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.
In the orange
It’s in the orange
It’s the red
Behind the apartments
With scraggly rebar hair
Workers pounding rocks
It’s the orange
Drawing my eyes
Towards the center
Of a woman’s forehead
A red mark of life
I am told
It’s the orange
Into the city
It’s the red
It’s the orange
That makes a
The Puja fire
Is set afloat
It’s the red
It’s the orange
It’s a city
In the orange
Delhi has given me a place for near three weeks now as I have prepared to paddle with GangesSUP for 8 weeks down the Ganga. Other travelers warned that the big cities of India would overwhelm, that the crowds and the noise would be too much.
I understand what they were talking about. When I first arrived I was staying with Shilpika Gautam, the main force behind the trip that we are about to undertake. She and her family, Dr. Sudhir and Usha Sharma from the last entry live in Noida. Delhi is like Washington DC, it’s known as Delhi NCR, the National Capital Region. Just to the north and east is Uttar Pradesh, literally “northern state,” while to the west lies Haryana. Noida lies just across the Yamuna River from Delhi, and it is in Uttar Pradesh.
Noida would be a half hour drive from Delhi proper without traffic. With it can take one or two hours, impossible to predict. Traffic here is trucks belching around the streets with vibrant hand painted signs on their tail ends asking you to “honk please”; a whir of tuktuk engines bumbling left and right trying to weave around the cars; motorcycles doing near acrobatics to find the path of least resistance even on the sidewalk; cycle rickshaws and peddlers carrying 30 foot long rebar; pedstrians walking in the expressway and cars going the wrong way. All honk and shout and ring bells to make themselves known to the masses.
The endless car horns play to personalities. Some earsplitting and overpowering like a diva with bronchitis and a megaphone, some deep like James Earl Jones at a boxing match, others high pitched and squeaky–Missy Mouse inhaling helium, the funniest are muffled by overuse, an Oompa Loompa singing, head in a fishbowl.
Watching this traffic it’s astonishing that anybody gets anywhere, but sure enough the people move steadily like a river with incalculable bifurcations, eddies, and directions, a fuel powered river of metal winding ceaselessly around the city.
About halfway to Noida, the road climbs up a small ways onto a bridge. It is at that point that one sees the Yamuna River, a stoic river, blackish in color, revealing no sign of flow. The Yamuna is born very close to the Ganges in the Garhwal Himalayas. The Yamuna flows from the bowls of the high peaks just west of those that are the beginnings of the Ganga. The two rivers flow parallel, twins, out of the mountains, through the hills, and into the plains. Between them is some of the richest agricultural land in all of India, and like the Ganga, the Yamuna is considered a goddess to Hindus, a sacred river.
Also like the Ganges, the Yamuna is highly polluted with industrial effluents, agricultural runoff, sewage, and garbage. Shilpika went to the Yamuna about two weeks ago to film a sequence for an Indian media station called Zee News. They filmed it at the banks of the Yamuna, and just as she was beginning to speak, a pig corpse came floating into the picture. Just then a man began dumping garbage from the bridge above her into the water. Upset with the pig, another man, picking trash around the river to resell, paddled out onto the water in his makeshift float made from scavenged material to try and push the pig out of the way. After all of that, another man arrived to make an offering, a puja, to the river and to take a small bath in the waters.
There is so much activity on the river, so much connection with the waters, so much love for them. But the way of treating the river as a repository for offerings to deities, garbage, sewage, and the holiest place for the dead baffles me. So much converges there. Why would anyone dump their garbage or dead pig in the Yamuna? The same water required for drinking and growing food?
I realize that I think of this as a violation of an environmental code. It’s engrained in me, but in muh of India there is a different code completely. The river is a different being. The river is meant to clean all and wash it away. In some sense it does, but 1.3 billion people in India all sharing in the watercycle is a lot to consider. One small bag of garbage X 1,300,000,000 is a lot of garbage everyday not to mention 1,300,000,000 people’s sewage.
What is water?
A question abstract as color
Liquid in a sense
With all this in mind, finally Pascal, Spike, Kumaran, Shilps, and I are all in Delhi with all of our equipment.
On Sunday morning, Shilps, Pascal, and I went to make a little video to thank Starboard, a sponsor who gave us our paddleboards, for supporting our trip. We decided to film at India Gate which is India’s equivalent of the National Mall in Washington DC, you know long pools between a monument a official buildings, a big park for people to wander around. The difference here is that people were playing cricket all over the park in the morning, people swim in the fountains all day, kids playing all about. It’s quite an image. And rather than an obelisk, a huge gate rises up in the center like the Arc de Triomphe. It’s a beautiful site.
We arrived early, around 7 and already the cricket games were in full swing. Kids were shouting and birds were everywhere, a few Chai Wallas wandered about with their big huge kettles.
We started to prepare our boards by the ponds, and drew quite a crowd of curious onlookers. We got out on the water and started shooting video, and the crowd grew. Policemen showed up as well, and though at first we feared we were going to get in trouble, perhaps have to grease palms or worse, they just came to take pictures of the funny looking standup boats.
Not long after we began paddling, Shilps asked one of the people looking on if they wanted to try. Pretty soon all four of us were off our boards and locals were riding around with such joy and hilarity on our boards. None had ever seen a paddleboard or done it before, and we got such a kick out of it.
A little boy who was shirtless came wading through the water to ask me if he could ride. Once I got him on the board, we couldn’t get him off. For an hour he was either paddling around or chasing other boats through the water, even climbing on board with others. It made for a great spectacle.
Spike loaned his board to a guy who turned out to be a yoga instructor. Spike told the man that some people do yoga on stand up paddleboards, and the guy immediately started. He did some amazing poses and we were all quite impressed.
