Gaumokh the cows mouth
Head of a river cold new
Nearly in the clouds
“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.
Unsettled by the void of language
Seated by the confluence of two mountain rivers
In awe of the power
I look up
So many others in the same way
Silent by union and movement