The Accidental Extremist
Because bad trips make great stories.

The Traffic Apocalypse [Drive Like Hell]
Monday January 04th 2010, 3:36 pm
Filed under: Drive Like Hell, Road Warriors

Are we there yet?

Are we there yet?

I was at the Aga Khan
University in Karachi, organizing a writing workshop, when the call came in.

“Oh no,” whispered my colleague. 
”That’s bad. That’s terrible.”

She turned to me. “Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated. We want you to go home
 right now.”

She called for Zabair, the toughest and most experienced driver in the pool. He led me outside to a reinforced pickup truck, made sure I was belted in, and pulled out into the worst traffic in the world.

Nobody knew what to expect. Riots? Invasion by the Taliban, by India, by the U.S.? Everyone in Karachi, a city of nearly 20 million, had a single thought: get home.

Outside the university walls, the traffic wasn’t just bumper-to-bumper—it was
 door-to-door and elbow-to-elbow. A three-lane road had five lanes of 
traffic, a four-lane road had seven: small family cars, vast 
trucks painted with bright designs and verses from the Koran, taxis (some so battered they were literally shapeless, held 
together by fiberglass patching), scores of motorbikes and mopeds swarming the sidewalks and threading the gaps between car bumpers.

Traffic in Pakistan tends to be an open-faced sandwich anyway, with very 
little hidden or enclosed, and tonight this was even more true. 

Hand-carts, donkey-carts, a boy on a bicycle carrying two large wooden
 crates, two boys on a moped carrying an extension ladder and metal 
piping, a family of five squeezed into the bed of a tiny pickup along with what looked like a giant refrigerator. Another family of five on a 
motorbike. The brightly-painted buses had twenty or more people on the 
roof. Everyone looked like a refugee.



People swarmed the sidewalks, flooded into the roads. Scores of mopeds and small motorbikes raced up the sidewalks or picked their way between the larger vehicles, sometime perpendicular to the stream, sometimes in the opposite direction. It’s a wonder we didn’t see crushed pelvises on every corner.

Twice our pickup flipped the wing-mirror of a bus. Once we crunched a woman’s car as she crowded in front of our bumper. “Well, go on then!” Zabair shouted in Urdu, and she pulled into the tiny space that had opened ahead.

Night fell. The whole scene was becoming surreal. The shops had closed early, in self-protection. Tail lights and brake lights shone dimly through dust and exhaust. The traffic got steadily worse. Gas was running out: motorbikes were being pushed, cars abandoned. Eventually we reached a two-lane on-ramp to an overpass and it became clear that nothing would go any farther. People swarmed out of their cars or climbed on their roofs.

Nobody was in charge. When I’d arrived in Karachi, just five hours previously, 
every road had a soldier lounging at the corner or on a bridge. Now
 there was no sign of them, nor of police to help sort out the 
traffic.

Yet, astonishingly, there was no sense of threat. It was only later in the evening that a feeling of 
grievance would emerge here and there, tires would be burned, shots will be fired (mostly into the air), campaign billboards would be pulled down and torched, the belief in Pakistan being that everything comes down to politics, and all politics is corrupt. For now, people were standing around watching, talking, even joking. One boy of maybe nine grinned as he helped his father push their car.

In the end, Zabair backed up, bumped across a construction site under the overpass and found a detour, then another, and finally we got to my host’s home, the 25-minute journey taking more than three hours. Indoors, we stared at the TV. Still, nobody knew what would happen, but I felt I’d been granted a vision of how the world will end: not with a bang but with a final apocalypse of traffic.—Tim Brookes

Tim Brookes’ latest book is Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment.

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You’re So Money [Dangerous Liasons]
Tuesday December 29th 2009, 4:25 pm
Filed under: Road Warriors

Don't spend it all in one place!

Don't spend it all in one place.

Here’s the first of three excerpts from Letters to Zerky, an account of Bill Raney and his wife JoAnne’s travels along with their 18-month old son Zerky (and their miniature dachshund Tarzan) across Europe and through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sikkim, Assam, Thailand, and Hong Kong in 1967 and 1968 in a VW van. Because Zerky was too young to remember his adventure, his father wrote him a series of letters along the way, while his mother kept a diary. The book, released in November, comes recommended by Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson.

