Coming, Spring 2017. Top Secret for now
Sometimes, it's important to impersonate Ron Burgundy. These occassions are quite rare. They do, however, occur in the natural course of human events.
I have a prickly conscience, and still feel guilty for a great many things I did when I was eight. However, I’m a pragmatist first, and getting things done in Haiti often required some . . . creativity. A big problem during the early months in Haiti was that everyone was still just trying to get a lay of the land. The emergency operations had been largely completed – everyone who was injured had either been attended to or died from lack of care. The ‘transitional’ phase was underway. That meant developing an eye towards long term operations in a situation that was still highly fluid.
All this ‘figuring things out’ meant meetings. Lots of them. Long meetings. Meetings about nothing. Meetings to recap the previous meeting. And then another meeting to plan the next meeting. I won’t say that nothing was ever accomplished at these meetings, but I won’t sing their praises, either.
In the early days after the quake, most meetings were held at “log base” – the U.N.’s base of operations in Haiti. MINUSTAH, the UN’s stabliziation force, held an uneasy position in Haiti, originally having been brought in 2004 when violence in Haiti spun out of control. In those days, an unstable political situation exacerbated by American made M-16’s that mysteriously found their way to Haiti had made certain sections of Port au Prince more dangerous than any war zone. Wars are usually fought under some auspices of rules, like the Geneva Convention. The violence in PAP had no such grounding. In 19XX the U.N. declared Cite Soleil, one of the major slums, ‘the most dangerous place on the planet’ and would not go into this neighborhood without armed personnel carriers.
Log Base served as a coordiantiing point for many of the early aid efforts – it was near the airport, was largely undamaged, and was militarily defensible. It was a military base, for all intents and purposes. And if you wanted to attend the meetings, you had to go to log base.
This presented a problem for me,and not because of my aversion to meetings. Most of the larger NGOs were much more structured and bureaucratic. They had t-shirts. In fact, that’s how you could easily eyeball the budget of any particular NGO. Any NGO with an annual budget of less than $1M usually had an actual t-shirt. It was ordered online or made by a local tshirt shop. NGOs with budgets over ten million usually could afford polo shirts. Moreover, they usually had a variety of clothing options. So, you could have a Red Cross polo, or a Red Cross hoodie, or a dress shirt with a small logo embroidered above the heart. These operations were typically global and well-financed, so it made sense that they would keep a variety of clothing options for their people.
Architecture for Humanity was in the middle, and as such we didn’t have a lot of regalia. Our t-shirts were usually designed by volunteers or by competition, printed gratis by an awesome production outfit called XXX out of Chicago. It was, like most things with Architecture for Humanity, grassroots and group sourced.
As I didn’t have the dignified polo, or the flashy badge to get myself in and out of log base.
What was startling was this: everyone cared whether or not you had a badge, but no one particularly cared what the badge said or where it was from. I intuited that this must be from the economy: ina rich country like the U.S., forging badges for deliberate prupose constitutes a risk to any place where one would need a badge to enter.
In Haiti, there wasn’t a thriving industry of fake badges – to make them one would need a camera, and a photo printer, and a laminator. None of these things were widely available. And more besides, who would forge a badge just to get into a bunch of meetings.
Yours truly, that’s who. My first draft contained my picture but a bunch of jibberish text. The “BMF” actually stands for “Bad Motherfucker.”
As I began running back and forth to Miami for meetings I became increasingly concerned that my trove of false identities would be discovered. Worse, I might, in an exhausted haze, present one of the fake ID’s at immigration and find myself having to answer some very uncomfortable questions. This was around the time those missionaries got busted at the Dominican border for stealing Haitian babies, the world (and U.S. customs) awoke to the fact that not all foriegners in Haiti were there for upstanding reasons.
I didn’t believe that I was doing anything illegal, and certainly wasn’t doing anything immoral, but as I thought about it, I became more and more convinced that there was no version of facts which I could present to customs officials that would seem credible or make sense
“So . . . you’re a humanitarian. And an architect. And you’re in Haiti building schools.”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“And all these fake IDs are for what?”