The image that has been burned on my mind from that morning was Shilpika as she got three little girls onto her board, all under eight years old, one of them might have been four. As she was paddling around speaking with them in Hindi, she looked up at me where I was taking pictures on the shore and told me that one of the girls had never been on a boat before. All of them were beaming, and I couldn’t help but feel in awe to be on this adventure with a pioneering Indian woman, so supportive of her native place, encouraging a cleaner river, the source of life, and helping the new generation to take onto the adventure.
Last night waiting in the postoffice to mail letters to district magistrates all along the river, I was surrounded by guys trying to, like me, beat the very slow mailroom, and get their parcels off. Feeling quite frustrated I looked up and saw a sign that said “Gangajal for sale here” or “Ganges Water for sale here.” In Delhi, far from the Ganges, that sign gave me plenty to think about as I finished mailing.
Tomorrow the five of us will head towards Rishikesh, and then up to Gaumukh, the headwaters of the Ganges to begin our journey downriver.
I had read of the smells of India. The potency of sewage and spice, railing through the hefty air, dancing like beauty and the beast through the racket of rickshaws and the rich color of streetlife.
I walked out of the metro from Indira Ghandi International Airport in New Delhi, which I found marvelously clean and timely, at 5:30AM. What I found splayed before me was a very different scene from the orderly metro. A few hundred meters from the station door rose a while building with a blaring red sign that read “New Dheli.” Between me and that beacon at the center of India, there was a groundbreaking turbulence.
A sea of green and yellow tuk-tuks bounced and beeped around a maze of police gates. Thousands of rickshaws, as though ants building an enormous colony of asphalt, concrete, and fake leather seats.
The street carts where occupied by blanketed bodies sleeping atop the store of goods, young boys guarding the merchandise with their bodies, veiled from the world in sleep. A chai wallah waited with a steaming pot for the next bleary eyed stranger to get a cup of tea. A cow nearby sniffed a murky pothole, it’s neckbell tolling the hour, 5:37, another day in the pasture.
This scene, reflecting back, caused me some shock. I knew it was coming, but it was like being fired out of a canon into a world that seemed, at first, to only want my money. Dozens of drivers and more salesman offered me various services and goods as I walked around trying to find my way through the onslaught of traffic.
It was obvious to me that I was a walking stock of money, with my western-wear and big blue rucksack, my cap and not-Indianess. But this was only true until I inquired for help. As soon as I asked for something, the offers and insights for a transaction evaporated, and within minutes, I had 5 or 6 men providing me detailed instructions on where I had to go, how to avoid being ripped off, and even offering to show me the way to my next stop.
The warmth of those reactions soothed me and put my anxieties of being in the city to rest: just ask. Like a hot-springs of humanity, simultaneously offering unknown and dangerous depths and abundant healing waters,
Delhi is India’s major governmental hub, it’s largest city. It is home to well over 20,000,000 people, 200 lakhs being the typical measure here, a lakh being 1,00,000 or 100,000 for the western minds.
Though many had cautioned me not to spend too much time in the overwhelming rough and tumble of Indian cities, I was here on a mission, to meet up with Shilpika Gautam, the impassioned and relentless mind behind the stand up paddleboarding trip down the Ganges River.
I arrived a day before Shilps came in from London, though her parents live in Noida, a city that abuts Delhi from the opposite bank of the Yamuna River, a holy tributary of the Ganga.
Shilps father, Dr. Sudhir Sharma, was busy through the day, and I was to meet him at 5PM, so I scheduled a meeting with Mrs. Chicu Lokgariwar, a writer and activist in India with the India Water Portal, the leading news outlet for all things water.
I made my way by metro to the Defense Colony Market in a district of the city called Lagpat Nagar. When I arrived, I found a nice place to sit, and I watched a morning cricket match run its course in the parking lot down the way, behind me a group of men practiced some sort of marching excercise, at once looking professional and completely goofy.
The businesses of the market slowly opened, shopkeepers swept dust off the entryways and stray dogs came sniffing, curious to see if I could give them scraps, but always shy, staying a few feet away.
At one point some children, not more than 9 or 10 years old came up to me begging for money. The trio looked quite rough, and I wanted to help, though I felt out of place giving them money. My intuition told me no. They hung around begging, asking, reaching out, sometimes touching me. I had to be quite direct, “Nahi” I said authoritatively, one of the few Hindi words I know, “no.”
When it was finally time to meet Chicu at a very nice cafe in the market, I asked her about these kids. She told me not to give money, that they are part of gangs, often it causes more harm than good. Later a new friend Brendon who lives in Mumbai explained to me that one time he saw a group of kids begging in traffic. Someone gave them some cash and they began to scamper towards the woods by the roadside. Just as they got close, he saw a man with a stick of bamboo emerge from the trees and lash the kids, hard. They fell and gave him the money. As Brendon began driving away, the kids ran back out towards the road to beg again.
The toughness of street people is no surprise. The hardship that affronts those kids juxtaposed sharply against Chicu and I enjpoying our beautiful coffees in the air conditioned cafe as she taught me about her ideals and passions concerning water in India. Her mission is to hear the silenced voices, the voices of muslims and women who get such little attention in Indian press. I thought of Amy Goodman, “go where the silence is.” I watched the kids running around outside the window. Playing and trying to beg a living all at once.
I felt so grateful to be speaking with this progressive, fascinating woman within the first hours of my stay in India. She offered loads of insights and leads. Chicu and I parted ways and I rambled about the city for a few hours before getting in touch with Dr. Sudhir. He told me he had already gone back to Noida and I was to take a metro to meet him.
I did as he said, arriving a bit before he did. Outside the metro stop was a McDonalds. I went in, thinking about the odd reality that I was in an American corporate chain that I never visit in the USA. The people there seemed dignified and many were families eating out all together, there was a birthday party as well. I sat next to the bust of Ronald Mcdonald with my water, reading a book that rested against his goofy red plaster shoe.
