Slow Boat Down the Ganges Update 31
Even though when I started to grab some shut eye last night, it was nearly morning, but when I opened my eyes it was just after five. I had barely got a hour’s sleep. But I was refreshed and did not seem to suffer from sleep deprivation at all. Adrenaline does some nice things to the body.
This was also the first day I would be paddling solo. And not just solo on the canoe, but solo without road support, since Sam and Tara, by mutual decision had moved on to Narora after finishing up some work at Aligarh. Plus, all my gear and equipment was with me, with nothing that I might need in the car. This was a way to ease into a solo expedition, knowing that the vehicle was still around, with people in it who would come to help, in case any help was required. This expedition started out to be a solo one, then turned into one with road support, and then again has turned into a solo journey. So much for plans that have a wonderful way of changing course!
The initial plan was to paddle all the way to Narora, where I would encounter the second barrage on the journey, after Bijnor. A distance of nearly eighty kilometres. I knew that was never going to happen, certainly with the experience of the past few days. I was averaging about forty to forty five kilometres a day and today would be no different. I decided to set Anupshahar as the day’s destination and started paddling.
Garhmukteswar is on the main highway that I often take to go from Delhi to Bhimtal where many of my survival Courses have been conducted. I have travelled over the bridge here many times and always marvelled at the lack of water in the river. For most of the year there is virtually no water and one can actually conduct multiple simultaneous games of football on a full size pitch. Such is the state of the river. This time was different though. The rains had just ended less than a month ago, and the river had calmed down after a series of floods in the upper reaches. I could not find bare land on the river, something that I was used to seeing so often. The river was full and it was wide. But it was not deep, not by a long shot. At places it was inches deep, and almost immediately after I started the day’s journey I could feel the sand kissing the bottom of the boat.
I muscled on and managed to keep paddling despite the apprehension of getting grounded. Soon enough I did. Like many country boatmen in India, I used the paddle as a staff and tried to push the boat into slightly deeper waters. It did not work, like it had at a couple of earlier places. I had to get off the canoe and physically tug her into deeper waters. The moment I stepped out of the boat, I landed in quicksand and almost sunk to my knees. A step forward with one leg, and then an attempt to take the next step proved disastrous as it remained stuck in the mud and I promptly landed face down in the water.
Always look at the bright side, I tell myself. This was one such time. At least I got the bath that I had denied myself in the morning. And the physical effort had resulted in a lot of sweat that got immediately washed away.
I went down on my hands and knees, the water was only inches deep, increased the surface area over the quicksand, and gently but purposefully extricated myself from the quicksand. The longer one stands in quicksand, the deeper one tends to get sucked in. And the more one struggles, the bigger the problem becomes. Panic comes easily and it is all about focus on the task at hand, with the proper knowledge of what to do.And here I was gaining a lot of proper knowledge as I paddled along.
Ten kilometres downstream of Garhmuketswar I was to stop by at a village called Pooth to meet some Namami Gange volunteers. With all the lugging, towing and grounding, it took me almost a couple of hours to reach. All I had in terms of location was that I would see a temple next to the river. Which I did in due course, and found half a dozen people standing on the bank. As I paddled closer to shore, I yelled out, “Mahesh ji?” and received an affirmative reply. This indeed was my destination.
I expected to meet with Mahesh Kewat, have a short chat and be on my way. However, he invited me to the village, I agreed, and headed off conversing with him. Two villagers were left standing guard over the canoe, lest she drift away.
Unfortunately, I left the camera still mounted on the canoe, something I realised when I was in the village and sipping a cup of tea, accompanied by cookies and some gorgeous sweetmeats. I would have loved to capture on film the graciousness of the villagers, and also the wonderful things they were involved in keeping the Ganges clean.
Again, there was no sign of plastic anywhere I looked. I saw waste bins near the village temple, toilets were being constructed, and everyone seemed to be aware of the urgent need to keep the river clean. They did however lament the fact that the depth of the river was decreasing rapidly and the solution was to desilt, something that is banned by the Government due to the illegal sand mining that goes on rampantly. I believe that a new law called the Ganga Act is scheduled to be tabled at the next session of parliament that will impose heavy penalties, including jail time for polluters. That is a good thing. If people do not listen to reason, there has to be some form of harsh implementation. It is high time that the force of law is applied to ensure cleanliness. The matter is urgent.
In Hinduism, the dead are cremated. However, there are four exceptions. One, infants. Two, pregnant ladies. Three, sadhus, And four, animals. Traditionally, a stone is tied to the corpses of these four kinds of deceased people and the body taken to the middle of the river and submerged. This tradition is changing and now they are buried instead of being immersed in the holy waters of the Ganga.
