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Month: December 2016

There are no roads

There are no roads

Time to read: 6 min

I leave Nitin with an unopened box and tell him to stitch things up while I get my gear ready. When I return I find the kayak trolley assembled, but missing the strap to tie a kayak atop it. He runs to get some rope. We never run short of rope. We have a car full of equipment. And everything has been over used. Including patience. If I looked closely, I could put someone on mars with what we have packed in our car. Make Elon Musk’s day. We fasten the kayak to the trolley, and I set down the winding path from MTDC’s lovely cottages down to the beach at Harihareshwar. 100 metres in, the road ends in stairs. 19 feet long, and a fibre hull, is not going down stairs on a trolley.

Nitin and I carry it down. Past the stairs. Through the thorny bush. The pebbles turn to white shells. Each intent on cutting through. Shells turn to rock outcrop. And through it is a small sandy square. 3 metres wide. Launch pad.

I adjust the paddles. Check my watch. Time is always against us. Tide in, Tide out. Winds building up. Sun setting. Sun holding that full frontal position. Lift the skirt. Butt in the kayak. Leg over. Leg in. Two sharp paddle strokes. Turn to wave bye. Two sharp paddle strokes. Cover the mouth of the kayak with my skirt. Two sharp paddlestrokes. Release rudder line. Press hard on the left pedal. Paddle Hard.

You find yourself at a calm beach. You check your course. You scare the gulls with some sharp paddle strokes.

You find yourself at a turbulent beach. You brave the white breakers. You get tossed. A rude awakening in the morning. Water in the kayak if your skirt isn’t on. You tumble out. If the waves aren’t doing it for you, you drag your kayak to shore. Upturn. Check three compartments. Sponge it out. Start again. You get hit again, but you break through. Secure everything. Cap, glasses, cameras, phones, water bottles, food. If it’s not in a bag tied down or in a hatch locked away, you might as well have thrown it in yourself.

You find yourself at a creek. The wind blows, and the tide takes you in directions you haven’t mapped out for the day. You’re 4 kms off your course. You’re veering close to the breakers at the mouth. There is a buoy that probably means something you don’t want to know. There are small eddies set up you can’t navigate past. You recalibrate. You can probably sit there and google it, if everything stands still. But it doesn’t. The only law out here is Murphy’s.

You find yourself at a rocky face. You take in the sheer immensity of it. In Gujarat you wouldn’t find one. In Maharashtra you can’t miss them. Big majestic hills. Sheer face. Brown. Black. There is white breaking foam. And waves are building up on starboard. You surf your way through. You cut through. You recalibrate. Sun to the right, sun to the left. Point right out at sea. You escape, you press hard on the left pedal.

You cross a rocky face protruding at sea. Only you don’t know. Your route says straight. Only the mainland opens out to your left for miles. You have 7 miles to the next knuckle, and you’re suddenly 4 kms off of shore to your left. The wind trumpets your arrival and picks up the beat. Big swells start forming behind you. As one picks you up from behind the one in front hasn’t swept through the 19 feet of white kayak you’re in. Your nose is in the drink and you think you’re coming to a nosedive. A grinding halt. But your speedometer says you’re top speeding.  Your downwind has had a look at your due-south course, but the on-shore waves are from WNW. Another day of choosing the lesser of two evils. You’re doing  a great speed. But where was your initial bearing. Atleast you’re not bored.

You hit a sandbar. Sure they’re lovely islands of sand sitting less than a meter under the sea. This one stretches for miles into Harihareshwar. And its turning. A fishing vessels slows down to see the fun. 4 Kms back, Nitin has climbed up the rock, through the mine field of shells, past the thorny bush, up the stairs, and is watching from the MTDC canteen. The kindly old man who’s serves us food for 2 days has his hand over his open mouth. ‘He knows there are waves there? He’s going to be thrown in.’

