Sindh Province, Pakistan - The first things you notice are the flies. They form what looks like a buzzing black crust on children's lips, eyes and foreheads. The children are either too tired to keep brushing them away or too used to them to bother.
"We have terrible problem with flies," 50-year-old Khuda Jatoi says in Sindhi, the local language here. Everyone here is suffering from something. Still, the moment they see us, everyone scrambles to find a suitable place for us. Someone is trying to find a chair for us to sit down. Father Khuda Joti is insisting on giving us tea or sending someone to buy a cold drink. We are guests in his makeshift shelter, and he wants to give us the best of what he has. We cannot bring ourselves to take anything from him. He and his family have lost nearly everything they own.
They are victims of the worst floods Pakistan has ever seen, and yet they are trying to make us comfortable. That keeps happening everywhere we go. The day before, in a school-turned-clinic, a few ladies who had survived the floods handed me a "hair catcher" because they could see that I was sweating profusely, and they wanted to make me more comfortable. At the same time, the men kept fanning us with brightly colored hand fans. It makes me feel both ashamed about how much I have and don't appreciate, and inspired by the kindness that is clearly being extended with no expectation of anything in return.
When we ask about their troubles, the entire clan begins to talk at once. Suddenly we are surrounded by children, women, fathers, uncles, aunts, cousins and grandfathers - all members of the large extended family. They have taken refuge in a small school that the family broke into and turned into an unofficial shelter. They have nowhere else to go.
"We were drowning in the water," one family member says. We couldn't hear much else as the sound of all those voices began to weave together in a suffocating quilt made of despair.
We tried to quiet everyone so that we could have a conversation. They told us their sorrows and spewed anger at authorities for giving too little too late.
Then, something happened that makes me cringe. One of the women in the crowd asked that I take the tiny baby girl I was cooing at. She said the baby would have a better life with me. I wasn't sure I heard her correctly until the actual mother of the baby girl said it. I stood there silent, my brain churning so furiously it was as if it was looking for the right answer to a test from the Almighty. How am I supposed to answer that question? What is the right answer? Is there a right answer?
There have been plenty of days in my line of work where I imagined gathering up all the suffering children and taking them with me - at least I would know that they would have food to eat and books to read. But I never really considered actually taking a baby from the arms of its mother, even if asked. In this case, the family has been so traumatized, I told myself it was just their fear and anxiety talking.
I left with only my notepad and camera in my hand and another of life's difficult questions swirling in my head.