Learnings from the first week

Slow Boat Down the Ganges Update 32

I am on the most ambitious expedition of my life. I have never ever attempted something as big as A SLOW BOAT DOWN THE GANGES. Moreover, I am no paddler, even though I have rafted for many years. When rafting, there is a guide who is doing most of the work, with the rest of the people on the raft merely there for a ride. The safety of each person on the raft rests on the hope that the guide knows what he is doing. Like I said, I am no river guide, and I do not know how to read the signs sent by the rippling waters. Here I was responsible for me and myself, along with the person sitting on the canoe with me, whether Sam or Tara. That is a huge responsibility and I was learning as I went along. Stupid, many people will certainly opine, but there is only one way to learn how to swim ... get thrown into the deep end.

A couple of years ago I had thought I was the cat’s whiskers, ended up constructing a boat out of PVC pipes with the hope of paddling the Ganges waters. A few kilometres down, I realised what a bad idea it was and promptly gave up the idea. That thought was right up there, floating on the surface, just prior to launching this expedition.

People who know me had major worries. I am not the fittest person in the world, and they worried that after all the back-end work that had already gone behind this expedition, my body would just not be able to cope up with the rigours that this journey was sure to entail. I had the same doubts myself.

To be quite honest, I am quite impressed with myself, given the experience of the first week. To be honest, I did not know whether I would be able to cope with the physical demand, I did not know whether I would be able to control the canoe on the water, I did not know whether thirst, hunger and fatigue would get the better of me or not. Somehow things started falling in place, and more than 200 km of the expedition has been successfully completed. Just over a couple of thousand more kilometres to go!

There have been a load of learnings. Things I had no clue about, or only had theoretical knowledge as of now, was turning into practical knowledge. I suspect by the time this expedition is over, I will become a veteran of river running, at least on flat water.

Here are some of the things that I have learned since the expedition started. For more experienced paddlers, many of these learnings might seem elementary, but for a novice like me, these are huge milestones.

1. Capabilities

The most important learning on the personal front has been the fact that one should never underestimate personal capabilities. Anything audacious is difficult by definition, many would say impossible and foolhardy. But if the mind is in the right place, and one knows what one is capable of, the boundaries can be extended, the envelope can be pushed, and the limits of possibilities suddenly expand. Like I said, I had no idea that I would be able to do what I have already done, and managed it through sheer grit and dogged determination. It has not been easy, the arms often felt like they were falling off their sockets, the wrist has been injured, dehydration has been an issue, but I have managed an average of around forty kilometres a day.

Knowing what one is capable of, and trying to surpass it, is the bedrock of any achievement. It is very easy to give up, looking at the sheer madness of the intended task at hand. But persevering is what life is all about and only when one pushes beyond the limit of conscious possibilities, that the achievements take on even greater meaning.

For me, what I am trying to do is to push my personal limits. I keep saying that life begins at fifty, and there is no reason why one should just give up on life, sit back, retire to the comfort of a recliner, live a relatively sedentary life, and wait for old age to creep in. As long as I am fit and healthy, and know and accept what my mind and body is capable of, I can at least attempt to do wonders, regardless of what I am told. Failure is a reality that one will be confronted with often. The fear of failure is what prevents many people from pushing the limits.

Will this expedition be a success? I do not know. I already have a setback in terms of the wrist injury. But I know I will go back on the water and push on. But if things get really nasty on the health front, I will abort. Will that be a failure? Not in my mind. At least I will know that I have tried my best and the failure is not due to the lack of any effort.

It is said that one cannot teach an old dog new tricks. For anyone out there who is not as old a dog as I am, kindly learn some new tricks. There is a wonderful world out there, and it is up to each and every one of you to take advantage of revelling, experiencing and enjoying the many wonders. Push the limits, know your capabilities, and exceed them. If you walk on other people’s footsteps, you will not leave any of your own. And life is not a spectator sport. Each of us has had people who have inspired us, it is time that we do our bit so that some people can get inspired by what we have attempted and achieved.

2. Bite-sized milestones

When I was much younger, many decades ago, my father, a General, used to tell me that I needed to be a Captain before I could hope to be a General. This advice was something that I invariably missed and I was always in a hurry to reach the goal that I could visualise.

However, with advancing age comes maturity, and I think my father would be glad that I am now walking the path of the slow and steady, by etching bite-sized milestones, instead of focussing primarily on the grand prize at the end of the proverbial rainbow.