A minute later Dr. Sudhir arrived. A tall and slender man, Dr. Sudhir has a trim mustance and a stoic demeanor, he seemed extremely ordered and immediately with little formality we walked off towards the car. We spent a moment in the chaos of the another rickshaw clogged artery before Dr. Sudhir found his driver and his white sedan. After some quick directions we whizzed off through the disorganized city streets, Dr. Sudhir commenting that Delhi was more organized than Noida.
We stopped in the road unannounced to me, and Dr. Sudhir asked if I wanted to join him. I said OK, and we got out. On turning I saw a truly lovely scene, something that filled me with happiness. Beside the road was a line of vendors with vegetables arranged in the most wonderful arrays and vendors shouting their bounty. I thought of Saturday farmers markrts with my mom at home… Fresh vegetables, open air, good conversation.
We walked through as Dr. Sudhir aptly navigated the vendors, picking the cream of the crop from each one. At a certain point he executed the most skillful banana purchase I’ve ever seen. We walked past about 5 banana stands, then Dr. Sudhir did a double take. A moment later, he was examining a bouquet of bananas with as much care as he might a patient, feeling for bruises and identifying which pieces needed amputation. The vendor arrived from nowhere and they began to negotiate. Dr. Sudhir showed the man the unfit fruits and they took them off the bundle. The vendor complaining all the while. After 2 minutes the deal was settled, and we had a beautiful bunch of 10 perfectly spotten bananas, the last purchase at market.
Still, burned into my head is an image from behind the banana stand; a boy of perhaps 12 sitting before a bunch of potatos and onions, behind him a cycle-cart and a cow stood idly in a field of garbage, between them ran a drain of horrifying cloudy water. The goodness of life, the hardship of work, the refuse of civilization, and the Gai, the Hindu cow, the mother, all standing together in one frame, set against the skeletons of concrete skyrises.
In the car on the way home Dr. Sudhir and I indulged in some bananas. He explained that he and his wife are fully vegetarian. When we arrived at their place, a series of highrises that Dr. Sudhir referred to as a “society,” we ascended to the 26th floor where Mrs. Usha, Dr. Sudhir’s wife greeted us warmly at the door. Inside was an extremely clean, decorated living room with shrines of hindu Gods and a large statue of Ganesh.
The smell of spices rolled out into the living room from the kitchen. Mrs. Usha brought out some tea and we spoke for a while about the nature of my visit. That I am to be one of the team that will paddle down the Ganga with their daughter, a plan they seemed wholheartedly unimpressed with, they want her to be married and settle into a job.
I didn’t know what to say, I just nodded and appreciated my rich cup of black tea with ginger.
I bathed and rested before super, when Mrs. Usha brought out the first of what was to be a week full of masterpiece meals. Her passion for cooking and food was wonderful. She taught me about what was in each dish and told me a bit about Hinduism, about how now was the time to celebrate Ganesh, the elephant headed God. She told me that she had worked as a computer programmer for many years, but was now retired, taking care of the house and her family.
With each bite I took I could feel the care and time in the wonderful preparations. I felt relaxed from the maze of city that I had navigated all day, suddenly able to realize the immensity of India. 1.3 billion people and growing.
I wished at that moment, as Mrs. Usha delighted in Dr. Sudhir and my enjoyment of her food, that all the world could eat like I was eating, could steady to the masala dal and the fresh chapatis, could feel such calm after a day in the storm of the world.
que la vida no se puede vender?”
“When are you going to learn,
Man of paper?
When are you going to understand
That life cannot be sold?”
Those are the carefully crafted words of my dear friends Angela Valenzuela and Augustin Martz, written by the pair as they explored the role of music to encourage social change around climate, specifically around international climate negotiations. In their thoughtful words are the roots of frustration at the veil that sits between burgeoning humanity and the rich, delicate earth. Why must we buy and sell the things that give us life? Aren’t these our rights?
You can listen to their music here: https://m.soundcloud.com/earthinbrackets/hombre-de-papel
Part of a group of students from College of the Atlantic called Earth in Brackets or [E], Angela and Augustin wrote this song as they prepared to go to COP21, the “Conference of the Parties” in Paris in December 2015, when the Paris Agreement was written. The intent of [E] was to encourage the policy makers there to make sound and responsible decisions and to coalesce with a massive body of NGOs and social movements to seek the political atmosphere the globe needs to move towards a sustainable and just future.
Sharing a bit in this mission and the feelings that Angela and Augustin so passionately express, I attended World Water Week in Stockholm from August 28 to September 2, a conference specifically designed to discuss the role of water and sanitation in global environmental politics. The aim of the conference, hosted by the Stockholm International Water Institute is to bring together important voices who deal with water related issues from across the globe to create clear discourse and vision about what must be done to bring fresh drinking water and sanitation to everyone in economically viable ways, not to mention to encourage environmental justice, good science, and to promote creative projects.
The event was chock-full of people in suits and environmental NGOs trying to get their agendas across to the masses, bundles of young professionals networking, and ministers and officials from the world over. Behind all the rhetoric, I found it trying to figure out which groups were really doing the work they claimed and making strides towards the ideal world that was spoken about all week. Though water, along with air, is one of our most fundamental resources, it is no easy task to provide 7.25 billion people and growing with healthy water, good sanitation, and healthy environments.
Through my ignorance and naivety, my strong opinions and curiosities, I waded through the conference as if dipping my cup in the world’s water bodies, just getting a taste for what’s going on there. Ultimately I left feeling motivated and encouraged by the fact that even though water, the elixir of life, is abstracted, bought and sold, and manipulated by humanity, there are many, many people seeking real ways to make a better future for all of us.
I asked another friend of mine and integral member of [E], Aneesa Khan, if the group would like a report from the week. She said they would, so the rest of my entry will take it’s form as that report. I hope you enjoy. Please write me with concerns, questions, criticisms. Report from World Water Week, Stockholm, August 28-September 2, 2016
“Water for Sustainable Growth” — What are we talking about here?
