Saturday, January 7, 2017

Am I Going Bananas? – Ali Yusufali / Mascara Not Needed – Navshina Savory

Am I Going Bananas? – Ali Yusufali

2017 New Year’s Eve finds me in Mumbai, yet again, after my stint in Myanmar and Sirsi and Agra and Delhi. Our UP schools have been enriched by the Savory’s, the educators who traveled all the way from Vancouver, Canada to train the school teachers in new and innovative teaching methods. After Sabira Remtullah’s efforts, from the UK, who did similar workshops last year, this is a concentrated effort by CAI to provide premium opportunities for CAI remote school teachers to advance, personally and professionally – a fantastic bonus for our students.

I deposit Maaha Zainab, who has spent time with the orphans in Sirsi and toured the Taj Mahal in Agra, to her Nana’s and various aunties care in Andheri. I now have a couple of days to concentrate on losing the extra weight put on at Sirsi and Agra and complete pending CAI compliance work.

Rupee demonetization notwithstanding, Mumbai is in a party frenzy, preparing for the coming of 2017 tonight. The usually drab streets have a touch of color and pomp. The Leela is no exception. The lobby is decked out in gaiety, ads urging me to join in and welcome in the New Year, with or without alcohol, only for about US$250 or US$200.

On the way to my room from the gym at about 11 PM, achy and sweaty, I pass the lobby, jam-packed with crowds of revelers, many already sloshed and teetering. There are men in uncomfortable suits and sari-clad women, some who seem to have forgotten they now have flabby and ugly bellies; ugh. Since I am now a recognized regular at this excellent hotel, I get wished a Happy New Year so many times I want to barf. I get stopped by the lobby manager, who facilitates me once more and pumps my hand with so much gusto, I begin to worry he’ll dislocate my shoulders. My genuine smile now becomes a lot fixed and painful to maintain; I escape to my room.

As the bells toll and the firecrackers explode at midnight outside, polluting the already severely foul Mumbai air, I begin to fret about myself. Am I abnormal, or is this world getting batty? I have just witnessed the results of a brutal genocide of Myanmar Rohingyas, more than half of the earth is mired in wanton violence, the world faces a perfect storm of adversity with the current geopolitical makeup, what is vile is right and what is logical is evil according to the mainstream media, trying Trump days lay ahead. Yet, the rest of mankind erupt in bizarre ecstasy because 2016 is now 2017. Am I bananas, missing something?

The next day, Sunday, I go out for a movie at Infiniti Mall. The sun above glares with the same intensity as yesterday, the yukky air smells identical, and the beggars along the rickshaw ride to the movies look as pitiful. Should I be happy because today is the first day of another year? Am I mental for not feeling euphoria? Should I see a psychiatrist?

The movie theater is jam-packed; Dangal, it’s an Amir Khan production. Prime Minister Modi’s seemingly smiling face lights up the screen, promising toilets for every village soon; better days are in the offing. I am forced to stand up for the national anthem, which bugs me. India shining, nationalism and patriotism is great; at school and civic functions and gatherings, perhaps. I have come to see a movie here. And paid for it. But the film is superb and inspiring, an Amir Khan classic and a must watch for the entire family, especially aspiring girls.

It is while I am at the airport with Maaha Zainab, applying moisturizing cream to my stubborn dry skin, waiting to fly to Dubai and grace Aliya Yusufali’s wedding that I figure out I am okay, my marbles are intact, I am not insane, I don’t need a shrink. There is this rather famous astrologer in India who makes splendid money predicting the future to people with ill-gotten money and deficiency of common sense. His columns make it to the local papers at the start of every year, and millions read their fate for 2017; I am no idiotic exception. He predicts I will finally begin traveling the world, that my oily skin will get better and that I will win over the heart of the damsel I have secretly coveted for eons.

No Sir. It’s the world out there that have their marbles askew; I am fine. Alhamd’Allah.

Mascara Not Needed – Navshina Savory

We weren’t sure what to expect or what we were in for. However, the opportunity to help is always something that is a blessed opportunity for our family. So, we decided on an adventure to Sirsi, India as part of our winter vacation.  As high-school educationists from Vancouver, Canada, my husband Andy and I, along with our children Yusuf Hussein, 11 and Maryam Zainab, 9, are entrenched in the world of teaching and learning.  Our family sees every opportunity as a learning experience, and our focus is always on youth. We see the investment we make in the young people of our community as critical to the sustainability of our faith and the preparation of the coming of the 12th Imam. An offer to train the teachers and meet the orphans of CAI projects was not to be missed.

