Archive by Author
August 22, 2014

Dealing with Desperation at…Home

She held out a dirty and partially crumpled piece of paper at me, and she pleaded, she wailed, she begged.

“What should I do? What will become of my son? My little innocent boy whose only crime was to be born poor!”

Boys running into the Indian Ocean at Clifton Beach

Boys running into the Indian Ocean at Clifton Beach, Karachi

The paper in her hand was not an arrest warrant but it might as well have been, indicting me, charging me with a crime I know I’ve committed, always committed and probably always will commit till the end of my days, and then my crime will live on in my heirs after I’m gone, so I will continue to commit it from the grave.

Her face was swept with ridges of pain like many sand dunes on a desert of suffering. I guessed the faded leathery hide through which her eyes peered and mouth made pitiful noises had been beaten by the sun for perhaps forty years, though she looked a good fifteen years older. Dark and cracked, hers was a face that tells the story of hard living, a life of uncertainty and less. Less food. Less mercy. Less pity. Less love. Less everything. Over time such a life leaves many people less human, which only exacerbates and accelerates the downward spiral that is the signature of poverty the world over.

When I look in the mirror, I know I’m guilty. The plump, coddled, wrinkle-free face looking back is so obviously guilty. Again I glance down at the paper in her hand. One of the crumpled corners points an accusatory finger up at me. “Him!” – “That’s all it needs to say, like the witness testifying in court – “It was him!”.

Naturally this is making me uncomfortable. I wish this woman wasn’t standing in front of me, wasn’t reminding me of my guilt. I’m not an expert criminal yet. Even though I always get away, I feel bad about it. Of course, the crime I speak of is being somewhat wealthy in a world full of crippling poverty, and it always weighs on my conscience. So I look away, side step the beggar woman and walk away. Everyone else ignores the poor and gets away with it, so why should I be the fall guy? I mean if our whole network of criminals was to institute a guilt fee to benefit those born into poverty, like a homeowners’ association has membership dues, I’d be fine with it. I’d even go to the meetings and lobby for a high fee, but I’m not fine with footing the bill by myself. I’m not a fool………although sometimes I have doubts.

Mistake #1 – because of my inexperience dealing with the truly miserable, I had hesitated early in our dance. Before I turned away, her beseeching eyes had caught the look of guilt and discomfort on my face. She knew she was barking up the right tree. This tree will shed some fruit. She cut off my retreat, pleading even harder, trying to shove the paper into my hand – “You have been served” said the paper. I knew I had fucked up. I should have shut her down in the first second as soon as she walked up to me. I’d seen many people have success with “Shut up and get lost! Bother someone else!”. A quick soulless admonishment like that usually got rid of them. No fruit here lady, no humanity either. Bugger off now.

Now I had to pay for my fuckup. It’s only fair. It turns out I am a fool after all, but I’ll do better next time. I learn from my mistakes. I’ll be less of a fool next time.

Fool me once – shame on you. Fool me twice – shame on me.

Actually, I’m kind of relieved. I am probably tens of thousands of times wealthier than this woman. I shall save her sick son, and it will cost me a pittance. To be a hero without any real effort or cost – isn’t that the dream? Committed to this new course of action, I finally face the pitiful, bent-over woman, barefoot and in dirty clothes. “What do you need?”

I already knew the back story from her earlier wailing. She was alone. She had no one except her little boy who was deathly ill. She had used her last rupee to take him to the hospital where the doctor had prescribed medicine, but she had no money to buy it. So she was standing on this street corner at night, close to the pharmacy, prescription in hand, praying to Allah that someone will help save her son.

Her hysterics subsided now that she finally had someone paying her problem attention. She held out the piece of paper, “Here”. The streetlights weren’t very bright and besides I can’t read a doctor’s handwriting to save my life, so I asked more directly “How much does the medicine cost?”

I knew how cheap drugs are in Pakistan, Asia in general really, so I knew it wouldn’t cost much, and I decided immediately that I’d cover the full cost of the medicine. When it’s so cheap, why not cover the whole thing? I wanted the satisfaction of knowing I had single-handedly saved her son. Contributing is for chumps!

“1,430 rupees”

“1,430 rupees! That’s very expensive! What kind of medicine is this?”

“I don’t know son. I’m poor and uneducated. I only know the doctor said this will save his life. His fever is very bad. I don’t think he will survive the night if he doesn’t get it.”

Realizing the size of the hole this lady was in was considerably larger than I had imagined, I quickly decided I couldn’t be her knight in shining armor, and resigned myself to contributing hero (a.k.a. chump) status. “Alright fine, here’s one hundred rupees.” I dug in my pocket and held out a crisp red bill. A red Quaid looked up at me from the note. He said nothing but his expression said “What are you doing?”, which struck me as odd. I had hoped he would be proud of both our roles in my good deed. But I’m a rational man, although sometimes I have doubts about this too, so I resolved not to overthink the meaning behind the facial expression of the dead founder of Pakistan on his tiny red portrait with 100’s on the corners.

Pakistan hundred rupee note

Red Quaid

She didn’t take the money. Acting like this generous offer was an affront, she exclaimed “What will I do with a hundred rupees? My son is dying! He needs the medicine! I’m not a beggar! I wouldn’t beg in a million years but I have no choice. You’re a rich man! PLEASE! Save my boy’s life! I’m begging you! I will pray to Allah for your long and prosperous life! Just please save my son! He’s all I’ve got in this world!”

Swayed by her appeal, ashamed of my own stinginess, and furthermore feeling inadequate because I didn’t have much money on me, I took out all the cash I had, some three hundred rupees, and tried to hand that to her. But she again declined. Holding the prescription paper out to me again, she pointed to the pharmacy only forty feet away and pleaded me to buy her the medicine. “If you leave I will never get the money I need tonight and my son will die! You’re rich. You’re a good, noble man. I know you can help me.”

Again she had swayed me and shamed me. I was getting agitated. This night was turning out very differently than I had envisioned. The plan had been to pick up some nehari and kabab rolls from Khadda Market, near my house in Defense Phase 5, and now I had been sucked into some strange woman’s desperate race to save her son’s live. Fuck me! (and yes, I realize that makes me sound like an asshole)

I had woken up late that day – Karachi seems to bring out the sloth in me. I spent the entire day browsing the newspaper, or watching torrent-ed movies on my laptop, or lying on my living room sofa staring up at the whirling ceiling fan, at least while the electricity stayed on. A fan that doesn’t whirl is rather dull. My brain was half dead when my mother asked me what I wanted for dinner. “Nihari and kabab rolls” I replied. My father volunteered to pick both up from the market and volunteered me to join him, which was a capital idea as I hadn’t stepped outdoors that entire day. We placed the carry-out order at the restaurant next to the pharmacy after which my father and the cashier, who was probably also the owner, exchanged light hearted conversation and joked around like old pals while waiting for the food.

