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Cover October 26, 1998

Risky Business: Extreme Educational Environments
By Daniel D. Davis
Mathematics Instructor
Lahore American School

Educators with fairly sane venues for their lives hear reports of teachers being evacuated from Pakistan or similarly dangerous-sounding places and wonder: What is it like to live in a country where daily security is not something which can apparently be taken for granted? I was handed the mission of trying to answer this riddle, but upon pondering the the issue realized I must first consider a couple of other questions--Why do people travel or live overseas? And, just how risky is it, anyway?--because the answers to these questions dictate the attitude which people have towards their particular lifestyle.

Most people like to travel, even ensconced Middle-Americans whose idea of adventure is witnessing license plates from states they can't even spell. Far fewer, however, opt to actually live in places they would consider foreign. The numbers drop dramatically when you exclude countries in western Europe, a place which differs from America only in the price of gas, funny little road signs, the greater average age of buildings, and the tendency of natives to speak in a dialect you can't quite understand.

But why would anyone live in a country considered dangerous, one of those names on the State Department list of undesirable destinations? Many Americans have, continue to do so, and are not terribly concerned about all the hoopla. Of course, tax-free status, free housing, and inexpensive domestic help might explain the fascination, but such benefits are available in calmer locales. So why indulge in all the risk? One answer, I realized, might be your definition of risk.

People have long kidded me about my fascination with risk, primarily because of my enjoyment of sports such as skydiving, BASE jumping (parachuting off of fixed objects), paragliding, rappelling, and such, and thought I was perfect for living in extreme environments. And, although she is not much of a thrill-seeker nowadays, my wife also has tried most of these sports, and hence could also be assumed a fit candidate for life on the global edge. But how does one explain the presence of so many rational people whose idea of a thrill is a well-hit shot down the fairway?

By analysing the exact dangers in skydiving, for example, I had long ago realized that the sport was not as dangerous as many--out of sheer ignorance--believe it to be. Likewise, every country has its own characteristic problems, facets which often even vary by city. A prime example in this case would be my current place of residency, Pakistan: although I feel perfectly safe living in Lahore, the thought of residing in Karachi frightens me. I'm sure there are plenty of expats in Karachi, however, who feel perfectly safe living there. They know the exact risks, and therefore are not ignorant of the true facts of living in what others consider a dangerous environment. So perhaps a big part of the mystery is how residents see their environment, the reality they see on a daily basis.

Most people get their opinions of a place, be it a city or a country, from what they hear in the news. Indeed, I have come to realize the media is too often the supreme judge when it should really only be regarded on par with an opinionated trial lawyer: they are out to sell themselves--their papers or air-time--and sensationalism sells. As a result, what you see is not what you get, and if you look behind the headlines you will often find a more peaceful reality. Before we met, my wife learned this lesson well when she took a position in Israel just as the Intifada began. Her family and friends berated her for moving to what appeared to be a war zone, but what she found in Tel Aviv was a sense of security which allowed her to feel perfectly safe to stroll along the beach at 2 a.m. if she so desired. The lesson: you are as safe as you feel.

Indeed, it is finally this attitude which dictates what it's like to live in extreme educational environments. During the interview for our first position overseas together, the American School of Kinshasa's director, Stephen Kapner, did his best to frighten us with stories of the September '91 looting in the Za�rian capital, events which resulted in the closing of school for the 1991-1992 school year and the evacuation of all teachers. Linda had recently learned her lesson in Israel, however, and I was reminded of the several times the Ecuadorian government had been overthrown between 1971 and 1979 when I was growing up in the South American country, where my parents directed an orphanage. What I recalled most vividly about the coup d'etat's was not being frightened, but rather being ecstatic because each one usually meant a few days off from school. We got the jobs in Zaire. During the remaining months before our move we witnessed on television the riots in Los Angeles, and were amused that the State Department had not issued an advisory against travel to southern California.

