Thursday, May 26, 2011

Back in the USA!

Phew! It has taken us about 3 (hard) weeks to kinda settle down here in super quiet Sanford, Florida. India is already a fading memory; cannot believe we divorced each other not even a month ago. Coming back is a stressful delight but we are very fortunate to have a very supporting Amina Bhabhi and her wonderful, welcoming home; we would be miserably lost without her hospitality and generosity.

From the moment I land at JFK, to my connecting flight and the drive home from Orlando airport, I look at my surroundings with dazed awe. Yes, I am zonked with jetlag from flying 20 plus hours but unbelievably elated to be back in the USA, my home - interrupted for 3 years due to a bad marriage to India.

My brand new home takes an extra week to complete final touches; we move on May 14 to an eerie, empty but beautiful house that echoes every time we speak. Or fart for that matter, even. Now that almost all furniture is in place, this house looks and feels like a home – alhamd’Allah. This is a brand new community with only 22 homes planned; ours is only the 2nd one populated.

Husseini Islamic Center is a stone’s throw from our home; Maaha Zainab and Alihussein walk to it for Saturday School or prayers sometimes. It is absolutely quiet and still outside, only lush green and ponds of water. Miles and miles of forestry greet me when I run in the mornings; no, no stray dogs to bother me, no, no dog poop to look out for, no, no humans defecating openly, no, no inzzy’s, not one, no, no gutter stink, no, no vehicles hooting away as if there is no tomorrow, no, no spitting of paan or gurka....

Yes, lots of startled squirrels; some squashed to a pulp by passing vehicles, a dead armadillo, bored cows, uncaring horses busy with stuffing their mouths or with student riders on them. Yes, plenty of cow dung smell…did you know there is a company in Hamburg, Germany that is planning to market the pong of cow dung in a can? This is true, and it be priced a cool US$9.99 for about a weeks worth of wafts. Perhaps I can offer them raw material from here in Sanford? A harmless green snake startles me this morning; it seems more scared of me than I of it. Without realizing, I get close to Lake Jesup and run almost close to the thick swamp near the water. A sign warns me of crocodiles, in and off water.

I turn around and run a hurry.

I missed you, good old USA!

Monday, May 9, 2011

7 Days Of Tea In Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Watch photos here.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

CAI? Central Asian Institute / Comfort Aid International

Much has been written, blogged, talked, scrutinized and analyzed after 60 Minutes episode about Greg Mortensen and his activities with Central Asian Institute (CAI). There has been understandable outcry against alleged abuses and misappropriation of funds meant to better education standards in Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, as experience always teaches us, there is always another side of any story. Even if half the 170 schools CAI claims were actually built, this is remarkable and praiseworthy. Of course Greg Mortensen (and or his CAI) needs to be held accountable for any misuse or misappropriation of funds

Schools not being used or staffed in a place like Afghanistan is not believable; I should know, I have been to Afghanistan 18 times as part of (ironically) Comfort Aid International – CIA! I have personally seen children shiver as cold winds scream from surrounding mountains as they try study under open skies or in tattered tents. Like everything in life, the answer is in balance; balance between needs and wants. I am totally convinced all schools built in Afghanistan will educate children; later, if not immediately. The government of Afghanistan is very corrupt yes, but has in place systems to get teachers and (some) books to the remotest part of that wrenched country if you build them a school. CAI (ours) has built 7 schools in some of the most remote parts of Afghanistan; all operate normally. Even if 10% of children, especially girls, who go to our schools become productive members of society, responsible parents and ensure their children are not left illiterate, why, we have won a grueling battle.

There is a need, at times, when scholarships and tuition will also make a difference. In urban cities of India, Pakistan and East Africa, it makes little sense to build schools, even in very poor neighborhoods; scholarship support is an ideal alternative and this is exactly what our CAI has focused on, with amazing results. There are hundreds of success cases of poor students making it out of poverty into life of comfort and privilege, it humbles and amazes me how simple the process can be, really.

Greg Mortensen, I think, was overambitious; ran before he could properly walk. I am not going to comment about the accuracy of his books, I do not know, I was not there. He did err in mixing his book business with that of CAI (his). But the schools that he did actually build will be of benefit to the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan; of this I am fairly certain. Emotions are a big factor in what motivate us aid workers. For me, a child studying in the open and using dirt as books is a no brainer; this is not acceptable, a small modest school will happen, if I have anything to do with the situation. It is easy being a critic sitting in a warm, safe, comfortable room thousands of miles away and pounding away at a keypad; for the real deal, I suggest a few days somewhere in Yawkawlang, Sacheck, Bamiyan, Belkhaab, Goshfundi, Daikundi, Ghazni, Sarpole…, an expanse of Afghanistan so remote and desolate, so poor and people so traumatized, it will make you question if mankind has any conscience.

My latest trip report to Afghanistan with photographs coming up soon, insha’Allah.