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Monday, March 17, 2014

Nero's backpacking through South East Asia : The Prologue

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A year ago when I left for my first solo trip to Europe, I knew a few things that I wanted to do. First and foremost, I was going to run with the bulls in Spain. Second, I would stay with Couchsurfers and not in hotels. Third, I would not pre-book any internal transport. And fourth, I would not speak to anyone in India while I was away.

The first motivated the whole trip. The second came about because one understands a city better when one travels with a local. Else, we end up doing touristy things. The third was to ensure that I was completely flexible and could change plans any time. And the fourth, so that I would have to stay out of my comfort zone even when I felt compelled to fall back on it.

What I did not know then when I sat on the plane to Barcelona was that I would fall right under a bull during the race. That when I was in Italy, I’d change a lot of my plans, and head for Croatia. That one night I would have no place to stay and would camp in a forest, and would come face to face with a bear.

That when I came back to India, I would not look for a full-time job.

It’s been nine months since that trip, and life, well life has changed in some ways and not in some others. 

Nine months since that unusual month of 2013, I embark on another month-long solo trip – this time through South East Asia.  Geographically, the idea is to cover Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. If you look at the map, one can almost draw a circular (alright, maybe oval) route around these countries. The rough plan is to start and end the journey at Bangkok. 

From Bangkok,   I’d probably head to the southern islands (the only part that falls completely off-route) of Phuket and Krabi for some sea kayaking, rock climbing and canoeing through caves and mangrove forests.  Then, I move up north towards Chiang Mai, where the plan is to trek for three days through some forests and waterfalls and spend one night with an ancient hill tribe. Once in life, we must all quietly sit and smilingly stare at an old man of an old tribe, as he smokes on a mountain.

Once back in Chiang Mai, I’ll take the slow boat to Laos.  The very idea of just sitting on a rickety motor boat, with its paint half peeled off, and slowly chugging along on a river sounds extremely seductive to the writer in me.  Hopefully, it would hold more power over me than the giant mosquitoes and insects that hover about. The Mekong river, on which we shall set sail, is the 12th largest river in the world, and for Laos – a country full of mountainous terrain, the river is the principal transport.  It also flows through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.  There is a point in the river where Burma, Laos and Thailand meet and it is known as the Golden Triangle area. More famous for rampant drug production, it is an area I won’t be seeing on this trip. In my shallow imagination, I see restless men lurking between forested trees, some patrolling with guns, some hurrying with wooden crates.

The route from the Thai border to Luang Prabang where the boat docks, is supposed to be naturally stunning and that shall probably have to compensate for any sting operations I was conducting in my dreams in the Golden Triangle.

Back to our docking point. Luang Prabang used to be the capital of Laos till the communists took over. Now, it is a charming city full of provincial French buildings, wooden houses and smiling monks. Must walk on the streets and try some authentic Laotian food.

The city’s close to the Vietnam border and hopefully I’ll get a fast bus to Hanoi. In Vietnam, a group of college kids have promised to show me around their city, should I teach them a bit of Bollywood dancing. Then, a girl who’s studying English literature in university wants to take me to her home, which is in a small town, so that she can talk in English with me and show off her skills to her family.  I shall probably miss out on her brother’s wedding which is in April. Damn bad luck, it would have been so nice to see a Vietnamese marriage.

There are so many plans, and I do not really know how many will materialize. I mailed a couple of animal organizations in Cambodia and Borneo, asking if they would let me volunteer with elephants and orangutans. All of them charge high fees from the volunteers so that looks quite unlikely.  Then, a village school in interior Cambodia replied to me and said that they would like it if I could come and spend some time with the kids. I have no idea what I shall tell them, maybe to chase their dreams.

A year ago, when I left for Europe, I knew a few things. First, that I wanted to actually do some of the things I put on a bucket list. That, I would write about those stories when I would get back. That I would make a few more friends.

What I did not know then was that nine months later, I would want the same things still.

-----  The End  ------

Now Read:

1) Nero goes to Spain
2) The Sikkim Bhutan Series: Prologue
3) The Mahindra Adventures: Prologue

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Ganga Kayak Festival: A Racy Affair

Top post on, the community of Indian Bloggers

Somewhere a clock strikes twelve. I don’t hear it as I stand next to the door of my train compartment. It is dark. In the rhythmic movement of the train, in the silence of the bogeys, a hundred questions ring in my head. It’s been 9 months since I quit my job. Does all this travelling really make sense? In my childish desire to wander, am I putting too much at stake, am I drifting? Would it be better to go back and work in an office space?

I push my head outside the door, and let the wind hit my face. As my eyes close, so does my mind.

Next morning, I reach Haridwar railway station at 8 am. I am now even more restless than the previous night. The train’s late by 2 hours. By this time, I was supposed to be in Rishikesh, at the meeting point in Tapovan. A shuttle was supposed to transfer me from the prefixed point to the event area. Now, I will have to find my own way to get there. I wonder if I should have come on the trip in the first place. The previous night’s questions are still preying on my mind.
I am not used to doubting myself. As close and exasperated friends would testify “He is too deluded and narcissistic for that.”

I finally reach the event area at 10 am, hunched up in a Bolero with a group of musicians. In front of me lies the Ganga, flowing furiously and shimmering turquoise green.

A huge banner proclaims ‘Welcome to the 2nd Edition of the Ganga Kayak Festival’

I walk up a narrow path, to the top of a hillock and meet Jennifer – the friendly event organizer. Later I am introduced to Anil, who is from The Outdoor Journal - one of my favourite adventure magazines.

