A World Turned Upside-Down

In 1966, the writer Paul Theroux was in Uganda at a time of curfew and violence. It shaped his thinking about travel writing’s imperative to bear witness.

Credit…Priya Ramrakha/Getty



In this season of infection, the stock market little more than a twitching corpse, in an atmosphere of alarm and despondency, I am reminded of the enlightenments of the strict curfew Uganda endured in 1966. It was, for all its miseries, an episode of life lessons, as well as monotonous moralizing (because most crises enliven bores and provoke sententiousness). I would not have missed it for anything.

That curfew evoked — like today — the world turned upside-down. This peculiarity that we are now experiencing, the nearest thing to a world war, is the key theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays and Jacobean dramas, of old ballads, apocalyptic paintings and morality tales. It is the essence of tragedy and an occasion for license or retribution. As Hamlet says to his father’s ghost, “Time is out of joint.”

In Uganda, the palace of the king of Buganda, the Kabaka, Mutesa II — also known as King Freddie — had been attacked by government troops on the orders of the prime minister, Milton Obote. From my office window at Makerere University, where I was a lecturer in English in the Extra Mural department, I heard the volleys of heavy artillery, and smoke rising from the royal enclosure on Mengo Hill. The assault, led by Gen. Idi Amin, resulted in many deaths. But the king eluded capture; he escaped the country in disguise and fled to Britain. The period that followed was one of oppression and confusion, marked by the enforced isolation of a dusk-to-dawn curfew. But, given the disorder and uncertainty, most people seldom dared to leave home at all.

Gen. Idi Amin eventually took power and governed sadistically. 

The curfew was a period of fear, bad advice, arbitrary searches, intimidation and the nastiness common in most civil unrest, people taking advantage of chaos to settle scores. Uganda had a sizable Indian population, and Indian people were casually mugged, their shops ransacked and other minorities victimized or sidelined. It was also an interlude of hoarding, and of drunkenness, lawlessness and licentiousness, born of boredom and anarchy.

“Kifugo!” I heard again and again of the curfew — a Swahili word, because it was the lingua franca there. “Imprisonment!” Yes, it was enforced confinement, but I also felt privileged to be a witness: I had never seen anything like it. I experienced the stages of the coup, the suspension of the constitution, the panic buying and the effects of the emergency. My clearest memory is of the retailing of rumors — outrageous, frightening, seemingly improbable — but who could dispute them? Our saying then was, “Don’t believe anything you hear until the government officially denies it.”

Speaking for myself, as a traveler, any great crisis — war, famine, natural disaster or outrage — ought to be an occasion to bear witness, even if it means leaving the safety of home. The fact that it was the manipulative monster Chairman Mao who said, “All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience,” does not make the apothegm less true. It is or should be the subtext for all travelers’ chronicles.

The curfew — three years into my time in Africa — was my initiation into the misuse of power, of greed, cowardice and selfishness; as well as, also, their opposites — compassion, bravery, mutual aid and generosity. Even at the time, 24-years-old and fairly callow, I felt I was lucky in some way to be witnessing this convulsion. It was not just that it helped me to understand Africa better; it offered me insights into crowds and power and civil unrest generally, allowing me to observe in extreme conditions the nuances of human nature.

I kept a journal. In times of crisis we should all be diarists and documentarians. We’re bound to wail and complain, but it’s also useful to record the particularities of our plight. We know the progress of England’s Great plague of 1665 because Samuel Pepys anatomized it in his diary. On April 30 he wrote: “Great fears of the sickness here in the City it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all!” Later, on June 25, “The plague increases mightily.” And by July 26: “The Sicknesse is got into our parish this week; and is endeed everywhere.”

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~


Panguipulli is a Mapuche (Chile indigenous group) word meaning Land of the Lion. 



From a local friend

A very big cat. Everything intact except skull. Paws still have pads and fir. Claws appear retracted. That’s why I think it’s a cat. Spine from pelvis to cervical discs as long as mine.