We landed in New Delhi early AM December 19; disoriented, lacking sleep, but full of excitement and trepidation. Inexperienced travelers, we found ourselves highly frustrated with the organized chaos at Delhi Airport; long immigration queues and delayed luggage (8 pieces checked in - goodies for the orphan, children and teachers).  A bad WIFI did not let me connect to our hosts waiting outside. It was a relief and elation to spot Ali Yusufali and Asghar Ali (Administrator at Bahman School) 3 hours later. I was afraid they’d left, and we would have to turn to the Canadian High Commission for rescue. We were finally off on the 6-hour journey to Sirsi.  The car ride was as comfortable as one can expect. Luckily, due to our complete exhaustion and a mid-way stop at a wonderful “Dhaba” for Fajr Salaat and the best tasting parathas and yogurt I have ever eaten (even my picky kids devoured them), our commute seemed shorter than it was. 

At the Dhaba, Aliakbarbhai Ratansi from Mumbai joined us. This was our first time meeting him, and he quickly came across as a kind, generous and wise man with class and decorum worthy of someone who gives selflessly. His acumen in dealing with hundreds of requests from those seeking aid will be an inspiration for our family always, and we look forward to crossing paths again soon.

Even at that early hour, the boy orphans were waiting eagerly for us and showered us with rose petals and bouquets of flowers; I honestly thought I was entering the pearly gates! This greeting was just a foreshadowing of the love and hospitality for the next several days during our stay at Zehra Boys Home (ZBH).

My task was to work with the teachers of the school to provide Professional Development Workshops, to improve their teaching practice. Bahman Public is in Sirsi and has approximately 950 students. Andy’s work was to provide guidance and recommendations regarding a maintenance schedule for the school and orphanage buildings. Andy, along with Yusuf and Maryam, presented the entire school a wonderful science show. Experiencing science in such a fun, engaging and accessible way to connect and was very well received by the students and teachers.

Given the many unknowns regarding the teachers’ history, working with them had my stomach filled with butterflies…. although, they were “Flying in Formation” because this is the work that I love. With my husband Andy, a 20-year convert to Shia Islam at my side, being his usual confidence booster and spreading his annoyingly consistent optimism, things got off to a wonderful start and remained so throughout our stay. 

Most of the children at Bahman school come from poor and illiterate homes. The teachers and the school, are for many, the only haven of hope and positive modeling this generation will experience. The work and resources that the donors of CAI have put into the school is an amazing gift to the entire community of Sirsi. The work with the teachers was wonderful. Working with individuals whose life’s work is dedicated to investing in children is a true gift. This was the constant message that we wove throughout our presentations to the teachers. The work that teachers do matters so much in the lives of their students. I am excited about continuing these educational conversations on-line until we meet with our new teacher colleagues again.

We were housed at the ZBH, which is located on the same property as the school. The 28 boy’s orphans are the purest examples of kindness, generosity and joy that my family has experienced. With the structures, routines and expectations espoused to the boys through the work of CAI and direct caregivers Naseembai and Anjumbai; the boys have a sense of dignity, a dream to create a better future for themselves and their families. The boys are the finest examples of believers, and this shines through their smiles. Despite spending a short time, we grew very close to the boys. My family and I played with the boys, helped with their studies, worshiped with them, ran with them and just talked with them. Yusuf Hussein and Maryam Zainab learned that it truly is “better to give, than receive”.  Missing Christmas holidays became less an issue for my mixed breeds. Ironically, we all learned the true meaning of Christmas when we didn’t celebrate it this year.

We also visited the CAI constructed Sakina Girls Home (SGH) and shared a meal with the orphan girls. SGH provides housing and schooling to about 30 orphan girls who otherwise would not have had the opportunities of a formal education, love, safety and security.  They were lovely and gracious, and it took everything out of me not to take each one home.

One of the most impactful things we saw were the housing projects, also supported by CAI.  The “houses” were shocking, to me. In my sheltered Canadian upbringing, I was not prepared for the poverty I saw.  They were about a 200-sq. Ft. structure of concrete, one bedroom, one toilet, one bath and a tiny cooking kitchen. These houses were of the most basic type I could imagine. The alternative, I learned, was being homeless. These projects at least had a community, running water, private toilets and power. The children of these homes attended Bahman school, allowing a hope of a better future.

