Monday, May 26, 2014

Mixed Fruity Jjaam

Destination Kargil
It has and is my priority to channel CAI funds to the most needy areas of the world; have blogged about these countries extensively, Afghanistan in particular, of course. Recently, I had the good fortune to visit Indian Kargil and Srinagar, where CAI recently built a school for a very poor community in Kargil and is aiding the construction of a girl’s orphanage in Srinagar. I also met the thirty-seven orphan girls at the home CAI built in Kargil several years ago. My, my, my babies have grown! I could hardly recognize any of them, except a couple.

The trip was harsh indeed; I was trapped in a snow avalanche for hours, a normal five-hour drive through spectacular and breathtaking but traitorous mountains passes took fourteen, slept in a ‘five star’ hotel that rendered my body with bloody bedbug rashes that I scratched like a rabid monkey and a groin muscle-pull from jogging that had me in tears, literally.  All worth it of course, I am not complaining, just giving you a penned picture. Better still; click here for some wonderful photos of the adventure; worth several thousand words.

Mixed Fruity Jjaam
Aamir (name altered) is a middle-aged waiter at Ramee Guestline Hotel at Juhu, my place of regular repose while in Mumbai. He greets me profusely as soon as I walk in for breakfast, flicks a soiled rag to clear invisible dust from a table and waves me to a chair and makes me comfortable.

Saheb, he says genially, welcome back. Kaise ho? He begins to fuss around, arranging immaculately placed cutlery around, pours me a steaming cup of tea and wants to know what I will have this morning. Undde?  Masaala omelet? Bhaaji poori? Oopma? Or masaala doosa? I order the usual two fried eggs sunny-side-up and Aamir goes scurrying off to the kitchen; I get sullen looks for this preferential treatment from others still waiting to be served.

Aamir hails from Muzzafarnagar, a poorer area of UP, India. He came to Mumbai when he was about twelve and has worked his way up from picking food from garbage dumps to washing dishes in shabby restaurants to now being a waiter at this hotel. His is one of millions that have gone the same route, escaping grinding poverty in rural India, so why is Aamir worth a mention? Well, he instantly reminds me of the waiter character with rabbit-like frontal teeth in the Bollywood movie Cheeni Kum (watch it if you haven’t already; well worth it). With me, he pronounces Mixed Fruit Jam as Mixed Fruity Jjaam, with the same tone as the waiter in the movie pronounces Hyderabaadi Zafaraani Biryaani to Amitabh Bachaan. I always laugh when I hear him say it.

Aamir gives me the preferential treatment because I am the only one who has taken the time to talk to him on a personal level and have taken an interest in him and his wellbeing? Perhaps?

I eat the eggs with Aamir hovering around like a moth on a mission, replacing my paper napkins every time I wipe my lips. It is useless stopping the waste; he waves away my protests and grabs the napkin away from my hands every time I touch my lips with it, so I try to minimize my etiquette. I finish the eggs and Aamir is there with a fresh cup of steaming masala tea with two slices of karaak brown bread liberally spread with butter; just the way I like it. He splits open a mini package of jam and raises bushy eyebrows.

Mixed Fruity Jjaam, Saheb?

I smile broadly and nod my head.

Gulaab, The Pampered Goat
Just outside Chaar Nal in Dongri, Mumbai, I notice a mini horse, except it is a giant goat, about four feet tall. The animal belongs to the owner of a medical store, who bought this Rajasthani animal when it was a few months old and named it Gulaab (rose). Feeding it with lots of love, oats, badaam and quality vegetables, the goat shot up both horizontally and vertically, and is now subject of much curiosity and amusement to whoever comes across it the first time. And so it is for me as well. Curious, I make inquiries and am introduced to the owner, a hefty Miyabhai with a handsome flowing all-white beard who views me with much suspicion when I introduce myself and ask about his animal.

Why do you want to know? Asks Miyabhai, looking me up and down, then anxiously peering outside the store at the tethered Gulaab, making sure I had done it no harm. You are not Indian, are you? You want to buy him, don’t you? Miyabhai’s eyes take on a cunning look. He is not cheap, he has cost me an arm and a leg. I feed him the best foods everyday...

