One Year After Pakistan

BOGOTÁ, Colombia—Two years ago yesterday, I was awakened in Islamabad by an editor in Singapore calling me at 6 a.m. to tell me President Obama was going to make an announcement about Osama bin Laden.

“What is it?” I asked blearily.

“That he’s been killed,” he said, and waited a beat. “In Pakistan.”

I yelped (cursed a bit, actually), threw down the phone and hightailed it to the office where my team and I worked for three weeks straight on one of the most intense and intensely watched stories of the decade. Looking back, I realize that the death of al Qaeda’s head marked a bookend of a sorts for me, one that stretched for a decade. I still remember vividly the sound of the first plane snarling over New York before hitting the World Trade Center on Sept 11, 2001 with a dull boom. And I remember thinking that some kind of aircraft had crashed in New York harbor before NPR announced that a small plane had hit the World Trade Center. (Early reports for just that: early and incomplete and/or wrong.)

The view from my roof in NYC on 9/11/01

The view from my roof in NYC on Sept 11, 2001

So when bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, I felt a sense of poetic order to things. It almost exactly closed out a decade in which I had had too-close front-row seats to the destruction of  the World Trade Center, with almost 3,000 lives lost; the disastrous war in Iraq that left at least of 100,000 Iraqis (and likely many more) and almost 5,000 American troops dead; the 2006 Lebanon war in 2006 that killed about 1,500 civilians; and the ongoing conflicts in Pakistan and Afghanistan that has killed tens of thousands and left many more homeless and internally displaced.

A year later, on May 3, 2012, I was displaced myself when I was informed by the U.S. embassy in Islamabad that I was on some kind of list found in the possession of a guy with known terrorist associations. My old employer, Reuters, and I decided it was probably a good idea if I got out of Pakistan for a little while. I never went back, ended up leaving Reuters, started this blog and have now traveled halfway around the world in my two-year attempt at circumnavigation of the earth without taking a plane. So far, so good.

In the last year, I’ve paid my respects at the glorious Buddhist temples of Southeast Asia, camped the awe-inspiring landscapes of Australia, basked in the natural beauty of New Zealand (from 19,500-feet!), sailed on two oceans (Indian, Pacific) and one sea (Tasman) in cargo ships, and now applied myself to learning Spanish in Colombia, which has its own charms and challenges. Along the way, I’ve traveled 17,500 kilometers and shot a whopping 10,787 photos.

153603564_7281ad0588_oSpeaking of Spanish, it’s at once both easy and tricky. On the one hand, I had so much exposure to it in the United States and especially in New York, that it barely qualifies as a foreign language. It sounds familiar, and there are enough cognates that I can make myself understood by most people I talk to.

However, the nuances of its grammar and its unforgiving gender distinctions make it tricky. And my listening comprehension is about as good as that old Far Side cartoon. (In case it’s not clear, I’m the dog.) I can pick out individual words, and occasionally entire sentences — if they’re spoken at a pre-kindergarten level and speed — and sorta-kinda get the gist of what’s being said, but I’m constantly worried I’m misunderstanding what’s being said. The upshot is that I’m a very nervous conversationalist now, which I imagine most people find somewhat weird. I enter every conversation with a certain amount of trepidation and “pre-gaming” and preparation of how it might go.

Still, it’s a world easier than Arabic or Russian, both of which I banged my head against to little avail over the years. And Colombia feels, if not like home, at least a bit home-like. Bogotá is about the same size as New York, is rich in culture, history and interesting architecture and grungy, artsy neighborhoods begging to be explored. It’s got a higher crime rate, less nightlife and fewer non-local eateries, but overall, I could see myself with some roots here. And the Colombians I’ve met are all real human beings, with compassion, humor and patience — especially with my bad Spanish.

So, the next two to three months will be all Bogotá, adventures in Spanish and explorations of a country that — like many of the countries I’ve traveled through already — has been scarred by internal conflict, American attention and meddling from its neighbors. It will be interesting to see the similarities (and differences) between Colombia, Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Stay tuned.

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