with all germs killed, I reason, so partake in the delicious brew. A mound of tiny boondhi, with flies and bees swarming all over it catch my eye and make my mouth water. I ask the guy to give me some from the middle core, hopefully untouched by the flies on top. The guy behind the pile looks at me strangely but complies so I enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. I have a month fasting coming up, the calories will take of themselves, no? Perhaps?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A visit to Malaad slums…

It is pouring outside, has been for at least a week; non ceasing rain, at times so heavy, it alarms me. I have not seen the sun in this time; the skies are sullen, dark heavy clouds pregnant with moister that open up every few minutes. Aliakberbhai Ratansi calls to say he will pick me up at 11AM tomorrow; we have to go to Malaad slums to inspect CAI sponsored construction of 41 homes for the poor and destitute, 23 of them now ready, it’s important. The thought of making that trip sullies my mood even further, depresses me. Malaad slums, teeming with discards and unfits of Mumbai’s economic growth, is not for the faint hearted and weak stomachs, even in good days. I imagine the filthy flooded alleys, stench of open sewers, flies that will torment me and drenched hovels of the poor; their absolute misery trying to ward of overflowing sewer nallas and hopelessly leaking roofs of tin or tarpaulin.

Well, the Almighty is kind today, for I wake up without the sound of rain pounding on my bedroom windows and I get an immediate lift in my disposition when I see the sun peaking through clouds. I cannot believe it, I have actually seen the sun, in July, in Mumbai; alhamd’Allah. Aliakberbhai is bang on time, another rarity of Mumbai appointments where even 30 minute delay is a pleasant surprise. When we reach Malaad, it is swarming with people and cars and busses and motorbikes and bicycles and dogs and flies and hundreds of potholes and a few goats and few buffaloes; we crawl to a standstill negotiating all these. I swear I would kill someone in an instant if I was driving; Aliakberbhai however, has infinite patience and not at a bit bothered by the racket outside his air conditioned surroundings.

If the entry to Malaad was chaotic, the slums are major manic; lanes so narrow, I can clearly see the sizzling protest wart on a pakoora being tormented in a huge wok inside a tiny, filthy restaurant with a line of eager, hungry customers waiting to add more torment on it by devouring it. The rains of past 6 weeks have made a mockery of repairs by (corrupt!) local municipality with potholes big enough to hide a corpse. Indeed, foul odor of decay makes its way inside our tightly shut windows just as Aliakberbhai avoids running over pulpy remains of a dog; snarled teeth of agony the only identifying feature that tells me it was once a dog.

When we reach the general area where our homes are being built, there is no decent parking in sight; most areas are covered by rain water and few places outside ramshackle shops shoo us away. After a few futile attempts, Aliakberbhai parks next to a shed with people recycling garbage inside, ignoring agitated protests from the apparent owner. I am aptly dressed; sweatpants with elastic at the ankles, a tee-shirt and flip-flops with an umbrella and my camera. I have however, forgotten to spray my handkerchief with a liberal dose of perfume, a must for Mumbai slums if your nose is as sensitive as mine; I despair. Sure enough, sewer stench and flies welcome me gleefully as soon as I open the vehicle door.

A very short walk and a filthy pond overflowing with sewer goo block our way; Aliakberbhai prepares his trousers to cross it; I balk. There is no chance we can cross it without sinking into the ankle deep water. I have read horror tales of people wading through rain water bare feet then contracting deadly viral diseases due to almost certain dog, rat and human urine presence; this substance looks worse than just plain rain water. Kaleembai, our contractor, clad in inevitable stark white (I wonder how he manages keep is so white working in these slums) kurta pajamas impatiently tells me there is no other way to reach the homes we have to inspect and I could always wash my feet with fresh rain water after we cross. He attempts to lay few stepping stones at the edge of the pond but these are quickly submerged and seem so wobbly, I am sure I would be totally covered with goo if I attempt to use them. I grind my teeth, look up to the heavens for a quick prayer, am rewarded by a smiling sun, than quickly plod through. Once through, I hurry my 2 companions to a nearby shop shed where there is a drum of accumulated rain water; Kaleembhai is granted permission and I scrub my feet, using more water than perhaps needed.