Things are changing and changing quite rapidly. This is my impression from talking to people along this journey. A lot of work is being done by the Government and the Namami Gange project seems to be alive and well. This is something that many people, me included, who sit in the comfort of their homes and offices in cities like Delhi fail to witness. A lot of good work is happening at the ground level, and all we from far away see, hear and talk about are things that can be and should be done. This does not mean that nothing is happening, and a first hand look at the villages tells a very positive story. At least as far as the stretch that I have already paddled is concerned.
It was time to say goodbye to Mahesh Kewat and the rest of the villagers. Phone numbers were exchanged with the promise of staying in touch in the future. Invitations were extended for me to come and spend a few days at the village the next time I happened to be passing this way. I got on to my canoe and paddled away south by south east.
The condition of the river did not change, the depth was really pathetic. I got stuck quite a few times, and each time I encountered quicksand. It was becoming a little tiring. I was here to paddle my boat, not to tug it around. This is when I figured why the logo of the expedition is the way it is ... a canoe on the head!
I was definitely not going to reach Anupshahar today. The Sun was scorching, I was getting dehydrated despite the copious amounts of water I was drinking. I was not hungry thanks to the apples and bananas provided by Mr Sharma at Garhmukteswar. Anupshahar was still some forty clicks away and with the number of times I was getting grounded, I doubted if I would be able to match my daily quota of around forty kilometres.
Additionally, there seemed to be a problem with my right wrist. The ligament had been sore for a while, and at one place where the canoe got grounded, the paddle got stuck under the boat and this resulted in twisting my wrist. I did not realise it at the time, but the soreness increased as I paddled along. The amount of pressure I could exert using the right wrist was diminishing and it kept reminding me that all was not well. I could maybe paddle another couple of days or so before it would give up entirely, resulting in me having to abort the expedition. I was not prepared to let that happen.
After leaving Pooth, I had not seen any villages or villagers. Nada. Not a soul. I had been paddling for a few hours and it was late afternoon. I was looking for a camp site to settle in for the night.
As I took a bend in the river I saw some shacks, the first I had seen since leaving Garhmukteswar. I paddled to them and found a few villagers who had come there to put up there shop just for today.
The dozen or so people there were very helpful, and obviously surprised at what I was doing. After getting to know each other, the sadhu in the group offered me some tea from his personal quota, something that I gladly accepted. Soon enough, another miracle happened. A plate of food was offered that I immediate finished. There is a saying in India that roughly translated means, every grain of food has someone’s name written on it. The plate of food that I was offered had my name on it and I was grateful.
One of the people asked me if he could borrow my boat. I thought he wanted to go for a joy ride, but soon learned that they had been waiting for a boat to take them across the river to rescue a poor cow that was bogged down in the quicksand, unable to move. The crows had already started pecking at her eyes, and if something was not done quickly, she would die a horrible and painful death. I gladly offered the canoe and after emptying it of all gear, four people got onto it, joined a couple of more people who happened to come by from another village, and managed to save the cow.
Everyone was happy. They thought that me and my boat were sent through some divine intervention, since they had been wishing for a boat to pass by for them to cross over. I was happy that I came across them, and could my little bit in saving the life of one soul. The villagers were happy that I had come along, while I was elated that I had found them just about when I was ready to give up on paddling for the day and find a camp site.
Another miracle that happened was that there was a three wheeler parked right there. I had by now decided to hitch a ride to Narora where Sam and Tara were staying, and the three wheeler was a Godsend. This bunch of people and the shacks they had put up, were only for the day, since today was auspicious in the Hindu calendar when people pay respects to the dearly departed.
After spending about an hour with the villagers, the canoe was deflated, packed and loaded on to the three wheeler, and was then joined by the rest of the gear, equipment and other assorted stuff. A ride to Anupshahar was guaranteed, from where another taxi ride took me to Narora. The person who took me to Anupshahar went ut of his way to find me a taxi. En route to Anupshahar he spoke to multiple people trying to find a ride for me. Unfortunately, nothing materialised, either because the vehicles were otherwise occupied, or the rates demanded were too high. We reached Anupshahar and he found me a taxi, negotiated the rates which were acceptable to him, and after a heartfelt goodbye, we parted company and I was on my way to Narora where Sam and Tara had found the most gorgeous place to stay. A colonial building, one could get lost going from one room to another. This is the advantage of a road support team, who find the best way to soothe the aching muscles after a hard day’s paddle. I will really miss them.
By this time I had decided to break the expedition for a few days to allow the wrist to heal. Also, I was a little guilty of being away from home during one of the most important festivals for us Bengalis... Dussehra. In any case I would have had to get back to attend the Base Camp Festival where I was supposed to be a featured speaker. Tomorrow I would head back to Delhi.