Archive by Author
October 14, 2013

And then the Piper came to Collect

We take risks all the time, when we drive a car, ride a bike, take a walk, board a flight or go for a swim. Wet tile floors kill hundreds of people in their own bathrooms every year but that doesn’t mean you should stop bathing. A life free of any risk is no life at all. Yes, maybe all the hours watching our favorite TV show may harm our eyes and the fun filled days at the beach with friends may harm our skin, but to encapsulate oneself in a sanitized plastic bubble and avoid anything and everything that MAY harm us is to give up on life.

So instead we enjoy the piper’s tune, even sing along with him and have a great time. Most nights, after we’ve fallen asleep, tired from the fun and excitement, he holsters his flute and sees himself out the door. Most no one considers that nothing is free and one day he’ll ask to be paid. In fact the more you have him over, the more confident you become that there will never be a payment. Sure, he may be a professional musician and sure, he charges other people to play at their parties, but not you. You’re his friend. A different, kinder set of rules applies to you.

The gunmen that ambushed us looked like these guys

The gunmen that ambushed us looked like these guys, but scarier

But of course this isn’t so, a lesson I relearned last night when my car was ambushed by masked gunmen in a particularly lawless and remote sector in the Northern Areas, one that has been the scene of recent sectarian violence. Risks are not risks for nothing. Those who choose to enjoy the sweet melody of the piper are occasionally made to pay for that pleasure.

Our hired car was supposed to leave Gilgit for Islamabad between nine and ten in the morning so we’d pass the troubled regions of Chilas and Kohistan in daylight, but the incompetent morons at the transportation company only got their act together at 1:50pm, so that is when we set off. We approached the Frontier Police checkpoint atop Babusar Pass (13,700ft) at 6:30pm, just as it had gotten dark.

Our Toyota Corolla was pitifully equipped with a 1.3 liter petrol engine that struggled all the way to the top. It had to be kept in 1st gear 90% of the time and even then, twice we had to get out and push the car so the anemic engine could make it up a hill. Having less oxygen owing to the altitude was definitely partly to blame, and the driver suspected the fuel may have had crap mixed in it by an unscrupulous petrol station owner looking to make some extra money in time for Eid. I can vouch for the Oxygen being low because after pushing the car, I was surprised by how hard and for how long I was gasping for breath. A weak storm was lashing black sand across the road and dark clouds were slowly swirling overhead, further reducing visibility. The Karakoram Highway experiences landslides on an almost daily basis so is almost perpetually being worked on. Occasionally we would pass a large earth moving machine with its yellow hazard lights flashing. Given the already unearthly landscape, it felt as if I was on a transport to a new Moon colony that was in the process of being terra-formed.

The Frontier Policemen manning the Babusar Pass checkpoint were heavily draped in overcoats and scarfs to the point that no uniform could be seen, but since they were controlling the checkpoint, we had to assume they were the authorities. Two figures came to the driver’s window, their clothes fluttering so much because of the wind that they had to be clutched in place. Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Who are you? Do you have ID? We went through this familiar drill but then when time to produce the IDs came, they abruptly lost interest and waved us on. Someone commented that normally they take their time at this checkpoint and getting through this fast was unusual.

I should say who was in the car with me. The driver from Sargoda had terrible taste in music, liked listening to it way too loud, and smoked in the car without asking (but then it’s Pakistan, not America – I have to remind myself that I must make allowances for that). I had paid extra for the front seat. The passenger behind me was Najibullah, a ~30 year old disaster preparation and relief professional. Behind the driver sat Ali Noor, who was finishing high school and waiting to hear back from medical colleges across Pakistan to see if he got in.

Ali Noor opened up a large packet of chocolate wafers and shared them with everyone. I was hungry and they were delicious. We had driven 2-3 minutes past the checkpoint. Who knows what we were talking about at the time? Maybe how Ali Noor really wanted to work in film or as a photographer but his parents shot those ideas down in favor of the reliable medical doctor option.

The car suddenly slowed and I looked ahead. Initially I saw two and then four figures descending from a rocky ridge right next to the road and towards the car. That they were all armed and pointing their weapons directly at us was immediately evident as the Corolla’s headlights lit up the shiny ends of the barrels. Two had AK-47s, the other two had pistols. The ones with the AK-47s motioned us to stop and blocked our path. The other two circled around so the vehicle was surrounded. I lifted my hands, the wafers dropping out of my palms – a little silly since there was no chance they could see inside the car. Everyone in the car mouthed “oh no!” in their own way. When a panicking Ali Noor exclaimed “Ya Ali!” three times, the already present dread in my heart tripled. I thought “they’re going to kill this boy for being Shia”. My next thought was to have the presence of mind to look away when it happens. I don’t need those nightmares.

But then there was no guarantee who these guys were. They could be looking for payback against the Sunnis in which case my time was up. That was less likely though and oddly enough I didn’t fear for my life at all. My biggest fear for myself was kidnapping. Being a captive for the months or years that is typical for abductions in regions like these would be brutal. If they found out I was an American, they would probably sell me to the Taliban who might request a prisoner swap from the US. The Americans would most likely decline and in doing so condemn me to die by beheading. Wait, what if these guys are Taliban themselves? It was as this question crossed my mind that one of the gunmen reached my door and shouted for me to get out. I obviously didn’t have a choice so I opened the door and arms raised, emerged from the vehicle. The driver and other passengers were doing the same. The four gunmen had closed the dragnet and their catch was about to learn its fate.

