Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Abode of Snow: Trekking in the Himalaya

Part I - The Journey to the Mountains...

(Right click here and open in new tab for suggested accompanying music:)

November 1st – November 9th, 2014 

Amidst a hurried morning of last minute preparations, Oscar and I escape the office for a quick, but real coffee. In a country where coffee means powdered NestCafe, it is hard to understate the bliss of a cup of dark, thick espresso. Meanwhile, our Project Week's 16.00 bus departure has been advanced last minute to 14.30, giving students twenty minutes exactly to leave their last class, finish packing and have lunch.  Rita exerts her Austrian Disciplinarian persona to its fullest as we hustle sixteen students into readiness. Miraculously, we are all on the bus and good to go on time. Only... where is the driver? We send Hindi speaking students to inquire. Ek minute, we are assured: one minute. He went for lunch. Well, everyone' gotta eat...

By the time we are rolling, its 16.00.

We drive North, passing through tunnels under hillsides and into large valley's I've not yet seen, increasingly densely developed as we draw near to Mumbai. In the golden light of the setting sun, I read from Peter Matthiesson's Snow Leopard, a story of trekking in the Himalayas that enthralled me when I read it nearly ten years ago, living in Guelph still, dreaming that I might be accepted to a mythical Hogwarts-like school on Vancouver Island. A wonderful full circle with which to begin a adventure to the same mountains that fed Matthiesson's pages and my imagination years ago.

Where the bus ride end, the real adventure begins. Aparna, MUWCI's on-site counsellor and psychology teacher, sweeps into action as our adult Hindi speaker and India Railway Specialist. She sorts us out, and soon we are not only on the right train, but spreading fresh pressed sheets onto the flip-down seats that will be our beds for the night. I make a visit to the various berths occupied by MUWCI students, offering a handshake, high five or hug to each as I bid goodnight to the suddenly stress-free students who have left the pressures of Ivy League college applications far behind.

I sleep solidly.

I wake up in Rajasthan.

Suddenly it is the grey light of dawn. I escape the vicious AC of our cart to squat in the none-air-conditioned service room between carts, where I take my morning chai and look out the open door at the world the tracks are slowly leading us through. The grey light of dawn is amplified by the greyscale scene all around: bleak train tracks, crumbling concrete platforms and thin framed people camouflaged by grey garments, picking through the mounds of rubbish dispelled from passing trains. The early morning sun has no warmth to it.

I head back in. We roll into farmland once more. I learn that I have woken up in Rajisthan. We pass Chambal Station, the home of Fulan Devi, better known as Bandit Queen, an Indian woman made (in)famous for seeking revenge for female rape victims by killing their male assailants. The land is flat here, strikingly different from the hills of Maharashtra, but the cows seem to share the same ascetic indifference to the goings ons around them.

As the day continues we travel across Rajasthan, through Madhya and Uttar Pradesh and finally into Haryana state, and Delhi.

Following tribe through crowd.

We arrive to Delhi at 16.30 with an original plan of waiting in the station for the full six hour wait before our connecting train. But as soon as we arrived in this ancient, thriving city we shift to Plan B. We ditch our mountain of packs in the train station and saddle up a fleet of rickshaws that take us to nearby Connaught Place. The meeting place: McDonalds. I am appalled, and escape to a nearby cafe for my first espresso in months. By the time I return, all the students have vanished. Rita—who hours ago had been asserting with her characteristically Austrian authority that no one was to leave the station—grins at me and explains the new rule: groups of three, with a cell phone, meet back here in four hours. Freedom.

After a few blocks of exploration amongst Connaught Place's array of far too Western shops—United Colors of Beneton, amongst others—Felipe and I leave Rita and Aparna to their shopping and dash out in search of more soulful adventure. Knowing only where we don't want to go, we turn to the next obvious landmark: a flag of India so large you can see it from space. Below this flag, in the park that surrounds it, we spot a group of impossibly colourful youth: UWC colourful. It is Meytar, Israel; Ian, Kenya; Attul, N. India and Ilie, Republic of Moldova. A group of lads of ever there was. While we had collectively agreed to stay close to Connaught Place, the six jump at the idea of going to see the famous India Gate—India's Arc de Triomphe. After a quick and hilarious work-out session in the park—we are, after all, preparing for a trek in the Himalayas!--we pile into rickshaws and race through the busy streets of Delhi on a Friday night.

