Welcome to Back to the Summit
Hello, my name is Omer Rains and I am the author of “Back To The Summit.” I encourage you to take a few minutes to visit and explore the “Back To The Summit” website, some of the information presented will provide insight about the book and its structure. However, other parts, including the multimedia and video spots, contain content that could not be accommodated in the book itself. In any event, I think that you will find the website interesting but, more importantly, I hope that you will find the book inspirational. My life, with peaks that have been extremely high and valleys that have been very low, has been a cascade of challenges. “Back To The Summit” chronicles how one after another these challenges were overcome, with special emphasis on the greatest challenge of all—being struck down in the prime of life by a life threatening brain aneurysm and hemorrhagic stroke that life me in a paralytic state. Yet today, my life is dedicated to helping the impoverished and dispossessed gain literacy and economic prosperity, whether it be high in the Himalaya mountains or in the lowlands of South Asia and Latin America. Finally, if you are so inclined, feel free to contact me directly, which can be done by navigating to the contact section found on the website. Thank you.
Reflections on Public Service
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
— Maya Angelou
As the sun set on my political career I re&ected, wondering, searching the corners of my conscience and my heart to see if I had any regrets. It didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that I didn’t regret one second that I ever spent in public service. It was truly a privilege to serve my district and the people of California. I was secure in the knowledge that anyone who ever examined my legislative record would come away convinced that I had left an imprint on the lives of every single Californian that very few people of my generation would ever have the opportunity to do. While my primary legislative interest was on the environment, civil and human rights, and political reform I had been very active in other areas as well.
As the Legislature’s representative on the California Law Revision Commission, I had carried a series of bills that struck from the books innumerable outdated laws, and as the Legislature’s representative on the State Judicial Council I had taken action over strong opposition of the insurance industry to aid aggrieved parties and consumers by authoring landmark legislation allowing for the payment of pre-judgment interest on
court judgments for the !rst time in Californian history.
My efforts in the area of criminal law produced in 1981-82 what has been referred to as “the most comprehensive anti-crime package in California history” and this was accomplished without, in my opinion, sacri!cing the vigilant protection of constitutional guarantees for which I had always actively stood and fought.
In the area of child molestation and child abuse, I authored a bill that specified that if a social worker, teacher, doctor, or police o$cer observed evidence of child abuse, it would be incumbent on him or her to report it to the appropriate authorities. Every group affected said, “Great idea, but it shouldn’t apply to us.” Some, especially doctors, resisted strongly not wanting either the responsibility or the potential liability since there were sanctions for those who failed to report abuse. I will never forget the headlines in a major California daily a year after this bill went into e#ect. It read something like “Child Abuse in California Increases Tenfold in Last Year.” Obviously child abuse had
not increased—it was simply being reported!
In the area of children’s rights, I had also authored legislation to ensure that all school children are immunized against measles, polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus—!ve dreaded childhood diseases that some families could not afford to provide their children.
To provide part-time work for persons unable to work full-time, I authored legislation to establish California’s first “Part-time Employment Act.” In addition, to help prevent a healthcare breakdown, I carried legislation during a special session in 1975 designed to curtail skyrocketing malpractice insurance rates which had placed California’s healthcare services in serious jeopardy.
I fought with vigilance for more !scal responsibility at all levels of government, not just in the aftermath of the passage of Prop 13, but throughout my legislative career.Sensitive to the needs of California’s business community and as Chairman of the Select Committee on Government Regulation I acted to identify and cure regulatory abuses.In addition, I authored laws streamlining the state’s cumbersome permit process, in
addition to starting California down the road to “zero-based” budgeting and establishing timetables for periodic review of state agencies (encompassing the “Sunset” concept to eliminate programs whose existence could no longer be justi!ed). Vigilant adherence to zero-based budgeting and sunset provisions for all new legislation are absolute imperatives if anyone is serious about halting the growth of government, either at the
federal or state levels.
To further the creation of a more healthy business climate in the state of California, I jointly authored the “Holmdahl-Rains-Lockyer Economic Development Act” which consolidated the economic planning functions of several state agencies into one Department of Economic and Business Development, and established an “Office of State Tourism.”
In the area of political reform, and as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Elections and Reapportionment and of the Select Committee on Political Reform, throughout my legislative career I vigorously fought for the principles of full disclosure and open government and authored far reaching legislation that has minimized false endorsements in political campaigns and banned the fraudulent solicitation of campaign funds. Another of my measures created a Code of Fair Campaign Practices to which candidates running for public office would subscribe. Admittedly, however, the latter bill has been of limited success since in order to secure the votes to gain passage, it was necessary to make the act voluntary. Guess how many candidates choose to subscribe?
