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.