Our time at the school and with the orphans was too short, but made the most impact in our lives to date. Leaving Sirsi, for me, was painful and gut wrenching. For an Inner City, high school Vice Principal, who daily deals with drugs, weapons, fights, colorful language and unpredictable situations, I am not a ‘touchy, feely, wallflower.'  I’m tough and crying is not helpful in my daily work. The experience with teachers, students, orphans and our hosts made me a cathartic mess…but, it felt wonderful to feel such love. 

Two days before leaving Sirsi, I stopped wearing mascara (no point, tears just messed it up) and caressed the hands of children, giving little hugs and words of encouragement about the importance of education. Andy, Yusuf and Maryam all shared special moments all in their way, making sure their tough ‘mom’ was okay. There were many exchanges of gifts, WhatsApp numbers, well-wishes, tears, of course, and even promises to return.

Thank you to Yusufali, Aliakberbhai, Asgharbhai and all the others that made this experience possible. We are inspired by your vision and pray that you and your families reap the blessings of Allah SWT so that you continue to create better generations for India’s poor.

For those of you wondering what to do this with Blog, I say, GIVE!  Your time, talents or financial resources. My family experienced, first-hand, the impact CAI has on the lives of impoverished children and families – they change lives, making the impossible, possible.

Thank you, CAI for the fantastic opportunity.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Amongst The Rohingyas Of Myanmar

My current trip, to distribute rice to the Rohingyas escaping persecution by the powers to be in Myanmar (Burma), at the border area with Bangladesh, is turning out to be quite a gut-churner. Both in the physical wellbeing of my body as well as the trauma to my mental/emotional health. As I see and hear about the chilling and incomprehensible brutality that the army of Burma is melting out to the very citizens they are bound to protect. Please keep in mind that the following is not hearsay. Rather, these are first-hand narrations by the people lucky enough to have fled and survived an attempt at their systematic genocide.

The Emirates flight from Orlando leaves on time, but arrives Dubai almost an hour early, thirteen hours later, thanks to positive winter tailwinds; as usual, I barely sleep but a couple of hours in that time. After a four-hour layaway, I head to Mumbai, where I want to sleep at least six hours by 11:00 PM, but am wide awake by 03:30. My fitness trainer has advised that the best way to beat jetlag is exercise, so I go running at the gym – six miles in 60 minutes. I am at the airport by 07:00 for a Jet Airways flight to Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The imbeciles at Jet Airways change to winter schedule at the last minute, making my connection to Cox Bazar from Dhaka by Novo Air dicey. Still, I have two hours, enough time to get a visa on arrival and walk to the domestic terminal. It never works like that, nai? My flight is kept holding in the air above Dhaka due to the closure of a runway; my blood pressure notches up. We land with barely an hour left for my next flight. I get the visa fast enough, but the problem now is getting out of the immigration area. Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, Etihad, Fly Dubai, Saudi, Thai and local Biman airlines have all landed at about the same time. Leaving the airport resembles a disaster evacuation zone. Everybody pushes, so I join in, until I am stopped by a customs officer who barks at me in Bengali. I stop and look at him in frustration and confusion. Flashing my US passport at his face. I plead with him.

I have nothing to declare, and I’ll miss my connection if I don’t hurry up. Can I please go?

He regards me, then at the passport, sighs, breathes pan fumes at my face, baring bloodied fangs. But he waves me on my way, regret at losing a possible bribe written all over his face. The passport comes in handy once more, as a security officer, deep in conversation with a female colleague, lets me into the domestic terminal without a security check of my person or any of my possessions, including my laptop when I flash him the US booklet. I guess the passport or the female company took priority over security?

If the international terminal in Dhaka is bad, the domestic one resembles the Crawford Market in Mumbai with its orderly chaos. There are about five domestic carriers that use this terminal, and all of them have their employees shouting their heads off; the PA system is not working. Except nobody pays any attention. I get to the check-in counter with 10 minutes to spare, certain I’ll be denied a pass. But the chubby agent issues me a boarding pass; I board the aircraft, and we are off, on the dot, on time.