A customer walks in but Miyabhai is in no mood to serve him; he yells at his assistant to attend; I seem be a better monetary prospect.

This animal is prized, continues Miyabhai, I tell you. He is gentle and loving, Why, I bring him for a nap every afternoon and he rests his head on my very own lap! Miyabhai slaps his ample lap for emphasis. But I’ll sell it to you for a modest Rupees 200,000 (about US$3,400); it’s a bargain...

I take a startled step back. No, no, I say, I don’t want to purchase him, I just was curious because of his size, I have never seen a goat this size before…

Miyabhai’s face darkens in ire. He grabs a tuft of abundant beard and pulls at it in agitation. Aree Mister, then why did you come and disturb me? Bah, let me know if you are interested in purchasing Gulaab, else be on your way! He turns to his assistant and grumbles. Fokaat ka aadmi, wasting my time with silly questions. Bah! The assistant grins toothily and eagerly wags his head in blissful ignorance.

I am still curious what Miyabhai will eventually do with Gulaab, except slaughter and eat it. But I fear for my safety, so make a rapid retreat.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Promise Kept

Here is a write-up from Abbas who accompanied me to Afghanistan recently. Please read and enjoy the accompanying photos here.

I will add that these girls are from extremely poor families. When they first came to SGH, it was Herculean challenge for us to rehabilitate them into a ‘normal civilized family’. The transformation in three years is nothing short of a miracle. These children are now very well mannered, they are confident, they help each other, they desire to be educated and make it big in life and speak reasonably good English. It is an honor and a blessing CAI was able to be a small part of this transformation.

Ali Yusufali

Just as I am recovering from an exhausting CAI fundraiser for the Sakina Girls Home (SGH) and School project, I am flying to Kabul again, eight months after we made a pledge to these girls that CAI will find a way to raise the funds for a modern orphanage and school. I can't wait to deliver the letters of hope to them from our children in the Tri-State area, who wrote to them as a class project at the fundraising event. The captain announces Kabul ahead; I recall my visit last year and my emotions flutter at the thought of giving the good news to the girls. We arrive in Kabul and are picked up by Abdul Wasi and Bashir, our CAI Afghan team and our hosts for the next week.

Our UN chartered flight to Nili is delayed next day so we must skip an audit visit to one of the clinics; we skip Dareyoos and head to Oozmuk. We also want to see land for a new clinic building there. The current Oozmuk clinic is old, expensive to heat and cannot handle the 70 patient load a day. CAI plans to build a new facility modeled after the modern, fuel efficient one in Sachek to facilitate the growth. After the audit and inspecting land donated by three villagers, we return to Nili for rest.

A benevolent dictator

Ali Yusufali, CAI CEO, is a dictator, albeit a benevolent one. I suppose one has to be karrak to survive in such circumstances. He is up and ordering us awake at 2:30AM next morning; we are in the van and have departed Nili by 3:02, a two-minute delay that causes the dictator much distress. I can see this zeal in every CAI projects he touches; a quest for perfection. Right or wrong, works or not, the drive to exactness stays. The grueling 16-hour drive is through some of the most remote parts of Afghanistan, and perhaps the toughest terrain known to mankind. We arrive Khajraan and immediately jump into ceremonies that officially open the school. Yusufali goes over details on improvements he insists with the contractor and we then spend the night in a mud-house at a nearby village. We are requested, the next morning, to visit a poor, impoverished, remote area where girls study under the sky. Due to a flooded river that make vehicle crossing impossible, we abandon the van and trek through farmland, including crossing a rickety wood bridge; I feel I am in an Indiana Jones movie! We approach the area and my heart sinks. I think I have seen it all, but these poor girls studying under the sun, trying to read and write is something else; CAI approves construction of a school on the spot. Yusufali makes a point that CAI's mission is to reach out to such needy children and empower them in education. We now begin our grueling 16-hour ride back to Nili, through very muddy roads due to the heavy rains; the vehicle slips and slides, sometimes by the edge of a mountain cliff. There is, at times, pin drop silence in the vehicle on these occasions. We finally make it to Nili at night, safe but utterly drained.

