Friday, 16 May 2008

Drinking tea with Osama bin Laden - What's it all about ?

An old man drinking tea in Bangladesh
Saturday morning and a cup of tea in my hand. I am dog tired even though I had a sleep last night. The last 3 weeks has been a blur: Jakarta, Singapore, Amsterdam. Geneva, Kuala Lumpur, North Sumatra, Aceh and Nias Island twice. I've flown across the equator six times in this period all in the name of work. Days in planes, weeks in landcruisers driving over roads which resemble a ripple board. I see people smiling because they have put their lives back together with strong houses, water and sanitation, livelihoods, new schools and hospitals, even airports, roads and electricity.
But I feel so drained of all my energy. Every bone in my body aches. But I look at the work we are doing in Indonesia: Government, Red Cross, UN, World Bank, Asian Development Bank etc, and it all becomes worth it to my sleepy brain. Sometimes I ask myself why do I keep thrashing my body with endless trips ? People also ask me on my blog what keeps me going ? Perhaps it is the ceremony on tea drinking ? A starting point might be drinking tea with Osma Bin Laden in 1996, when I met him in Laghman province, Afghanistan.

He seemed a serious and likable man and he called me over to his table in a small, dirty tea shop to join him for tea. He asked me what I had been doing and I told him that I had been into the mountains of Nuristan with my Afghan Red Crescent colleagues where we were building a clinic, two days walk from the road. I said women die in child birth because they don't even have basic facilities and now we have trained doctor and nurse. He congratulated us. I didn't know much about this man, but he left an impression on me. Little was I to know his future doings. Tea, like faith, is a connector, a healer and a leveler. I am sure God made tea as a ritual and ceremony of peace. I also drank cups of tea with Ahmed Shah Massoud, President Karzai,(Afghan leaders) Sonja Gandhi, Bill Clinton, Pervez Musharaf,Lakhshi Mittal, Ed Cotter, Martha Gellhorn and Ed Hillary, to name a few. So why do tea drinkers kill ? Why were we born ? Perhaps I need to talk about faith, my faith too.

With Sonia Gandhi in 2005

Man’s inhumanity to man and inhumane killings have been part of my life. So has God’s love and blessings. But how does one write about a personal thing called faith ? It is like describing the intimate feelings I have for Naila, something unspoken and intensely personal.. But I will try.

Nicolas Bouvier, a Swiss writer and artist wrote, “ My belief is that one must have passed through fire be able to sort out...the contents of those storehouses of sorrow, where fortunately we can also find, more often than we might have dared to expect...enough small miracles to motivate and encourage those in the field who are so often compelled, to quote a mediaeval Japanese poem, ‘to bear the unbearable and tolerate the intolerable.”

When I was 19, I traveled by sea from New Zealand to Panama, Colombia, Equador and Peru and saw my first storehouse of poverty and exploitation, especially in Peru. I spent four months in the high alta-plano living with the Quetchua Indians, the remnants of a once proud and sophisticated civilization: decimated by the Spanish.

Drinking tea with a group of Kiwi mountaineers in Peru in 1968.I am on the left, then Pete Goodwin, Mac Riding (Killed in Vietnam working for Red Cross in Vietnam 1975) and Paul Green. (Still head of DoC at Ruapehu)

Colonization, another of the world’s evils which has been glorified in the name of God. There followed time in the Barriada (slums) of Lima with the beautiful Violetta, a social worker, where I saw extreme poverty. There I saw “Faith” , something spiritual and simple, from a non-material world giving them hope and the strength to survive. It helped shape my faith.

I saw my second storehouse of sorrow in Vietnam in 1971. It was my first Red Cross assignment. Seeing the aerial bombing of villages and countless people killed or maimed for life, by naphalm, B 52’s, M 16’s, helicopter gunships and land mines made me see how the “other half dies.” .

It was so far from my Sunday school and Bible class days in New Zealand where we were told of God’s perfect world and moved wise men of camels across a make-believe desert in a sand pit, with paper palm trees. The World looked so perfect..

I soon found an ever increasing imperfect world off my shores, where I have spent most of my adult life.
In 1971, sitting in the bar at the Continental Palace in Saigon, I recall meeting that famous war correspondent, Martha Gellhorn, who had just come back from having been with US forces and she commenting on the futility of war and the deeper meaning of life...”That spiritual world up or out there,” she described so wistfully, and then dismissed the comment.

Martha Gellhorn with Ernest Hemingway-1936

She had her doubts about it. I knew she had been married briefly to Ernest Hemingway but I refused to raise that issue, for fear of being strangled by such a delicate woman. I thought at the time, it must have been more difficult living with Hemingway than covering any war.

I think most about my spiritual life a lot, but more specifically in bars, on mountains, in wars or when I see poverty and exploitation. Perhaps it is the biblical wine, wars, mountains and the good Samaritan that evoke strong emotions for me. Having a strong spiritual leaning to my life has helped me through incredibly difficult times.

The poor get poorer with worsening governance, rising food prices, climate change and fuel shortages

I like to think I am a Christian...far from being a good one, and I try to pray most days, and the more difficult the going, the more and the harder I pray.

