In solidarity of Україна (Ukraine)

September 7, 2014

Friends and Colleagues in Ukraine – 2007

Friends and Colleagues in Ukraine – 2007

My red-eye last night over the Atlantic from London to New York was not flight I wanted to catch, but due to lack of seats on earlier flights I booked it with an overnight stay in Newark before heading off to Dallas.

I was one of the first to board the plane and I was shocked at the small size of the aircraft, namely a Boeing 757-200. As I entered I could see the plane end-to-end. It had two rows of seats of three either side. The business class was tiny and I could see into the cockpit.

I walked down to Row 23 and took my aisle seat, which is my preferred seating. My wife Melissa loves the window seats, alas she was not travelling with me today. When I checked in online I saw that the window seat on my row was occupied and the middle seat was empty, so I was praying to the gods it remained so.

As the plane began filling up my travel companion came and sat down in the window seat. He looked flustered to say the least.

"I thought I was going to miss the flight," he looked at me and offered in an American accent.

"Where are you coming from?" I asked.

"Kiev, I had to run from the flight from Munich with only a 30 minute gap," he replied.

After he settled down I started conversing with him.

"Were you anywhere neat the fighting in the east?" I quizzed thinking he was some government or military personnel.

"No I was in the west around Lviv," he answered.

"Business or personal?" I asked further, beginning to sound like an interrogator.

"Aah! not business I am tracing my Ukrainian ancestors," He replied.

"Oh wow! that's brilliant, were you born there?" I questioned.

"No, no I am third generation born in the US," he offered.

He continued to tell me how his grandparents had emigrated to the US and Baltimore in the early twentieth century. He was trying to trace further back where his family came from and or went from outside Lviv.

"Where are you headed?" he asked me.

"I am off to Dallas," I replied.

"I love Dallas, but not the football team, Ravens are my team who play tomorrow. Are you on vacation?" He continued.

"Oh! I am not much of an American football l fan, soccer is my game," I responded

"And I am going home to see my wife,"

We continued to talk about Ukraine and I told him about my short work assignment in Kremenchuk, a mining city four hours south-east of Kiev.

He explained to me how he had traced 900 of his relatives from his grandparents villages outside Lviv. He was planning to reach 1500 and he had subscribed to Ancestry.com. He explained that as he was finding more relatives and lineage data he was updating Ancestry.com. He said that this trip was his first and now that he had made contacts he was going to be able to conduct his research from the US, without too much of a need to travel back to Ukraine.

We talked about Ukrainian cuisine, and I mentioned to him Borscht soup which he grew up on. Although the Borscht he grew up on was slightly different to the one dished up in Ukraine. I also talked about salo another Ukrainian dish that I remembered from my tenure out there. But most of all we talked about how much and how hard the Ukrainians drank their vodka or Horika. One brand I recalled seeing was Nemiroff which flashed a recognition in my companion's eyes.

He further explained to me how many of the villagers asked him, not in a demanding way but with sadness and sincerity, "Will Obama help us?"

He did not know what to say, because he knew it wasn't a yes. He dodged the question as best as possible without disheartening people too much.

I have a soft spot for Ukraine and it's people. My time out there was most enjoyable and memorable. I found the people to be very friendly and welcoming. I enjoyed International Women's Day weekend during 2007 in Kremenchuk, where eating, drinking and merriment was had by all. I further visited Kiev during May Day celebration that year and the city was alive to say the least.

My companion explained how his grandmother rued the day when in 1994 Ukraine signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and gave up its nuclear arsenal. I asked him why.

"Well, she said that it would leave Ukraine open to threats from other nations and especially the imperialist ambitions of Russia," he explained.

"And she was right, Russia is chipping away and taking Ukrainian land, where does it stop?"

"Yeah! I think the west has to make a stance and help Ukraine as much as they can. Diplomacy is the only way, we certainly don't want a full-scale war in Eastern Europe," I explained.

"I have a feeling nothing will happen and Obama will do nothing, because he does not know what to do," he replied.

"Russia could take in Kiev in  weeks and Putin knows it, hence he is doing what he is doing," I offered.

We continued to make small talk as he showed me pictures of his family's village in Ukraine. He showed me cemeteries he visited to find ancestors. After being served dinner we both took to our private solace, he watched a movie and I listened to music.

