Introduction: In Mr. Mortenson's Orbit
Chapter 1: Failure
Chapter 2: The Wrong Side of the River
Chapter 3: "Progress and Perfection"
Chapter 4: Self-Storage
Chapter 5: 580 Letters, One Check
Chapter 6: Rawalpindi's Rooftops at Dusk
Chapter 7: Hard Way Home
Chapter 8: Beaten by the Braldu
Chapter 9: The People Have Spoken
Chapter 10: Building Bridges
Chapter 11: Six Days
Chapter 12: Haji Ali's Lesson
Chapter 13: "A Smile Should Be More Than a Memory"
Chapter 14: Equilibrium
Chapter 15: Mortenson in Motion
Chapter 16: Red Velvet Box
Chapter 17: Cherry Trees in the Sand
Chapter 18: Shrouded Figure
Chapter 19: A Village Called New York
Chapter 20: Tea with the Taliban
Chapter 21: Rumsfeld's Shoes
Chapter 22: "The Enemy Is Ignorance"
Chapter 23: Stones into Schools
In Mr. Mortenson's Orbit
The little red light had been flashing for five minutes before
Bhangoo paid it any attention. "The fuel gages on these old aircraft are
notoriously unreliable," Brigadier General Bhangoo, one of Pakistan's most
experienced high-altitude helicopter pilots, said, tapping it. I wasn't sure if
that was meant to make me feel better.
I rode next to Bhangoo, looking down past my feet through the Vietnam-era Alouette's bubble windshield. Two thousand feet below us a river twisted, hemmed in by rocky crags jutting out from both sides of the Hunza Valley. At eye level, we soared past hanging green glaciers, splintering under a tropical sun. Bhangoo flew on unperturbed, flicking the ash of his cigarette out a vent, next to a sticker that said "No smoking."
From the rear of the aircraft Greg Mortenson reached his long arm out to tap Bhangoo on the shoulder of his flight suit. "General, sir," Mortenson shouted, "I think we're heading the wrong way."
Brigadier Bhangoo had been President Musharraf's personal pilot before retiring from the military to join a civil aviation company. He was in his late sixties, with salt-and-pepper hair and a mustache as clipped and cultivated as the vowels he'd inherited from the private British colonial school he'd attended as boy with Musharraf and many of Pakistan's other future leaders.
The general tossed his cigarette through the vent and blew out his breath. Then he bent to compare the store-bought GPS unit he balanced on his knee with a military-grade map Mortenson folded to highlight what he thought was our position.
"I've been flying in northern Pakistan for forty years," he said, waggling his head, the subcontinent's most distinctive gesture. "How is it you know the terrain better than me?" Bhangoo banked the Alouette steeply to port, flying back the way we'd come.
The red light that had worried me before began to flash faster. The bobbing needle on the gauge showed that we had less than one hundred liters of fuel. This part of northern Pakistan was so remote and inhospitable that we'd had to have friends preposition barrels of aviation fuel at strategic sites by jeep. If we couldn't make it to our drop zone we were in a tight spot, literally, since the craggy canyon we flew through had no level areas suitable for setting the Alouette down.
Bhangoo climbed high, so he'd have the option of auto-rotating toward a more distant landing zone if we ran out of fuel, and jammed his stick forward, speeding up to ninety knots. Just as the needle hit E and the red warning light began to beep, Bhangoo settled the skids at the center of a large H, for helipad, written out in white rocks, next to our barrels of jet fuel.
From Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. Copyright Greg Mortenson 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Viking Press.
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