The most pain and helplesness I felt was in 1995 in Kabul In a ward at Kharte se hospital. At least 50 children/teenagers who had legs, hands, feet and legs blown off by landmines during the past few days, had to, twice a day, dip and then soak their freshly severed stump into plastic bags of iodine, to ensure the flesh and bone was clean before operating. The plastic bag would be held by a relative or parent. The first to dip their bloody stump would pierce the air with lachrymose scream of death and as each child being forced to dip their stumps, sometime having lost two legs and an arm, the screaming built up to a crescendo for two to three minutes. During that period, I used to ask “ Why God, where were you when that child was out gathering wood and stepped on a land mine.? “

Removing the body of a dead child in Kabul killed by a terrorist attack.

Today when I pick up my youngest son, I marvel at the delicacey of, and the simple joy a child gives and it makes me think deeply about the ephemeral nature of life.

I need mentors like Ed Cotter above who climbed with Ed Hillary in 1951 and we climbed together in 1990-92 when I lived at Franz Josef Glacier.

Over the years I’ve been inside the storehouse of sorrow in wars, floods, earthquakes., famines, droughts, landslides, cyclones and sheer and simple poverty and exploitation.

Religions, spirituality and heaven, hell and the afterlife fascinate me. For me I believe in the one God and a Christ-like figure. I haven’t seen Christ but believe I have spoken to him. I also feel close to all the prophets of the Bible and the Koran, the heroes of Avesta’s, a canonical work of the Zarathustra, the Ramayana and the Mahabatra fascinate me. I have wandered deeply into Buddhist territory and thought and am constantly aroused by the Sufi poets. But above all, the spirit of the nomads of the great steppes and the Polynesians who constantly challenge my thoughts as they were able to take on new religions, shrug them off like winter coats, or old canoes, and go back to the spirits and roots of their ancestors at will.

Ahmed Shah Massoud. The man who would be leading Afghanistan if he had not been killed by Bin Laden's  Al Qaeda hit team, the day before 9/11.

Massoud was an impressive man who I can never forget. He was a deeply religious man who cared for people, and wanted to rid Afghanistan of Osama bib Laden and Al Qaeda We were both mountaineers in the sense of the word for our love of the mountains is spiritual. When I asked him in 1996 what mountain meant to him, he replied "Mountains remind me of the past. When I see the mountains I have love in my heart. When I am in Kabul I feel surrounded and bored. But when I see the Hindu Kush a new horizon opens up.

Knowing he was one of the greatest military commanders in the history of Afghanistan, I asked him the following question. "Did you use the mountains as a weapon, a friend or what ? "

He replied, "The mountains are the best base to fight from. They are both a stronghold and a shelter. It is the best terrain for Guerilla fighting." He went on to sya, "One of the great factors for a leader is how to use the mountains as a strong hold, as a shelter. During the war against the Soviets we needed to capture the Hindu Kush from the Pamirs to the Kohi Baba and all the mountains north and south of the range. The mountains were useful, we needed to know them well."

Below, a meeting with Ahmed Shah Massoud in Kabul in 1996. 

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth is often in my mind. I know Massoud would have loved this quote. What moves me most is mountain landscapes and my dream of being a snow flake wafting from the sky. To fall on a mountain pass or a col, or even top of a mountain peak. To later to be part of a bergschrund, a snowy arete, a snow field, a neve, a glacier, a crevasse and in my anger and power, an avalanche. And then when I melt, that long trip down the river to the sea.

In Antarctica 1970 all iced up after a trip at - 50 oC in the middle of winter at Vanda Station. We were the smallest group (4) ever to winter over in Antarctica at that juncture in history.

The processes of snow, ice, glaciers, and mountain geology fascinate me and have drawn me back in awe time and time and time again. While reveling in the beauty of the mountains it reminds me our life on this earth is as ephemeral as a snowflake.

In 1968, John Lawrence and I did the first ascent of the south Face of Mellizos (right face and peak) in the Cordillera Vilcabamba in Peru.

On top of Mellizos, Bob laughing at our proposed descent route. We retraced our steps by abseiling down the face as the ridge proved impossible.

John and I should have died on that climb of Mellizos and later on Pumasillo. He wrote to me some years ago:

... do you remember that tense descent on Mellizos north face where on the way down we dodged streaming, chunky gulley avalanches by hopping sideways onto the comforting rockface, and sitting pegged to the granite for hours, huddled, hummingbird antics beside us, meanwhile nestling the image between our feet of welcoming red tents on the ledge way, way, way down below us... as I recall it, we set a little `roulette', or standard.... something like ten minutes with no big stuff, and five minutes with no stuff at all before we felt it safe to resume our descent down the steep couloir... furthermore, on that epic ascent up onto Pumasillo's N ridge (phew!)... my memory was of those awesome, apocolyptic faces beneath us on both sides of our tiny stances on that tottering crap of a ridge with no belays at all to speak of... and geez, no wonder they all said it would never be climbed... and to my knowledge still hasn't!!
I prayed my little frightened 20 year old heart out on those two near-death climbs and we cheated death, or were we delivered from death ?