As we talk, the wind hits my face again. This time I do not close my eyes.

Anil and I walk down to the river and stand with the kayakers. There are over 50 of them.  The large majority are Indians, but  4-5 have also come down from UK, Canada and Norway. The Nepali team is a serious threat in the competition.

Already, I can feel the change inside me. I can’t stop feeling happy. Here, in front of me, are men I do not know at all, men I haven’t seen or heard of ever, but like. I look at them, at their brown burnt faces, and it speaks of the amount of time they have spent under the sun. I look at their forearms and it speaks of all the rowing they have done over the years.

A lot of the Indian kayakers are from Uttarakhand, Himachal and Ladakh. They all look like boys. I am standing with India and Nepal’s top kayakers and they are all boys. Most of them work as rafting guides. I have a feeling they aren’t bathing in money. Kayaking is still a nascent sport in India. Maybe it isn’t even looked at as a sport yet, more as a hobby or an adventure activity. The Ganga Kayak Festival wants to change that notion.

It is the brainchild of the well built Bhupendra Singh Rana or ‘Bhupi’ as the local community lovingly call him. An expert kayaker himself, Bhupi has kayaked in the White Nile in Uganda, in Austria and other parts of Europe, and all over India. It is now his burning desire that kayaking gets better recognition in India, that kayakers get more opportunities, that they can stand up to international competition, and eventually the sport gets Olympic representation from India.

Once the opening ceremony is done with, the kayakers move towards the banks. There are flags at the starting point and the end point of the race, and they will all go into the river one by one. The winner will be decided based on timing.

A spectator table has been set up on the hillock for people to get a birds eye view of the race. The commentator announces the name of the first kayaker, and the lad is ready and sitting in his kayak on the top of a ramp. When he hears the ‘Go’ command, he pushes the kayak and it slides down the twelve foot ramp, into the water. With fast strokes, he speeds and steers his kayak towards the rapids. Everyone cheers. Some of the kayakers are screaming out advice to him. He cannot hear them over the roar of the Ganga, but they try anyway. This is sport at its purest.

One by one, the kayakers step into the water.  Here at the Golf Course stretch of the river, the rapids are quite powerful and it is a tricky business to manoeuvre through them. A few kayaks unbalance in the rapids, and overturn. But the kayakers roll over within seconds and continue paddling furiously to the finish line.

A little later, Anil and I walk along the bank. There are a number of rocks that are jutting out into the river, and end very close to the rapids, so the two of us hasten in that direction. We spend the next hour, near this curve, sitting on some rocks right next to the rapids, watching the river swirl, dip, roar and overwhelm. We watch the kayakers come towards us, and as they weave and toss through the rapids, our knees, our muscles, our arms twitch with anticipation. I know when I look at Anil, that he loves the outdoors just as much as I do, that there lies a sportsman in him, that if given a chance he would love to get into a kayak and battle the river. I know it, because I feel the exact same way.

Rahul Talwar Photography
I am introduced to Tipu, a mountain climbing guide. Sitting next to him is another boy, ‘Tony’. Anil tells me that Tony is the coach of the national climbing team. I stare in disbelief. He looks like a wiry kid. He looks so normal. A writer could not have put the previous sentence in a more crude way. Nor more honestly.

I talk to them for a while and then clamber over the rocks till I reach and sit over the rock right in the front.  One wrong step, and I shall fall right into the rapids. I can see it swirl below me.  But I am overwhelmed.  The river is so green and cold. The mountain air so pleasant.
It is a Wednesday afternoon. Every single person I know is sitting in an office. I realize now that I couldn’t be all that wrong.  That maybe this is how I want to live my Wednesdays and other days, in the outdoors, near a river, a mountain, an ocean, in the company of people like Tipu and Tony.

Around 4 pm, Anil and I ask Jennifer the route to our camp. We are staying at the Elephant Brook Resort camp. Behind the hillock where the commentators, the staging table, the volunteer tent is set up, a shallow stream flows between two hills. Jen tells us that if we walk along the stream, we shall eventually reach the resort after 2 kms.

Anil and I scramble over the rocks. The route is pretty. Brambles come up routinely as obstacles. So does a huge family of langurs along the way. As we plod one, there are a few horses grazing on the opposite bank. They trot across the water to our side, and I run my hands over one’s skin. We walk on, and a light drizzle starts. Sometime later, we reach the resort.

In the night, I sit with Tipu, Tony, the Outdoor Journal guys and a few kayakers. It is cold and I am cursing myself for carrying only one sweater. A bottle of rum is being passed around and we are taking large swigs. A bird sings loudly somewhere in the mountains, and one of the men identifies it for us. These men have lived so close to nature.

It is getting late. Tomorrow is the second (and last) day of the festival. There will be the mass boater cross, beginners’ and women’s races held on this day. One of the girls participating is only 14 years old.

There is a concert. Everybody is drinking and dancing. Even the bemused Brits and Canadians try to shake a leg. Bhupi is going berserk, dancing in the centre of a large gang. He sees me and waves madly. I smile back. Later, I step outside the tent and walk to one end of the camp to stare at the stream, at the mountains.

Somewhere a clock strikes twelve. I don’t hear it. It is dark. A hundred thoughts run in my head. Its been 9 months since I left my job. How less I have seen of the world, how innocent these people - these part time athletes part time rafting guides are, how we need many more events like the Ganga Kayak Festival, and how many stars there are in the sky here.

I let the wind hit my face.  The Ganga flows as it always did, and the mountains look over it as they always do. 

--------------   The End -----------

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