Less than a year later we were beginning to wonder if we had made a mistake when, one afternoon shortly after an aerobics class, machine gun fire began to be heard around Kinshasa, much like a bag of popcorn after about a minute in a microwave. Within 48 hours the city was under siege, many businesses shattered, the school closed for at least a month, but our attitude helped sustain us: in many ways, the whole episode was one great adventure, and I thought my journal sizzled. We could watch our situation as our predicament became CNN's leading story, then walk outside to the front lawn with beer in hand and watch the tracers dissect the African sky. It was magical. Even dispatches overheard on various civilian radio frequencies were not considered so much bad news as they were electronic doses of adrenalin directed straight into our bodies by way of our ears.

Some of our colleagues, unfortunately, were not able to maintain the same attitude. Their feelings were compounded by the fact that they would tend to isolate themselves where their worst fears could replicate faster than any petri-dish-bound bacteria--a situation we survivors realized was fatal: to stay emotionally healthy in times of crisis it is essential to have human contact, discuss your fears, and stay as informed as possible while at the same time taking each rumor with an ocean of salt. After being evacuated for two or three weeks most of us returned to finish the year, although there were some notable absences among returning staff.

Our next overseas position was in Romania and, as expected, many of our family and friends thought we were insane for taking our newborn son, only six weeks old, to a place infamous for breeding such fiends as Vlad Tepes (the original Dracula) and the communist madman Ceaucescu. But despite articles in leading magazines concerning a level of environmental degradation capable of making the Eastern European country the poster child for anti-pollution campaigns, we found much the opposite: there were some bleak places and, on occasion, the aerial pollution rivalled that of Los Angeles on a bad day, but mostly we were delighted by the green countryside, the soaring Transylvanian Alps, and historic cities that had yet to be desecrated by the mobs of tourists which overrun every known vestige of history in Western Europe. The people were absolutely magnificent, and I forged such strong friendships there that I return every summer to visit. The lack of danger was so overwhelming, in fact, that about the only way I kept my sanity was by paragliding several days every month, snowboarding in the winter, and occasionally skydiving from some decrepit ex-Soviet Antonov-2 biplane.

Last year we left the paradise of Romania and came here to Pakistan with demanding jobs to keep us busy. At the time, most of our relations knew nothing of this South-Asian country--other than that our style might be somewhat cramped due to the Muslim culture--hence we were mercifully spared the usual inquiries into our mental fitness. Then came the nuclear tests of this past May, and suddenly we were on the global stage, with many people fearful of war with India or the dangers of radioactive fallout from the tests. For us, however, life continued its mundane pace, and by the end of the summer we felt no qualms whatsoever in returning. Our piece of mind was brutally shattered on the first day of school, however, when we were bluntly informed we would be evacuated the next day. Threats of imminent action against American interests in Pakistan had the State Department nervous and, of course, two days later the U.S. attacked Ossama bin Ladin's camps in Afghanistan and the pharmaceuticals plant in Sudan, so the American government was apparently trying to keep us safe from collateral damage or the brunt of locals' retaliatory fury. But when a month had passed and we were assured sentiments and safety had returned to their normal levels, we dutifully resumed our positions at school.

One considerable difference between our attitudes in Zaire versus our attitudes here was obvious, however: we now have the safety of our two young sons to keep in mind. Suddenly our mighty roar in the face of adversity has sunk to a calculated squeak, and we do nothing important before considering all the risks. Still, we never seriously entertained the idea of staying in the dubious safety of the United States: from all the media reports we have seen, our minds have been programmed to believe the danger from the violent crime in the States is comparable to any risks we might face here. After all, I have never heard of an American/International school where one of the students came to school just so he could murder his classmates with some NRA-approved toy.

In the end, the simple fact of the matter is that our daily routine continues its usual pace regardless of the presence or absence of any earth-shattering concerns. Although we might ponder our safety once or twice throughout the day, especially when driving about town, there are classes to prep and teach, meetings to attend, and extra-curricular activities to lead. On weekends and after school we are careful to spend ample quality time with our kids. And every evening dinner takes place at its usual time at home--in our home, the only place we could, or would, call home at this moment in our life.

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