Pakistan: A Single Step

That's all it took to begin our improbable, unimaginable, and ultimately life-changing trip to the Indus River in northeastern Pakistan. 

It was interesting, to say the least, to land in Islamabad after several major incarnations of what we in the USA solely see and hear from the media about Pakistan: terror. Islamabad was in the midst of recovering from the bombing of the Marriott Hotel and next door gov't building, cross border drone attacks from the USA, and a controversial presidential election. We stopped where the blast crater was just getting topped off in front of the Marriott Hotel and sped by the nearby Red Mosque, which has also seen much violent excitement in the past year. It was a daunting introduction to the threat of Muslim extremism in Pakistan. 

The Team:
Roland Stevenson: trip mastermind; cultural guide; price haggling master, inshallah al hamdulillah.
Ben Stookesberry: ultra-motivated trip leader; shit-runner; boat scouting guru.
Darin McQuoid: master photographer; California homeboy; undeterred to boat scout class V after two days of chundering at our hotel in Skardu.   
Phil Boyer: optimistic decision maker; solid on the water and an assuring presence on the river; did not get wet, the water got Phil Boyered
Rafa Ortiz: team diversity, left early to get back for finals(but otherwise would have cut our portage total, probably significantly), easily lost in a crowd of Pakistanis. 
Me: drank more "Haleeb, The Thickest Milk" than previously thought possible in Pakistan

(Need to give Roland extra credit here, for making this trip entirely possible and hooking it up with Mr. Zakaria for a place to stay in Islamabad and innumerable translation and general cultural awareness moments. Shukria al hamdulillah)

Roland looking smug with his finger on the trigger of our police escort's AK-47.

Roland looking cold, and for a cup of chai.

We left Islamabad and spent two long days driving the Karakoram Highway to Skardu high in the heart of the greatest mountain range on earth, the Karakoram mountains, home to more than sixty 7000 meter peaks, K2, and some of the world's largest non-polar glaciers. We passed through places where natural devastation and extreme poverty stood to highlight the intense natural beauty and local hospitality of the region. We drank tea with villagers to whom illiteracy, herding, and farming have been reality for centuries. While on the river we passed villages accessible only by steep, exposed trails and old bridges high above the water. We were made nervous to float under the incessant road construction blasting in ever developing rural Pakistan. It was just another obstacle towards the safe and full descent of the Indus River through the Rondu Gorge.  

The river was hard. Maybe the hardest any of us had ever done. At times it was tranquil, but scouts and fierce strokes were often and relaxing was a far off dream. The intense mountain scenery and enormous scale of the landscape framed relaxation into a foreign and even unneeded luxury. The challenges the people of the Indus valley face every day proved that our expedition was merely a drop in the full flow of the mighty Indus. 

A sheepherder guiding his herd along the road toward the Pasturelands region of Haramosh.

Darin McQuoid making do with a missed line.

We tried to keep moving at a rate that would get us to the confluence of the Gilgit and Indus Rivers in as short a time as possible, but we had to juggle more than just the challenges of the river, landscape, and logistics. Aside from the legal/permit issues we had to deal with before even putting on the water, the military escort afforded by the District Commissioner of Skardu, we were suddenly and fully absorbed into the education efforts of the Dawn School in the village of Hanuchal. 
Roland and I spent an afternoon teaching English to a class of gravely respectful students in one of the four stone classrooms next to the main classroom, pictured below. 

In a part of the world considered to harbor terrorism and radical Muslim militants, the front lines of the war on terrorism are spreading to classrooms just like this one. Greg Mortenson is bringing it there with his less-than-massive initiative of education and literacy as the firepower against terrorism. His CAI is building schools and promoting education, especially for girls, in very remote and sometimes volatile regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

Mortenson greeting a young girl on his way to greet every student at an event in Jafarabad in Northern Pakistan.