I was happy to meet this man who had traveled to the land of his ancestors to trace his roots and in the face of adversity such as war. He was doing a commendable task of updating Ancestry.com for anyone from his family to be able to trace their lineage. He was in his own way recording history.

Our flight was pleasant and we landed just before 9pm in New York. We said our farewells as I took the line to the visitor immigration section.

"Enjoy the game tomorrow and I hope the Ravens win," I offered.

"Thank you and enjoy Dallas," he replied.

To all those people I came across in Kremenchuk, I wish them safety and well-being. I further wish the people of Ukraine a peaceful resolution to the current crisis.

Worlds Apart, Brothers in Arms

February 15, 2014

Sacrificial Goat

Sacrificial Goat

It was winter 1989, I had turned twenty in November and two months ago had started my three-year finance degree in London. I decided to visit Bangladesh as my parents had flown out there a couple of months ago. My parents place in Bangladesh had two buildings, one which had been rented by a Hindu family headed by the eldest brother called Narayan. They had been renting for the last five years and it would be another twenty odd more before they moved out. Narayan's personal story I will write another time but this one also includes him too.

During my trip, Narayan was visiting his family and asked if I would like to join him in south eastern Bangladesh, in the district of Chittagong. The main purpose of his visit was to celebrate the Hindu festival of sacrifice known as Bali. My mother was worried sick because I would be seen as an outsider and certain parts of Bangladesh even today are like the Wild West. I re-assured both my parents I would be OK and with a small backpack left for the city port of Chittagong by train. We took an overnight four berth cabin, shared with two other passengers from Sylhet train station.

Our railway journey began in the chaotic atmosphere of the station to buy our tickets. Once that was accomplished we pushed and shoved our way on board the ancient 1950's diesel run locomotive. We had some tea and biscuits as our evening meal that were being sold by a young boy walking up and down the carriages. Shortly afterwards two other men came in to our carriage to occupy the third and fourth bunks. We spoke to them briefly and before we all turned in for the overnight clickety-clack train ride south, one of the men locked the door from inside and further tied the door with hessian rope as tightly as he could from within.

"You can't be too careful, there are thieves everywhere and god willing we will not be boarded by armed bandits during night," he warned and lay down on his bunk.

There were many horror stories of gun-wielding bandits holding up night trains and buses robbing the passengers, killing the drivers or worse. I fell asleep with a lump in my stomach and being a light sleeper I was up every hour. Relief came about as we pulled into Chittagong railway station early next morning. After Narayan had finished some chores in Chittagong city centre we took a baby-taxi or tuk-tuk out into a rural village where his parents resided.

In the countryside my heart lightened as the emerald greens of the tropical foliage blew my mind away. Peace, serenity and calmness washed over me, an experience I get whenever I am surrounded by tropical flora and fauna. Our only distraction was the buzzing noise of the two-stroke engine from our ride. We arrived at Narayan's parent's house, a two-storey building constructed of mud and wood in the late 1960's. The building was pukka to say the least, the interior cool with the heat being kept out by the thick  mud walls. His parents were delighted to see me, as they had last seen me in 1987 when they visited Sylhet.

It was only his parents at home as all of Narayan's siblings had moved to Sylhet and one brother had moved to Kolkata, India. We had a light breakfast before resting from our train ride. We spent the day with me accompanying Narayan visiting friends and relatives in the village. After our evening meal under oil lanterns we took to our beds, with mine on the first floor.

The next day we were awoken by two alarm clocks, one was natural and one man-made. The cockerel in the yard began his cock-a-doodle-do and was swiftly followed by the muezzin's prayer calls from the village mosque. After breakfast we packed and headed to catch a bus to Narayan's in-laws village. The journey was cramped, hot, dusty and sweaty. By the time we arrived at his in-laws I was tired, hungry and thirsty, and I looked as if I had just come out of a trek through a jungle.

As Narayan and I walked up the path to the house of his relatives a teenage girl, probably seventeen or eighteen came running up the path and greeted him. She stopped for a while and stood frozen staring at me, she then broke her gaze and asked Narayan who I was, he smiled and explained I was a guest from London. She blushed, took hold of his bags and ran back the way she had come, barefeet and her pony-tail tied hair bouncing away. Narayan looked at me and smiled but did not say anything. I did not realise what had just happened until a few seconds later as my grey matter began to whir into gear.

