Leave Your Comfort Zone

How to Enter a Do Not Enter Location

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I'm the black sheep of the family.

The maverick, the rebel, the outcast, because I've always challenged the status quo; by living a life that's spontaneous, uncertain, and at times dangerous.

I believe life begins at the end of your comfort zone - this motto has taken me to many highly controlled yet majestic locations around the world, and has given me some of the most awe-inspiring and surreal experiences of my life.

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There are many stories.

From exploring haunted houses in Vietnam, to smuggling camera equipment into a restricted museum in Florence, to crashing a VIP after party at one of Jackie Chan's bar in Hong Kong but that's for some other time.

In this post, I will tell stories about two locations that I entered, which were restricted to the public.

I get asked all the time how I access these places, especially the do not enter locations. Here's how.

It's all about the fixer!

If you know what a fixer is and how to get one, you can stop reading and start planning your next adventure. For the rest, a fixer is a person who gets things done for you, even if it requires asking for political favors, enabling someone to circumvent the law, or bribing to get what you want. This is not a secret. Everyone, from National Geographic, to Hollywood Studios, to freelance journalists get fixers to intervene on their behalf and access locations that's vital to their story. So let's start with the first story.

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Israel - winter 2010

I had two weeks off, so I bought a ticket to Israel, to shoot a long term project about the human rights of children. After a four-hour long interrogation at the Tel Aviv airport, I drove to Jerusalem with my friend and planned the rest of my trip. The good thing was that my friend worked for the Red Cross and had amazing privileges, the bad thing was that he wasn't allowed to visit Balata - the place I had come for.

Balata is highly controlled by the Israeli forces because there are several important Jewish sites, such as Jacob's Well and Joseph's Tomb, right outside the camp. What caught my attention was that 75% of Balata Refugee Camp's population was under the age of 18 who lived in an open air prison.

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We had a dilemma; I needed a fixer who could get me into Balata but who. As we left Jerusalem, the phone rang and we got invited to a party in Tel Aviv that night. It was packed with expats, people working at the UN, interns from the Canadian Embassy, and a lot of interesting characters, then I met the one; she was British, a grad student at Cambridge and guess what, she taught music to the children of Nablus and Balata!

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This is what I mean by surreal moments.

The next morning, I took a bus to Jerusalem, crossed the border by foot and hopped on a series of local Palestinian buses that dropped me right in front of the camp. I got off and she was standing there smiling, surrounded by children. She was the perfect fixer.

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Karachi - summer 2014

On the way back from the editor's studio, I got mugged at gun point and lost most of my equipment, including my MacBook and cell phone. The thugs rode straight towards a hilly area, known as the Kati Pahari. Half controlled by the Talibans, the rest by various gangs. It's an area not even the Karachi Police like to visit.

It's a place from where no one returns, but the view is spectacular. We had lost some of the footage in that robbery so we thought we're not getting the footage back so why not re-shoot at the Kati Pahari, a way of saying fuck you to the thugs. We were ambitious, excited, and ready to make it happen.

But what about the fixer? It turned out that one of my childhood friends knew a guy who lived in the Kati Pahari. And he became our fixer. He arranged for 20 guards who climbed with us, arranged for food, generators that lit the humongous lights, and operated the gigantic and bloody heavy rig. We carried the RED camera package, a drum kit, guitars, speakers, bags, boxes and what not. The climb was hard because there were no stairs, so we were basically rock climbing with all the equipment. But let me tell you, when we got to the top, it was worth it.

The view was magnificent.

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Yes, there were guns fired, threats made, hash smoked, but at the end everything went well. It was memorable. It was sublime.

Here's a twist, a few days after, I received my driver's license in mail. It had been with the rest of the stuff lost during the mugging. Do you think they saw me on the hill and decided to return it!