I was patted down. The first thing to be pulled out of my kamiz pocket was my camera. The gunman holding me up studied this for a second under the beam from his flashlight and then pocketed it. When I had gotten out of the car, the barrel of his machine gun was a foot from my face, but now it was pointed at the ground and he was gripping the weapon carelessly. Frankly, it was asking to be snatched. But as I was being searched, I spotted two additional gunmen still atop the ridge from where the ambush was sprung. Both their AK-47s were pointed in our direction. That made six gunmen. The driver and Ali Noor, who were both closer to the ridge, saw seven gunmen, the four that came to the car and three that remained on the ridge. In any case, we were well covered and trying anything would be extremely foolish.

The ambush location was perfect. It was at a sharp turn in the road for which vehicles would have to slow anyway. The ridge behind which they had been hiding was right next to the road and the gunmen on high ground atop the ridge had cover in the form of large boulders, should they have needed it. They were already barely visible as it was but themselves had a great view of the road below. Even an escort vehicle with a half dozen armed guards wouldn’t have stood a chance in this situation. I found myself wishing we were driving in the B6 armored Land Cruiser I had in Afghanistan. Then we could have just sped away instead of being in the situation we were in now, entirely helpless.

After the pat down, I was asked where my money was and what else I had. What a relief! These were not crazy people but rather bandits, only interested in loot, vastly preferable to Taliban types. My money was in a zippered pocket in my jacket which was lying in the front passenger foot well. I was hoping to unzip the pocket quietly and give them all the cash and my cheaper Nokia mobile phone, but the sound alerted them to the jacket and they pulled it out, and feeling weight in it (my iPhone), they took the whole thing. In the end I lost my camera, two mobile phones, cash and the jacket. They saw my credit card but apparently that did not interest them and they threw it back in the car. Also headphones and passport got tossed back, everything else they took.

At this point one of the gunmen had an exchange of words on his walkie talkie and turning to us asked if there was a car behind us and how far back. We told him we saw a 4×4 but it was far behind us. No sooner had we said that than the first beams from approaching headlights could be seen. We were ordered to get back in the car, sit quietly and make sure no lights were on. We did this and saw the bandits go back to their positions, resetting the trap for the approaching vehicle. This time when they sprang, the vehicle, a Land Cruiser Prado, didn’t initially brake fast enough, so a warning shot was fired into the air. Then they encircled the vehicle and we heard them shout at the people inside. We heard both male and female voices respond from the Prado. Whereas they spent seven minutes with us and took us out of the vehicle for pat downs, in the case of the Prado, everything was handled through the windows and in just two minutes. I got the feeling they felt uncomfortable holding up more than one car at a time. After that they noted down license plate numbers, the driver’s ID card number and warned us not to tell anyone about what happened, and with that both cars were dismissed.

Since we left at the same time, our two vehicles formed a convoy with us in the back. We did a quick survey of what had been taken from whom. My losses were the greatest in absolute terms – a camera, two mobile phones, cash and my jacket. After me, the driver’s losses were greatest at Rs 33,000 cash which he was taking home to his family over Eid, plus his mobile phone. Najibullah also had his cash and phone taken and Ali Noor, maybe because he’s a kid, got away with only losing a few thousand Rupees. He saved his phone by jamming it between the seat and backrest before exiting the car. We also talked about what we saw and heard. The bandits addressed their leader “Commander”, and while they spoke in Urdu in front of us, when they thought they were out of earshot they spoke Shina, the local language in Chilas and Kohistan.

We had only driven another 5-10 minutes when we saw what appeared to be a police mobile (personnel pickup truck). Two policemen were standing next to it and one flagged us down. After we stopped, they had a brief conversation with the first car and then came over to us. “It took you guys a while to get here from the top of the pass. Did anything happen in the middle? Did you run into any kind of trouble?” His voice sounded concerned, almost like he already knew something was wrong and was anticipating the pleas to go after the men who had only minutes earlier robbed us.

But the pleas never came, because as he spoke, he cocked the AK-47 he was already holding at the ready and pointed at our feet, and so did his companion. We didn’t need to study his eyes and expression to know what this meant, but did so anyway and this confirmed to everyone in the car what was happening. These guys were collaborating with the bandits and were making it clear to us that we needed to stay quiet or bad things would happen. My guess is they planned to rob for several hours that night and for this to work, they needed to scare the shit out of those they robbed earlier so they wouldn’t tip off authorities or other travelers that there was danger ahead.

Their plan worked. Realizing the cops were on the side of the robbers scared us even further. There was a good chance the robbers were cops themselves. We were even more helpless than we had thought. The driver told the cop nothing had happened. The cop pressed a little, “but we heard a gunshot” to which the driver responded “We didn’t hear a gunshot”. The cop smiled “OK then” and gestured us to be on our way. As we drove off, the already downbeat mood in the car became downright pitiful. The others talked about how the important thing was we were alive, that god had saved us and that we were powerless people who had no choice but to accept our fate. I kept quiet. I hate that kind of talk. We passed a convoy of two civilian pickups 20 minutes later. They stopped to speak briefly with the Prado and then continued in the direction of the bandits. We wondered what had been said between the two cars but didn’t have to wonder for long.

