Tuesday, September 30, 2014

...of the Once Mountains of Maharashtra.

Blue skies are the backwash of an increasingly dry and hot Mulshi valley. The river levels are dropping by a foot every three days or so and streams that a fortnight ago wetted one's knees are now shy rivulets. From high places one can see these last strings of silver coursing through the grasses, fleeing the hillsides for the safety of the mother Mulshi that flows below, as if they know the fate that awaits them if they linger any longer.

The earth has become a hard cracked pavement, muddy footprints frozen in time. The mud crabs--the unlikely sentinels of the earthen pathways--are seen less often, hiding in the cool depths where the soil is still moist. 

Solo Reflection atop Mount Wilko.

On Saturday I went on a second hike up Mount Wilkonson. Just a day hike, with some 25 students. On the way up we stop at Sacred Grove. A ten minute walk from MUWCI lies a grove of large trees, mango and others unknown to me. The grove sits alone on an otherwise naked hillside and is home to an ancient rock—these ground down remnants of the once-mountains of Maharashtra being much older than the Rockies, older than the Himalayas. This rock has been revered since pre-Hindu times, as a god, a spirit of nature and now as a holy host of Hindu deities. Some time in the last few thousand years, some people decided to honour the rock and build a one room temple around it, built in the likeness of the god. The rocks used for its construction are massive, and appear nowhere else in this region. How and why they were brought so far is a mystery, along with the origin of the architects who, using neither mortar nor joinings built this temple that has stood longer than most of the world's nation-states combined.

Today it is easily missed, surrounded by the dense vegetation of the grove itself. But it is still a holy place and fresh sticks of incense can be found scattered about its insides and outs, along with burnt down candles, a testament to the old saying that one must never let the gods sleep in darkness.

As we pass through the grove we stop, and between us share what knowledge we have of the place and its history. Two by two, we take off our shoes and barefoot, enter the mud floor to look up and marvel at the impressively simple geometry that has held this holy thing together for so long. An old man appears, sweating and baring a sickled machete.

Pani a he ka? He asks me. Water? I offer him my bottle and he drinks modestly. He is still working hard as we prepare to leave, cleaning the place of the trash that accumulates from local use. The switch from eating off of banana leaves to styrofoam is, in the scope of this place, a decidedly recent event. I give him a pomegranate and he gives me a smile. The gods will be taken care of tonight, he silently assures me.

Our time atop Mount Wilkinson is calm, sunny and reflective. We break into small groups and discuss how the shift in perspective of such heights changes one's way of perceiving things: our home in the distance, the meaning of service, our own journeys that have brought us here together. We end with an hour long solo, write letters to ourselves that I will safe-keep for one year, then head down the mountain, just in time for sunset. Looking back to the West half way into our descent, we can see the lone tree that marks the spot where we shared the shade, young people from Morocco, Ethiopia, Norway, South Sudan, Portugal, the Maldives and more. Drawn out sharply by the setting sun, the tree marks the spot well and reminds us of that moment of reflection. As the last rays grow dim, laughter lends rhythm to our quickening pace. Home is close now, and dinner awaits.

A setting sun makes silhouettes of Mount Wilkinson and the lone tree that marks our resting place.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Weekend adventures

Sunday, we wake up around 07.00, after a windy night atop Mt. Wilkinson, the nearby mountain top one can see from Mahindra campus. With a group of some fifty students, from all corners of the world, many of whom have just spent their first night out camping, we wind our way along the spines of impossibly green hilltops, made all the more impossible by the impending dry season that will turn them first brown, then red as they are swept by fires and finally black.

Having had no breakfast, and a decent trek back, we pack out the gear, run home to shower and arrive en masse at the cafeteria for Sunday brunch. The exhaustion hits me only as the third plate of delicious food disappears. Two cups of chai in, I decide to cease the gently cafination and give up the fight, for an hour long nap, before an afternoon meeting to discuss a workshop on different leadership models. By the end of the meeting, collaborating with a former Diplomat and UWC grad from Jamaica, a Chilean physicist/enthusiast and a handful of eager second year students, I am awake again.

I check my work email—which seems to fill up constantly—and find a series of excited emails from Pelham, the college director who invited me here to work primarily to develop MUWCI's outdoor education programming. With the last three days of near constant downpour, he and I are both keen to get me on the nearby Mulshi river, that has carved out the valley we live. It is swollen of late, inundating the rice paddies on either side and causing the locals to graze their buffalos higher in the surrounding foothills. Not having seen my email, I appear to have missed my chance for a paddle. But I call him just in case.

