Freelance from disaster zone - almost
My 23-year-old cousin, a medical resident at the McGill University Health Centre, left on a relief mission this afternoon with three other doctors from Toronto.
They are to meet four other docs in Islamabad, buy some medical supplies, and then head for remote areas impacted by the quake.
I found out about this mission after I got home from school around 4.30 pm on Thursday. My instincts told me I had to go.
At some point in life, I'm probably going to have to report from a disaster zone, so why not get an early start? Plus, I probably won't get another chance to go with someone I know and on top of that, I'm somewhat familiar with the country, I know the language and culture, and I can blend in pretty easily and hopefully get people to open up.
So I quickly made mental notes. 1) Check demand 2) Airplane ticket 3) Visa 4) Shots 5) Equipment 6) How to get to Toronto for the 5 pm flight the next day 7) Informing the department about my absence
I called a friend (and ex-mentor from my summer internship) at a major daily and got advice. Yes, there probably would be demand for stories from there. And anything I learn by spending two weeks in a disaster zone would probably be much more valuable than what I learn in two weeks (16 hours of class), he said.
Then I called a radio producer in Montreal. Similar reply on demand and I got some tips on what to look for.
I got a friend who has contacts with the travel agency the docs got their tickets from and I got a quote for $1950 return, tax included. Not bad, considering the flight was within 24 hours.
I was also lucky to strike a blogging deal and get a $1,000 endorsement.
Getting the visa was going to be a quick affair, according to my cousin who had gotten his the same day.
My cousin was to get his vaccination shots the next day in Toronto. I could do the same.
This was working well. My heart started to beat faster.
My dad was cautious yet open. He resisted a bit at first - I wouldn't be able to handle the situation, he said. No power, no infrastructure, rotting corpses, tents, rugged terrain, and no toilets, let alone running water.
(I got word from my cousin that there have been landslides lately so many roads are blocked, which means the use of donkeys or maybe horses.)
But any disaster I end up going to later on would be similar and you learn best when you're thrown right into it (as I learned over the summer), I argued. He agreed.
I never got to the equipment part though.
I've made a commitment that's going to last at least another 12 days or so. I thought of ditching it, but I came to the conclusion that doing so would be wrong and unfair.
So that was that. Plus, I just signed up for the CAJ and haven't received my press pass yet. Believe me, I need that press pass in Pakistan. No Pakistani official will believe that I'm a reporter if I were to tell them that. It worked here (I spent the summer here without a pass) but it won't work there.
Today, I got word that my brother-in-law, also a doctor, is heading to Kashmir on Sunday with medical supplies donated by the hospital he's affiliated with in the US of A.
If only I could tag along.
Update: My cousin and brother-in-law are both in Pakistan now. The former is reportedly near Balakot and the latter in the Kashmiri capital of Muzzafarbad. There were two strong aftershocks today, triggering mud slides and cutting off roads leading into Balakot and potentially claiming more lives. My relatives are on edge, as making contact with the two is difficult. I'm getting a taste of what it'll be like back home if and when I'm sent off to cover a disaster. Hopefully, I'll be able to keep a satellite phone handy.