Fireworks & Toilet College

Thick with boom and bang

Fireworks paint the town


Marigolds dance in storefronts

Children shout 

As one chucks his little ball of paper

Which erupts in a dazzling flash

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

An offering

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

Small altars

Incense air

Down to the confluence

Where the Ganges begins
All around

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
Everyone flinched

The sound deafening as

The seam of my board 

Burst open
The sinking

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. 

The river

It has only the logic of least resistance

This meandering 

It follows no pattern I can discern

But snow to sea

And in between

Flat flat flat

Bend and break




Cities and people

Always becoming water


Gharwal – Headwaters

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.

Stoic face

A whitecap star 

An earthen star

Gravity enough

To spark our spirit

To incite our mythology

To risk all

And climb up

For an instant

In space

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.” 

photo by shilps

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. 
Many minds

A harmony

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 confused

One content

One open

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

Quarterly Letter 1

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…
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.

GangaJal for Sale

In the orange
It’s in the orange
It’s the red
Sun red
Passing behind

Matchstick Delhi
Behind the apartments

With scraggly rebar hair

Workers pounding rocks

Pouring rocks
It’s the orange

The red

The bhindi

Drawing my eyes

Towards the center

Of a woman’s forehead

A red mark of life

Marriage too

I am told
It’s the orange

The redolent

Food carts

Broadcasting flavor 

Into the city

Flushing cheeks

Filling bellies
It’s the red

It’s the orange

That makes a

Green-black river

Burst when

The Puja fire

Is set afloat
It’s the red

It’s the orange

The life
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. 

Blog at

Up ↑