The river is the sand, the gravel,
The villages in the floodplain
It’s all river
Once we reached the floodplain, the scenery remained consistent for days at a time, the flatlands stretching beyond the horizon into the imagination. The river tumbles some 4,000 vertical meters in 300 kilometers from Gangotri to Haridwar, then it is a 350 meter drop from Haridwar to the sea over 2,200 kilometers.
The most exciting land features through this pancake during the first weeks on the flatwater were the riverbanks. As the Ganga wanders many kilometers across the plain every year, it carves into the banks. The flow and depth of the water is greatest along the outside of the bends, so we were naturally inclined to follow the same path. Along certain sections of the bank, one finds sand eroded in magnificent ways, forming miniature Bryce Canyon hoodoos, cracks and ridges that tumble with the breeze.
Certain stretches where the sand is loamy, the erosion happens less gracefully. As the river eats away at the bank below waterline, large sections slowly succumb to the pull of gravity. When they can no longer keep hold, massive chunks plunge into the river, sounding like a sumo wrestler doing a cannonball from the 10 meter platform and sending out big waves into the flow. Many of us were nearly pummeled by these hunks of earth as we paddled beneath them. On nights when we camped close to the bank, on waking up we found the river closer to our tents by a substantial margin.
The sand also created exciting features in the water. The Ganges is known as one of the most sedimented rivers in the world. At many points it is kilometers wide, but it holds less water than the imagination lets on. Often the river is just one maybe two meters deep over the sandy bottom, and as the sand moves from the mountains to the plains to the sea it forms waves. These waves build like ripples on a sand dune until they can no longer support the burden of the sand against the current, then they migrate. As the sand moves it forms a void at the bottom of the river, and on the surface, one sees the water over that void drop. A strong whirling current quickly forms around that space and the surface of the river boils. The sand moves this way as part of the river, holding a tremendous load of water itself and offering passage for the river’s waters to seep into the aquifers below the surface.
Back above waterline, where the riverbank cliffs are more stable, little birds, bee eaters, dig burrows into the sandy faces, feeding on the swarms of flies, bees, and other insects around the river. At times we found cities of bee eaters–flocks in the thousands–and they flew around us in frenzied flight, like schools of fish swimming in air.
Out of these swarms one would see a flash of black and white, like a dalmation with wings. At first the sight sent chills through my forearms it was so awesome. A kingfisher, pure white with black speckles hovered over the river, watching the fish below, invisible to me. Then it dove, straight, never wavering into the water, rising again in a split second, gobbling on its catch. I saw more kingfishers in two days than I had seen all my life.
When the river braids and wanders about the planes, innumerable sand islands form in the flow. On these islands, particularly the small ones, migratory birds and birds of prey gather when they are not hunting. Cranes flying south from Siberia awkwardly danced in stilted polkas on the banks, egrets and herons did the same. Some skittish sand birds that I did not identify zipped around digging for grubs and worms. Black kites kept watch for fish and rodents, closely flanked by tawny eagles.
As we got lower on the river, we reached a number of sedimentary waves in the earth, rising some 30 or 40 feet above the river, deposits from floods over thousands of years pushed up and shaped by the wind and the monsoons. These sand cliffs burst with life. Terrapins and snakes enjoy the afternoon shade at waterline. Parakeets, parrots, and kingfisher flash their bright colors in the banyan trees, vines, and bushes that hold onto the sandy faces with all they can muster, bee eaters and pigeons occupy caverns that dot the escarpment.
Along these cliffs, we saw at least 15 eurasian eagle owls who look just like great horned owls. They swooped out of the trees as we paddled through, looking at us with their googly eyes. Here owls could gain some elevation above the river, a rare occurrence in the floodplain, and from there they could hunt the bounties of smaller creatures all about.
Perhaps the most exciting wildlife we saw was in the water. We spotted tens of river dolphins, a species that shows tremendous resilience to survive the Ganges’ water. These dolphins are brown in color. They have elongated snouts, and where their oceangoing kin have a large dorsal fin, these river dolphins have just a murmur on their backs. They are also nearly blind, which is no surprise considering one can barely see the end of their paddle blade in the turbid water. They travel with echolocation and feed on mostly fish.
Bursting up from the water, dolphins always give a feeling of delight as they emerge from the river, and after a few days seeing them, it was taken for granted that a shout of joy meant another dolphin sighting.
All this wildlife is an astonishing reminder of how many creatures we share the river with. Although we didn’t see them, we were told that elephants and tigers live in the jungles along foothills where the river leaves the mountains.
The name “River of Life,” although apt, is surely an understatement, because with all the life involved with the river, there is plenty of death. The river truly shows its essence as thousands of Hindus come everyday to its banks to cremate their loved ones and send them into the care of the goddess Ganga.
Funeral ghats, where people go to burn their deceased relations on huge wooden pyres can be seen all along the river. At first I expected to be haunted by this, but after many days bearing witness to funeral after funeral, and even after seeing unburned human remains in the river, I felt somehow at ease and even impressed with this way of honoring life. In this cycle people acknowledge both the beauty and nature of the river and the final remains of people who have had a chance at life, releasing them to the elements. I have to admit that when I die, being burned in an epic fire and set afloat a river that begins in the ice of the Himalaya and ends in the Sundarban mangrove forests… it doesn’t sound bad at all.