My father has always gotten along with the common Pakistani better than our own class, “good families” and “old money”, which are really one and the same thing (because in Pakistan, families that have old money are automatically “good”). I think this is because as someone who managed textile mills, cast iron foundries and injection molded pipe factories much of his professional life, he spent a lot of time with the blue collar man (and mind you, blue collar means something very different in Pakistan than it does in America). Since I wasn’t able to follow the conversation between my father and the cashier, something about local politics and how some new politician was small minded and making a mess of things whereas his predecessor had been a man of vision and action, I stepped out into the street for fresh air but instead got ambushed by the hysterical lady.

Now I looked through the restaurant window at my father and the cashier/owner. I took a deep breath. What was about to come next would be tricky and unpleasant. I was going to ask my father for the money and he wasn’t going to be happy about it, not because it’s much money, we’re only talking about fourteen US dollars here, but because he’s felt for some time that I’m a big softy and a bit of a fool in that I trust people too much (a fool and his money are soon parted, especially in Pakistan), an impression that I would be reinforcing.

The biggest difference between us is that he was raised in Pakistan, whereas I was raised across three other countries on three different continents, but all gentler places. I admit I’m a pretty trusting person, and it has yet to catastrophically backfire on me as he has always predicted it would. He on the other hand, will tell you that he is wise to the ways of the world, but especially Pakistan, where street smarts count much more than book smarts. Having been raised the second youngest of eight siblings may have also had something to do with it. Four older brothers sounds rough, even before you get to know my uncles. My father’s guiding principle in life is elegantly simple – “Don’t place too much trust in others for they will abuse it, and always look out for yourself”. This is the mantra he tried to inculcate in me, although it never took. Now I had to convince him to give his hard earned money away to a total stranger.

But then the restaurant’s kitchen door swung open and a teenage boy with a pre-pubescent moustache and a generously oiled and combed back head of hair walked two large plastic bags of nehari and naan up to my father by the counter. Big smile farewells were quickly exchanged and bags in hand, my father turned around and walked out towards me.

Khadda Market, Karachi

Khadda Market, Karachi

I knew he had enjoyed his conversation because he was still wearing his big smile when he got to me, but upon seeing the woman standing expectantly by my side, his smile vanished. “What’s going on here?”

I told him. Predictably, he turned to the woman and told her to get lost. I started reasoning with my father, lobbying for the woman. His face was expressionless as he listened, but I felt certain he was a little disappointed inside. But then the woman decided it would be a good idea to chime in so we could double team her sad story at him, and this my father didn’t appreciate. Turning to face her squarely, he said “Stop your bullshit! We’re not owls! Go make a fool of someone else” and he nudged me with his elbow, pointed to the car and said “Let’s go”. I should mention that owl is “ulloo” in Urdu and calling someone an owl means you are calling them stupid, quite the opposite of the West, where the owl is considered wise.

I felt bad about this treatment of the woman and I protested “No! I’m not going anywhere! Why are you so heartless? Even if you’re not going to help her, which you should, do you have to be so mean?”

“Mustafa, you don’t understand. She’s a fraud! This whole thing is a big drama of hers. There is no son, no medicine. She’s a con artist and she’s trying to make a fool of you. Now let’s go home. We don’t want the nihari to get cold or the naan to get dry. This place makes really good naan.”

At this I lost it a little and started shouting at my own father “How can you say she’s a fraud? How can you know? You didn’t even listen to her! She has a doctor’s prescription. She turned down my offer of several hundred rupees which she would have taken if she was a con artist, and she even asked me to buy the medicine directly from the pharmacy, so she wouldn’t have gotten any money from me, only the medicine. You have a problem you know? You only see the bad in people and I’m sick of it!”

At this my father’s face changed. At first there was surprise. He hadn’t expected my emotional outburst. But he’s a quick thinker, I’ll definitely give him that, and he decided the best course of action was a compromise. He moved to the woman and handed her fifty rupees. “What will I do with…?” she began but he cut her off. “This is more than you deserve. If you don’t leave now you won’t even get this.”

“But bhai (brother in Urdu) over there was already giving me more than fifty rupees!” she protested.

“Forget about that. You’re not getting that. You’re only getting this. Here’s fifty more, ok? Now it’s a hundred. Now please forgive us and bother someone else. Go!”

His voice was loud, his tone harsh, incriminatory. She took one last look towards me, then head bowed in defeat, she took the money and slowly walked away. But if my father thought this had resolved our problem, he was mistaken. I was possibly more upset but also a little more composed, resigned. More sad than angry now I asked “Why couldn’t we have just bought her the medicine? It costs nothing. Please just give her the money and I’ll pay you back when we get home.”

“It’s not about the money Mustafa. She’s a fraud. Do you want to reward a fraud? A liar and a cheat?” he was using a soft placating voice, but this bothered me even more. He was talking down to me.

“You keep saying that but you’re wrong! I’m not stupid! She was genuine and her need was real!”

He smiled, “No it was not. She’s a big fraud.”

“YOU KEEP SAYING THAT!! HOW CAN YOU KNOW?” I shouted. Now I was angry again, almost shaking and again I saw a little shock and concern on his face. We were on a public street in front of a restaurant he frequented (and that apparently made the best naan in the area) and I was coming close to causing a scene, something he obviously didn’t want. Less than a shout but still aloud I continued “You didn’t care to hear her out. You judged her guilty without any proof, and you did it just because it’s convenient for you to call her a fraud, because then you don’t have to shoulder the responsibility to help!”

“Mustafa, I heard her out and it was based on that that I judged her a fraud. Why are you being this way? Is it proof you want? Do you want me to prove she’s a fraud?”

“Yes, because you can’t”

“Do you remember her prescription?”


“Describe it to me”

“It looked like an ordinary prescription! What are you talking about?” I blurted in frustration.

“Didn’t it look old, like weeks or months old? Discolored, crumpled, maybe because it was salvaged from the trash or the street after being thrown away?”

Mistake #2 – I should have paid attention. He was right. All of that was true. The prescription was ancient, the writing smudged to the point it would have been illegible even to a pharmacist, and she had said they had been to the hospital that very day. “But she asked me to buy the medicine directly…” I argued feebly, even though I already sensed, nay, knew, that I was on the losing side of this argument.

