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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?”

“Yes”

“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”

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.

Success!

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.

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)

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.

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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.

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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!