It belongs to noone
It was clear and striking
You probably know what news I am talking about. On my last day with GangesSUP, approaching Kanpur, an industrial and largely muslim city, Donald Trump became president elect of the United States.
The Ganges River, from Haridwar to Kanpur, is a seam that draws an ever wandering squiggle through North India’s agricultural plane. It is a river jaded with sugarcane fields greening the water by the banks, punctuated by hordes of water buffalo like smug spa-goers, soaking in the river’s coolness. It is a river that moves through the land as steadily as the farmers chopping and gathering food for their animals and for themselves.
It is a river that meanders as it pleases with floodplains kilometers wide. Many villages are too accustomed to forced displacement by the floods. Along the banks, one will hear thuds and cracks then the following waves as considerable sections of earth plummet into the current, constant reminders that the river could arrive at one’s doorstep in the not-so-far future.
My desire to remain focused on the river was momentarily obliterated last week. The country whose passport brought me halfway around the globe elected a man who I had opposed as a leader down to my last hangnail, who has certain values that are to me the antithesis of my dream for the USA:
I dream of freedom and acceptance, of respect, sustainability, and equality.
I dream of a place where people can be empowered together to live a good life.
I dream of a place where culture is enriched by the magnificence of nature.
I dream of a place where everyone is able to dream as I dream.
Call me naive, ignorant, but the strands of patriotism and hope for the United States that I was indoctrinated with as a child still hold some sway. My nationalism, an association that has changed so much over my short life, my satisfaction to be American, more precisely USAn, is attached to that dream.
As Donald Trump’s electoral votes accumulated, I began to wonder if the country is worthy of its very name: the United States. Perhaps the “States” are United, but what of the people?
I am afraid my dream has no flag right now.
Color is as welcome
As maple sugar in the springtime
Colors are brilliant
Colors are soul
Colors are —
Just before leaving Delhi for the Ganga, I met Jonathan and Erika Du Ela, other travellers from the USA. Jonathan is from a Creole family rooted in New Orleans, but he was raised in South Central Los Angeles where his family has ties to the Black Panthers. Erika’s family is Mexican and living in the San Fernando Valley. Both are artists working to understand their ideas and philosophy about race and place, reaching for a planetary perspective in their journies. We shared a lengthy conversation about ourselves and our work.
The heart of the talk approached whiteness, whiteness as a construction, as a force of power and oppression, whiteness as a concept.
I have struggled to come to terms with what a white identity represents, in my case white and male. Here in India so often I have experienced the attitude that white is right. White is glorified to an extent that people wear fairness creams. People want to take pictures with me on the street and they stare at me when I go out. I’ve heard many men here express admiration of Trump–a rich white man, a man who could help relieve India’s struggles against Pakistan, India’s muslim neighbor, by ceasing to give them aid.
In my current context here, I cannot forget that whiteness is also associated with the slave owning whites of the confederacy, treaty breaking exceptionalists disregarding Native land claims and environmental treaties in pursuit of wealth, a supremacist, oppressive ruling class. That is not all whiteness is of course, but it is essential that we acknowledge these views, all of us, that in the face of conflict and extremism we remember empathy.
Trump’s anti establishment rhetoric and his blunt courage as a speaker resonate with many Indians and evidently many Americans. India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi shows similar tendencies. Sometimes called a Hindu supremacist, other times praised highly as a visionary leader, Modi appealed to a Hindu society feeling disenchanted with the long standing norms of Indian politics and a status quo threatened by India’s growing muslim population.
Let’s not shy away from the fact that muslims are dispersing across the globe in vast numbers now from the Middle East and North Africa. They are facing fearful and even hostile environments as they migrate. The changing demography of countries is a very real concern; I saw it myself in Northern Sweden in a small community transformed by incoming Afghani families. As my grandmother Irene Hecht, Tita to me, writes: “Because we have not lived through this for over 1,000 years, we are stunned by its effects. But the globe saw it before – Europe with the Germanic invasions, is one example, which stretched on for about 500 years. Today we need to see the phenomenon of population movements in the planetary context. We cannot settle this problem on the national level.”
That quote is from Tita’s reflections on the election, which she sent to me a few days ago. In her writings, she expressed a thought that has a scope which is comforting in uncomfortable times, that humanity is experiencing a great revolution. Having passed the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, we are now in the “Planetary Revolution” and norms such as the Nation State are due for examination and transformation.
In order to avoid a pessimistic stupor, her perspective is one that I can hold onto as a guiding light. She writes:
“Briefly, how do I see the Trump election? I see it as a self-inflicted kick-in-the pants. I dare not predict how we will use the jolt. Our greatest hope is Trump’s pragmatism. His words are wild, but his actions can be level-headed, at least from his perspective. There is the danger he may push us backward rather than forward.”
“Taking the optimistic approach my hope is that we will be thoroughly jarred and that by the next election we will find some serious answers that speak to the realities of our future. We first need to identify where we stand in the Planetary Revolution. Then we can look for leadership that is capable of moving beyond the Industrial Age into the new Planetary existence.”
I feel the weight of our inevitable and uncertain trajectory into that future. From Walter Benjamin:
“ A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
May we can call upon lessons of history, and remind ourselves of the value of relationships we have with the Earth and one another. Let us consider the responsibility we have for that storm blowing in from paradise, let us try our best to keep the metaphor a metaphor.
