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Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Prologue - A Rant on Indian weddings, Delhi Belly, A Couple of Surprises Too

Even coach in Thai Airways is extremely comfortable. The attendants are earnest and warm manner and the seats recline farther back then you'd think. They welcomed me with my favorite snack of late - roasted cashew nuts, commonly found in Asia but somehow rare in the US. I'm now anticipating a delicious lunch that is sure to follow. Pity that this trip from Delhi to Bangkok is a quick one at about 4 hours. I'd have gladly chosen this carrier over United for my rather long but drab trip coming to Delhi from San Francisco - The service and the amenities are tolerable at best. There is a lot that Asian carriers can teach their Western counterparts. 

The service and this relaxing flight is more to be appreciated as I realize that the next chapter of my travels is bound to be grittier as I plan to economize with overnight buses and budget accommodations. I can hardly complain - I'll be posted up in some of the most decadent environs the climbing world has to offer - warm sunshine, sandy beaches, karst cliffs and some downright fantastic seafood. I'm thrilled to bits actually. 

Leaving Delhi is always a mixed bag. As content as I am about returning home to the US or alternately for my current adventures, overflowing love from the family can leave me feeling ja bit sad and empty. Despite thirteen years of adjusting to life abroad, saying goodbye is still hard. 

I traveled to India to relax with my family and prepare for the journey ahead and was fortunate to be able to schedule in two weddings. My cousins Shubhi and Anshuman were getting married in back to back festivities in Jaipur and Delhi. I flew into Delhi in the wee hours of Thursday morning on Dec 7th and we immediately hopped on to the Shatabdi to Jaipur. Indian train journeys can be fun affairs as my friend Monisha Rajesh wittily alludes to in Around India in 80 trains. After 24 hours of travel I was only too happy to pass out over hot chai and biscuits. The Jaipur wedding was a lavish do at a resort hotel on the outskirts of town with liveried staff, overflowing buffet tables and a open bar from morning to night. Two days in Jaipur left me drained. I realized how much I acutely dislike big wedding affairs. Love catching up with family and of course glad to wish the newleds good wishes, I am chagrined though at the soulless display of excess - comical extravagance that amplify the class differences between the guests and the benighted staff. To me these fancy affairs are emblematic of the class divides in India and the indifference of the privileged classes. I was secretly looking forward to the main wedding procession where the groom was supposed to lead a cavalcade of a dozen elephants and horses! We unfortunately had to catch a night bus back to Delhi and missed the finale of this Bollyhood glitzier :( We came right back to Anshuman's wedding in Delhi - a smaller, simpler affair but equally vibrant with milling cousins who I danced with till the wee hours. I've known Anshuman and his family my whole life and was quite glad to be with them.

Coming down to earth after 4 days of partying was painful, literally so. I had neglected some basic principles of acclimation, in my greed to partake in the delicious food on offer. That and travel fatigue left me with a bad tummy and a sinus infection that has snagged me for the last 2 weeks and kept me from anything too wild. I hit some bureaucratic snafus with my Thai visa with a  result that now I may have to constrain my stay in Thailand to only 15 days instead of the intended 6 weeks. I'm sure I'll find some fun alternatives. 

Delhi does always have a few highlights. I was thrilled to bits at the small but friendly climbing scene at the dilapidated outdoor climbing gym of the Indian Mountaineering Federation facility in South Delhi. These kids love to climb and train with passion! I was inspired and reminded me of how much I love small and tightly knit climbing communities. I was in for a similar surprise when I managed to locate a couple of salsa parties in town. These salseros are good! The level of dancing could rival any club anywhere. Pity that they focus on the LA school of salsa, less rhythmic and exuberant than Salsa Cubana (in my opinion). Still a bundle of fun regardless and luckily I found a few partners who were happy to follow (or tolerate?) the unfamiliar moves I had to offer. Man, if I ever move back in India I'd have to kickstart a dance studio and arm twist some of my Cuban friends to come over and teach! 

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Gap Year

I think this term was coined for European (or maybe British to be precise) students who often take a year off after their school diploma and before entering college or beginning work. I think the general idea is to take a break from school, and do something radically different than accustomed lifestyle. I’ve come across kids undertaking various endeavors, the most common being traveling to new countries, often in the developing world – easier on shoe string budgets. I think the vast majority accomplishes a combination of charity work, vocational training and more typically sightseeing and partying at exotic locations worldwide. The India-Nepal circuit is a popular passage offering a seductive combination of the radically exotic and of a dirt-cheap lifestyle (at least for Western pockets). I learnt and was seduced by this concept while befriending friendly Europeans while backpacking in the Himalayas as a wide-eyed adolescent. Having lived with my parents for all of my young life and with little travel outside India, I was entranced and awed by these kids who were my age but had been living on their own and traveling everywhere with their vacations seemingly infinite. The idea of taking this kind of interruption away from family and the path (school, work, family, yada yada) was rather strange and mythical in India 15 years ago –and I suspect remains mostly unchanged despite recent socio-economic transformations. Nobody, nobody in my network far and wide in my knowledge had ever taken time off like that to travel, or leave a well-rewarding job for a non-professional interest. I was entering college and was already beginning to love travel, and the time spent trekking and camping in the magical Himalayas. Thank you Mom and Dad for instilling in us early a love for exploration and adventure – through the countless family trips to fairy-tale forts, wild animal parks, temple cities and the exhilarating snow-clad Himalayas.
Triple Crown at Hound Ears (North Carolina) - 2006
That influence, and a burgeoning love for the outdoors is a chief reason that drove me to seek an education out West that would allow me the means to undertake something similar in my life. Though as a 21 year old arriving in America for graduate school, I had no idea when or in what manifestation.

