Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Smiling Sri Lanka / Bloody Bangladesh

Smiles and smiles:

The first thing I notice upon landing at Colombo is that Sri Lankans like to smile. A lot. What a difference from India! You try smiling at Indians and they will probably frown upon you with wary suspicion. And if you happen to smile at some pretty lass, why, you'll probably be arrested and booked for attempted rape by the police. I exaggerate, of course, but am not too far from the truth either. Sri Lankan's seem, to me, a happy lot, from the immigration officer who tells me three days are not enough for a ‘holiday', to the various policemen I encounter in the streets who nod and smile at me to the hotel staff who constantly grin their welcome.

I am here for a couple of days, auditing and inspecting CAI-sponsored projects for compliance purposes. The weather is hot and humid, as usual, making me sweat and be constantly on guard against dehydration. My host's, the Zaveni's of Al Zahra Association, visit me at the hotel with documents and the audit work proceeds quite painlessly. CAI donors have contributed funds for an English and math teacher for a poor community in Sri Lanka, helped with food and shelter to flood victims and sponsors milk and bread for over a hundred very poor and malnourished children who attend the English / math classes.

I visit the remote village of Ampaara, some 250 miles from Colombo, a journey that is supposed to take about six hours, but take almost nine. The roads are fairly smooth and well maintained. Even the narrowest and smallest of roads in Sri Lanka are paved; what a refreshing constant to countries like India, Bangladesh and other South Asian countries. The village, when we get there, is poor, yes and the flies that swarm all over me makes me dance a Michael Jackson number from the Thriller album, vainly trying to swat the nimble and sly pests away, with no results. But the seafood lunch the hosts serve us is out of this world. A blend of Sri Lankan spices mixed with Malaysian coconut curries influences. Feeling suddenly very hungry, I splurge. Burp. Most of the people in this part of the country are descendants of Malaysian Moors settled in Sri Lanka eons ago. CAI will help the villagers with six out of nine water wells desperately needed, so they will not have to lug water canisters for miles on end. The return to Colombo is painless; I sleep through the drive.

Blood and blood:

Dhaka in Bangladesh has a deserted look when I land here three days later, on Eid day. An empty city void of the usual droves of humanity, vehicles and all other forms of transportation feels eerie; giving me a feel of disquiet. The country has completely shut down and even emergency medical services are iffy for three days. There are no newspapers printed, no laundry service and no brown bread at the hotel. Because of Eid. Why, I make it from the airport to the hotel in the diplomatic enclave of Dhaka in twenty minutes, much less than half the usual time. The feeling of melancholy deepens with the strong smell of blood in the air. Most street corners are caked with congealed blood and skin of slaughtered sacrificial animals; cattle, goats or sheep, carcasses have been stripped bare and skin and skulls abandoned; droves of hungry crows gleefully feed on the sparse remains. I escape to my room in the almost completely empty hotel. The audit work for 200 poor students annual school fees and five poor homes CAI donors have helped finance in Bangladesh goes off after Eid lunch prepared by Sughra of Bangladesh Ladies Welfare Society. Again, the drive to their offices and back is creepily fast, the streets devoid of the mass of people; the blood and gore are everywhere however.

The next day, I visit three of the five homes CAI has financed. They are in a poorer area of Dhaka, so the streets are much narrower and crowds are back. The homes are at an end of a slum area; reminds me of Govendhi outside Mumbai instantly. Again, the air is thick and humid and the stink of blood is everywhere; I break out into a sweat instantly. The air is so putrid, I feel like gagging. A corner shop tethers a cute young calf waiting for her turn to be part of someone's biryani. She nervously trembles and lets off a stream of piss to express her fear.  I am wet with sweat in minutes, a stream of perspiration in my back make way from my soaked tee-shirt into my chuddies; a very awkward feeling indeed.

I am returning to Mumbai again tomorrow; I look forward to it. The quiet streets and the empty hotel make me feel even lonelier. I go for a walk down the road towards a small lake in the diplomatic cove.  This area has the exclusive and super expensive residences. The disparity between the few haves and overwhelmingly poor Bangladeshis is stark here. An apartment in a decent looking building is available for lease, but to foreigners only, rent payable in US Dollars. The inside paved walkway around the lake is reserved for the residents of this area only while the outside dirt road is for the rest. I am wearing shorts and my Asics running shoes; the lounging guard springs to his feet as if struck by lightning, salutes me sharply and eagerly waves me through. It is a mini green forest around the lake, with tall canopy of trees, waterfalls and the ‘elite' from various Embassies of the world trying to burn off excess fat. There are several local Bengalis as well, beautiful women in expensive but inappropriate saaris and their well-fed partners struggling to hold in their bellies. Tomorrow can't come fast enough.