Planetary consciousness is not a new concept. We have plenty of cultures to look to for guidance — land based peoples through time have come up with many cosmologies based on the environment. Many of these cosmologies are with us today. One that is close to my heart is John Wesley Powell’s notions of using watershed boundaries, ecoLogical boundaries to govern ourselves and our spaces. Another one knocked right on my noggin this morning as I read an essay by Nick Jenei, a close friend and Planetary philosopher at heart. He wrote the piece nearly a decade ago when he was on his Watson Fellowship not far from where I am now:
“I have been hiking alone for hours when my guide Jam Yang, a native Tibetan and former Buddhist monk, joins me on the trail. Since I don’t have the physical ability to simultaneously walk and talk at that altitude, I am eager to stop and chat while catching up on my oxygen. I am also interested in learning more about the significance of the Kora (the Tibetan word for a religious circumambulation) and ask Jam Yang if he can tell me more about why Tibetans walk around mountains. His answer is one of the most profound yet simple insights into the crisis facing humanity I have ever heard articulated: ‘The Kora is a way of honoring a relationship, honoring our relationship with the mountain.’”
“Honoring a relationship. These three words not only hold the key to understanding the tension between humans and the environment, they also illuminate a clear path toward a more harmonious relationship with our world. ‘The pilgrims on this mountain understand the infinitely complex relationships that sustain them,’ continues Jam Yang. ‘They understand their place in the greater system; they understand their relationship to Kailash.’ Because of their sensitivity to this symbiosis, these pilgrims are not trying to conquer the mountain, they are not trying to conquer the environment — they are trying to honor a relationship.”
With communications today, the planet is a web of connection. Just think about what you and I are doing: I wrote this at a table in Allahabad and posted it… you can read this in an instant nearly anywhere there is “connectivity.” If we can usher into ourselves, our homes, our families a practice of considering these relationships, we can get onto a positive track towards planetary life. If we can learn from the election that petty media is not so petty, that twitter isn’t light as a feather, then we can develop what tita calls an “etiquette” for using this powerful young tool, the internet, so that we don’t become entangled.
The other day on the river, I asked my friend Devang, a Gujarati, if he believed in Hindu mythology. “No,” he said, “I believe in nature.”
That’s beautiful, and practical I thought to myself. No drudgery through scripture about someone else’s mystical journey, just find it anywhere. We are all a part of nature, it’s 100% inclusive. That’s great. So we have some common ground still. I want to focus that.
When I grow up
I will build a house
And on one wall I will install a mirror
A mirror that captures all the light of the world
And reflects me in everything
And reflects everything in me
So everyday when I wake
I can look into the world
The center of the universe
The vigor peels shyness
From the passerby
Surprised by foreigners
Doing just as the kids do
The atmosphere filled with smoke
Prayers of the town floating up
Incense of black powder
For a good year to come
I arrived in India as the rain ended. The river was outstepping its banks, washing beligerantly through villages, bathing the feet of enormous statues of Shiva, sweeping over the ghats of Varanasi and into the city streets. Now the clouds are evaporated, the moisture of the air lingers as vapor and fog, turning the afternoon sun blood red, the rice paddies are picked and cleared, the sugarcane is in harvest, and the next planting begins soon, potatoes and tomatoes, radishes and herbs, things no longer at risk of being washed away in the floods.
Diwali is a celebration in cultures all around South Asia and the Pacific, recognized broadly by Hindus as well as Jains, Sikhs, and some sects of Buddhism. It is the festival of light, the festival for Lakshmi the Hindu goddess of success and wealth. Diwali is celebrated according to the Bikram Sambat calendar, the calendar that Hindus follow, on the darkest moon of the month of Karitka.
To celebrate here, people clean house, place garlands of marigolds all over, give gifts to family and friends, buy new clothes, eat a feast, and in the evening steps and roofs are lined with candles and cities and villages alight with fireworks. All through the day fireworks are blown off, but when night falls they are blown by the heap, crescendoing to a heavy roar, continuing in a steady chorus all through the night.
We got off the river the day before Diwali in the small town of Narora, host to a nuclear power plant and a barrage. Not a glorious village, this place was full of working people with a massive military complex that looked trim, proper and quiet as a 1950s middle America suburban oasis. Only outside the gates did I feel comfortable again, like I was in India.
The first night in Narora we went out ravaged with hunger for dinner after a long day on the river. Finding no promising restaurants, we walked through a market brimming with Diwali goods, candles, posters, nic-nacs. Sweetshops selling Mitai had burst from their storefronts, and piles of sugary lumps, balls, and bricks were stacked under tents and sat in vats of sugar water. A firework mall had been erected in the center of town, and everyone seemed eager and happy. Finally we found the foodcarts and chowed–momos (like sumplings), masala omelets, aloo tiki (fried potato mash with chickpeas and sauce), and the ubiquitous Indo-Chinese Chowmein.
This festive time was a rest time for us to get off the river, get clean and enjoy good food. It also gave me time to reflect on the space upriver….