I watch the breakers. Paddle left. Paddle right. I don’t slow down. I’ll need the momentum if I need to get out. I watch a wave 10 meters ahead.  Three metres to it’s right is another one. Closer still in a circular arc white tips herald another. You’re living life a meter at a time. I take 500 strokes to a km . A stroke is 2 metres. My kayak is 5.5. I need 3 strokes to take me past a point. And a wave is fairly long. I dart right into the thick of it. Past the wave to the right. Bank hard on the rudder. Take it out to sea. Take one breaker head on. Bank left. A rogue wave takes me on the side. My spray skirt takes a sip of the turbulent sea. I press hard on the right paddle, and take another breaker at 30 degrees. Once I get the tip over, I slow down over the side. One more wave but it’s going to come from behind. I need to get between two consecutive waves. I can’t slow, and I have to time this. As it starts to form, I approach at full speed. It starts to rise and I slip over. It forms a meter to my left. Breaking white surf. The next one starts forming 2 meters to the right. I’m through.

I’ve passed through it. If I knew my audience was to my right now, I would have bowed. I take a second, and I recalibrate. There are no roads out here. Because you’re making them every minute.

Kathiyawad. A people. Part 1.

Kathiyawad. A people. Part 1.

Time to read: 10 min

I think you can spot kindness in the eyes. It’s like a dam waiting to break. And shower you with the niceness of being. I’ve been spotting it everyday in Gujarat. Let me tell you how it’s been.

We landed in Gujarat to the dusty streets of Dwarka. Past the twilight hour, we arrive in a city where the roads have taken a leave of absence and cows have filled in for them. The owner of the hotel is perplexed by the big blue tarpaulin on top of my car, but he does well to hide it. His immediate concern is giving us our rooms, which aren’t ready. He gives us a room to rest in while the other is being cleaned. After we’ve removed the cycle and tied it to a flimsy post, a GoIbibo ad for the hotel, and brought out the luggage, we look to address our immediate fear. Cash.  Ashwin, the hotel owner, takes it upon himself. He says come with me. The next minute, I’m on the back of his scooter going through winding streets, dodging bowines and pan-chewers. He drives me to 3 ATMs before the fourth one has a standing line outside. He deposits me there, gives me both his phone numbers and tells me to call him when I’m done. On the ride back, I get the full layout of Dwarka, and also how there is Pomfret fished at Okha, but it all goes to export.

Down at the ghat the next day, the expedition stands on the brink. Cops have stopped me from entering the water, saying I don’t have the clearance. I might have to drive to Gandhinagar. 500 kms back the way we came. That’s a mighty big thorn on a fairly sensitive foot. For 1, I can’t drive back with the kayak atop. Also, I’ll now have to have everyone stay in Dwarka. Mr. Bambhania is the President of the Scuba Diving Club in Dwarka. He steps in and says – ‘What is your worry?’ I snap, ‘I can’t travel with my kayak, and I don’t know where to keep it either.’ 20 minutes later, the kayak is safely tucked away in his garden. We’ve put the tarp over it and he says – ‘You go do what you have to do first, this is safe here.’ True to his word, I could run around Dwarka, Okha, Khambaliya without a care about my precious cargo. At the launch, not only did Mr. Bambhania come out to see us off, he brought his two brothers, cyclists, and a small launch vessel. It braved the mouth of the Gomti with me, and when we crossed his dive site, he even had me board his boat and offered me a Dwarkadish welcome. A scarf and some mithai. In the middle of the sea, while someone helped haul out the buckets of water that two metre high waves had deposited in my kayak.