What Happens When You Need a Rescue During a Pandemic ~ Outside

A harrowing backcountry rescue at 11,000 feet exposes the precarious situation first responders are in thanks to the coronavirus pandemic

A man and woman backcountry skiing above Ophir Pass, San Juan National Forest, Silverton, Colorado.

On Tuesday, March 24, Sonja and Bill Allen’s home radio crackles to life at 1:10 p.m. There is no cell service in Ophir, Colorado, an 1880s mining town 20 minutes south of Telluride encircled by 13,000-foot peaks. But its 180 residents and virtually all the skiers who seek out the world-class backcountry above town know about the two-way radio frequency that fills the void. Many locals keep their radios tuned to the “Ophir channel” when they’re at home, if only to monitor the chatter among fellow powder seekers.

The Allens listen as someone skiing in East Waterfall Canyon reports an avalanche with a critically injured victim. The situation sounds dire: potentially two broken femurs and a fractured pelvis.

Sonja, a longtime guide and avalanche forecaster for Telluride Helitrax, alerts Dan Hehir two houses away. Hehir, 49, is the chief of medical staff at the Telluride Regional Medical Center and an emergency physician. He has just finished eating lunch with his wife, a teacher, and children, who are out of school due to the coronavirus pandemic. It has been a stressful three weeks for Hehir, treating sick patients in full protective gear and worrying about the virus spreading. His hospital has already recorded one positive case of COVID-19; other tests are waiting to be returned.

But today is his day off—a family day. He skied this morning above town, as did Bill Allen, an Everest guide and the owner of the international outfitter Mountain Trip. Heeding the call for help, both men gear up again and prepare to respond. Hehir assembles a first-aid kit based on the preliminary details relayed to him by Sonja, while Allen straps a foldable sled to his back. Along with Dylan Sloan, another Ophir resident and standout backcountry skier, they begin the 45-minute climb to the accident site.

Around the same time, Todd Rector, a search-and-rescue specialist with the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office, receives a call from his dispatch center alerting him of the accident. He gets in touch with the reporting party and asks if the victim can get out on their own. No chance, he is told. Rector promptly sends out a call to nearly 60 volunteer SAR members, requesting a full response. They are to stage in Ophir and proceed into the field from there.

The accident is exactly what everyone has feared since the coronavirus pandemic began. Local, state, and provincial governments across North America have warned backcountry recreationists to rein in their risk and not burden the already stressed healthcare system or put first responders in danger of infection by requiring a rescue. It is no secret that thousands in Colorado have been flaunting those warnings, including plenty of skiers and snowboarders in the San Juan Range. But no one has exposed the fragile system, until now.

High above the canyon floor, a local man in his thirties has come to rest halfway down a run called Sugar Shack, a steep, northwest-facing chute through sparse trees where avalanches have buried people before and which requires about a 90-minute climb from Ophir. He and a friend were taking their second run of the day in perfect spring powder when a slab about two feet deep and 150 feet wide broke off at 11,500 feet, carrying him like a twig in whitewater. He struck multiple trees, suffering severe physical trauma. The force ripped his bindings out of his snowboard, leaving them strapped to his feet as pain coursed through him like an electric current. Luckily he is not buried, so his partner, 45-year-old Ophir resident Nathan Schroepfer, who’d watched the slide start less than a foot below his snowboard, descends and finds him relatively quickly.

A snowboarder was seriously injured in an avalanche in East Waterfall Canyon near the town of Ophir on March 24.
A snowboarder was seriously injured in an avalanche in East Waterfall Canyon near the town of Ophir on March 24. (Photo: Courtesy Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

Two other groups in the immediate vicinity—a trio that witnessed the slide and a pair that had just finished skiing a similar run—start to respond. They include a local mountain guide as well as an EMT. The guide checks for hang fire next to the gaping avalanche crown, while another skier posts up at the top of the run to make sure no one else descends on top of the responding party. The other four team up with Schroepfer to begin the complicated rescue.

One of those four, a local who spoke on condition of anonymity and who we’ll call Jamie, briefly thinks about COVID-19, which, by the 24th of March has killed some 20,000 people worldwide and caused everyone to stay two yards apart during their recent adventures. San Miguel County, home to five small towns including Telluride and Ophir, had made national headlines just days earlier for committing to test every one of its 8,000 residents in an attempt to isolate the virus and prevent it from spreading through their remote community.