Kaleem has done a decent job in the construction of 23 homes so far; I get satisfaction of watching families in durable homes live in relative comfort and safety. The homes are fairly well constructed, keeps the family dry, with bathroom facilities inside, a luxury only new to these wrenched people; these homes should comfortably last without major repairs at least next 20 or so years. Having satisfied ourselves the project is in course but more importantly, on budget, we bid farewell to a small gathering of people curious to see what we are up to, clicking photos of their homes. Aliakberbhai has his business to attend and there is important breaking economic news from the US that will make the forex markets move; opportunities for my bread and butter.

As we leave, we are frantically beckoned to a nearby tin shanty by a wailing woman, beseeching us to look at the state of her home. I don’t want to go, as this would have serious consequences; there is a long waiting list of homeless families that need housing and I don’t want to pay favorites. But the plea is frantic and relentless; call me a bleeding heart liberal, perhaps; however, this anguish from her heart I cannot ignore. Firdaust Asif Hussein lives in a tin shed measuring 10 x 15 with her husband and 3 children. This is the whole home, including kitchen, bedroom, living room and a corner crude shower; toilets are a 15 minute walk to a public facility that charges Rs. 5 per session.

Firdaust and her husband sew tiny beads into sarees all day that earn her about Rs.100 (approx. USD2); to supplement this minuscule, non-survivable income, Firdaust has set up shop in her tiny home; candy and knickknacks for area children who find it a chore going to buy these all the way to the main alleyways. She clears about Rs. 25 (50 US cents) per day; Firdaust is an enterprising woman, a hard worker. We don’t promise her anything, we can’t; all 41 homes budgeted and sponsored by CAI donors have been allotted. But I’ll try and raise USD2,300 it’ll take to build her a permanent home, only because Firdaust is the kind of person who deserves help. She is not waiting for handouts; rather, she is hustling to make a buck and that is always a start to success.

We plod back through muck and grime; I dread wading through the sewage again and actually feel creepy crawly as we approach the offending pond. There, on one side, with her panties on her knees, squats a child girl, about the same age as my Maaha Zainab, 9, urinating. Finishing her job, she casually cleans up with the same filthy water and as casually, goes her merry way. As I write this piece, my feet are still raw red, smarting from the scrubbing I gave them after my return home.

Click here to view pictures of Malaad slums.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mumbai monsoons

I am in Mumbai and this is my 3rd monsoon here; a phenomenon marvel to be experienced that can be quite adventurous if caught in one of the many nasty downpours. It is also quite unique, unlike other places I have lived around the world, for it can rain nonstop for days. Not the steady rains of the equator or Americas, no, it is like buckets of rain being poured from heavens with frenzy; you hear the robust downpour on the roof and windows, intensity of it increasing and subsiding like the acceleration of a vehicle on a busy road. Farmers are relieved, tempers come down as the heat is finally overpowered, air-conditioners are rested, streets are colorful rainbows of umbrellas, and children don't care, come out barefoot, dancing and splashing. Even stray dogs seem subdued and the fight for territory or fancied bitch is with lessened frenzy.

The British must be thanked for excellent infrastructure left behind, much of Mumbai still relies on it; by and large the water is accommodated in drainage systems unless the downpours coincide with high tides; then there can be some serious flooding issues. I remember the floods of about 5 years ago when the city came to a standstill for days and hundreds died. The local municipal establishment is so inept and corrupt; Mumbai would have drowned long ago but for the solid infrastructure inherited. Newer crop of leaders are trying to make a difference though, but it’s an uphill task.

These rains serve several purposes; remember, western India gets rains during the monsoons, usually June to September only; period when water tables get replenished, also life giving lakes and water catchment areas. Monsoons are a great cleanser of grime and filth that accumulates for 9 months, Mumbai has some mind boggling, retching filth communities and slums. The rains so far have been handsomely abundant and I am relieved. Although these downpours can snarl already chaotic traffic and cause mayhem commuting from point A to B, the shortage of rain last year were crippling to city water services. Poor areas suffered with 30% cuts in water supplies, the poor got hit with unbelievable spiraling cost of (purposely inflated) grain and vegetable prices and it was the poor and destitute that had to pay more for (hoarded) water supplied to slum communities.

