When Deserts Are Cool

I was calling the parents in India, flushed with excitement from the week-end trip. A Girls Trip to Sedona, Arizona! I twirled the words around in my mouth relishing the effect it would have on the mater in particular. She was bound to be critical for ‘leaving’ the children on this ‘unnecessary jaunting’, and I looked forward to telling her about the trip, for this very reason. (My teenage years have been long drawn out, I know)

I had seen the pictures of all-girls trips on Facebook with a tinge of yearning for so long.

I had read the slightly romanticized version of Kate Harris’ version of two girls traveling on the Silk Road in The Lands of Lost Borders.

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I had followed XPD 2470, the all- women’s group that set out on a road trip from Coimbatore, South India to London via the vast plains of India, through the mountainous regions of the Himalayas, the difficult (socially and physically ) terrains of Afghanistan through Iran, Iraq – emerging into Eurasia and traveling on towards the heartlands of Europe over 72 days and passing through 24 countries in all.

How marvelous it all sounded?

Our own modest trip was nowhere close on the adventure scale or on the hardship scale, but it was exciting nevertheless. I did not have to take care of everyone’s packing, hygiene, hydration, and food? Liberation comes in various doses and forms I tell you.

Anyway, the mater picked up the phone and launched into a Grade 2 complaining session about the pater almost soon after saying Hello. I listened amused – “He doesn’t allow me to go alone and he won’t accompany me either!” she said.

I don’t know whether Jhansi Rani got an opportunity like this when she came in to lay down her sword after a rigorous day of training. Imagine, Jhansi Rani’s mother or aunt complaining to her how that she is never allowed to yield the kitchen knife. I felt like that.

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Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi 

Image: By Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi – Gallery, which that says it is from the British Library’s ‘Images Online Collection’, but the provided link to the Collection is dead., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5624069

I launched into my version of “Take up your own butter knife!” with gusto.

“Why do you care what he says? You go where you want. As though you don’t know how to get around. Its your own fault for listening to him.”

“As if! I cannot be like you people. Just go wherever I want whenever I want!” she said. I ignored the dig.

The pater sensed what was going through my head and quickly chimed in, “Nothing of the sort ma! I allow her to go anywhere, do anything!”

“First of all – who are you to allow her to do anything may I ask?” said I.

“True True – she allows me to allow her to go anywhere she wants!” said he.

“Secondly, what are you holding her back for? If she goes, you can have some quiet time of your own too, can’t you?”

He chuckled.

Then, in all grand glory, I told them all about the amazing trip we girls took to Sedona, Arizona. “Isn’t that a desert area?” said the pater who had touchingly moved to the map of the United States that hung on the walls of the home, and was now tracing his finger on the places I was telling him about.

“Yes it is! But when the girls go together, even deserts are cool!” I said and beamed. Lost on them of course, for they couldn’t see me, and by the sounds of it barely hear me as well.

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“What did the children do when you weren’t there?” the mother asked.

“Why?! Had fun of course -what do you think they did?” I said smartly and felt the glow of a battle won.

 

To Fall In Love With Earth

 “Good going amma! You are doing well. Just try riding a little faster, okay?”, said the daughter, and then the children gave me a thumbs up, and smiled encouragingly. We were out cycling on a relatively flat trail in the mountains nearby.  I was amused at the encouragement. It was true that I was in worse shape than I expected. 

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It had been decades since the days of pointless cycling up and down the hills, and the old spirit was reviving with every pedal stroke. I looked up yearningly at the tree-tops, and the pinecones hanging from them. All Earth looked and smelled inviting, reminding me of the gratitude for having such a beautiful planet on which to live. Today was not the day to rue the state of our laws, or how fast climate change is creeping up on us. Today was a day to feel grateful for what we have, so we may learn better to conserve what we have for future generations better. It was in this moment of great gratitude that I was admiring the tree-tops against the clear blue skies when I promptly veered off the bicycle path and crashed into some brambles nearby. 