Letter From Ghazni, Afghanistan, November 29, 1967

Dear Zerky,

Your mom has a lot of class. This morning as we were getting ready to leave Kandahar for Kabul, we remembered that we didn’t have any Afghan money. Unable to find a bank in Kandahar, your mother decided to try to change money at the hotel where we were camped. “But they just won’t let us do that,” I told her. “We haven’t even rented a room, and we look like a busload of hippies.”  “I’ll take care of it,” she replied.

She spent the next hour getting all dolled up. Both of us have brought along one set of good clothes, “just in case.” Prior to arriving in the wilds of Afghanistan, neither of us has worn them. Your mom put on her white blouse and her brown suit.

“Why not wear that cute little Tyrolean costume instead,” I badgered, “the one that makes your boobs look like they’re hanging out.”  “Sure, that would be perfect for a Moslem country,” she countered. Next came the nylons, then the high heels, then half an hour of doing her hair, nails and makeup. “You look like a million bucks,” I told her, begrudgingly.  “That’s the idea,” she replied, as she marched off to battle.

Fifteen minutes later she was back with a big wad of weird-looking bills. “How did you talk them into it?” I asked.

Your mother then explained to me, as if to a child, that she hadn’t talked them into anything—she just didn’t give them the opportunity to say no. She had come to Afghanistan on business, she told the hotel manager. She explained that she was in the motion picture business in San Francisco. “San Francisco is near Hollywood, California. You’ve heard of Hollywood, California, haven’t you?” Indeed he had. Then she explained that the price of making movies in Hollywood, California is exorbitant. “The cost of making movies in Afghanistan must be very reasonable in comparison, “don’t you think?” He did.

“And what with all your colorful tribesmen, beautiful deserts, and spectacular mountains,” she larded it on, “I’m sure American audiences would love to see your faraway beautiful land.”

Had he read the recent best-seller, James Michener’s Caravans? she asked innocently. “It’s all about Afghanistan.” He didn’t read English, of course. “Everybody’s reading it in America,” she went on. Finally she explained how she had arrived in Afghanistan only yesterday, and had not yet had the opportunity to exchange her American dollars. “Are there many such grand hotels as this in Afghanistan?” she flattered.

“Did you offer him the starring role?” I interjected.

“How much would you like to exchange?”  he asked her.

There’s no business like show business. —Bill and JoAnne Walker Raney


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Strange Bedfellows [When Animals Attack]
Tuesday December 29th 2009, 3:34 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized


Nice and cozy.

Nice and cozy.

Writer Jeff Alt sent us an excerpt from from Chapter 24 of his new book, ‘A Walk for Sunshine.’

[Adds Alt: This is my second night hiking the Appalachian Trail.  I’ve assembled camp in a shelter on top of Blood Mountain, Georgia...]

I turned off my headlamp and burrowed deep into my sleeping bag to keep warm. In spite of the cold, I managed to doze off sometime later, only to be awakened by a heavy object moving across my feet and lower legs. I could hear my heart beating over the sound of an unknown creature moving around on top of my legs. Not knowing what to expect, I cautiously reached out, grabbed my flashlight, and turned it on. A skunk was lying on my sleeping bag! I cautiously nudged it with my foot, and it jumped off the platform, raising its tail. Great. The last thing I needed was a putrid scent on my gear and body, but the skunk didn’t spray me. Instead, it ducked out of sight under the bunk platform, which was about eight inches off the ground.

I took out my candle and lit it. I figured the little critter would leave me alone, being afraid of flames. I was wrong. Twenty minutes later, I felt the weight drop on my feet and legs again, I sat up, and there he was, sprawled out on my sleeping bag again. The candle had given him enough light to precisely place his body between my legs on my bag. I decided that he just wanted to keep warm and that he was going to stay there, so I lay back down. Believe it or not, I actually fell asleep with a skunk on my feet. — Jeff Alt

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Toy Story [Nothing to Declare]
Friday November 20th 2009, 12:05 pm
Filed under: Road Warriors

Fulla, the Muslim Barbie.

Fulla, the Muslim Barbie.