Rakesh Mishra is the head of GMB at Okha. I met him outside his home, on what I’d later realize, the day he had come back from travelling 600kms with his family. He was not perturbed by my barging into his home as much as amused by what I was proposing to do. He laughed and said – ‘Good yaar’ the way you’d encourage your close relatives in their pursuit of a girl they love. (Been there, Done that.) At his office the next day, he was the definition of nice. When he said – I love what you’re doing, you could actually sense that he did. We were supposed to be there 15 minutes but stayed for 2 hours. We chatted about kayaking and what I would need to launch. We chatted about Gujarat and how nice the people are. ‘Here, if you show up at a stranger’s house uninvited, they only let you go after lunch.’ He pushed me to rewrite the letter I’d typed up at the Marine Police Headquarters(Yes, on their computers!). Suddenly his office was my office, as I took over his computer to fill in various missing elements in my intimation letters. Barely had I hit print on a copy that he said – ‘What are you doing? You’ll need to submit these to everyone. Print atleast 6-7.’ He then proceeded to pull out a full fistful of fresh A4 paper for ‘miscellaneous needs’ and had his man take 5 copies of every document we should submit to all the authorities. ‘See, most of your time will be wasted doing these tasks. Xerox karwana, finding a stapler, writing a letter. Get it over with here only.’ His telepathic power were uncanny as we had spent 20 minutes looking for a xerox shop in far flung Okha, where one couldn’t find a restaurant let alone someone to change print settings on the overly-dark-photo-copier. Flush with everything we needed to wage war on the paper-filling mission we were on, we looked to leave when things came full circle. ‘What are you doing for lunch yaar?’ Before I can say we should have left your office 2 hours back, we are enroute to the GMB Guest house. A british-age Navy blue building overlooking the pristine blue waters of Okha. In the distance, a small island with an ancient lighthouse. Idyllic. The cook quickly accommodates 2 more people, and we relish the rest of the afternoon talking about Modi’s upcoming plans and how we should hang on for a little while to see some change. The change we are seeing in the attitude of the government workers here in Gujarat is very welcome to me. He sends us on our way to the Indian Coast Guard, because in his opinion, everything else is secondary, personal safety is the most important, and I should ensure that they know, because they will be the first responders.

Little did I know, they would also be my biggest backers.

Enter Indian Coast Guard Okha. The day before was Guru Nanak Jayanthi, and the receptionist at the gate said that Sisodia saab, the person who could take a call on the matter, was not in office. So we returned the next day. For my last expedition, the Coast Guard in Maharashtra had been very forth coming. This year, with mounting tensions on the border, things were a little sketchy. We set off with a letter from the Marine Police of Maharashtra, but not much else.

So on day 2, I knew that we had to get the go-ahead from the Indian Coast Guard at Okha. It was a make or break for the expedition. We were ushered in, and as Dad and I waited for the Second Officer, I dialed in a close friend Jeetesh Sisodia. ‘Siso, long-shot, but you wouldn’t happen to know the Sisodia who’s the SO at ICGS Okha would you?’ ‘Nopes. I know another person in Coast Guard, but not him.’ ‘No worries. It was a long shot.’

We head in, and explain ourselves. The SO is very courteous. He tells us about his inclination to sports, and how he’s trying to get his niece and nephew to go out and play. As to the matter in hand, he doesn’t commit. Instead, he tells us that the Commanding Officer might take an interest in meeting us as he has his own sailing club in Mandappam. The name sounds familiar, but when you’re pre-occupied with whether you can ever launch on your 3000km expedition, your brain is not connecting dots as readily as a well-fed 5 year old with spare time.

We wait in the CO’s waiting room, and are finally ushered in. The CO sees us coming in, get off his chair, and says – ‘Kaustubh?’ I’m stunned. Did the SO give out our names? Highly unlikely. ‘Hey come in, I saw your face and recognized you.’ Double whammy. ‘What’s your next expedition?!’ Way too many cannons firing.

