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A man lies and dreams of green fields and rivers

- Pink Floyd

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Op-Ed

Mar 05, 2019

A Visit To “The Border Wall”: Here’s What I Found…

This isn't an article with a political agenda, but an observation, about how two feet separated by three rusty, old wires can drastically change your life.

WRITTEN BY

Evan Quarnstrom

As I listen to politicians, middle Americans, Democrats, Republicans, blatantly partisan news anchors, and bumper sticker flaunting owners of lifted pickups alike bicker about the severity of this problem, I begin to ask myself, “Do these people really know what they are talking about?”

Have they ever crossed the border? Have they ever been to the border? Have they ever seen the border with their own eyes? Do they know anyone who lives near the border? Do they know anyone who lives on the other side of the border? Believe it or not, there are people, just like you and me, who live beyond the abyss.

I will add the disclaimer that I am not an expert on immigration policy, but I come from the perspective of someone who lives in a border community, someone who crosses the border relatively regularly, and someone who knows people well on both sides of the border. To San Diegans, this may seem like nothing special, but only 2.5% 1 of the country lives in a county that borders Mexico. The perspective of a border region resident is one that most people who are arguing the issue do not have. Simply living near the border does not warrant claims of expertise on the subject, but in my opinion it does add a level of credibility.

Only 2.5% of the country lives in a county that borders Mexico.

Before things get heated, my intention is not to write a politically slanted piece. I will gladly state that my views on immigration are the polar opposite of the standing president, but I would like to take a more objective approach to communicate the ‘issue’ at hand.

So, to see what the fuss is about and to show those that have never been to the border what it’s like, I visited and documented an unfenced portion of the border in California — just as advertised via the endless, looping B-roll on the national news.

Here’s what I found…

This section of the border is actually very accessible. The well-traveled Interstate 8 comes within 1.3 miles of the border and the paved road comes within a half mile.
Selfie at the border to prove I did in fact take the photos! At about 3,000 feet of elevation, winter temperatures were a bit chilly in the low 40’s.
This section of the border lies in east San Diego County near the town of Jacumba Hot Springs. It was built in 1995 by the Clinton Administration. I did a little research and came across an interesting story in the LA Times about how the border construction ignited a decline in the town due to its symbiotic relationship with its Mexican sister town of Jacume on the other side. It’s a good read if you have the time.
Going on 25 years, the wall has seen better days. The rust and stress have caused cracks in some places. A theory of mine is that this could be caused by tectonic activity, as many small faults cross the border in this area. The San Andreas fault, which crosses the border into Mexico about 45 miles east of Jacumba Hot Springs, is a strike-slip fault, meaning the plates slide parallel to each other, offsetting the land by about two inches per year.
Peering into Mexico, I saw the first sign of crossing activity in this area — tossed water bottles
As you walk up the hill, the border comes to an end. Aside from the steep hill, there is a moderate gorge just beyond this point, which is why I presume they elected not to undertake the task of building a border any further. Getting heavy machinery up there would have been nearly impossible without seriously altering the land to build access roads. Just beyond this hill the border continues again.
Someone stored a large jug of water here for migrants. I know there are non-profits in San Diego that do this — cool work in my opinion.
As the steel border comes to an end, a makeshift barbed wire fence made by a combination of metal rods and sticks, yes sticks, proceeds to mark the border more or less (it isn’t a perfectly straight line, bending slightly into the US, so it’s not the exact border).
Sticking my camera over into Mexico.
A rope lying on the ground right where the border ends. Seems like a tool to tie the barbed wire fence together to create a safer opening.
Someone got snagged going through the barbed wire.
A big rock has been placed on the fence here to make a larger opening between the wires for people to squeeze through.

The difference that an arm’s length can make…

The above photo really strikes a chord with me because it demonstrates how a mere geographic distance of literally two feet separated by three rusty, old wires can drastically change your life. If you are born on that rock across the fence, you will be born Mexican, learn Spanish as your first language, and unfortunately likely face more challenges in attaining a comfortable economic situation in your life. (Of course, I say ‘likely’ because money does not necessarily mean happiness, not everyone wants to live in the USA, and not all Mexicans have financial struggles.)

If you are born where I stood, you are American, which can give you an opportunity that you may not have on that side of the fence. Also worth noting, being born on my side of the fence gives you the freedom to cross the fence as you please. Freedom of movement does not stop where the fence begins. For many born on the southern side of the border, they will never receive a visa that allows them to cross, never able to come to stand where I was.