My father sensed it too, that this mini-crisis was coming to a close. Mustafa was getting off his high horse (more like falling off), and his misplaced humanity fueled hissy fit was almost over. He smiled “Son, come on. She could buy from one pharmacist and sell to another or more likely he’s in on it too. It doesn’t matter. Come, the food will get cold. His naan really is very good” and with that he walked off towards the car, knowing that this time I would follow.

I stood there a while in a befuddled daze. I looked towards the pharmacy. The woman was gone. Of course she was gone. She probably ran several different cons. When it comes to small time cons, diversification and frequent relocation are key to success. Con artists who get lazy get caught.

I suddenly realized I had something in my hand and I looked down. I still held the money. I loosened my grip and Red Quaid’s face reappeared in my palm. The orientation of the bill had changed. Quaid was now looking away from me. He looked……..disappointed.

“I’m trying Quaid. I really am. But sometimes it’s hard to be good in this country you created”

April 28, 2014

Dazed and Confused in Iguazu

Iguazu Falls from Brazil side

Iguazu Falls from the Brazil side

The town of Puerto Iguazu sits atop the Northeastern tip of Argentina on an upwards crooking appendage of land that cusps the bottom of Paraguay and terminates where the Rio Iguaçu runs into the Paraná River at ninety degrees. This T-junction of rivers marks the border between three nations, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

I came here to see Iguazu Falls, one of the world’s most impressive waterfalls (truly!), but became marooned in this sleepy, not-much-going-on town because I needed a visa to proceed into Brazil, and the consulate had shut down for a four day long Easter break just as I arrived. I wound up spending nine nights in Iguazu when most travelers make do with two or three. I passed much of the time reading books I’d found at book exchanges in some of Iguazu’s hostels and cafes, or walking along the lush green and densely forested river bank of the Rio Iguaçu.

Me standing by the Tres Fronteras marker

Me standing by the Tres Fronteras marker

On one such late afternoon walk to the Tres Fronteras (triple border), my ears picked up an unusual sound amid the chirping of many colorful birds and the background noise of the river. I doubted it initially but as I drew nearer, I became certain I was hearing drums. Energetic drums, a charged beat heralding the performance of a holy ritual. Out of sight, a hundred meters of jungle away, men with painted masks and swirling skirts were narrating an ancient epic through dance. A Kathakali performance was underway. Odd, since this is a Hindu art form originating from Kerala (South India) and I’m in South America. Yet strangely, I was fine with this incoherence.

Further down the road I passed a dark skinny man with white hair and a white bushy mustache. He was bent under the weight of the gunny bag he was carrying on his back, which was bursting with tamarind pods. The sharp smell of tamarind reminded me of my childhood in Karachi, climbing the tamarind tree in my great grandfather’s front yard with my cousins and eating so much tamarind that our tummies hurt. But Tamarind is not native to North Argentina. Oh well. I could now see the T-junction of rivers up ahead. Next to me, the Rio Iguaçu was moving urgently, strong ropey currents strangling each other on their way downstream. Over the river, the faint sounds of a song were carrying to my ears and steadily growing louder.

Enda da korangacha, chandi ithra thenjadu?

(Hey Mr. monkey man, why’s your bum so red?)

Pandyill thooran poyappol nerakkamuthiri nerangi njan.

(I went for a shit to Madras, and scraped it till it bled.)

Two identical rowboats came into view, each manned by two shirtless men, a tangled pile of fishing net bulging over the stern giving away the profession of the spirited quartet on board. Leaving aside the ridiculousness of the song (who travels to a different city to take a shit?), why were these fishermen singing in Malayalam, the language of Kerala? Spanish is the language of Argentina and Paraguay, and Brazilians speak Portuguese.

The Rio Iguaçu running into the Paraná River, the border area between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

The Rio Iguaçu running into the Paraná River, the border area between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

Up ahead a dozen children were playing cricket on the street, screaming and squealing with each ball, each run, no matter how ordinary. The score didn’t matter. The joy was in the novelty and amusement of the company, not the game. Perhaps cousins seeing each other after a long time, or for the first time. As I got closer, I spied the house to which the children belonged. Three banana trees stood in the front yard, fenced off by panels of woven palm leaves. A solemn young bride sat framed in the doorway of the house. A wedding! She was surrounded by much larger fisherwomen relatives who were braiding her hair. She was sobbing. They were singing. “Pandoru mukkuvan muthinu poyi” (Once a fisherman went out to sea) it started. It was a sad song sung to girls in preparation for weddings to men they didn’t love. The familial sorrowfulness had the slowing down effect of quicksand. The relatives moved about the gently sobbing bride so lazily that not even a ripple broke the surface of their large, round out-of-sari midriff fat bulges that are typically prone to excessive jiggliness. How is this South America? Nothing is right with this picture.

It was almost 4 o’clock, end of siesta time in Argentina. An old man with smudged sandalwood paste on his forehead woke from his charpoi and staggered to the stove to warm his peppered coconut milk. Kerala again. What is going on? Everything is wrong, and it’s my fault. Worlds have been mixed.

A Kathakali dancer

A Kathakali dancer

You see, I left for this walk immediately after finishing reading The God of Small Things under a tree by the river. Set in Kerala, it is one of the most beautiful novels I’ve read in a long time (and winner of the 1997 Booker Prize). So while my physical journey had brought me to Iguazu, my imagination had caught a train to Kerala, a similarly lush green and densely forested place, but along another river on a different continent. Two halfs of me had been traveling simultaneously but separately, and now found themselves oceans apart.

And I continue to travel this way because I can cover twice the distance in the same amount of time. One half of me travels on metal contraptions that fly through the heavens, float across seas, and roll over the highways and byways of our physical world, while the other half travels on the yellowing pages of warped and coffee stained books found at the back of hostels and cafes that further stoke an already blazing fire of wanderlust.

April 12, 2014

If Voldemort and Smaug had a child…

…it would be a leopard seal.


The second leopard seal I saw was this guy relaxing on an iceberg

Of all the amazing things I saw and experienced in Antarctica, the biggest surprise for me was the leopard seal, an animal that I previously imagined was just a large seal with spots, whereas in fact it’s a dinosaur-sized monster. Polar bears are the world’s largest species of bear and they only go up to ten feet in length. Leopard seals can be as long as twelve feet and weigh 600 kilograms.


The one in the photo above effortlessly swam circles around us while we were in our Zodiac, gliding through the water with the grace of an underwater ballerina. He was quite a show off and reminded me of Smaug, both for his imposing size and his vanity. His nostrils made me think of Voldemort, who has snake-like nostrils instead of a human nose. And he looked evil, cementing his place alongside Smaug and Voldemort, except this villain is real, not made up.


