Alert Level Orange
I’m excited and worried about my Pakistan trip later this summer. Most people are good people, I think, but still, the world is a dangerous place. Then again, so is sitting on the couch with your seatbelt buckled. What to do?
My Pakistan fears have nothing to do with jihadis, and everything to do with my body. I can’t wait, and my only apprehension regards this seemingly foreign notion that I could ever be healthy and climbing again, able to go to these beautiful places and embrace risk and feel alive. A privileged worry, indeed. I’m making huge strides in rehab, and I’ll be fine.
It’s weird, how fear gets politicized and commercialized. Danger lurks at every corner, beware: nothing is what it seems. I’m a cynic, so convince me otherwise but fear sells, baby, fear sells.
[The world is a dangerous place…but I am a dangerous man. Photo: Kelly Cordes]
I will admit that before each of my three Pakistan trips I’ve had moments of travel fear. Should I go? [Insert news event here] just happened over there, and they’re saying it’s dangerous.
Who are “they”? Should I trust them? I don’t want to be a fool, but my experiences in Pakistan belie the fear-instilled notions we receive on a regular basis about the Muslim world. Never in my life, anywhere in my world travels – Switzerland, Spain, France, Argentina, Chile, the Soviet Union (when it was that), Czechoslovakia (when it was that), Jamaica, Barbados, Canada, Peru, Pakistan, California (that place is crazy, right after Pakistan – don’t you know there were riots in L.A.!), the U.K. (terrorists bombed there!), China (evil commie empire!) – never have I been met with the same kindness and warmth as that of the people of Pakistan. Never. Nowhere. Of course it depends on where you go there. Where doesn’t it depend on where you go? To consider all of Pakistan “bad” and a place to completely avoid strikes me as comparable to if someone, during the 1992 L.A. riots, said, “Don’t go to America! Didn’t you hear?!”
How to decide? I’m too much of a cynic to believe the loudspeakers. Take airport security alerts. Every time, I mouth it with the announcement: “The security alert level is orange.” Yeah, no shit. It means nothing. Of course it’s orange. What else would it be? If it’s red, you’ll have people freaking and saying the gawd-damned gubberment should shut the airports. If it’s yellow, oh my, people won’t be on the lookout, on their toes, afraid, like…uh, like the way we all are when it’s orange. Right.
Of course there’s a flipside to the fear alerts, and you don’t want to be cavalier about real risks in a dangerous world. Hard to say.
The Arabian Sea, part of the massive Indian Ocean, where Somali pirates killed four American hostages last week, sounds sketchy; but, wait, does that mean all of the Arabian sea? Or, to be safe – one can never be too safe – just avoid the Indian Ocean (which covers 20% of our planet’s surface water)? Or, heck, does it just mean to stay clear of all Arab nations? (The name obviously indicates that it is their sea.) Should we also avoid Europe, connected in landmass to India and sorta kinda nearby… And what of Africa?
I know some climbers who recently canceled their bouldering plans to Hueco Tanks, Texas, because it’s too close to the Mexican border, what with the drug violence in Mexico and all (and…so…uh…presumably the risk of infiltration to the Warm Up Roof?). I’m dead serious.
JT and Brittany just had a phenomenal trip to Algeria – by all official standards a place to fully avoid, apparently meaning avoid any square inch – and were humbled and awed by the kindness and respect they received at every turn in their travels. Of course, had something tragic happened, it would be easy to sing a different tune.
All to say I think that you have to try to be smart, think for yourself, and investigate with a clear head rather than blindly listen to any color-coded hysteria that blankets entire populations as “good and evil” or “right and wrong.”
Whenever I get concerned about Pakistan – a country bordered on its south by the Arabian Sea, and whose northwestern border region reputedly holds Osama bin Laden – I counter those thoughts with real memories of real human experiences, overwhelmingly similar to the experiences reported by everyone I know who’s gone to similar areas.
One day after coming out of the mountains, we had a few days to kill in Skardu, a city in the Northern Areas. We’d heard about some bouldering and a swimming hole in some fields, and caught a cab and started wandering. Suddenly, a man carrying a hatchet approached us. He was middle-aged and lean, wore traditional Pakistani garb and spoke zero English. We speak no Urdu or Balti. I hate to admit it, but indeed a flash of fear washed through me. The hatchet looked sharp. Through animated and insistent sign language, he clearly expressed what he wanted, and we were on his land so we didn’t argue: We must sit down with him and his grandchildren, whom he summoned to serve us fresh food from his fields. We sat in the grass, nodding and smiling at each other – it’s not like we could communicate through words – enjoying nuts, tea, and delicious, fresh orange apricots. Orange, just like the alert level.
[Top, right - Pallin’ around with the locals in remote Pakistan. Photo: Cordes collection.
Above, left - A Balti porter, helping us travel to base camp in Pakistan’s remote Northern Areas. Photo: Kelly Cordes.
Above, right - Josh Wharton works on his cannonball technique near Skardu, Pakistan. Photo: Kelly Cordes.]