Mumbai is taking a breather from showers today but the forecast is like a broken record from tomorrow onwards; heavy rains, 90F. US Consulate here in Mumbai have a circular out warning us to be vigilant on days when the seas are pregnant with high tides. I will sit tight and feast in the tail-end mango madness, last of season are totopuris and langraas; you have to try them to believe what delightful bounties Allah has given us....

Monday, June 14, 2010

A journey to Waaweila – Final

Joyful marriages; grinding poverty; going home.

The drive up to Belkaab begins benignly enough; except for the heat and dust, there is not much happening. We pass Sar Pol and pay respects at the grave of Yahya bin Zain, grandson of Imam Sajjad (A); history tells us he was beheaded after a fierce fight here in Sal Pol and his head sent to Iraq. Up ahead, we stop at a local restaurant and have Kabuli rice for lunch, a kind of pulao; quite yummy actually, if your stomach is used to eating out, like mine is now, alhamd’Allah. It is not hawker food that makes you sick in the tummy in countries like Afghanistan (Kabul Belly), India (Delhi Belly), rather it’s the water. Hot, piping food immediately consumed is relatively safe; this I have learnt over the years. Our appalling road ordeals are repeated as we then climb up towards Belkaab; the air thins out rapidly and it is chilling cold again at altitudes where we encounter snow, now in June. I have to scramble for my warmers and sweater again but these are packed in my suitcase, so I battle getting them out, donning them in the jostling back seat of the vehicle; we drive into Belkhaab 12 hours later. A quick, light, late night dinner and it’s snuggling into blankets again; they smell of sheep and goats. I go to sleep a happy man however; this house, though ancient and mud built, actually sport an eastern toilet and a hammaam with adequate supply of hot water – what luxuries!

We participate in a mass wedding the next morning, a hundred very poor couples who have no chance of affording their marriage ceremonies and rituals get united, thanks to CAI donors. We have a turnout of about 10,000 people from in and around Belkhaab; it becomes abundantly clear crowd control is going to be a problem real fast, even though there is a security cordon around us with the Governor and other top officials in presence. Armed police with Kalashnikovs and plain clothed security men and women with sticks struggle shooing away uninvited crowds; it takes a long time to get some semblance of control and the ceremonies begin. I am nervous throughout however, for even a single incident, however minor, would most certainly result in a stampede with disastrous results. This event, you see, is unique for these hapless people; nothing like this has ever taken place here and the excitement is too much. The ceremonies end with an invited comedian who has the crowds in stitches, the couples included; they laugh and laugh until some have streaming tears. I am so happy, I thank Allah CAI (I) could be the cause of this happiness, albeit temporary in nature. There is also lunch for invited guests, about 1,400; nothing doing, as the lunch ground is thronged with crowds; I later learn that the meal prepared for 1,400 guests actually served 5,000 comfortably. A miracle, I say, no less.

The afternoon is spent touring Belkaab and surrounding areas, and to initiate CAI sponsored water project that will bring safe, pure and usable water to about 30,000 people who now use contaminated water, resulting in clearly avoidable waterborne diseases; even deaths in children. An aalim once remarked that poverty in Afghanistan broke his back; this is so true. I am fortunate and privileged to have travelled the world, to some very poor countries in Africa, Asia and Middle East; nothing compares to the grinding Afghan poverty and this is so evident now. Water is obviously a major issues and this is reinforced to me in an unbelievable, horrible manner. I witness a boy, about 8 or 9 go on his knees and hands, and then lap up water like an animal from a spring; this act is later repeated by 2 other children, girls, sisters perhaps. My eyes see this but my mind refuses to accept the horror of it. That tiny spring gushes out a thin stream of drinkable water but is too shallow for the children to scoop it so this animal instinct is practiced. It is such incidents that tear my heart asunder and make me feel so hopeless about Afghanistan sometimes; I initiate the water project later that afternoon. The Governor, pleased he can now boast of one more major achievement under his belt, invites us to his home for dinner and we feast once again that day. It is to Mazaar Shariff the next morning.

Surprise, surprise, the driver is no other than the comedian from yesterdays wedding ceremonies. Not only is he a fine comic who provides entertainment to Wasi, Basheer and Hussein Pur who have a gala time laughing, he is a poet as well, reciting couplets in praise and tragedies of Imams (A), alternating our moods from merriment to sorrow. These are some of the toughest roads I have ever travelled trough in my life. We meet no other traffic save a couple of trucks throughout the drive, a testimony people don’t risk driving through these hostile roads. I feel like being tossed into a concrete mixer for 18 hours and then let out when we arrive in Mazaar Shariff. So beaten up, I naively agree to Basheer’s suggestion of a massage and skin cleaning at a local hammam, which is surprisingly, immaculate.