One of the projects during this period that did not come to fruition while I was still a member of the Senate was my strong push for a state college in Ventura County. Governor Brown was against the idea because he didn’t believe it was needed given the proximity of the University of California, Santa Barbara to the north and California State College at Northridge in LA County to the south. But from my point of view, Ventura was the only heavy population center that did not have a State College or University Campus in or near it in the state. Moreover, the infrastructure was already in place by way of use of the truly beautiful grounds with structures still in good condition at the then recently closed and vacated Camarillo State Hospital. After Governor Brown left office, the college gained approval and was named Channel Islands State College.
I pressed and gained funding for restoration and renovation of the historic Presidio in the City of Santa Barbara. The Presidio is a monument to the history of this beautiful and famous city.
Having been steeped in the civil rights movement and as Chairperson of the Joint Committee on Legal Equality, the only Legislative Committee in the United States established to address legal inequality between the sexes, I authored and developed a comprehensive package of sixty-eight bills to allow the cause of women’s rights to successfully advance in California from one of discussion to one of action and to bring California’s codes into compliance with the “Equal Rights Amendment.”
However, I am sure that I am best remembered for my constant fights to preserve, protect, and enhance California’s precious and unique environment. In this regard, one matter on which I worked long and hard and hand-in-hand with Congressman Phil Burton of San Francisco was the sponsorship of a bill to create an expanded Redwoods National Park in Northern California. Burton carried the bill at the federal level and I carried necessary enabling legislation at the state level. The bills passed in both DC and Sacramento. This National Park, with its phenomenal trees covering thousands of square miles was open to the public in the late 1970s and will remain a national treasure for all time.
Similarly, I worked with certain members of California’s Congressional Delegation to establish the Channel Islands National Park comprised of five Islands (offshore in the Santa Barbara Channel and within my District) stretching from Point Conception in the north and running south to Anacapa Island off the coast of Ventura. Concurrently, I labored successfully to have the Park Headquarters located at the Ventura Port.
The California deserts are unique, too. There is certain plant life found in that environment that is to be found nowhere else in the world. People were digging up and pirating many of California’s exotic and native plants, especially rare members of the cacti family and selling them on the open market. They were showing up all over the world. Many of them ended up overseas in Japanese gardens. Not only was it denuding the desert of much of its native growth, but it was removing important parts of the desert’s ecosystem. I authored legislation to put a stop to that.
I hate the possibility of destruction of any aspect of nature. Nature has always been my cathedral. This was especially true when it came to protection of California’s beaches. To this end I authored the Oil Spill Liability Act, which specifically sanctioned oil companies if they spilled oil in our oceans and caused damage to our beaches. In addition, I authored legislation to purchase beach property for public use and an act of legislation to prevent strip mining in California’s national and state forests.
As Vice-chairman of the Senate Energy and Utilities Committee, as a member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee and as the Gubernatorial Appointee to the State Geothermal Resources Taskforce and the SolarCAL Council I authored pioneering legislation encouraging the development and use of alternative energy sources such as solar, geothermal, co-generation, wind, bio-mass conversion, and developing ocean technologies.
I also authored legislation to ban plastic “six-pack” holders, a petroleum bi-product that is not biodegradable, and which ensnares in a death grip birds, fish, and other wildlife. Unfortunately, after my retirement from the Senate, this legislation was repealed through efforts of those whose opposition I had originally managed to overcome.
I also oversaw establishment of an interconnecting network of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails between state parks, California missions and state and federal historic sites which is unique throughout the United States. The state of California subsequently named one of these trails after me: “The Omer Rains Bike Trail” which runs through some beautiful country offering panoramic vistas connecting various state beach parks from south of the Santa Clara River to north of the Ventura River—now finally ending up in the city of Ojai, nearly twenty miles in length.
A close friend of mine, Mark Dubois, had in the mid-70s started an organization called “Friends of the River.” The organization tried to prevent construction of a dam on the Stanislaus River southeast of Sacramento in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Eventually the issue was placed on the ballot where it lost in a statewide election by a narrow margin. However, that effort led to the passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which I co-authored and strongly supported in concert with the bill’s principal author, Senator Peter Behr. This act emboldened similar measures in other states and in other countries too. This was a classic case where although the battle may have been lost, the war in large measure was won. As for Mark, he was to go on and eventually become International Chair of Earth Day as we entered the new millennium in the year 2000.