Back in Devprayag
We walked across a suspension footbridge
crowded with cows
We walked past shopkeepers and school kids
All looking at us, alienlike in our riverwear
We walked down and down the steps
Painted red and lined with Ram Ram
Down to the confluence
Where the Ganges begins
People, curious people
Crowded around and wanted to talk
We greeted them and smiled
Orange-robed Saddhus meditated
Bathers in the river moved aside
As we walked to waters edge
Ready to launch into the wild river
Rolling with waves and rapids
The sound deafening as
The seam of my board
I watched the others
Paddle off into the rapids
Bummed with the burden
Of material things
Then a man sitting by the water
Grinned wide at me
And I grinned
And walked the bank downriver
In the morning before our launch onto the Ganges, Kumaran M “Geopaddler” arrived to our hotel. Kumaran is a man in his 30s with a bright moonslice smile, a contagious high pitched laugh, a friendly youthful nature, and a magnetic affinity for stand up paddleboarding. He also carries a thermos of chai onto the river everyday which has gained him many friends among us.
He showed up totally unprepared for whitewater paddling; no helmet, not a proper whitewater lifejacket, no wetsuit, none of that. But he was ready and undeterred.
Kumaran is a geologist for oil and gas exploration. The company was once based in Chennai, his home city in Tamil Nadu near Sri Lanka in South India. Cairn moved to Gurgaon a few years back, an offshoot of Delhi, so now Kumaran weekly commutes back and forth North to South India between work and family. When he is home in Chennai, he volunteers his time to run a program called Bay of Life that takes kids out surfing and paddleboarding to learn about the local environment from fishermen and others who know the area deeply.
Often since we’ve gotten on the river I’ve seen Kumaran try and teach people how to paddle–a kid in a local village, the driver of our support car. This generosity of spirit showed early when he offered to let me use his board for many parts of the whitewater stretch after mine blew.
The whitewater was incredible fun. Imagine big, clean, green raging rapids in deep water through a gorge dug right out of the entrance to the himalayas. The gorge is an immense breadth of forest and the old pilgrimage routes snake along above the river. The place feels young, not as raw as the mountains above, but very lively. One morning a fisherman naked as the day he was born was casting his net right from our camp, tens of others were across the water on the other bank. The rush of water had lulled us all through the night as we slept under an open sky.
We were generously supported by Anvesh Singh Tapa, a NOLS instructor and founder of Expeditions India, an up-and-coming river outfitter based in Rishikesh. The three days on the river with these folks showed the power of recreation to shape people’s lives and the river’s.
River guides live on and see rivers through good, bad, and ugly. Their love of the water and the earth around it is crafted by experience and time and is a tremendous force in keeping rivers all over the world healthy, from the Chama in New Mexico to the Salween in China.
Anvesh runs a remarkable and responsible company, supporting others who wish to steward the river, keep the banks and waters clean, and make recreation possible for the future. Having run the Ganges and other nearby rivers constantly for 20 years, he knows their character and the changes they’ve confronted. He mentioned that the Ganges has changed dramatically since the Tehri Dam was erected in the early 2000s. This year was the first that the reservoir on the Alakananda River is full, so he has seen more changes, including a dry riverbed earlier in the season. The dramatic effect on the river and on the wildlife is unquestionable.
Anvesh’s role in our journey and in the river community is invaluable. It is his knowledge and other people with such intimate sensibilities of the place and its patterns that could help those in power make responsible, informed decisions. We need more presence like his.
Hard to imagine here
Where the water is emerald
Magnificent as the sky
What is to come
Rushing by a sea of yellow and red robes, the Ganga, unwavering in its immensity, flows by crowds singing out to her, praising the river for all she gives, united in sound drawn out by the expanse of water passing the bottom of the ghat. Ganga Aarti at Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh is not just religious, it is sensational.
Just before five o’clock every evening, hoards of people pack the small road separating the Ashram from the riverbank. Monks and young boys who study at Parmarth Niketan are closely flanked by tourists who have come to learn yoga, Indian women and men dressed well for an evening out, school and tour groups, maybe five hundred people, look onto the spectacle, in awe of Ma Ganga, the turquoise ray of water passing before the red hazy horizon.
Downriver on the right bank funeral pyres can be seen burning in the dusk, rafts of people wearing bright helmets paddle to land at a beach, happy after a day on the water, music and chanting from other ashrams echo through the crisp air, himalayan foothills folding into the city below. Ram Jhula, one of Rishikesh’s famous footbridges, is a ways upstream, cows lounging amidst the rush of traffic on the road behind the Aarti. The Ashram’s camera boy stands on a cement platform raised on pilings in the river, adding to the grandiosity and subtle oddity of the scene.
This is the Aarti going on as it does every evening, a special ceremony just for the river designed by the Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji Maharaj, the holy man, a sort of saint, who is the president of Parmarth Niketan.
We had the opportunity to interview Pujya Swami as well as Swamini Sadhvi Saraswati Mishra, a holy woman who also lives at the ashram. The Swami limped into our interview, his foot having been damaged recently at an event at the Tehri Reservoir.
The Swami has an explosion of brown frizzy hair and a beard, a curly mane, and he wore orange robes. He spoke in a very soft and gentle voice and answered just a few of our questions about the role of faith along the ganges. We wanted to know the real work, not just symbolic work, that faith groups are doing to steward the waters in India.