I started rock-climbing in earnest when I was about 25, after the grad degree and passing through a short-lived career in consulting that involved heavy travel and work of the spiritless mind-numbing variety. Fortunately I found better work-life balance with new employment that kept me in town and with free evenings and weekends. I was hooked to the sport immediately. My initial motivation to rock climb was to acquire the skills to progress as a mountaineer, for as a teenage I dreamt of ascending big peaks. However I found rock climbing, the sport of moving over vertical stone, completely fulfilling – offering me intoxicating physical challenges in utterly scenic surroundings in the company of good friends. Over time my circle of friends changed and so did my goals in life. While excited about solving problems at work and seeking that path up the corporate ladder, I was just as buoyed about training for climbing, voyaging to amazing locales and of progressing to new levels of challenges and grades with the sport. I was fortunate to find a very diverse group of friends. While I knew hard working weekend warriors like me who juggled work, and family, and climbing, I also began climbing with full time climbers or seasonal climbers who devoted enough time and passion for the sport to let it occupy the primary place in their lives. They’d often take long breaks from work or school, spend months on the road living out of vans / trucks and would take trips overseas as well on small budgets supplemented with strong intentions towards their love for climbing. I was climbing furiously at that time point while living in Charlotte, with the odd 80-100 days of climbing outside each year – basically every weekend and vacation time thrown in. The funny thing about climbing is that the more you do it, the more you love it and the more you want to keep doing it. As my friend put it – you are psyched before the trip, psyched during, and definitely psyched post-return! The New River Gorge in Fayetteville, West Virginia was (and remains) my favorite climbing area, and a home away from home. I moved to California about 6 years ago and miss the ‘New’ more than Charlotte or any other part of the South-East.
One of my favorite climbs of all time. Narcissus, Summersville Lake, New River Gorge
Slowly the impression of journeying around the world for a while gained shape and morphed into the plan of climbing full-time and chase extended stays in familiar and novel climbing areas; to realize the goal of being the best climber I could be, and to live simply, away (for the most part) from the callings of mainstream life.

Over the last couple of years, things began to fall in place. In 2010 I received the long awaited US green card – as a permanent resident I’ve the right to be independent of employment to reside in the US. My professional career also came a full circle this year – having progressed and grown immensely where I now felt the confidence to take a sabbatical and be able to secure similar employment after. The other catalyst is definitely the pressure I feel with growing older, and of finding other interests, which may be just as compelling - dancing and surfing (as you guys know). Towards the fall of this year I found myself in this sweet spot where I knew I could quit work without significant professional or financial setback. Additionally, I was unattached, and finally beginning to train hard for climbing again after a long period of being sidelined with nagging injuries and other activities.

Pretending we are one of the sponsored athletes at the Petzl Roc Trip at the Red River Gorge in 2007
While I could just as willingly take the time off to chase the surf swells across the globe, or to move to somewhere in Latin America and pursue mastery in the salsa, rumba, samba or Afro-folkloric genres, nothing would give me more satisfaction than achieving a new level in climbing. For I’ve spent the last 10 years, training my ass off, making professional and relationship sacrifices, and dreamt of breaking new barriers in the sport.  And while I’m a bit older now, I’m close to the fittest I’ve ever been, and I don’t have any stopping injuries. This is my chance, for I may never find this sweet spot in my life again.

So what is this obscure ‘climbing goal’ that I keep reiterating? Simply put, I hope to be able to solidly red-point 5.13 this year, towards my long-term or 5 year goal of red-pointing 5.14 and on-sighting 5.13. Time to take these objectives off the back-burner! For you non-climbers, these are grades at the very high end of the difficulty spectrum in rock climbing. If I ever get to this level, then I’d probably be in the 99th percentile of the sport. I also recognize that I may never achieve these lofty ambitions – life may certainly get in the way. However the process is just as enriching and I will learn much about myself and gain tremendous satisfaction during the journey.

After a long couple of weeks of packing mayhem, unhealthy eating (!) and saying goodbyes to my cherished San Francisco community, I relax enough to be able to compose my thoughts on this flight towards my first destination. I intend to keep my itinerary for this period focused but simple. I intend to visit some of the best climbing spots in the world and spend extended time learning and internalizing the local rock and push towards new limits. Here’s a rough itinerary:
1.     Dec 6th – Arrive in India for a couple of weeks of family and weddings. Please don’t let me get fat J
2.     Dec 20th – Depart for the Krabi peninsula, for about 6 weeks of climbing in and around Tonsai
3.     Feb 1st – Find myself somewhere in Vietnam headed towards Ha Long Bay, for more climbing on limestone sea karsts and hopefully become comfortable with deep water soloing
4.     March 1st – Head straight to Yangshuo, China. Should be warmer and not too wet yet. This is the main focus of the Asia leg of my trip and I hope to be fit to tackle the long and dreamy lines of Moon Hill White Mountain, Peng Shen and other sublime crags. I hope to be here for between 6-8 weeks. Maybe even visit Getu Valley, made famous from the recent Petzl Roc Trip
5.     Mid / End April – Head back to India to relax with family and evaluate psyche. If all is well then,
6.     May 15th – Leave for Northern Spain.  The numero uno destination of my entire trip. Spent a couple of weeks climbing here a few years ago and have been vowing to return. The plan would be to spend 4-5 months being based somewhere near Barcelona, becoming a regular at the world class crags that surround. I also hope to achieve greater fluency in Espanol and even find outlets to dance (Cuban Salsa is apparently quite popular). Side trips may include Mallorca, France (Ceuse etc) and even Kalymnos in Greece.

This is it! Forward and onwards!