Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Streets of Rawalpindi

I am back in the saddle again after a week of home rest in the Islamabad Diplomatic Compound, recovering from what I discovered to be an intestinal infection, likely brought on by lunch in Mansehra, where I ate some (freshly washed!!!- should have known better) tomatoes. After 6 days of suffering and hardly eating, I was invited to one of my new friends, Dr Shaukat Malek, an eminent cardiologist, for a going over. After a quick visit to his house on a Sunday (try that in Canada) I left with a prescription and a recommended diet (all on the same piece of paper). I went to the Chemist's, had the prescription filled in a matter of minutes and was again happily on my way. One day later- Cured! Unfortunately my remaining days, since I had shortened my trip due to the 'troubles' including a suicide bomber close to our compound area, had been sucked up and all I had was one day left to take advantage of Shaukat's, and another new friend's, Syed Kazi- President of the Photographic Society of Pakistan, offer of a tour of neighbouring Rawalpindi.

Rawalpindi, or Pindi as it is known here, is the big sister city of neighbouring Islamabad. Where Islamambad has only been around since the 1960's, Pindi has been there a lot longer. A city of 4 million+ inhabitants it can be best described as bedlam spread. Intense traffic, noise, pollution, and a potpouri of smells all blend together in a urban whirling dervish except without direction.
Syed and I hit the streets just as the temperature was hitting 40 degrees, not too hot yet according to some residents. We were in the market area of the city, famous throughout Pakistan for the variety and sheer amount of saleable goods including one section, called the smugglers area where items, that had 'fallen of f the back of trucks' was openly displayed and sold. You can get anything you want...... and so on.
We wandered the market streets and back alleyways for a couple of hours shooting stalls, colours, people, beggars, anything and everything, If my camera had a barrel it would be hot to touch after a couple of hours of amazing images,. Every direction I turned their was image magic, all made better by the friendliness if the people. 'where you from', take my picture', 'how are you', and hello were the introductions of welcome as business people and residents welcomed me into their midst.
The back streets, better described as alleyways, are much like the alleyways of Marrakesh, but dirtier, rougher, and smellier as raw sewage runs in narrow culverts on each side of the elevated sidewalk. Power wires run everywhere, political posters cover the walls and the remnants of old campaigns, paint jobs are random and often incomplete as the if the paint ran out and no more was to be had. Motorcycles, donkeys, all manners of beggars, shopkeepers, and all the other myriad of humanity that is needed to create a city coursed up and down the streets like ants going to , and retuning from, their daily errands. One of my favourite memories, and one that I will likely propose to my city council on my return to Vancouver Island, is Pindi's imaginative way of resolving badly parked cars- they simply pick them up with a forklift and head off to a parking lot where the car can be reclaimed for a price. What a sight to witness, a car, 15 feet in the air, travelling along and above the heads of hardly interested shoppers. Such is life in the Pindi mall.

I was not a rare site in the streets, just a long not-seen sight, as few tourists visit Pindi anymore when compared to several days ago when the political situation was more stable and foreigners need not fear for their lives. In reality in all my time here I have never feared for my life. In fact I have felt more welcomed here than some of my travels around my own country. I am hoping that one day Pakistan's troubles will once again be over so that the rest of the world can experience the incredible welcoming warmth that I have experienced here. Alas, many Pakistanis openly do not see better days in the future.

The tour ended at the Pindi's Pearl Continental Hotel's Chinese restaurant where Syed and dined on a most amazing authentic Chinese meal, including my very personal experience with an unnoticed hot pepper (should do wonders for the tummy at risk and my 8 hour flight tomorrow), and several return visits to the vastly colourful and delectable dessert bar.
I will be back and have already stated planning for my next trip to visit again all my new and old friends that I have made here.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Mansehra for lunch

I left at 8:30 this morning fully packed for 10 days in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The plan was to visit the 11 sponsored children and then visit the earthquake restoration efforts being undertaken by Plan Pakistan. The 3 hour drive north was uneventful when one considers the near misses and averted head on collisions which are a daily part of Pakistani life on the roads. Driving to Mansehra is not for novices, it requires great skill while handling the wheel and keeping the other on the car horn. It gets even more challenging when the cell phone rings, and is answered, usually with the hand operating the steering wheel.