As we regroup and walk down the Rajpath, a broad roadway, void of vehicles save parked military Royal Enfields—a testament to the Indian military's continued devotion to this iconic motorcycle—we see in the distance the giant stone archway that is the India Gate: a memorial to the 82,000 soldiers of the Indian Army who died between 1914-21 during the First World War. Each white rock of this colossal gate is inscribed with names of these fallen men. Through the arches, we notice outlines of scaffolding and people, and as we draw nearer, make out a bandstand. Inquiring to some nearby officers, in full ceremonial regalia, we are informed that tonight is a once-in-a-year concert: a band of Indian and British military musicians, flown in from all corners to play music in memory of these nations' long and complex history together.

We laugh at our luck, and joke about the crowd that must be occupying the roped off first row of chairs: Duke and Earls we imagine. But my laughter subsides as the second song begins. A traditional Indian flute plays out above the rest, swooping and reeling, carving an untouchable melody out of the background of classical western chord progressions. It is captivating. Awe inspiring. Moving. To me, in that moment, it is the story of India against a background of three hundred years of British rule; the sound of that which was never lost and after more than five thousand years can be recognized still. 

*All photo credit to my wonderful housemate and intrepid photographer *
Felipe Andres Fontecilla Gutierrez
aka. The Voice

Tuesday, Oct 12th, To Do: Create international network of disruptive innovators.

Time has been moving steadily on and now it seems I am two months into a life in India. 

The walls between the worlds of MUWCI and the rest of India are becoming increasingly permeable as my trips off campus become more frequent and less superficial.

This past week has been one of exploration and wonder.

In the forefront of my calendar of the last three weeks has been the Disruptive Innovation Festival ( hosted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Ellen herself created this foundation after sailing solo around the world and realizing that, like her supplies on board--drinking water, fuel, cheese--were finite resources that had to be used with great care and thought and so too is this planet we live on (Spaceship/Lifeboat Earth). In suite, global systems of creation and consumption must be inherently cyclical, and therefore sustainable, rather than linear processes. The foundation thus has as its main objective to accelerate the transition to a global circular economy. See a simplified example contrasting two such models below.

Photo: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Apparently Ellen herself has long had a fascination with the UWC movement and when organizing this first Disruptive Innovation Festival (DIF), she had the Foundation contact the movement with an invitation to take part in the festival.

How this invitation happened to land with Oscar Avila Akerberg--my colleague in MUWCI's Triveni Department--I still do not fully understand. But as fate would have it, we found ourselves accepting the invitation and organizing the involvement of the UWC movement in this intriguing exercise in disruption. What began a simple plan quickly evolved and soon we had a student team working daily with us. The vision grew of using this as a platform to involve the entire UWC community: a community of thousands of individuals spanning five continents, eleven time zones and countless cultural backgrounds.

As the start date drew near, Oscar and I found ourselves feverishly contacting faculty, heads of colleges and students across the map. By mid morning we would have skyped with people in Norway, Hong Kong and Armenia; by day's end, we would have planned the goal for tomorrow morning, scrawled in my planner: Create international network of disruptive innovators. And the mantra that held it all together: Hold Nothing Back.
Initially we had four UWCs on board. Overnight this turned into seven, then ten. Every day we were sculpting emails to the different leverage points throughout the movement, networking on multiple levels simultaneously with heads of colleges, faculty and student-to-student, until the day before DIF began, we were orchestrating the involvement of thirteen out of the fourteen UWCs scattered around the world. 

Testing the studio space: Boscar approve.
Punctuated with nightly ideating sessions, constantly reinventing our approach and reflecting on our motivations and goals, we organized keen students into Idea Harvesters, Panelists and Logistics crews, while we built a studio space equipped with mics, lights and cameras: Oscar and I would be hosting online conversations with the Heads of the UWCs as well as students from each UWC: events that would be live-streamed to the 8,000 + DIF participants world wide. 

The first event went off. With the Heads of two UWCs working as our on-the-ground-men, we held a Q&A sessions with the Heads of the movement, "disrupting" their meeting on Vancouver Is., Canada with probing questions from UWC students, faculty and alumni, and a live audience of MUWCI students watching the live-stream just outside our little studio. Intermitent yells of protest and approval--indistinguishable with the full thirty second delay--created a thick ambience of Consequence. As the Heads discussed the movement's ideals and curriculum with certain democratic reservation, the trickle of questions being passed under the studio door turned into a torrent, and eventually the door was flung open.

