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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?”


“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”

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.

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.