Leopard seals don’t just look evil, they do evil things. The leopard seal above (not my photo) may look like a mean one, but he’s actually a sweetheart. You see, leopard seals sometimes eat their favorite cuts of meat off penguins while they’re still alive and then let the partially-eaten, still living penguin go to die a slow, miserable death without a back or a belly. By tearing the penguin’s head straight off with enough blood and gore to make Quentin Tarantino orgasm, the leopard seal above has ensured this penguin will die a quick and relatively painless death.

I’ve swam with harbor seals before while SCUBA diving in the Pacific Ocean, and I would characterize them as the dogs of the sea. A harbor seal pup came up to me to play and followed me around for 15 minutes of the dive. Curious, playful and cute, the little guy left quite an impression on me, and for a while I imagined all seals were big puppies at heart. Maybe that’s why I had a blind spot for the monstrosity that is the leopard seal, but I’m glad I did. Coming face to face with this marine velociraptor became one of the highlights of my trip to Antarctica! What an animal! (All photos below from web)

Leopard-Seal-Feeds-Photographer-Penguins-650x487 Leopard Seal, Head (Hydrurga leptonyx), South Georgia Island leopard-seal-attacking-penguin

April 11, 2014

Planting a Pakistani flag at el fin del mundo

Ushuaia, the Southernmost city in the world, lies at the tip of South America. The city likes to call itself “fin del mundo” which literally means “end of the world” in Spanish.

I stayed at the popular Cruz del Sur hostel in Ushuaia both before and after my trip to Antarctica. I saw many travelers had painted their country’s flag on the hostel walls, or in some cases thumb-tacked a mini flag to the wall. Since most backpackers are European, most of the flags were also European, with exceptions off course, primarily other South American and Western countries, and Israel – I have noticed Israelis more than any other nationality love putting their flags on things and places. To mix it up a little, using a green marker and some whiteout, I painted the Pakistan flag on the wall above the book exchange.

I think I found a nice, prominent spot for the flag.

A nice, prominent spot for the flag, above the hostel’s book exchange

I ran out of whiteout during the course of painting my masterpiece so the whiteout at the end was dry and granular. The brush also dried up and ceased cooperating so don’t judge me too harshly on it. Anyway, here’s a close up. Representin!

Pakistan flag in Ushuaia

March 31, 2014

Sexying with a Yakuza Cougar in Underground Tokyo

At my last job, there was hardly a day that I did not log onto a Bloomberg Terminal for something or the other, whether it was looking at sovereign bond curves, CDS spreads or commodity prices. One feature that I unexpectedly came to enjoy was Quote of the Day, which is exactly that – a different quote would grace my login screen each day. One of my favorites was this one:

“I was told that whistling wasn’t ladylike, but I knew even then that women were simply not supposed to be that happy.” – anonymous

I was reminded of this at the Couchsurfing monthly meet up in Tokyo. For those that don’t know what Couchsurfing is, this explains it. We were in a small and dimly lit underground bar in Shibuya with splendidly rich décor that wouldn’t have been out of place in Versailles. Only the red walls, smaller space and dim lighting meant it more resembled a high end Parisian brothel where MPs and tycoons might come to understandings between receiving BJs from Polish hookers. There were about 25 people there (in the Tokyo bar, not the French whorehouse), an almost even mix of Japanese, expats, and travelers like us. Colleen and I found ourselves meeting many Japanese and noticed that many women covered their mouth when they laughed. We politely asked someone why that was and our hunch was confirmed – women showing their teeth may be considered vulgar. We saw lots of Japanese womens’ teeth during our three weeks in Japan so clearly not everyone abides by this rule. I met the most interesting non-abider that very night.

Shibuya Bar

Some of the friends we met at the Couchsurfing meet up in Tokyo

Colleen and I had been chatting in a small circle with a male German backpacker and two Tokyo natives, a male fashion designer and a female HR professional. After spending over an hour in this group, I left to get a drink. As the barkeep filled my glass with Sapporo, I took stock of the rest of the party. The place was more crowded and there were many new faces and voices. Sapporo in hand, I thrust myself into the ocean of strangers, fishing for fresh conversation. Angling past the first group to get to the back of the room, I came upon two Japanese women, both of whom looked about 40 (actually 35, but I’ve started adding 5 years to how old I think Asians are because they typically look about that much younger than they actually are). The more attractive of the two flashed me a big inviting smile and offered me her hand. From the beginning it was clear that this was not your traditional shy Japanese woman. She confidently maneuvered into within an inch of me and gave me a firm handshake. As we exchanged names (I forgot hers in the first 5 seconds – there were too many new names that night), my face brushed the luxuriously soft fur lining the collar of her large coat. She was petite but her fashionably oversized coat meant she took up as much room as I did. Like many Japanese, she clearly cared for fashion. From her knee-high boots to her aquamarine silk scarf that tastefully offered a little color to a mostly black ensemble, she looked like she could have stepped out of a magazine. After introductions, with a brazenly toothy smile and large excited eyes gazing into mine, she asked me “Are you here for sexying?”

I noticed she had good teeth, a rarity in Japan, as most Japanese appear to care almost as little for their teeth as the English. WAIT! WHAT? Are you here for sexying!?!? A bit shocked, all I could do was utter “Excuse me?” and lean closer, figuring the loud music might have made me mishear her as we were standing quite close to the speakers. Louder now, and slower, she mouthed her question again, “Are…You…Here…For…Sexying?”

Both the directness of the question and how quickly she brought it up astonished me. I studied her face. Unblinking bright eyes underlined by a confident, even cocky smile looked back at me expectantly. She had asked a question and she wanted an answer. I was completely caught off guard. I glanced towards Colleen, who was now alone with the German, apparently a close-talker (Yes, that’s a Seinfeld reference). My mind raced – What kind of person is this and how should I respond to her? She was beyond self-assured, a woman accustomed to having her way. Perhaps a woman unafraid to take what she wants.

Yakuza! – The name struck me like a thunderbolt. I had seen Lucy Liu in Kill Bill Volume 1. Lady Yakuza bosses were out there and based on the movie’s body count of 95 dead, were not to be trifled with. It occurred to me that her oversized coat was of sufficient length to conceal a Hattori Hanzo katana. I recognized I might be in terrible danger and needed to consider my next move carefully. Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal had taught me that tattoos are a good Yakusa giveaway so I searched her little exposed skin for signs of Tattoos. I found none but all she was bearing was her neck and hands. It was too dark and I was too close to her to observe her legs between where her skirt ended and her boots began.