When the event came to a close, we met the students outside. A mix of exhilaration and utter frustration made for an energetic reception. Once the masses cleared out--it being well passed 11.00pm--our DIF student team remained for a dance party clean up. And then to bed. The next day was, after all, the big event, in which the students of the movement, not the Heads, would come together to disrupt and innovate.

The Student Panel brought the grit into the conversation.
While some students voiced praise for the IB (the International Baccalaureate--the once-revolutionary curriculum, co-created along with UWC in the 70s), others called for a complete overhaul of our educational model. MUWCI's own student rep, a second year student with an analysis of surgical precision, brought to question the movement as a whole, its relevance and problematically elitist nature. Students outside the studio cheered. Her mother live-chatted the DIF audience. I messaged Pelham, MUWCI's Head who was skipping Head of College meetings to follow the discussion, to ask if I could borrow his motorbike for a recki mission to a nearby lake the following morning. Thrilling all round.

Our time on the DIF clock ran out, and the panel came to an end, but the conversation rolled on outside, gathering momentum as it developed in student courtyards and common rooms. As for Oscar and I, it was the end of our big push and also happened to be my birthday. Abuzz with the energy on campus, we headed home to celebrate.

[Since then, 
a review of UWC @ DIF made its way into the UWC Mahindra Magazine, published across the UWC network.]

Reconnaissance en wheels - Morning Mountains

The next morning--after a modest sleep in--I met up with my Outdoor Education counterpart, his partner and we headed out on motorbikes, me on a rough and ready dirt-road hybrid, them on a Kawasaki Ninja. After so many days behind the computer, the thrill of exploration under wide open skies and warm, thick air was a welcome change of pace. Keeping up with Arvin's Ninja was also a change of pace, as we zipped between boys on bikes, women carrying brass water pots and the occasional herd of cows: too holy to move for traffic.

Our route took us North along the neighbouring valley, out of the flatlands of fields and up the spine of a long ridge of land, overlooking expansive valleys to East and West: terraced rice paddies here, the gold-painted spires of Temples there, and everywhere the furious green of the late monsoon season. Each corner we rounded took my breath away, and as we raced across the top of the final ridge and the full panorama revealed itself, I was laughing and hooting into my pleasure, unable to contain the amazement I was feeling. Good thing we don't have helmet radios, was all I could think.

The reconnaissance mission took us off the main road and along a windy path into clusters of villages. We stopped and waited as Arvin inquired in Hindi, then continued by foot and bike until we found what we were looking for: a put-in place for our kayaks, to the beautiful waters of Pavna Lake.

As our valley's Mula river dries up post-monsoon, this is where our seasonal migration will take the MUWCI kayakers I am training. Young boys follow these curious foreigners to the water's edge--Arvin, though Indian, looks a world apart from the folks who call this village home--and ask if they can come boating with us. The fact that we have no boats with us is no damper to their excitement.

On the way back, I stop now and then to give someone a ride to the next village. One old man drops his walking stick. I circle back. He is dressed entirely in soft, white cotton garments, like many of the men here, taking the image of Gandhi and Nehru in their attire. By the time I catch up to Arvin and Marija, they are sitting at a table at a road side restaurant: a long awaited lunch. I am struck by the wealth of adventure to be had just in these surrounding valleys, let alone beyond, and my day dreams of getting wheels take on a notably more real tone...

That night, Friday night, Oscar and I head into Pune to celebrate both DIF and my birthday. We stay at the studio space of one of MUWCI's art teachers: a lovely man who makes gorgeous figures out of stone, intriguing boxes out of copper and huge bowls out of all sorts of metals. The space smells, tastes, feels like creation, equipped with the bare essentials for an artist immersed in their work: a toilet, a sink and a single mattress for rest.

Diwali - Festival of Lights... and much food

The next day, Oscar heads home while I meet up with a former MUWCI student and College of the Atlantic (COA) alumn whom I met a world away in the small town of Bar Harbour, Maine, some nine months ago on a visit from Halifax to old Pearson friends. I spend the afternoon with her family in Pune to celebrate the penultimate day of Diwali: India's eight day Festival of Lights that makes Christmas look like an afterthought.

We drink homemade wine and eat all manner of treats. Brothers and sisters exchange gifts and I am schooled in all the Indian literature I need to read by be-speckled old men with the politics of Gandhi fresh in their minds. Stuffed and nearly ready to go home, a few of us head to a nearby Korean coffee shop, owned by the father of a MUWCI grad, where we sit cross legged on pillows and I drink a proper cup'o . 

Tired, full and immensely satisfied, I meet my ride home and sleepily make my way back to the college.