Sunday, June 30, 2013

Fear to Fearlessness: Surviving the Himalayan Tsunami

Getting there

After months of on and off preparation, the moment had finally arrived. I was back in India and this time it was to the Himalayas in Northern India. I had planned to spend two weeks of solitude in the mountains. It was my first trip to the Himalayas, let alone a trip of silent contemplation. 

The journey started off on a noisy side street in the heart of India’s capital, New Delhi. I stayed at a budget hotel, a favorite of backpackers, blocks from the main railway station. It was rather convenient as I had a train to catch at the crack of dawn the following day. As I entered my room, a blast of hot air greeted me. The air conditioner was not working. As I made a call to the front desk, I paused for a moment. Had I forgotten that the theme I had set for this trip, which was to go with the flow and accept whatever comes? Up in the Himalayas there would not be climate control. I would be at the mercy of the elements. The hotel maintenance crew were alarmed at the possibility of a fire as they noticed frayed wiring coming out of the air conditioning unit. As I wondered if this was a bad omen, I was quickly packed off to another room.

I woke up to sounds of metal clanging against the pavement. I was afraid that I had overslept and had missed the train. Looking at the luminous dial of my wristwatch, I could not believe that it was only half past two in the morning. The sound of a metallic object being kicked around in the narrow alley next to the hotel roused my curiosity.  Peering out through the dusty and wrinkled curtains, I saw a few teenagers running around with sticks playing their version of street hockey. In the far corner, a few men were huddled around a gas stove on which was a steaming pot, perhaps brewing their early morning chai. A few of the street lights were on, others were flickering on and off. The hotel was at the end of a street with numerous shops on either side, some not even five feet wide. The sign boards on top these shop fronts advertised everything from food to used auto parts. There were some people, likely migrant workers lying in makeshift beds on the pavement. The summer air was hot and still.

I did not want to risk going back to bed, lest the fatigue and jet lag from a recent transcontinental flight would suck me into a deep, dreamless slumber. I got my gear ready and took a cold shower. This was by design, one reason was to get my senses on high alert as I was heading into unfamiliar terrain. I had heard stories of little kids roaming the train station, making a living as pickpockets. I also wanted to get used to not having a hot shower as that would be the case for the next two weeks in the mountains. The weather forecast was was unreliable, in that part of the country, things could change quickly in the matter of hours.
The ride to the train station was on a bus. As I was putting my backpack into the luggage hold on the bottom of the bus, the driver revved the engine sent a wave of black diesel exhaust right in my face. I longed to be in the crisp, clean Himalayan air. On arriving at the train station, I was greeted by a sea of humanity. A few people surrounded the bus, some wanting to haul bags, others trying to sell trinkets and last minute gifts. I had no need for taking a gift to the mountains, I was looking to receive one, if that were possible. Perhaps on the way back, I would try and pick up some souvenirs for friends and family. It was hard leaving everyone and everything behind. I had a hard time explaining to my kids what the Himalayas were and what it meant for me to be going there. Growing up in Florida, they had never seen a mountain, let alone one as imposing as the ones in the Himalayan range.

The sun was up and it was already getting hot and sticky. Swarthy looking porters with sweat dripping off their faces were hauling luggage to and from trains. The train arrived right on time and the air-conditioned cabin was a welcome relief from the heat, noise and dust outside. I found my seat, put my luggage away and heaved a sigh of relief. The cool interiors of the train felt very comfortable. I chided myself for indulging my mind in this luxury. After all, on this was a trip, I promised myself, I would have no expectations.

It is very hard, at least for me, to undertake a trip like this with no expectations. In the comfort of my home and surroundings that I am used to, living with no expectations seems easier. On a trip into the unknown, who knows what may happen. There is always that element of fear, stemming from all kinds of “what ifs”. It is impossible to plan for all contingencies. Under all the excitement and adventure, my honest assessment was underlying fear. I had no idea how my body would cope or how hard my mind would battle me for two weeks. I had no frame of reference and no experiences to fall back on.  Nevertheless, hoping to achieve a personal milestone, I tried my very best to overcome any sense of fear.