Kausar Jamal, the rubber plantation owner in Bangladesh who is handling the logistics of distributing the 14,000 5kg bags of CAI donated rice to the traumatized Rohingya families meets me at the airport. I am to spend the next couple of nights at a dingy apartment hotel infected with bloodthirsty mosquitos. After a quick shower and magreeb salaat, we head out for the first batch of distribution. BD government is not keen on aiding and encouraging the refugees, so have severe penalties in place for the offenders. So, I distribute the rice in the dark of night. The refugees, faces etched in fear and pain appear, with a putrid stink of unwashed bodies, like ghosts, grab the rice package and disappear as eerily; I feel grim satisfaction.

Kausar and his wife then treat other volunteers and me to a sumptuous dinner of barbecued duck, tiger prawns and other delicacies fit for a gluttonous emperor. However, my taste buds are sullied by the misery I have just witnessed and severe exhaustion from my travels. The mosquitoes have me awake by 3 AM, even though Kausar has had the room fumigated earlier. I watch several of my tormentors, heavy with my blood, resting on the wall behind me. One has the audacity to escape from my sleeping shorts and join the others. I carefully, happily murder them all, leaving red blotches on the wall that was once white. They, however, have the last laugh in death, since I am left with an irritated behind and no possibility of sleep for the balance of the night.

After fajr at a nearby mosque where hawking, snorting and coughing is non-stop, we head out, this time to proper Burma, through an unmanned border. Again, clandestinely, the rice is given away to the hapless refugees. I request and am granted an interview with Noor Begum, who hails from Burma proper. She escapes death four days ago, by carrying her 80-year-old frail father, aided by her four young kids, to safety. This, after the Burmese army strafes her village, Lung Dung, using helicopter gunfire, setting all bamboo homes on fire and kidnapping the men. She has no idea if her husband survives the attack. She asks me for a blanket and some clothes since the outfits on her and her kids are the only ones they escape with; I feel inept and miserable, unable to help.

I meet Basheer Ahmed and his mother-in-law, new escapees. Basheer tells me his wife and sister were raped; his sister's breast chopped off. I stiffen in horror; I’ve heard of this method of torture before; in Afghanistan, by the Taliban, on the Hazaras.

Why, I wail?

Just because we are Muslims, is the response.

I am then related other forms of torture, to children, tales too gruesome and graphic to pen. The Army uses rape, especially of teenagers, as a routine method of torture, the victims relate. I don’t know what to do, what to say, how to react… I want to scream… I want to tell them to stop… I can’t take this anymore… I want to run away…

We deliver more rice to these despondent people. I do this unfeelingly; my emotions numb with pain. I watch young, very poor boys get free circumcision treatment with clinical efficiency. The foreskin is pulled down tight, a numbing needle follows, another antibiotic needle in the bum, a wait of 5 minutes, the skin stretched again and a sharp bamboo knife slices away the foreskin – the procedure completes. The children feel no pain, look around without shame, bewildered. They are treated with two lollipops and a brand-new lungi, which they gingerly hold away from their assaulted budding manhood. Kausar Jamal provides this free service to 1,000 needy children every year. 

We head back to Coz Bazar; I am in a daze of severe emotional turmoil. I refuse lunch and dinner; I think I’ll puke if I attempt to eat anything. I die of mental and physical exhaustion after salaat; the mosquitos leave me alone, as Kausar has them neutralized with a nauseous but deadly combination of repellent spray and coil. I awake for fajr salat at the hawking masjid. The Imam is brave; he recites Sura Mulk. I wonder what’ll happen if Mohammedraza Janmohammed attempts this at HIC back home. A riot and a coup-d’état, I reckon?

I go beach running at Cox Bazar, the longest unbroken beach in the world, at 72 miles. The crowds gape at me as if I am from outer space; stand out like a sore thumb, the only one with shorts. The beach is breathtakingly beautiful, especially after I run past the milling crowds. My appetite returns after the run and a leisurely shower; Kausar treats me to a sumptuous breakfast at a restaurant, then drops me to the local dala-dala airport and I depart for Dhaka – Kolkata – Delhi – Sirsi.

CAI would love to rebuild some of the bamboo / thatch-roof homes burnt down by the plundering Burmese army. They cost about US$125 each. Sponsor one at www.comfortaid.org - donate – Aid For Refugees.

Click here for photos related to this trip.