Commandant Harish More is the CO of ICGS Okha. He’s had a love for the sea that is unparalleled. We share a common friend on the water in Jehan Driver. Down in Rameshwaram Jehan runs Quest Adventures. A club given to sailing, wind surfing, kayaking and most importantly kite-surfing. In what is a real story of vastly shrinking worlds, I’d met Commandant’s More’s wife in a chance occurrence in the Himalayas on a 12,000ft trek. While I tell him this, he shows dad a photo of me finishing last years expedition on his phone. From being in unknown territory, we are suddenly finding a warm welcome at the Indian Coast Guard headquarters. The commandant is asking me how I plan on staying safe, and I’m telling him about how fast I plan on doing this. He’s as excited as me that someone is attempting it. When Sandy Robson has crossed India, he had been a guiding hand in her route from Kerala to Kolkatta. Before I know it, I’m sending him my expedition deck and he’s telling me how he will help us stay in ICGS quarters wherever possible. To help ease the load. Now 20 days into the expedition and having been a guest at multiple properties around Gujarat, this has done exactly that. Apart from the monetary aspect of it, to not have to search for cheap, clean accommodation on a daily basis is a true blessing. It cuts an hour of running around with a car, kayak, and a cycle in unknown cities, with a sketchy internet.

But most importantly, Harish More adds a serious sense of safety to the whole expedition. He instructs me gently on what to do when in distress. He makes me commit things to memory, and assures me that they can spot my vessel from afar, so I shouldn’t be worried at any time. As this washes over dad, he accepts my intimation letter, and tells me that he will inform the ICGS stations along the route, and that I shouldn’t have any problems. The signed intimation letter comes in handy at Veraval, where an eager police inspector is told to take time-off after the Fishersies head sees the document. At another spot, the local police call the nearest coast guard control room to enquire if they know of any such expedition. The affirmative answer sees us out the door faster than developers out of a marketing think-thank meeting.

In truly heart warming fashion, he promises to come flag me off when I finally leave. On the basis of the letter, we get the rest of the documentation done, and 3 days after we were asked to halt our progress, Harish More, in his crisp white Indian Coast Guard uniform flags me off from the banks of the Gomti river.

Gujarat has been kind.

A million thanks to everyone in this post and everyone who moved things in the background to make it possible.

Alang. The Graveyard.

Alang. The Graveyard.

Time to read: 4 min

There is that old question – “If you knew where you would meet your demise, would you knowingly go there?” For 30 years, ships have been, like dogs sensing their end, retreating to Alang for their last rites. Huge giants of the sea tread softly in on a high tide, and as the water retreats their death toll is rung.

It takes 3 months to tear apart a medium size container vessel. Says the guard, Prajapati. Two minutes back he was scampering down the slopes of his perch in Plot no. 231. Now we take photos with me against the dead ship. “My brother lives in Bombay. I used to live in Borivali.’ He tells me that once a ship is brought into land, the captain is relieved of his ship. Sold through bids to any one of the multitude of ship breakers, it’s now no more than a hunk of metal, wood and plastic. And not a scrap goes waste.

As we drive into Alang, 5 kms out, they start. Big open warehouses. Fenced & categorized. We see rows of TVs, refrigerators. Big safes that could house pearls to be thrown into oceans in HD quality. Big dusty yards turned orange by life-rafts of all sizes and states of disrepair. One lot has engines in that rustproof green. Cables, pulleys, ropes of varying thicknesses & make. I ask for life jackets & the businessman starts blowing into airplane yellow inflatables. I can buy a bath tub with the works and a jerry can to fill it with, if the plumbing store isn’t open yet. Furniture stores share a border with warehouses selling wood planks that share a border with waterproof doors. Buoys, anchors & winter down-jackets. An army of table fans catching the dusty wind of this dying town.

‘UP, Bihar, Orissa, Maharashtra, Bengal se bhi aate hain.’ (Workers come from all these states. Even West Bengal) says Ramprakash, the kindly, groggy attendant at Ship Breaking Plot 134. ‘Dekh lo, par photo mat lena.’ Acetylene torches. What once took years of work, parts from around the world, and withstood the battering of a million waves, taken apart by a mob of migrant workers in a brown city in Gujarat. A 15 storey monster done in by a 2 storey white oxygen cyclinder. Nobody makes ships to fall apart, but in Alang you’ll find a cure for that.