Jamie has a few pairs of rubber gloves in a first-aid kit, but not enough for everyone and too little time to deploy them. No one mentions the virus as they package the victim and begin sliding him downhill on a space blanket and jacket, one foot at a time over rugged, 35-degree avalanche debris, toward a bench 300 feet below. “I figured if he had the virus, we’d get it any other number of ways anyway,” Jamie says of the decision to proceed without rubber gloves.

It has been a touchy time in the backcountry around Telluride. The Sugar Shack slide was one of seven human-triggered avalanches in eight days to catch a skier or snowboarder, the spookiest stretch in decades.

“The area’s had full burials, people getting banged up, lost gear, people having to run for their lives from an avalanche coming down at them,” says Matt Steen, a local forecaster and Helitrax’s snow-safety director. Four days prior to Tuesday’s accident—which occurred at a time of “moderate” danger, or level 2 on a scale of 1 to 5—someone triggered a deep slab more than a football field wide in a dangerous path called Magnolia. Word spread through the valley each time a local narrowly escaped. Yet with many people newly unemployed as the economy grinds to a halt and two feet of fresh powder sitting idle after a dry winter, dozens convened atop peaks and chutes to take advantage. “Half the town of Telluride and half the town of Ophir was out skiing those hills the day of the accident,” Jamie told me.

The victim’s line choice will attract scrutiny due to the consequences, but Steen says it was hardly egregious. “As we all know, this is not the time to be charging, but these guys weren’t getting rad,” Steen says. Helitrax director Joe Shults, however, stopped short of calling it conservative. “It’s a notorious area,” he says. “I’ve lived in Ophir for 30 years and I’ve never even skied that run. It facets and gets a lot of wind and sun; it’s just a weird snowpack.”

Steen was so concerned by the recent spate of close calls that he set up morning Zoom meetings, open to the public, to talk through the avalanche problems that seemed to be catching people again and again. He posted the link on Instagram. “I think the most common sociological thing that most people are going through right now is distraction, just kind of being in this limbo land where every day feels like a weekend,” he says. “So people aren’t following their routines like they usually would. There’s a slab over weak facets. It’s a slope-angle game. But people are guessing.”

As the first responders slowly slide the victim downslope, civilian and county rescuers converge on the scene. Hehir, Allen, and Sloan arrive from Ophir and immediately dig out a platform where they transition the victim to Allen’s sled. They wrap him in a sleeping bag and puffy jackets to keep him warm, then continue downhill. Though the victim remains conscious and coherent, the urgency is clear to everyone present. “He had several injuries that I thought were potentially life threatening,” Hehir says.

Shortly after taking the initial call from dispatch, Rector had called Shults to see about getting a helicopter to evacuate the victim by air. Helitrax was closed due to the pandemic, but one of the helicopters it uses, owned by Mountain Blade Runner, was still at the Telluride airport. Shults knows that if he can find a pilot, the victim’s survival odds will be substantially better. He calls one in Nucla, an hour and 15 minutes away, and the pilot says he’ll leave immediately. Rector, meanwhile, meets three dozen SAR members in Ophir. As the volunteers stand six feet apart awaiting orders, he dispatches a hasty team to the accident site with prescription painkillers. Others set out on snowmobiles and skis, carrying toboggans and other gear for a possible overland extraction if the helicopter falls through.

Throughout the response, COVID-19 remains the elephant in the room. Rector and his fellow deputies were issued hygiene kits to carry during the pandemic, including a mask and draping garments, and he says the plan was to send in a kit for the victim so that the rescuers would be protected. But the kit never gets opened. “I’ll be honest with you,” Rector says later. “That guy was dealing with some serious, multisystems trauma that was more pressing than our concerns for the virus—for better or worse. I’m not saying that’s the best approach. But we were focused on getting him out of there and ensuring that he didn’t bleed out on our watch, more so than we were worried about germs at that point.”