After spending five anxious days in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, hanging out in a Bedouin tent with an international fugitive who’s wanted as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist”—a character who figured prominently in a story I was reporting about a Muslim charity in southern Oregon with purported links to al Qaeda—I was relieved to finally be en route to Portland, albeit standing at the tail end of a line that was advancing glacially toward a distant security checkpoint at Frankfurt Main Airport.

As the final boarding call for my connecting flight home echoed through the cavernous hall, I thrust the shopping bag that I’d been lugging onto the conveyor, and waited anxiously at the end of the X-ray machine for my bag, growing increasingly agitated the longer it failed to appear. The scanner technician motioned for his superior, and then a security guard, toting my bag, asked me to follow him into another room, where he asked me to empty the contents of the bag onto a table. First I pulled out a silk black abaya and boshiya (traditional Saudi dress and veil) for my six-year-old daughter, then a white thobe and red checkered ghutra (robe and headdress) for my eight-year-old son.

No problem there. Then I remembered the toys.

On the way to King Khalid International Airport, my Saudi host made a detour at a toy store, and had picked out two dolls for my kids that he insisted were all the rage in Riyadh. So out came “Fulla,” the Saudi version of Barbie, robed and veiled in black, accessorized with a prayer rug. The guard pressed the button on Fulla’s back and looked at me quizzically when the doll called out to Allah, praying in Arabic. He stiffened when I presented him with a Saudi G.I. Joe, a bearded, chamo-clad airborne ranger toting an automatic rifle, bandolier, grenades and dagger. “Fur die kinder!” I said lamely, as the guard, registering his disapproval, swabbed the toys and ran the sample through a mobile mass spectrometer.

For a few tense seconds that ticked like minutes, I wondered if I’d been set up by my host. Then the explosives detector spat out its reading: Negative. And I was on my way. My daughter has never played with Fulla, whose muffled prayers sometimes sound when she’s jostled in her resting place at the bottom of the toybox. But that plastic Saudi warrior stands at attention on a prominent shelf in my son’s room. A gift that traveled all the way from Arabia.

He calls it his “Jihad Joe.” —Ted Katauskas is a former magazine writer currently based in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.


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Shoulda Gone To Law School [Close Calls]
Wednesday November 04th 2009, 10:50 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Business meetings ought to be a bit more exciting.

Business meetings ought to be a bit more exciting.

Here’s the last of three tales from Greg Dobbs, an Emmy-winning producer and correspondent for 23 years with ABC, taken from his new book, Life in the Wrong Lane - Why Journalists Go In When Everyone Else Wants Out.

From the chapter I WAS ONLY DRIVING AN AMBULANCE ON THE RUSSIAN FRONT

(On Dobbs’ meeting with an arms dealer in Beirut)

Just as quickly as my contact had appeared out of nowhere, two more guys did the same. But they didn’t sit down at the table. They towered over it.

My tablemate started shaking. Not a single word from our visitors, but he seemed to know who they were and why they were there, and he was shaking, and starting to mutter, and then squeal, “No, not me, no, not me, nooo  …”

It didn’t really seem like a party where I wanted to stay. But it didn’t seem like I could just get up and leave, either.

It felt like they stood there for a minute or so, just staring down at this guy next to me. But there was a message in their eyes: “Come peacefully, or not. Up to you.”

Not.

I don’t think the shaking man at my side actually made some kind of conscious decision to hold his ground. I think he was just too scared to move. So they moved first. These two thugs reached over the table, each grabbing this guy under one arm, and pulled him across. Coffee cups and cream and sugar bowls went flying, but hey, the owner can always buy more.

My contact wasn’t just squealing anymore, he was screaming. “Noo, nooo, pleeeese, noooo, nooooo, noooooo!”

Three things flew through my mind: 1) Live by the sword, die by the sword; 2) Maybe instead of journalism school, I should have gone to law school; 3) I was really glad I never learned the guy’s name.

Now let me tell you what happened with our eyes: mine never met his. The abductors were bad guys, but he was too, and I didn’t want any part of his problem.

And their eyes never met mine. They were about as interested in me as they were in the porcelain now shattered on the floor. Thank goodness!

The other customers, veterans of life in Beirut, never looked up. Well, maybe once, but then they quickly resumed the appearance of non-involvement that had kept them alive so far through all the years of Lebanon’s civil war.