Within another hour, we had reached the town of Naran and the Prado stopped in front of a roadside restaurant. We parked in front of them and got out of the car. The strangers from the two vehicles greeted each other with hugs and big smiles of relief. Clearly they too felt very fortunate, and in fact they had been more fortunate than us. After we told them our sob stories about losing everything or almost everything, they took out cash and mobile phones to show us how much they had been able to save by not getting out of the car. They did so with big smiles and in fact they were kind of showing off. To do that to people who had suffered large losses and were visibly deflated was distasteful. On the other hand, they offered us money so that we could at least afford to refuel and bought us dinner in the restaurant. We declined on the money but accepted on the dinner. I asked them what they had discussed with the convoy of two pickups we’d passed an hour earlier. They told me they were so freaked out by the message from the cops that when the guys in those vehicles told them they had heard rumors there was trouble up ahead and asked if it was safe to proceed, they said yes, not knowing who they were talking to and not wanting to risk getting shot after making it so far. They had a point, but my guess is they sent another two flies into the bandits’ flypaper by giving them the all clear.

When we finally reached Islamabad at 3:30am the next day, having driven through the night, The driver asked us to accompany him to the depot so we could corroborate his story in front of his boss. We felt bad for the guy, given he was a poor man and had suffered a heavy loss, so we agreed. But after walking around the depot for 15 minutes and knocking on several doors, no one could be found. As the driver drove us to our homes, he told us his boss always spoke disrespectfully to him and he knew this man was not going to do anything to help him. He then asked us if we would help him out because as it was, he didn’t even have money to get home to Sargoda. Najibullah immediately agreed to this and urged me to also help. I didn’t say anything. I was still bitter about my own losses and cranky from nearly 14 hours of being tossed around in a Corolla on bumpy roads. It’s only after Najibullah was dropped and the driver requested me directly that I realized how selfish I was being. I told him to come tomorrow afternoon to my uncle’s house where he was dropping me and I would give him money. Neither of us had phone so there was no other way to coordinate. The next day I went to the ATM to withdraw cash in anticipation of him coming. He never did. I wonder if it was because he felt I would back out. I didn’t sound very enthusiastic when I finally said I would help him but I did mean it.

In the end, stuff is just stuff. Colleen’s already bought an upgraded replacement camera (Sony RX100 II) and a new jacket (Patagonia Nano Puff, exact same as the one that was lost). I’ll try to do without a smartphone for a while and maybe try sharing Colleen’s iPhone 4S. Yes, 90% of my photos of the North are lost forever, but no one can take the memories away. You all know what a glacier is. Now just picture me standing on top of it, surrounded by miles and miles of white ice and sandwiched between towering peaks. Right after the robbery, I told myself I was never coming back to Pakistan because the risks weren’t worth it. This feeling was reinforced after I realized we were probably robbed by police, the guys that are supposed to be protecting us. But 30 minutes later I concluded that the mistake was mine and it would be worth coming back. First of all, with the exception of the robbery, I had an amazing time. Secondly, I knew this was a no go area at night but still I went. After the transport company delayed 4 hours, I should have backed out and travelled the next day. Well, lesson learned. I’ll be wiser next time.

I’ve tried my best to accurately recount the events of the evening we were robbed. I’ll be sending a facts only version to the Inspector General (police) and FIA Director (Federal Investigation Agency) of the Northern Areas.

September 27, 2013

Gilgit & Hunza

When glacier hiking, if you don’t put sunblock on the bottom of and inside your nose, your nostrils will burn from the sun reflecting off the glacier. Good to know, right? I found this tip in the Pakistan Trekking Guide.

Gilgit is nothing special. It’s a dusty town with not much going on, just a jump-off point to the real North. My only goal here was to buy a few items, namely a watch, a warm cap that can cover my ears, sunglasses, and hiking boots and pole. After Gilgit there are no large towns and therefore no large markets so shopping is best done here.

My feature-rich Suunto Core watch (altimeter, barometer, compass, thermometer, depth meter, sunrise/sunset times) had just come back from repair (free under warrantee) but was with Colleen in the US. All my other watches were in a safety deposit box in Arlington, except for one that draws way too much attention to consider bringing. So what watch did I buy in Gilgit? I’m not proud to say this, but I bought my first fake watch, and of all things it was a Casio knock-off, but with a very special twist (I’ve never seen anything like it – video forthcoming). This set me back $1.90. Next I bought sunglasses for 75 cents. “Oakleys” were going for the same amount but after the Casio, I wanted to keep it real, so I got a brand called “hot buttered”. Why not? For warm cap, I got a handmade wool Chitrali topi for $3.80.

For hiking boots and pole, I went to a second hand shop. I wanted something durable to last me through both Pakistan and Nepal so buying the cheap local or low-quality Chinese stuff didn’t make sense. Instead I bought from stock left behind by past trekkers/climbers, second hand but of high quality. I found a pair of boots of the brand name “Meindl”, which I’d never heard of, but they oozed quality and felt comfy on my footsies so I sprung $19 for them. I searched for them online and found that they’re made in Bavaria (a good sign) and retail for $200-500. Score! There were no used hiking poles so I bought the nicest new one I could find and that cost $10.