Think about the difference that an arm’s length can make.

This leads me to a related thought (possibly a slight tangent). As with most things in life, I think patriotism is okay in moderation. But at the same time, I look at this photo and think, where you are born is pure luck. Putting aside the infinitely small chances that you were even born in the first place, you could have just as easily been born on that side of the fence. I mean hell, when you enter the world, there is a 60% chance that you will be Asian, 20% chance that you will be Chinese 2. Should we be proud of this luck?

I look at this photo and think, where you are born is pure luck.

Given the extremely small chance that I was born in California, USA, do I have an inherent responsibility to care more for those also born in my country, or can I look at every human on Earth on an equal playing field, all equally deserving of my consideration? I tend to lean towards the latter.

Again, nothing wrong with patriotism, but there’s a little food for thought to start off your day.

So… What did I learn?

I must say that I was not expecting to find much at the border, so it was mildly surprising to see such clear evidence of what has unfolded on this small chunk of land in the past two decades. The discarded items, the fence, and the worn trails tell a story. Between the plethora of water bottles, food wrappers, backpacks, clothing, and cell phones, it paints a picture of those that have undertaken the treacherous journey north.

I must admit, President Trump might be right about at least one thing: a bigger, more robust border wall would likely slow down illegal immigration into the United States to some extent, at least in the short term.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to follow the evidence of crossings straight to where the current border wall ends. The barbed wire fence showed clear signs of crossings, whereas the steel border did not.

I must admit, President Trump might be right about at least one thing.

On the other hand, if you think that the situation at the southern border is such a crisis for Americans that it needs to divert billions of our tax dollars, that’s a different conversation. I could go over a laundry list of more urgent things that need funding more than a wall, but that’s not what I am aiming to do in this article.

And for those that are worried about all the “rapists” that are crossing the border, I challenge them to attempt to understand, or at least hear out, the other side of the issue. A good way to start is to shift your perspective to an internal problem and read up on the crimes and political meddling (yes, Russia did not invent this tactic) that our country has committed in countries such as El SalvadorGuatemalaHondurasNicaragua, and Panama, just to name a few. It should be no surprise that life in the United States has caught the eye of those born to underprivileged situations in these countries that were deliberately destabilized by the US.

I hope that this story humanizes the people that are crossing, so they are not just an intangible idea that you see on the news, not just a game of politics. That sentiment is what I can say this quick trip reinforced for me. These are people that drink water, just like you and me. They wear jackets when it’s cold, just like you and me. They too brush their teeth. They are looking for a peaceful place to live where they can create a future for their family, just like you and me.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

This article first appeared on the author’s website: www.evanquarnstrom.com. All photos are by Evan Quarnstrom.

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Op-Ed

Sep 05, 2019

Everest, The Earthquake, my Husband Norbu Sherpa and Me.

Between waiting her turn for the rescue chopper and summiting in silence one year later, Andrea Sherpa-Zimmermann relies on her husband, a native Sherpa, as her guide on Everest.

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It is 3:45 in the morning, May 21, 2016: a date that will remain in my mind forever.

I am standing on the “top of the world” at 8,848 meters (29,028 ft) with my husband, Norbu Sherpa. We are alone in the full moon: Norbu, me and the Goddess Chomolungma. The stars are lighting up a pure sky. The atmosphere is simply magical. One-and-a-half hours in the silence of the mountain on the top of Mount Everest.

Read next: Exclusive Interview with Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa, of The Ultimate Descent

A stunning sunrise brings us back to reality. Some climbers have started to arrive. We begin our descent with calm and serenity. Each step is controlled and assured. We are in full command of our emotions and abilities. A single step off the path would mean a no-return plummet down a vertical of several thousand meters. Twenty-three hours after our start at 8,300 meters (the last Camp) via the summit, we are back at the Advance Base Camp on the Northside with our heavy loads. A dream had come true.