For instance, I have learned not to look at the target of forty or fifty or sixty kilometres each day. What I do is select a distant landmark and aim for that. This also gives me an opportunity to learn to estimate distances more accurately. I see a sole tree in the distance, estimate how far it is, look at my GPS and head for it. When I reach it, I look at my GPS to see how right or wrong I am. Over the past few days, my distance estimation has improved drastically.

The advantage of this exercise is that I am now only focussed on reaching that solitary tree, or tower, or bend in the river. A couple of kilometres, and then a new landmark is selected. Each such milestone adds to the the day’s tally, and soon enough when the day’s paddle comes to an end, forty odd kilometres have been notched up.

We need to remember this in daily life, like my father often told me. Do not bite off more than you can chew. Ultimately the entire piece of bread is going to find its way into the stomach, if it is broken up into four of five or six smaller pieces. Shoving the entire piece of bread into the mouth is a sure way of choking.

It is not easy to break up the larger goal into smaller milestones. The target always remains in the mind. The trick is to learn to disregard it by forcing oneself to focus instead on the next hill, the next milestone, that has to be reached to be able to reach just a little bit closer to the final goal.

3. Negotiating the quicksand of life

As you might have realised by now, the Ganges waters run very shallow, at least in the upper reaches. I have been grounded multiple times. Often Sam was there to lend a hand in getting the boat to deeper waters, on days I was alone on the boat, that job was left to me. And the river bed is quirky, much of it quicksand. Most times one stepped out of the canoe and planted the foot on what was expected to be firm ground, the ground shifted and sucked the lower limbs, sometimes down to the knees, at least more than halfway calf deep.

There is no way around this since the boat is grounded and there is no way to push it around while grounded. One has to get off, risk getting sucked in by the quicksand, do the best one can, and move on. Staying stuck is not an option, since that is where and how an end-of-life situation might quickly present itself, much like the poor cow that got bogged down, to be ultimately saved by the villagers.

Life often throws up quicksand, sometimes when we least expect it. We merrily go about our life, when a curve ball is thrown at us, and unless we are prepared for that eventuality, armed with the knowledge of how to negotiate that pitfall, we are bound to suffer.

Before this journey, I do not remember being bogged down in quicksand as badly as has happened over the past days. I certainly knew the theory, but had little practical knowledge. The first few times, I stayed where I was and waited, maybe hoping that some kind of divine intervention would extricate me. I would look around for people who might come to help. Sometimes I looked around hoping there was no one noticing my predicament and sniggering at what they were witnessing. I learned that the more seconds one spends with the body’s weight on the foot that is bogged down, the deeper one gets snared, and the more difficult it is to extricate. There was this one time I was really stuck and nothing I did was working. I fell in the water a few times. Finally, I got down on my hands and knees and slowly wiggled the stuck foot out of the sucking river bed. It took a while, but finally I managed it. I now knew how to increase the surface area to prevent the foot from getting sucked in like a needle through melted butter.

Always be prepared for the quicksand that life throws up every so often. Prepare for it, learn to face it, and gather the knowledge on how to negotiate it.

4. News from the ground

These days the term “fake news” has gained a lot of popularity. There are people sitting on various ends of the truth spectrum and like someone famously said, there is the truth and there is the alternative truth. In today’s day and age, nothing seems to be the truth, except someone’s interpretation of it.

In the process of preparing for A SLOW BOAT DOWN THE GANGES, the major purpose of the expedition was to raise awareness about pollution on the Ganges. We read in various news reports about how little is happening on cleaning the Ganges, how money is being pilfered away without having anything concrete to show in terms of results.

To be honest, I have been very pleasantly surprised and somewhat humiliated at having been swayed by what I have read. I have not seen any pollution on the Ganges. I have not seen even a single piece of plastic. Agreed, the expedition is less than 10% of its journey and I do not know what the situation will be downstream, when the population increases and factories start showing up on the riverfront towns and cities.

For the moment, the only problem I have witnessed is that of silt. This has to be addressed and some major desilting is called for. Paddling through the waters has been like paddling through a bowl of jelly. I suspect had there been less suspended particulates in the form of sand, paddling might have been much easier.

I have seen tremendous amount of work going on in all the villages I have visited, and heard from people I have spoken to, as far as toilet construction is concerned, awareness building about the perils of plastic usage, the need for each and every citizen to join hands with the Government to keep the river clean. I have been quite impressed so far.