With shopping done, I headed to the local Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP) office to meet the team there. We discussed their current portfolio of projects including value chain development for the precious and semi-precious gems sector, electrifying remote villages with micro-hydro and solar PV, and youth and entrepreneurship development, among many others. AKRSP is the largest NGO by far in the Northern Areas and the one I’m consulting for on a different environmental project. While outside the scope of my engagement, it was fascinating to discuss high-level regional strategy with the management team. We basically did a rudimentary SWOT analysis for some of the more important projects and I respectfully shared a few observations and suggestions based on my experience doing similar work. The team was incredibly receptive to my inputs which made me feel great, but upon further reflection, it’s quite possible they were just being kind to the chubby burger kid from Karachi. For non-Pakistanis, burger is slang for rich westernized buffoon from the city.

I took a public minivan to Hunza in the evening. It was one of those annoying ones that leaves as soon as it’s full, however long that takes. I wound up waiting 80 minutes and then was crammed into a 12 seater with 17 other people (luggage and two people on the roof). I guess that’s why it only costs $2.60 for a 2 hour journey. In Hunza, I checked into the Hunza Embassy – $15 for double room including breakfast AND FREE WiFi! Woohoo!

I woke up the next morning to glory! The view made my heart sing glory glory hallelujah! I arrived in the night so had no idea what was I was surrounded by, which as it turned out was natural awesomeness – green pastures with grazing animals surrounded by humungous snow-capped peaks that shone in the warm sunshine. It seemed the whole valley had a halo, and off course, a river ran through it. Hunza is spectacularly beautiful! Here is a picture of my breakfast spot. In the background you can see part of Rakaposhi (25,551 ft), the 27th tallest mountain in the world.

The locals speak a language called Burushaski and many of them are descendants of soldiers from the armies of Alexander the Great who left many men behind in the area. The sale of cigarettes is banned. Electricity is rationed on a set schedule, outside of which hotels and a few big businesses run generators and everyone else burns kerosene lanterns.

I didn’t do much the first day, just walked around town, crossed the river over the Ganesh bridge (the name a legacy from Hindu times) and checked out some animist rock carvings from the 2nd century AD. There are two historical forts around town. I’m going to check those out tomorrow and also do some hiking with my large pack to build endurance and acclimate to hard physical exertion at this altitude. So far I’ve been ok but I did get a headache after an uphill segment today, which I’m still feeling. Unlike in Cusco, I have no Coca tea to help with the altitude sickness, although I have been drinking the local herbal tea called Tumuro and it’s quite delicious, whether or not it helps with altitude sickness.

I’ll post again in a day if my next hotel has wifi but after that there’s going to be nothing for two weeks as I’ll either be on a glacier or in Shimshal, the highest village in Pakistan, and they don’t even have phones up there.

September 25, 2013

The Highest Highway: The road to Gilgit

I got picked up at my uncle’s house in Islamabad at 10:40pm (40 minutes late) in a 90′s Toyota Landcruiser. My driver, the reincarnation of Speed Racer, drove with such reckless abandon around blind turns that I began mentally preparing myself for an accident. My seatbelt stayed on the entire night.

We passed through now infamous Abbottabad (actually a nice town) and made a quick tea and bathroom stop shortly after passing Mansehra. Driving through Chilas in the dark, we turned left on the Karakoram Highway (KKH). The KKH is the highest paved road in the world and runs 1,300km through Pakistan and China. It is sometimes referred to as the 8th wonder of the world.

Shortly before dawn we stopped at a trucker’s stop constructed of mud and corrugated metal. Inside there were two truck drivers asleep on thin mats placed on an elevated platform. They were so tightly wrapped in blankets that they resembled mummies. At this point we were only 1.5 hours from the Babausar Pass (13,700 ft) so it was quite cold. We huddled around the mud oven and chatted with the proprietor and his son for a while before ordering breakfast. The air inside was thick with smoke from the wood burning oven. I remembered a project I briefly worked on in Guatemala in 2008 where these type of ovens were being replaced with a new design that dramatically reduced indoor air pollution and respiratory illnesses. Breakfast was fried eggs with paratas and chapatis, and lots of tea. We ate sitting cross legged on the platform next to the mummified truckers. Not only was it delicious, but at $3.80 for 4 people, extremely cheap. Just like with a tea stop we made earlier, one of the passengers paid for the whole group. I was impressed with and touched by the friendliness, respect and generosity with which the 3 other passengers treated each other and me, sharing snacks, cigarettes and gum. These were good people.

Shortly after driving over the Babusar pass, which offered a breathtaking panorama of the Kaghan valley, I got my first glimpse of Nanga Parbat. I felt like a newborn, in that my testicles retracted back into my body, and they did so with the speed of a mantis shrimp punch (fastest punch in the natural world). So fearsome a sight was the 9th tallest mountain in the world that any aspirations I had of doing serious mountaineering evaporated in that instant. Only a madman would want to set foot on that tremendous mass of death. From the craggy ridges near its peak hectares of ice sheets are blasted into the surrounding sky by pulverizing winds. It looks peaceful from afar but anyone with a sense of scale will realize that cold merciless fury resides above and to meet it would mean a miserable and hopeless death.