Workers brushing their teeth, brown bucket in hand* enroute the banks of the sea that feeds them. Workers have been dying in Alang for a while now. Prajapati casually remarks – ‘Petrol chamber mein girte hain, kabhi fire lag jaati hain.’

Alang’s beach runs 5 kms long, each plot shares a wall with another. Walls & gates meant to keep prying eyes and camera lenses out. Not a single access way to the beach save the squatting squares*. Fate is not without irony as the one thing they all share in common are the words boldly painted on the wall – ‘Safety First.’ To drive home the humour – ‘Clean Sosiyo, Green Sosiyo.’

I’ve now wriggled my way on to the beach. The first ship I see looks a wreck. A container vessel who’s stern literally fell out with the rest of the ship. Containers stand in the water while an open ship rotor sticks out over the brown murky waves. I move on. The next ship looks almost whole. Only the top of the bow has been removed. Prajapati has seen it all. He adds nothing to his explanation of – ‘Permeeshan nahi aya.’ (Permissions were revoked / not given) As I stare at the hunk of metal that was removed before the paperwork came down heavy on this gigantic paperweight, I see the name of the vessel. Friends. So here it lies, dying and friendless. As I chat with said guard, two local women start picking up after the departing tide; plastic gems scattered on this rocky beach. Prajapati shoos them off. He finishes the sentence with how his hometown is just 3 kms away. Nothing is black and white here. Just various shades of brown, each squabbling for a juicier pound of flesh.

As the workers start entering the plots, I smell fumes. The kinds my lungs would avoid if they could take a walk off of this beach.  Big chemical carriers, container ships, dredgers, drillers. 50% of the world’s ships due for demolition come to Alang. On a long enough timeline the chances of a ship ending up at Alang is higher than ships in the Suez Canal being attacked by Somali Pirates on a bad day. Definitely more than the chances of the workers seeing a ripe age of 60. Welcome to Alang,the dying graveyard.

The Plot

The Plot

Time to read: 7 min

Plots.

There’s a line from the F1-racing movie Rush, where the protagonist*, James Hunt says – ‘I’ve always been one for showing up on the day(unprepared) and playing chicken with everyone else.’ It does seem to have an appeal to it. And people who know me might nod their heads silently knowing that I’ve been known to shoot and ask questions later. But expeditions are different. Expeditions are about planning, and accounting for the unaccountable. What are you going to do when a rogue wave hits you? What happens when your phone dies? What do you eat on a beach you’re stranded on?

Everyday a dry bag goes into my kayak with dry clothes secure in cling wrap, food supplies, water, a swiss army knife, ID, an ATM card(only useless thing in this list at the moment), some spare cash and my spectacles. I’ve always got an excess supply of water, bailers for water coming onboard, sponges, and everything is secured on / in the kayak at cast off. Everyday that dry bag leaves the kayak unused is a great day.

Leaving Bombay Shanj mapped out places we would halt / sync up. Safe to say that 50% of the time we haven’t found the spot we set out of find. It’s got a Columbus feel to it, complete with locals who don’t know what to make of it all.

Our good friends at Meraki have been trying to get to us for the last 2 weeks and with our constantly changing timelines, we are having a tough time coordinating where they can meet us 2 days from now let alone 1 week ahead.

The changing landscape brings different weather patterns and no day’s paddling is the same. Winds pick up or change directions and the water gets choppier as we progress down south. It’s made it difficult to estimate when we complete a leg. Despite it all, we aren’t lagging behind too much.