The train pulled out of the station, traveling directly north across the great northern plains. It was a six hour journey which was rather pleasant and uneventful. In the comfort of my seat, I practiced keeping a still mind, trying to avoid ripples of fear and anxiety. The train pulled into Haridwar, a holy city on the banks of the Ganges. From here, the journey continued on road. As my vehicle pulled out of the station, I caught the first glimpse of the Ganges river. There was a raised platform on the banks and there was hundreds of people on taking ceremonial dips in the holy river. It is said that bathing in the Ganges washes ones sins away. My bath in the Ganges would hopefully materialize soon. As I left this bustling pilgrimage town, I spotted mountains on the horizon.

After a couple of hours, the relatively straight and flat roads started to change. The change in the air and vegetation was noticeable. Trees were taller and looked greener. I had heard about the narrow winding roads with switchbacks all the way. The journey to my destination was still 6 to 8 hours away mountainous roads. As we climbed higher, the roads appeared even more dangerous. Similar roads were featured in the television show, Ice Road Truckers- World’s Deadliest Roads, where these roads are called the “freefall freeway”. At places, it was a one lane road with oncoming traffic, the mountain on one side and sheer drop offs of hundreds of feet. Added to this, the roads were not in good repair. At places, it was a mud track with rocks jutting out. There were evidences of prior landslides. There were frequent traffic backups, caused by trucks hauling goods up and down the mountains. This was the route to the glacier where the Ganges river originates. A lot of cars were also headed in that direction.

On the way up the mountains. View of the Ganges.
The road followed the course of the river. We crossed several old and rusty bridges. To complicate matters, on a particularly steep incline up to a mountain pass, the vehicle stopped abruptly. It was the wrong time and place for a flat tire. The luggage on the rack above was held down by straps and bungee cords. The spare tire was buried somewhere in the pile of luggage. The driver pulled out an old rusty wheel without a tire. We had no choice but to wait. The driver managed to get a spare from another vehicle. Later I was told that the brakes were also not working and were temporarily held in place with dental floss! I had never been this close to the afterlife. Despite this, the unplanned stop was a welcome break from clutching an empty vomit bag for hours.

All my life I have had motion sickness. I had never been on mountainous roads for this long and with relentless switchbacks. One approach I had taken in the past for motion sickness was to fix my gaze at a point on the horizon. Here that was not possible. The turns were so frequent and there were steep mountains all around which made it impossible to use that strategy. Instead I picked an imaginary point somewhere deep inside my self and focused my concentration there. I took refuge in this imaginary point and I let my body sway from side to side, and up and down as the vehicle moved on the bumpy roads. Keeping my focus on a fixed point, I let my body go limp and it became a spine stretching exercise rather than a back breaking ride.

Freefall freeway.
It was getting late in the evening and I was told by the driver that the roads closed at dusk. Due to the traffic backups and the flat tire, there was still 3 hours of driving left. There were checkpoints along the way where people were waving us down. The driver ignored all of them kept going. As evening turned into night, strangely the road appeared less treacherous, in reality it was more so. The steep drop offs without guard rails were no longer visible. It started to rain and this slowed us even more. Finally at around 10pm, the vehicle pulled outside a small village right on the banks of the river Ganges. There was a continuous dull roar in the background coming from the rapidly flowing river. A few donkeys greeted the new arrivals to this mystical land. I assumed that the river crossing was going on happen on donkey back. It turned out that they were reserved for hauling heavy luggage across the river. Fortunately, I carried a light load.

The path down to the river bank led to a very narrow and low suspension bridge. At times, not infrequently, the river waters rise high enough to make this crossing next to impossible. After crossing the river, I made my way up a steep incline on the other side. I had arrived at the monastery. I was assigned a small cottage or a kutir.  It was right at the edge of the river. There was not much land between the steep mountain slope on one side and the Ganges on the other side. Sandwiched between the two, I stretched out after an exhausting 15 hour journey by train and road.

At the monastery

The first day started well before day break. A quick shower with cold water sourced from the Ganges. The actual dip in the Ganges did not materialize as the current was very swift with nothing to hold onto. Water was raging down the narrow canyon and made a sharp right turn just after crashing into a massive boulder. The thundering flow of water was louder than anything I had experienced before. The tame waters of the Gulf of Mexico near home were child’s play compared to the rapids here. I was later reassured that sprinkling a few drops of water was as good as an actual immersion in the Ganges as far as expunging bad karmic forces was concerned.