The measure for which I am probably best known is the California Bottle Bill. Each year, with the reserved number of Senate Bill 4, I introduced the legislation. This was my annual bill to encourage the return of reusable and recyclable beverage containers. Passage of the bill in its purest form was designed to save enormous amounts of energy wasted in the manufacture of over 60 billion “throw-away” bottles and cans each year. Obviously, it would also have reduced litter and, in addition, would have saved consumers money with each purchase. According to an article that appeared in Reader’s Digest, the opposition to my bill was described as “the most powerful and well-organized in the entire country.” It added, “This lobby plays hard and it plays for keeps.” Nevertheless, some years I got the bill to the Senate floor and some years it remained “bottled up” in Committee. Because of the size of the California marketplace, the Container Deposit Legislation that was eventually enacted became in effect a national law. I do not necessarily deserve the accolade, but I’m proud to sometimes be introduced as the “Father of the Bottle Bill.”
Letter to a Son
“The only people who never fail are those who never try.”
— Omer Rains
Having lost the race for Attorney General, I penned the following letter to my son as the date of his graduation from high school approached.
“You are now eighteen, and I want you to know how very proud I am of you as tomorrow’s high school graduation approaches. But how did the weeks, the months, and the years move so swiftly by? The memories of your birth are as yesterday, and the various milestones in your short lifespan all seem as though they just happened. It is truly hard to believe that you have already reached adulthood…
Having said that, I want to talk a bit about myself and, in so doing, hopefully impart to you not just a better understanding of me, but also lessons which may help guide you as you continue down the roadway of life.
I haven’t forgotten, for example, that you asked me the night I lost the race for Attorney General why I had given up a safe seat in the Senate to engage in what was obviously an uphill fight against a better financed, better known opponent. I remember telling you that I felt good about the challenge I had accepted, even though I had lost, and that I thought that every person must from time to time face defeat in order to proceed into the future with humility and with renewed vigor. The fact is that as someone once said: “Although most people can see, few have vision.” Sometimes it’s not until one steps back (even if involuntarily) away from something in which he has been totally immersed, that one can again speak with the vision that any true leader must from time to time have. It’s akin to the proverbial not being able “to see the forest because of the trees.”
My loss in the Attorney General’s race is, for illustrative purposes, good to dwell on for a moment, because I suspect that to most people it is the one great stumble I have made around the track of professional life. But I do not look upon it that way. Remember that as you go through life, the only people who never fail are those who never try. The fact of the matter is that I, at that particular time in my life, simply needed a new challenge. From time to time in your life you will find that you, as well, need new challenges. I also had come to realize the extraordinary sacrifices I had made in order to engage in public service. Although I am very proud of my accomplishments in public life, I realize how unfair public service can often be to one’s family and I certainly feel deeply how much I missed in not having more time to spend with you as you grew to adulthood. But as one travels the road of life, one often comes to forks in the road, and for better or worse one must decide from time to time which fork to take (with apologies to Robert Frost). You will often encounter such choices as well.
In my case, by choosing public service I know that I had an opportunity to serve which few shall ever have. Being but one of forty members of the Senate representing the interests of over thirty million people allowed me to set my imprimatur on the history of California and to some extent the nation in a way that would otherwise have been impossible. I worked hard and I left the Legislature with a clear conscience. I represented well my constituency during a trying period in our political history, especially in the aftermath of Watergate, Vietnam, and other traumatic national experiences. I tell you this because as you travel the road of life, if you get from one spot to another and feel good about the route you have traveled, that will give you a sense of enormous gratification, and it will make the road taken (however much in need of wear) a great adventure.
Also when I left the Legislature, I truly did not know what the future portended. But I did know that there were new horizons to view, new mountains to climb, new challenges to face, and I have begun to view those horizons, to climb those mountains and to face those challenges — without regret. In other words try always to look forward with optimism and hope and without bitterness over past losses, defeats or failures, for surely you as everyone else will from time to time have losses, defeats and failures, whatever you seek to accomplish in life.
In addition, I want you never to stand in awe of any other person, for I assure you that you are his/her equal. I have had the opportunity to know so many of the “greats” of the world — John F., Robert, and Teddy Kennedy; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Menachem Begin; Anwar Sadat; Margaret Thatcher; Tony Blair; Prince Charles; Mother Teresa; Gerald Ford; Richard Nixon; Jimmy Carter; Ronald Reagan; Muhammad Ali; Larry Holmes; both Sugar Ray’s (Robinson and Leonard); Larry Bird; Kareem Abdul Jabbar; Bill Russell; Magic Johnson; Willis Reed; Joe Montana; Steve Garvey; Ozzie Smith; Reggie Jackson; Evel Knievel; Mario Andretti; Arnold Palmer; Charlton Heston; Johnny Cash; Bo Derek; Elvis Presley; Steve McQueen; Sammy Davis Jr.; Ella Fitzgerald; John Denver; John Malone; Bob Magness; Leonard Tow; etc. The list could go on and on and on. It would, to be sure, include virtually every politician about whom you have read or heard during the course of your life, and an extraordinary number of entertainers and sports heroes, as well as so-called “captains of industry” and “beautiful people,” whom we individually and collectively tend to worship in our society.