This personal project – summiting Everest – was supposed to have happened one year earlier. But in 2015, on our way to Everest Base Camp in Tibet, we found ourselves suddenly in a disastrous shadow. Like in a movie, people were screaming, crying, running in all directions. Huge rocks were falling from everywhere and the earth was shaking. Once, twice and then more frequently. We were trapped in a narrow valley with the rocks threatening above our heads. We were lucky to secure ourselves. Many other people are no longer here today to testify to that horrific moment. In the end, we were trapped for four days in the valley: four days of waiting, hoping and agonizing with several hundred other people. Standing, sitting and sleeping in the middle of terraced fields. Hour after hour after hour. Disconnected from the rest of the world. With no material and no food except for the items that people had on them when running for their lives from their house or car.

Like in a nightmare, we were unable to provide any help other than what was possible to do with basically nothing. The dream that I had seriously prepared and trained for during so many months was still in the back of my mind. The days were passing with no updates. We had no idea what was going on. All we knew was that all of the roads were blocked by heavy landslides. Repeat aftershocks compelled us not to take any risks. We were, in fact, supposed to be at Base Camp, above 5,000 meters. But every aftershock reminded us that, in reality, we were just two kilometers away from the epicenter of the tragic earthquake, registering 7.8 on the Richter scale, that dramatically affected Nepal on that day, 25 April 2015…

“A terrible spectacle.”

After four days, we heard the sound of the first helicopter. People jumped up from every side and ran in the direction of the small helipad that was prepared with the help of all of us during those last days. But the pilot could not land. The helipad was too small for his helicopter. The disappointment was legible on our faces. We were worried not only about all the injured people who were just waiting to get rescued but also for one woman who gave birth in the middle of the night in terrible hygiene conditions. A few hours later, a smaller helicopter arrived. The pilot managed to land but had to turn off his machine. Some people were so willing to get out of this trap that they tried, by all means, to get a place inside the helicopter… a terrible spectacle. In the end, the injured people could luckily be rescued back to Kathmandu. Then it was our turn, tourists as we were.

A unique picture that you need to be ready for. Descending from Everest, you can see the shadow of Everest reflecting on the mountains of Nepal. This only lasts a few minutes. So it’s thanks to my husband, who knew about this and told me to just wait.

Finally, we were rescued by helicopter from this disastrous valley. At that moment, our initial expectation of reaching the summit was merely a slight memory. Flying back to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, we could see what it would mean to be in a war-torn country. Everything was destroyed. In the meantime, the image of a couple sitting in the ruins of their kitchen in what used to be their home, making fire out of their house’s destroyed wooden beams, and feeding us two small bowls of rice per day that they cooked on their stove, was stuck in our minds. We could not simply go back home to Switzerland. We decided to stay in Kathmandu and help support earthquake victims however we could. Forty-five days later, thanks to the numerous donations on account of our small charity organisation The Butterfly Help Project, we had distributed more than 31 tons of food supplies, rebuilt three provisional school buildings for more than 500 children and brought clothing to several remote villages. Everest was not a topic anymore. The Mountain was still there, of course, but going to these remote villages where the villagers had lost everything was another new and difficult challenge.

Find out more about The Butterfly Help Project

“I have to be here. This is my job”

However, when something is in your heart, it is impossible to forget so easily. Everest. Simply to hear the word illuminates my eyes. Everest is known as the Goddess of Giving to the Sherpa climbing community. My husband is always so thankful for all that she has given them. Every year, the climbing Sherpas, who are part of the ethnic Sherpa people, put their lives in danger to bring us other climbers to the top of the World just to fulfill a personal and selfish dream. And every year, they go back to work, to risk it all again, because they have to support their families. Once one knows that the income from a two-month Everest expedition can support a family for almost one year, compared to the average Nepalese salary, there is no doubt. They have to go. Again and again. In 2015, shortly before our Tibetan expedition, we went to Everest Base Camp on the Nepali side for an acclimatization trip. It was one year after seracs on the western spur of Mount Everest had collapsed, resulting in an ice avalanche that killed sixteen climbing Sherpas on the Khumbu Icefall. They were carrying loads to Camp I & II. At Base Camp, we encountered one of our good Sherpa friends, Mingma Sherpa. He is married and has four children, the youngest of whom had just been born at that time. I asked him why he was there, after surviving what happened last year, when he had children and a wife waiting for him at home. Was he not scared? With a generous smile on his face, he simply answered “I have to be here. This is my job.”

Andrea and her husband following their successful ascent of Everest.