“We need a circular economy,” a different model, one that defies the structures that our lawmakers are accustomed to. To achieve water security and sanitation, we need a model that will create self supporting systems, an economy based not on linear growth, but on natural cycles like that of water. This was the resounding message at the finale of World Water Week, spoken by Pablo Bereciartua, Argentina’s Undersecretary for Water Resources, and Torkil Jonch Clauser, of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) who hosted the event.
Bereciartua, Clauser, and myriad other speakers outlined the need for clear action to be taken in water and sanitation worldwide. In the last year, water and sanitation were finally given status as a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). SDG 6 states that by 2030 there must be access to clean drinking water and sanitation for all the world. But SDG status does not mean much without implementation, Bereciartua said “there is consensus on the issue but no course of action.” And to create actions that are economically feasible and can be implemented functionally is a major hurdle.
Before I go on, I will just say that “water” in this context generally applies to drinking water and water for agriculture, and “sanitation” applies to wastewater treatment, clean facilities, clean rivers, lakes, and aquifers, and so on.
During the opening plenary, Margot Wallstrom, Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs gave a grounding speech that lit upon the scale and complexity of achieving SDG 6; as a representative of Sweden’s “feminist government,” the first ever government proclaimed as such, Wallstrom highlighted the challenges that women face with water and sanitation, a preface to one of the keystone issues that was discussed during the week.
Wallstrom spoke of how one in four Indian girls drop out of school in 10th grade because of family and home duties, and many more have to skip school every time they have a period, missing up to a week each time. She explained that as many as 60% of women working in major textile factories in Bangladesh do not have access to proper, sanitary menstrual materials and had to use rags from the factory floor during their periods leading to enormous rates of illness and infection. This can be prevented, she said, and it is, already this situation is being addressed in Bangladesh, but there is so much to be done.
What Wallstrom struck on, to the quiet awe and recognition of the audience struck by the agency in her words, is one of the myriad examples of unbalanced consequences that result from water insecurity and unsanitary living conditions. That imbalance, between rich and poor, between genders, between regions of the world, is why water and sanitation present challenges that requires global collaboration. The majority of those most affected by water insecurity, poor sanitation, and resulting injustice are those with the least apparent power to make the needed changes. The mantra of the week looking towards these challenges was “implementation, implementation, implementation.”
India and Bangladesh were frequently used as examples, especially since Indian Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi was elected on a platform of environmental rejuvenation, in particular with his promises to clean the Ganges River and provide sanitation to all of India by 2019, an extremely ambitious goal. I am also in India now, preparing to travel along and learn about the Ganges River, so I went to many events focused on South Asia.
I attended a special session on Modi’s program Swachh Bharat, a national sanitation effort to encourage clean water and sanitation for all of India. Led by Parameshwaran Iyer, Secretary of India’s Drinking Water and Sanitation Department, a panel presented on the project and discussed the plans to make India ODF, open defecation free, by 2019. In India only 10% of wastewater is treated, the vast majority of India’s sewage flows unhindered into waterways, creating immense pollution that leads to water borne illness and ecological troubles.
Over 400 children below 5 years die per day in India of illness related to unsafe waters. The panel discussed the challenges of getting people to participate in Swachh Bharat. Efforts are well underway to provide toilets and facilities to villages over all of India, but the greatest stumbling block is getting people to use them. Just building a toilet isn’t enough. What is involved is a shift of culture and consciousness, which is consequently much more difficult to create than a new john. The Indian government provides various incentives such as a program to provide piped drinking water to any village that can prove that it has become ODF. These sorts of incentives are an important facet of implementation everywhere because sanitation generally requires a change in people’s ways of life, and we are creatures of habit.
The issue of changing practice was discussed in many seminars. At “Sigmund Freud: The Missing Link in Water and Sanitation?,” a panel of development officials and activists discussed held a creative forum to discuss ideas about how the understanding of the subconscious from psychoanalysis might be able to help those who work in sanitation. Using strategies to change thinking habits perhaps one can learn to motivate the sort of life-changes it requires to achieve sanitary living. At one point the group cleverly staged a conversation between a man and his poop, and the poop reminded the man of its value as a resource for fertilizing and contributing to a growing world (did someone say sustainable growth?). Jack Sim, “The Toilet Guy” who started the World Toilet Organization (yes, WTO, not to be confused with the world trade o), spoke about making toilets and sanitation sexy, making it more than fashionable, making it a trend, and thus creating the impetus for people to demand toilets and to use them effectively.
We all know that what follows a toilet is pee and poop and what to do with them. As those of us who know Lisa Bjerke and her work in “discarded resources” know, it’s key to treat “waste” not as waste, out of sight and out of mind, but as a valuable resource that can be utilized or minimized, upcycled in some way (If you don’t know Lisa’s work, watch her TEDx here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=p_06vYV9NuA). Part of Lisa’s message is also part of the point that the panelists wanted to make… Let’s make use of these resources in creative economical ways!
From what I learned speaking with scientists and engineers working in sanitation, the most promising way of treating excrement in places developing their sanitation services is some sort of biodigester or composting toilet. With these technologies, the solids become either methane gas that can be collected and used for cooking or they become useful, sanitary fertilizer in around five years and for things like forests it can be used even sooner after two or three years.
There is a lot of evidence from the field and science supporting composting toilets and biodigesters as sanitary, on site, and economical ways to make excrement into something readily useful. Though there is also evidence that they can cause groundwater pollution as the liquids seep out of the basins. I spoke to Nishita Sinha at her poster presentation “Experimental Studied in Developing Safe Sanitation Solutions.” As an 11th grader, Nishita was a runner for the Junior Water Prize during the week, and she devoted tremendous time and energy to finding cheap and accessible ways to filter the harmful materials out of the liquid waste in composting toilets. As the technology advances and the benefits are clear, the trouble is, how to get farmers on a large scale to use humanure? Any ideas?