The importance of this is not that I have met and gotten to know such people, but rather that I have learned from such acquaintances that although many, indeed most, of these people are very nice, they are also very ordinary. I cannot really tell you what separates the so-called “great” or famous people of the world from anyone else you meet in daily travels —it may be a matter of inheritance, or timing, or luck, or hard work— who knows. But what I can tell you is that what separates these people from anyone else is really very small, very miniscule or very slight and almost impossible to discern, much less to describe.
Don’t get me wrong. There are many great people (Anwar Sadat, for example, truly stands out in my mind as a man of extraordinary vision and courage, one who was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for what he believed to be correct; and who in modern history has been more inspirational than Nelson Mandela; and who has been more admired — except by a few Chinese government officials— than his Holiness, the Dalai Lama). But the point I am trying to make is that most who inhabit this earth are really not that different from their neighbors. We all have strengths and we all have weaknesses, and we all put our pants on one leg at a time. You should never, therefore, be afraid to challenge another for fear that he is smarter than you, or richer than you, or more athletic than you, or in any way better than you. If called for, make your challenge and if in so doing you fail, that’s okay so long as you have given your best.
Perhaps that person who best summed up what I have been trying to say to you in this letter was Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt so well articulated on several occasions the importance of trying, of doing one’s best even when on occasion that means failure. I have looked up a few of my favorite Theodore Roosevelt quotes, and I would like to share them with you:‘Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.’‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of the deed could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust, sweat, and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again … because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.’‘It is the man who actually strives to do the deeds who knows the great enthusiasm; the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement … and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.’
In short I started this letter by saying how proud I am of you, and that I am. You shall achieve great things, and I pray that you shall also enjoy great happiness. But I am fully cognizant of the fact that your achievements and happiness will not come easily, because it does not come easily for anyone. It must be worked at. From time to time you will stumble and, indeed, you may fall, as from time to time I have stumbled and fallen. But there is an old Scottish ballad that goes something like this: “I am hurt, but I am not slain. I shall lay me down to rest a little and then get up to fight again.” Whenever you stumble or fall, just get up, pull yourself together, dust yourself off and continue forward—continue forward, always forward, and never backwards—throughout life. Do this, and your journey will be a glorious one.
Your proud and loving father.”
Pakistan, the Taliban and Paco Tech
“The successful person makes a habit of doing what the failing person fears to do.”
— Thomas Edison
Later that same year, 1995, I began to represent a South African company known as Paco Tech. Paco Tech, headed by a white South African named Brian Harmer, took almost any type of organic material, whether wheat, straw, rice hulls, coconut husks, or any other type of organic crop and compacted it through a patented process. What was left was building material that could be used to construct homes, office buildings and all sorts of other structures. Harmer at the time was afraid that South Africa was going to go up in flames and that his family would be placed in jeopardy and his businesses burned. As a result, he wanted to relocate his business to another part of the world. Initially, I contacted Jimmy Carter and Habitat for Humanity because I felt that they might have an interest in the technology of Paco Tech. I also spent considerable time in DC speaking with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), to the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and even to the Rockefeller Winrock office in DC and later at their hands-on center in Arkansas. About the same time I began to represent a Pakistani-American named Rashid Saeed. Saeed had dual citizenship as he had been born in Pakistan and still maintained a home there. He also had business interests both in Pakistan and in America. When I explained how Paco’s technology could reduce the cost of housing and provide other benefits to lesser developed nations, Saeed took a personal interest. Through Saeed’s connections, I received an invitation from Pakistan’s Minister of Commerce representing the recently elected Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, to visit Pakistan. The newly elected government was trying to entice foreign investment in Pakistan, especially in an area that Pakistan referred to as “Free Kashmir” (that portion of Kashmir that Pakistan occupies rather than India). In effect, Pakistan was prepared to offer full tax dispensation to a foreign company that invested and developed a business in “Free Kashmir” for twenty years if the company was prepared to locate in that area. I left for Pakistan not long after I returned from Nepal and Tibet and after I had successfully concluded the trial that caused me to return early from the Everest expedition.
I initially flew into Lahore, the capital of the state of Punjab. Harmer was arriving from South Africa later that same day. I was picked up at the airport and driven to an enormous home that belonged to a man who had recently retired as the doctor to the royal family of Saudi Arabia. This home was an incredible mansion with high walls all around the grounds. There were guard posts at each corner manned by men with automatic weapons. We drove in through the gates and I saw yet more armed guards. It was like an armed fortress. I was no shrinking violet when it came to luxurious surroundings, but this place was a real eye opener.