That was the last time I saw the guy who sent me a message to meet him at the Alexander. The last time I even heard about him. His abductors had to drag him, kicking uselessly, all the way to a car. My hearing’s not so hot, but I could hear him screaming ’til they slammed the door on their way out. I don’t suppose he screamed much longer.

That might have been the end of it. But I couldn’t be sure. Some mysterious American arms dealer had just been dragged kicking and screaming from a hotel coffee shop by a couple of mysterious Arab thugs, and I was the other guy at the table. Worse still, he had left the briefcase.

—Greg Dobbs

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Rocked at the Casbah [Dangerous Liasons]
Wednesday October 14th 2009, 12:07 pm
Filed under: Road Warriors

1220-time-magazine3

Here’s the 2nd of three tales from Greg Dobbs, an Emmy-winning producer and correspondent for 23 years with ABC, taken from his new book, Life in the Wrong Lane - Why Journalists Go In When Everyone Else Wants Out.

[From the chapter CHAMPAGNE FROM A STYROFOAM CUP, on covering the revolution in Iran]

The Ayatollah’s aides—the president destined to be exiled, the foreign minister destined to be executed—had promised me an interview with Khomeini. So I went with a crew and a translator—Behray Taidi, an out of work English-speaking Iranian TV cameraman whom we had hired to work with us—to the elementary school in Tehran that had been Khomeini’s headquarters since he returned in triumph.

The schoolyard, surrounded by a chain link fence, was packed with people. Khomeini’s entourage had announced that he would hold a public audience. What that meant was, he’d stand at a window and weakly wave his hand at the masses.

We pushed our way in. The pictures would be great.

Bad decision. Once we were in, we couldn’t get back out. And with more people pushing in, neither could anyone else. It wasn’t like squeezing ten pounds into a five-pound bag. It was like squeezing a hundred pounds into the bag.

By the time we were near the Ayatollah, we couldn’t move. Not under our own power anyway. The crush was so tight that we, like everyone else, got picked up and carried by the human tide. If your arm was down at your side, you couldn’t lift it. If it was up in the air, you couldn’t bring it down.

Behray had a Rolex wristwatch. It came off. There was nothing he could do. To try to reach for it on the ground would have doomed him to death by crushing. Several people did die that day in the schoolyard.

Ironically, we have the Ayatollah himself to thank for our lives. Standing at the corner window, weakly waving his hand at his subjects who were pinned in too tight to wave back, he saw us in the crush and signaled to his aides. They nudged Khomeini away from the window and reached out for us, pulling us one by one across the windowsill and into the room. Ayatollah Khomeini. What a guy. —Greg Dobbs

To buy Dobbs’ new book, ‘LIFE IN THE WRONG LANE’ (iUniverse), click here.


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Horned and Dangerous [When Animals Attack]
Monday October 12th 2009, 4:03 pm
Filed under: Road Warriors

I can haz surrender?

Do you feel lucky punk? Well, do ya?

Ever wonder what it’s like to be a far-flung correspondent for T.V. news? Let’s just say it’s no walk in the park. This week Greg Dobbs, an Emmy-winning producer and correspondent for 23 years with ABC and currently a correspondent for HDNet TV, shares a few priceless tales of woe from his new book, Life in the Wrong Lane - Why Journalists Go In When Everyone Else Wants Out. Here’s the first of three. Thanks Greg. I hope you enjoy his misfortunes as much as I do. — Ed.

[Note: the following is from a chapter about Dobbs covering the Indian occupation of Wounded Knee.]

The first sign was maybe a hundred yards ahead of us, at the top of a hill, silhouetted in the dark night. A lone figure, erect, like a statue at the top of a treeless slope, the barrel of his rifle standing out against the night sky. He seemed to be peering right down at us. If he was a fed, he was just waiting to clamp on the cuffs.

We stopped short and whispered to each other. Fed, or Indian, or angry rancher? No way to know. But it didn’t really matter. Whoever he was, he wasn’t acting real friendly.

We could cut fast to the left or right and hope to outrun him. We were weighted down with tens of thousands of dollars in camera equipment, but who knows? Maybe in this deep snow, we could move just as fast as he could.

