It seems the Pakistani government is finally convinced I am harmless since they issue me a one-year multiple-entry visa for the first time and I find myself at Karachi airport. The arrival hall is jampacked and it’ll take me at least an hour or more to clear immigration but a sympathetic officer pulls me aside and directs me to an empty counter, and I’m through in seconds. I’m not sure why he did that but Allah bless him for liking me. Karachi is still hot and muggy in November but the Avari Towers is nice enough to relax in.
Sohail from New York joins me at the hotel at 2:30 AM and we are in a vehicle driving towards Sindh to access the recent flood devastation, accompanied by Iqbal and Shaukat Khaku, two dedicated local volunteers. It’s a dismal drive, with road crossings lined with thin, grim women totting sweaty children begging for food. My heart goes out to the infants under the fierce sun. These people were poor but proud farmers just a few weeks ago, cooking their own grown wheat or rice, now having to beg.
We enter a village in the town of Sehwan Sharif, decimated by flood waters. All I see is water that was once agricultural land. We distribute warm blankets, mosquito nets, and food grains that are aid pledged by donors of CAI, little but lifesaving for the coming winter months. I am hot and uptight by the time we leave, having to fight a losing battle with determined flies that are everywhere. Sohail wonders aloud why Allah created flies and mosquitos; I have no answers. We visit the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, purportedly the grandson of Imam Kadhim (a), His wisdom and magical qualities have been parts of many mystical qawwalis and Bollywood songs, the more popular one being Dama Dam Mast Qalandar. The place is packed but we get to go right to the grave because of our host’s connections. The saint has a large and devoted following, with people coming from far and wide, worldwide, to pay respects. However, I’m not too impressed with the scenes of fanatism on display.
Driving towards our hotel afterward, the air smell and quality remind me of somewhere very familiar. Mumbai! The same pervasive smell of human excrement – shit; It’s everywhere. The hotel, according to our hosts, is 5-star for the area and is called Sehwan Devine Hotel; I give it a negative 7-stars. The AC struggles to work, mosquitos abound, there is no hot water, and the bathroom I borrow to shower has no working lights; my cellphone lights help guide me.
We are off very early the next morning. I want to reach Karachi before sunset so we can inspect the tents we wish to distribute to the flood victims for worthiness. But we must eat so we stop at a dhaba for breakfast surrounded by misery. The flies are a persistent battle and victory against them is impossible. I eat my omelet and naan warily; I do not need a repeat of Montezuma’s revenge that hit me on my last trip to Pakistan.
It is after breakfast that my mood sours and sadness sets in. A warehouse full of harvested wheat got destroyed by the floods. The owner has the rotten crop, which is now laid out to dry under the hot sun and is fermenting, polluting the air with a nauseating stench. It’ll be ground and mixed with other stuff to become chicken feed. We park at this warehouse for the safety of our vehicles and take a boat to further survey the destruction inland.
Fate has been unkind to these people; it’s human misery on display. The land is a sea of devastation. Miles of wheat, rice and cotton crops damaged, downed power lines abound, washed away bridges and roads, and families uprooted and scattered. People try to salvage their belongings rowing atop discarded doors or other wooden furniture. Now, they live in squalor dingy tents lining the banks of the new lake formed by the flood water, their private lives now public. Their children gleefully frolic in the dirty water, others wash clothes, while others wash themselves. And above it all, there is this incessant smell of decay and excrement.
The sun overhead bakes on us, and I am overwhelmed and bothered by sweat. I suddenly want this torment to end and tell my hosts to turn the boat around and return. But there is a traditional maulana with us who insists on showing us more misery. I’ve seen enough, however, and am more interested in trying to find ways to help the victims. On dry land, in a cooler environment, one without the smell of shit in my nose every second. So, the heavens punish me that very minute for my selfishness and the boat breaks down. We list in the boat with the sun beating down on us. I seethe. We eventually return to Karachi, sleep the night, and travel to Islamabad the next morning. Our mission? To inspect a school under construction in Parachinar, up in the mountains bordering Afghanistan. There is also a computer lab and a library that CAI donors have made possible, ready to commission.
It’s a four-hour drive to Kohat from Islamabad airport where we are to spend the night before driving another four hours to Parachinar the next morning. I am so excited to see the school and the library/computer-lab but fate is not in my favor. The Pakistani Army, which controls entry and exit to Parachinar, a troubled area due to the persecution of a minority community, blocks my entry. I am an American and need special permission. The people responsible for my travel there should have taken clearance two weeks ago; they dropped the ball. What a bummer. I am forced to stay back in Kohat for a couple of days while Sohail, who is Pakistani by birth but an American, heads for the privilege alone instead.
Kohat, which is another challenging area with a persecuted minority needs a high school/college. The local community has done wonders in educating their children in elementary school but high school/college education is possible in Peshawar, a distant and dangerous three-hour drive. Since a higher learning center will benefit the local kids, especially girls with unequaled education opportunities, CAI will, insha’Allah, aid in constructing this facility here.
I spend my unplanned ‘free’ day catching up on work, as much as the erratic internet service will allow. The hosts are warm and generous. They take me around their small pretty mountainous city, which gets a lot of snow in the winter. Returning to the orphanage and school complex, my host purchases a live hen and sets it in the vehicle. The bird looks at me with an accusing look, as if I am responsible for its imminent fate; I try and avoid the uncomfortable baleful stare. I feel guilty tucking into the chicken curry at dinnertime. Briefly. Hunger pain takes over and the thing is a history of bones in short order.
Sohail and I will now head back to Karachi, then to Saleh Pat, Sindh, for a school inspection before traveling to Mindanao in the Philippines for the opening and commissioning of yet another remote CAI-funded school.