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I tottered back to the path to chuckles from the daughter.  The husband in the meanwhile, was acting as though as he was in his teens again and cycling with both hands off the handle bar. The elementary school going son, gave me a shrug and said, “Show off!”. But I caught him trying to take his hands off the bar one at a time, and smiled to myself. 

The son had graduated to a bigger cycle for the first time and his face registered joy, and a little trepidation, as he stopped pedaling and went whizzing downhill. The adrenaline was pumping, and his cautious nature was kicking in at the same time. When we stopped for a break a few minutes later, he looked happy, and ready to start pedaling again. 

Out amidst nature that day was a wonderful balm for the soul. The air still felt nippy – there had been a light snow and rain at night, but the clouds had scattered nicely and the trail had some wet patches through which we went zipping with joy. The skies were blue, and the glistening snow and raindrops on the trees in the path brought about a pristine joy. 

The fresh, moist, clear air reminded me of Kate Harris when she wrote in the book, Lands of Lost Borders:

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“I’m not sure where I go when I spin wheels for hours on end like that, except into the rapture of doing nothing deeply—although ‘nothing,’ in this case, involves a tantrum of pedal strokes on a burdened bicycle along a euphemism for a highway through the Himalaya.” 

― Kate Harris, Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road

We were not in the Himalayas. We were on safe biking paths with brilliant nature folding us lovingly in its embrace on all sides, and yet the feeling was the same. There was harmony there between human souls and the Earth, and I could only hope that we never truly lose touch with that feeling. This is our only home after all.

We stopped for a while to take in a small hike around a place that has the wonderful combination of meadows, marshes, forests and river. A more Wind in the Willows kind of setting I could not have imagined, but there it was, and like the rest of the surreal day, I found myself feeling increasingly happy at being there. As we walked listening to the surging snow melt in the fast flowing stream nearby, I felt a sense of clarity, and I thought of Mary Oliver’s words:

I walk in this Earth to fall in love with it. – Mary Oliver

The Queen of Espirit d’escalier

One cold January morning, I clutched at my tea for life giving support. I was sitting through the kind of gathering that happens across Corporate America when a calendar year rolls over. Executives suddenly pep up, and sit up looking important, and feeling purposeful. Like a pup in spring, who thinks he can play with the ball if only folks would toss it instead of gadding about.

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I sometimes like to watch these events. The actors change every so often, and the ones who remain have subtle changes in their motivations and ambitions too. The varieties of personalities we surround ourselves with is an ever fascinating experience, and we only really have the luxury of sitting back and watching occasionally. I suppose that is why the Dalai Lama is full of the milk of human kindness – he meditates, and observes.

Anyway, the gathering reached a place where credits were rolled and I noticed happily how people brightened when they were given credit for their work. It is true one should do the work without expectation of the reward, but how nice it was to see people get the credit where it is due. The meadow suddenly seemed spotted with frisking happy pups.

There was an amusing interjection when one team was accidentally left out of the credits, and claimed what was their due.

I smiled to myself thinking of this normal human tendency to crave recognition. We all do it. Just the other day, I bragged about how clean the kitchen floor looked: ‘gleaming like glass’ as I said, till I was reminded by the family almost gleefully that I had better stump it given that I had to clean up the glass I had broken, and therefore ‘gleaming like glass’ doesn’t really count.
“I am neither Jocelyn Bell Burner nor Alfred Russell Wallace. When I clean the floor, I want credit! “ is the quip that I would have liked to come up with.

But I didn’t.

I came up with the inelegant, “Well…I am eating the potato fry then!”, and stuck my tongue out at the children.

I am a queen of that phenomenon where you think of the perfect verbal comeback too late. I was delighted to note there is a word for that: Espirit d’escalier.(Wiki Link for the word, Esprit De Escalier) The link writes about the amusing origins of the word, please read it.

Where am I going with all this spirited Espirit d’espalier, potato fry stuff? One moment. Yes, Credit and Work and Meaning and all that.

Sitting there at the corporate meeting, and watching the team claim credit for their small part in the puzzle, I was reminded of Jocelyn Bell Burner and Alfred Russell Wallace.