After I was introduced to the doctor, my host, I asked “My Lord, why all the guards?” His answer was, “Anyone who is rich in this country is in danger.”
My curiosity was piqued. “How many guards do you have here?”
Why so many?”
He laughed. “Actually my wife wants more. How many do you have?” Jokingly I said, “Only two.”
He looked surprised. “Oh, is that enough?”
I started laughing and told him that truth be told I had none. “I wouldn’t be comfortable with armed guards.”
“If wealthy, you couldn’t get along here without armed guards.” And he was deadly serious.
Harmer arrived at the complex later that same day. The following morning we were driven across the border into Kashmir to the town of Bhimber, the region in which Pakistan wanted to see development take place. Although the tax advantages were great, when Harmer saw how close his facilities would be to two huge nuclear-armed enemies facing each other a short distance away from one another, he gave up the idea entirely. Not exactly a great environment for business. So Harmer returned to Lahore and flew home to South Africa. However, I had planned to stay in Pakistan for awhile as I had been invited to meet with Prime Minister Bhutto in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. She remembered that meeting when many years later I spoke briefly with her again at a reception at Lake Tahoe. This latter incident was only a few years before her assassination.
Although my meetings in Islamabad focused primarily on the possibility of future business opportunities, I intended also while in Pakistan to go north to see the Karakoram Mountains. The most significant is K-2, the second highest peak in the world. The Karakoram’s in the far north of Pakistan are in disputed territory, parts of it claimed by China, parts by India, and parts by Pakistan.
The Prime Minister told me that she would have me flown to Skardu and from there have an army officer drive me north because, according to her, the guides in the area could not be trusted. I declined the invitation to fly to Skardu as I preferred to rent a car. I wanted to drive through the Swat Valley and northward from there in order to see the countryside and meet some of the people. Probably a mistake. The trip took me close to thirty hours and the Karakoram Highway is one of the more harrowing roads in the world. Nevertheless, I finally made it.
As I had gone north from Islamabad, I was looked on with great curiosity and I am sure with suspicion by people that I passed by. I would just smile and wave. When I made stops, I would ordinarily find someone who could speak at least a bit of English so that I could communicate my needs. When I arrived at my hotel in Skardu, an army officer was awaiting my arrival.
The following morning, the two of us set out in an army jeep. It was a good thing I had the driver because army checkpoints were all along the road. The Karakoram’s themselves are even more beautiful than the Himalayas. The mountains tend to stand out alone, thus giving them a more dramatic silhouette. I was not equipped for any kind of mountain climbing although I had brought boots and warm clothing with me. We finally got to the point where I was able to peer up at K-2, the second highest mountain in the world and considered by most mountaineers to be far more dangerous to climb than Mount Everest. This is the region recently made famous by Greg Mortenson in his book, “Three Cups of Tea.” Some of the people I met in this area had light skin and blue eyes and they claim to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s troops. It is possible. It was an amazing peek into a strange part of the world that few ever see.
Because my trip to the Karakoram’s had taken longer than anticipated, when I returned to Skardu I decided to fly rather than drive back to Islamabad. Arriving at my hotel in Islamabad I found a message waiting for me. It was from Rashid Saeed who had been monitoring my travels. The message said, “Please call me as soon as possible. It’s important.”
I called my friend Saeed who asked me to visit his home in Faisalabad in order to meet his family and a few friends. As he was a friend and client and as he had been covering many of my expenses in Pakistan, I felt obliged to do so. He arranged a flight for me from Islamabad to Faisalabad. I picked up the ticket at the airport.
On the flight, however, the plane ran into very bad turbulence. Finally, the pilot announced, first in Urdu and then in English, “We must divert because of the storm. We will be landing in Lahore.”
When we landed in Lahore, to my surprise Saeed and his driver were there waiting for me. They had also learned about the diversion made necessary by the raging storm. Faisalabad is quite some distance west of Lahore. By the time I got my luggage and we were on the road, it was well past midnight. The wind and dust storm was horrific. The wind was so bad that it was literally bouncing the car around, and the driver was having trouble just staying on the road. Visibility due to blowing dust was almost nil.
We eventually reached Faisalabad around 4:00 am. The entire trip had been incredibly hot as there had been no air-conditioning in the car. When we entered the home, the first room was bare except for a bed near the back of the room. The room was rectangular in shape and very large. Ordinarily it was used as a reception area. Saeed said, “Senator (that’s what he always called me), please lie down here on this bed and get some sleep. We will talk in the morning. I want you to meet my family and some people in the community tomorrow. I will go back now to join my wife and children.”
