CHUP interviewed Roland Stevenson, owner of RiverIndia, a company that leads kayaking expeditions in India and throughout South Asia. In November 2008, Roland led a team on an expedition in Pakistan, to tackle the Indus River. Below, he tells us about their experience:
Q: You currently lead expeditions for River India, what motivated you to do a similar expedition in Pakistan?
I have always had a strong link to Pakistan; spending some of my favorite and formative years going to high school in Islamabad and then returning to Muzaffarabad in 2006 to work as a UN/WWF earthquake relief volunteer. Since 2006, I’ve been trying to persuade a few pro-kayakers, led by Ben Stookesberry, to run the Indus [River]. This most recent expedition came about after a couple years of building a good reputation with some of these athletes in a similar political region: India’s restricted-access and politically-contested state of Arunachal Pradesh. After a few years of organizing successful expeditions there, which often had us organizing permits, running first descents, filming documentaries, chartering government helicopters, inadvertently crossing borders, tip toe-ing through military cordons, and dealing with “local sensitivities”, I had the confidence to propose tackling the Rondu gorge of the Indus– a river that has never been run completely. Sponsored by Jackson Kayak and RedBull, the expedition succeeded in what we think is the river’s fourth descent ever, and the descent with the least amount of portages.
Q: Given the current security situation in Pakistan, did you have any expectations/fears going into the country? How many people were part of your group?
Having not been in Islamabad for almost 2 years, I wasn’t sure how much the reality on the ground differed with the generally heightened alarm found in the media and the US State Department’s Travel Advisories. I kept in mind while reading the Pakistan Travel Advisories that they are often composed by people who rarely leave the confines of Ramna-5. I had followed events from the developing insurgency in FATA, Lal Masjid, the lawyer’s strike, Musharraf‘s resignation, Bhutto‘s assassination, and the continuing Al-Qaeda attacks culminating in the Marriott bombing, but the political evolution of the security situation wasn’t a primary concern for an expedition that was going to be in and out in 3 weeks, moving frequently.
Short of being unlucky enough to run into a random act of violence, we were pretty confident that most of the people we were going to meet were the peaceful, friendly, hospitable types who I’d had the pleasure of working with in 2006 and living with in the mid-90’s.
We were a group of six: Five Americans (Ben Stookesberry, Phil Boyer, Darin McQuoid, Chris Korbulic, and myself) and one Mexican (Rafa Ortiz). When we decided to have our first lunch in the somewhat conservative town of Besham, despite warnings, we were eager to point out that we were all Americans… AND ONE MEXICAN! Ole! I think our good natured humor, respect of the local culture, and conversational Urdu helped win friends. Any anxiety was put to rest when we realized people were just as eager to learn about us as we were about them.
Q: What was the most surprising experience during your trip?
Obama won the election the first day of our trip – we kept the Dawn newspaper with us for the course of the journey, showing it to many of the villagers on our way through the Indus valley. Many people cheered and congratulated us. It seemed to signal the widespread hope that Pakistanis had for our country’s future, as we were producing a film to draw attention to theirs.
When we reached Skardu, we met with the local officials to get permission to conduct the expedition and filming in the Rondu Gorge for 2 weeks. As far as I know, the hand-written permit that I wrote was the first official permit to run the Indus. But what was even more surprising was that the DC, before signing off on our trip, asked “And do you all like Obama?” Nods, smiles, and laughs passed around, and with that we were given permission to begin! I do not think the DC was a big Bush fan, but perhaps that should qualify as least-surprising.
Q: What was the most rewarding part of the expedition? What lessons did you take away from the trip?
A few days before the end of the trip we met a principal named Shah Rais Khan who invited us to visit his school the following day. The next morning Chris Korbulic and I visited the Dawn Public School, in a village called Haramosh, and taught a class of English. Mr. Khan invited the entire group back the following day for what was to be a “special ceremony”. We were all excited and arrived early the next morning to find all the students of the school lined up for a big assembly. To stand there sipping steaming chai under these massive, snow-covered Karakoram mountains, listening to the Pakistani anthem sung by 3-15 year old children was very moving. We were each asked to address the children of the school and that, without a doubt, was the most rewarding part of the trip. We each thanked the children, Mr. Khan, and his teachers for this honor, and have since incorporated a plan into the film tour to raise donations for Mr. Khan’s school.
I think the biggest lesson any of us took from this trip is this: had we believed the news media coverage or rumors about this area, we never would have enjoyed the experiences and friendships that we did. Media coverage of any conflict area tends to dwell on the extremes and neglect the large percentage of normal people who are not making the news. The people of NWFP and the Northern Areas were curious, helpful, and concerned for our safety. In evening conversations bundled in a shawl around a tandoor at a dusty roadside hotel, many locals were just as worried about the Taliban or Al Qaeda, if not more so, than your average American. Our goal is to share these pertinent stories of the common Pakistani populace with a wider audience in the US through our films. We are willing to go to these areas, encourage communication, and “see for ourselves”, rather than agree that the image of violence and hatred is ubiquitous. Our experience has shown that it generally is not.
Q: Will there be more expeditions in Pakistan? How does one become a part of that?
I certainly hope so- the experiences on the Indus and in Muzaffarabad are some of my most cherished memories. There are definitely plans in the works for more.
The Pakistan expeditions as well as the trips we have planned in Tibet are a bit off-limits for the casual traveler. Not because they’re too tough or difficult, but because they have limited space and are a total gamble– sometimes things work out well, and sometimes not! For the adventurous of heart, the expeditions offered by RiverIndia are a great way to get into expedition running: 2 week immersive expeditions on one of the world’s most legendary rivers, the Brahmaputra, or Siang as it is locally known. People who’ve done well on a trip have often come back to run a special descent more like the gambles mentioned above. We also try to get a couple select guests on a charity guide school that we teach free of cost for about 10 local students once a year. The message of all our trips is the same: Go to some of the most remote places in the world, run a thrilling expedition, and see for yourself that there are good-natured people the world over! Check out http://www.riverindia.com for lots of pictures, video, and info.