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.

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