Do not believe everything you read in the papers, or see on television, or indeed, receive on social media. It is a much better idea to gather as much information as you can to be able to arrive at a more informed opinion. Of course, the best way is first hand knowledge, which is what has changed my mind. But failing that, there is a lot of information available, and we need to take off our prejudiced glasses and see facts for what they are. Of course, there will be detractors and supporters, even us individuals who claim to be non affiliated, have opinions that are shaped by what we see and hear. Facts do not change, truth does not change, what changes is the lens we look at things through.

5. Road support

Having a team as road support makes a whole lot of sense. It has not been easy for either me on the canoe, or for the road support team. Roads meeting up with the river are very difficult to find, if they at all exist. I pity the road support team comprising either Sam or Tara or both. This was the first time for them, as it was for me, and we were together trying to make sense of the madness we found ourselves in when trying to link up.

Theoretically, a map would show possible roads, and then there would be locals who could point in the right direction. Once the car managed to reach the river bank, the location could be shared with the paddlers, who would then head straight for that location. Much much much easier said than done, often impossible.

It is possible to do a recce of the entire river prior to the launch of the expedition, go up and down the river, identify possible sights, log them beforehand, and then launch. That takes time, money, manpower and funds. All of which we did not have.

Again, theoretically the paddler was paddling forty odd kilometres in the entire day, which gave the road support team virtually the whole day to look for a good site. But time kind of flies away fast and furious when all the roads supposedly leading up to the to river turn out to be dead ends. Driving forty kilometres a day, which should take less than two hours, leaving more than five hours for location search, suddenly feels too little.

There are definite advantages of having a team. For one, more stuff can be carried without having to compromise on virtually anything. There is someone to talk to at the end of the day. There are people to share in the chores. Most importantly, there is someone who knows where you are and what you are up to, and can be there ... just in case.

The downside of a road support team is that one has to meet up at the end of the day, being separated for the night is the last option. Solo and self-supported paddling means one has the liberty to set up camp wherever a good enough camp site presents itself.

With my current experience, would I prefer having a road support team, or not? I would prefer having one, despite the end-of-the-day hiccups of linking up. We were both learning, and I am sure, with each passing day, and with increasing population density, the link-up will become easier. Unfortunately, Sam and Tara have things to do and cannot be the road support for the next few weeks. Do I want a new team? Maybe not. I will rather paddle solo, camp out where I can, and wait for them to join me when they can.

6. Energy needs

Paddling is strenuous. Anyone who has been to the gym and sat on the rowing machine would know what I am talking about. It is serious work and it is tough work, entirely physical. Particularly on a river that has almost no current, every inch forward is accomplished through sheer muscle power. Energy is burnt really fast, energy that has to be replenished every day, and many times through the day.

Recognising this possibility, over the past few months, I have consciously built up my fat reserves, something that the body will need to find energy if my intake is insufficient, which it certainly is. Whenever I can, I am gorging on eggs and meat. On the canoe I consume trail mix and chocolates. Dinner has invariably been good, since we have not had to camp yet, except on the first night.

Paddling solo from now, I will need to figure out energy replenishment. I suspect I will be camping out, meaning I will have to cook my own food. However, I hope to be passing through some towns and villages. I might stop there, grab a generous bite, pack some more for breakfast, and paddle on further downstream to find a camping spot.

To be honest, hunger has not bothered me yet. What I have to address is dehydration. I am drinking litres of water, but I have no idea which hole it is all going through. I am certainly not stopping through the six, seven, eight hour day to urinate. That itself is an indication of dehydration. I need to drink enough water that I need to urinate. That way I know that the water intake is sufficient. Currently it is not and I need to do something about it. I do not wish to put too much pressure on my kidneys. More importantly, without rehydration, the body will slowly and surely start to give up. Dehydration is very debilitating and I need to do something about it.

7. Health and safety

On an expedition like this, health and safety go together. If health does not stand up to the rigours of the job, the safety is at stake. I cannot repeat this often enough, this is a physical endeavour. One small mistake can put paid to the expedition itself. My wrist has already been injured. I could have grit my teeth and bashed on regardless, but I did not. Others might call me chicken for having taken a break, but for me it was the right decision. I am not here to prove anything to anyone but myself. I maybe could have paddled for another day, another week, but eventually the wrist would have given up. The river is not going away in a hurry. It will still be there a fortnight later, and I will be right there to resume the expedition.

Apart from the safety issue related to health, it is a also a stark reality. There are all kinds of people walking this land, and some of them are lumpen elements. For instance, multiple people advised us to avoid a certain section of the river, between Narora and Farrukhabad. I will listen to such sane advice and restart the expedition from Farrukhabad, instead of from Narora where I took the break.

