The last entry of 2018. The land of the clean and heading east.
Day 1,905 since October 10th 2013: 167 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)
Mission impossible looks less….impossible.
I have been away from home for 1,905 days now. Before you get a headache trying to calculate that in human terms then I’ll help you: 5 years, 2 months and 18 days. In that time I have on average had to pack my bags and go to a new country every 11.4 days. We have put 167 countries behind us and have 36 more to go. Three rules make this project nearly impossible: 1) spend more than 24 hours in each country, 2) do not return home until you reach the final country or quit and, 3) do not fly under any circumstances. I guess five years ago I had no idea what that would entail. I certainly do now. And by my best calculations I am on track for bringing us to the last country just 12-13 months from now. There is light ahead…
I have had it up to here (see my hand at eye level) with visa applications. It truly shines through how vast the difference is between applying for visas when flying and when not. I’m trying to meet my fiancée in India in a few days and she had her visa within hours of filling in an online application. I had to go to a designated visa agency last Friday, have a form filled in and received a receipt. Then nothing happened during the weekend. Last Monday the agency passed my application on to the High Commission of India and Tuesday was a national holiday. Wednesday I had my fingers crossed but I didn’t receive a phone call or an email. Yesterday, Thursday, I did all in my power to call the agency and the High Commission of India but during several hours didn’t get through to anyone. Well, that is not the full story…we will return to this in a bit…
Near Islamabad Zoo.
The Royal Danish Embassy in Pakistan has been amazing!! I have been socializing with Saleem who is the Communications Manager and Bente who is the Deputy Head of Mission. Saleem is from Pakistan and Bente is Danish. They have both gone to great extent trying to help me in various ways. Saleem has coordinated several interviews including a really nice one with Dawn Media Group which you can read by clicking HERE. For the interview I sat down with Saleem from the embassy and Jamal who is the Sr. Staff Reporter. Dawn is among the largest English speaking media groups in Pakistan. No small thing when you’re dealing with a country which has more than 200 million people!! Saleem has also introduced me to several of his friends, to a few social media influencers and he has also shown me a bit around Islamabad. He is an all-round amazing guy who is very passionate about creating positive results – and he reaches them! We had a few of our meetings at the residence of the Danish Ambassador who was back home in Denmark during the Christmas holidays. It was nice to visit his residence and see the Danish artifacts and paintings which decorate his home.
I had some fun with @thenerdtwins who have a great socialy responsible presence across instagram.
Danish Christmas with Bente :)
I took a wrong turn in Islamabad and came across this which felt rather special on a Christmas night.
And thanks to Bente I had a Danish Christmas in Pakistan! Bente is an accomplished diplomat who has worked all over the world. She invited me for a delicious homemade Christmas dinner with white potatoes, thick brown gravy, brown potatoes, duck, red cabbage, meatballs, prunes, apples, Danish Christmas music and great company. Afterwards we had some Pakistani dessert which was just as amazing! In Denmark December 24th is the big evening for Christmas: waiting in anticipation, gift wrapping the last presents, dining with family, dancing around a decorated tree (yeah - we are weird), singing songs, handing out presents...I haven’t been home to do that in five long years. But I got the second best thing together with Bente. She is a brilliant chef and she has amazing stories from her interesting life across the globe. With Pakistan being somewhere around 95-98% Muslim there weren’t too many Christmas trees to be seen across the capital. However as those of you who read my blogs are spread out over some 120 countries I’ll say seasonal greeting and Merry Christmas people! May you have a peace wherever you are. Bente also tried to reach out to the High Commission of India but had no luck speeding up the process. It takes as long as it takes.
Most often you need to look for traffic in Islamabad as the capital is only Pakistan's 9th largest city and traffic flows just fine. However it does happen.