I had a few things to sort through and get organized for the days ahead, not the least of which was my baggage, both literally and figuratively. The simple monks who live an existence of solitude in this part of the world make it through life with a fraction of what I brought with me for a couple of weeks. I quickly decided that I would reorganize my bags and pretend that I brought very little, essentially two sets of clothes and a few other things. The rest would remain at the bottom of the bag and would be carted back to the world I have always known. With that settled, now came the harder part. Dealing with the complaints from my body and my mind. Every part of my body ached and I was numb with fatigue. My mind was assuaged by a promise of a little adventurous hike later in the day. My body expressed displeasure at the prospect of a long hike at high altitude by sending a warning shot of spasms up and down the back and legs. I decided to put the thought of the hike aside for a while.

One of my goals on this trip was to closely observe myself. In the civilized world, it is very difficult to do as distractions abound. Here, out in nature, the usual crutches that my mind uses are unavailable. Here I felt I would be putting myself to the ultimate test.

Each day had a structure that I aimed to strictly follow. There was always the chance that the mind would offer a trick play to make me ease off the gas pedal. I was determined not to relent. Besides, the ride back to civilization was not for another two weeks. The days ahead would be spent stretching and yoga in the mornings, followed by meditation sessions spread out during the day.

The other goal was to be consciously silent. During sleep, I have had a lot of practice being unconsciously silent. Here, sleep was designed to be rougher that what I have been used to. Maintaining silence day and night for two weeks would test my willpower. The only sound I would hear all day was that of the river thundering down to the plains below. This relentless sound was strangely soothing. For reasons I cannot fully grasp, a similar sound from a jet engine or machinery on a factory floor would have driven me nuts in a very short time. Perhaps, there is something primal about the force of water that resonates deep down in my being, which then bubbles up as calmness.

The intensity of the river reminded me of something in my own body. I used this visualization to start off my initial round meditation. I imagined being a tiny cell perched on a ledge inside my heart close to the aortic valve, which regulates the flow of blood from the main pumping chamber of the heart, called the left ventricle, to the rest of the body. A heart beat and flow of blood that is loud enough for a human ear surely was a thunderous roar to a tiny cell at a suitable vantage point in the heart. The beauty that I saw in this visualization was that this process of the heart pumping blood is a continuous process with no beginning and no end, similar to the concept of the soul according to Eastern philosophy. This helped me lose track of time and place. My awareness was centered on this life sustaining process which has been going on every minute of my life. When the concentration on this inner visualization wavered, I used the sound of the river to bring it back on track. I imagined an narrow and endless road that was sandwiched between the sound of the river and the sound of blood circulating. I could go on indefinitely on this imaginary road.

There was a light drizzle all day. The weather started to clear in the afternoon. It remained  overcast and more rain looked likely. I decided to take a hike up the mountain side. I spotted small settlements scattered on the slopes of the mountain. On the narrow, steep and rocky trail with no side rails, liberation was just a misstep away! I remained very cautious and deliberate in my steps, double checking every rock before I took another step. The trail curved up the mountain side and after several minutes of leg-busting climbing, I came to a clearing and there was a small terraced area where an elderly woman was working on a small rice field. She gave me a gentle smile and her eyes reflected the serenity of the mountains. She looked very content and her eyes seemed to tell me something. As I climbed higher, I wondered what this hidden message in her eyes could be? Further up, as the trees cleared, I stood in front of a breathtaking scenery. There were mountains all around, mostly covered in shades of  green and other peaks further away taking on a bluish hue. The river was visible down below in the valley and I also spotted some cows grazing on the steep slopes. They were much smaller than the cows that I am accustomed to seeing and and not much larger than mountain goats. It was here that I sat down to reflect.

In this part of the world, the barter system was still prevalent. For the most part, the locals were content working the land for food. There was plenty of fresh water from the mountain springs that fed the river. Wood provided a source of heat in the winters. The contrast with city life in the modern world was stark indeed. For these people, going to a nearby store meant a hike through the mountains. The one similarity that came to mind is that we all work for food. People here, like the elderly woman I came across, get their food directly from the land, but we in the modern world work for money that buys us our food. The human stomach has only a finite capacity for food. Even the most delicious offering would be a source of indigestion if taken on a very full stomach. Not so with money. The human mind seems to have an infinite capacity for money, fueled by desires that constantly need fulfillment. Just like over eating leads to an upset stomach, rampant desires leads to mental indigestion. If only the mind could be content with enough money for a comfortable life and have a finite limit on desires, just like the stomach which can accommodate limited amounts of food, happiness would be assured in the long run. Being cut off from the world and the monetary chain, this realization was profound indeed.