I agree that it is not advisable for Tara to be on the road, either together with Sam, and certainly not alone. Women are still largely objects of lust and desire and there is just no point in attracting undue attention, and possible problems.

Health and safety need to be a priority at all times. Without these two things in control, nothing else matters. Of course, an expedition such as this has built-in dangers, it is about taking calculated risks, and never overstepping the boundaries of recklessness.

8. Gear and equipment

A multi-day, indeed multi-week expedition such as A SLOW BOAT DOWN THE GANGES requires a fair bit of gear and equipment that will be utilised during the trip. Alongside that is the fact that all the gear and equipment needs to be carried on the canoe itself, unless there is a road support team to carry all the extra stuff.

Even if there is a way to transport extra gear, I personally prefer to be minimalistic in my packing. It becomes difficult when there are things that cannot be left out, and there is limited space on the canoe and weight restrictions.

My least important container is the one with clothes. I can go on wearing the same clothes for weeks. I might end up stinking, but that is a problem for the person close enough to get a sniff, not for me. But, being on the canoe means that the paddling clothes are wet and I need to change into dry clothes. Therefore, there needs to be at least one change of clothes. I have two, and that is a luxury for me.

In terms of volume, the largest bag is the one with all my camera gear and electronic equipment. The two cameras I am using fit onto the palm of one hand. However, the accessories take up a whole lot of space. SD cards, cables, battery chargers, hard disks, laptop, powerbank, etc. Add to the camera gear is the solar charging kit including the solar panel and the solar generator, and of course the assorted cables. If I remove the electronics, my weight will come down drastically, as will the sheer volume.

The next large item in my kit is the food. I am carrying a whole of dry rations to last me almost the entire journey. To cook it I have the cook set including stoves, fuel canisters, pots and pans and cups. Additionally, I have another smaller bag in which the snacks are stored, snacks I munch while paddling.

There are pretty fancy collapsible water containers available. Before I left, I carried three containers - one 20 litre, one 8 litre and one 5 litre. More than enough for three people’s needs for more than a day. However, they do not work. The five litre container’s lid broke off even before water was stored in it the first time. The 20 litre container’s carry handle sprung a leak, and therefore cannot be used. The eight litre one is still intact, but I do not know for how long. I have decided to dump these containers in favour of two five litre PVC jugs. These can take a lot of beating and do what I want them to do. These are far sturdier and infinitely cheaper.

9. Funding

Money is what makes the world go round, and an expedition like A SLOW BOAT DOWN THE GANGES requires funds. Prior to launch, one can draw up a lot of budget sheets, divided into categories and cost heads. But once it launches, there are expenses one cannot even begin to list prior to the need arising. Which is why every budget sheet has a head called Miscellaneous. Miscellaneous expenses have swelled way more than anticipated and has to be addressed.

Money was always in short supply for this effort, and with unforeseen expenses mounting, I would not like to run out of money with distance still left to the end of the journey.

I wish more people recognise the need to support an effort such as this. I do not really need to do this, but I am, and I wish people recognise and support the passion. It is too late for the current journey, but I hope and wish that more organisations realise the need for support for such alternative sports. A successful Ganges expedition might just tilt the scales for organisations to open up their purse strings for the next series in the Canoe Stories.

I am really grateful to the people and organisations who have stepped forward to support A SLOW BOAT DOWN THE GANGES. People who pitched in many months ago, and Dorf Ketal who pitched in when the expedition was already under way. Thank you everyone who have supported me morally and financially. You know who you are.

10. Cabin fever

Any extreme expedition brings on a lot of stress. The stimuli is something that is most often inane and would not attract any attention under normal circumstances, but when fatigue, hunger, thirst, mental stress, come together, every little thing turns into the proverbial straw on the camel’s back. Nerves get frayed pretty quickly, innocuous words and phrases take on a whole different meaning, jokes are taken literally, conversations tend to become loud and sometimes acrimonious. Added to that is the fact that the team is together 24x7, making it difficult to step back, reassess and calm down. This is a reality, and affects even lifelong friends who have been to Hell and back together previously. This has to be recognised and guarded against. Also, the recipient of the barbs need to appreciate the reasons behind such altercations. I, very often, work on a very short fuse, and tend to say and do things I would probably not otherwise voice. I try and be a little diplomatic, but every once in a while, the emotions get unplugged. Not good, but it is a reality. Cabin fever is something that does happen and as long as everyone realises it, the team will work far more cohesively for far longer. If not, things can go South pretty quickly.

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