My past week has frankly been quite administrative. That’s not unusual this far into the project. Some things do get easier however other elements get more demanding. Social media is certainly demanding. There are more interviews which can also be enormously time consuming. Applying for visas simply takes as long as it does and these days I’m grateful when it can be done online or if I don’t need to do it at all. South Eastern Asia will be very generous towards me and my Danish passport so I’m looking forward to that. Meetings, research, the RC movement…my beard has grown long too. My fiancée only has four days left of her vacation for 2018. The ideal thing would be to combine it with weekends and holidays to get the most of it. You might think that the Danish corporate vacation calendar starts with the beginning of a new year but it doesn’t. It ends with April 30th and begins with May 1st. So in other words she has four days of vacation she can spend between now and May 2019. That makes it tricky. We were hoping to get the most out of Christmas and New Year’s but I cannot guarantee when I will be able to leave Pakistan and enter India. Two countries that by the way do not get overwhelmingly along, which is just odd as they are pretty much the same people in terms of language, appearance, culture, history, food, humor etc. The religion does differ between India and Pakistan though. So that adds to different religious customs and holidays. Cows are safe in India and pigs are safe in Pakistan. However on both sides of the border they eat chicken and I figure we can all start with that ;)
Telling about the Saga and taking questions. Good questions! ;)
The Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS) was pretty amazing! And it became the final National Society I would visit in 2018. In total I have reached 23 for 2018. I’m thankful for all the kindness the movement has shown me on a nation to nation basis. The PRCS picked me up and brought me to their HQ in Islamabad which was buzzing from activity. Sandar Sami Ullah Abbasi greeted me. He is the Program Coordinator for youth and volunteers and asked if I would make a presentation for staff and volunteers about the Saga. Of course I would! It became the 76th presentation I have made since I left home and the last of 2018. Interestingly I have only made seven presentations for the RC (Red Cross, Red Crescent, Red Crystal) from the 163 National Societies I have visited. It went well and afterwards I was guided around the Blood Donor Center which is fully equipped to handle donations of blood, plasma and blood platelets. They also have storage facilities and are grateful for all the donations they receive. However in light of the ever increasing demand for safe blood, the PRCS would be grateful for more donations in order to meet the needs. That is you! ;) I donated as often as I could back home in Denmark and I will keep it up once I return home if they still want it after everything I have been through. You can definitely donate in your country ;)
I was then shown around the PRCS museum and told a story or two about the PRCS history which officially began at Pakistan’s independence in 1947 but has traditions which go back long before then. The Society has its branches in all five provinces of Pakistan and through these branches, and 92 district level branches, the PRCS coordinates its field operations. This vast network is managed through a dedicated team of staff and volunteers drawn from a wide cross-section of the society. Pakistan is a country with 200 million people, mountains, rivers, ocean, desert, forest and mega cities so you can only imagine the extent of the work they carry out!! I met Khalid Bin Majeed who is the Secretary General and a very busy man! His smartphone wouldn’t give him a break!! That led us to lunch which was nothing short of absolutely delicious. Pakistan knows a thing or two about food!
Please visit PRCS website to learn more. Click HERE.
As is the case with many National Societies around the world they are not always known for what they do. I mean that in the sense that the RC always does far more than most people realize. The PRCS is e.g. known for blood drives, for first aid and for responding to natural disasters. However let me list which areas they are involved in and you might just see what I mean: restoring family links, cash transfer programs, climate change and disaster risk reduction, community based risk education, youth and volunteers, integrated community based risk reduction, school safety programme, disaster response, logistics support, first aid training, water and sanitation hygiene, healthcare, community based health and first aid and emergency ambulance service. Yes…that is “just” the PRCS alone. And they are one of 191 National Societies around the world. So just think about the massive commitment to humanity on the global scale!! Keep thinking…keep thinking…keep thinking…okay now, back it up a bit! You overthought it for a second. Yeah…right there. That’s fine! ;)
In 2018 Once Upon A Saga became the greatest attempt in history to unify the entire Red Cross Red Crescent world in a single journey. This seems to have gone lost on various administrative levels however it is nonetheless true. In 2003 Gerard Starck, an ambassador of the IFRC (International Federation of the Red Cross Red Crescent), passed away after colliding with a car in Kyrgyzstan. He was on his motorcycle and had at the time reached 148 National Societies over a period of six years. In 2018 I have brought the Saga to twenty-four new countries and ten revisits. In other words I have been to thirty countries this year, some of them twice, some of the thrice. And now that I have visited National Societies in 163 countries the Saga has become the greatest attempt to unify the entire movement in a journey.
Here are the countries I took us to during 2018:
Lebanon (2 times)
Egypt (2 times)
Iran (3 times)
UAE (3 times)
Oman (3 times)
Saudi Arabia (2 times)
Israel (2 times)
Georgia (3 times)
Armenia (2 times)
Russia (2 times)
India (keep reading)
The saga has now clocked up 242,000 kilometers (150,372 mi) across 167 countries on five continents over more than five years. That is furthermore in a single unbroken journey completely without flying. Mountains of bureaucrazy and oceans of logistical challenges lie behind us. What is yet to come?
