Trek to Taktsang Monastery: A Whole New Level of Hitherto Unexperienced Mindfuck

I love going on treks.

For someone whose idea of exercise is a 5 minute walk to McDonald’s and a walk back with chicken nuggets and Coke, I really really enjoy going on treks. Most of my travel plans include destinations that involve trekking, hiking, long distance walking…basically movements my body/limbs/muscles are not familiar with and hence suffer brutally. All my travel conversations are punctuated with ‘You know that one time I went on this crazy trek and almost died’ with dramatic flourish.

I also love to inflict this torture upon people whose idea of vacationing includes ‘chilling on the beach’ and not chilling their butts off on treacherous ascents. In October 2014, my guinea pigs were my parents who thought they were going to Bhutan to relax in the lap of the magnificent Himalayas. What else can you expect from a country that celebrates happiness and peace of mind as the standard quality of life indicator? (Even though traditionalists now rue the fact that the cultural insularity of yesteryears in Bhutan is slowly making way for mainstream modernity-monks wearing shades, people sporting designer wear, retail cafes and Bollywood)

Taktsang Monastery trek is what you cannot expect.

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I don’t normally use expletives in front of my parents (them being garden variety conservatives and all that). But en route to Taktsang, I found myself swearing every half an hour, the frequency and volume increasing as and when we were besieged by wild horses who appeared out of nowhere with complete disregard for personal safety, thereby leaving us hanging onto the trees for dear life. Looking back, these majestic, restless creatures were one of the highlights of the trail.

Our driver had pulled up at the parking lot and pointed out the monastery which didn’t feel very far away. He even assured us that we could do the climb and return in 4 hours. (More swearing had ensued when we remembered his words during the ascent. Who the hell gave him the permission to overestimate us?)

To be very honest, Taktsang is not even a very punishing walk. You don’t really need to brave steep rocks and ridges or dizzying heights. It is for the faint-hearted and avid trekkers alike; what it’s not is for lazy people who lack the patience of enduring long distance walking.

And it’s a mind-numbingly long walk.

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One needs to reserve an entire day for the trek. We met travelers in peak shape who complained about the long ascent and how they couldn’t reach the monastery. Did wonders for our confidence!

The route runs through vertiginous mountains and Himalayan forests offering a spectacular view of Paro valley. It  is really a wonderful way to experience the best of natural beauty Bhutan has to offer We could also catch occasional glimpses of the monastery which steeled our flagging resolve. But after 2 hours we were ready to throw in the towel. My parents were both well into their fifties with knee problems. And I suffered from a medical condition called Urban Yuppie Too Lazy To Exercise Hence Terribly Unfit.

Here’s something that happens to your brain at this moment. It simply shuts down. It refuses to listen to logic. It simply wants to quit trying. Scenic locales, spiritual spiel have no bearing on it whatsoever. There’s a degree of commitment required to walk to completion but your brain is ready to abandon ship at the tiniest sign of distress. It’s not an act of weakness. It’s a submission to fatigue and mindfuck.

“That’s when you need to tell your brain to shut up and keep moving. I don’t know how. You just do it.”

-advice from a friend and an avid long distance marathoner

What really pushes us to keep moving? Visualizing goals? Fear of failure? Point of no return? Triggers? Real motivation is difficult to come by in our daily lives, let alone on precarious trails in the middle of nowhere. Especially when you keep meeting people, a hundred times fitter than you, telling you that it’s a road to nowhere.

But I do remember meeting a 74 year old Filipino Buddhist man who kept trudging along with us. He looked patient, almost serene. Throughout the walk he did not complain once and spoke only when spoken to. At one point, when my brain told me to turn around and go back, he told my mother that it was 40% physical stamina coupled with 60% mental strength that kept him going. Sans judgment. In my 28 years of earthbound existence I had never met someone so zen and inspiring.

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(To be honest, I wasn’t feeling much of this spiritual stuff in my bones. Maybe I was too fatigued to even consider turning back. I just wanted the damn trek to end so that I could sit down and cry)

Our first stop was a makeshift café where we had lunch & a staring contest with the monastery, & contemplated returning (most return from this point). If you’re ready to continue, it’s all uphill from this point. Non-existent roads, steep ascent, the ambient calm made 10 times scarier with very little sign of human presence. The 2nd and the last stop offers you unobstructed views of the monastery and 850 steps (up and down) that you must climb to reach the entrance.

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As you start climbing, you will see colorful prayer flags fluttering in the wind. You will left awe-struck by the beauty of nature you will zone out completely and walk as if in a trance. Your legs will be ready to give away; your heart will be on the verge of collapsing.  After a while we crossed a short bridge over a waterfall and walked 5 minutes uphill and we had arrived at the entrance to the monastery.