Basically he said that Hindu people must take care of the river, and the ashram has started a Toilet College to train professionals to work in communities to develop better sanitation. He also noted that the ashram is an important member of GIWA, the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance, WASH meaning, Water Sanitation and Hygiene… yes an acronym inside an acronym. GIWA does work to provide sanitation services and facilities the world over.
The short chat was a good prologue to the interview with the Swamini, an American woman who has taken on a powerful role as a Hindu leader. She explained to us that you can’t just say to people that they shouldn’t pollute the river and expect results. She explained that telling people to treat the river as their temple is much more effective. “You don’t defecate or throw garbage in your temple, right?” She asked. Her potent messaging was clear that India is in a time of transition, that these sensibilities about ecological stewardship are transforming from what they were here ages ago to an age of fast and furious economies, plastic, and a booming population.
“At 5:30 AM a knock came at the door. The eager, kindly keeper of the ashram whisked in with a platter of coffees. He delivered one to my sleepy hands then disappeared. I could see the pale head of a sculpture in the darkness out the door before he swept it closed.
After ten minutes with no further instructions, I crawled out of bed. The others were asleep again. Beyond the large door paneled with silver decor lay an emporium of oddly posed gurus and rishis cast in plaster and concrete, hindu gods resting beneath a work-in-progress cement canopy–paradise in the making, a larger than life menagerie being built, maybe never to be finished. There was nobody about. Down some winding stairs, I watched the head of an enormous inanimate cow appear before a statue of Shiva, 50 feet tall and painted metallic orange. It stood in a courtyard echoing with the rush of the Bhagirathi River just outside.”
I wrote that five days ago now, hoping to get out a full entry, but before I could, the keeper of the ashram snagged me for a conversation, the same energetic one who brought us coffee before we had chance to squeeze the last bits of dream from our minds. He asked me all about the USA, and wanted to see all my pictures. When I showed him Chicago, he knew the height of the skyscrapers in feet. He knew exchange rates exactly and wanted to know the price of my watch.
He explained later in a rush of Hindi to Shilps that he had walked all over India for 15 years, that he had walked barefoot to understand the meaning of love, that now he had settled in one place and was dedicated to serving others, that he was exploring the world in his spot at the ashram, making a short pilgrimage each day, 30 meters to the Bhagirathi River, the main mountain vein of the Ganges.
I thought back to the orange-robed sadhus that walked by us down from the glacial valley above Gangotri where the Bhagirathi River emerges from its icy origin, Gaumokh, the cow’s mouth. In Hinduism the cow, Gai, is a sacred mother, the Ganges is called Ma Ganga, mother Ganges. I thought of the enormous boulders that dotted the riverbank there, small square openings under them, where the sadhus live in caves, meditating in the mountain, a womb of sorts. Other Sadhus passed us carrying Ganges water from its source to the far corners of India by foot.
Just 8 days ago we stood at Gaumokh. It is a cave in the Gangotri glacier where the first water of the Ganges flows from under the ice. The glacier sits in a valley bottom looked after by Shivling Peak, Meru, and Bhagirathi 1 and 2, seats of the gods in Hinduism. The size of the mountains, the landslide flows that made 80 foot tall boulders look like pebbles in a sandbox, the speed of the clouds; I had a constant feeling that I can only associate with the times I have learned about astronomy, about the scale of the universe. I felt an insignificance against this reminder of my size and impermanence.
A whitecap star
An earthen star
To spark our spirit
To incite our mythology
To risk all
And climb up
For an instant
Of time untethered
The group I am with is a surprising assortment. Having met them in London and then spent time with them in Delhi, I’ve gotten to know them bit by bit in wildly different arenas, but there is nothing like spending a few weeks of a taxing journey outdoors to get to the roots of who and how people are. Group dynamics on an expedition unveil individuals and make evident people’s values and ideals in ways otherwise abstracted in everyday life. On a trip like this we are a pack, a family of sorts.
Spike wears a curly mustache, done up with sandalwood mustache wax, Captain Fawcett’s Expedition Strength, “The Gentleman’s Stiffener, Keeping a Stiff Upper Lip, Regardless…” reads the container. Captain Fawcett’s is one of his sponsors. Spike is the sort of explorer who lives for the expedition. He has driven around the world in a Land Rover, led a world of a trip in Svalbard, and currently works as an International Mountain Leader. Just before India, he worked on a trip to the Karakorum Mountains in Pakistan and the Xinjiang Province in China. His demeanor matches his appearance, he is strong in mind, an upbeat savvy practitioner of difficult travel in far off places.
Spike’s experience and strong opinions, not to mention his outspoken nature, make him a natural leader. He tends to participate in decision-making and won’t let down easily. His ideas of this expedition are unique in that for him it is professional development to a T. He wants to have a high profile for the expedition, and as a participating member of the Royal Geographical Society, he wants to do it RGS proper and follow the river through its natural course in Bangladesh. This stance has caused some tension in the group because of Shilps’ dedication to finish at Ganga Sagar in India, an island just past Calcutta down the Hoogly River. These sorts of dissonant ideas are consistent on the trip, a manifestation of diversity and the balance of tension in the group.
In my eyes Shilps remains the heartwood of the group. Shilps is tall and strong with dark hair. She wears her Indian identity on her sleeve even in expedition garb, and currently she is the only Indian on the trip, though others, Kumaran and Devang, will join in a few days.
