Holassalamualaikum! (That’s my fallback foreign language, the hola part, mixed with one of the three Urdu words I know — Spanglishstani?) I’m finishing-up seven weeks in Pakistan, on what started as a climbing trip but became something more. A bunch of stories floating through ol’ duder’s head for once I get around to sharing them. Sorry, by the way, for the unposted comments — I see them sitting in my inbox and will approve ’em pronto.
In brief, the climbing…I spent 30 days in the Charakusa Valley, an immaculate place that I’m psyched to have visited again (I was there in 2007 as well), along with young guns Kyle Dempster and Hayden Kennedy. They’re both beasts, phenomenal all-arounders (man, I’m so impressed with the younger generation!) and great people. They tore it up, while I, well…damn. I thought I was ready, maybe convinced myself of such after six surgeries in just over a year, but I think I took for granted what an enormous step up it is from day climbs back home, and even in Chamonix, to the truly awesome Karakoram.
In between smaller climbs, bouldering, and nursing myself back to health, the simple life in base camp provided a beautiful place to make peace with my disappointment. Maybe I need more time, or maybe this is my new reality; we don’t always get what we want in life, and I haven’t forgotten that I am a fortunate man.
And so I left base camp a week early to explore northern Pakistan on my own, and it gave me some of the coolest experiences of my life, like I was living a different existence in a different place, seeing things and meeting people that expanded my concept of the world and of life and of my own smallness, my utter insignificance in the universe, all while somehow making me feel connected at the same time. That’s some pretty cool shit, and a wonderful, liberating experience.
So, you’re probably wondering the “s” thing: safety. And what would a piece on Pakistan be without addressing safety? Well, it is my pleasure, and considering the people I’ve met, indeed I feel it my responsibility. Nope, no evil-doers. No terrorists (how exactly one defines that…well, I’ll save it, but I god-damned guarantee ya two things: when I fly home, the alert level in the US airports will be orange (meaning…what exactly?); and on my next flight after this trip I will hear these words at airport security, as I always do after Pakistan: “Mr. Cordes, you have been randomly selected for secondary screening.”). Here in Pakistan I found alert level green, just peace and love and kindness at a level unmatched by even the enlightened folk back in Boulder (regardless of what their bumper stickers say). Damn, good stuff.
Seriously, to imply, as our government and media most certainly do, that an entire nation (and/or religious or ethnic group) is to be avoided, and its inhabitants mostly hostile and dangerous, is so fucking absurd that it defies reason. It draws to mind the ugliness of racism, and it is wrong and cruel to the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis and Muslims who are kind, peaceful people. Imagine if after, say, the Arizona shootings (or pick any act of violence that occurs anyplace daily at home), people were going, “Don’t go to the US! Man, you might get shot. Crazy people, I wouldn’t go there.” Of course you could get yourself into trouble as a foreigner in Pakistan, should you be an idiot and do zero research as to where to go, or act like a complete asshole, or just get very unlucky. Duh. Name a place in the world where this is not the case.
Imagine a Pakistani, speaking no English and wearing traditional garb, walking through a neighborhood back home. How many people would cross the street to enthusiastically welcome him to our country, invite him to our homes for tea and food and even to stay the night? In Pakistan I was that foreigner, and I lost count of the times people welcomed me in those very ways.
My experiences, after an accumulated seven months of my life in Pakistan (spread over four trips), completely belie the fear-mongering portrayal of the country. I have not had one negative personal interaction here, not once felt concern for my security or felt even a hint of unwelcoming. Never in my life, nowhere in my world travels — including my daily life back home — have I been treated with the kindness and warmth presented to me at every turn in northern Pakistan, whether traveling solo on a bicycle (that was really freakin’ cool, by the way!); walking around and taking public transportation by myself; being with friends old and new, Pakistani and Western alike; kicking around the cities; or heading through remote villages en route to the mountains. It’s especially profound when you witness daily lives that should seem desperate to us — staggering poverty, unemployment near 50%, and a serious lack of the conveniences and services we take for granted. Talk about a dose of perspective.
Indeed the world is a crazy place and Pakistan faces some complex issues as it develops. Who knows what the future holds? I don’t. But I do know this: I will never forget the overwhelming kindness and warmth shown to me by the people of northern Pakistan. I leave here humbled and grateful.