I eagerly fly out to Mumbai, where it the last day of Ganesha festivals. The city, throbbing with color-faced dancing crowds, ear-splitting fireworks, roll of crashing drums and snarled traffic await me. I feel at home.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Planes, Trains, Automobiles

On the road again, travelling directly from Orlando to Mumbai via Dubai, saving me eight hours if going through New York; thank you Emirates. Now if you will occasionally fumigate your seats so bugs will not eat your customers alive like they did me on this flight? I land in Mumbai severely jetlagged but a five mile jog at the hotel gym and seventy pushups perk me up temporarily and I can sleep a good five hours before my flight early next morning to the remote parts of UP where the majority of CAI projects are already in operation or taking shape.

So this current trip will Insha’Allah take me to various places in India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and to Dubai. I’ll be travelling by air, train and the automobile, of course. Prakash, the young lunatic driver from my last trip stands by his vehicle, grinning at Aliakberbhai and me on arrival at Lucknow airport. I immediately feel heart palpitations; his driving had nearly made me najis the last time. This guy is the most reckless driver I have ever driven with. Yes, he is good, very good with his car, but a harebrained individual nevertheless. I have no say or choice in this arrangement, so say a prayer and try and catch up on my sleep all the way to Hallour, five hours away. We return to Lucknow that same night, after inspecting the CAI sponsored school. Prakash manages to run over a stray dog instead of a human being; that’s progress, I guess.

It is from here in Lucknow we take a first class train to Sirsi, another place in UP where CAI is very active in, at one next morning. Travel by train in India if you can, it is the best way to savor and appreciate the country. The Lucknow train station is a standard metro station in any Indian city; loud, crowded, dreary and with the inevitable smell of ammonia – human piss. My spirits dip while we wait for our train at the platform. I think it is jetlag perhaps, but the heat, flies and smell takes a toll as well. A meandering solitary cow releases a stream of piss on the platform, startling nearby waiting passengers who scatter to avoid the splatter and scurrying cat-sized rodents on the rail tracks below send shivers of apprehension up my spine.

But I am pleasantly surprised when the train rolls up to the platform; on time. By law, there are only two classes of travel in Indian trains; first class and others. No third class officially, but they exist; I see cabins packed with crowds of humanity roll by, many sleeping over each other. Our cabin is not Emirates first class, but I am really impressed with the cleanliness of our super cooled air-conditioned cabin, with four bunk beds, all equipped with crisp fresh white linen, a laundered blanket and a clean firm pillow neatly packaged and sealed. Since our cabin is not fully occupied, we have it all by ourselves. I lock the door, set an alarm for salaat four hours away, cover myself with the warm blanket and die a temporary death.

I spring awake five hours later with the pain of a bursting bladder and my phone letting me it is salaat time. The toilets, one eastern and the other western, are relatively clean. They actually have disinfectant liquid soap. The challenge is doing my job without soiling my clothes, what with at times a violently jostling cabin; praying is a similar challenge, holding on to the bed railing is the only solution. Alhamd’Allah, we arrive Moradabad well rested; Sirsi, our destination is only about ninety minutes drive away.

Both our orphanages, girls and boys are doing exceedingly well, the Sirsi school for 1,200 poor students is thriving, both the Phandheri and Sirsi housing projects are complete and seventeen of the seventy Mehmoodpur homes are finished as well; all is well. The only hiccup comes when a massive chipkalli (gecko) regards me with curious eyes, as I get ready for bed that night. I jump through my skin in fright and a scream escapes me. The orphanage caretaker comes running and the chipkalli is toast.

The next morning, sitting on the prayer mat, thanking Allah for all His blessings for the successes of CAI projects, a mournful naat penetrates the early morning air. The orphans have returned from fajr salaat and as routine, have gathered in the hallway for mandatory naats and other prayers. The orphan boy reciting the naat has a striking voice, mournful and haunting, wants to make me weep. The naat is beautiful, composed by our own Allama Iqbal. It has all the yearnings of quality values Allah can grant a man, of perfection, of all things good in life. My eyes give way and hot tears of gratitude and hope plop on the prayer mat.

You may have already heard it of course, but take a listen again anyway.

Friday, September 4, 2015


I am at the tail end of my current long trip through Afghanistan, India and Tanzania; can’t wait to see and hug Maaha Zainab once more. It has been a tough physical trip, yes, as usual, but more emotional. Afghanistan is always emotive, for me. The poverty and helplessness of the people we serve grates on my nerves after a while, out of sheer frustration of not being able to do more. My heart shreds into a million pieces when BBC reports a suicide nut blew him and seven others at the entrance of Kabul airport in an apparent suicide fireball, about the same spot I was two days ago, at almost the same time. What is life then? Auspicious timing? BBC then reports, in headline news, that Malala Yusufzai has passed her college exams with flying colors. Am I supposed to dance and whoop in delight like a blissful Chinook Indian then? I dig further into internal mourning. The only reason for some optimism is that all five major CAI Afghan projects are coming to fruition soon insha’Allah.