“So I can attend meetings with the rest of the reconstruction crowd.”
“so you can go to meetings?”
“Yes, its important that I be there, but I work for a small NGO that doesn’t have fancy IDs, so I just made them myself.”
“What’s so critical about these meetings.”
“Well, . . . “
“What affairs are discussed?”
“Nothing much, really. For the first half we usually recap the last meeting, and then for the second half we try and establish when the next meeting is going to be.”
“doesn’t sound like you talk about anything”
“Well, when you put it that way, no it doesn’t.”
“So you forged a bunch of fake identities so that you could get into a bunch of meetings and talk about nothing?”
“that’s correct officer.”
In a great wave of inspiration, I realized that I would have to create an ID that got me through doors at a passing inspection, but anyone who looked closely at it would realize that I wasn’t trying very hard at deception, and therefore that whatever I might be up to was neither nefarious or significant. And certainly wasn’t significantly nefarious. I substituted Will Ferrell’s picture for my own, changed the name, and found my perfect ID. I could wave it at whatever checkpoints I needed to and it almost always opened doors. No one ever bothered to look closely at it. And it made a good conversation piece, especially with the random Hollywood actors that were floating through PAP at that time.
It was no more or less false than many of the faces I’ve worn over the years. Being an architect is about representation, and if there’s something wrong with my fake ID, then I will have to take issue with all the architects who wear all black, or capes, or silly, unimaginative things because they think that’s what architects are supposed to do. Me, I just did what I had to do and that involved passing myself off as a fictional newscaster from time to time.
In a disaster zone, being an architect doesn’t necessarily open doors. Being a fictional newscaster apparently does.
 I’m not sure there’s anything illegal about what I did, but in the event that there was, I acknowledge that no one at Architecture for Humanity the organization knew what I was doing or sanctioned this activity. I was the lone gunman of novelty identification forging and used my skills solely to get into meetings. Yes, that’s as lame as that sounds.
The following is a short letter, written to my family in the Spring of 2015, from the Himalayas:
The cold here is insidious and protean. It is everywhere, in everything. It is not only a cold of the body, but of the mind. You are seized with the (correct) idea that this is as warm as you’re ever going to get, unless you descend. I don’t know exactly how cold it is, because I don’t have a thermometer, but last night I left my water bottle on the floor of my room and it froze. The common room, from where I write, is the only room in the whole hostel that is heated, but even here I can see my breath and feel my fingers stiffen. The cold is accompanied by damp – that mountain damp that seems to be everywhere. Between the altitude and the moisture coming off the big mountains, keeping dry seems as silly as keeping warm. There are a few upper-crust hotels in this village, including the Everest View Hotel, which is in the Guinness book of records as the highest five star hotel in the world. I’m told that their lobbies and cafes are reassuring refuge from this accursed cold, and there are some rumors that they pump their rooms full of extra oxygen! I may establish one of these as my writing spot.
The journey itself was quite pleasant, with only a few rough spots. Being alone offered moments to listen to the rush of the rivers, the calling of the thrushes from beyond sight, the wind through the trees, and the bells of prayer compete with the bells strung around the necks of yaks, which create a beautiful harmony.
My first harrowing occurred during one of the warmer spells, when I realized I was getting low on water. I don’t know if I ever shared this with any of you, but I’ve always had an unreasonable fear of dehydration, going back to a particular episode in Beijing where I found myself in the city center, roasting, delirious, and with blurred vision. A friend, an expert on China, had advised me before I left that if I should ever find myself having to choose between death and going to a Chinese hospital, that I should warmly and enthusiastically embrace the angel of death, knowing that a Chinese hospital would eventually bring the same fate – only much slower, and much more painfully. So, I sat on a bench in central Beijing, and prepared to die. It was only after I spied, through my hazy, blurred vision, an Outback Steakhouse, that I knew my time was not at hand. With my last vestiges of strength, I shouldered my pack, sauntered into the steakhouse, and drink about 5 waters, and 5 cokes over the course of a few hours, until I was feeling better. True story.