The clouds were getting darker and it started to drizzle. I decided to make my way down the mountain. There was dense tree cover all around. Every tree these steep mountain slopes stood straight like an arrow As I walked, I visualized the ups and downs of life as going up and down a side of a mountain. The state of my mind as I cross the peaks and valleys of life determines my happiness. Instead of being dictated to by the mind, I wondered the possibility of staying straight and centered just like the trees on the hillside in front of me. Old thoughts are constantly being replaced by new ones. Unlike the trees on the mountain slope, which have a long life span, thoughts in the conscious mind are fleeting. The meaning of staying in the moment hit home. I may not be able to prevent the generation of thoughts, but I do have the ability to control the direction of every new crop of thoughts. This requires a lot of practice and patience. In the Himalayas, the mountains and the valleys appear to be in silent meditation. It became easier to practice staying in the moment by having scenery that did not change much. Back in the real world, situations, people and life changes more rapidly, it takes greater effort to stay in the moment.

It was dark by the time I reached my cottage and I decided to call it a day. The sound of the river drowned everything else and I could not hear the rain anymore. I was up at half past four the next morning and did yoga and meditation till daybreak. The sun was not visible, it continued to rain. The mountain tops all around me were covered in clouds except for one tall mountain. The tree covered mountain top was visible and the rest of the mountain was ringed with clouds. The mountain in front of me appeared like a giant eye. As I gazed at this, I could not help thinking of the mountain as a living object just like my body. The tree cover resembled the hairs on my body. The rocks resembled the bones that support my living tissues. The stream running down the middle of the mountain, nourishing it, resembled the spinal cord.

Ganges river. Nature's fury. 
My eyes followed the stream down to the river below. Something caught my eye that rudely woke me up from my dream like state. The bridge that I had crossed was no longer there. Parts of the brick structure on the other bank of the river was visible with nothing on my side of the river. The entire path leading to the monastery was washed away in a landslide. The only lifeline back to my worldly existence was gone. As I surveyed the short stretch of river in front of me, a large boulder that I had seen the day seemed to have vanished. This was when I realized that the water level had risen. It was almost to the edge of the cottage I was staying at. By my estimate, it must have been at least 10-15 feet higher than when I first arrived.

Bridge across the Ganges.

Bridge destroyed in the flood. 
The forecast called for more rain. I had not packed an umbrella. To get a better idea of the extent of the flood, I made my way to higher ground. Parts of the trail that I had used a couple of days ago were washed out.
To distract my mind from the fear of falling off the slippery mountain side, I visualized an umbrella, the dark rain bearing clouds and the bright blue sky high above. An umbrella reminded me of the ego. The vertical tube of an umbrella is the “I”. Just like the canopy of an umbrella that follows the body and shades it from sunlight and rain, the ego prevents us from looking beyond the clouds of impermanence and seeing the light of wisdom. The grey clouds reminded me of the the mind and its incessant shower of thoughts raining down on the world. Just as excess rain may ultimately flood the valleys below, when my mind is overactive, it drags me into the tumult and the chaos of the world around. Even though the sun is powerful enough to scorch the surface of the earth, it cannot burn away the rain clouds. High above the cloud cover, the sun always shines. Similarly, my mind prevents me from seeing the higher wisdom within all of us. Even though this wisdom is powerful enough to illumine the whole world, it cannot penetrate the veil of the mind. As I climbed higher, the climb become more difficult and dangerous. I wondered if I would encounter the same degree of difficulty and danger when I attempt scaling my inner Himalaya.

Once I reached a clearing, I sat down to rest. The rain cleared a little and the sun came out briefly. The whole valley was illuminated in the morning sun, the rocks below glinted like gems, the sandy beaches created by the newly deposited silt carried downstream by the river looked out of place. The place was eerily quiet except for the constant roar of the river. There were no bird sounds, no animals in sight. Perhaps, they have an early warning system that prompts them to move to safer ground. From my vantage point, river appeared to have shifted laterally by a good 50-100 feet. I checked my camera and looked at some of the pictures I had taken previously and this was indeed true. The awesome power of nature!