But I was running out of time. Her evergreen smile was beginning to wilt. I couldn’t keep her waiting forever and was all out of ideas so I decided to be direct “I’m here with my wife.”

This seemed to surprise her. “You have a wife?”

I nodded. “Where is your wife? Show her to me.” she demanded. Again, I was a little taken aback by the authority with which she asked this of me. Meekly, I pointed to Colleen and feebly mumbled “See? Her over there.”

She arched her neck to get a better look, a concentrated frown on her face. It occurred to me that maybe I had just put Colleen in danger. But then she glanced back at me and then again at Colleen, and finally seemed satisfied. “So you are here with your wife?”

A smile was returning to her face and I breathed easier “Yes”

“You and your wife are both here for sexying?” And once again I was confused. Was she asking if we had come to Tokyo in search of the spark to reignite our marriage? Or did she think we were swingers? Either way, this new question was even more bizzare, so I decided to be even more direct in my response this time.

Prepared to flee in an instant should a samurai sword appear from under her coat, I cautiously asked “What do you mean by sexying?”

“Sexying! You know? Seeing famous places in Tokyo?”

“You mean sight-seeing?”

“Yes, sexying!”

“Oh………I see…………….And what do you do for your job?”

“I’m accountant! Why are you here?”

The pretty lady finally got the answer she was looking for. “Sexying. We’re both here for sexying” I said with a big, stupid and brazenly toothy grin.

November 26, 2013

Ascent through Darkness

Can your lungs catch frostbite? That was the question on my mind at 4:30am as Colleen, I and our Sherpa porter, Mingmar, made our ascent in the dark towards Thorong La pass. The air was very cold, well below freezing. This much was evident from my final visit to the outhouse at Thorong Phedi. The area around the squat toilet was slick from all the urine that had missed its mark, freezing and forming a dangerous ice rink that you did NOT want to slip on for at the center of its vortex was a hole full of poop.

Friends gathering before the ascent

Toby, Eva, Colleen, Mustafa, Caroline and Olga arriving at Tharong Phedi the day before

But freezing air is not so scary. It’s the combination of being above 5,000 meters where the oxygen is thin, and ascending a very steep slope where your legs beg for oxygen, that causes you to pant as if you were hyperventilating. Now combine that with freezing air and it feels like someone emptied a bag of ice into your chest. I imagined the alvioli in my lungs freezing and shattering into sharp, tiny ice fragments that punctured my lungs from the inside as they fell. I expected droplets of blood to spurt out with my breathing.

As it was, something else was sputtering forth with my breathing. My nose was freely running down my face, my frozen face bereft of any feeling, and forming a puddle between my neckwarmer and my inner jacket. I only realized this after we finished our ascent to high camp an hour later and stopped for tea and a brief rest. Yuck!

We had another tormentor that night, one especially suited to the dark, a black horse. It belonged to one if those entrepreneurs who on tough climbs coaxes you to throw in the towel, embrace failure and use one of his animals to reach the top in comfort. He and I had spoken earlier. I had said no. As we climbed a particularly vertical section to where he was sitting with two of his horses, he watched us like a vulture, the beam from his headlamp tracking us all the way, judging us as we navigated switchbacks in the dark, making us question our own mettle. Now one of his black horses had moved further up the mountain on his own, and was blocking our path up the trail. Every time we shooed him away, he blocked us again only a few meters further, and as he was hard to see in the darkness, I was afraid he’d kick or side swipe us off the mountain if we got too close without seeing him. Eventually our porter Mingmar swung a rock at his rear end and he finally left us alone, but he didn’t forget. When we later passed by him in early daylight near high camp, his ears folded back, a tell-tale of aggression in horses.

A dead horse after the ascent

Up here, a fall can be fatal, and that holds true even for the typically sure-footed

But by then we were in better spirits, having had hot tea and finally being able to see without our headlamps. The sun had ascended to where the tallest peaks on the other side of the valley were illuminated. The light from these allowed us to see that we were now passing by frozen waterfalls, a series of large white icicles, sometimes less than a dozen feet tall, other times close to fifty feet tall, but always perfectly still, not even a trickle escaping their bony fingertips.

Colleen has finished the ascent

Colleen on the rooftop of the world

Luckily the ascent to Tharong La was uphill almost the entire way. We only lost elevation at two points, one right after high camp, and the other right before the pass. We arrived at the pass shortly after 9:00am, a good time because the pass gets very windy closer to noon. After high fiving and snapping a few photos, we took a tea break to reward ourselves. At 17,769 feet, we were higher than Everest base camp, or any base camp for that matter. I tried to eat one of our Snickers bars but it was as hard as a block of wood. I had to dunk it for 20 seconds in my piping hot cup of tea just to be able to bite through it. During the pit stop, Colleen switched the lacing on her shoes to a special downhill configuration that is supposed to keep your feet from sliding forward in the shoe.

The ascent is complete.


After that, we started the mile plus descent. This was Colleen’s least favorite part as she is better at climbing, whereas I’m better at descending. The journey down was brutal on the knees and Colleen’s feet collected more and more blisters by the hour. When we finally reached our destination of Muktinath at 3:00pm, 10.5 hours after setting out from Tharong Phedi, Colleen took off her socks to survey the damage. In addition to the blisters, several toes on both feet were blue under the toenails from bruising caused by the steep downhill. Maybe the downhill lacing helped, but the hiking shoes she picked up in Kathmandu were just too crappy in the end. My feet, on the other hand, while still definitely tired, were otherwise in decent shape, just a little peeled skin behind the heels, that’s all. The second hand Meindls I bought in North Pakistan for $19 served me well in both the Karakoram and the Himalayas, the two highest mountain ranges in the world. On top of that, I was able to get back most of what I paid for them when I sold them to a trekking store in Kathmandu on our way out of Nepal. In order to give Colleen’s feet some rest, we decided to break from our plan and added an unscheduled rest day in Muktinath. I used this day to chill with some Buddhist nuns and Hindu Sadhus at Muktinath temple, a complex consisting of three Hindu and Buddhist shrines.

After the ascent and descent, at Muktinath Temple

Nunnery at Muktinath Temple

November 22, 2013

Our Terrifying Yeti (Abominable Snowman) Encounter!

The Yeti or the Abominable Snowman is one of the most famous creatures of cryptozoology, kind of like the Bigfoot of Asia. It is said to inhabit the high Himalayas of Nepal and Tibet, but just like with Bigfoot, most people remain unconvinced of its existence, regarding Yeti stories as simple-minded folklore. A near death encounter with one of these monsters, and a hastily snapped photo of it glaring at us, has led us to conclude otherwise. I imagine this will shake the scientific community to its core!