At every tea shack we stop at, Shilps helps as we stumble through our food orders, and she works as our interpreter. People constantly ask if she is our guide to which she laughs and says we are friends and explains the project. People’s reactions are a mix of concern, astonishment, and intrigue. As we ride, Shilps asks the locals questions about directions, life, and times. It is clear that as an Indian who has lived abroad and is now returning home, she is soaking up the lessons and building a repertoire of stories and experiences to fuel her drive to make a difference here in her country of birth. The relentlessness of spirit that I see in her is a hefty reminder of the pride and weight of identity; for her India is home and the struggles here are her struggles in a way that they are not for the rest of us. While we’ve been moving, she has been juggling group dynamics, personal responsibilities, burdens of home and family, ideas about religion and the spiritual essence of the Ganges, and so much more. She’s even got Discovery Channel India to commit to making short pieces about the trip and arranging for other Indians to join the expedition lower on the river.
Pascal is a steadfast, inquisitive, and hilarious man. His beard and blue eyes give him a friendly, warm appearance–one Indian just told me that Pascal looks like Tom Hanks. His patience and persistence are remarkable, especially after he hiked through a week of uncertain health, with bouts of fevers and illness, one time above 14,000 feet. His dedication to the group and his careful listening impress on me the power of the softer-spoken, and occasionally he comes out with an outrageous joke to get us all roaring with laughter to remind us to not take life so damn serious. He and I have shared a few nice conversations, in particular one where he expressed his desire to do practical work with his hands, being unsure of whether or not he will employ his recent degree in environmental science. I get the sense that to him this trip is a space to explore his interest and care for the environment, but also to develop his own track of mind after being in school, to gain further insight and experience to move forward with his ideals and learning. On this page, he and I share a lot. I am grateful to have a kindred spirit on the trip, someone unsure of the veil between academia and the practical world, between theory and practice, ideals and reality, someone with great care and reverence for the environment, but still developing an approach in life and work.
Shilps’ friend Jerome, a startup techy who grew up in Japan and also lives in London joined us for a time. A spindly and smart looking character, he joined us for what was his first trek, and he brought a fresh energy to the group, the newness of it to him and his eagerness to seize the experience were fun additions, and his way of thinking through technology and business were new perspectives for me.
I feel very conscious of travelling with a group of predominately western men. I notice how much it is shaping every interaction we have, and though I look forward to when more Indians join us, I am trying to learn from this time as much as any other.
With the five of us in mind, I think of the sadhus again. I wonder what these orange-robed-jolly-men thought of us as we walked by their mountain cave-home. I never expected the ashram keeper to know such esoteric trivia as the heights of skyscrapers in Chicago. I wonder what he thought of us behind his immense hospitality. As we descended from Gangotri to Uttarkashi, we passed many crews working on the precarious road. Where landslides or wear and tear have made the road impassable, camps of people living in small soot blackened tin huts mix concrete and move rocks by day to keep the himalayan roadway intact. I wonder what they thought of us going by. In the high mountains, we passed porters hauling four backpacks at once for eager tourists. They had sandles for shoes and just a forehead strap to carry the load. What did they think of us? We crossed many military camps; just miles from the border with China and the contested boundaries there, this area is bolstered with army presence, and as we walked the road, brigades of soldiers in enormous green trucks flew past, honking comical high pitched horns and waving. I wonder what those soldiers thought of us. We trotted past apple orchards ripe with fruit, the pickers carrying massive baskets, many bushels full by just a rope over their forehead. Once they gave us apples. I wonder what they thought of us. On the roads in the mornings and evenings kids walking to school came past, laughing and giggling. I wonder what they thought what made them laugh.
I wonder this because I wonder about them. There is a sort of reciprocity to these quick interactions, fleeting moments with people I may only once see. Do we smile? Do we just look? Do we speak? I wonder where their food comes from, where they get water. I wonder what they learn everyday, what they think about the world. I wonder what wealth means to them. I wonder about religion. I wonder how free they feel, what their values are.
I wonder too, because I am not sure what I think of us, of me, of my great opportunity to travel so. I wondered how I ever got here. These interactions, a complement to the striking moments in the high mountains, recall how fleeting time is. A year is a short window to get to know anything, a landscape, a person. A lifetime too is fleeting. Recently I read The Old Ways by Robert McFarlane. In the book he follows many walking and sea ways etched in human history. He describes a way of knowing that can only be attained by passing through. Walking through the Gharwal Himalayas, what I gained does not yet seem appropriate to call knowledge, but more like sensation. The sensation of so many lives, of a stark landscape, of a strata of layers from the socioeconomic and political context of contemporary India, to the earth shattering sound of a landslide crashing into the river valley.
I wonder too, because I am not sure what I think of us, of me, of my great opportunity to travel so. Leaving Delhi in a van packed to the roof with gear and beyond with paddleboards on top, I wondered how I ever got here. In many ways it feels excessive to have so much gear and so much energy put into the profile of the expedition. I could just find a wooden boat and row the river lower down. Maybe I will. It almost feels like GangesSUP is a business. Not in that the group wants to make profit, but like I wrote, for Spike this is professional development, for Shilps and Pascal this is also contributing to their futures and professional lives, and for me perhaps it is as well. That said, I believe it is also sewn with deeper intention, to bring awareness to the dramatic conditions of the river, to grow hope and action for a positive future, to harness the movements towards these things and bring people together.
