Thursday, April 26, 2018

Five Days Of Ecstasy And Agony – What Bounties Of Allah Can I Deny?! – Part 1

There is this long-simmering itch in me to bike-ride in Southeast Asia, so when my air miles and budget jive, I convince my friend and fellow Trustee Sohail Abdullah to join me on a 5-day ride from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam to Chau Doc, near the border of Cambodia. It is a 290 miles trip (370 km), nothing to take lightly. Add temperatures of between 90 – 104F in direct sunlight, with active humidity to factor, the ride will not be a piece of cake. But there is a higher cause to consider here. CAI has been active in providing humanitarian aid to the war victims in Yemen and this ride can be an excellent cause to raise extra funds CAI needs for the next 2 months of powder milk, food grains, and medicine required to keep the aid going. The deal is done and we are on our way. The Vietnam currency is the unsavory sounding Dong and they are hard to come by outside the country and I predictably get ripped off changing only about $50 at Dubai Airport.

HCMC airport is modern, clean, quick and efficient; it takes me about 20 minutes to have my passport stamped with a pre-approved visa, clear immigration and customs. A local SIM card, inexpensive, tethers me to the world and keeps me remarkably connected through my stay, even in the most remote villages we pass through. A Grab cab (same-to-same Uber) takes me to the Airbnb pad where Sohail has preceded me. The next 36 hours I spend in HCMC, indeed throughout Vietnam, is one of the best gastronomical delights I’ve experienced in my eventful life. Vietnam is quite inexpensive when it comes to food and accommodation. Our Airbnb room, situated in an ‘affluent’ part of the city, and is squeaky clean and very comfortable, cost us $25/night. There are halal restaurants within 15 minutes sweaty walk away and this is where we (over)nourish our bodies to ready for the tough few days ahead. An average delicious meal of fresh seafood and garden-grown organic vegetables cost us both no more than US$10. We could easily pay 4 times this amount in Dubai or any major city in the US.

HCMC is a city of motorbikes; millions of them abound. Everybody rides one; men, women, kids and the elderly – I do not encounter a single one without a helmet. Crossing the streets is at our peril since nobody stops. We have to barrel our way across oncoming traffic and miraculously, the riders slow down and let us by. Daladala motorbikes are a safe and cheap way to get around. They work in the same fashion as Grab cabs, we order it using an app and they are minutes away, helmets ready for the passenger. The streets between our room and halal restaurants are full of alien stuff for us to gawk at, including massages offerings of many persuasions. The air is hot and humid, perfumed by street-side bacon barbecues, a sight all too common across SE Asia.

And then there are the tropical fruits to devour – mangosteens, rose apples (matufaa), jackfruit (faneesi), huge super juicy, super-sweet grapefruit, larger than cricket size guavas (mapera), lychees, mangoes, pineapples, passion fruit, coconut (madaafu), newly discovered snake fruit and loads of others – we gobble them like starving savages. Vietnam is blessed with abundant organic edible natural resources, untainted by modern chemicals. So far. So, the food we stuff our faces with go through a rapid natural process of transiting and expulsion, and we find ourselves repeatedly ever so hungry; I wish Allah had granted me a spare stomach.

Outside of the big cities, access to halal food is a huge challenge and the use of pork rampant. There are other dishes on offer as well – Fried Duck Tongue with Chili Garlic (not filling enough if you ask me), Deep Fried Frogs with Salty Egg (too salty, methinks), or Deep Fried Chicken Knees with Chili Garlic (hmmm, chicken have knees?). We pass on these, naturally. But seafood and vegetable meals (cooked in vegetable oil) as part of our tour package more than make-up for the lack of chicken and red meat. Our tour guides, Van and Phuc (I call him Happy just in case) go way beyond their call of duty to ensure our stringent requirements are complied with and are exceptionally accommodating to our many demands. They also order way more food than we can eat, especially Happy, since he is a foodie, like us. So, every meal has giant prawns, 2 types of fish, soup and green vegetables; the veggies are all fresh, cooked right on our table. The use of fresh garlic and ginger everywhere is rampant, so much so I smell it even in the sweat of humans and the aftermath of bathroom use. Vietnamese are perhaps the cleanest people I have encountered. We get to use rural homes for toilet needs a number of times in the five days of cycling and all of them are spotless. We can’t even enter their homes or toilets with footwear on. One restaurant owner sweeps clean a secluded spot, covers it with a large piece of cloth and we recite our zohr/asr there. We also get to recite salaat in a church lawn once and a Buddhist Pagoda veranda, and nobody says uff.