And maybe we couldn’t. Furthermore, outrunning him might not be our biggest challenge. What if he shoots at us? Could we outrun the bullet? (more…)

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Ski Bus to Hell [Lost in Translation]
Monday October 05th 2009, 11:03 am
Filed under: Road Warriors
hello-kitty-hell

Let's just take the bus. We'll be there in no time!

It was my 2nd time on Esquel, a sleepy mountain town in Argentine Patagonia known for its fishing and a gem of a ski area. This time I was with my ski buddy, Tyler from Montana, and was eager to show him what I’d discovered in my prior 9-day stint. I was staying in a new hostel for a change of scenery and, as we left, Federico, the patron of the hostel, asked if we needed transport to the mountain, a 30 peso fee. I explained to him we would be taking the local bus to a hitchhiking spot, but Federico said the bus didn’t go there.

‘Yeah yeah, he doesn’t know I’ve already used it,’ I thought, secure in prize knowledge shared from 2 savvy Swiss skiers, all of 19 years old. I knew. The drill is: once on the bus, ask the driver to be let out at the puente (bridge) then walk 4 blocks to the access road, thumb it, then use the extra 30 pesos for a wonderful bottle of Malbec back in town. Still Federico insisted the bus does not go to the puente, but I chalked it up to linguistic difficulties and ignored him… (more…)

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Bound For Disaster [Character Building]
Wednesday September 23rd 2009, 9:48 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Teamwork builds character!

Teamwork builds character!

Isn’t delving into deep nature a feast for the soul? Yeah, sure it is! Except when it becomes more like ‘Lord of the Flies’. Here’s a new yarn from Tetsuhiko Endo on that all-American rite of passage, the Outward Bound adventure, and what happens when the counselors think you’ve reached a higher plane and  leave you to your own devices, lost in a giant bog. Enjoy — Ed.

In the summer before my senior year of high school, I went on a canoeing and climbing trip, with Outward Bound, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota. I was seventeen, and had just spectacularly bombed out of a 10-year junior tennis career with a very public burnout. Suddenly finding myself without the usual summer of traveling to tournaments around the country, trying to smite other stressed out 17 year-olds, it seemed like an opportune time to go on a bit of an adventure.

Before choosing the trip, I had never heard of the Boundary Waters. It is a vast region of wilderness between the border of Minnesota and Ontario that was home to roughly 1,200 interconnected lakes. The pictures were pretty and I had just gotten into rock climbing, so, why not? What I failed to notice about the pictures was that they were all taken from the air. That’s because the Boundary Waters is a far nicer place to look down of from a bush plane than to slog through with a canoe. But more on that later… (more…)

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Skiing, South American Style [Road Warriors]
Wednesday September 02nd 2009, 12:04 pm
Filed under: Road Warriors

Experts only? Esta bien!

Experts only? Esta bien!

 

You know when your friends are out there having a complete, unhinged blast and they email you from the road, fired up on life, making your workday feel even blander? (OK, OK, guilty as charged). Here’s a letter I got from my old college housemate Josh Boulange of Bozeman, Montana, who excels at making his old friends jealous whilst adventuring around the globe in search of untrammeled snow, uncaught salmon, and other delicious things generally beyond the reach of any cubicle. But things don’t always go according to plan. For one, down there, liftlines can resemble riots. Here, the intrepid Boulange on his experience of skiing in Argentina. — Ed.

Greetings,

            I write you all from an upstairs locutorio (internet outpost) from Bariloche, after a liter of quilmes and un hamberguesa completa (ham, cheese, lettuce, tomato). I arrived this afternoon after a hellacious bus ride. It was supposed to be 22 hours, but it was only 23. In the middle of the night the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere for about an hour, stuck in a line of traffic. I could see fires by the roadside ahead; everyone was talking about it, but I could not understand anyone. When we finally passed, there were dozens of men throwing logs on the fires and waving long branches at the bus—it seemed like a protest or strike—but I might as well have been in Timbuktu and I could make no sense of any of it. I was also too tired to really try and figure any of it out. There was a one-legged man sitting in front of me with a deep voice who kept going up and down the stairs (double decker bus) all night, like every 30 minutes…. (more…)

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