A photo of us from 10 minutes before the harrowing encounter, back when we were happy campers

A photo of us from 10 minutes before the harrowing encounter, back when we were happy campers

It was day three of our trek of Nepal’s famous Annapurna Circuit. After an hour’s hike out of Pisang and within a hundred meters of the hilltop of Ghyaru (12,100 ft), it happened.

I glanced to my left and was about to turn back when I did a double take. standing fewer than 40 feet away, slightly downhill, and framed in the grandeur of Annapurna 2 (16th tallest mountain in the world at 26,040 ft) was the most fearsome creature I had ever laid eyes on. It stood on two legs like a human and was hunched behind tall grass. I estimated it would be 10-11 feet tall standing fully upright. On its crown it had two thick, curved horns, each about two feet in length. Its finger-length fur was a kind of light brown where it’s hard to know if it was not actually a dirty white. From its massive shoulders I could tell that this predator had the strength to tear a man limb from limb. So far so good. Here’s where it gets weird. Carry AR 15 rifles if possible.

The monster exuded an aura of intense sexuality, and when I saw him cast a lusty gaze towards an unsuspecting Colleen, my instinctive reaction was to step in the way to protect her. But I was so taken aback by the powerful magnetic field of randiness emanating from the beast that I stopped. What if the Yeti swung both ways? Just the thought made me shudder!

After staring down each other for a few seconds, his eyes narrowed on Colleen. He hunched over on all fours, the muscles on his back rippling in preparation for a launch in our direction. I raised my trekking pole for battle – if I was going to die today, I was at the very least taking out one of his eyes with me.  Luckily for us, and not a moment too soon, a herd of two dozen yaks came charging down the path we were on, followed by two shepherds. The beast and I simultaneously looked in their direction and then simultaneously resumed eye contact. Reclusive by nature, he had made up his mind. This hunt would have to be abandoned, or at the very least postponed. He turned ninety degrees to our right and took off with the explosive acceleration of a springbok, effortlessly bounding over boulders and bushes until he was gone, but by then I had been able to snap this picture!

The magnificent beast! (framed in the grandeur of Annapurna II)

The magnificent beast! (framed in the grandeur of Annapurna II)

Here it is! Conclusive proof that the Yeti is real! This will off course not settle the debate on whether it is a ferocious monster or a gentle giant, but one thing is clear – a more handsome creature does not exist on God’s green earth!

Expressing gratitude for making it out alive at stupa in Ghyaru

Expressing gratitude for making it out alive at stupa in Ghyaru

November 21, 2013

Kathmandu: Lots of dust and stray dogs

Through the 90s and into the early 2000s, as the government of Sri Lanka fought to put down the LTTE (Tamil Tigers), the monarchy in Nepal sought to contain the Maoists (communists) who were gaining support in the countryside and not surprisingly wanted the monarchy abolished. The dalits (untouchables under the caste system) in particular were drawn to communism as it promised them rights and social mobility that the Hindu monarchy would never deliver.

In 2001 the Maoists received an unexpected boost from a multiple homicide. Crown Prince Dipendra went on a drunken shooting spree in the royal palace in Kathmandu, committing patricide, matricide, fratricide, sororicide, regicide, avunculicide and eventually suicide. You can probably guess at the meanings of all the -cide suffix words, but the long and short of it is that he massacred the entire royal family in a span of minutes, turning his Franchi shotgun on himself at the end (one of four weapons he used, the other three being a Colt M16, H&K MP5 and Glock 19), and leaving Nepal in a bit of a quandary. You see, while the masses had loved their gunned down king Birendra and even the homicidal crown prince (who bizarrely enough still became king for a few days while he was in coma, before dying), the brother of the king who assumed the throne after the carnage was a deeply unpopular figure, a man compared to Scar from The Lion King. So why did Crown Prince Dipendra go Billy Bezerk? Allegedly because his parents, the king and queen, would not allow him to marry the girl he desired. When she heard about this, the slutty French princess from Braveheart asked her handmaiden “Now that’s love, no?”.

One thing led to another and in 2008, King Scar stepped down and left the palace for a two bedroom apartment in Kathmandu. Nepal became a federal democratic republic, ending 240 years of monarchy. The Maoists won the first election, turning Nepal into a communists-headed state, but they were unable to pass a constitution without an outright majority and facing a divided parliament. This brings us to today. Five governments have risen and fallen since 2008, and the biggest election since then just happened now, while we were there. This was very annoying. Nepal has over 100 political parties and they campaign very loudly. Picture tiny cars with massive roof mounted speakers blaring shouting men all day. They also enforced strikes which disrupted services and transportation that we planned on using, messing up our plans more than once. Initial results indicate a centrist party has won these elections with the Maoists in third place. The Maoists are claiming vote-rigging and boycotting the results, but international observers on the ground, including Jimmy Carter and EU observers, are hailing the elections as open and fair.

These SOBs are really loud!

These are really loud!

Arriving into Kathmandu airport at night, I had been pleasantly surprised by how efficiently my $40 visa on arrival was processed. On the drive to the hotel, the first thing that grabbed my attention was the exact same thing that first grabbed my attention when I visited Colombo in 2010, the strong army and police presence on the streets several years after the conclusion of the conflict that necessitated it. I found this distasteful – the government knows that security has dramatically improved but instead of reallocating those resources to better serve the people of Nepal, they keep martial law and other extraordinary powers intact, even after the conclusion of the extraordinary times for which they were authorized. Why? Because it gives them extraordinary powers at the expense of freedom, justice, transparency, democracy, but most importantly their political opponents.