Before the flood. The road along the base of the mountain is visible. 
After the flood and lanslide. The river shifted to the right destroying farmland and houses. The road is destroyed by the landslide.
my eyes followed the river downstream, it became apparent that this was the reason why the monastery where I was staying was saved from the flood. The river had moved left and then made a sharp right away from the monastery. Scanned the mountain sides on the other side of the river, I spotted a huge landslide that had poured thousands of tons of rock into the river below. As the river shifted to the left, it tore through a large rice field and this rich Himalayan soil was deposited downstream. Along with it, went several houses that dotted the banks of the river. Fortunately, all the villagers had sought dry ground higher up the night before and nobody was hurt barring aches and sprains resulting from scrambling up the mountain side in the dark. I stopped at a couple of these temporary settlements and offered them my stash of analgesics and anti inflammatories.

House being swallowed
 up by the Ganges.

As I made my way back, I was mentally and physically exhausted. My mind was racing and my breath was rapid. I sat down to reflect on the mind and the breath. I made conscious efforts to slow the train of thoughts by taking slow, deep and measured breaths. The flow of thoughts continued to race like the waters of the angry river below. I imagined the quiet stillness of the glacier upstream where this river originated. I tried to still my mind and make it cool and calm like the glacier. It did not take long for me to lose focus on this image, and as soon as that happened, thoughts gushed out. As the river inevitably flows down to the oceans below, my thoughts flowed through my body towards worldly concerns, not the least of which was my survival. Once river water gets mixed up with salty sea water, it is very different from the mountain springs that feed the river. The only way for this water to get back to its origin is through evaporation of the salty brine which turn into rain clouds. I pondered about returning my mind to its calm state. Trying as hard as I could, I could not return these escaping thoughts back into my mind. However, similar to the process of evaporation lifting water back up to the high mountains through the vehicle of clouds, consciously watching my slow deliberate breathing pattern seemed to do the trick after several minutes. It becoming very important for me to keep my mind fresh and on high alert as possible dangers lay ahead on the path to safety.

The next day there was some respite from the rain and sunlight warmed up the thin mountain air. My mind at this point was going through a detox from all the electronic overload, chiefly related to my smart phone. The window to the world, my smart phone, was never closed until now. Later in the day, this mental detoxification trickled down through my body and severe fatigue set in. I decided not to fight this and even though I was trying to meditate, I was actually nodding off to sleep. Hours went by and thoughts of being rescued were high on my mental checklist. I made enquiries and was told that evacuations would be delayed as there was a large scale natural calamity at three other mountain top locations not too far away from my location. These were on on an important Hindu pilgrimage circuit called “Chota Char Dham” and hence there were potentially thousands of lives at risk. The rains were early by a couple of weeks and everyone was caught unawares.

Escape to safety

There was nothing to do but wait. I tried to occupy my time with spurts of meditation. By this time, I had already broken my code of silence as I needed to gather as much information as possible. The only way out was to somehow get across the river. The bridge was washed away. Landslides had taken care of a trail that ran along the river a few miles down stream to a dam that was fortunately still intact. I was told it was open to pedestrian traffic if I could reach it. A helicopter picking me up from where I was seemed a fantasy. The only potential landing site was the newly deposited silt on the banks of the river. It was still wet and soft and would easily swallow the landing skids of the smallest helicopter.

Making a trail. 
The local villagers got to work in earnest. Using primitive tools and nothing more than shovels and pickaxes, they started working on building a new trail across the mountains to the left of where I was staying. It was no easy task. The slopes were very steep and the best they could do was create a path barely wide enough for two feet at best and mostly off camber. Any further rain would wash away a hard day’s work. It took an entire village to make the trail. That evening I planned on doing a recce and getting more information about possible escape routes. The goal was to reach an army camp. I was told that there were temporary camps set up every few miles. The problem was that no one here knew where they were located. Everyone pointed in the general direction of the most distant mountain and said “that way”, whatever that meant. A wiry villager who claimed to be a professional trekking guide seemed to indicate that he had the skills to figure out a back country path. It appeared to be a promising option but daylight was running out. Besides these forests were infested with leeches, not to mention snakes and other dangerous creatures. As twilight set in over the patch of dry ground between the mountains and the river, I wondered if the following day would provide a window for the trek to safety. More rain was forecasted for the coming days and I did not want to risk any further unforeseen events. There were several days of food rations and water was plenty. I had brought along a portable filtration system.