So, we have to ride 230 miles in 5 days at 46MPD. This is doable, certainly, but I have a clear handicap. I am a long-distance runner and can run you a 10k on demand, no problem. Sohail and the other 2 are long-term seasoned cyclists and can take naps on their seats while peddling if they chose to. The last time I am on a bicycle for more than a minute is over 3 years ago in Vancouver, Canada. I start wobbly on the very professional bike provided but take on the road like a swimmer to the ocean soon enough. The next 5 days are very eventful to state the obvious. We start early and peddle throughout the day and end the torture at about 5 PM. I highlight the more momentous episodes below; the rest are one continues rhythm of peddling to the dhikr of Allah and savoring His astonishing realm:

Day one – A painful start.
We start an hour away from HCMC, after a breakfast of baguettes with cream cheese and coffee. The street vendor wants me to try some lard-based local butter, but I insist on the prepackaged stuff from Malaysia. We are in the rural roads soon enough, riding through miles of dragon-fruit farms, rice paddies, and an occasional guava or a jackfruit tree. The farmers of Vietnam are rapidly abandoning rice paddies in favor of better-priced dragon-fruit that fetches much better prices from the Chinese who now have an insatiable appetite for fancy foods.

The first 20 or so miles pass quickly but then the chafing of my behind and thighs really start biting. Although I have heeded Sohail’s advise and purchased 2 sets of well-padded cycling shorts, the constant chafing takes a toll. We are supposed to do 46 miles today but I am bushed and end up 6 miles short, that we must cover tomorrow. Every muscle in my body is on fire and it’s a herculean task getting myself out of sajda without wanting to scream in agony. I take 2 Advils and go to bed. I sleep like better than a contented baby.

Day two – I take a tumble
I wake up feeling much better but my behind and thighs still ache plenty. The guys change my cycle seat to afford more cushion and this helps considerably. We are now into heavy banana groves and plenty of other green leafy flora. It is hot, yes, but thick clouds give us plenty of shade to peddle along easily. There is not a person in sight, not a sound except the tires of our bikes in gravel. Ah, there is no better feeling, I tell ya! I feel closer to Allah here than on a prayer mat. Life is so good, alhamd’Allah.

Vietnam relies on the Mekong River for life, they literally breathe it for existence. So, most of the farming is done along this river and the water crisscrosses all rural communities. Almost all of rural Vietnam is connected by with 3x4 concrete pavement, some new and very smooth but most raggedy and with potholes. There are also hundreds of thousands of streams with an open concrete bridge without side support that connects them. So, I am having a ball going up and down these bridges shaded by a canopy of trees and admiring the song of a koyal when an empty water bottle dislodges from my bike and I am distracted. I look down in stupidity without realizing I have to speed up to make it over another bridge around the corner – too late. I brake sharply, overcorrect and slowly but surely trip over into the mushy ravine by the side.  I fall into the muck, with the bike over me, completely unscathed. But I am a mess, as you can imagine. At first to reach me is a peasant farmer whose house in nearby. He pulls me out and Happy takes over like a pro he is. They both escort me into the farmer’s modest home where his wife is lullabying a newborn infant.