India is in mourning of her own; the monsoon rains have disappointed; more farmers, unable to repay their ballooning loans, will commit suicides, grain prices will drift up like a cheap burning agarbatti, more water rationing… Prices of the humble onion have gone through the roof – Rs.90 a kilo, out of range for so many, even if they can be coxed out of a reluctant vendor in the first place. Restaurants serve the pickled version of the bulb sparingly; the waiter at Delhi Darbar looks at me in shock and horror when I request for an extra helping. Imagine the mood of over a billion people denied the principal base of the most basic curry. Politicians are rightly worried; the humble onion has the power to change the most powerful in authority. There is a joke going around Mumbai; onions will replace gold as dowry soon. Not funny really, for a poor harassed housewife on a shoestring budget.

Dar es Sallam seems to have grown some more; it is teeming with unruly traffic. I fret over the City of Peace; the UN says Dar is the fastest growing city in Africa and her population will double in the next ten years. How will the already inapt and heavily burdened infrastructure cope? From Dar to Zanzibar and Tanga, there is only one dominant subject of discussion and debate; the upcoming elections, its aftermath and the political, economical and security ramifications if CCM loses.

Yahya, the taxi driver I usually use when in Dar has some insight. Don’t you guys take these taxi drivers lightly; they are a wealth of information and can be very perceptive. I say, he says, stroking his shaven pate, the opposition will not be able to win, even with their recent impressive rallies. CCM is much too powerful and they have the state resources at their disposal. Yes, they may not continue to rule with the impunity as in the past, but rule they will.

Yahya laments the rising cost of living; the inflation is unbearable. You guys pay your shop or domestic helpers about Ts.150,000 (US$75) a month and you expect them not to steal? How na├»ve! Of course they’ll steal. It’s natural. They have to make ends meet and if the pay is not going to do that, hustling and stealing is the only other alternative. And I don’t care how pious the guy is.

Yahya blames it on Kikwete, the current president on his way out. Kikwete travels a lot, especially to you guys. I say, he is in Washington almost every other month! And the clothes he wears! Salaaaleh! Another Donald Trump? When Mkapa (Tanzanian president before Kikwete) left office basic bread was Ts.300; Kikwete is leaving at Ts.1,800. Beans were Ts.600, they are Ts.3,200 now. The list is endless…

A day trip to help the local Bilal school in Zanzibar get modern science labs and a library is vexing. The government mandated educational system is so dysfunctional helping them is a challenge. The entire school’s students have flunked math exams, not a single student passed. Where do I go from here? CAI will pay for extra coaching insha’Allah and things will eventually turn around with the newer generation – that is my prayer and hope.

A private 2-day road trip to Tanga, the sleepy coastal town I grew up in, is a bittersweet treat. Accompanied by friends Murtaza Bhimani and Zulfiqar Hemani, in a comfortable van gifted by our good man Roshan Jessa, we eat our way through the town that has not changed a bit, except for the rot and decay in every structure I see. It is painful to see a once bustling town full of promise slowly but surely slip away. The Khoja mosque is deserted, worshippers kept away by internal dissent and squabbling of a once united and promising community.

Returning home today, the airport in Mumbai is in utter hullabaloo. Shahrukh and Kajol are checking in with an entourage and hoards of people wanting to click away are making the harassed check-in counter staff task even more difficult. I manage to break away from the piled luggage and ruckus and get to the counter, only to be upgraded to first class Mumbai to Dubai sector; am I a lucky dog or what?  The hubbub continues after immigration and security, crowds of people, kept at bay by a struggling security corridor, surround SRK and Kajol, desperately drawing their attention for a photo shot. It is not only immature teenagers who do this, but elderly men as well, men with flowing white beards who shamelessly fist fight to get ahead of the crowds. Disgusted with this display of adoration for mere mortals, I almost run to the aircraft, wanting to put distance between the fracas and me. Our flight is delayed for ten minutes, as the ‘stars’ can’t reach the gate on time.

I sit behind SRK’s seat and try to ignore all the fuss going on but it’s difficult. Across the aisle, Kajol is apparently pacifying a disgruntled child on the phone; man, the mama is loud. Several people have breached space from business class and hover around our space like agitated moths attracted to a lit candle. The Kenyan stewardess with whom I converse in Kiswahili looks bewildered and asks me ‘Ajaabu! Kwani huyu mtu Mungu? Yes, I nod sadly; this man may well be God for his Indian fans. Bcheeeee, she responds in typical African show of contempt.

Thankfully, everybody falls asleep after takeoff; it is a 4:30 AM flight. I wake up with a start; it is fajr time. I grab a blanket after wudhoo and quickly offer fajr right outside the open space of the washrooms. As I complete my salaat, a husky female voice whispers ‘excuse me’ and I jump through my skin, my heart thumping. It is Kajol, respectfully waiting for me to finish my salaat so she can pass in front towards the washrooms. I smile an apology and let her through. I fall into immediate sajda and offer thanks. Even ‘superstars’ have to pee and poop.

The rest of the flight is uneventful and I return home to Sanford heavily jetlagged but in one piece. Alhamd’Allah. Now, the challenge is shedding the nundu, mishkaki and gajjar kuku pounds I have put on before my next trip in two weeks.