Our car pulled up behind a stopped police/military mobile (pickup) on a narrow unpaved road. Beyond the billowing columns of dust illuminated by our headlights, I saw a small middle aged woman frantically talking to a man in military fatigues with a large metal pot in his hand. He was trying to get the pot to the mobile and the distressed lady was trying her best to block him. It became apparent that the pot belonged to her, that she was a street food vendor, and that her livelihood was about to be confiscated. Maybe she didn’t grease the cop/soldier’s palm that week, or maybe there was a legitimate legal reason, I couldn’t tell either way. We stayed parked behind the mobile watching this scene unfold for a minute, after which my driver nervously gave a short honk of the horn. No one acknowledged us, not the lady, not the man holding her pot, nor his two companions also decked in camo and holding large canes. So we sat some more and watched on. One quick move to the left and the cop/soldier got around her, placing the pot on the bed of the pickup. With a face representing the dictionary definition of pleading, that probably couldn’t physically plead one iota more, the distraught woman with her expression and words, although we couldn’t hear them, drew attention to her desperation and to those who depended on her income, and begged for leniency, placing one hand on his shoulder. For the cop/soldier, the shoulder grab was the last straw. He turned around, and putting his whole body into it, shoved the woman away. She stumbled back a good distance and would probably have fallen backwards if she didn’t first hit what was most likely her own rickety wooden food stall. For the first time, she was silent, her face covered in shock, but no one cared. The cop/soldier hopped back into the mobile and drove away while his two comrades continued their patrols, canes held out as they walked, just so it was clear these were kicking ass sticks, not walking sticks. I didn’t come away with a good impression from watching this incident.

But an almost simultaneous thought was how much better security would be in Karachi with this kind of police and army presence. I mean, here they are in the absence of crime, and in Karachi crime runs rampant in the absence of a credible display of the state’s ability to enforce law and order. I guess the lesson is to avoid extraordinary powers unless they are absolutely necessary, and to make it crystal clear and non-negotiable in the authorization bill when (under what conditions) they must be removed.

Kathmandu’s streets are narrow, congested and badly paved, often unpaved. Walking through busy markets and tourist alleys is at first unnerving as there’s always a Bajaj Pulsar nipping at your heels or barreling straight at you. Soon you learn to accept near misses with speeding motorbikes as the norm and get on with the business of enjoying the Capital. It’s noisy, busy and polluted, but then that’s par for the course in South Asia. Visitors from Dhaka, Colombo, Karachi or Mumbai will feel at home but shouldn’t expect to see any tall shiny buildings. In fact I thought even Kabul looked more developed than Kathmandu, despite Afghanistan being the only country in Asia poorer than Nepal (by GDP/capita at PPP). The air pollution is so bad that you’ll need to buy a face-mask and even then you’ll cough, there’s litter everywhere, and stray dogs hold barking competitions late into the night when you’re trying to sleep.

A couple steals away a private moment in a Kathmandu park

A couple steals away a private moment in a Kathmandu park

At this point you may be wondering what’s there to enjoy. There’s plenty, but really the main thing most travelers use Kathmandu for is transit to either Pokhara or a Himalayan Trek. Please stay tuned. More on that later.

October 27, 2013

Tales from the North: How Shimshal got its Road

I spent a week in Shimshal, the highest elevation year-round village in Pakistan at just over 13,000 feet. My objective was to set up a performance monitoring and reporting plan for a WWF environmental education project. I did two hikes, one to the Yazghail Glacier and another in the direction of the Shimshal Pass, entry point to the Pamir mountain range.

I also heard the unique and uplifting story of how Shimshal, which had for most its history been disconnected from the rest of the world by three days of arduous trekking across craggy rocks and precipitous ravines, finally came to have its own road that connects to the Karakoram Highway (KKH) between Passu and Sost, Sost being the Pakistani immigration and customs checkpoint for the Chinese border. I would like to share this story with you.

Top - Shimshal in summer, Bottom - Shimshal in winter

Top – Shimshal in summer, Bottom – Shimshal in winter

In September 1984 a military helicopter lands in an empty potato field in Shimshal. The village had harvested its crop of sugarcane and potatoes just weeks earlier. With nothing to hold it down, a thick wall of dust is driven up from the ground and sent flying in all directions by the rapidly spinning rotors. The local boy scouts troupe shields their faces with their arms as best they can. If anything it adds to their excitement at welcoming to their village the most powerful person they will probably ever lay eyes on, and their fear. Ninety percent of those present have never seen a helicopter before and all are in awe. The powerful sandstorm foreshadows the arrival of the powerful man sitting inside. When God finally revealed himself to Moses, His glorious visage was accompanied by such blinding light that Moses had to shield his eyes and look away, and so it was for the Shimshalis, only instead of light, fast moving airborne dust particles were doing the blinding today.

The landing skids touch ground and the rotors begin decelerating, sounding like a drawn out French ambulance siren speeding away, and out steps President Zia-ul-Haq, the all-powerful military ruler of Pakistan since 1977, when he deposed, imprisoned and later executed by hanging, his predecessor, the democratically elected civilian, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. After assuming power, Zia worked tirelessly towards changing the culture and identity of Pakistan all the way up to his death in 1988 when his body was pulverized into a thousand pieces and set alight in the desert near Bahawalpur by 20,000 liters of aviation fuel. Some of those charred pieces are buried a short walk from my house in Arlington National Cemetery, but how a portion of a despotic Pakistani general’s remains got into America’s most hallowed burial ground is another story. I can recommend the darkly humorous novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif if you want to read that story.

The changes Zia made are still here with us today. Pakistan is a more intolerant and divided country because of him. But he also played the most instrumental role after the mujahedeen themselves in defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, a key catalyst to the collapse of that almost seventy year old communist experiment in 1991, splitting it into 16 independent republics. Because of this, the administration of Ronald Reagan loved Zia.

Clockwise from top left - Zia-ul-Haq with Ronald Reagan, A Shimshali girl with her little brother (almost as cute as Zia with The Gipper), Yak being used as porters, Living room in a Shimshali guesthouse

Clockwise from top left – Zia-ul-Haq with Ronald Reagan, A Shimshali girl with her little brother (almost as cute as Zia with The Gipper), Yak being used as porters, Living room in a Shimshali guesthouse

Anyway, back to the story. Zia steps out of his helicopter and after taking one look at the boy scouts there to receive him, turns to his personal security detail and tells them to stay with the chopper, saying something to the effect of “These boys are all the protection I need”, and flashing the scouts a broad smile. This off course thrills the scouts and makes quite an impression on the entire village. I can tell you at least one scout remains in awe of Zia to this day since the majority of this story was narrated to me by him.

The scouts escort the general a short distance to the village leaders who reverently shake his hand, then with a slight bow hold their hand over their heart, signifying deep respect. Zia smoothly transitions into some generic bullshit all politicians employ when meeting the common masses, about how they’re the real salt of the earth folks who make their country great through hard work and sacrifice. After this he asks what he can do for them, and this is the moment the Shimshalis were waiting for and had prepared for.

They pull down their shirts from the neck so the lacerations and scars on their shoulders are visible to their president. They tell him of their hardships living so far from civilization, of how to bring essential items like medicine to the village they must trek three days each way across craggy rocks and precipitous ravines carrying jute sacks on their backs with nothing but ordinary rope, rope that cuts deeper and deeper each hour, leaving their shoulders bruised and bloody. They tell him how every young person who has appendicitis dies because they cannot get him or her to a doctor in time. Zia nods understandingly to everything they have to say and when they’re done he says “That does sound like a very hard life but what can I possibly do about it?”