The KKH near Gilgit was buzzing with activity. We passed dozens of crews clearing rockfalls and repairing damage to the road from recent earthquakes. The region is earthquake prone as it sits on the collision zone between the Eurasian and Indian plates. When India separated from Africa 140 million years ago (when it was part of the supercontinent Gondwana together with modern Africa, Australia, Antarctica, and South America) it made its way NNE with a slight counterclockwise rotation until it hit Eurasia. India was moving at 20cm/year, extremely fast for a tectonic plate. When it collided with Eurasia around 50 million years ago, it formed the Himalayas, the most awesome mountain range in the world.

But back to the roads – not only are they being repaired but they’re also being widened 3x to facilitate greater trade volume with China, especially as efforts are underway to connect the Gwadar Port (which just got struck by its own earthquake yesterday that apparently created a new Island nearby) to Lhasa, which is already connected to Beijing by rail. China is very keen on this happening and it shows. Chinese text can be seen on machinery or tents at just about every other worksite along the highway, signifying their involvement on the Pakistan side of the project.

Arriving in Gilgit at 1:00pm, I checked into the Madina 2 hotel ($18 incl bfast). This was me treating myself as acceptable rooms with private baths were available for $7 at two other places. But because of how shitty I felt after the 14 hour road journey, and the fact that we are at this point waaay under budget on our round the world (RTW) trip, I decided to go upscale. And then I fell into the longest sleep I’ve had in a long time.

Tomorrow we go equipment shopping in the Gilgit market!

September 23, 2013

Winter is coming and the night is full of terrors – Northern Areas of Pakistan

In a few minutes I leave on the 13 hour drive from Islamabad to Gilgit, the frontier town that serves as capital of the Northern Areas. It will be my jump-off point into the autonomous Northern Areas of Pakistan. Marco Polo, this website’s namesake, when travelling near here in the 13th century called the area “noisy with kingdoms”, the better situated of which grew rich from taxing traffic to and from China. Gilgit has had many owners over its thousands of years history. It has been a part of Tibet, China, Afghanistan, the British Empire, itself (The independent Republic of Gilgit existed for a brief time following partition) and of course now belongs to Pakistan (kind of). This has led to many religious, cultural and linguistic traditions being layered one upon the other. The animism of the early inhabitants gave way to fire worship brought from Persia, which gave way to Hinduism (~1,700 BC), which gave way to Buddhism (4th to 11th century AD).

When Mohammed bin Qasim’s Arab forces invaded India (including modern day Pakistan) from the South by sea in 632 AD, he succeeded in the South but his forces were repulsed in the North. It was not until after the 15th century that Islam became the dominant religion in Gilgit, brought by the Sunnis who spread up the Indus River from Swat and the Shias who spread into Baltistan from Kashmir.

The King of Hunza converted to the Ismaili faith (followers of the Aga Khan) in the early 19th century and so there are also many Ismailis present in the area today. If you hear anyone speak of “His Highness” in these parts, they are referring to the Aga Khan – a playboy Briton living on a lavish historical estate in France who is in the process of finalizing his divorce from a German aristocrat (my mother attended their wedding reception) for cheating on her with an air stewardess – I know, it’s weird, but he is their pope and his philanthropic foundations spend over $600 million/year worldwide.

From 1947 (when both Pakistan and India won their independence from the British) to 1972, the seven feudal kingdoms along the Gilgit and Hunza rivers remained essentially autonomous, but between 1972 and 1974, they were properly incorporated into greater Pakistan and the Pakistani government took over, establishing five administrative districts.

Despite 100% of the modern day inhabitants of the region being one kind of Muslim or another, pre-Islamic planting and harvesting ceremonies have survived and most people still believe in fairies, witches and Jinn (ghosts capable of magic, kind of like invisible wizards). The town marketplace is a babble of languages as exotic as they are indiscernible. Punjabis, Pathans, Chitralis, Tajiks and Chinese Uyghurs trade side by side.

Despite having all this wonderful diversity around, the Sunnis of the region somehow still feel the need to attack and kill the Shias. They occasionally ambush and board buses on the isolated mountain roads, shooting any Shias they find on them. This made me revise my driving plan up to Gilgit so that I’m now taking the long way just to avoid Sunni areas. While I’m a Sunni myself, I don’t know if I could emotionally deal with anyone on my bus being murdered for their faith. I’d either get killed myself for trying to intervene, or more likely live with nightmares and depression for the rest of my life for letting it happen. Among the Sunnis of Pakistan is a large cadre of assholes who never cease to amaze with their ignorant hatred. The Shias, Christians and other religious minorities of Pakistan won my respect a long time ago for never responding with reprisal attacks. May their patience and restraint be rewarded in the near future with peace and security.

At the last minute before my flight from Karachi to Islamabad my mother urged me not to go to the Northern Areas out of fear for my safety and is to this minute asking me to reconsider. The way I saw it, I was trying to be hardcore but she wasn’t letting me – I felt like Jorge below.