He says to be at his house as soon as I can. He has already called a jeep. We drive down to the college gate, pick up two plastic river kayaks, paddles and pdfs, and head off with our driver down increasingly washed out dirt road, following the river upstream until we are near the foot of the Mulshi dam, a giant expanse of concrete that has flooded more than one hundred villages to provide power and water to Mumbai. In return we have a river that runs year round.

As we shoulder the kayaks and trot down a brick and mud slope towards the water's edge, locals look at us as if we are mad, and some start yelling, gesturing big waves and moving water. The damn is being opened. Mala samjat. We understand. They look on in horror and curiosity as these two white aliens from another world set off down the river. I turn around once in a while to see them watching, half waiting to see a rip of white water come careering around the river bend.

Instead, we enjoy a calm paddle, punctuated by sections of small rapids and tight squeezes under branches that are older than the community we live in. We paddle on, and Pelham beckons me to silence, motioning to look to the right hand river bank. I have heard of alligator holes, and keep my eyes peeled. But soon enough I realize what I am looking for. As I pass under one tree, what I took to be large fruits begin to move. Not fruits. Fruit bats. Bigger than any bat I've ever seen. Two feet from wing tip to wing tip, they take off from their upside down perches, and take to the air. There are hundreds of them, flocking from tree to tree, flying directly over us, close enough to make out the small holes in their wings and, as they pass over the clouded sun, to see the bone structure of these mysterious winged mammals. We drift down the river in silence for some time, bellow this chorus of wheeling spectrums.

Looking beyond the river banks, I glimpse the surrounding mountains and am suddenly reminded of where I am. Since arriving, I have hardly had the time to take in this new place, with its new, yet familiar smells of cooking fires, warmth and earth. Pelham and I discuss the importance of bringing students and villagers down this river, to connect with it, to understand the fine balance that is our source of water, to know our place as stewards of this ever changing phenomenon: the river mother, that which cleanses all; in the local epistemology, a tributary of the sacred Ganges.

Pelham cracks a thermos and we drink tea, lazily rafted up, lazily floating down the thick flow of water. Our paddle ends with an invigorating shoot between pillars of a bridge, over a concrete ledge and a three foot drop into a white whirl.

We drag our boats up to the road, past where Pelham, two days ago, saw a snake, some four meters in length. Having paddled back to the base of the college drive, we shoulder our boats and walk uphill to the gates, where we stack the boats and store the paddles, helped by Indian staff who are still getting used to this elder white authority figure (Pelham), carrying a boat over his head. I hop on the bac of Pelham's motorbike and dry my hair as he whisks us up the winding road that switches back and forth up to the college. A hot shower and a good meal later, and I am at peace with this world that I am only just getting to know. I return home to my and Felipe's flat, to our third flatmate: a five week old kitten who I am quickly falling in love with. We play, as I contemplate her smallness and my love for her.

Circles of Learning

Within a few hours of being here, I feel the familiar magic that is a United World College. Everywhere around me are students and teachers from all over the world, committed to common values of peace, justice, understanding and sustainability. Being faculty, not student, is a spider's thread between branches of the same tree. The calm, strong intent is rich in the air, meddling with the smells of indian cuisine for lunch and the thickness of the monsoon air.

I learn that I am going to be helping organize MUWCI's Triveni program. One of the reasons I was so keen to come to Mahindra UWC was to be involved in the shift away from purely academic programming and towards project based learning and eventually, a UWC diploma: to equip students not only for the world of elite Ivy Leagues that too often steal away the bulk of UWC alumni, but also for street-level activism in their own communities, or perhaps, some combination of the two.

A snippet of last year's handbook explaining the Triveni program, sent out to prospective students. My work is to help MUWCI work towards an almost entirely project oriented learning model, in which Triveni projects, largely service oriented, are the vehicle for students experiences with local communities and their own skill-building for future actions

As part of a series of skill-building workshops I am designing and running along with other Triveni staff and MUWCI faculty, I am leading a discussion on leadership styles, based on the four quadrants laid out by the NOLS school of outdoor education.

It has been four days since I landed. 

Opening the circle of some thirty youths, almost all in their first year at Mahindra UWC, I decide to borrow a tradition of facilitating I have experienced in the Cultural-West. Say your name, where you are from—whatever that might mean to you—and your gender pronoun preference. After a few raised eyebrows, the ball gets rolling. People giggling, young women referring to themselves as female, young men as men, obviously. Then the young man, who says that he prefers being referred to as “she”. People are quiet, giggle. The speaker smiles. Are they making a joke? Even I don't know, though I hope they aren't. She is not. Later, she will describe that she had never been given an opportunity to chose her gender pronoun. She discovered she was queer a year ago, stood up in a community meeting at MUWCI, announced it, and sat down.

In that moment in our small circle, she opened the minds of people from countries and cultures around the world.  

Mahindra United World College, Maharashtra, India


I arrived at 3am, five days ago. Although it seems like weeks now.

The flights melted into one long, yet suspiciously short journey across some 18, 000 km: 

Canada's West Coast to India's. 

Sun Ra Arkestra: an old shot, not mine. But they still provided a mesmerizing,
otherworldly performance, for free, to thousands in downtown Chicago. 

With an unexpected and very welcome twenty four hour stop in Chicago to breathe some non-conditioned air into my soar throat, and to catch Sun Ra Arkestra play a free show, befriend some wonderful strangers and generally develop a soft spot for a surprisingly friendly city.

At 03.00 in the morning, after some 3.5 days in transit, I find my home for the next year: a small flat I will be sharing with a young Chilean graduate from UWC Singapore and a kitten who is clearly drunk. Felipe, whom I have not so much as seen a photo of or exchanged emails with, has left me little notes that guide my sleepy self towards my bedroom. The mattress is stiff, and comforting after four months of cabin living / tenting in British Columbia's Sooke Hills. I ambitiously set my alarm for 07.00, and fall into sleep.

Soon enough I am up, feeling oddly rested. I shake sleep aside and head outside to explore this new place with a morning run. By the time I make it to breakfast, my body has realized how hungry it is, and takes it out on me until, a few servings of delicious Indian breaky later, it is satiated. And it is only 07.30. Lost between time zones, I had set my alarm an hour early. Happy for the quiet dining hall, I ease into my first day, meeting all the people who have guided me here over months of email conversations and eager skype chats. The jet lag, mysteriously, is nowhere to be seen.
September 06, 2014

The first step of the journey...

A woodland home, for rest, thought and reflection.

Our final staff banquet at Camp Thunderbird: the high school Prom I never had.

 The first step of the journey: the familiar 

and charms 

of Canada's West Coast.

The road into the mountains... 


Some nine months ago, I sat in my parent's home in Toronto, wondering what to do with my near future, as is part of the Christmas custom. At my father's suggestion, I made for a nearby nunnery, and hid away for three days to sit, ponder and plan. I drew out the various trajectories my post-university life might take, and sat until I sensed that which felt best. 

Cutting wood the honest way: an ode to Nova Scotia.

That same week I started planning, and two weeks later, back in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I had the outline of a plan: a starting point for the next leg of the journey. I would finish university, head West to Vancouver Island for the spring and summer, then fly to Maharashtra, India to work, volunteer, live at Mahindra United World College, one of fourteen UWCs around the world, and sister school to Lester B. Pearson United World College, my home from the age of sixteen to eighteen and a stepping stone into a much more connected, exciting, inviting and challenging world than I had ever known.

My volunteer-job outline was to come primarily as an outdoor education instructor, and to help Mahindra UWC of India--known more affectionately as MUWCI--to develop an outdoor program to match an already enthusiastic culture of outdoor adventure. With a backdrop of sacred forest groves, mountain caves, paddle-able rivers and of course, the Himalayas, it seemed a suitable proposition. 

And so, as I made motions to finish my thesis, final projects and one chapter of life in Canada's rugged and real East Coast, I also made ready to start a new chapter... with a quick stop over in BC of course. Heading to India on a pretence of leading out trips, I felt a sudden urge to brush up on my guiding skills. Working as a kayak guide and counsellor with Camp Thunderbird's Leadership Development program, I was able to do just that, in my time off ferrying to Vancouver for Wilderness First Responder training and, of course, to see to my visa.

Four months later, feeling grounded, fit and generally ready for adventure, I bid farewell to my woodland community and within twenty four hours, was on a plane, heading so far West I would end up East.