As a Watson Fellow, I have a status in social terrain that often confuses me, and the work is not straightforward. I am in the most populated country on earth, where so much feels excessive–the number of people to start, 1.3 billion. I am here to learn, that is clear, but as a person that strives for the practical, it seems hard to be so when passing through, but that’s my practice for now– observing, learning, thinking. I think of John Brandi, a poet I admire; he says “go out into the world, observe keenly, write things down, draw, go home and make a book.” Currently I don’t have a home close by outside myself, so I am observing, writing, drawing, moving in and out and trying to reciprocate what I am taking in when possible. I am reminded to be a humble speck, a wondrous speck, a small particle of this whirling world and confounding humanity, learning about all that’s around me and generating ideas and creations accordingly, keeping of a positive mind.
I am frayed now in that I cannot decide whether to continue with GangesSUP or move on to go to a Hindi school and develop the skills to communicate with people myself, to recall my independence. I am aware of how fortunate I am to be on board with a group of well-intentioned passionate individuals working to better themselves and the world around them. I am fully at terms with a post that I read last night from Nathan Thanki, “it’s ok to not be entirely self-sufficient because that isn’t how we evolved as a species. inclusive communities can heal and can nourish. that’s why we crave them.”
To return to the path, I want to tell you about an encounter we had a few days ago walking through the foothills of the Garhwal. The Bhagirathi flows through the main trunk of a tree of branching gorges. In the valleys are rivers, and in the hills for a long ways are apple orchards far as the eyes can see. As we walked on a wide footpath through the orchards, two little girls ran up and started talking with Shilpika in Hindi. They wanted to know what we were doing and if we were crazy (not far from my original inquiry to the group). They asked Shilps tons of questions, and I could see that Shilps was impressed by the inquisitive nature of the girls. Finally we arrived at the gate to their humble home, a small hut nestled in some apple trees.
The father of the girls, a stout man with a shaved head but for a subtle wisp of hair on his crown came out first to greet us. Then the mother of the girls came out, and she and Shilps spoke while Sunita, the elder girl, ran to bring us apples. When she did we were astounded at how delicious and crisp the fruits were. We ate there and learned that the family had come from Nepal. We also learned that the man had two wives. The second wife came out a bit later. The family evidently wanted us to hang around, and they were so generous, offering more and more apples, speaking with Shilps, smiling at us guys, sometimes we tried to communicate. Eventually we had to go, Spike, our dedicated timekeeper nudged us onward to get to where we had to be for the evening.
I could feel the connection of that family to the earth around them, I could sense their genuine gratitude for the visit from strangers. Their humble life impressed on me that the gulf between wealth and value is so vast, but the two measures can often get confused. I want to live in a world where the work and knowledge of the farmer is recognized and honored as that of a diplomat, an engineer, a doctor. Maybe I’m naive or ignorant, but I want to honor hard work, connection with land and the soil.
Shilps was very moved by the experience with the girls. The next morning she teared up telling me about the potential of Sunita, how smart she was, and how difficult it was for her to see Sunita’s potential wrapped up in a difficult home life and such a poor family. Later on the highway I saw a sign that said, “To reach the top, start at the bottom.”
We are all experiencing this time so differently. What this trip means for each of us Is so heavily dictated by context, by intention, by understanding.
Strolling along the path
One struck by the flow of hills
One listening to the child on the road
One worried about sunburn
One hoping not to trip
One adherent to the smell of pine forest
One concerned with the next credit statemen
One planning a trip to the Yukon
One content with the rustle of river rapids
One praying to be a bird in the next life
One sick for home
One hungering for peanut butter
One strained by fever
One bursting with curiosity
One mind’s melody
As we walked into Uttarkashi, the largest city (big town) since Gangotri, we were all burnt out. We decided to find bicycles to get ourselves to Devprayag in time to begin our journey downriver, otherwise we would have to postpone important dates, and we risked injuries worsening.
We spent a day scrambling to find bikes, sourcing them from all over the place, including an attempt to get them trucked in by a toy store owner. Eventually we got the bikes, mine from some kids who were more than happy to sell me the rickety piece in front of the bike mechanic’s shop, Spike’s from a cobbler in the market, Pascal’s and Shilps’ from the bike mechanic.
The next days of riding were liberating, flying through mountain hamlets along dirt roads. I was very happy despite the severe wobble in my front wheel, a broken freewheel in back, lopsided pedals, and half-baked breaks. We rode over the Tehri Dam, a very tall dam, the first blockage in the path of the Ganges. It was staggering to see the lively rushing river turn into a placid, deep green reservoir, turquoise against the hills of rice paddies.
“How do you wrangle a river? You pour a massive pile of concrete in its way.”
Like a patchwork quilt of greens
Interrupted just by a great Banyan tree
The ricefields cascade to the reservoir below
Dancing to the music of irrigation water
And the rhythm of the wind
We stayed the night in a lovely village beneath Tehri, along the second reservoir, that of the Koteshwar dam. There the people were so generous and gave us a farmfield to camp in. The kids all gathered to watch us set up camp, curious about all of our equipment, playful in the most contagious of ways. We visited with the family whose land we are staying on. At first they seemed a bit shy to show their one room house, but once Shilps got to talking with them, they opened up. The husband works in Jaipur, quite far off, which is apparently commonplace. They were all so courteous and genuine with some of the greatest smiles I have seen. These mountains seem full of big smiles, strong people.