A van, my feet, few horses and a donkey

Our day begins early next day, as we need to catch another UN flight to Yawkawlang. My body is still recovering from two of the most grueling days I can remember, but knowing that we have touched and were able to make a difference in these children's lives gives me the pep to press on. We are greeted on the landing strip by our generous erstwhile host Jumsheed and the security detail, of course. We head directly to the next site where a very remote and poor village is tucked in between the mountains, and vehicles have no access. So how do we get up there, I wonder? On horses or a donkey, so say the mountains! I feel I have gone back in time. It is a challenge to stay balanced on the temperamental animal I get. The climb up is hair-raising, through steep paths of mud; my heart lurches to my mouth at some passes. The path is a foot wide, with a sheer drop of thousands of feet to one side and solid mountain on another, but the horses are adept.  As we approach, I see the UNICEF tents and my heart sinks again. I remember my last trip when we were called to another village and saw the children in this same situation; CAI immediately approved the school which is today under construction. The CAI team discusses the feasibility details with village elders; a final decision is pending. We head back on horseback for another hour’s ride back to grab a quick bite; it is good to be on solid ground again. Yusufali remarks his reproductive system is shot, which initiates raucous mirth from our team but the maulana accompanying us turns scarlet; such talk is unheard of in this deeply conservative society.

Water, water, water

We have 2 more projects to inspect before we return to Kabul tomorrow but one must be axed, as the time does not cut us any lax; Yusufali decides not to go to Sacheck medical clinic. Wise decision, as heavy rains later in the day closes all roads to and from Sacheck; we would have missed our return chartered flight to Kabul. We head to the water project underway instead and work our way up to the mountains. Due to heavy rains, even our 4 x 4 struggle going up. The water project is well under way; the piping from the deep water-well to the reservoir is complete. This project will supply potable water to about 2,300 families for the next 25 years minimum, even with an annual population growth rate of 10%. Completely out of time and energy, we settle into Jamsheed’s warm, comfortable and hospitable house where we feast and retire. We get moving early next day to catch our UN flight, which lands at the strip 10 minutes ahead of time. The takeoff is both menacing and breathtaking as the last time, with the 6-seat Kodiak single propelled aircraft seemingly barely clearing the snowy, ragged mountaintop that seem within touching reach; we land in Kabul 40 minutes later.

I think back at our harsh journey and the lives we touched, how, in few short days, I will be back in my comfortable home with my family, who have all the comforts in life; it feels good to be humbled in this trip. As we approach Kabul airport, I feel a sense of return to civilization. Kabul is on high alert; soldiers and cops everywhere, especially due to recent elections, but a much more improved Kabul, with bustling streets and construction everywhere. We get to Wasi’s house, freshen up and head to CAI office. As a registered American NGO, CAI is obligated to set up an office for operations, especially with the kind of infrastructure that CAI has in place in Afghanistan. 

A promise kept

We meet the orphan girls of SGH the next morning. It has been my mission, since last August, when I first met the girls and Yusufali told me the need for a safer and more modern home for them, to raise the funds to make this project possible. As a father, I want the best for my daughter, especially her safety and wellbeing; there is no higher priority. Meeting these wonderful children of God then, I got the same protective feeling. It’s been a challenge all right, but the wonderful CAI fundraising team in NY did wonders and made the impossible, possible. I hold back tears of joy watching their presentation for us, our daughters at SGH. As I listen and watch, I think back at the past few months; the long drives to various centers in the Tri-State area where we presented CAI and the fundraising event, our efforts to sell tickets, the sheer exhaustion and of sleepless nights, not knowing if everything will really come together. With the grace of almighty Allah and overwhelmingly generous CAI donors, we exceeded our fundraising goal. I would do it a 1,000 times over, just to be able to experience this overwhelming feeling of sheer joy; how very blessed I feel for being part of the CAI team and this project in particular. We gather the girls and head to the site to lay the founding bricks. As each CAI team member puts them in place, I thank my creator for His favor on the promise I keep to our daughters at SGH.