There, in front of all, Happy bathes me over my clothes. When I protest, he actually shushes me to be quiet and scrubs all the muck off me and my clothes with a scrubber and some soap. I am transported back 50 years when my sister Bai did the same thing when I was too weak to bathe after an illness; I am profoundly touched. The farmer chops down 3 plump fresh madaafu growing in his front yard and serve them to us – they are sweet and astonishingly refreshing. When I urge Happy to pay the farmer, this is refused. The farmer looks hurt, furiously shaking his head no. I have used up a keg of his clean water, dirtied his home, disturbed his family and partaken his labor and the guy is offended when I want to reimburse him. This is what humanity is all about and I will never forget the act of kindness from a total stranger.

We complete 46 miles today, still short of the target from yesterday. We are lagging behind and I am concerned but can’t take any more torture.

Days 3 – 5 to be continued…

Note 1 - Click for photos and videos of the trip. Sohail Abdullah has done a wonderful job compiling these and I am sure you will enjoy them.

Note 2 – Alhamd’Allah, CAI has raised over US$45,000 at the time this Blog goes to print, more than double the original target. What bounties of Allah can I deny?

Friday, April 13, 2018

Bundu-Bundu Etc.

Back in 1980, when I moved to the US, it was really a great country to make and call my own. I had a well-paying job, was transferred to the US from Dubai by an employer that truly appreciated my worth, with the very prized Green Card in hand, work that I truly enjoyed and peers that accepted me with genuine warmth, even if that was sometimes tainted somewhat with amusement towards an ‘alien’ who was entertainingly different than them. I was merely 23 then and had a bigger attitude problem than I sometimes do now, so could deal with the occasional (generally well-meaning) jibes and put-downs that came my way. There was nothing to stop me from achieving my many tall dreams. Parenthood, self-afflicted marital problems, and a divorce jaded some of that shine off my nose but I could still kick a mean mule and get away with it.

I firmly believe in the institution of the madressa, or Islamic school, that my parents so forcefully made incumbent for me to attend as an adolescent, every single day. I was taught the Quraan, although I now wish I would have spent time understanding the language than just simply learning and reciting the words like a grey parrot from the Congo. In Tanga, Tanzania, the madressa was headed by Haider Rashid of the Mohammedi Cultural Group. He was, bless him, an absolute dictator, and ruled with a merciless mean staff that has many of us peeing in our white pajamas with fear of an oncoming thrashing way before the event. But I still have nothing but praise and prayers for him, for the discipline of reciting salaat and the command of duas he taught me is all credit to his unrelenting and well-meaning efforts.

If it had not been for the madressa and Haiderbhai and his comrade’s efforts in shaping me as a practicing Muslim, I would have been doomed living in the US. Mid-twenties, divorced and successful in corporate America is a deadly concoction that can, will and has ruined many imaans, and I have witnessed this phenomenon personally, with great distress. Alhamd’Allah, I was fortunate that regular and timely salaat made me return back to the right track before disaster struck, every time. Else, the career and personal success and cockiness I had acquired due to Allah’s grace towards me would have surely ruined me.

*****

Now, I get into trouble for stating that I prefer the company of pretty women sitting next to me on long flights (read Blog here) in the last Blog, ruffling the harried feather of a respected community member here in Sanford. So, I am hurrying for salaat to the beautiful Masjid al Hayy when I am arrested by an elderly man stalking me.

Yusufali, ek minute, he rasps and closes into very uncomfortable personal space. I knew your father and his father, both of them, upright people.

I am about to thank him and hurry in but he blocks my way and comes right up to my face, faintly smelling of burnt garlic.

Why then, do you write bundu-bundu stuff in your Blogs?

The bundu-bundu makes his lips purr rapidly and I feel a drizzle of garlic tainted saliva settle on my face. Although I sense blood rush to my face because of the onslaught, my mind goes wandering. Bundu-bundu? Now, I’m sure I’ve heard this expression before, but where? I’m sure it’s Gujarati and I’ve heard it before. The man elaborates.