I just learned that the Rich Earth Institute in Vermont partnered with the University of Michigan have gotten a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the potential to use urine for fertilizer on a large scale. They are honing the science and technology now and testing for the effect of pharmaceuticals and other contaminants in the urine. Check it out: http://ns.umich.edu/new/multimedia/videos/24172-a-3m-grant-to-turn-urine-into-food-crop-fertilizer
I won’t go further into wastewater treatment, but I will just point out one very good question that was proposed during the conversation between the man and his poo: why are humans the only terrestrial mammal that pumps our excrement into bodies of water?
The newly founded High Level Panel on Water was present at WWW for a series of meetings to discuss the group’s role in international water governance. The HLPW is a panel that was formed as a heads-of-state panel to advise UN bodies and federal governments who are making water-related decisions. In the seminar the HLPW delivered, which was the first of their efforts to communicate their work publicly, they asked for recommendations from the participants as to what they should focus on.
Resoundingly, it was clear that those present at World Water Week want the HLPW to make strong recommendations to international and national bodies in order to act quickly and diligently and make the success of SDG 6 a reality. Recommendations included using the frameworks from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a framework to head start work on the SDGs, and to serve as a checks and balances agent, making sure that the allocation of funds and the implementation that is happening is effective and well executed.
One of the best examples of why it is important to have proper implementation is hydropower. There were presentations about dams ranging from small sand-reservoir dams that provide just enough power for a few hundred villagers in Botswana, to those as large as the Three-Gorges Dam in China producing 18GW of power.
A real hot topic now is Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam, a 6GW project currently under construction on the Blue Nile, the largest tributary of the Nile River. Ethiopia’s government, managing a very water-stressed nation, is building the dam in hopes of creating major economic growth and new opportunities for the country in addition to having new water-storage capacity to provide for the thirsty nation. However, Sudan and Egypt are concerned with the outcome of this project, the Nile being the major water source for both nations. If the dam is poorly implemented there will be catastrophic outcomes for the nations downriver, including dramatic loss of riverflow, draught, and famine. Transboundary issues are some of the most contended in water governance, and in a number of seminars it was clear that international legal frameworks are challenged by lack of regulators, corruption, and unsatisfactory science and environmental impact statements.
This brings me to the final point that I will summarize from the conference: finance. Water projects are costly, but how do we pay for them? Charging for water is often discussed as a violation of human rights, but already, the world over, people are buying water all the time.The infrastructure to provide clean water access and effective treatment is a major cost, particularly to less wealthy nations, but if water and sanitation are in good shape, the potential for growth is enormous.
The figures vary widely, but in the UN’s “World Water Development Report 2016,” they estimate that up to 115bil USD could be saved if irrigation farming worldwide switches from flood irrigation to water-conserving technologies by 2030. In a report put forward by SIWI in 2005, “Making Water a Part of Economic Development,” they estimated that an 11bil USD investment in water infrastructure worldwide would have an 84bil USD return. The potential to create new opportunities across the world with improved water infrastructure and governance is tremendous, but it takes a strong initial investment, and where is the money? There were non-stop calls during the week for engagement on the part of the public sector, but also the private sector for investment in water.
I attended a seminar on the Jordan River where I learned of work that SIWI is doing with Ecopeace and the governments of Jordan, Israel, and Palestine to formulate a working plan for an investment package in the Jordan River valley that will turn a 4 billion dollar initial investment into a 75 billion dollar return by 2050 from agriculture, tourism, and other industries. It all may sound well and good, but in a region with unstable political relations and potential drought at any time, the risks to investment are significant, not to mention that the initial investors must make inglorious payments for things like wastewater treatment facilities.
With all of that considered, the group presented a compelling model that allows for investor mobility and strong public-private partnerships to get the brunt work investments made like the infrastructure projects in order to get to things like promoting a vibrant tourist industry, growing recreation, agriculture, and industry. The best part is that one of the pillars of the plan is to insure the sustained health of the Jordan River, one of the world’s most threatened waterways. This is a big step for a region that had no water in its river in 2009.
This project exemplifies the potential for water to be a unifying factor rather than a dividing force. With patience and careful planning SIWI and Ecopeace created a model that might be an impetus for areas in many places to structure investment models that can promote sustainable economic growth with an environmental priority. That sort of innovation, we can expect, will become more and more common as population growth and pressure on water increase.
At the close of the week, Dr. Abdeladim Lhafi, the High Commissioner for COP22 in Marrakesh said that water and sanitation would be dedicated one day at the conference. As we look forward to that and what else is to come, it is evermore important that we see water as a nexus point where the expanse of environmental indicators comes together, where the whole earth is tied together in the water cycle, where health meets agriculture meets energy meets pollution meets fisheries, meets, well, a goose.
It can leave a bitter taste to address such staggering figures and difficult challenges, let alone to put a price to water, a most poetic fluid that makes life possible for all of us. The issues in water are often elementary; we are not sending someone to mars, engineering lab-grown beef patties, or creating cars that drive themselves, we are providing comfortable, clean places to go relieve ourselves, turning excrement into food, ensuring that rivers are not overrun with industrial sludge or dammed to oblivion. What is truly sweet is a good glass of water, an enjoyable poop, carrots and hummus (especially grown from pee fertilizer), and a swim.
The work goes on!
SIWI. 2005. “Making Water a Part of Economic Development: The Economic Benefits of Improved Water Management and Services.”
SIWI. “2016 Finalists, Stockholm Junior Water Prize.”