Yesterday we arrived in Devprayag, a town perched on a steep hillside where the Bhagirathi and Alakananda Rivers join and become the Ganges. The two streams coalesce in a beautiful swirl of two distinct shades of river. The point at which they meet is a ghat, a place for religious people to pray and dip in the water.
The spirit of the rivers is evident here, and as we prepare to get in the water, I am at once filled with excitement and the steady uncertainty of where to place myself in the world, of the agency of this wondrous speck, far from home and here all at once.
The Watson Foundation requires me to share a letter reflecting on my experiences every three months. While I work on my next entry, I want to share this with you all.
My Dear Watson,
I am currently sitting in room at Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh. I’ve had a bit of a fever this morning, but I am feeling better. Odd and beautiful chanting is the soundtrack today, along with a rock drill next door.
First, I want to quickly cover where I have been to date:
–I began on a flight to Europe after failing to find a sailboat to take me across the Atlantic. On the way I flew with Icelandair knowing that I could make a small stopover there to see that fascinating North Atlantic Island. I hitchhiked around the southern end of Iceland and visited the Skafta River. It’s the only place I had ever been where one can stick their head right in a river 100 yards across and drink.
–From there I routed briefly to London because I was connected to an Indian woman and two men there planning to paddle down the Ganges River, more on that later.
–After London I headed to the first river in my itinerary, the Torne River. The shortest visit on my main itinerary, I look back on the Torne as a magical place, a well managed international watershed, and the second very big river pristine enough to drink right over the gunwale of the canoe. I stayed with a wilderness guide who took me foraging for mushrooms and berries, fishing on the river. He and his Afghani apprentice Mohammed were great companions.
–I left the arctic circle (just before Autumn snow on August 23) for Stockholm where I attended World Water Week, a major gathering of governments, civil society, and businesses to discuss global water challenges.
–W.W.W. was a wonderful transition into India where I am now and have been for nearly two months.
Moving about like I am is a rhythm that is challenging to maintain. I like to do practical things, building, farming, cooking, things that often require rootedness, but when I am travelling along the river, it is hard to participate in such work. So as I move, I write. I write at once because I love to craft language and because it makes my mind–a surprising soup of thoughts, feelings, intellect, reaction–into something I can look at, interpret, and refine. I like that, it keeps me running smoothly.
In Europe I wrote about the power of Western ways and sensibilities, the edges of rationalism and western institutional technology against the whim and way of nature. There is a paradox in rationalism a bit like entropy and order, the most civilized societies can have the most chaotic, thoughtless reactions, like Trump in the states now, or the Dakota Access Pipeline situation coupled with the Bundy case… what are we thinking people? (nice piece here… https://transformativespaces.org/2016/10/27/how-to-talk-about-nodapl-a-native-perspective/)
In Sweden, at 67 degrees North on the beautiful, dam free Torne River, life is simple and good but challenging in the elements. Last year, just when the summer light faded, the 250 person community of Junosuando, where I spent most of my time up north, grew by 60 people, refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. The public schools doubled enrollment with the influx. This wave of people reminded me that rivers are not always made of water, it made me consider how migrating people cause shifting burdens on the land and water and one another’s communities.
After Junosuando I got to learn and write about international climate politics, specifically concerning water and sanitation at World Water Week. I made it a point to attend the lectures on India and I learned about the current buzz to relieve this country of open defecation, to clean the overburdened rivers here. With the policies in place, the struggle is for implementation.
Now here, on the ground and the water, I understand India’s challenges in a new light. As I mentioned, I found a group with plans to paddle the length of the Ganges. We have a smattering of Indians on the trip representing a small sliver of the cultural landscape here, a Gujarati, a Tamil, and a Delhi urbanite. It is a wonder that India is a democratic and unified state to any extent, and how things work here would take a few reincarnations to understand, but I am trying none the less.
Paddling the river is not straightforward, and that is why I chose to travel with a group; it is massively polluted and dangerous along many lines. The river supports 500 million people, and it passes through highly populated areas, including two of India’s poorest states. Planning was a lengthy process, and I spent a few weeks in Delhi meeting with all sorts of people to link with organizations, ashrams, bureaucracies, fellow adventurers to learn about the river and make arrangements along the way.
Three weeks ago we started in the headwaters at Gangotri Glacier, and now we are into the plains (It’s a week after Rishikesh as I write now), passing sugarcane plantations for miles and miles, makeshift distilleries, river funerals, temples, barrages, and water buffalo herds, meeting agricultural communities of many sorts.
Just before leaving for this year I read a book called The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane. In the book he writes about learning by passing through, a way of knowing as a nomad. More than anything that is how I feel now, my eyes are open and keen, I am trying to absorb all I can, traveling downstream. I dream of Huck Finn, the namesake of my paddleboard.
I have an overwhelming sensation of tinyness and insignificance here in India, and I am listening and learning to figure out what we are all part of in the world.
Thank you so much for this opportunity to truly live and feel it.