At any rate, I was walking along the Khumbe trail and was starting to feel the effects. Racing heart, soggy legs, dry mouth. If I wasn’t dehydrated, I soon would be. I had about ¼ of a liter of water left, and was rationing it because I didn’t know when the next teahouse would appear. I had grown accustomed to seeing them every several hundred yards, but in this case I had been walking for a good hour and had not seen one. My mind in a panic, but realizing that the next teahouse was probably closer forward than backward, I pressed on. I reasoned that I had survived much tougher situations than this, with great aplomb, and that the teahouse wouldcome, when it would come. I could not hasten its arrival. The only thing to do was to place one foot in front of the other and trust that the teahouse would come before my own demise. And it did. A scrumptious little place that filled me up with dumplings and lemon tea, grabbed a few extra bottles of water, and set on my way.
This was also my first clue to the fact that the map I was carrying around was dead weight. It was useless for determining the correct course, the means to get there, or how hard the journey might be. It was useless for determining the course because the course was self-evident: the trail is ten feet wide and carved out of the mountain with some effort. It is 500 years old. On one side are sheer cliffs that Spiderman would have trouble climbing. On the other side is a sheer precipice that leads to death. An idiot could follow this trail. A map was not needed. Similarly, the map declined to identify the amazing array of switchbacks along the way. It merely offered one straight line to indicate the progress of the trail. The typical switchbacks were 50 to 100 feet in length, of a grade about 40 degrees. And they went back and forth, back and forth, because the direct route was 70 to 80 degrees. Careful measuring of my map before a day’s journey would reveal that the distances from point A to point B was a scant 2km. It would turn out to be 3 times that because of the blasted switchbacks. I shouldn’t curse them, though, they saved my life, I suppose. The sub-switchbacks even more so.
Sherpas were not so good for assistance in this. When a Sherpa tells you “Its about a 2 hour walk,” what he means is that it’s a 2 hour walk for sherpas. For a westerner in peak physical condition, carrying nothing, it might be 4 hours. If they’re carrying a heavy pack, maybe its 6 hours. For Eric, maybe 2 to 3 days. I don’t think that sherpas have any relationship to Newtonian physics, as they seem to bounce around effortlessly on the rocks, sometimes in sandals, as if gravity didn’t apply. Perhaps it doesn’t, as it seems much easier for a sherpa to carry 100 pounds on his back than it does for me to carry 40. I have some interest in finding out the witchcraft that underpins all of this, but don’t think there will be sufficient time. More useful were the obviously suffering Westerners, heaving and exhausted. I’ve found that I can ask them just about any question, and they will give me a straight answer. “How far is it?” leads to “Oh, maybe four hours – 8 if you’re out of shape.”
I later confronted my first Himalayan traffic jam. I had come to a wide spot in the road where two trains of donkey had apparently come to a rest. There was a small teashop on the side of the road, and the two groups of herders were apparently fighting over something. While this was going on, their two herds collided and then started to dissipate, every donkey just sorta meandering looking for some green shoots to eat, until the entire path was just donkeys, facing this way and that, oblivious to the world. In trying to figure out how to navigate this mess, I remembered Dad shooing me at one point with great seriousness: “Don’t approach a horse from the rear.” It must have been on the farm or something. At any rate, I had a quick debate with Dad, and pointed out the obvious problem: with the donkeys all facing in different directions, and scattering the path for fifty yards, there was no way to walk between them such that I was approaching at least some of the donkeys from the rear. Given the aforementioned geometry of the path (sheer cliffs on both sides) I thought the stakes even higher. I didn’t have to get kicked by one of these donkeys, I could merely be nudged and then fall a couple hundred feet to my death.
It seemed like the herders had settled their differences and were making peace over tea, and seemingly couldn’t be bothered to resolve this trail fiasco, so I started herding myself. I started shouting at the donkeys in that baritone voice that I have, and they issued a bunch of yips and whistles, none of which seemed particularly effective. Apparently these donkeys only spoke Nepalese. But I knew one language all donkeys understood: violence. So I picked up a stick and started hitting these donkeys on their hindquarters – not hard, just enough that they would move a few feet and unblock the way. After a good fifteen minutes of this, I had managed to make my way through, without much dispersing the herd, or getting kicked in the head.