Why do you have to write about desiring pretty women for company? You do such good work for humanity, why do you ruin it with this bundu-bundu mumbo-jumbo? Hmm?

The saliva strikes again and I take an involuntary step backward. The desire to fish out my hanky and wipe off the dampness is intense but years of ingrained respect for my elders restrain me from the act that will surely offend. But I am mad nevertheless and throwing caution to the wind, I push back, even though it’s rapidly getting close to salaat time and I should be hurrying in.

Uncle, I say instead, isn’t it natural to want a pretty woman next to you, rather than an ugly one? Wouldn’t you rather have someone beautiful for company? What is so wrong with that? I am just being honest with saying what I think rather than thinking about it and being a hypocrite by not admitting the fact?

The man looks confused for a second, makes a face, snorts a despairing mcheee noise so common with East African Khojas, mutters astaghfiru’Allah and stomps off. I redo whudoo and hurry for magreeb.

This silly notion that I am above natural human feelings or a ‘maulaana’ just because I head a progressive and successful NGO must stop. The Blog was an attempt at satire, something to alleviate the malaise of a myriad of terrible human suffering around our world. I wish our maulanas would also read my Blogs; they need to laugh more and smile even more, me thinks. My Blogs can change that, perhaps?

*****

On a more pertinent and serious note, Sohail Abdullah, CAI Trustee and I are bicycling from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia later this month. This 250-odd mile ride over 6 days is to satisfy a personal long sought itch, but more importantly, to raise funds for CAI’s efforts in feeding the starving and disease afflicted children of Yemen. The grave and the very distressful situation in this country increases terribly in quantum grades and we can only try our best to help out until peace and stability returns, soon insha'Allah.

CAI, in partnership with Beta Charitable Trust from the UK, are very active in helping the population with powder milk for infants, food for the rest, cholera vaccines and other medication. This aid has to continue when we consider the following details:

• 400,000 malnourished children
• 22 million need humanitarian aid
• 1.98 million Internally Displaced Persons

This is not considering the devastation to infrastructure that has been bombed to dust.

Please join us and help out if you can. Allah bless. Find out more about our escapade by clicking here.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Empowering Women – Success, Finally!


Emirates flight EK219 from Dubai to Orlando appears to be on time, so I make my way through security where a uniformed kid who still seems to be weaning off his pampers tells me I can’t take the empty bottle I use for bathroom hygiene onboard. Ah well. Aboard, I wait for an elderly Indian woman blocking my way to the window seat to step aside. She is obviously struggling with her carry-on suitcase, and before I can offer my impeccable manners to help, she looks up at me snappily and chides me in perfect Hinglish.

Well, young man, don’t stand there and gape at my struggles. Help me, na?

Flustered and stung by the unfair accusation, I quickly help her store the rather weighty suitcase above. I’m only being nice because she called me young man, mind you. She offers me no gratitude, but slumps into the seat next to mine instead, moping her brow. She’s going to be my neighbor for the next 15 hours; I groan inwardly. There were so many pretty ladies around at the boarding gate earlier, and I was hoping I’d get one sitting next to me so the flight would speed by in interesting discourse perhaps; no such luck. The ancient thing next door regards me unabashedly for a while, and I squirm in my seat in discomfort, but then smiles her thanks, the creases of age on her face disappearing momentarily. Then she does something quite odd for an aged Indian woman; she asks a hovering steward for a double whiskey. He, like me, is taken aback, him blinking rapidly. He recovers, smiles and tells the old hag that the bar will open only after takeoff.

Well, I need the whiskey to calm my nerves, else I get mighty cranky, and that’ll set off unpleasant results. I doubt this young man next to me will appreciate that eventuality.