I removed my sweat-soaked and dusty clothes and gratefully laid down on the bed and fell asleep immediately. A couple of hours later I was awakened. I opened my eyes and was startled to see a string of men coming through the front door. They were entering the room to the right and were slowly circling the room single file in serpentine style. Pretty soon they had filled each wall of the room and had sat down cross-legged on the floor.
I wasn’t exactly ready for visitors. In fact, I was in my skivvies, and nothing else. Not to mention that I had no idea who these people were or what they were doing here. I sat up on the bed flabbergasted. Most of the men were older, though not all of them. They were squatting and most were speaking in a foreign language that I could not understand but knew to be Urdu. Some however — especially the younger ones — were speaking Pashtu. It was an incredibly awkward situation and I wasn’t sure what to do. Seemingly, no one spoke English and no one looked friendly.
About this time Saeed bolted into the room from the back of the house. Unlike me he was fully dressed. “Senator, I apologize. I overslept. These are the town leaders of Faisalabad and some of their friends from surrounding areas and they have come to talk to you. They knew that you were coming and they are very honored to have you here and would like to ask you questions. I will translate.”
At least sixty people were in the room by now. I was very uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons. I just woke up from a deep slumber and before I even had a chance to wipe the sleep from my eyes I began to be peppered with difficult questions. It quickly became evident that Saeed had told people in Faisalabad, a major Pakistani city, that he was hosting a United States Senator. I was pissed. He was speaking to them in Urdu so I could not understand what was being said but I clearly began to get the gist of it. Because I do keep myself conversant in world affairs I knew what was being discussed because of the questions I was being asked. For the most part I also knew the American position on the various issues that were being raised. The questions were all over the place and, by and large, they were very intelligent questions.
But it wasn’t at all a pleasant kind of give and take. To the contrary, the mood was at times confrontational and I sensed that some of the younger men were sympathetic to or associated with the Taliban of neighboring Afghanistan. They wanted to know why we (the United States) were holding hundreds of millions of dollars of Pakistani money that their country had paid to buy war planes and why we were not allowing the planes to leave American soil and at the same time were not returning their money either. I knew that the official American position was that Pakistan had refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Of course, India, Pakistan’s long-term adversary, hadn’t signed it either. Nor had the United States. I had no good answer as to why we had not returned their money. Then again, I was not a duly appointed spokesman for the United States government, but they were certainly acting as though I was.
Their attitude was, “How can you say you are going to punish us for not signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty when you yourselves won’t sign it?” The American position, when you come right down to it, really in effect is saying, “We are the good guys. We are responsible.” But I wasn’t at that moment exactly in a position where I could articulate that very well.
The fellow who seemed to be the leader was extremely persistent and somewhat demanding. He began to talk about Afghanistan. “You wanted our help in running the Soviets out of Afghanistan,” he said. “So all the supplies that the Afghans received came through our country. Now that the Soviets have been driven out you are buddying up to India. We were there for you, but you’re not there for us.”
I repeatedly told them that I did not speak for the United States government. I did not speak for the Clinton administration. I am not a United States Senator. I have no diplomatic passport. I am just a plain American citizen and I can’t answer your questions with any kind of authority whatever.
I have a suspicion however that Saeed was not translating any of that. It was clear that he wanted to appear important and impress his countrymen. He had in fact told them that I was a Senator, and by that they thought that I was a current member of the United States Senate. It was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life and I was really pissed off at Saeed. After two hours or more, they all filed out and I was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief, take a shower, and get clothed. It had been a very intense and confrontational experience.
I am still friends with Saeed, but at the time I was really upset and yelled at him. Very uncharacteristic behavior for me. He was apologetic but it gave me no solace. After cleaning up, meeting his family and having a bite to eat, I rented a car and drove southwest across the rest of Pakistan through Hyderabad and on to Karachi on the Arabian Sea, the country’s largest and, arguably, poorest city where after a day of “sightseeing” in a city where there isn’t much to see other than extreme poverty, I took a flight back to the United States.
Notwithstanding the incident in Faisalabad, I continued to represent Saeed. I had also met some very nice people in Pakistan, including a man named Rashid Khan who
owned hotels in Pakistan and when he later visited the United States began to invest in the States as well. In addition, some of my very best friends are Pakistani-American and I have great respect for them. In fact, one is an individual with whom I today serve on the READ Global Board of Directors.
As for Paco Tech, I also continued to represent Brian Harmer and the company, but they no longer had any interest in Pakistan. I couldn’t blame Harmer. I would have made the same decision he did. After all, who would want to establish a business smack-dab between two nuclear armed enemies?
“Not all who wander are lost.”