As the crowd of rescuers on scene grows, everyone works with their ski gloves on, in close proximity. Someone half-jokingly brings up social distancing, knowing it’s impossible right now. No one, according to the rescuers interviewed for this story, asks the patient if he has been sick recently. (Schroepfer told me his partner has remained healthy during the pandemic, though some carriers of the virus have been asymptomatic.)

As the rescuers move the victim toward a makeshift landing zone, he begins to fade. “You could see the life draining out of him,” Allen says. The victim tells Hehir that he’s having a hard time breathing, prompting Hehir to lean in and and place a stethoscope on the victim’s chest. The doctor listens; it doesn’t sound great. Hehir’s biggest concern all along has been the victim developing a tension pneumothorax, which results from a breached lung and can prove fatal relatively quickly. Air escapes from the lung into the chest cavity, and if enough air builds up it can compress the lung and create so much pressure that it prevents blood from flowing to the heart. The only way to treat it is by opening a hole in the side of the chest with a needle or scalpel, which is why Hehir grabbed both of those tools on his way out of his house.

Just as the victim’s breathing nears a dangerous state, the helicopter arrives. Rescuers lift and strap him into a seat with his legs hanging out of the open door. Hehir hops in the front. The chopper lifts off around 3:35 p.m. for the seven-minute flight to the Telluride airport.

While en route, the victim tries to talk to Hehir over the whirring rotors. “What’s wrong?” Hehir shouts. “It’s getting harder to breathe,” the victim says. The sleeping bag starts flapping at his feet and Hehir has to lean out of the ship and secure it from flying up into the rotors. At the airport, a flight crew transfers the victim to a waiting medevac chopper which transports him 90 miles north to St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction, the closest ICU.

Back at the accident scene, everyone mills around talking. Someone mentions social distancing again. People chuckle nervously and back away from each other. Only after they depart does the potential cost of their actions sink in. More than 50 people were involved with the rescue, from civilian first responders to professional air-medical crews, and many on scene worked close enough to breathe on each other. “It was a holy-shit moment when I realized the number of people, not only search-and-rescue but the bystanders and Ophirites, who were interacting closely, touching each other,” Schroepfer says. “That showed me the potential for danger in these situations more than just putting the stress on our emergency services. We’re all really healthy people in these mountain communities, and the strong and the mighty were the ones who showed up during the rescue. So they’re the ones who could have it and not know it.”

Jamie was similarly concerned: “The virus was definitely on my mind when I got home. I immediately stripped off all my clothes, threw them in the laundry, and took a shower. I scrubbed the hell out of my body.”

The impact this accident could have on public-land access, at a time when residents are clamoring for it, is not lost on anyone involved. Sheriff Bill Masters, who has been the top cop in Telluride for 40 years, is quoted in a Tuesday evening news release admonishing the backcountry community: “People need to use their friggin’ heads.” Still, he stopped short of saying the backcountry should be closed to avoid another rescue. “Frankly, we’ve talked to the Forest Service about closing certain sections,” he says, “but I don’t want to take that step. I think that would be a mistake. People should be able to get outside still.”

Nevertheless, later on Wednesday, San Miguel County posted no-parking signs on Ophir Road and sent out a text to residents that read, in part, “PLEASE DO YOUR PART AND DO NOT PROCEED INTO THE BACKCOUNTRY.” Masters says that the message still hinges on public cooperation. “To say we’re going to enforce that is incredible. We don’t have any staff to do that. We’re already down two deputies because they’re sick and can’t come to work”—a precautionary measure while he waits for their COVID-19 tests to be returned.

Jamie said the rescue felt like a tipping point, at least personally: “I’ve decided not to do any more backcountry skiing after this. Looking back, it’s hard to justify why I was even out there. I started feeling guilty standing around watching all the search and rescue members who’d responded.”

Schroepfer was similarly contrite. “I feel responsible,” he said by phone Friday. “Until that day I didn’t realize how many different ways the result of our actions could put people at risk in regard to the virus.” He stopped by Hehir’s house Wednesday evening to thank him and pick up his partner’s snowboard and backpack. The victim was in surgery Friday, Schroepfer said, but in good spirits considering his injuries—which turned out to be one broken femur along with numerous other fractures and internal trauma.