It’s late evening, and outside the rippled glass of a 1920s window, the water of the Torne River burns orange, mirroring the northwestern sunset sky as if to suggest that here, above the arctic circle, the river will do anything it can to keep ahold of that trailing warm sky and the summer it promises. The boreal forest that humbly extends from the riverbanks far into the distance harbors a silence that I can feel all the way into my center, a silence that I nearly forgot existed while in the bustle of London. As I stood on the riverbank this evening admiring the endless redshot sky, I listened to a car, a single car, trail away to the north. I must have listened for 10 minutes, and the car didn’t seem to become any quieter, as if moving in eternity, just next to me. Then all of a sudden, silence again.
As I walked back to the house, two swans glided in over the Torne, spreading their wings in unison and plonking into the water. They trumpeted and made screeching sounds that echoed off the village of Junosuando. I wonder if the swans were confused by their echoes. “Hey, stop copying me. Hey, stop copying me.” “MEAEAAAAAAAAA. MEAEAAAAAAAAAA.” For all the fuss about how elegant swans are, they seem to me like somewhat clumsy birds, quite fun to watch, and not living up to the expectations of tranquil eloquent beauty. Or maybe the swans in Junosuando are just glad for the low key Swedish countryside, glad that there aren’t hordes of people watching them from the pond shore in St. James Park where they have to be composed for the queen of England. The swans travel through Junosuando on their migration north to their arctic breeding grounds, and now they are passing by on the return trip south. Though it’s still August, autumn is in the air here, and some of the aspens are already quaking yellow.
Before I get on too much to Junosuando and the Torne, I’d like to say a few more things about London.
On the last day of my stay, a man came to the flat to replace the unit that monitors use of electricity and gas. The old one was acting up, so this guy from the utility came with a new doodad to install. He did the whole thing, and I was impressed by how professional he was–also quite friendly and willing to respond to my curiosities. When I asked him if there are water monitors in London, he said no.
I thought to myself, how can a city of 20 million people, or whatever the gargantuan figure, make it by without monitoring their water? They’ll dry up the Thames! I thought of the sad sight of London with a dry riverbed, bridges standing for nothing, sub-river tunnels losing their impressive stature.
But obviously the Thames has plenty of water, wide tidal river that it is, and I suppose it rains a lot in Great Britain. Water isn’t a woe there like it is back in New Mexico where I grew up or other exceedingly dry places. Gas and electricity must be a relatively scarce and expensive resource in London, both worthy of a monitor that will tell you every instant how much you are using, while water is not valuable in the same sense, sure water is fundamental, but a set fee for Londoners and that’s enough, no need to measure.
To learn more, I wrote a number of emails and made calls to the Water Utility asking them if I could come and tour their facilities. They finally wrote back, after I had already left London, to say that absolutely not, I couldn’t visit and that a high level of security clearance is required to enter. Quote,
“Dear Mr Hecht
Thank you for taking the time to write to us, to enquire about a visit to one of our treatment sites this week.
I’m sorry, but we’re unable to allow unauthorised personnel to visit our sites/premises, due to security reasons.”
It’s not Scotland Yard! I wanted to write back.
Even when abundant Like it is in Britain, water is so valuable–a fundamental source of life, civilization fuel, the fire in the furnace making the city to work, move, live. Imagine if somebody got into the London Water treatment facility, where they clean the poo and plastic, bacteria and industrial effluents out of the Thames water to make it safe for drinking, and dumped a packet of a top-secret pathogen into the system. Out of every tap in the hundreds of thousands of homes and offices and banks and hip pizza joints and cafes would come something horrible, something that looked like water but would turn even the most stylish young handsome hep-cat into a geezer wearing worn out and smelly sweat-shorts with a combover, a wizard hat, crocks and socks, and bad breath… Some chemical…. It would turn London into zombie-geezerville in a matter of days!! This is scary, the state of water for so many people is serious business, sanitation isn’t an obvious ordeal. Hot or cold, like it or not, water is life, and what could we value more than life?
Someday, maybe even very soon, London will have nice guys in uniforms installing fancy water monitors in every house.
At the end of London, I felt great about meeting the GangesSUP gang and connecting with lots of people over water issues there and in India. My main triumph was to have preparations in place for travelling India, and I even took my first online Hindi class with my new tutor Ruchir from Alahabad who is fantastic, and has already taught me the Devnagari script and a bit of grammar in just five skype lessons.
I left London through a maze of Duty Free shops and a confusing puzzle of terminals at Stansted Airport. I arrived in Sweden to a cozy hostel where I stayed the night in Stockholm. The next day I visited the travel agency responsible for providing Indian travel Visas and then set off for an overnight journey by train from the south of Sweden along the Gulf of Bothnia then inland towards the northern border with Norway. I was in a cabin with four dutch guys a and a German man, all of whom were heading off for vacations to trek in a national park called Abisko, near Tornetrask, a big lake that is the headwaters of the Torne River. They had bought a stuffed cow and beaver as camping pillows, who I also befriended.
Sleeping in the train was surprisingly comfortable, and I got off in Kiruna, a small mining city at 67-some degrees north, ready to go. For the first time, I breathed the crisp, humid air from north of the arctic circle.
After watching hours and hours of trees go by on the train, expecting to arrive in tundra at some point, I was surprised in Kiruna to find so many trees. It didn’t feel so arctic, even though just a month and a half ago there were three weeks of midnight sun. Were I to be in central Canada, it would surely be witness to a different scene with few trees and plenty of permafrost supporting an arctic tundra. Here the gulf stream brings warm air across the Atlantic that heats up the atmosphere of Scandinavia, so it is warmer and more forgiving here than at comparable latitudes in Alaska, Siberia, Greenland, and Canada.
I took a bus from Kiruna to the quaint village of Junosuando where I am now, staying in the wonderful and well-set Junosuando Guest House, just 50 meters from the Torne Riverbank.
When I arrived a kind man with a flash of blond hair and a quiet grin ushered me into the big white house right across the road from where the bus left me. We exchanged few words as he showed me around the guesthouse, but I felt welcome in the warm and cozy place. This was Mikael. He and his wife Maya run the Junosuando Guesthouse and a winter wilderness retreat. They are one of the few families here in Junosuando, a town of 350.