(taken from a Mexican Jerry Springer-type show)

(taken from a Mexican Jerry Springer-type show)

She wasn’t alone. My father, my wife and my in-laws also asked me not to go. I love and respect them all and ordinarily would go out of my way to keep them happy. In fact I came very close to capitulating, but in the end decided I had to do it (with extreme caution). In some bizarre way, it bothers me that I’ve seen so much of the world while seeing so little of my own country which is full of remarkable historical, cultural and natural beauty. The danger is there – there is no denying that. Even in peacetime, people die in car accidents (driving off the side of the mountain) or from rock falls or avalanches. The roads aren’t good and emergency response is often inaccessible. This treacherous terrain, often more vertical than it is horizontal, has many ways to kill. But in the end, this trip was decided in my heart, not my mind, so off I go. Wish me luck!

My original plan was to go to Concordia, the intersection of Baltoro and Godwin-Austen glaciers from which 4 of the world’s 14 “eight thousanders” (meters) can be seen, including K2, and then on to K2 basecamp. But since I missed the weather window for 2013, instead I’ll be hiking across the Batura Glacier (4 day trek), one of the world’s longest and largest, beneath the peaks of Batura (25,574 ft) and Passu (24,600 ft). I’ll also be doing consulting work with a local NGO, helping them with their reporting to donors and putting together a performance monitoring and evaluation plan.

P.S. – Won’t have laptop for next three weeks as I traverse Gilgit & Hunza valleys. Will post to blog upon return.

July 29, 2013

Minimizing Baggage Fees on Discount Carriers

Many hard-core backpackers, those that have been on the road for several years already, will simply say travel light and pack small so your backpack can be carried on the plane. Easier said than done.

The maximum carry on size backpack for most airlines is 40 liters (45L also has a good chance of success). Any more and you pay $20-30 per bag on discount airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet. Unfortunately I have a 60L pack and Coleen’s is 55L.

Packed for cheapo airline - My pack (right) is supposed to only be 9% larger than Colleen’s but right now it’s well over twice the volume of hers because it’s packed for an Easyjet flight from Dubrovnik to Milan.

Packed for cheapo airline – My pack (right) is supposed to only be 9% larger than Colleen’s but right now it’s well over twice the volume of hers because it’s packed for an Easyjet flight from Dubrovnik to Milan.

So what we’ve been doing for budget flights is overloading my pack and compressing hers to the smallest size the internal frame will allow it to be. That way we only have to check in my bag and we carry hers on-board. We’ve only tried it on two flights so far but it’s worked both times.

July 24, 2013

Pricey Big Macs and a Controversy over Immigration in Oslo, Norway

After Reykjavik, Oslo seems a proper city. Reykjavik didn’t even have a bloody McDonalds, not that I like Mickey D’s, but it’s an indication that it’s not a large market. We paid $16 for a Big Mac meal in Oslo so you know it’s an expensive town. But then Norway is one of the richest nations in the world. They have massive reserves of offshore oil and gas in the North Sea and the government manages revenues from their exploitation very well, giving Norwegians some of the highest standards on living in the world. Norway is the 4th biggest exporter to the EU behind China, Russia and USA and 2/3rds of that is oil & gas.

Another clear contrast to Iceland is the proportion of immigrants. Over a quarter of Oslo residents are immigrants. All of Reykjavik had maybe one quarter of an immigrant. Talking to people we met, we realized our hostel was widely known to be the cheapest place to stay in Oslo. Even day laborer types stayed there! I had a chat with a Polish fellow and a Canadian/French man who had recently arrived looking for work and were comparing notes over a beer. Neither was having much luck finding work and they were already discussing where they’d go next if they didn’t find anything in Oslo. It seems you need a permanent local address to get a job and landlords want proof of a job before they rent you anything so these two were stuck in a Catch-22.

In fact, the big story that leapt out at me in Oslo was immigration. Unlike the US which has centuries of experience with immigration, large scale immigration to Norway is relatively recent and happened very quickly. This has spurned something of a backlash. Most Norwegians are now dissatisfied with or at least concerned about immigration.  Anger at immigration, or “Multiculturalism” as he referred to it, was the justification used by the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik who in 2011 bombed government buildings in Oslo killing 8 people, and then shot and killed 69 others, mostly teenagers, at a labour party youth camp. Norwegians are also more nervous after the recent riots (May 2013) in an immigrant suburb of Stockholm as Swedish and Norwegian immigration systems are similar and both have a high proportion of refugees.

The big word that kept coming up in my conversations with Norwegians was “integration”. Yes, the immigrants were there and now they are here, but they are not giving up their old ways and becoming Norwegian. Depending on who you speak to, this is because of social exclusion that keeps them marginalized and removes the incentives to integrate, or because they are simply unwilling to change regardless of the opportunities before them. Frankly I think “integration” is a euphemism for “assimilation”. Integration sounds reasonable, assimilation doesn’t. Assimilation reminds me of the Borg menace from Star Trek.

For non-trekkies, the Borg are a pseudo-race that sweeps across galaxies forcing other species into their collective and connecting them to “the hive mind”; the act is called assimilation and entails abductions and injections of microscopic machines called nanoprobes. The Borg’s ultimate goal is “achieving perfection” (thank you Wikipedia because I am not a trekkie either. I was always more of a Star Wars guy).