And that is how it is. The Sherpa families at home are consumed with worry. The Sherpa community sticks strongly together, encouraging one another. They know that it is one of the hardest jobs on earth. They are handling heavy loads in the scientifically speaking, famous “death zone” (above 7,500 meters (24,606 ft)) in order to survive the rest of the year. They cannot complain, otherwise they might not be hired for the job the next year. They have to be strong even if it hurts. The clients have paid, and so the Sherpas have to bring them to the top and back to Base Camp. At least, this is what has happened since the first expedition in history. But we have to keep in mind: it is thanks to them that we can experience such an amazing and great adventure! They are simply “the true heroes of Mount Everest!” As an Everest Summiteer, Sherpas cannot be thanked enough for their hard work, dedication, and humility.

In 2016, when I had decided to listen to my heart again, my motivation had increased tenfold. I was already training the whole year, not only participating in ski mountaineering competitions but also ultra-trail races. For many years, I have competed at a high level and I would consider my fitness level to be good. But I knew from my previous expeditions at 8,000 meters (26,246 ft) that going for these kinds of altitudes is another story. You have to be in perfect shape, not only for yourself but because you depend mainly on others – the Sherpas. For several weeks, you must live in a zone where no human being can survive for long.

To climb Mount Everest, you must thus not only be completely fit, but you must have experience about how your metabolism reacts at such heights. You must be technically independent so that you can react quickly and without a doubt at some tricky passages. You must have good knowledge of how oxygen and mask regulators work. You should also be able to calculate your oxygen according to the hours it might take you for the climb. You cannot just say “I want to fulfil a dream to put on my resume, and anyway I am paying enough money for this challenge.” No! Indeed, we are speaking about a challenge. A Challenge with a capital “C”. A Challenge in the death zone, where every decision is either yes or no, live or die. There can be no hesitation. And the Sherpas are not employees. We talk about a team. A team that must work together in the highest zone of our planet.

When you are sitting at 7,000 meters (22,965 ft) in the dining tent of the climbing Sherpa Team, sharing a tea with them, getting inspired by their positive energy, it is just a fantastic feeling. For some, it was the first time on Everest, as it was for myself. For others, it is like attending the same race, year after year. There is a mixture of respect and excitement around being upon this mountain again. It is the home of the Goddess Chomolungma, no climbing Sherpa will start such an expedition without the traditional Puja – a Buddhist ceremony in which the Sherpa will thank the mountain for letting them pass and come back safely. However, it is also a way in which to apologise for the tracks made on her. To observe them, preparing the tea, setting up the tents, discussing the next days, was as if I was sitting in a tea-room somewhere in a mountain resort, they almost seem to be in communion with the mountain. Some are young, some are older. Whilst they all share the same aim, they also share the same pain. But no one shows it. Their movements are fluid and natural – You might almost forget that you are so high in the altitude… But what is the hard truth?

“The chance to fulfill my dream”

Without discussing the numerous Sherpas who have lost their lives, dedicated to some unprepared and inexperienced clients, how many Sherpas have lost their jobs because of frostbite? Because of not having the financial resources to pay their medical care? Lost the use of or the entirety of their fingers, toes, etc.? Once back home, no one is taking care of them anymore.

I had the chance to fulfill my dream, with my husband by my side. I trained especially hard in order to ensure that we could achieve this goal. Not only to make it to the top, but to make it safely back to Base Camp, and to also recover properly after such an achievement. But one of my main thoughts, my top priorities while preparing for this adventure was not to endanger my husband, who has been on Everest expeditions more than 9 times, due to my lack of physical or technical preparation.

On May 21, 2016, we reached the summit with no overcrowded route (the infamous “traffic jams”), and we took no uncontrolled risks. It was simply a perfect combination of appropriate preparation and years of experience. How does this get achieved? My husband has been for more than a decade the “Sirdar” (i.e. the Head of the climbing Sherpas), leading large-scale expeditions on the highest summits on Earth. He himself has stood seven times on Mount Everest and more than 14 times on other 8,000 meter peaks. Based on his long-term knowledge and skill, he knew exactly which decision to make at which time. Along with his expertise, my fitness level, training, and mental preparation allowed me to experience the highest of the Himalaya summits with him, to see for myself the glorious sunrise on the Goddess Chomolungma, to achieve the holiest of Challenges.

Andrea at Everest Base Camp

Andrea Sherpa-Zimmermann is a co-founder of the trekking and expedition agency Wild Yak Expeditions, and President of the non-governmental charity organization The Butterfly Help Project”.

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