Most roads in northern Pakistan are 2 lane affairs with a reasonable curb lane on each side for pedestrians, carts, dogs, bicycles, and even a few chickens. While in North America this road style works well and the rules are often respected, in Pakistan, where traffic rules seem not to exist, the 2 lane/2 direction road often becomes a 4 lane/1 direction highway. It is not rare to come around a blind corner and experience 2 to 3 lanes of horn-blaring traffic coming straight at you. As you can see by the fact that I am writing today, most survive this experience and arrive home safely but accidents are common and usual quite disastrous.

I am fortunate that most of my transportation is in air conditioned vehicles or aircon as it is called here. Those, that are less privileged, count on open door aircon where passengers, and sometimes the driver, drive with their car doors swinging open and hang their bodies outside of the vehicle for maximum cooling effect.

We arrive at the Plan office in Mansehra unscathed and I receive a warm welcome from some of my old friends from last year's visit. I am then ushered into the Director's office who informs me that the political situation has deteriorated significantly in the region now that some of the children, who were killed in the recent Red Mosque attack, are being returned to their villages for burial. I am told that most Plan personnel have left the area temporarily until the situation calms down and that those staying are keeping their heads down by not leaving the premises and by travelling in taxis rather than by Plan vehicle when making necessary journeys. The end result of this conversation was that I had to return to Islamabad and that I would not be meeting the sponsored children nor would I be travelling into the villages to see the reconstruction efforts. But, all was not lost, as I would have lunch first.

The Plan Mansehra office is very fortunate to have an in-house cook who makes the most delicious meals and lunch was no exception. I chowed down with the Director until stuffed. Lunch was followed by a long discussion on Pakistan affairs particularly affairs of the NWFP and the ongoing violence in the region. It was an eye-opening discussion and I learned much about political affairs from the perspective of those living in the region. These perspectives are vastly different, and sometimes opposite to those opinions that we read daily in our newspapers and it was enlightening to hear these views.

I also learned about Plan's activities in the area, especially in regards to construction of new schools to replace the approximately 2,000 schools that were destroyed in the earthquake. I was very pleased to learn that Canada is at the forefront of the school rebuilding with the involvement of CIDA, the head of which in Pakistan, I recently had dinner with. The new schools, while slow in deployment due to design issues, are now full speed ahead and should soon improve the educational resources for children, especially for girls who traditionally have limited access to school.

Lunch and conversations over, I said goodbye to my hosts and returned to Islamabad with my Plan driver.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Charlie Colony, Islamabad

Today was my first sponsored child visit with my hosts, Plan Pakistan. After an orientation session, and obligatory tea, at the Plan offices in Pakistan where I learned that there are over 20,000 children sponsored by Plan in Pakistan, we left for Charlie Colony, a Christian slum in Islamabad.
Arriving in the slum with an entourage of Plan workers we soon gathered a small crowd of curious people. They followed us everywhere we went, losing a few and gaining more. The most obvious observation on my arrival was that there are a lot of children and very little to do, especially considering that it is a school holiday and almost every parent has left to work in their low status jobs. It is explained to me that, if you are from the slums, then good paying jobs are not available for you. Most work in sanitation or household worker jobs. The other reason for the large numbers of children is the birth rate, an average of 6 children per family. Birth control is rarely an option here despite the efforts of aid workers.

I learned, while walking to meet the sponsored child, Adeela, that Plan works with several other on the ground aid organizations in the slum who provide front line services to the people. Their focus is on education, health & nutrition, and developing micro financing to support small entrepreneurial enterprises. One such enterprise was a stall serving hot vegetarian meals, primarily to children, who need good nutrition the most. I was served a plate while a large crowd looked on. It was delicious and I expressed my approval to the owners delight. I was also introduced to his wife who, apparently, was the brains behind the scheme and held the purse strings. You know what they say- that behind every good man....