Here’s a story for you which is nice because it is true! It happened a few days ago:
I’ve had my fair share of Pakistani food and it is delicious. However that night I wanted a pizza. I found a nice place, sat down, ordered and waited for it to arrive. At the table next to me there was a family: husband, wife and daughter. And we soon began a conversation. They were from Peshawar just 177 km (110 mi) northwest of Islamabad and were in town visiting family. Really nice people. We mostly spoke about the Saga and the husband had a hard time deciding if I was enjoying what I do...or not? I revealed that reaching every country without flying is hard work for me: visas, bureaucrazy, logistics, research, interviews, social media, tickets, bookings, meetings etc. I do enjoy a lot of stuff though. However it has been rough lately and on top of the last few weeks of madness I can’t be with friends and family now during the seasonal holidays. So...you know...
The wife suggested that I could join her husband in visiting Khewra salt mines which are the second largest and the oldest in the world. Unfortunately I already had plans the following day so I kindly declined the generous offer. The family finished their meal before I did and got up to leave. We said farewell and they wished me well on reaching the last 36 countries. Five minutes later I was ready to leave and asked for my bill. The waiter smiled, pointed at the now empty table and said that it had already been paid for. Kindness, humility, hospitality and thoughtfulness seem to be dominant trades across Pakistan no matter where I go: Taftan, Dalbandin, Quetta, Jacobabad, Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad... Never underestimate the kindness of a stranger. And thank you so much for your kindness dear family from Peshawar.
I hope you liked that story. Most of the world we find around us is in no way represented in the media outlets we have available: friends, social media, news, movies, songs, blogs, commercials etc. It just isn’t. Because anything ordinary becomes un-newsworthy. When is the last time you told someone about that time you were standing in line and nothing happened? Never. Why the heck would you tell a story like that. However waiting and standing in line is such a great part of the time we spend alive. So is studying, searching for work, doing your job, being part of a family, doing various sports, entertainment, dancing and an endless list of other stuff. Even in conflict zones you will find people falling in love, getting married and children playing ball. The perception of planet earth is for most people rather far from reality. And for people perception becomes reality. So what have I done in 2018? I have tried my very best to alter the perception of hundreds of thousands of people. If you could see what I have seen. I you somehow could know what I know. Oh well…let’s get back to the Indian visa story…
Uber taxis have been my preferred way to get around Islamabad. Some rides have been as low as 95 rupees ($0.68 USD). The Pakistani Uber drivers are slightly annoying as they don't want to pick me up before I say where I want to go although they have already accepted the ride. The reason is that they don't want to go to "Pindi" (Rawalpindi) which is much more dense and crowded than Islamabad.
I got my polio vaccine which is required and applied though one of the appointed visa services. To the best of my knowledge they handed over my application to the High Commission of India last Monday and then Tuesday was a national holiday. Wednesday I heard nothing. So yesterday, Thursday, I tried calling the agency several times but I never got through. Then I called the High Commission several times without luck. However I kept calling and eventually I got through. I reached Mr. Davender Singh who is the second secretary of the embassy. He found my application which was a good start. I then explained that I would like to know if I could expect my visa soon or if I should apply for an extension of my Pakistani visa which would expire on December 28th (today). Mr. Singh then asked me to come for an interview at 3pm the same day (yesterday). At 2.30pm I was in yet another Uber taxi on my way to the High Commission. Little did I know about the high level of security of the area wherein the embassy lies!! It is called the “Red Zone” and that is how I will forever remember it.
The Presidents Palace.
The driver and I reached a gate just 600 meters (600 yards) from the High Commission of India but security would not let us into the area. We had to proceed to another entrance on the far side of the Red Zone. That was pretty far away and it took some time to get there. However the driver was once again told that he could not enter…but I could. I said farewell to the driver and was pointed towards the shuttle service which was just a few minutes’ walking distance away. Once at the shuttle service I had to pass security to enter. Then once I was in I had to approach a desk and inform where I wanted to go. Then I received a ticket which I brought to a counter. At the counter they charged me 500 rupees ($3.58 USD) for their shuttle service. That amount is not the end of the world but it is expensive compared to the taxi I arrived in and furthermore I’m not sure why I’m paying for a government issued shuttle service? Then I had to hand in my phone. That is slightly problematic given all the information it holds. What if I needed some info while at the High Commission? Oh well…it got me nowhere trying to explain that. I made a call to Mr. Singh letting him know that I was at the Red Zone but would be some 20 minutes late due to security. No problem. Then I proceeded to the shuttle service vehicles and was told to get into the back seat. There were two other passengers. First we dropped a guy at the Bulgarian Embassy and then a lady at an intersection. Finally it was my turn. The entire area looked like a mix of run down military quarters and posh embassies with lush gardens. It was a huge complex!! We passed by the most impressive US Embassy I have ever seen. It was like a village!! Not just one of their ordinary large embassy complexes.