Narayan's father-in-law greeted us in the yard, he was a short stocky man with dark Dravidian features and complexion. He had was wearing a lunghi, Bengali sarong and a white a-shirt. His lunghi was tied up to his knees and looked ready for work. I shook his hand and said "adab". Adab was a secular greeting between Muslims and Hindus in Bangladesh, and as I was the former I would not use "Assalamu Alaikum" nor would I use "Namaste".

Narayan's father-in-law was not expecting me and to say that he was honoured to have me attend his house and village during the festival of Bali was an understatement. Even though the yard was thronging with people waiting for the festivities to begin, he fell over himself to make sure I was comfortable and happy. He ordered one of his workers to get me some towels so that I could have a shower in the pond behind the house. So as I went to have a shower the villagers and the Pundit (priest) were preparing for the Bali. I did not have a clue about Bali and was just going with flow of everything enjoying the sights the sounds and festivities.

After I showered I came back to the yard which was now cleared at one end near the Mandir (temple) without standing space anywhere else. I squeezed into a position with my back against the mud wall of the main house and all I could see were men and boys with the odd young girl, but  no women. I was told that Bali was a festival of sacrificing an animal, especially goats. At the cleared end of the yard next to the Mandir two curved wooden posts were inserted into the soft earth. The man who would carry out the sacrifice cleaned and sharpened a curved sword-like implement which was about a metre long.  Finally he ran a lime along the blade edge and then the sacrifices began.

The first sacrifice of the day was brought over. A pale green pumpkin was placed between the two wooden posts and swiftly the man brought down the blade onto the pumpkin slicing it in two. Another man grabbed one half of the pumpkin dunked it in a pail of water, walked into the Mandir and placed it on an altar.

Next it was a duck whose feet and wings were held back with the head placed between the wooden posts, then a small pole to hold down the bird's head. Again after a swipe of the lime on the blade the man swung down and severed the head of the duck. As the duck's head was dunked in water and taken into the Mandir, the carcass with wings flapping was flung into the crowd and in my direction, landing squarely on my chest. The blood splattered on my shirt as a yell went out from Narayan's father-in-law who admonished the person who threw the body of the duck at me. The guys standing around me offered,

"It is considered lucky to have the blood of the sacrifice on you," smiling at me.

Without further ado the sacrifice continued and this time a large black goat was brought forward. The goat had its front and hind legs pulled back with its head placed between the wooden posts. The Pundit then came up touched the goat and from what I could gather said a prayer and stepped back. The man with the blade then swung up and down, the blade severed the goats head in one fell swoop. The goat's head was treated akin to the pumpkin and duck and taken into the Mandir. The sacrifices continued into the afternoon with more goats being taken through the same process.

After the sacrifices the animals were prepared by local butchers. Narayan, me, his father-in-law and other menfolk sat around drinking tea and eating biscuits. I was treated like the guest of honour and my needs were always being tended for. I felt a bit embarrassed that me being here was causing Narayan's relatives such hard work and effort. He conveyed this to his father-in-law, who replied,

"We never have guests from London and one that is close to my son-in-law. I will not hear any more of your concerns, we are happy to have you with us today," he beamed the brightest and biggest smile I had seen to date.

That night we feasted on goat curry, vegetables, breads, rice, yoghurt and washed down with Coca Cola that Narayan's father-in-law had his son purchase from the bazaar just for me. I literally did not do anything apart from sit and eat and enjoy, my plate was never empty as multiple people would serve me. Eventually I had to raise my hands and say no as I was beginning to feel like Jabba The Hutt. Then late into the night we talked, joked and laughed, people joined us and some left for the night. Eventually I was shown to my bed where I slept peacefully.

Following morning was time for us to go and shortly after a breakfast of flat bread, vegetables, tea and biscuits we said farewell. Even though I had never met Narayan's father-in-law and I never saw him and his family again the kindness, generosity and hospitality afforded to me was heartwarming to say the least.  What struck me most was that here I was a total stranger and a Muslim at that, yet Narayan's in-laws opened their hearts and home to me, including me in one of their religious festivals.

Our lives could not have been more different but for that brief moment in the sands of time we were family.

Family & Friends

July 31, 2013

It was early July this year and I was going out to Surrey, England for the day. My train was leaving from Waterloo station.

Upon picking up my tickets from a self-service machine I made my way over to the Costa Coffee outlet midway on the station concourse. I queued up and when served I ordered my usual cappuccino accompanied by a chocolate twist pastry.