Wallace, independently arrived at natural selection for the mechanism for evolution before Darwin did, but he jointly published the paper with Darwin. Darwin’s Origin of Species is vastly credited with the theory though. Did that make Wallace spout and keep the potatoes? No, he continued to travel the world, writing about injustice and social causes. He never stopped exploring or lost the joy of wonder or ceased writing on the causes that deeply appealed to him.

Jocelyn Bell Burner is another scientist whom I find admirable for this very reason. She was passed over for the Nobel Prize. Credited with detecting the first Pulsars in the universe ( she should have been a Nobel Prize recipient for Astrophysics in 1974). When asked how she felt that her Professor got the prize, and did not adequately exert himself to get her name on the nomination, she shrugged and said, “If you get a prize, it’s not your job to explain why you got the prize. ”

I read about these two stalwart scientists in the books, Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris and Black Hole Blues by Janna Levin. Every book teaches us different things. Even queens of Espirit d’escaliers can find a way to come back with Jocelyn Bell Burner & Alfred Russell Wallace and their phenomenal attitude towards recognition as it related to their work.

 

It makes me realize now what my stellar teachers were saying on those cold Assembly mornings when they dangled tantalizing pieces of wisdom in their morning speeches.

Bhagawad Gita on work without reward

Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana,

Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani

कर्मण्- ेवाधिकारस- ते मा फलेषु कदाचन।

मा कर्मफलहेतु- र्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्- वकर्मणि॥

Loosely meaning: Do not anticipate fruits while doing the labor, this was oft quoted by teachers trying to inculcate the importance of work.

The Domestic Explorer

There are things every explorer wants to do. Whether it is as drastic as Thoreau spending 2 years, 2 months and 2 days in a cabin in the woods, or Kate Harris finding herself in the process of exploring the Silk Road, there are aspirations for us to reach that state of mind where we can look past the hustle and the bustle of our daily lives. A form of reflection that one gets to experience once in a while, but has no idea how to sustain. (At least I have had no luck at it.)

Quote from Lands of Lost Borders:

“I’m not sure where I go when I spin wheels for hours on end like that, except into the rapture of doing nothing deeply.”

I think Kate Harris’s moving, poignant, lyrical, poetic, beautiful meditations on being, belonging, and living is well on it’s way to becoming one of my favorites. I have re-read sections of it soon after finishing it. Hers is a marvelous mind (I am grateful she penned her thoughts and found a publisher for us to enjoy). It does make me wonder sometimes how many others there are out there, who have similarly exalted thought processes, a Being larger than being squashed into narrow compartments that we seem to slot ourselves into: A Higher Order Thinker.

Kate Harris’s work is one for every traveler’s soul. Every body who has ever dreamed of adventures, ever dreamt of being bigger than your circumstances, hers is an invitation to sample what is possible. For everyone who is unable to sample the world with all its worries and problems, Lands of Lost Borders is there.

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The author writes of her journey across the oldest and possibly most famous road in the World, The Silk Route. Wanting to lose herself in the other worldly, she lands up finding herself on the oldest roads known to civilization.

Along with her friend Mel, the two women cycle through Turkey, the Stan-countries after Russia’s disintegration (Turkemistan, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan), China, Tibet, Nepal and finally India – camping along the way, accepting the kind hospitality of friends and strangers along the way, navigating authorities, paper work and visa restrictions that make us want to throw our hands up in despair. A true voice of an explorer.

Her voracious reading sparkles in the form of quotations and anecdotes – Carl Sagan, Marco Polo, Charles Darwin, Russell Harris, Wright brothers are all in attendance adding their rich experience to the journey. Her clear heart blurs borders while sizing up people. Sitting up in bed with the wind roaring outside, the rains lashing, it is bliss indeed to pedal relentlessly through the high mountains, past lakes, punishing deserts and sketchy neighborhoods. Two women alone in an alien world.

As she quotes every so often,

“Every explorer dies of heartbreak.”