I don’t know about others but upon completing a particularly physically daunting task all I feel is numb. My mind goes blank; I feel detached from my surroundings as my brain struggles to register that I have done it. My mother almost collapsed at the entrance. My father, ever patient and a man of few words, was vocally thankful that it was over. And I sat and stared like a stoned idiot. The trek back down was equally tiring but uneventful. This time we were buoyed by our sense of achievement at reaching this milestone and didn’t mind the steep and seriously risky decline.

I will not bore you with the details of monastery itself and neither do I have photos to show you instead (photography is not allowed here). Because this story is not about that. This is the story of how an extremely unfit, easily demotivated, person overcame a whole new level of mindfuck and lived to tell the tale.

To Obama With Love, and Hate, and Desperation-An Extraordinary Work of Longform Journalism by The New York Times Magazine

An extraordinary reportage by The New York Times Magazine on how the White House mailroom staff read millions of letters addressed to President Obama during his tenure.

Read. A girl doesn’t want her mom to be deported, and can the president please help? A guy finally admits to his wife that he’s gay, and now he would like to tell the president. A car dealer writes to say his bank is shutting him down, and thanks for nothing, Mr. President. A vet who can’t stop seeing what he saw in Iraq writes a barely intelligible rant that makes his point all the more intelligible: “Help.” An inmate admits to selling crack to all those people but he wants the president to know he is not a lost cause: “I have dreams Mr. President, big dreams.” A man can’t find a job. A woman can’t find a job. A teacher with advanced certification can’t find a damn job. A lesbian couple just got married; thank you, Mr. President. A man sends his medical bills, a woman sends her student-loan statements, a child sends her drawing of a cat, a mother sends her teenager’s report card — straight A’s, isn’t that awesome, Mr. President?

Why You Should Care About Saving The Ennore Creek

In Nov-Dec 2015, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Pondicherry were hit by one of the deadliest floods in the history of natural disasters in India. A 5 minute Google search will tell you the degree of damage-

More than 500 people were killed and over 18 lakh (1.8 million) people were displaced. With estimates of damages and losses ranging from nearly 200 billion (US$3 billion) to over 1 trillion (US$15 billion), the floods were the costliest to have occurred in 2015, and were among the costliest natural disasters of the year

I was one of the countless online volunteers helping with the relief efforts. Most of the on-ground work was carried out by the localites, the fishermen, the cops. When the situation got out of hand, the army was deployed along with fire services, NDRF, coast guards for mass evacuation and relief distribution. We were mostly helping with the coordination- obtaining and passing on info on relief materials, connecting people to the rescuers on calls and on social media. There was a complete breakdown of urban infrastructure-no water or power supply and working mobile networks. The city was a submerged wreck and survived solely on hashtags, Google spreadsheets, crowdsourced efforts & kindness of total strangers from all over the country.

But a 5 minute Google search will tell you all that as well.

What it won’t tell you is the fear and desperation, the sense of devastation as people saw their homes, their lives, families destroyed overnight. The million helpless, angry, frustrated calls we received 24×7 for 5 days at a stretch. SOS calls from starving people, caretakers at orphanagess & old age homes, pregnant women. Calls from volunteers who got robbed or attacked by angry, desperate mobs because they’ve gone without food and clean water for 2 days.

I have never had any first-hand experience of a natural disaster. I remember receiving a call in the dead of the night. A woman in her late 20s calmly informed that her father passed away last night. They couldn’t keep the body at home any longer and needed to reach the mortuary. They were stranded in Virugambakkam for over 24 hours with no power at home & no boat in sight. She was barely audible over the terrible flood-affected network & then the call got disconnected. She didn’t want sympathy or words of comfort. All she wanted was one goddamn boat to take her late father’s body to the morgue. All I could do was pass on her number to an on-ground rescue team. We couldn’t even follow up because a. we couldn’t get through to the volunteers b. they had to make their cellphone charge last longer.

News reports won’t tell you these stories. Consider yourself lucky.

But they will tell you that the TN govt has painted the floods as an unavoidable civic crisis caused by unprecedented heavy rainfall, blatantly refusing to acknowledge that it is a man-made disaster, brought about by rampant constructions on water bodies across the city, thereby blocking important catchment areas and hampering rainwater drainage.

Heavy rainfall in coastal South India is normal; what is not is how construction has been carried out in the name of development without giving a proper thought to sustainable urban planning and consequences. For a detailed analysis, click here.

If progress is carried out at the cost of environment, then it’s only capitalism that will thrive in a dystopian future. Reminding you here that people breathing bottled air in China is no longer another gut-wrenching Black Mirror episode.

Which is why you should care very badly for Ennore creek. Because clearly we have not learnt anything from the Chennai floods.

Chennai Porombokke Paadal, is a campaign that seeks to raise awareness about how unchecked construction, dumping toxic industrial wastes (often sanctioned by authorities) at the ecologically sensitive Ennore creek is destroying it every day. Brainchild of Chennai-based environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman, the campaign film has veteran Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna singing a reminder about ‘porombokke’ land being communal land and therefore, our responsibility & appeals to the viewers’ conscience to do their bit.