“Build us a road” is the unanimous reply.

Zia turns to his number two and asks “How many households in this village”. “One hundred and thirty” he replies. “How much would building them a road cost?”. “Around 2 crore rupees” the number two replies ($870,000 in 1984 dollars). At this Zia shakes his head and turning to the village elders makes an incredible offer, “That is too much money for the federal government to spend on a village as small as yours, but what I can do is give you good agricultural land in Sindh (The Southernmost province of Pakistan) and move your village there. This will cost less money and you’ll be out of this godforsaken cold to boot!”. This offer shocks the Shimshalis. Nothing of its kind had ever been contemplated, and yet they could not even entertain it. This was their forefathers’ land and they could never leave it. They declined. Zia’s chopper took off, the visit was over, their hopes were dashed, and they returned to their harsh life, slightly more depressed than before.

Some time passed (somewhere between a few weeks and eight months) and then one night at a big village celebration, most probably a wedding, spirits got dangerously high, the kind of high that makes people say incredibly silly and hopeful things. A few of the men, perhaps further buoyed by some cheap booze from Hunza or China, decided they could build the road themselves. One of them loudly declared to everyone present, which was the entire village, “Who needs the government? We’re strong and intelligent people! We’ll build the road ourselves!” to which everyone cheered excitedly. Spirits rose even further, past the redline they were already at, which may not sound like a bad thing, but they were also accompanied by the expectation that a road would be built and that the guy who announced it would put the plan together. As this dawned on him and his recently merry band of brothers, they all panicked but especially him. What was he to do? He had publicly promised the impossible in front of the entire village!

Pretending he never meant it to be taken seriously, he tried to backtrack. He was trying desperately to hide his embarrassment, but one old grandmotherly type lady wasn’t having any of it. She showered him and the men around him with abuses “You’re all useless, lazy, ball-scratching good-for-nothings! We need a road and if you’re not going to build it, I’ll build it by myself!”. It seemed the shaming was complete, but wait! She wasn’t done! Turning away from the now downcast pod of “useless ball-scratchers” and facing the whole village, the old lady announced that she had a shovel and she was going to start building the road tomorrow morning! One of her friends, another grandmother type, chimed in “And I have a pickaxe! I’ll join you tomorrow morning and we’ll build a road together without these ball-less oafs!”. It did not occur to anyone that a ball-less ball-scratcher was an obvious contradiction, you can only be one or the other at any given point in time, but it didn’t matter. No one took the old ladies seriously but they had completely shamed the men. In the end, despite a promising start, the wedding party was a bit of a bust, ending on a downer, or so it seemed.

It’s a well-known fact that old people get up incredibly early in the morning and it’s no different in Shimshal. They’re normally quiet that early in the day, but the day after the wedding was no normal day. Right at dawn, the sleeping village was yanked out of their slumber by a cacophony of metallic scraping, crunching and banging sounds. As the village men stepped out of their homes and rubbed their eyes, their grandmothers came into focus, industriously clanking away with various tools at the edge of town. It seemed the two from last night had recruited a few others and they had started building the road as promised. Sheepishly their sons and grandsons walked over to them and tried to convince them of the futility of their endeavor but all they got in return was another earful like the night before. Villagers lined up to watch the funny spectacle of bent-over old ladies with osteoporosis moving earth and smashing rock as their able bodied sons awkwardly followed them around, pleading for them to stop. In the end it was all too much to bear. The men caved in, “We’ll build the road, we promise! But you guys please stop!”

And so the project to build the road got underway in the summer of 1985. The Shimshalis sat together, planned, asked a local NGO with road-building experience for help, and then every able-bodied man got to the hard physical labor of building a road. Many years passed and the local Army commander took note of the progress the Shimshalis had made. Impressed, he volunteered his men to start working from the opposite direction, from the KKH towards the village. In the end, the Army wound up building 30% of the road, all of the eleven bridges, and supplying most of the dynamite.

In 2003, 18 years after work began, the two roads met in the middle, and on October 25th of that year, the first 4×4 drove all the way from KKH to Shimshal. Three days on foot had been shortened to two hours in a Jeep or Landcruiser. The biggest celebration in the history of Shimshal commenced, and the anniversary of the road is celebrated on October 25 of every year. Just two days back, Shimshal held a special celebration to commemorate 10 years since the road was built. The quality of life in the village has been greatly enhanced. Not only has it enabled them to diversify their consumption and finally begin selling their goods outside the village, but something as simple as appendicitis is no longer a death note. And all this because of the initiative and sharp tongue of one cranky old grandmother who had had enough of inaction.

I wish I could have been around to celebrate the 10 year anniversary with them, but I needed to rendezvous with Colleen in Kathmandu on that day. Tomorrow we head up to the Annapurna Circuit for two weeks of trekking through the Nepalese Himalayas!

October 20, 2013

Tales from the North: The Vengeful Fairy

Folks in the Northern Areas believe that if an ibex stands still on a plain, it is doing so because it is being milked by a fairy, and hunters must wait until it has left the plain to shoot on it. I laughed when I first heard this from another tourist but she cautioned that she had met a man with first-hand experience in the matter. He was a hunter who had come across a trophy ibex standing upright on flat ground and in plain sight. Sensing a rare opportunity to bag a stationary target from close range, he placed the animal behind the crosshairs of his scope and pulled the trigger.

An ibex in Hunza, Pakistan

An ibex in Hunza, Pakistan

Here’s where the story gets supernatural. His bullet missed the intended target but instead struck the bucket into which the fairy was milking the ibex. This infuriated the fairy who got even by turning the hunter blind. He remains blind to this day.

In order to confirm this belief, I asked my porters about it as we were hiking across the Batura Glacier. They confirmed that it was a local legend but said it’s just that, a legend, and that no one under sixty believes this stuff anymore.

When I think fairy, the first picture to come to mind is of course Tinkerbell. However, turning a man blind is dark stuff, so on the right I have an appropriately dark fairy, the sucker from the Pan's Labyrinth & Hellboy movies (they're not exactly the same but very similar)

When I think fairy, the first picture to come to mind is of course Tinkerbell. However, turning a man blind is dark stuff, so on the right I have an appropriately dark fairy, the sucker from the Pan’s Labyrinth & Hellboy movies (they’re not exactly the same but very similar)