The second entrance to the Red Zone. The one where the driver dropped me off.
We finally reached the High Commission of India. I walked up to the guards who wanted to know my name. A few questions later and I was shown into the High Commission. Then I had to confirm that I did not have a phone, a gun, a camera, a laptop nor anything else. I was searched and had to explain that there was money in my wallet and paper in my folder. Then I was finally welcomed into a courtyard with five windows and no people. After knocking on the windows and saying “hello” louder and louder for five to ten minutes I returned to the guards to tell them that there was nobody there. I was then told to wait another ten minutes. After ten minutes a man appeared at window number one and after a while of ping pong between us he had spoken to his manager and told me to go to window number six? However there were five windows and no doors? Then I was told to go back to the street, turn left twice and come back to the building and approach window number six. Now even though the guards outside saw me come out from the first area and escorted me to the second I still had to go through the exact same security procedures (with the same guards). I reached window number six, was shown to the door, went through security procedures once again and was finally shown inside to a waiting room. Then Mr. Singh arrived, shook my hand and everything was pleasant from that point on. We had a nice conversation about who I am, what I am doing, about Pakistan and then he left me for five minutes to see what he could do for me. When he returned he told me that I could come back the following day (today) at noon to collect my visa. So at this moment of writing it looks like we will be including India in the countries we reached during 2018 ;)
Zaineb is a charming colleague of Saleem at the Danish Embassy. We met up and had some local snacks.
The bureaucrazy of Pakistan is certainly heavy. Hopefully you won’t have to deal with it and maybe the new leadership will even lighten it. Most security I have encountered has seemed slightly over excessive as Pakistan is not at all the country it was just a few years ago. Pakistan has become far safer than its daunting reputation. How long will it now take the world to realize that? Pakistan is a country which has everything!! Poor people, middle class and rich people all live here. The world’s second highest mountain, and not by much, is called K2 and is part of the Pakistani Himalayas. If you come then you will discover amazing trekking, white water rafting, ancient history, cool cafes, malls, cinemas, universities, museums, fashion shows, desert, forest, monkeys, dolphins, camels…it is all here. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will no doubt bring a lot of prosperity to Pakistan in one way or the other. The plan is to connect the western part of China with the Arabian Sea through Pakistan. A huge port is currently being constructed and Balochistan is at the center of it. Many have high hopes for Imran Khan who is the new Prime Minister (and former superstar cricketeer). Great things are potentially at the doorsteps of Pakistan. In fact Forbes has featured Pakistan among the top ten coolest places to visit in 2019! I know I will be back some day…
Pink tea anyone? ;)
I wonder about a great many things. I hope that this year has helped you overcome difficulties, that the saga has inspired you in various ways, that you have been motivated, that you’ve learned something new and that I have kept you entertained. If you are Danish and want to join a travelers club then I recommend De Berejstes Klub (DBK). I’ve been a member for years now and the network is outstanding. You can be a part of the DBK traveler’s community in various ways and do not need to have been to a lot of countries. For those of you who are not Danish and still have the travel bug I would recommend Nomad Mania. Across several sites I now rank among the 400 most traveled people in the world. And for me travel is hardly the most important part of the Saga ;)
Now everyone can stop asking me if I went to Margalla Hills!! I did!! ;) Saleem and his friend Yasir took me.
In October I mentioned I had a challenge brewing which I want as many of you as possible to participate in. It is a push-up challenge where we start with 15 and after a month we will end with 40. If you can do 15 push-ups then please do this challenge with me in January 2019. I plan to make a video each day and upload it across social media. That should be interesting :)
I challenge you! (and me). January 2019!!
Thank you for all your amazing support throughout 2018!! Family, friends, fans, followers, partners and supporters alike: you have been amazing!! This is a lonely job I have created for myself. I do make many friendships and meet many people. However it is a lonely endeavor. Since you are kind enough to take the time to read my blogs I am sure you have far more insight than others in terms of what it has taken me to get this far. Most of the social media doesn’t reflect the truth of the achievement. Many will only see the success but reality also demands persistence, failure, sacrifice, disappointment, dedication, hard work and good habits. Much of which is hidden and what I suspect most do not see. These are however elements of achieving anything in life so you may very well be familiar with it :)
My roommate at my $8 USD hostel in Islamabad gave me this. I guess we are ready for India now! ;)
That is it folks. See you across the border. Let’s keep on keeping on! #KOKO ;)
Happy New Year.
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - About to shave ;)
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga