Friday, August 21, 2009
A Bug called Travel and other Failings in Life
I climb to travel and travel to climb. When I am not asked why I climb then people ask me several questions about my travel travails and I thought to pen a post on the topic before my memory fails. The questions that often come to me are as under: -
Why do you Travel? Well, I have no definite answer to this except that I just love to travel and watch the roads or the continents go past by. Perhaps my post 'My Father's son' published earlier in April 2009 would offer some explanation. But most often than not I travel to climb in cold places. Therefore there are several countries; beautiful and exotic that I haven't been to since there is nothing credible enough to climb and let me remind you that I only like to climb natural protrusions.
How do you travel? How do you get so much time to travel? When do you travel? How many countries have you visited? Which is the prettiest country / city / place you have seen? If you had a choice where would you like to live? Etc, etc. These questions are not so surreal in nature and are easier to answer, yet, not so easy either. Even then do read on at my fragile attempt to do so.
Let me begin at the beginning (where else can one begin!) when it all started. As far as my knowledge goes, in every part of India when a child is born and is able to move its limbs a bit then he / she is put to a test to see what his future callings would be. The child is set upon the lap of a fat-bellied priest with a basket in front that contains several unappealing objects aka pen, paintbrush, money, newspaper, mirror, comb, and whatever; in today's world I have been told parents even add a pen-drive to the assortment. And then the child is left free (though amply goaded, chided and cooed by the onlookers) to pick up one or several of the objects. Depending upon the child's choice the priest then predicts what the child would turn out to be and pockets his fee (and bonus if his prediction matches the ambition of the parents). Now it is said that when my brother was put to this test, he grabbed all the pens, pencils and paintbrushes in the vicinity, chewing even few. He went on to become a notable academician and artist.
When I was dropped into this arena, three years hence, I have been told and as the story is related in hushed voices even today, I completely disregarded the priest, my parents, the neighborhood aunts and uncles and the basket. I punched the priest in his belly with my tiny fist, pinched the bottom of the maid and escaping through the legs of the audience grabbed all the shoes lying around. The priest predicted that I would become a cobbler. He of course did not get a single penny from my miserly dad, who aspired his younger son to don the white coat of a doctor. Between then and now I must have run through at least a 100 pair of shoes that has taken me to all the seven continents and the seven seas and then some. Here is the story in the tiniest of tiny nutshell (im)possible.
If you search the net as to how many countries your planet currently have, a diverse row of numbers would be thrown up. They could range from 183, 192, 195, 196, 201, or even 177. This is a highly debatable figure and even the UN list of nations is fluctuating constantly. This happens since there are dependencies and monarchies and subjugated territories that attach or detach themselves intermittently to or from a larger country for reasons of economics and political turmoil. For example in the Oceanic Region of Australia there are a number of island groups that are purely autonomous and a country by themselves yet they belong to one of the four developed nations, viz. US, UK, New Zealand and France. It is contentious therefore whether to call them as a part of the bigger country or a country of their own. I prefer the latter and hence as this post goes to publication, according to me there are precisely 183 countries in the world. I would further breakdown my travels according to the continents so as to avoid confusion and hence break the temporal timetable. So you might read about my latter travels earlier and earlier travels later. One final condition that I always lay as far as my own travels are concerned; which I feel anyone who travels should ideally include, is that for me to claim a country I must spend at least 48 hrs (two nights) within its boundaries. If not then it doesn't count.
Let me make a bold and correct statement. I have traveled by every natural and artificial modes of transportation known and unknown to man. I am not saying that I am the only one with this claim but I am certainly one of the luckiest few who can say this. There are four mediums of transportation known to man on this planet (I am yet to travel to outer space, so I would keep the rockets out of the picture): over or through land, through air, over water, underwater. The modes of transport therefore can be summed up with: land vehicles (motorized and manual), aircraft (motorized or mechanical or manual), ships (motorized or powered by wind, etc or manual), submarines. Well, I am a submariner. Now people often talk about air miles and take their spouses on free tickets through the frequent flyer mileage programs. Blatantly put, I have no idea how many millions of air miles or land miles or water and underwater miles I have so far traversed. But I have already changed my passports (official and civil) more than ten times. Only once due to the loss of the document.
Traveling, even by most frugal means can be expensive and before any of you presume that I am related to Bill Gates let me make it very clear that I am not. In fact I am rather poor financially. But where I lost out on money I gained in luck. I have been extremely lucky to meet the right people, be in the right place at the right time and do the right things to get the opportunities to travel. If I chalk back my life, I am amazed that everything this diverse and nearly impossible could and did fall into place in my life's extremely intricate jigsaw puzzle that paved the way for me to continue lugging my sack across the globe. Well, enough of introduction now let's get on with the main body. Alphabetically, as you remember!
I landed on the northern shores of the second largest continent on Earth on a tepid morning way back in 1983 with barely a dollar in my pocket and an audacious plan in my head. I and my three equally befuddled and ragged companions (including one very pretty blonde) and the comical guide wanted to walk the entire extent of the Dark Continent lengthwise from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, following a meridian as closely as possible and climb everything climbable in between. If there was ever an enterprise concocted certain to doom then it was ours. I would certainly write this memoir one day since this story needs to be told. But the crux is that starting from Tunisian coast and over the next 11 months we covered nearly 18000 km and did eventually jump into the ocean right next to the board proclaiming, Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. That was my first visit to Africa. Measuring 30,065,000 sq km, it occupies 20.2 % of Earth's land and houses 53 countries. Since then I have been to this continent many times reaching both the highest (Mt Kilimanjaro 5895 m in Tanzania) and the lowest (the crater lake of Lac' Assal in Djibouti 156 m below MSL) points of its topography and also swam and sailed through the world's longest river of Nile. Of the 53 countries, I have been to 41, leaving out Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Libya, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Sudan, Lesotho and Eritrea. With my first visit to Africa I can safely claim that I had been to a country that no one can now never be; Zaire, since it does not exist anymore. It's now Democratic Republic of Congo.
I landed in Asia on the day of my birth so to speak! Since then the largest continent on planet, covering 44,579,000 sq km and a mind boggling 30% of Earth's land, has been my host on many errands. I have seen much of Russia, the Middle East and the Central Asia due to my work. I mean, Navy had sent me there, but then I traveled as I felt. Most of the islands too came free courtesy the Navy. Navy's motto of 'join the navy and see the world' certainly held good as far as I was concerned. Over the years I climbed both the highest (Mt Everest 8848 m) and the lowest (Dead Sea in Jordan / Israel) points of Asia. Of the 44 countries and islands and dependencies that Asia boasts off, I have been to 34 opting to stay out of Afghanistan, Brunei, Burma, East Timor, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Yemen. The reasons for omitting these countries have ranged from political instability, visa refusal (Pakistan, North Korea) and lack of any mountains.
Australia & Oceania
Well, I landed in Australia in the early nineties to seek the Koalas, Kangaroos and Kosciusko in reverse order. Much to my surprise, none of them were difficult to find or attain. I fell in love with this land and its bohemian rhapsodically inclined people. I traveled again through Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia on sailing boats and balsam rafts meeting the indigenous tribes of Tonga, Tuvalu and Samoa. For some reasons unknown I never reached Fiji, though it is populated with Indian origin people. Kiribati had me in its grip with mysterious shaman rituals while Palau witch doctors called upon the spirits of my forefathers. In Vanuatu I was caught right in the middle of a clan war and had to run for my dear life as fast as my legs could go. On that occasion the American bush pilot from Fiji named Bruno literally skimmed me off the surf in his seaplane. But for him I would now be a prominent spear display mural in the Vanuatu Warlord's summer cottage. But in the tiniest continent on our planet, covering only 5.3% of Earth's land, consisting of thousands of coral atolls and archipelagos and volcanic islands, the place where I really left my heart was and still remains is none other than the Kiwi land of New Zealand. The Southern Alps and the tumbling glaciers are one of the finest spots on Earth and I have repeatedly visited this land to climb and hike through these giants. Of the 14 nations of Oceania I have been to nine leaving out Fiji, Marshall Isles, Micronesia, Nauru and the Solomon Isles. My journey to the summit of Mt Wilhelm, 4509 m, the highest point of this continent remain one of my most interesting climbs ever. I never bothered to visit the lowest point at Lake Eyre, it was simply too dry and low and out of my way to the mountains.
I first arrived in Europe at the age of fifteen, with a back pack and big dreamy eyes and had been whisked away into the crisp alpine meadows of Chamonix, France. This trip was courtesy my uncle Fred, my dad's friend who had taken me under his wings to train me into alpinism. My uncle Fred, who is no more, was a man to whom I owe much more than I owe my dad. A post on him would come some time. On that first trip to Europe, after France he took me to Switzerland where I interned at the International School of Mountaineering, Leysin and then to the Italian Alps and then to Austria. This trip of mine shaped the rest of my life. Those glaciers and lofty summits became my home, my heart lost forever in their alpenglow. I have been to the 6th largest continent, covering 9,938,000 sq km and 6.7% of Earth's land, many times since, including earlier this year thrice. Most of my forays were to the various Alps, dolomites, Pyrenees, etc. I cycled, drove, walked, hitch-hiked and sometimes boated in and around Europe. Of the 47 countries that it currently has, I have been to 32 avoiding Albania, Andorra, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova, Monaco, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein (I simply walked through this postage stamp sized nation in one afternoon), Malta, San Marino and Netherlands. I haven't been to Montenegro or Serbia either since they formed in 2006 but when I visited that region it was still called Yugoslavia. Needless to say I did climb the highest (Mt Elbrus 5633 m) and the lowest (Caspian Sea shore 28 m below MSL) spots of this continent too.
The 3rd largest continent is still an enigma and a potpourri of contrasts. In terms of economics, geography and demography it is perhaps the most diverse of all continents. Though we mostly talk about the big three; USA, Canada and Mexico, this continent has 23 countries to talk about including a scattering of island nations and colonies. The Central American estuary, consisting 7 countries form another world altogether. I first stepped on this land of Columbus and the Red Indians on a Greenpeace assignment while still in school. They wanted to save the whales from poaching in the Hudson Bay. On that first trip I managed to steal away into the Baffin Island since the towering cliffs beckoned me hypnotically. My next visit to the land happened on work when I arrived in uniform. Sponsored by the Navy, things can and do go smoothly, so I headed for Alaska and climbed Mt McKinley 6194 m (the highest spot on the continent) and few rock walls in Yosemite, and thereafter returned repeatedly to gobble in more of the magical landscapes scurrying through Canada, USA, Alaska and Mexico. I did reach Death Valley too which at 86 m below sea level depicts the lowest point on NA. Central America came little later where I could only nick the southern countries of Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. I never bothered to approach any of the island nations of the Caribbean. To sum it up then, of the 23 nations of NA, I have been to only six, missing out on Antigua, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, Dominica Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Trinidad & Tobago. I don't know if any of you noticed but here there is a serious lapse on my part. With my dedication to lofty places I am yet to climb the volcano Tajumulco. Towering at 4223 m in western Guatemala, it is one of the highest volcanoes on Earth and what makes my faux pas more deplorable is the fact that my dear friend Brem hails from Guatemala and yet I haven't been there.
We finally arrive at my single most favorite continent. I have been here innumerable times and would love to keep coming back. In magnitude it stands a measly fourth and covers 12 % of Earth's landmass. This volume is gulped up by two huge nations of Brazil and Argentina. Andes and Patagonia and the world's highest volcanoes are its claim to fame. Darwin discovered his theory of evolution in the Galapagos and the furthest island from anywhere lies in the Easter Isles. Floating on Amazon or grappling with an anaconda, climbing volcanoes or walking through Torres Del Paine, being heli-dropped at the foot of devil's tower in Suriname and then being picked up from the summit, canyoning in Venezuela and then jumping off Angel Falls, or climbing Cerro Aconcagua (highest peak of Southern Hemisphere) and Cerro Torre or sunbathing with Penguins in the island of Tierra Del Fuego, each and every trip of mine to this continent has been among my finest. I can go on and on if I had the time and space. Some of my dearest friends are from Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Peru and Brazil. Some of my most hair raising and hair disappearing moments have occurred here. Some of my lifelong dreams still lay unrealized in the South Patagonian Mountains. Despite my numerous and voluminous trips through SA what still leaves me amazed is that I can't yet speak Spanish beyond ten words. Of the 12 countries, I have not been to Guyana and Uruguay. If god granted me any years beyond I am destined for then all of them would I spend in South America.
Though alphabetically it should have come before I kept it for last, since it is also called the last continent. Only in the mid nineteenth century did mankind acknowledge its existence and it is the least known and explored region on earth as on date. Covering 13,209,000 sq km and 8.9 % of Earth's landmass Antarctica has no countries, no population, no boundaries, no vegetation, no rivers, and almost no indigenous flora and fauna. 98% of the land is iced up. It is the world's coldest, driest and windiest place. It's amazing that man still goes there. Despite its severity, Antarctica is supernal and breathtaking to behold. I consider myself lucky that I could actually land there and then ski all the way to the geographic South Pole. I also climbed in the Mt Vinson massif, the highest region on the continent. The lowest point though remains totally out of bound for any human intervention, being at Bentley sub glacial trench at 2555 m below sea level.
To summarize the above, the official count of countries that I have been to now stand at 132 out of the possible present 183. Of the 51 remaining, I have been through a few in transit or spending only one night like Netherlands, which doesn't count. I doubt that in my remaining days on Earth this number is likely to alter much. I would perhaps add Netherlands and Guatemala (both being resident countries of dear friends) to the list at the most. The balance 50 or so must remain in the realms of fantasy for me since dreams must all not be realized. I must leave out certain objective for my next life too.
If any of you find my above account amazing and unbelievable then I must remind you of my incredible luck. Many of these trips were fallout of my job. Some of my most expensive and arduous enterprises were sponsored by the Navy or the country. At many places my job got me very close to the locations where I eventually traveled to. If not for the proximity I wouldn't have been able to afford these trips. My naval and climbing connections opened doors that are not open to others. I always kept my mind and heart open and lived only in the moment hence made lifelong friends in seconds, never saying no to any proposal involving travel and danger. I met kindhearted and kindred souls at the most unexpected places who offered me sustenance, strength and encouragement where I had lost all. Wishing to live every moment I grabbed every tiny strand that offered me an escape from daily mundane life defying society, norms and rules at every step. Neither time, nor tide, nor the want of money or companions ever deterred me from the lure of unknown. I have never ever planned any of my trips beyond simply booking a plane ticket and calling up few friends. I have learned that the charm and delight of the mysterious, of what we do not know and can't expect by far exceeds the assurance of knowledge. I still don't plan anything in life.
Does all this make me a better person or knowledgeable or street smart than the next regular Joe? I don't think so. Did I really gain anything at all after all these years what you did not! Besides the infinite memories and the friends (most of whom I have no ways to contact) scattered all over the globe I can't boast of any other gain at all. My knowledge is laughable at the best. I don't know anything about the big tourist attractions or the cities. I can't tell you where to shop for diamonds in London or Beer in Berlin. I have no idea what's running at Broadway. I can't rattle out the names of any of the museums, art galleries or architectural wonders of medieval Europe. I have no idea where to pick up the two-piece naughty number for your wife or girlfriend in Rome or Sydney. What I know, normally doesn't find mention in the guidebooks or travel agency itineraries. I know of roads upon which only the winds glide and mountain tops where only the eagles slide. I know of jungles where only the animals preside and of islands where only the tides roar. Of what use are my travels when they have no application in the modern comfort-hungry world. I love to travel into the unknown whereas today the internet has taken away that very charm. People now travel more on their finger tips tapping on the keyboard rather on their feet. They sweat and fret even with confirmed air tickets and hotel bookings in their pocket. They find it absurdly fatiguing even to chug along the travel guide through Singapore or to throw dice at Macau.
These days' people travel and travel till they unravel their inner-self, I have been told. I have nothing against them or their motives to travel. I am sure they get something out of it after all as I do. My greatest learning from my travels has been the acute realization that this world is indeed a big single planet where every nation and every continent is beautiful. God has not been more or less kind to any region. People are good everywhere, only caught in difficult circumstances. National boundaries exist only in our hearts and not on land. Grass everywhere is green as snow everywhere is white. Oceans are blue and salty all over. People smile when you smile and welcome you with open heart when you open your heart as well. Religious and regional fervors and frivolities are all products of our mind and masses are being ruled by few asses.
If god were to grant me three wishes, I would wish:
Give me this beautiful planet but no nations
Make the entire humanity a big single happy family
Distribute natural resources evenly and let none go hungry or ill
And if Devil was to grant me one wish, I would wish:
Make travel more difficult and create few more inaccessible and inhospitable places
And even as I conclude this post, I eye my rucksack, bulging and belching near the door beckoning me to get up and go. Thank you my friends for bearing with me so far through all my nonsense. Hope you don't take anything to heart. You are most welcome to call up Thomas Cook or Cox & Kings to plan your honeymoon to Nainital and pin down every detail including the evening tea and cake at Caventers on the second day.
Amen and Bon Voyage.