In a nutshell, Norway needs workers but Norwegians don’t want to have more children, so their only option is immigration, but they’re unhappy with the immigrants they’re getting because they’re not becoming Norwegian fast enough.

To any admiral contemplating a sea invasion of Oslo I say "you've got to ask yourself one question - Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"

To any admiral contemplating a sea invasion of Oslo I say “you’ve got to ask yourself one question – Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

We toured the Oslo Opera House, Akershus Fortress, OsloCity Hall, the National Gallery and the MunchMuseum, but by a large margin the highlight of Oslo was FrognerPark which contains the Vigeland sculpture park. The artist responsible for the park design and all 212 bronze and granite sculptures, Gustav Vigeland, was nothing short of a spectacular genius. The frozen characters scattered about the park represent human and particularly familial relationships and offer a deep study of the emotional complications that enter these relationships from factors like love, shame, obligation, competition, betrayal, beauty, envy, pride, disappointment, ageing and death. The expressions and body language of the sculptures are so spot on that you can distinguish between paternal, maternal, fraternal and other relationships on their basis alone. As you journey across the garden you feel the fury of the cranky grandfather chasing his mischievous grandkids, the warmth of the old woman comforting her adult daughter with a broken heart (or sadness over miscarriage, it’s up to the viewer to interpret) and the sadness and jealously of the less loved and popular brother. Seriously, I wasn’t expecting to be affected this way but I found myself in deep reflection in the park that day as the sculptures shared with me their most intimate insecurities, pitiful failings, heroic courage and boundless love. It’s not an experience I will soon forget.

Vigeland Park viewed over clasped granite hands

Vigeland Park viewed over clasped granite hands

Just like with Reykjavik I want to be clear that this post is about Oslo. We visited that city but not the country of Norway, not properly anyway. We did see some of the countryside as our train carried us from Oslo to Stockholm, but we saw no Fjords and really, that’s what this country is famous for. Perhaps on another trip.

July 4, 2013

Happy Birthday America, but who are you?

We’ve been pretty bad about posting to our blog lately and must apologize, but it’s because we’ve been moving through the US and Western Europe very quickly to save money, and by the time we get back to the hotel neither of us is in the mood for serious reflection or thinking.

In May and June we drove over 8,300 miles across America through Washington DC, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, California, Nevada, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland. We met old friends and absolute strangers along the way and visited nine national parks.

The scale and diversity of America is truly breathtaking. One morning we stood in scorching desert sand and the same evening in snow covered granite. Along the way we met cowboys and indians, and immigrants from every corner of the Earth. And all the while we wondered, how does one sum all this up?

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

- “One Today” by Richard Blanco


June 21, 2013

Land of Fire and Ice – Reykjavic, Iceland

This island of volcanoes and glaciers struck me as different from the beginning, so I went over the list of countries we’d already been to and confirmed it was the smallest country by population we had ever visited (not counting Monaco, Vatican City or any territories). Also more than half of Icelanders believe in elves – that’s different. Of the ~300k total residents, 2/3rds live in the Reykjavik area, and at times it does appear everyone at least vaguely knows each other.

Iceland Landscape

Iceland is one of the most expensive countries we visit on this trip along with Norway, Denmark and Japan. $100 a night gets you a single room with shared bath. The land of ice sounds cold, no? Combine that with shared bath and you’d think hot water would run out early in the morning and late risers would be forced to bathe in freezing glacier water. It’s actually the opposite. Cold water runs out before hot water in Iceland thanks to their thermal springs. Because of this hot water from the tap smells of sulfur so brushing your teeth or taking a shower smells the same as eating a cold boiled egg at a budget motel’s breakfast buffet (totally safe though). We smelled the same sulfur at the geysers of Yellowstone a few weeks back. 25% of electricity produced in Iceland is geothermal (the rest being hydro so 99% of generation is from renewables), but gas is expensive at ~USD9/gallon, like most island states.

Iceland outside

Reyjavik feels more  like a really big town than a city. The nightlife that Reyjavik is famous for in actuality comprises of only a handful of pubs/clubs, fewer than in Clarendon (an area in Arlington, VA). The party scene is lively, with the revelers both younger and drunker than most Americans are used to seeing. Far from being a crime, public intoxication is a national pastime here so guys peeing or puking in a corner and drunk girls teetering precariously atop their high heels as they stumble from bar to bar are common sights. Police presence is virtually nil which is both good and bad. On the one hand, you can have a good time without risking waking up in prison. On the other hand, if you get in a fight and are outnumbered, you better be a fast runner or you will definitely wake up in a hospital. I saw a fight break out where one guy took some serious blows before bolting into a bar where the bouncers blocked his pursuing attackers.

I did get shoulder slammed by a guy trying to pick a fight in Kaffibarinn, one of the trendier clubs, but given the size and solidness of his shoulder, I walked away without a second thought. No idea why he picked on me. But assholes exist everywhere and the Reykjavik bar crowd is very friendly. There are lots of foreigners speaking English and while the locals converse in Icelandic, they all speak English as well and on several occasions started conversations with us out of the blue. Since Iceland’s population is small and 95% ethnic Icelandic, genetic diversity if low, and while “soft” inbreeding can result in ugly people, luckily in Iceland it has not. So for the single folks out there, particularly those with an affinity for blondes, Icelanders are attractive, big partiers and friendly to foreigners.