Several times along the way, I was forced to confront another one of my mortal nemeses: the rope bridge. I’ve never had any feelings about normal bridges either way. But rope bridges trigger the analyst in me, and I start trying to mentally calculate the catenary curve of any particular bridge, the possible shear, the windload, the fraying of the ropes, etc. All this calculating gets me into a tizzy, and I end up crossing the bridge a stressed out mess. These bridges, thankfully, were made of steel – steel cable and steel slats lining the floor. They had to be to accommodate the packs of yaks and donkeys that cross frequently. It was the scale that was a little disturbing. In some cases they were 300 feet long, and 200 feet above a rocky, rollicking river. At that height, the wind does something awful and they buck and sway like child’s swingset.
My mindset is fairly predictable, and almost always my anxiety mounts and mounts until I hit the halfway point, at which point the more rational parts of my brain take over and say “look, you might as well get to the other side.” The first half of the bridge, however, is always shaky ground, no pun intended. The older, more reptilian parts of my brain are shouting “turn back while you can!” I sneak a peak behind me, then one in front, and continue to plod along, god willing. I’ve never had to turn back, but I’ve always wanted to. In the case of one particular bridge – the Edmund Hilary bridge – I was crossing this vast chasm and was about 1/3 of the way across and having my usual panic attack when I snuck a look behind me and saw an approaching column of yaks! The bridge was wide enough for two men or one yak – but no other combinations. The yaks of your imagination may seem like harmless, plodding creatures, but here they were menacing! Vacant, black eyes like a shark, fearsome horns sharpened like daggers, and the methodical pace of a juggernaut! I decided to keep walking forward. It cast a different spin on the usual drama between me and rope bridges. I couldn’t turn back, I couldn’t even slow down. I had to keep moving. Having successfully emerged on the other side, I watched the yak train go by, and thanked each one of them individually, for they had surely taught me something, although I was not, at that point, entirely sure as to what.
The last push to Namche was the hardest, not just because I was exhausted, but because it had the steepest, most unrelenting trails. Most of the trails here involve so measure of up and down. Between the Hilary bridge and Namche is a 600m elevation gain over only 2km. Its just up, up, up. No plateaus, or descents. Here I started to take more seriously the wisdom of the Nepalis, and in watching how they walked, discovered the secret of the”sub-swithback” that I mentioned earlier. The Sherpas, when carrying heavy loads up the mountains, will walk slow – like, grandpa slow. And they never vary their pace. They almost seem to be in a state of mediation. What I noticed was that their feet sought out the softest, easiest parts of the trial. The construction of the trail was haphazard and weathered by centuries of mountain weather. But on any riser, if you could call it that, part of the riser might be 2’, and another part might be 18.” In other parts, the height of the ‘riser’ might vary from 4” to 8.” In most cases, off to the side of the stonework, there was no riser at all, but soft dirt where the rains had smoothed out the angle of incline.
Amazingly, through intuition or habit, these Sherpas found the easiest parts of the trail. Which often meant cutting back from the west side to the east side of the trail, sometimes every few feet. It made the distance longer, but it was easier on the back, the knees, and the feet. I figured these guys knew best, so started imitating them. Hell, sometimes I just started following them, stepping where they stepped, stopping when they stopped. It made a difference, as near as I could tell. It was heaving legs into the air to surmount a 18” riser that had been wearing me out. And trying to push all that weight up on the strength of a single, scrawny leg was embarrassing. But by going slow, and sniffing out the soft spots in the trail, it made it a little more manageable.
So, that’s about it:
· The next teahouse is coming. You don’t know when, you just know that it is and nothing to do but keep walking till you get there.
· Maps and planning are useless. It’s the wisdom and support of the people around you that matters.
· Never let a bunch of oblivious asses impede your way.
· Bridges should be used for going forwards, not backwards.
· There’s always an easier way to walk even the hardest path.
Love to all,