Sunday, December 11, 2016

Oh, Canada

The cute WestJet Airlines stewardess asks me if I want to something to drink, so I ask for black coffee. I’ve just had a spicy guacamole jalapeno veggie sandwich so bitter coffee with complimentary cookies sounds might fine to me. The lass’s smile is infectious, so I take up the courage to ask for another pack of cookies. She bats her kholi clad eyelashes towards me and flashes a perfect set of snowy dentures.

‘Why, of course, sweetheart, you can have as many as you want!’

I glow scarlet as she hands me three packs. My, oh my! It’s been decades since anybody has called me a sweet anything. Feels nice. But then she punctures my puff by using the same term of endearment on the grossly overweight dude seated next to me, who seems to be having breathing issues due to his size. Oh, well.

Canadian stewardesses are better trained in customer service, I think, more than their US neighbors. I remember asking for an extra pack of peanuts once on United Airlines and the snob, in a loud and offensive tone told me to wait until all the passengers are served before she’d consider giving me extra. This was in an era when the poor peanut was not treated with the allergy stigma it is today. I’ve always had courteous treatment from the Canadians in general. Cultural diversity?

I am going to frigid Toronto for a few days. It seems 50% plus of my time as CEO of CAI is now spent on compliance issues, making sure the IRS is happy with our reporting and obedience. The pale hearty Canadian lady immigration officer regards me and then peers at my passport photo suspiciously.

Lost some weight, have we? Like traveling, don’t we? Is all this travel personal or business? What do you do?

NGO.

Ummm huh.

She thumps my passport with exaggerated gusto and waves me through. My body goes through severe shock as it adjusts to the senses numbing 30F outside the terminal; I was in balmy 80’s just a few hours ago in Sanford. I sleep in a cozy room tucked away in the basement of my niece Fatema and hubby Shabbir Alibhai’s home in Richmond Hill the next three nights. Shabbir’s mom, Nargis Aunty, is a soopa cook, her spicy methi parathas are heavenly, and it takes an act of supreme jehaad to deny myself extra helpings.

I spend the three days in pursuit of making CAI regulatory compliant, donor meetings and enlightening two Khoja communities about the plight of the hapless Rohingyas of Myanmar (Burma), probably the most oppressed people in the world today; both Masumeen and Jaffari Centers agree to let me address their members. So, I present the case of these pitiful peoples at Brampton, under the evergreen counsel of Sheykh Jaffer Jaffer on Thursday; thank you Zuhair Ebraheem, for arranging it all. I present the same case at Bathurst next day, after Jooma; thank you Mehboob Shivji, for weaving the magic wand. Isn’t it telling that both these Canadian jamaats are (always) so open minded and progressive, ready to consider the world outside of their comfort zone; I pray that other Jamaats, closer to me, would want to be similarly enlightened. 

Icy flurries and snow move in the second day of my visit, and I don’t like it. At all. I wear thermals, warm clothes, a scarf, an overcoat, cover my head, wear gloves, clear the snow from the car, scrape the ice from the windscreen and windows, shivering non-stop, wait for the car to warm up, drive on the snow very cautiously as if treading on eggs…this life is for the birds. I’m glad I fled both Toronto and Minneapolis when I did.  I go workout in the excellent gym at the Bathurst center early all the three mornings. It has state of the art fitness machines and weights, sauna and steam rooms, separate for women and men; strangely, they are sparsely utilized. I get to eat sweet yellow-shell passion fruit after a long time; had them last eons ago; Fatema buys me some; at C$1.50 each; they are pricey.
I don’t know what they are called in English. We used to call them matunda back home in Tanzania. My daughter Maaha Zainab calls them snot-fruit, since the insides resemble a runny nose?

The best way to consider the future is to look at the past. So I spend some time chatting with Nargis Aunty, Shabbir Alibhai’s mom. She tells me stories from the past that has a soothing effect on me; I could spend hours talking to her and not tire or bore. I also meet Khairoon Bhabi; the lady tended to me when I was a vulnerable teenager and bestowed on me a motherly love I yearned for, ages ago, away from home, studying in Moshi, Tanzania. And I spend an enjoyable hour with my ex-mother in law, Shereen SS. Even at 82, she is all class - prim and proper, bless her. If you are ever in the dumps, spend an hour with her, and you’ll almost die laughing; your mood upped a million times over.

Leaving Canada, at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, the US immigration officer notices a Myanmar visa stamp on my passports.