Neither Hehir nor Rector feels any malice toward the victim or his partner for the position they ended up in. Both rely on spending time in big mountains to balance their lives, even more during the pandemic. “I don’t think closing the backcountry is the best answer,” Rector says. As for future rescue calls, he adds, “We’re going to respond until I’m ordered not to.”

Hehir, meanwhile, had mixed emotions after two days of reflection. He views the response as an uplifting show of compassion and talent from a community rich with both, at a time when such reminders go far. Still, he recognizes the broader danger in what happened. “[The victim is] going to be in an ICU for probably a few days,” Hehir said from Telluride’s hospital Thursday morning. “So he’s running this risk of picking up the virus from another patient or another healthcare provider there. It hammers home how serious it is, and how getting this hurt could be really rough on a system.” As of Wednesday afternoon, St. Mary’s was treating 12 patients who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or were showing symptoms and awaiting tests.

“Everyone involved, absolutely, saved this guy’s life,” Hehir said. “He would not have lived if we hadn’t gotten him out of there so fast.”

Just then Hehir was interrupted. Someone informed him that a 19-month-old patient was being rushed to the hospital with severe respiratory distress, one of the primary symptoms of COVID-19. He said goodbye, donned an N95 mask, gown, gloves, and faceshield and went back to work.


It’s All Just Beginning ~ The Point Magazine

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Though mild, I have what I am fairly sure are the symptoms of coronavirus. Three weeks ago I was in extended and close contact with someone who has since tested positive. When I learned this, I spent some time trying to figure out how to get tested myself, but now the last thing I want to do is to go stand in a line in front of a Brooklyn hospital along with others who also have symptoms. My wife and I have not been outside our apartment since March 10th. We have opened the door just three times since then, to receive groceries that had been left for us by an unseen deliveryman, as per our instructions, on the other side. We read of others going on walks, but that seems like a selfish extravagance when you have a dry cough and a sore throat. This is the smallest apartment I’ve ever lived in. I am noticing features of it, and of the trees, the sky and the light outside our windows, that escaped my attention—shamefully, it now seems—over the first several months since we arrived here in August. I know when we finally get out I will be like the protagonist of Halldór Laxness’s stunning novel, World Light, who, after years of bedridden illness, weeps when he bids farewell to all the knots and grooves in the wood beams of his attic ceiling.

I am not at all certain that my university in Paris will be open for business when it comes time to reinstitute my salary in June, which I had voluntarily suspended in order to take a year-long fellowship in New York. I am not at all sure that a few months from now the world is going to be the sort of place where a citizen of one country can expect to resume his public function in another country’s education system. I am not at all sure universities are going to be the sort of place where one can, again, get together with others in a room and deign to speak with them of what is beautiful and true. Meanwhile, my mother is in cancer treatment in California, and I fear I may never see her again. Until a few days ago my sister, a glacial marine geoscientist, was stuck in unexpectedly thick ice, on an icebreaker too small to break it, in the ocean somewhere off the coast of Antarctica; now her international crew is floating again, uncertain how they will get back to the Northern Hemisphere in a world of quarantines, closed borders and canceled flights, but still just happy to be back on the open sea. My wife is here with me on a tourist visa that will soon expire. We do not know what things will be like in New York when that happens, or whether there might be an exemption for foreigners who overstay their visas only because they are unable to leave what might by then be a fully locked-down city. She has an elderly grandmother in Europe. Should she leave now to be with her, while she still can and while her papers are still valid? What would become of me, if she were to go?

These are some of the questions we find ourselves asking right now. They are not exceptional, among the billions of small tragedies this pandemic has churned up. But they are mine. I have often wondered what life would be like for the survivors of a nuclear war, and in these fleeting recollections of the old world—there used to be Starbucks and barber shops, there used to be a subway I’d get on to go to the library, there used to be embrassades—I feel like I am gaining a small glimpse of that.