She looks at me and winks; I have no idea what she’s up to. But she can be as cranky as she likes, as long as she continues referring to me as a young man. They compromise that a glass of champagne would suffice until after takeoff. I groan again. Now, I’ll have to put up with the offensive smell of rotting grapes and barley. I’ve never taken to the odor of alcohol, even with over 30 plus years of service in corporate America, in management positions, where the use of this intoxicant is rampant and readily acceptable. I needn’t have worried so much. Except for a rather robust and angry fart during takeoff, which she beamingly blames on the lack of the whiskey, the champagne does seem to mellow her, and the whiskey afterward puts her into snoring slumber almost the entire trip.

It’s going to be boring 15 hours flight, again, with only my crosswords and writings to provide some cheer. The Emirates movies are all repeats, the better ones; I’ve watched almost all of them. An attractive neighbor would have been excellent company, but this one is gone to the clouds, snoring her champagne and whiskey gently away. Sighing in self-pity, I settle down to read the local media, which informs me that UAE has been ranked the happiest city in the Middle East. Fantastic. Another ceaseless laurel in the hat of this blessed country. Right next to the happiness report, another reporter is telling me that a salesman has been arrested for groping a woman. Hmm. I don’t wish to exaggerate, but I’m almost certain I read of at least a couple of groping incidents in UAE every day. The ones that get reported, that is. I wonder how happiness is measured. The people of UAE must not be too happy if they resort to regular groping, would they? Hmm. A perky brunette stewardess breaks my weighty contemplation on this grave matter with a phony smile, false fluttering eyelids and all the rest - she wants to know if I’ll have dinner with Emirates. At 2 AM? I shoo her away. I’m not hungry, plus I’ve had a mighty heavy hard-to-find-in-Orlando ndeezi-mbeechi at sister Sabira Somji’s earlier. The brunette makes a face, wounded by my rebuff, and tries her luck with the sleeping mummy next door; all she gets is an annoying snort.

I’m coming home after somewhat feverish three weeks that takes me to the CAI project at the Rohingya refugee orphans in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (read report here), to freezing, windy London, UK and then to the SGH construction project nearing completion at Sirsi, UP, India. India is where CAI activities took off some 21 years ago and Sirsi, in particular, holds a special place in me. This is where about 1,000 financially challenged students from varying rural backgrounds get an opportunity for a quality education. It is also where I’ve butted heads with ancient, unjust mindsets against girls, denying them the right to education and opportunities otherwise made readily available to men. CAI, through me, have consistently pushed to put the gentler sex on an even playing field with the men. This exercise is exceptionally challenging, daunting and exhausting, and I still face some unrelenting hostility along the way. So, I am ecstatic with the following two milestones events at the Sirsi school.

Iram Fatema - First Female Principal:

Sayeda Iram Fatema takes over as the Principal of our school, leading over 1,000 students and 40 plus staff into a brighter and progressive future, insha’Allah. Iram Fatema has a solid academic background and years of experience as an educationalist. She’ll have to fight her battles, of course, and lead a team deeply ingrained in male dominance and superiority. With the solid support of the school management and unwavering backing of CAI, I am confident Iram Fateme will prevail and progress insha’Allah. We all welcome Iram Fatema.



Noorien Faridi – Student Turned Teacher.

Noorien Faridi joined the school as a student in Grade 2, when she was 8. The school had only three grades during that time. Her father, the sole earner at home, died at a rather young age, so even the nominal fees the school charged then, was a mighty challenge. But with a progressive thinking mother and supportive relatives, she prevailed. A diligent student, she proved her mantle and graduated from high school and with help from Al Imaan scholarships, pursued a 3-years college education, and a year of teachers training. Noorien was roped in by the very school she did her elementary education as a teacher’s assistant and was recently promoted as a full-term teacher for grades 6 – 8, taking on average class sizes of 40 rowdy students, an intimidating prospect.

Noorien requests to continue her studies and wants an MBA as part of her credentials. She is a lively, bubbly girl and I see a bright future for her, either here in Sirsi or further up. We all welcome Noorien Faridi.