We also stopped at one of the small Christian churches that could be found throughout the slum to meet several of the front line workers. It was stiflingly hot in the small church and I sweated profusely while listening to the introductions and explanations of the work that they were doing. Before leaving they picked up some drums and other musical instruments and did a song for me. Again the simpleness and kindness of these small gestures struck me deeply and reminded me why I have chosen these endeavours for my travels.

After walking through several dirt covered alleyways we arrived at the home of Khaleed, the father of Adeela. He was home because he had lost a leg in an accident and could not work. His wife was out at work and Adeela and her brother were there looking out for him. I was an honoured guest in their 2 room home. I was given a seat in the bedroom, about 8x8 in size, where Adeela's father was reclining on the bed and we had a chat about Adeela and her life. She is 11 years old and in grade 4. She is very striking with very intelligent eyes. Overcoming her initial embarrassment of having such guests she quickly relaxed and told some of her story with the help of an interpreter. She hopes to be a teacher of children one day. We chatted a while longer and then went outside for photos. After taking some photos she presented me with some gifts of drawings that she made for me to give to her Cowichan sponsors.

We left, back the way we came, stopping to see a Plan sponsored water pump providing fresh water to the community; a street side barber giving a local man a shave- a risky business considering the sharpness of the razor and the proliferation of Hepatitis B on the community; another micro financed business- a vegetable stand that had no vegetables this day, and a portable Ferris wheel that children could ride for 2 rupees (4 cents) a go.

After long goodbyes, we left the sights, sounds, and children of Charlie Colony.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Dateline Islamabad, Pakistan

Arriving at the Islamabad international airport after a long sleepless night I was herded into the arrivals area. Various signs directed me and my horde into the appropriate queues as per our nationality, citizenship, and gender. I was classified a foreigner and lined up accordingly. The air was sticky with humidity and soon soaked my clothing as I did the slow shuffle forward. After half an hour and an advancement of about 10 inches I realized that the signs meant nothing and I jumped ship and lined up in the Pakistani citizens column. This speeded matters up somewhat and a half hour later I was at the luggage carousel waiting the arrival of my gear. Half an hour more- no luggage!. It turns out that I had been misdirected to the wrong carousel. Moved to another one, found my bags and exited into the bedlam of the Islamabad arrivals area. Picture this- walking through the exit doors one is faced with a sea of expectant faces, 200 across and 10 deep, all wearing similar clothes and all gesticulating loudly. I heard my name above the din and was quickly whisked away by my Islamabad hosts, Michael and his son James.

Leaving the airport parking lot I was soon drinking in the sights and sounds of Pakistan. There seems to be no rules in Pakistan, especially on the roads. If it has wheels it is allowed to roll and, if it has the space, it is filled to capacity. We were quickly engulfed in a mass of moving vehicles, small scooters, smoke belching buses, vastly overloaded 'jingle' trucks, and pedestrians weaving through and dodging the motorized madness. The roadsides were full of people, mostly men squatting as is the fashion here, seemingly waiting for something that might never happen nor appear. Every couple of hundred feet stands a soldier or a police officer armed with whatever weapon was available (I have told that they have to provide for their own weapon and uniform besides being paid almost nothing).

A couple of hours after landing I was lounging beside a pool at the Canadabad Club, inside the heavily guarded international embassy's compound walls, drinking an ice cold imported beer surrounded by the sounds of an artificial waterfall cascading behind me. The incongruency of the situation almost overwhelmed me as James told me the story of a recent party at the 'club' where the guests were entertained with the distant sounds of gunfire and explosions when government forces attacked the Red Mosque and it's determined defenders.

James and I left the compound later in the afternoon to pick up his dad's car which was having some bodywork done. We were dropped off by embassy vehicle at what I call 'bodywork avenue', a street lined with bodywork stalls. Stalls not shops since all the work was done on the street and the stalls seemed to be for tea and social gatherings only. The smell of paint hung in the air as workers hammered, sanded, and painted their ongoing projects. Meanwhile others stripped vehicles for every part that can re reused when called upon. 5,000 rupees later ($100)and we were on the road back to the diplomatic compound.