When it is my turn for the scrubbing and clean up in a hot steamy cabin, I literally weep tears of agony at the treatment from a massive man who labors my body every which way and angle. Fat, warm sweat drop from his face and body on to mine as he scrubs my body raw, then slaps away at regular intervals as if it is naan dough he is getting ready for the tanoor, not a living, breathing and a very tired me under him. I honestly look pink when I see my face in the mirror back at our hotel room; startled to see myself after 5 days. I have forgotten how I look, there are no mirrors in the remote parts of Afghanistan I had been. While I really liked the scrubbing up at the hammam, I didn’t care for the massage; it was too hard, the man too rough.

Unable to keep my eyes open after a dinner of very good pizza and coke, first meal where I did not have nan or drink chai, I collapse in a bed that is much too soft after sleeping on the floor for last 5 nights. Exhaustion takes over however, and I sleep the slumber of the dead. Early next morning, we inspect 2 deep water well projects CAI has sponsored and head for Kabul. The roads are asphalt for the most part and car mercifully air-conditioned, for Mazar is super hot. Another harrowing 7 hours drive; the taxi driver chain smokes, listens to 1960’s Hindi songs and drives like a man possessed by Iblees himself, we mercifully arrive in Kabul. I spend the next day at the office with Wasi, Basheer and others who make CAI run like a fine oiled machine, going over and auditing accounts and records. Kabul is shut down with a security corridor; President Karzai is meeting with many tribal leaders, including the Talibaan; we decide to stay put at the office and not venture out. Next morning, I am taken to the airport and fly without incident to New Delhi and on to home in suburban Mumbai. It is late night when I get home; daughter Maaha Zainab is fast asleep. But she feels for me when I join her in her bed; she hugs, I fall safely asleep.

Blog concluded.

You can view few photographs of this trip here.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A journey to Waaweilah - Part three

Shafeeqa’s tears of blood.

The greeting party at Imam Sajjad (A) Clinic troop out to meet us; Aagha Amini, the local community religious leader, Dr. Islam Yaar, nurse Mohammed Amin, pharmacist Mohammed Rafiq cleaner Zaman plus Basheer and a businessman, Hussein Pur, who has volunteered to accompany and help Basheer as I have missed my Pactec flight. Per Afghan traditions, midwife Shafeeqa does not venture out; it is cold anyway and she is busy preparing our dinner. The clinic moved to this present location about 2 weeks ago because the former structure was too small. This one however, has no toilets except behind the building with the sky as the roof.

Reluctantly and vexed that our guys could have agreed to rent a place without a toilet in a medical clinic, I mutter incoherently but gingerly make my way through grass and mud to squat behind the building. It is bitterly cold but what makes it worse are biting winds that make mockery of my warmers and sweater. Still, I must go, as the green tea and cold winds have my kidneys working overtime. It is when I am almost done that I see it; teary eyes of a humongous, harmless field rat, perhaps startled and blinded by the torchlight I am waving around fearfully. I let out a shrill scream and lose the torch, but not caring, run, stepping on turds deposits of my predecessors. We are supposed to sleep at the clinic but I refuse, absolutely refuse sleeping at a place without a toilet, even an evil smelly one. I agree to sleep at the dilapidated home of Aagha Amini, with a stinking toilet in the courtyard. Exhausted from our trip, we eat a quick dinner of nan, tea and over salted beef broth before I fall blissfully asleep.

We try to sleep after fajr prayers the next morning at 3, but sleep is elusive, so we bundle up and go out to see the sun rise to some spectacular mountain vistas I have ever set eyes on. Sacheck is a dirt poor village in the middle of nowhere, but her breathtaking beauty cannot be denied. Our breakfast of nan, chai and dry nuts is spent on strategizing and planning the running of our clinic; Dr. Allah Yaar is very vocal about storage of staff and the need for better facilities. He currently sees about 200 plus patients daily and quality attention with this volume is simple not possible. I try and explain CAI limited resources; I can understand his problems; he sees them at micro levels, while I have to focus on macro levels that take in all of CAI projects and funding needs worldwide.