Oh, she says, I’ve been to Yangon. What a beautiful place. What wonderful people.

Since the place is almost empty, I tell her about CAI and that I am on my way to Burma next week to feed the hungry Rohingyas.

She shakes her head. Yes, I’ve heard of their plight. Very sad. Welcome home and have a safe trip.

I’m glad I am returning home; there is a snowstorm headed for Ontario in the forecast for tomorrow; I’ll be depressed if I am here. The flight home to Sanford is uneventful.

I’m heading towards the Bangladesh / Myanmar border next week insha’Allah. CAI has arranged five trucks of rice, to be distributed to the oppressed Rohingya refugees trapped there, a simple act that will, insha'Allah, bring some solace to them.  You can pray for them, of course, but if you feel charitable, please donate towards their cause at www.comfortaid.org.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Give Me Money And I'll Build You A School

Give Me Money, And I’ll Build You A School

Mumbai

India in general and Mumbai in particular, where I am now, is in crises mode. Prime Minister Modi’s well-meaning and noble-intended, but hasty and ill-planned ban on the Rupee 500 / 1,000 currency notes has bombed. Badly. The poor are panic-stricken, and many fat-cats are left to deal with dirty underwear. It would be so funny ordinarily, to see people with ill-gotten wealth squirm and scramble to get rid of or exchange the worthless paper. The tactics they use are creative, clever and comical; the social media is buzzing with incidents of busted antics. The new pink Rupee 2,000 is snazzy, but most vendors will not accept them; there is no change.

There are several near-riots at bank ATMs, with police latti-charging unruly crowds, with frustrated masses hitting back, making the cops beg for mercy. These cash flow crises have not affected the super-rich, of course. You won’t see them in the stretched serpent-like lines outside all banks I pass by, wilting away under the relentless sun. No Sir. These dudes have alternate arrangements, as their hoarding is the in millions, even billions of Rupees. I hear whisperings that the banned bills can be exchanged for 70% or even 50% of the value…with proper bank connections.

In Bengaluru (Bangalore), an ex-Minister, a devoted father (I guess), spends (you better be seated) Rupees 5 billion – about US$73 million on his daughter’s wedding. CAI helps marry poor girls in India as well; this amount would have paid for 146,000 marriages. Proves wealth does not always equal brains and decency, no?

Singapore

Some five flying hours away from Mumbai, Singapore remains almost the same as I left it four years ago; super clean, super-efficient and super-pricy. A 2-bedroom 3,000 sq. ft. apartment is a cool three million Sing dollars – about US$2.3 million and a Toyota Corolla is a stomach curling US$60,000. I am here as the guest of JMAS, with whom CAI is currently working on an education project that requires due diligence and compliance work. The infrastructure and logistics of this city-state work like a fine Swiss watch; precise and efficient. Everybody lines up, for everything, no exceptions. You pay a hefty fine for chewing gum, jaywalking, littering, crossing the line…all controlled by thousands of cameras, using state of the art technology. If there were a gadget to detect the inappropriate passing of wind, why, I’ll bet that would have been deployed as well.

My weakness in Singapore is seafood; something all humans must partake when here. On the second day, I find myself free for dinner, so I head out to the Newton Food Center at the end of Scotts Road, about two-third mile away. Since it is Singapore’s ‘winter’, like May in Orlando, and less humid, I walk over. Still, my t-shirt has patterns of vague sweat-shapes by the time I enter the crowded and noisy courtyard with at least fifty food hawkers, each one waving me over; there is enough food here to satisfy all the hungry children in Yemen. There is Malay, Indian, and Chinese food, but seafood dominates. I find a halal stall after some trouble, but I am still cautious. I ask the lady waving me over if the food is genuinely halal.

Mista, she glares me, pointing to her headscarf, I tell you is halal, the sign hea (here) says halal, the goven-man (government) cettify (certifies) its halal, all seafood is halal, I am a Muslima, this sign hea says no pok (pork) no lad (lard), and you still ask me if halal? You are a vely (very) suspicious man, la.

I surrender and sit down to lip smacking, finger licking pepper crawfish, spicy kangkong greens, steam rice and hot Chinese green tea, sharing a common table. Everybody, including the Gooras, discard their plastic utensils and dig in with their fingers, sniffling and sweating the spicy dishes down. The lady gets an assistant to take over, takes a break and comes sits by me, sipping from a steaming cup of tea. She tells me she is resting her tired feet.