Landing in Rajpara the other day was quite a scene. I’d navigated some very dubious waters. A fisherman’s boat turned back around and came out to check on my small craft. I unkowningly got caught in a eddy and everything was choppy around me. As I jostled with the waves, the fishing boat came out and asked me if I needed a tug. I declined the kind offer but not before noting that I was in some deep water. After they pointed me in the right direction, I got back on my charted course (To my relief I’d plotted the exact course that they put me on). And I entered Rajpara still having clocked my best time. We’d marked a point called Bajrag Tea House. And as I stood outside it scanning the shore for a golden car with a girl on a cycle to go with, I realized I’d beaten them to it. On land people started pouring in and following my progress. I went left, and they went left. I took a right and the kids started running the other way. I called ahead and found that the team was 10 kms off. That’s another 30 minutes and I couldn’t just stand here when I had such a warm welcome party on land waiting. So I skirted past the fishing boats, waved at a bunch of people, and popped my skirt. Effortless landing and I pulled up my kayak onto land. I was hit by a large crowd of small people. Kids flocked to the kayak. Again and giving credit to the people no one tried to touch it or sit on it or do anything remotely malicious. The elders soon appeared in drones, and I was hit with a barrage of questions. Where is the motor? What do you eat? What, Dwarka? Like Krishna’s Dwarka?

The people continue to be nice, and I was offered water (Which I declined. An incident with the water and my stomach at Navadra had convinced me off of it) but I accepted Bajrag’s tea. I mean, it’s a Google Landmark. A very nice gentleman took me to it, and sat me on a wooden bench which I presume is a bed, and I was given a saucer full of tea. Nobody bothers with cups this side, and a steaming saucer later, I pleaded a little cold in the tea house. Part true, part excuse to check on my kayak, I returned to find the stern two feet in the air attached to the village drunk. I was quick off my heels and ran down to ask him to drop it. Which he promptly did. He flapped his arms around and said something which I registered as – I want to take it out into the water and turn it upside down. I remarked how preposterous the idea sounded to which he flapped his arms and repeated said lines. Things were starting to boil over when he came over to touch something else, something I didn’t feel particularly comfortable with and he backed off. The third time he came around to the kayak, I got between him and the kayak. We had a bit of a stand off and we were seconds away from a brawl when an elderly man in white came running down and whacked him repeatedly on his head till he slunk back. A couple of other drunks followed suit and came down to see the vessel, but now that a precedent had been set, nothing much ensued.

The kids foamed about my watch or my phone though both of which aren’t something to write home about, but given the packaging of the product and it’s coming right out of the sea, they became things to talk about. I underplayed my watch’s price and even at it’s modest rate of INR 5,000 it’s stories ran through town.

People came and went, and by the time I saw the car on the outskirts of the town, I was rested, hydrated and had stretched enough to call it a day. The village was a departure from what you’d call a tropical fishing paradise the way that an ulcer is a departure from a warm fuzzy feeling. Having arrived at the banks, Nitin and I carried the kayak through a road littered with pigs and their natural habitat. The air was rank with dead / dying / decayed fish and we wanted to put as many miles between us as possible. In reflection, it explains why Shanjali chose a Vegetarian Gujarat Thali on our return to Diu.

But the 45 minutes of waiting, explains the chasm between our land and sea journeys. Often it is the other way around, and being a girl with a fancy bike in these areas can’t be overtly pleasant. One would choose an ulcer in my opinion.

Which brings us back to plotting. Not the Brutus and Mark Anthony kind, but the charting of our routes. Everyday, after the rest / documentation and dinner is done, we pull out our laptops / phones / internet source of the day(Docomo is a no-no here) and we plot the next day’s route. We figure how far it is by water, and sync it to my watch. A couple of backup beaches are plotted out and we painstakingly comb Google maps, Suunto’s maps and Navionics to find ourselves rocks, waves, islands and beaches. A beach in Gujarat doesn’t necessarily mean sand. In fact, in our experience, 90% of them are lined with rocks and to find an escape route / entry point often comes down to being on the ground. Plotting, thus, is not a whispered word in a ear like it was in Cassius’ time. Though an Assistant Commandant at Pipavav played his part and his words of –‘I would stay 2.5 Kms out because there are a lot of eddies’  brought his parting words with Brutus back –

“I am glad that my weak words
Have struck but thus much show of fire from Brutus.” –Cassisus to Brutus. Act I. Scene II. Julius Caesar.

So we plot.