The sheer enormity and scope of clinic services to the destitute is made clearly abundant when we tour the primal facility after breakfast. There is a man laid out on doctor’s office examining table when we get there, no other place available; Moosa Hydery is only about 30 with a huge belly. Liver Cirrhosis, whispers Allah Yaar, not very good chance of survival unless he goes to Kabul. Soon. I arrange for Moosa to be taken to Kabul at CAI expense; I later learn we are too late; medical experts at Kabul Hospital do not give him more than few months. Word has spread that foreign guests are at the clinic and a steady stream of very sick and desperate people arrive, some have travelled since 12 midnight on donkeys, some have walked. Two women, one with chronic Ostio Myalitis, another with Trombo Phibioitis are also dispatched to Kabul as Allah Yaar says he cannot treat them here. Although this decision is taking a toll on CAI sadeqa funds, I simple cannot look the women in their eyes and say no, I cannot help you; the hope and expectation on their faces will not allow me. Then, I simply refuse to see any more sick people, for the wellbeing of my pocketbook as well my personal sanity.

I have a very difficult next 30 minutes as Shafeeqa, the midwife, tearfully relates events leading to her father’s execution by the Talibaan some 8 years ago; you can read all about Shafeeqa’s Tears of Blood here . The entire village seems to be gathered outside, waiting to meet me afterwards; I shake their hardened, farm worked, coarse hands. The village elders hand me a handwritten letter of appreciation for all that CAI is doing for their village, from the clinic, to blankets, mass marriages and Iftaar food packets. It is difficult to fathom the poverty of these people unless you visit and meet them and this tribute is an emotional strain for me indeed; for CAI and I, it is us that are deeply indebted for the opportunity to serve. After many different meetings and audits, we are ready for lunch and drive back to YawKawlang. I do not want us driving in the dark; want to visit Shafeeqa’s destroyed home and rest well for the next leg of my odyssey tomorrow; a chartered flight and another 18 hours drive to the district of Belkhaab.

Lunch has become an issue; Dr. Allah Yaar informs me Shafeeqa is on an emergency call to stabilize a full term pregnant woman who is in a coma and bleeding. The women lives some distance away and Shafeeqa will not be able to cook lunch, would fried eggs, naan and chai suffice? Well, for one, Shafeeqa is not our cook and my Mama always said food tasted excellent no matter what it was as long as you were hungry; so true, no? So, 3 delicious fried eggs each later, we depart for YawKawlang where we arrive in record time of just 2 hours. After visiting Shafeeqa destroyed home, we are guests at Dr. Allah Yaar’s home (with 2 toilet in the courtyard!) and have a feast of lamb pulau for dinner.

Next morning, we drive to YawKawlang “airport” and wait for our Pactec chartered flight to arrive from Kabul; it does, an hour late. The runway is simply a stretch of straight dirt road; the pilot makes a diving fly by to inspect it, make sure there are no major obstacles on it. Another delay ensues when a bored “security” officer drives up and demands clearance papers from the 2 astonished pilots; they have heard of no such requirement. After about an hour of sitting on dirt and many heated telephone conversations between the pilots, security officer and people higher up in Bamiyaan, the bored security officer decides he has had enough excitement and just as abruptly, speeds away; we take off in a hurry.

The aircraft is a single engine Cessna 172 Skyhawk, 4 passengers and 2 pilots; for those with weak stomachs, it will not be a compassionate ride, for it can toss, dance and bounce with mountain winds; Pactec keeps extra sick bags. Andre, the Swiss pilot with whom I have travelled before is a wonderful man, fluent in Dari. He is training Aziz, a young American (assumed name? convert?) today but still flies low enough for us to photograph and video spectacular sights of snowy mountain tops and green valleys. An hour later, we make an uneventful, perfect landing Shabbar Khan, on another strip of dirt, after a precautionary fly past over it.

CAI has sponsored the marriages of 100 poor couples in Belkhaab; in our honor, the Governor of Belkhaab has sent a vehicle to pick us up. My, my, Yakoob’s khatara put this antique to immediate shame; we debate long and hard if we want to risk a hard drive of 12 hours in this heap. The driver, a kid really, shrugs his shoulders uncaringly, asks us to make up our minds, he has a long drive ahead. We have little choice, to find a replacement would take a half day, at least. While it was super cold in YawKawlang, it is opposite in the valley of Shabbar Khan and I for one have no reservations about getting rid of my warmers and sweater, changing in the moving van, a decision I will regret immensely later on.