Mikael took me up to meet Maya and their three daughters in the house just down the road. Sonya who is the youngest, Sita in the middle, and Uma is the oldest who just started 8th grade. Last year my friend Lily helped Mikael and Maya around the house and with their girls, and she made the connection which led to my very fortunate arrangements in Junosuando.
I explained to Mikael and Maya that the central theme of my year is to study rivers, the people who live around them and the geographies they are a part of, that I want to learn more about what the future of water might look like in the world. At first Mikael seemed skeptical. A carpenter and obviously a very practical man, my anthropocentric and slightly academic ideas might have seemed a bit unfounded, or perhaps he was wondering why I had come to one of the most water-rich areas of the planet to study such a topic. Maya was quietly supportive, and they offered any help they could give with my project.
One of the first things I noticed when I got to Kiruna was a sticker that said, “Refugees welcome. Bring your families.” It was really touching, and as I walked around the city I saw maybe 50 of them, giving me both a sense of generosity, but also of something discomfiting. In the warmth of the welcome sticker, something much darker is suggested. I asked Maya and Mikael about the refugees, and they told me that just last year 50 refugees, mainly from Iraq and Afghanistan came to Junosuando. They arrived in November. Can you imagine? To arrive after such a journey–leaving your home and friends and place of birth, a temperate land with diurnal rhythms, making the often dangerous, gruelling, uncertain journey through unknown lands, navigating the harsh, competitive bureaucracies that confront running peoples with obstacle after obstacle, and then you arrive in a town of 350 people, north of the arctic circle just as the sun sets for winter. Some darkness.
I wondered deeply how these refugees found Junosuando, and how they were doing settling in. I learned some through Mikael and Maya and the girls. They told me that the refugees are still waiting to gain status, that the parents are trying to figure out work and so forth and that the kids are lively and learning Swedish and making well with the Junosuando community. I learned a very small bit from watching Muhammad, a gentle and kind Afghani man who is helping Mikael with carpentry work and who went fishing with us, but because I don’t speak Swedish or any languages from Iraq and Afghanistan and I didn’t meet a refugee with any English, I didn’t get many insights.
While thinking so much about the dynamics of watersheds, I was struck with the intimacy of another movement: the river of people moving out of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria, and so much of North Africa, a humanshed of immensity that I have not begun to understand that demands a global effort to handle, and the patient, accommodating generosity of countries, cultures, and families everywhere.
From a headwater in the center of civilization
From the heart of the valleys that gave life
To the first modern humans
Comes a tidal wave of runners– people fleeing
Escaping a reality that my imagination cannot recreate
A river 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, 3% nitrogen,
I spent quite a bit of time studying while in Junosuando, reading the international agreement signed by Sweden, Finland, and Norway that ensures the Torne will remain undammed unless all the nations agree to develop hydropower on it. That the nations must routinely check the water quality to ensure that a minimal amount of mine tailings and other harmful effluents remain in extremely low concentration in the waters. This agreement seems very proactive, and in a general context it is… Few places on earth have enough flowing freshwater and few enough people that such a large river can have a straightforward bilateral agreement to remain undammed and to be conserved on the grounds of ecological health. The Scandinavian arctic is a water-privileged place with a very small population, and they clearly value the rich and diverse arctic environment that the free Torne river supports for fish, birds, and many terrestrial mammals.
Of course, I didn’t spend all my time cooped up reading. I went on many walks in the woods and along the river, and Mikael made it a point to get out onto the land and onto the river with me during my stay.
Peaking out of the rushes
I saw the transom of a wooden boat
A long dark-stained riverboat
Sharp against the water illuminated with sunset
I sat mid-keel as Mikael pushed us over the glassy river
I watched the ducks fishing easy by shore
Swans casting snowy waves
Their plumage feflected in the river
As though balanced on the fold
between two worlds
Following the line of the river,
Weaving in and out of forest,
The boat resembled a needle
Threading ripples over the surface
Binding us to the waters
A part of the slow parade
In a free river
Towards the sea
The days in Junosuando were punctuated with fishing trips, blueberry gathering, foraging mushrooms. I learned that Junosuando is located right after a major bifurcation in the river, the second largest river bifurcation in the world. At the point where the river splits nearly perfectly in half, extends a triad of three enormously wide rivers, each large enough to stretch the imagination and believe that this massive pool is really a lake with divergent and confusing currents. The capacity of the earth to hold so much water amazed me here, and I imagined the intense weight if the water, what if it just broke through? I watched Mikael take a sup right out of the Torne over the gunwhale of the boat.
Off the boat, I continued to be impressed by the load of water the land supports. Everywhere are bogs, and where the earth isn’t blanketed in spagnum, it is host to other mosses and liverwarts and blueberries, cloudberries, crowberries, winterberries.
From Junosuando I got to engage with the arctic nature in an intimate way, learning about the species that live here and trying to come to grips with the fact that for a better part of 8 months, this place is in what most anybody would call winter.
I am reading Barry Lopez’s book, Arctic Dreams, a stunning and engaging look into the northern part of earth. The emphasis on natural history and wildlife biology is stoking my already deep appetite to learn more about the north, how the creatures and plants and people of these high reaches live and adapt to a climate so unfamiliar to me, to spend a winter in the north someday, to take a while to do as the ice bears do: “Gathering ground to themselves. Navigating. Wandering with purpose.”
Unfortunately, but not regrettably, this journey into the arctic is the shortest of my Watson wanderings across the broad earth. I am soon to be back in Stockholm at World Water Week, before making my way to the headwaters of the Ganga River at the foot of the Himalayas. I have every intention of returning to the far north. Next time I want to feel the breadth of 24 hours of summer sun, to watch the migrations of myriad creatures south, to feel packice shift under my feet, and to ski through the forest or across the tundra on moonlit winter days.