Iceland Nightlife

One caution on partying – buy your booze at duty free as you enter the country because alcohol is expensive, and outside of bars is only available at a few stores which close at 6pm. The locals pre-party at home and only hit the bars around 1am. Lastly it must be noted that party nights are Friday, Saturday and that’s it! All other days are dead because as stated earlier, Icelanders have ritualized their party schedule this way.

Unfortunately we didn’t see much of Iceland’s natural beauty because it’s cost prohibitive for us at the moment – Iceland’s an expensive country and we’ve got to make our money last 16 months. I can see us returning later on a separate trip to see the rest of the Island and the Western fjords in particular which are spectacular.

The one trip I did take outside Reykjavik was to SCUBA dive in Silfra which is a glacier lake with a crack that divides the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This crack widens by 2 cm each year and is wide enough to swim down into up to a depth of 22 meters. The water is supposed to be the clearest in the world, offering visibility of up to 100m. It’s clarity comes from the fact that the water travels through porous volcanic rock for between 30 and 100 years from the glacier to the lake and this does an amazing job of filtering it. Water temperature when I went was 2 degrees Celsius. Because of how cold it is, divers have to wear a dry suit with two layers of insulation underneath, gloves, hood and since the dry suit increases buoyancy, you need more weights than you normally would. Lastly, if you’re not dry suit certified, you also need a BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) which is redundant extra weight since you can control buoyancy with the dry suit. In the end, my gear weighed about 35 kilos but more than the weight, all the layers of stuff I was wearing reduced my range of motion and the thick gloves made operating my camera difficult. My dry suit seals held up great as did most people’s but three divers in my group aborted their dives due to water leaking into their dry suits. In the end it was cool to be between continents but not worth all the trouble and cost (roughly $300), plus there are virtually no fish in there. I saw one brown fish maybe 2 inches long, but I don’t think anyone else saw fish.


One bonus of doing the dive was getting to see the Icelandic landscape outside Reykjavik. It is lots of green gently rolling hills with pretty waterfalls and small lakes here and there, but no trees. I don’t mean hardly any trees. I really mean not one single tree anywhere, which was weird. I climbed a hill near the dive site and my foot sank ~5 inches into its soft surface with every step because it was covered with a thick layer of moss. This surprised me but it makes sense since volcanic ash is incredibly fertile. I remember seeing similar hills on the Big Island of Hawaii, although I never attempted climbing one.

On our last day we saw a massive celebration in Reykjavik to commemorate their national day, June 17, on which they won independence from Denmark in 1944. Check out our photos from Iceland here. It’s an interesting country but now it’s off to Norway!

June 14, 2013

No turning back now!

If it didn’t hit us before when we left for the US road trip, it’s definitely hit us now! We’re really doing this and it fills us with both excitement and anxiety (more Mustafa). We downsized from a four bedroom house to a car 7 weeks back, and now we’ve further downsized our life so it packs into two backpacks, which have been weighed, tagged and are about to be tossed on a conveyor belt to Reykjavik, Iceland, our first international destination!

Mustafa's pack: 31 lbs, Colleen's pack: 25 lbs

Mustafa’s pack: 31 lbs, Colleen’s pack: 25 lbs

May 5, 2013

Memphis, TN

Named for the city of Memphis in Ancient Egypt, Memphis, TN took us three hours to drive to from Nashville. Despite being even further South than Nashville, I got the sense Memphis had better racial integration. Both cities are roughly the same size (between 600k-700k population) and are rich in musical heritage. We did 3 major things in Memphis:

1 – Visited Graceland: We took a tour of the estate of “The King”, Elvis Presley. Neither of us are Elvis fans but this was something we had to check out. Two things struck me at Graceland. First, Elvis was a twin. His older brother was stillborn 35 minutes before the King made his entrance into this World. Second, despite being a big star, he was drafted into the army and spent 2 years in service between 1958 and 1960. Whatever I think of war, the fact that he was drafted and had to comply despite being a super-celebrity is impressive because it indicates the draft system was relatively free of corruption and equitable between individuals, even if it was inequitable to the group as a whole. The United States ended conscription and moved to an all-volunteer force in 1973, which has had several benefits but on the whole I feel has been negative because it’s made going to war too easy for most Americans because on average they are less likely to know a soldier personally. Sending people to war should be an involved and difficult decision and yet today the US is fighting the longest war in its history and hardly anyone notices. War should be taken more seriously.



2 – Hit the Beale Street Music Festival: While we didn’t buy tickets to the concert itself which was quite affordable at under $40, Beale Street itself was teeming with activity and jazz music so we happily took in these freebies.

Beale Street

Beale Street

3 – Visited the American Civil Rights Museum: This museum includes the Lorraine Motel where MLK Jr was shot and killed in 1968. We learned a lot we didn’t know about the fight for African American civil rights, too much in fact to include in this post. I’ll just say I was surprised by how much we didn’t know and that it was a longer and more painful struggle than I had previously thought.


National Civil Rights Museum. At right is room 306 where MLK was staying and in front of which he was shot and killed.

We also took in the Mayweather-Guerrero fight at a nearby Fox & Hound pub, and had the best fried chicken yet on our trip at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. It really was exceptional chicken!