"Never be limited by other people's limited imaginations. If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won't exist because you'll have already shut it out." -Mae Jemison, astronaut

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dear India, Thanks for the Uncertainty

Trying to weave a coherent, sequential story out of my 2 weeks in India is like trying to drive a car whilst focused only on the side view mirror. When you're driving, you're in a highly spatial state, doing many things seemingly at once - braking, checking mirrors, talking, listening to the radio, steering.... Similarly, India happens spatially. And if you try to force sequencing on it, well, it's just that. Forced. The result will be some sort of discomfort, if not downright angst or grumpiness. India plays with all things sequential, serial, linear, and ordered like a cat plays with a grasshopper.

So with that in mind, here is my non-sequential story of my 2 week visit to Arunachal Pradesh, a state in remote north-east India, bordering Bhutan, Tibet, and Burma.
The course along the Siang River (called Brahmaputra river further south)

Organic and sustainable. The jungle is alive. And far more than with mosquitoes, leeches, and biting flies, it is alive with wild guava, mandarin oranges, bananas, and other manner of organic jungle food I've no English names for. Seeds are harvested and planted and the cyclical nature of Earth's seasons is at the forefront.

Hanging bridges. An excitement for foreigners, a routine lifeline for villagers.

Borders are for governments. In the furthest north, the currency was still rupee - if I could find a place to spend some - but the Tibetan greetings of Tashi Deleg were common.

Plastic has no place. In the jungle, everything is made naturally. The cups are bamboo, plates are banana leaves, cutlery is fingers. Take away? No problem, banana leaves fold up perfectly into "sandwich bags." Baskets, chairs, fences, gates, and ladders are made of woven, interlaced, and fitted straw and bamboo. When I wanted a "foam roller," one was fashioned out of a large, smooth piece of bamboo in minutes. One becomes acutely aware of any plastic wrappings in a place like this. The one thing these people have never had to create in the past is a rubbish bin.
Being served lunch in a home after day 1

Calcutta is not India. Nor is Mumbai or Trivandrum or Dharamsala or Arunachal Pradesh. India is vast and varied.

India is spiritual. You're as likely to be asked your religion as how many children you have. It's the kind of place where your Muslim driver joins you and your Indo-Tibetan Buddhist guide on a 3-day Buddhist trekking pilgrimage. Where you could utter a prayer at a meal to Ganesh, Allah, Jesus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or recite a Buddhist mantra, and no one would bat an eye. Where you can hold a ceremony to put up Tibetan prayer flags and a Hindu family helps.

Tea. I've had the best cups of tea of my life - and some surprising ones - on this trip (Ginger tea is made with milk??) I also came to learn that tea is a luxury in the jungle. You don't gulp it out of giant mugs, looking for the caffeine hit, but savour it like a piece of dark chocolate for dessert.

Everyone's getting along now, but come night time it can get noisy!
Rice. There are more flavours to "plain white" rice and more ways to cook it than I knew. And there are people who never tire in their whole lives of having rice at every meal - breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Offer them a roti or chapati for a change and they'll turn for the rice.

10,000 hours. The adage is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. The 21 (mostly college-age local) men who ran the inaugural 3 day 100 km Run Siang trail race had never trail raced in their lives. They weren't "trail runners." One guy had done a 100 metre race once. But these guys have spent their childhoods navigating the trails than link villages - full of rocks, roots, water, vines, and slippery bamboo bridges. Often barefoot or in flip flops. I reckon several could run technical downhills with some of the world elites. They just need some time to develop endurance for distance and climbing.
They're slippery, especially before morning sun gets to them.

Normal is relative. Day 1 driving on jungle roads, I sat in stunned silence. A single "lane" dirt/mud/water track weaving alongside 70 degree steep cliffs hour after hour. Landslides periodically reclaim the road, causing waits whist heavy machinery digs out a new track. I am unnerved with the knowledge that I have to return via this road (there is only one) in some days' time. But when "some day" comes, I find I have developed a new sense of normal. The track's not so bad. And yes, the cliffs are still at 70 degrees, bridge remains are visible over cliffside, and the heavy machinery is still digging out landslides.
Just waiting for a road to be built.

Trail running fosters community. I've seen it in Perth - trail running creates community. And it was no different in Arunachal Pradesh. These people have never heard of trail running. They've never heard of Killian Jornet, Compressport, or Hammer gels. They've never heard of trail marking or drop bags or aid stations or set courses. There are no radios, no internet, no magazines, and no TVs. Yet given the concepts, they created it - the first trail race in NE India, if not in all of India. Villagers manned tables filled with cooked sweet potato, bananas and oranges from the jungle, sugar cane, and their own local version of something similar to a rice krispie square. They opened their homes to us at night so we could sleep in front of their fires. The same fires they'd wake to stoke at 4.30 am, warming tea and race cakes in banana leaf, so that we could head out to run another 5, 6, or 7 hours over hanging bridges and through jungle, bamboo forest, and rice paddies to where we'd be welcomed by another village for the night. Surely, it was a steep learning curve - like when it had to be explained twice that if you lose the course markings, you have to backtrack and can't simply take any trail you know to the village! :)
Aid station, Sissen village. You won't leave without a sweet potato ;)

Sugar cane, rice and sesame balls, oranges, and ricecake wrapped in banana leaf

Eckhart Tolle wrote "If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, it turns into fear. If it is perfectly acceptable, it turns into increased aliveness, alertness, and creativity."

If uncertainty is acceptable to you, India awaits. Run Siang!