I am Singaporean Malay. Where are you flom (from) in India?

No Ma’am, I am not Indian, I live in Florida.

She searches my face disbelievingly, so I add I was born in Africa, but my ancestors are Indians. She is still dubious, especially after I tell her I have also lived in Dubai, Houston, Toronto, Austin, Mumbai, Orlando…

So did you vote? The elections?

Yes, I did.

You voted for Donald Duck?

It is my turn to stare at her. I open my mouth to correct her, say it is Donald Trump, not Duck, when she and the others sharing the table erupt in voracious laughter. The lady snorts and laughs until tears roll down her pudgy cheeks.

I am joking Mista, la, don’t look so offended, la. But you must admit your new president is a cattoon (cartoon), la?

I am not sure if I should respond to the question, so I stay mum and continue feeding my face until I am bloated with seafood; the walk back to the hotel is laborious. As time-pass, I challenge myself to find litter on the pathway I walk; any litter. But apart from fallen leaves, there is absolutely nothing. As I near the hotel, I feel thwarted; not one piece of litter. But my patience is rewarded shortly when my eyes hit jackpot; I see a cigarette butt. I am ecstatic; Singaporeans are humans, like me!

Chennai

I am in Chennai to meet with my Indian editor, Vandana, at Notion Press, who will be editing my 3rd novel for Indian content. This book, to be published by July 2017, will insha’Allah raise US$100,000 plus, all profits (100%) to benefit the 460 worldwide CAI sponsored orphans. Surprisingly, I have no problem in getting change for my Rupee 2,000 bill for the taxi ride from the airport; I wonder if Tamil Nadu has got their act straighter.

It is while waiting for my Uber ride back to the airport for my return flight to Mumbai the same afternoon outside Notion Press that I meet Danish.  He is 11-years old, a daily wage laborer, shoveling building pebbles onto construction trucks and so thin, I can see the outline of his ribs through his skin. There is a filthy green colored taweez, thoroughly soaked from sweat, that dangles from his neck. I watch him for a while and venture over to talk to him.

He pauses when he sees me approach, breathing heavily. His face is flushed and sweat drenched, a booger dangles from his nose. I feel immediate disgust but force myself to smile at him; he looks at me suspiciously for a second, spits and resumes his labor.

What is your name? I ask him in Hindi.

He grunts, says nothing, so I repeat the question. He pauses again, an irritated look on his face. He looks me from top to bottom, decides I am harmless.

Danish, he says, my name is Danish.

You do hard labor, Danish, I say. Don’t you get tired?

Danish spits again and blows his nose, thankfully dislodging the unsightly bugger from his nose. His eyes tell me how ridiculous he finds my question.

I mean, why don’t you go to school? I ask hurriedly, embarrassed by my stupid question.

Danish shrugs his bony shoulders. He must generate a lot of spit, for he spits once again. He rubs his fingers in the universal sign of money. He says he has no money so has to work to eat, him and his widowed mother and his younger sister. He would love to go to school if he could and become a jawaan in the Indian army.

My Uber drive arrives and hoots, so I hurriedly say goodbye to Danish and sit at the rear of the car, shivering as the cold air-conditioned air hits my skin. I glance at Danish, but he is back at work shoveling, probably dismissed me as a nut case from his thoughts. At an instinct, I tell the startled driver to stop and turn around. He makes a face, but reverses and I run towards Danish, who has stopped work and is watching me. I thrust five 100-Rupee bills in his hands.

Buy your mother and sister and yourself a nice meal tonight, you hear?

I leave, since I will be late battling the deadly Chennai traffic to the airport, an hour away. I watch Danish from the cab again. He is still leaning on his shovel, staring at the Rupee bills, a puzzled expression on his face. I smile inwardly, feeling slightly better.

Give me money, and I’ll build you a school – anytime.

39,000 feet up in the air, somewhere between Mumbai and Dubai:

I receive a WhatsApp message informing that the last avenue I have to get to Yemen is closed; it is simply not to be; my spirits plummet. Although thousands of starved children are receiving much needed CAI donated milk, my wish to personally see the project through has been denied. Everybody says it’s much too dangerous, that risks to life outweigh the benefits. Although I am deeply disappointed, hurt and angry, I have to leave it to Allah’s will. He knows I tried. Very hard.