I once could ski like the wind down mountainsides in New Zealand, France, Austria, Italy and Switzerland. I often repeat the runs in my mind. What keeps me traveling and working these days is the anticipation of seeing something new and the sense of awe evoked by architecture, landscapes, people and their cultures. To close my eyes and to look back at the history behind these special places, provides a sense of place and purpose in my life Frequently the kaleidoscope of contrasts, from awe to awfulness, between pomp, power and poverty, I feel sick and angry and ask why is it so ? But when I slow down and meditate, I know God is part of the world’s latticework of life, and my anger dissipates.
At my daughter, Kira's wedding in 2006

The excitement and challenge of a new job, leading a new team, forming a new relationship or taking a ride (challenge) with nature such as climbing a mountain, exploring a seldom visited mountain region, kayaking a wild river, kayaking across the sea to some distant point, competing in a triathlon when you don’t know the course, teaching my child to swim and planting a garden or a tree is part of God’s expectations of us.

Above my desk at home is a photograph I took in December (1999) in Agra of a inlaid marble panel from the Taj Mahal, the world’s greatest monument to love. Sometimes I dwell on the deeper meaning of love, love Agape. But as New Zealand’s poet Denis Glover writes about me and so many others, I am a thistledown planted on the wind , yearning for new challenges and things to stimulate my thought. Not long before my Mother died - who was born deaf, and the most and influential woman in my life - told me “ Don't die ignorant , try everything once.”

My sisters and brother in the back row, Marie, Graham and Beverly and I in front when I was about 8. My brother Barry was born a year later.

Everyone blames God when things go wrong and forgets to praise him when they go right.

I’ve tried most things in the material and spiritual world. All I can say is “ Thank God for this world, each dawn, sunset, flower, wave and child; there is a life hereafter.”


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
What can I write? I am stunned at reading your thoughts, gaining insight into my own struggles through your wisdom and experience. I feel an enormous sense of change inside me, a need to participate in humanity rather than just make a living. That is a fire and passion I have never found, to make a difference. You are putting so many thoughts into my head Bob, a sense of a direction I can sense, but not yet clearly see - like a mist covered ridge I know I must traverse. Kia ora Bob, it was an honour to read this post. I am going to pour my self a wee dram and raise a toast to you! Have a fantastic evening.
Noho ora mai ra e hoa

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Robb, Kia Ora

"Like a mist covered ridge I know I must traverse." That's powerful and evocative writing Robb.

I posted the blog when it should have been in draft. I added a few more comments and photos. Pressing the wrong button is the story of my life, but often marching to a different drummer has its rewards.

Like I went to Univeristy at 34 as I didn't want my mind and wayfaring cluttered with academic claptrap. I graduated from the World Univerity at 50 with a degree in honesty and reality, 2nd class honours, with bells and whistles added. A guru in the Himalayan Dhaula Dhar mountains presented it to me with a humble parchment scroll with the words,
'the search is only the beginning, the discovery is the start.'

I hope the posting passes one man's take on life. Right or wrong, it is an honest attempt to write about the elusive subject.

E noho ra


Marja said...

Dear Bob I am higly impressed Not only because you met all these interesting people and talk about it down to earth as only a New Zealander can. No I am impressed and honoured to know you because of your courage strength and insight. The world is lucky to have people like you.

Paterika Hengreaves said...

Kia ora Bob

This is a superb write. How you managed to survive the odds and life threatening experiences throughout the years defy my imagination. But then, you did say your Christian principles hold the key. Where can I buy copies of your books. I do have a project in mind. You are indeed a remarkable man with great family values and someone to write about. Your Mom was truly blessed to have a son like you and wise in her counsel. I can picture how beautiful your family is. Kira is stunningly beautiful in her wedding day picture.

Anonymous said...

Dear Bob McKerrow,

As i read your story lately. But you have written the issues which a wakes a human from being ignored. Your story is deeply intereting and heartly charms me. I wish i could talk to you facely and listen to you for time and time and your stories. I hope to hear more about you and from you.
You shocked my mind and awoke me.
As you are Christian but written some advices as a muslim. You are just need to cross a road to become a muslim due to your strong belief on God.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bob,
interesting to catch up on your world... it has been an age since we had a cup of tea under the bivvy rock at the bottom of the Burton Ridge... lot of water under the old bridge since... might have another one right now...regards Don

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Anonymous said...

All can be

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Don

I have finally discovered this posting alomost one and a half years after you posted it.
Yes Don, it has been an age since we had a cup of tea under the bivvy rock at the bottom of the Burton Ridge. Those mountain were our catherdrals and their music fit for mountain Kings.
How can I ever forget that majestic journey in the mid 80s?


Nina Hjelmgren said...

Yes, time passes but memories stay the same. I will never forget stopping at the Indus river, of some reason that picture comes to mind after reading your text. I love the way you reflect. Inspired, I will put on a kettle and drink a cup to you! Nina

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