Pakistan is a very troubled country at the present time, especially since the destruction of the nearby Red Mosque. The most recent development was the President's recent ruling to re-instalment an important official. As we drove near the presidential compound crowds were gathering to celebrate the news. Police and the army were also gathering in large numbers to counter any demonstrations that might turn violent. A strange welcome to a person arriving from a country where demonstrations are quite often polite affairs.

We got through the gathering crowds safely and made it back to the compound without difficulty. Later we had a formal sit down dinner with other embassy folks, dining on Alberta beef, BC smoked salmon, and drinking Moosehead beer. Outside monsoon rains were falling and the sky was lit by flash lightning that lasted all night. Falling asleep as sat I (intelligently) decided to hit the sack. I tried to read for a while but kept dropping the book on my face until I gave up and slept the sleep of the dead.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Wales on another cloudy day

The sun came out at 8:13 this morning (and then left, again, for the rest of the day) just as I started my bowl of porridge, organic I might add. Hot and steaming, delivered to the table by my unsmiling aunt with an "all right?", the welsh 'hello'. I am staying at my aunt and uncle's house, the house they have lived in for over 40 years and raised 4 children in. My work this week is to meet all the relatives, a near impossible task considering that the Fletcher/Griffiths clan has been in the area since Celt became a feared word, and a daunting task considering that my father had 11 siblings and many of them since have also had many children. Ten of the original 12 have already left this earth leaving stories and legends in their wake. Take for example Gil & Jeryl, my uncle and aunt, and my hosts, they have spawned 4 who in turn have spawned 19 and they in turn are now delivering more fresh faced Fletcher's on a regular basis. Complicating matters further are divorces, adoptions, and so on. Many have just simply disappeared. It is an almost impossible task. One cousin, Denise, who matches me in age, and was my playmate during childhood visits, has been working on the family history for most of her life. She has now traced the Griffiths side back to the 1700's. Wouldn't you know it that some of the departed have been politicians and activists. One, James Griffiths, became a very famous British politician. His brother a well known poet. Another, Thomas Fletcher, was a local councillor. How life repeats itself!

Rhydaman, or Ammanford in Welsh, is a small town of 20,000, not unlike Cowichan in many ways. It is set in a beautiful valley surrounded by farm and pasture patchwork hills (they call them mountains here) and dotted with remnants of the coal mining past. My grandfather worked the mines here and likely most of the males before him did likewise.

Unfortunately, much of the beer here is warm and lacking in any pizazz. One brand is called Brains, go figure eh! I buy my beer in the bottle out of the little fridge that most pub's have for the itinerant traveller. I am often viewed with disdain when I ask "what's cold" and with even greater disdain when I ask for the German beer. This all passes quickly when I am asked where I am from, and I announce, Canada. Not surprisingly, I have been asked if I know so and so from Toronto. I lie and say I do, to the great merriment from those that know better. The welsh are fun loving, tough people that love a good joke. Their humour is most refreshing and easy to participate in much like our First Nation neighbours in Cowichan.

I leave Wales for Pakistan this Thursday. I am excited about visiting Pakistan again and have been asked to do a slide show for the Islamabad Camera Club a day or so after my arrival. I am looking forward to this and especially to Monday when I travel back to Mansehra to be reunited with my friends from last year. So far visits have been arranged for 9 of the 12 Cowichan sponsored children and I am hoping that I will meet all 12. I will be staying at the Plan guest house just outside of Mansehra. My hopes of travelling up the Karakoram Highway may not materialize as my Pakistan contact has not returned my emails for the last few weeks. It will be difficult to justify 6 weeks in Mansehra considering that most sponsors visit their children just for one day and then they are gone. It will be interesting what the results of this potential change in plan might result in. Also the 'troubles' are resulting in a lot of areas being closed to travellers and the embassy staff are sure to give me dire warnings about even venturing from the safety of their compound where I will be staying for a few days with my friend, the Canadian Trade Commissioner to Pakistan.

I will try to keep the blog up to date and post photos if I can find a way to do it but computers are slow here and caterpillar-like in Pakistan. I will do my best. If I do disappear for a while, it is simply due to lack of access.

Well, enough for today. Off for a latte, Welsh style (translation- awful!)