I looked outside the shop for a seat and spotted a vacant chair at a circular table in a tiny corner. I made my way over to the seat and noticed an elderly gentleman seated opposite to the vacant chair. I asked him if the seat was taken and he nodded to indicate that it was free.

As I sipped my coffee I became more aware of the man. He looked to be a couple of decades older than me and was looking down at his coffee cup drinking without raising his gaze. He wore a dark blazer and trousers with one leg crossed over the other. He wore thick milk-bottle top glasses and his grey hair was wispy and thin on the scalp. Looking at him he gave the impression of a lost soul in the big city that is London.

"Hello, how are you?" I asked.

"Not bad," the man replied, unsure as to why this stranger was conversing with him.

"Going anywhere nice?" I continued.

"I'm going to Bradford-on-Avon for the day," He offers.

"That sounds nice, are you visiting friends and family out there?" I inquire.

"No, I'm from Rotherhithe, my doctor has told me go out and spend time outside of London," he explained.

This response was the floodgate for the man and he then went on to tell me about himself, his family and why his doctor had recommended that he go out to the country.

His name was Alan and he was 65 years of age. His mother had passed away recently and he had taken over the tenancy of the apartment he had shared with her. Alan was a born and bred Londoner and was feeling extremely lonely as his family was dwindling away, compounded by the loss of his brother a few years back. His friends were also slowly passing away. His doctor had recommended that he take days out into the country just to break up the monotony of living in an inner city borough. I guessed it was also a tonic for the man's mental health and wellbeing.

"Hello Alan, how are you mate?" we were interrupted by a National Rail customer service agent.

She walked over to Alan and asked him if he had his tickets for the train to Bradford-on-Avon. He replied that he did have his tickets and his train was leaving at 10:30am. The agent told Alan that she would be back later ensure he got on the train and went on her way.

"London and the people living in it are not what they used be," Alan continued.

"Would you like to share my pastry?" I offered twisting the pastry in half and giving it to Alan.

He initially hesitated then took it and bit a piece off.

"Nobody talks to anyone these days, everyone's busy to talk to anyone and it's too fast," Alan stated breaking me out of my train of thought.

"I don't like it at all," He shook his head sadly whilst taking a sip of his coffee.

"I agree, it just seems that every year that goes by daily life speeds up just a little bit more, with no time to catch your breath," I replied.

He looked up at me now and asked, "So where do you live?"

I explained to him that I lived across the river from him in Tower Hamlets, and that having lived there since 1979 I have seen a lot of the changes in the city-scape as well as the make-up of its citizens.

"How old are you then?" He asked.

"Forty three," I replied.

"And what's your star sign?" He probed.

I smiled at his question and his inquisitiveness, "I'm a Scorpio".

"I'm a Virgo," He offered.

I got a feeling that his spirits had lifted a bit and was enjoying the conversation we were engaged in.

The customer service agent returned and explained to Alan that another agent would come by and escort him to his train. He thanked the lady as she went about her duties.

I asked him what he was going to be doing in Bradford-on-Avon. He explained that he found the town to be quieter and more serene than the tourist ridden city of Winchester, Salisbury and others in Wiltshire. He went on to say that he was going to have some lunch and a drink at a pub and return before the end of the day.

I then asked him how much money he had to spend. I knew this was a risky question that could go very wrong, but asked anyway. He shifted in his chair and said he had a ten pound note.

"If you don't mind Alan, I'd like to give you this," I drew out a twenty pound note and slid it across the table into his left hand, conscious of not wanting to attract attention. Alan took it and slipped it into his left trouser pocket.

"Have a nice lunch Alan and a few beers when you're out there today," I continued.

"Thank you," he replied with smiling eyes.

I then bid farewell to Alan and shook his hands, wishing him a great day out in the country and headed towards the train platforms.

My encounter with Alan was one of those moments for me that stopped me in my tracks, to "smell the roses". It made me realize that life can and does take twists that we can sometimes never prepare for. Goodness knows what the full story is behind Alan, however for me it hit home the importance of living in the here and now.

It made me further realize how important friends and family are to me. It made me appreciate the support , the companionship and love that they give without question that brighten my days. It made me think about pausing, putting away my to-do-list and savoring those precious moments with those closest to me. Even though I may not see my friends and family every day, every week or every month. They are always there in my heart and mind.