The campaign subtly but cheekily calls out the government for ignoring environmental issues in the name of development and urges viewers to sign a petition to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) with an appeal to save Ennore creek.

The constructions will have disastrous consequences, one we probably don’t have the means to recover from. And the fact that it is happening with impunity, right in the backyard of the 4th largest metro city in India only shows our cavalier disregard for the environment. Seriously, how stupid and self-destructive can a species be?

We’ve seen how the World Culture Festival in Delhi has destroyed the biodiversity of the Yamuna floodplains forever, despite repeated warnings by noted environmental activists. While its supporters claimed that the festival aims at promoting peace and solidarity, they failed, or refused, to understand why it should never be at the cost of the environment.

Environmental concerns are not a first world problem, despite the massive indifference towards it. Another 5 minute Google search reveals this:

Since 2009, an estimated one person every second has been displaced by a disaster, with an average of 22.5 million people displaced by climate or weather-related events since 2008 (Source: UNHCR)

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 19.3 million people were displaced worldwide in 2014 due to climate change, with studies indicating that the number could be anywhere between 250 million and one billion by 2050.

There will be 50 million environment refugees by 2020, according to the UN.

Which means there is a direct human cost of environmental issues. And just because it’s not happening to you, does not mean it is not happening.

You have Google at your fingertips. Do a quick search and find out why the survival of Ennore creek is important for your future as well. You also have the means to do your bit, again at your fingertips.

SIGN PETITION HERE, Ask NGT to Save Ennore Creek http://www.thenewsminute.com/save-ennore-creek

The Great Reading Slump of 2016

Now that the dust has finally settled on the annus horribilis that was 2016 and we have collectively heaved a sigh of relief, I’m looking back at a year of countless personal setbacks. It is a rather masochistic exercise, one that has me cringing at the memory of each of my bad decisions, compromises & unaddressed and unresolved issues. It is also one where I realize how I have completely stopped reading and thus will struggle to cultivate a reading habit after months of abandoning them halfway through because I had no motivation to turn the page.

In fact, the last time I read a book from cover to cover was in December 2015 when I was revisiting my favorite classics and had finished King Solomon’s Mines in one sitting. In 2016 I saw no point in even picking up one, despite my stack of unread books growing at an alarming read and threatening to tip over.

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I grew up surrounded by books, seeking company and answers between pages, befriending literary characters, conjuring up impossible scenarios in my head. I have always had an active imagination attributed to a childhood of voracious reading. In Bombay where I currently reside, we have wonderful book cafes, reading meetups and most importantly, weekend book sales for broke bibliophiles of all sorts. I have attended a few, met like-minded people who have added much joy to my life in the form of reading recommendations.

But then 2016 happened. And with it, came a barrage of problems. Work hours got long and the stress got crazy. Poor lifestyle choices contributed to severe health issues-both physical and mental. Slowly but eventually I lost interest in everything. I stopped working out. I stopped socializing. Eating healthy. And reading.

For some reading is a way of coping with life. For me, reading became another pastime I simply could not work up my enthusiasm for. The words did not register. The emotions did not sink it. I was merely skimming through the pages. And I hate skim-reading.

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I do not blame social media and pop culture (read: Netflix) for my predicament though. Binge-watching GOT season 6 or taking the umpteenth ‘Which Stranger Things Character Are You?” quiz on Buzzfeed did not distract me. If anything, they steeled my resolve to read more historical fantasy and explore more sci-fi literature. Not fibbing.

But it took superhuman efforts to pick up a book, let alone finish it. And it was not for the lack of trying. Keeping up with reading lists, working my way through ever-growing piles of unread books got impossible in the face of deadline struggles, high cholesterol and all-consuming stress.

It wasn’t a sad realization. It was more of an indifferent acceptance and one you cannot do much about. “I am unfit. I feel numb. Forget creative, I am not even in the right headspace to be productive. Hence I do not see any point in reading.”

It was not a reading slump. It was full blown withdrawal from which there seemed no escape.

Few things kept me going though. Harry Potter e-books on phone which I binge read for a quick pick me up were an absolute life-saver. Friends who published poems & short stories, friends who wrote and drew comics, friends who got exciting bylines, friends who actually ‘made good art’ and shared it with the world kept me sane. They’re in fact the only things which I have managed to read at all in 2016.

 

It’s 2017 now and I am a sucker for all ‘New Year, New Me’ ish quotes and motivation. A year-ender surgery and a week in the hospital gave some opportunity for introspection. For starters, I have decided against putting undue pressure on myself. Having gotten rid of a lot of negativities, I’m slowly redeveloping a reading habit & getting ready to read with gusto hitherto absent from my life. Also I am taking up the 2016 reading challenge I had abandoned to be a more disciplined reader and sustain the habit. Here’s the Book Clubbish 2016 reading challenge I’ll be taking in 2017 as well:

http://www.bookclubbish.com/2016-new-year-book-challenge/

2016 Reading Challenge

Happy reading and making good art to everyone!