Near the end of that same year, I was approached by a group of people who lived in the States, most but not all of whom were citizens, who wanted to do a project in the country of Turkmenistan. The group included an attorney, some engineers, and principals who had originally come from Turkmenistan but were now living in the United States. The latter continued to have family and other ties to Turkmenistan. Knowing that I was involved in international finance, they asked if they could retain my services because they had the idea of constructing a fertilizer facility in southeast Turkmenistan near the borders of Iran and Afghanistan. All of the “Stans,” Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan were former Soviet Republics. These are historically Muslim countries but because of the Soviet-era influence, the Islamic religion is much less influential in those countries than in most other parts of the Islamic world.
Turkmenistan has one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world. It also has ammonia. Gas and ammonia are the two key ingredients needed to produce fertilizer. Turkmenistan also grows a cotton crop. That’s basically it. Not a very diversified economy. To produce the cotton, they rely on irrigation coming from the Aral Sea, which is one of the most polluted waterways in the world and is now diminishing in size because of heavy overuse by the countries that draw from it.
Those driving this particular project knew that I had previously dealt with the alphabet soup agencies in Washington, DC. They had located a fertilizer facility in the State of Oklahoma which they wanted to dismantle and transport to Turkmenistan. I became intrigued by this project. The company wanted me to accompany principals of the company to Turkmenistan. Before leaving for Turkmenistan, I went to Washington, DC and began to talk with governmental agencies that I thought might be of help. The biggest problem was that the President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, was one of the most oppressive dictators in the world. The personality cult surrounding Niyazov was so intense that the United States Department of State had the country of Turkmenistan blacklisted. I was trying to persuade the agencies in DC to allow the project to go forward with the use, in part, of their finances. They still had the matter under consideration when I left for Turkmenistan in October 1995.
Changing planes in Istanbul, one of my favorite cities in the world, we continued on to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. Ashgabat lies only a few miles north of the Iranian border. However, the two countries are separated by a mountain chain called the Caput Range. Turkmenistan and Iran had very good relations and insofar as I know, they still do.
Now, I had been in countries with dictatorial regimes before, and I had seen the cult- like personality before as well, but this was far beyond what I had ever seen. Here every citizen walked around wearing a lapel pin bearing a photo of Niyazov. You could stand at any intersection in the city of Ashgabat and look in any direction and see huge banners of Niyazov hanging from the buildings. Ashgabat will never be a tourist destination. Yet, Niyazov built many beautiful hotels at great public expense. Very few people go there. The only visitors are the occasional international business people who are primarily interested in the natural gas reserves of the country.
Turkmenistan had no way of moving its natural gas to the rest of the world unless it did so through the use of Russian pipelines and the Russians exacted great sums of money as tribute for the use of their pipelines. That was not the reason that took us to Turkmenistan but it did seem to dominate the conversation in most of the meetings in which I was involved. Turkmenistan was looking for options to take its gas to other parts of the world at a lower price than they were able to do by shipping it through Russia. The most logical option was to build a pipeline down through Iran to the Persian Gulf. But that had its own problems because the mullahs and other clerics were in control of Iran. Therefore there was concern that the Iranians could take control of the pipeline at any time. Most of the American companies involved in this complex situation wanted a pipeline to go west over to the Caspian Sea and eventually into the area around Turkey. Anything to get the product to the western markets. At the same time the Chinese had become huge players and were leaning on Turkmenistan to have the pipeline go east to China. As I said, it was a complex political situation to say the least and I was never quite sure why we were involved in such discussions.
At one time, Niyazov invited me to go to the national bank, which was called “The Peoples Bank of Turkmenistan,” obviously a holdover from the days of Soviet rule. Turkmenistan has its own native language, closer to Turkish than any other. However, most government officials I met with still spoke Russian. But when I went to see the President of the Bank, he also spoke English. In a way it was a funny conversation but in actuality it was tragic and spoke volumes. I asked him, “How do you decide who gets a loan?” A rather baffled look crossed his face. He said, “Well, whatever the President says. If the President says they get a loan, they do. If he says they don’t, they don’t.” That pretty much described the business and social environment of Turkmenistan.
I was in Turkmenistan with my colleagues for some time and the talks were seemingly proceeding fairly well. We were meeting with government officials but I know that my Turkmen clients, behind the scenes, did not want me to know too much because they knew that I would not violate our “Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.” There were also other meetings taking place in which I was not involved. I am sure there was a lot of quid pro quo taking place. Nothing happens in that country and in those parts of the world unless the government approves it.
In any case, during the first week in November, the President instructed his staff to plan a celebration for us. We drove quite some distance to the west of Ashgabat. The road went right along the base of the mountain range separating Turkmenistan from Iran. Finally, we came to a park like setting. Our hosts, the government officials, had brought a huge lamb which they intended to barbeque for us as part of the celebration.