I find that I am generally at peace, and that the balance between happiness and sadness on any given day is little different from what it always has been for me. I find that there is liberation in this suspension of more or less everything. In spite of it all, we are free now. Any fashion, sensibility, ideology, set of priorities, worldview or hobby that you acquired prior to March 2020, and that may have by then started to seem to you cumbersome, dull, inauthentic, a drag: you are no longer beholden to it. You can cast it off entirely and no one will care; likely, no one will notice. Were you doing something out of mere habit, conceiving your life in a way that seemed false to you? You can stop doing that now. We have little idea what the world is going to look like when we get through to the other side of this, but it is already perfectly clear that the “discourses” of our society, such as they had developed up to about March 8 or 9, 2020, in all their frivolity and distractiousness, have been decisively curtailed, like the CO2 emissions from the closed factories and the vacated highways.

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~


San Francisco’s Top Art School Plans Closing After Almost 150 Years ~ NYT

Efforts to save the alma mater of Annie Leibovitz and Kehinde Wiley collapsed as the coronavirus sent the Bay Area on lockdown.

Credit…Diana Cheng/Getty Images


The San Francisco Art Institute will not accept students for the fall semester after almost 150 years in operation, ending the legacy of a once-storied school that produced famous artists like Annie Leibovitz, Kehinde Wiley and Catherine Opie.

The institute announced Monday in a schoolwide letter that it plans to suspend classes after the spring semester. Graduating students will receive their degrees in May, but faculty and staff were told to prepare for mass layoffs. One senior official close to the decision-making process said the school was likely to close because of mounting debt.

“We are looking down the barrel of a gun,” Gordon Knox, the college president, told faculty during a town-hall meeting in late February. Like many art schools across the country, declining enrollment and financial hardships have plagued the institution for years. In 2017, S.F.A.I. spent millions on a second campus on the city’s waterfront. This year, the school abandoned another costly project to build new dormitories. The final straw for the faltering institution was when discussions to merge with a local university collapsed after the coronavirus sent the Bay Area into a lockdown. Pam Rorke Levy, the institute board’s chair, estimated the university’s total debt was around $19 million but likely to increase because the school is not earning revenue during the health crisis.

“While we remain hopeful there is a strategic partnership that will allow this commitment to continue,” Mr. Knox wrote to students and faculty on Monday, “we are realistic that this will not happen any time soon in the face of an unprecedented global pandemic.”

The school is currently closed because of the coronavirus. Students learned it was facing closure as they sheltered in place and adjusted to sometimes-haphazard online instruction in studio art and sculpture. “What institution is going take me now during coronavirus?” asked Rebecca Sexton, a 28-year-old pursuing a dual-degree graduate program. “It’s hard to know what exactly will happen,” added Ms. Sexton, who was expecting to start writing her master’s thesis next year.

Corinna Kirsch, an art history lecturer, said, “I’m really sad that a vibrant community where you could still see artists walking around barefoot on campus has come to an end.” Founded in 1871, S.F.A.I. claims to be the only fine arts school dedicated to contemporary art. It gained an illustrious reputation on the West Coast for courting faculty members like the photographers Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston.

In 1931, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painted “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City” in the school’s gallery. Faced with its current financial crisis, administrators have floated the idea of selling the Rivera fresco, which has been appraised for $50 million. “When you have an asset that’s that valuable,” Ms. Levy explained, “there’s always a discussion.”

“As a small college in an expensive town we are feeling the pain,” she added.

The San Francisco Art Institute joined a growing list of more than a dozen art schools across America that have faced bankruptcy in the last year. In February, the Watkins College of Art made headlines when it announced a planned merger with Belmont University, a Christian institution in Nashville — a decision that led students and professors to protest over concerns about freedom of expression.

“Every art school is dealing with economic hardship in one degree or another,” said Massimo Pacchione, who was the school’s director of student experience until being laid off this week. “Education is increasingly seen more as an engine for economic advancement rather than a pursuit of passion.”

Locals only” closures of Colorado public land may not be legal. Mountain communities say it’s needed for safety ~ Colorado Sun

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Colorado’s mountain towns say it’s not about banning outsiders. But “if you have yet to realize we are in unprecedented times, then you are either not paying attention or are a denier,” San Juan County’s sheriff says.