This is one of those books that will stay with me for a long time. I had the privilege of reading this book alongside another of Miss Read’s comfortable, cozy book. This book of travel and adventure was the perfect pairing to the domestic pleasures that a Miss Read book conjures up.

In Miss Clare Remembers, Miss Read writes about a young child of 8 or 9, who was excited and flushed after seeing the snowdrops when they went out on a school nature walk. Afterwards inside the home of the local farmer, where the farmer’s wife had kindly laid out biscuits, milk and cut fruit for the hungry children, she realizes how much she requires both pleasures in order to thrive. With a clairvoyance that children sometimes possess, she appreciates the vast spaces that nature provided for her soul to soar; and the cozy domestic pleasures where she can feel nurtured and at home. A safe haven from her flights of adventure.

Quote from Emily Davis – By Miss Read:

“One was her nest. The other was the place in which she stretched her wings, and soared, as effortlessly as the lark outside, into a different dimension.”

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I felt that way while reading the Lands of Lost Borders together with a Miss Read book. I savored the stars kindly drawing the constellations out for the explorers to reach out to every night; as much as I enjoyed the domestic problems of a normal life. Ensconced in the modern comforts of living, reading both the books in parallel left me with a deeply delighted sense of having both adventure and comfort, and feeling grateful for it.

I am not sure my blogs can do justice to the books, but it seems a perfect way to begin winding down the year.

Boarding the Flight of Fancy

A version of this post was published in The India Currents Magazine: On a Flight to a Land Without Borders

I boarded the flight at the end of a long week. I was going to be away for a week, and I had spent weeks trying to get things in order for the week I was gone. It felt good to finally stretch one’s legs (as much as an economy seat would allow anyway), relax one’s senses, and stretch one’s mind.

The flight was strangely beautiful. It left in the evening, and as it took off, I left behind a sparkling firework of lights. The vast, urban sprawling city and surrounding areas looked kindlier from above. The freeways glowed like veins throbbing with cars as they crammed their way home for the week-end along the packed highways. I have watched ants with interest as they scurry about their daily duties and I felt we must look the same if someone were to be observing us. Maybe those monitoring satellites do have the feeling every now and then.

Bay area at night is beautiful from an airplane, however else it feels when one is on the road.

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I fell into an uneasy slumber once we passed the populated sections and darkness fell. I looked out the window hours later, to be pleasantly surprised by the beauty that greeted me. The plane was gently reverberating with the satisfied sighs of sleep from most passengers. A few were watching the brightly glowing screens. I peered out of the window, at first unable to see anything since my eyes took some time adjusting to the sudden lack of light. Once I did though, it was marvelous.

I have always loved gazing at the moon while traveling. The feeling of us moving, and our beautiful cosmic neighbor giving us company even though we are moving so fast is surreal.

I could not see the moon just yet, but I recognized the belt of Orion. We were flying along side the big hunter as he made his way in his pursuit of the seven sisters across the skies. It is a strange feeling to watch the stars and a familiar constellation accompany us on the trip while we journey through the stars.

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The Pale Blue Dot, as Carl Sagan so beautifully christened our lovely, if sometimes crazy planet, seems wonderful from high above. It helps us forget how judgmental, critical, harsh and war-mongering a species we are. While up there, borders and countries seem like a strange concept, like a tiger marking its territory. Can the tiger determine where life can flourish, where the weeds grow, or how many gusts of wind may swish through the bamboo groves? Our borders mean much the same especially when surveyed from the stratosphere: Meaningless asks from an arbitrary marking.

Musings from the wonderful book, Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris, took me to an uneasy land of half slumber in which strange dreams accompanied unknown stars through a flight that even a 150 years ago was nothing but a flight of fancy. Kate Harris’s work is one for every traveler’s soul.

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I got up to see the moon looking slightly alarmed at still being up and about when the sun was rising. The pink, and orange skies twinkled benignly upon the clouds below, and all the world was still full of promise and expectant. The blush of joys unknown.

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