To be continued…

You can view few photographs of this trip here.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A journey to Waaweilah - Part two

Bladder control, an agony.

Stalled car.

Weeping windscreen.

Road to Bamiyaan

Rain, rain

Mud, mud

For a change, there is a line with only about 10 people in front of me waiting for their turn at the immigration counter at Kabul airport. My turn, I step up and hand my passport open to the page where Afghan Consulate in Dubai has pasted the visa; with 14 other prior stamps, it takes time to find the correct one. The immigration officer, a rare clean shaved man with an immaculately trimmed mustache looks at the visa and asks: Where are you coming from? New Delhi, I reply. Your visa is issued in Dubai. I am not sure if this is a question or a statement. Yes, I agree and nod, it was issued in Dubai indeed. Then why are you coming from New Delhi? Eh, is this a trick question? Well, I say, I was in Dubai last week, got my visa from there and then I flew to Mumbai, then Delhi and then I flew to Kabul. I see, he says. He goes through the passport carefully then looks at me; removes his smart cap, scratches vigorously through abundant hair and blows out his cheeks, wafting stale cigarette breath towards my face; I wrinkle my nose. He stares at me for a few seconds that feel like time without end, then suddenly stamps the visa page and slaps the passport on the counter; I am free to go.

Wasi Mohammedan, our engineer and everything else in Afghanistan, greets me beyond the security cordon and we drive to a depilated and shabby house in a neighborhood Wasi feels would be a safe place for me in Kabul. This place is Wasi and Basheer’s office cum residence. After prayers and a quick meal of naan, macaroni and green chai, I spread a quilt on the carpet and try sleeping; tomorrow will be a hard day as we have to drive to Bamiyaan, YawKawland and Sacheck starting 3AM. Morning azaan is called at 3 on the dot but I have been awake for a while, packed and ready for certain exhaustion that lies ahead. We move immediately after namaaz, through empty, eerie Kabul streets. It’s an ancient hired Toyota Ace, 4 wheel drive which rattles, coughs and farts dark clouds of noxious diesel smoke every time the driver hits the gas pedal. The driver, Yakoob, a short fellow with rather feminine features; kajal laden eyes look at me suspiciously and asks Wasi who I am. Ferangi, Indian, replies Wasi; stating I carry an American passport would be asking for trouble, I suppose.

Yakoob and Wasi chat away in Dari, some of it I grasp with my so-so comprehension of the sweet sounding language; I try to sleep at the back seat which becomes impossible after I notice Yakoob’s daring moves. He is either insane or drunk, or both, for he accelerates towards oncoming headlights head on, only to swerve at the last second, inviting protest blasts of honking from oncoming motorists. Wasi and I stare at each other, wide eyed and aghast. When Yakoob repeats this dare devil madness a few more times, I lose my cool and order Yakoob to stop the car. Now, you must try and understand the mentality of taxi drivers in Afghanistan, they are most notorious for rash driving, rude, insolent behavior and they fear no consequences, even from the law, some of who they even finance through bribery. Still, I’d rather Yakoob drop us right there in the middle of the highway than have us killed in a head on collision. I ask Wasi to inform Yakoob that he, Wasi, will take over the driving until we reach the dirt road leading towards Bamiyaan, else, we cancel our contract. Yakoob flutters his eyelids at me, acting hurt but then shrugs his shoulders and relents. I relax and fall asleep until we stop for breakfast of naan and green chai at a hole in the mud restaurant after we leave the tar-top road and begin the grinding dirt road accent towards Bamiyaan.

If you look at the map of Afghanistan carefully, you will learn that it is a relatively large country, with countless peaks and valleys. During summer, valleys can become unbearably dry and hot, while the peaks remain cold and dry, with snow at elevations even in June and July. These valleys posse a deadly torture weapon – very fine sand. This sand billows up when wind blows and when it is disturbed by vehicles. With our windows tightly shut to keep the dust out, it soon becomes hot -hot, so we strip away sweaters and roll up our sleeves. The dirt road becomes increasingly nasty and torturous, with boulders along the way Yakoob maneuvers, keeping in mind there might a car or truck bearing down at us around the next mountain bend. There are times when it feels the steering wheel has a mind of its own, turning to one side while Yakoob wants it on another.