A couple of hours after sunset, it started to rain again. There were streaks of lightning in the distance followed by thunder. It was the same incessant rain and it continued into the next morning. There was also dense fog which made visibility very poor. There was no way to tell if the trails were even there. A few intrepid locals set out with their shovels to see if the route was passable. There was a helipad down river on the other bank and despite the poor weather conditions, I could hear the “whop whop whop” sounds of helicopters flying overhead. Some of the larger military helicopters made a large sweep over the valley as they made their descent to the helipad. Since most of the stranded people were on the other bank, it was hard to estimate how many were being evacuated.

The trail started off with a steady climb. Very quickly it crested half way up the mountain and descended towards the river below. There was nothing to hold onto. Ropes and other safety contraptions were useless. The hillside was prone to landslides and it was not possible to find a rock or a tree that provided a stable anchor. A small slip would likely prove costly and there was nothing preventing a fall hundreds of feet below. The trail again rose up and there was a particularly dangerous section ahead. I spotted sand bags and a few logs. The sandbags were holding up loose soil and the logs bridged a gap six feet across and plunging straight down to the rocks below. Taking a deep breath, I gingerly took a few steps and made the crossing. The trail then made several turns taking us towards the heavens above and once we reached the top of the mountain, we descended what resembled a spiral staircase made of loose rock and wet sand. My right leg slipped as I made my way down. I was using a tree branch as a hiking pole and I instinctively wedged this between two rocks hoping it would hold. I froze in place and I mentally went through the next move several times before moving any body part. I slowly pulled my leg up putting half my weight on the tree branch and the other half on my leg still on the trail.

Treacherous path to safety.
On the trail
After this near miss, I tested the ground with every step before I put my weight on my leg. I made slow but steady progress. After climbing over some large rocks that were rendered slippery by a mountain stream, I came across a clearing and the helipad was visible across the river. There were several of them taking off and landing every hour. Bags of grain, rice and other relief supplies were being unloaded and people were being loaded. There was no room for luggage. In any case, this was the last thing on anyone’s mind. The rest of the way to the dam was a straight path that was wide enough for a few people to walk side by side. This part of the trail presented the dangers of falling rock, the evidence of which was strewn all over. Fortunately I made it across the dam with no further incident. As I walked up the road, there were large craters where parts of the road were washed away. This was the same road that I had travelled up in the dark just a few nights ago. It was impossible for vehicles to cross.

Road destroyed in the flood.
Flight to safety.
At the helipad, it was a scene straight out of a movie. Hundreds of people were scattered all around a soccer field which served as a makeshift helipad. I was given food in a bag meant for refugees. It contained a couple pieces of bread and some biscuits. I patiently waited my turn for the ride to safety. There was no indication where the helicopters would take us. There were several destinations mentioned. The helicopters were taking people somewhere for some time before the journey would continue by army buses. As I climbed onto the helicopter I learnt of the scale of this natural calamity which had claimed hundreds, possibly thousands of lives. I was lucky indeed. Although we live in a world where death is a daily occurrence, we keep thoughts of death at a comfortable distance. When it comes close, the fear emanating from the attachment to the body makes us suffer. Death of another kind results in liberation, that is death of the mind. Very few achieve this, the rest of us are guaranteed the other kind which is bodily death. This was indeed a life changing experience. I had witnessed solid earth melting away and water slicing through solid rock. When the elements do not do what they are supposed to, calamities results. Ancient civilizations realized this and worshipped the forces of nature and thereby sought protection. When one feels likes a helpless blade of grass in the midst of a storm, this ancient practice starts to make sense. As my grandfather would sum up my experience, I stuck my head in the mouth of a lion and lived to tell a tale.

Lanslide, not a waterfall. View from the Helicopter.

Bridge to nowhere. One of the many bridges destroyed in the flood. (view from the helicopter)

(I am deeply indebted to everyone (too numerous to name) who had a direct or indirect hand in helping me through this journey of a lifetime)