Although the mountains were quite high near the capital, Ashgabat, they were not at all high where we stopped for the picnic. There was an entrance at the base of the mountains that went to underground thermal pools beneath the Caput Mountains. They were renown for their therapeutic qualities. After being in the water for awhile and being intrigued by my surroundings, I left the others and advised my hosts that I was going to climb a “short distance” up one of the low mountains separating Turkmenistan from Iran. So I excused myself, got dressed and told the others I was just going to take a hike. They knew that I was an experienced outdoorsman.
I left the caves and started up the mountain. For me, it was an easy climb. At the top of the mountain I realized that I was in fact looking directly into Iran. I was looking down on desert type country with a village about a mile in the distance. I don’t know what possessed me, but I decided I wanted to take a few steps into Iran. I made my way down the hill, trying to remain covert because the nearest Iranian village, as indicated, wasn’t that far off. As long as I didn’t see anyone, I advanced a good distance downhill. There was almost no foliage on the hillside but there were some relatively large boulders. I kept going downhill from boulder to boulder crouching behind each one as I got to it. I’m not sure why I kept going downhill, but I did. What was I going to do when I got to the bottom? I wasn’t sure.
Then I saw a jeep charging toward me, dust flying. “Oh fuck! I’ve been spotted!” There were four soldiers in a jeep. I didn’t try to run but simply raised my hands to show that I was unarmed. One of the soldiers spoke pretty good English. He asked me who I was and I identified myself by name. Knowing they had good relations with President Niyazov I explained that I was his guest and I was just out for a hike and I didn’t realize I had entered Iran. I apologized for the intrusion. The fellow who spoke English translated all this into Farsi, the language of Iran. They all thought it was funny and began laughing.
Soon another jeep came up loaded with townspeople. There must have been ten of them loaded into a jeep that was really built for only four people. Surprisingly they began to tell me how much they liked Americans—it was just our government that they disliked. I told the English speaking soldier, who was also clearly the Commander, that my hosts would be worried about me and that I had to get back. He said, “No problem.” He directed one of his men to take me up a trail that they knew of. I shook hands with each of the soldiers and said goodbye to the townspeople. As I left, the Commander said that he hoped that one day our two countries would again have good relations. I replied that I hoped so, too.
Back at the barbeque, my colleagues were indeed beginning to worry and were happy to see me. I had probably been gone for about three hours. Realizing that my actions could have precipitated an international incident, I wasn’t about to tell them that I had unlawfully entered Iran. It was one of the many rash adventures that people who don’t know me might find hard to understand. I don’t always understand myself why I do certain things. My yearning to explore and discover new things for myself often seems to have no bounds.
We returned to Ashgabat that night, and flew out the following day. In Istanbul others proceeded on to the States. I had other business planned in Europe so my route took me from Istanbul to London and from London onto other places.
Not long after I returned from Europe, a small delegation came from Turkmenistan to the States. A project was eventually built, but it did not involve the matter of our visit. However, the delegation brought with them a painting as a personal gift to me from the President. The inscription on the plaque on the paintings frame said: “To Senator Omer Rains from his Excellency Sapamurat Niyazov, President of Turkmenistan.”
“I have to say it now; it’s been a good life all in all; it’s really fine to have a chance to hang around.”
— John Denver (“Poems, Prayers & Promises”)
To be sure, I have led a rugged, adventurous, and blessed life. I am blessed to have been born in the United States, a country which I dearly love, where opportunities abound for anyone who is willing to work hard and persevere through hardships. I have been blessed to have seen and experienced parts of the world that most people never dream of seeing—and I managed to see most of them before the world became “flat” and homogeneous. I am blessed to have had English as my native tongue because this richly diverse country—the United States—has been such a beacon to the world that wherever I have traveled, within minutes I have invariably been able to find someone with whom I could communicate. I am blessed to have lived in an age of medical marvel and miracles. At no other time in the history of mankind could I possibly have survived some of my ordeals. Of that I am certain. I have been blessed to have fathered beautiful children who, sometimes in spite of my absences and lapses, have turned into caring and contributing adults. They, in turn, have provided me with three adorable grandchildren and, who knows, there could always be more in the future. Each morning, I open the paper first to the obituary page. If my name is not there, I think “Isn’t this day off to a great start! Now, accept the blessing and make the most of it.”So while I’ve not yet “gone fishing,” I have only my own hard charging personality to blame. My suspicion is that, while I may preach to the contrary, till the day I die I will keep busy (and never regret a moment of it). So what’s next for me? That chapter has yet to be written. Yet, one constant remains as certain in my life as the rising of the sun tomorrow. Whatever fate may have in store for me and whichever road I choose to follow, most assuredly there will be something new around the next bend. The insatiable quest for knowledge burns as brightly today as ever. Robert Frost put it best when he wrote: The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep,And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
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