At the headwaters of western civilization
The royal guards protecting the queen
Redcoat tall-capped and comic watch
A pool of power trailing the black suits
Striding down London avenues
The Thames admiring the scene
A river in continuity – fluid as time
Flowing to and fro with the tides
Witness to the aging kingdom
Senescent is the city
Ageless, the waters
Bridging then and now
An artery to culture
A force of life
In this Britain
Blood of Londontown
Here I am in London. It’s quite a place. There is a peculiar sensation that comes when one at last visits a place seen all through childhood, an iconic scape: land or city; water, sound, or river. It’s like suddenly realizing a dream. “Oh, this is it,” I thought, running over the westminster bridge towards the Big Ben Bell Tower, “Hm, that’s where she lives,” weaving in and out of the tourists at Buckingham Palace.
After a short stay in the water-rich city of Bergen, Norway, which served mostly as a planning stop, I arrived in London. I came here to meet a group of wild-sides with a plan to Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) the Ganges River, source to sea. This is a fantastical plan, in many ways absurd, but possible.
Shilpika is the strong face and founder of the expedition. She is from New Delhi and worked as an investment banker in London for years. She had a change of mind a year ago and decided to start a new intentional life. She is returning to her roots with a purpose. Spike brings adventure into the picture as an experienced mountain guide. With loads of expeditions under his belt he has the expertise necessary for such an ambitious undertaking. Pascal is an aspiring environmentalist who is writing his dissertation now in Environmental Policy, focused on the role that plastic pollution, specifically microplastics have in riverine and oceanic environments and how to improve the situation.
The three call themselves Ganges SUP, and together they are planning the trip and working out the masses of logistics required to undertake a gruelling, dangerous, and ambitious journey. At the center they are undertaking the trip to raise awareness about the tremendous pollution that is severely impacting the Ganges, from untreated sewage to industrial effluents including heavy metals to partially cremated bodies. Their ideal is to bring a positive dialogue to the issues and to encourage the sort of positive changes that will make life around the Ganges more sustainable long into the future.
I decided to come and visit this group for two reasons; one is that I plan on travelling down the Ganges myself, both by water and land as an exercise in poetic cartography. I wanted to see if Ganges SUP and I could partner in some ways to support one another on our respective adventures. Second I wanted to get to know them and learn more about their mission to promote a more sustainable future for the river. Is this really a crew I want to get on with? Are they just loonies (I’m getting my British vocab on) or is this really an authentic trip?
Having been here some days now, I admire Ganges SUP very much. The three come from very diverse backgrounds and they all seem genuinely dedicated to this project. I attended a variety of events with them over the last few days including a YES tribe presentation, where adventure enthusiasts present on adventures they have said YES to and gone for it. It was an inspiring story.
A tangent there – after hearing from a couple of runners, one who ran some 1500 miles of the coast of New Zealand and her partner who ran across Canada (the rockies in the winter!!!!), I was inspired to take a fun trip of my own. A much more humble but entertaining morning adventure. I decided to run from the flat where I am staying into london along the Thames crossing every bridge to really get a sense for the urban river. I had some fun and took a few selfies… I guess I’m on that train now… The lone traveler with his iPhone.
On Wednesday we spent the whole day filming a video for their crowdfunding website. Their friend Ross Fairgrieve, an aspiring environmental filmmaker, did the directing, and it was great for me (a novice moviemaker) to see a more professional person in action. I learned a lot and felt helpful. I also got to see just how dedicated these folks are to their project. It’s an impressive undertaking.
Yesterday, Thursday, I got to go with Shilpi and Spike to Wateraid, and enormous non-profit that is working to encourage freshwater access and development all over the world including in India. This is a big organization. They work in over 30 countries and have a really wide variety of projects adapted to local issues. As charities run, this is one of the big ones. If you google, “India Water NGO,” Wateraid is usually first.
We met with a high-up in the organization and he gave a soundbite on video for the crowdfunding video. I was really impressed with how candid, informed, and friendly he was, and he seems to have a real passion for the issues.
I was reminded there that the Ganges waters 450,000,000 peoples and also has over 150x the amount of acceptable fecal coliform in the river. I am very glad to be meeting these informed and converned people and seeing what this sliver in the world of water development looks like.
After the meeting, Shilpi, Spike, and I sat down and hashed out my involvement a bit. I had been up and down about whether or not I wanted to join, because I don’t want to commit too heavily to an expedition when my intent is to live and learn in an immersive environment. The Watson Foundation encourages me to maintain my independence and to avoid travelling much with other travellers and expats.
I told them that my ideal would be to spend limited time actually with them on the river, but to travel more independently, sometimes on land in their support vehicle, sometimes by water, and perhaps take offshoots from the route to do my own fieldwork. I also said that I need to have flexibility and that I might not continue past Varanasi. This way I could support them by making water, food, and gear deliveries with the support vehicle, while also engaging with the local communities along the way. Since travelling by land can be quicker, I want to have ample time to do interviews with laypeople and officials along the way and to make time to be immersed and learn Hindi and so on.
After the journey with them, I will be a much more savvy traveller in India, and that is the ideal.
Shilpi and Spike liked the sound of this, and I got the feeling that we could have a really reciprocal relationship along the river. I was encouraged by their openess to my own plans and, YES, in a tough circumstance, it’s good to have friends around for support, on the river, or above the bank. I think we all feel good.
Thank you dearly for reading and following the adventures. I am heading back up north to Sweden and the Torne river in a weeks time and then it’s down to Stockholm’s World Water Week starting on August 28.
I stare at the worldmap
A microcosm of life
Meandering river valleys
Pilgrims to paddlers
Movement, it defines us
Spheres of life intersecting
Waves lapping the riverbank