And so it is, a mammoth struggle; not a moment when I can relax, sit still or even engage in easy, coherent conversation. The fine dust is what torments me most; it gets into my nose, my ears, my eyes, and in every nook and cranny of my body. Why, if I can, I will not be surprised to find it deposited in some unholy crevices of my body as well. It takes us 10 hours to reach Bamiyaan, a distance of about 90 miles. When I alight from the car, my knees are so wobbly, I have to hug her for a moment and regain my motor skills. I am uncomfortably pressed at the bladder and I must relieve myself now; I run towards the mosque bathrooms in the courtyard but Wasi restrains me, reminding me to take a can of water with me. Well, there is a line of men waiting to do exactly that at the water-well so I have to wait my turn, alternating between my feet in a dance for bladder control the people around me can only deem loony.

When it is finally my turn, one step inside the toilet and I gag violently at the stench; I struggle for air that is bent on suffocating me. Evil, evil, evil! This is the only description I have for the toilets at that mosque. There are about 10 toilets there, in a line, all just a simple hole with about a 10 foot drop. I very, very carefully squat at this hole to let go. The problem is the sight and smell, both impossible to avoid. If not careful where I put my foot, I am liable to fall through the hole so my eyes are wide open to take in the sight of heaps of feces below; and I must breath in short bursts. When I am almost done, I cannot hold it anymore and finally vomit and then run out gasping for air. Unfortunately, in rural Afghanistan, this situation is not an exception but rather common, as I am to discover in the following days.

After a lunch of delicious kabobs with nan and chai - my stomach is empty from all the barfing - we are on our way to YawKawlang, a village I have been to before, some 5 hours of agony away. Along the way, the skies open up and it begins to rain, lightly at first and then torrents of water. The sand turns to red mud, splatters on the windscreen, reducing visibility severely; the tires lose their grip and we begin slip sliding away, Yakoob curses the heavens. There is a preexisting crack in the windscreen that I have not before noticed and this now begins weeping profoundly, tears that make patterns on his cap and shirt. When we are very near to YawKawlang, Yakoob navigates an acute corner and exclaims Waawailah! He brakes hard and the car comes to a sliding stop; he shakes his damp head, muttering. A rather steep, formidable hill confronts us. Yakoob leaps out, locks the tires, hops back in, engages 4 wheel drive and we lurch forward. The rain has let up, but not the slimy mud; the car slides this way and that but does not find traction. I am very worried, any wrong move either way and we would drop at least 3,000 feet; we are in between two high mountains with drops on either side. Yakoob floors the gas pedal and we leap forward and stall, then begin sliding, sliding, sliding to one side. Wasi makes a move, as if he wants to open the door and escape, I am right behind him, clutching my black bag with the most valuable document in it – my passport. But the vehicle straightens; stalls.

Wasi’s cell phone comes alive, it is Abdullah, the driver who drove Basheer to the mass marriage in Sulej; he is looking for us, wants to drive us to Sacheck. He drives over without much effort; his vehicle is newer with fresh tires with good threads; Wasi pays Yakoob off and we transfer over. Once in the village, I know a hammam with hot water that I insist I must go. We have to travel to Belkhaab day after tomorrow and I am not sure when and if I’ll be able to bathe next; I simply must get rid of the clinging dirt on me. Wasi is doubtful it’ll be open by the time we get there, but it is, it is! I am delirious with delight. I strip off my clothing and give myself a rough scrub, blowing my nose so hard and long, the next stall person yells at me in Dari to cut it out, so I switch to poking my fingers inside instead; I am that frantic to get all that dirt out of me. After the shower I feel a lot better and another cup of chai warms me up nicely, for it has suddenly become quite cold. If green tea is really the de-toxicant it is touted to be, Afghans must be the most toxic free people in this planet with the amount of this liquid they consume; it is a passion to drink green tea here. We depart for Sacheck shortly afterwards and make it safe and in one piece in Abdallah’s nice comfortable Toyota Cruiser, having covered approximately 140 miles in just over 18 hours.

To be continued…