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Thursday, October 24, 2013

An Ayurveda Escape

Ground herbs to be used for medicines. 
The vice-grip clenches down on my funny-bone and I can't help but exhale a little yelp. The grip doesn't relent but tightens further as if goaded on by my guttural feedback, and now begins to move up and down my thigh squeezing with increased rigor. I'm pinioned between two masseuses who are bent on identifying and decoupling knots and other abnormalities they find around my body. I'm compressed, kneaded, pulled and manipulated with skilled hands as they methodically scour my entire body. There's nary a stitch of clothing on me and there's little that they miss. While the session on my upper back and traps was excruciating, the one on my thighs is singularly tormenting. I'm tickled (it's my funny-bone after all), and squirming in agony, all at the same time. As a grown man, my little cries feel embarrassing. Chakrapani, one of the masseuses, assures me that my reactions are quite normal. I'm hardly comforted and plead with them to slow down. This is after all my first day at the Ayurveda center and I'm supposed to last for the next two weeks. Soon the discomfort recedes making way for deeper sensations of tranquility and well-being. The depth of which I probably couldn't experience had I not been subjected to the suffering first. How did I end up here? I was on a surf discovery mission after all.
After lapping up the Cyclone Phailin-borne swell in the the ancient and exotic, if mucky, beach town of Mahabalipurm, we had made our way to Pondicherry, an erstwhile French colony that was reputed for culinary excellence, both for an avantè garde blend of French and Indian, as well as exquisite traditional Tamil Nadu fare. In particular I was on the hunt for the best thali - a bottomless platter of fragrant curries, pickles, and stir-fried vegetables served with papadam, rice and/or roti that is usually served at lunchtime. We found an excellent one at Surguru's, and for about 2 USDs we gorged ourselves silly. With the eye of a fussy grandma, the servers hover around tables persistently refilling empty bowls, forcing me to err on the side of gluttony. I personally ate enough for lunch that dinner was a moot point that day. We also found good bakeries for breakfast and eclectic street food to cap off evening walks in the Pondicherry promenade. We also explored Auro-beach and visited a surf-school run by two friendly Auroville-raised Spaniards. It slowly dawned on me that I needed a break from surfing on account of open skin wounds that refused to heal with daily and prolonged exposure to aquatic elements. While being a general tourist can be fun on occasion and there were plenty of promising sights in South India, i was looking for something profound and longer-lasting. I reverted to the notion of calling on to a cleansing / nature care facility, an idea that I had entertained at the beginning of my travels last year. It felt like it's time had finally come. I was close to Kerala, the center of Ayurveda - an alternative system of healing based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body, and spirit. The primary focus of Ayurvedic medicine is to promote good health, rather than fight disease. I wasn't suffering from any serious malady and felt that an Ayurveda escape would be sublime to align and reset my systems from the past year of sports and travel induced gluttony.
The left at Auroville
Another couple of days of research and planning, and voila, i found myself at Matt India Ayurveda, deep in the heart of rural Kerala, in the village of Turavur, and on the banks of the famed Keralan backwaters. Without the hazards of modern telecom it would certainly feel like a place that time forgot. The facility itself is organized more like a hospital than a retreat and they take patient care rather seriously. They have space for many more, but refuse to take more than a dozen patients at a time. In fact there were only four others when I arrived here mid-October. It is still Monsoon here which is apparently also the ideal time for Ayurvedic treatment. The herbs used in the medicines are in bloom, and the moist air promotes healing. The Keralan rainstorms are awe-inspiring certainly. It's poured almost every day of the past week that I have been here and the thunderclap is loud enough to be startling. 
The Matt India campus
The backwaters right behind the center.
Getting a tour

The clinic was different than what I imagined. Actually I had no right to expect anything, having no experience, and my knowledge of Ayurveda being next to none. It was not the kind of cleansing getaway popular in the West where they attempt to detoxify you by restricting to an exclusive diet of limited raw foods and juices, and flushing the hell out of your colon with daily enemas. Instead here they nourish with fresh, mouth-watering South Indian food (albeit cooked with minimal fat), herbal juices, and seasonal fruits, but also pummeled you with intense massages, hot oil baths and several other types of focused therapy. I suppose Ayurveda doesn't believe in starvation but instead seeks to bring you in balance with providing clean food complemented by various external ministrations. I had mixed feelings initially as I did entertain the goal of a colonic cleanse, however I realized I could (with some determination) administer my own cleansing diet back home, but wouldn't find this kind of Keralan program anywhere else in the world. 
The verandah outside my room. Daily sunshine!
Half-way into my two week stay, my daily routine is something like this:
6 am: wakeup, exercise and yoga. Hatha style focusing on pranayama
9 am: breakfast with fruit, raw herb juice, South Indian cooked treat (pitta, idli, iddappam etc). 
11-2: treatment time. usually consists of a combination of a deep oil massage, hot oil bath, kiri (massage with herbs in a sponge), sauna with herbal steam. I usually have 2-3 therapists devoted to me. What an indulgence! The doctor peeps in his head with specific instructions for the caregivers.
2:30: Lunch. Usually sprouted lentils, salads, rice/roti, a curry.
7: Dinner, light food. Herbal juice, some veggies and maybe a roti.
10: Bedtime!
The rest of the day i read, go for walks, spend on the Internet etc. Aside from planned trips to Fort Kochi, and walks around the backwaters, there isn't much to recreate with. Just as well as i needed to catch up with my reading and writing.
Every meal freshly made, often with herbs and veggies from the garden outside 

Others currently at the center consist of Renè from Switzerland, Carmela from Brazil, Dennis from Russia and Babubhai, a Gujarati from Mumbai. They are all older than me and came here with grave joint issues and now report remarkable progress. Babubhai for example, couldn't lift his arms above his shoulders, but is now finding breakthroughs during morning yoga. Renè had severe back and neck pain that has receded rapidly. While nothing serious, I have weak knees that abhor running and am hoping that my legs can find some alignment here. With all that pain, they better! I also have chronic sinusitis, the treatment for which begins tomorrow. I expect it will be face massages and jal-neti. 

The Matt India team. Love these guys despite the pain some of them inflicted on me every day :)
I'm quite amazed by this facility though. It's the sort of place that makes you feel good all over. I marvel at the kindness and care lavished by Joy, the director, the massage therapists, and all the way to the kitchen staff. It's evident that they are doing it with love, to help and heal My stay here is very inexpensive. The cost is all-inclusive - accommodations, food, diagnosis, medicine, the treatments, et all. In the US you would have barely afforded a cheap motel at this price. They don't discriminate between foreigners and Indians and make it very reasonable for everybody. Prices aside, they listen to everything you have to say, learn your habits so as to provide better care, and not the least, cook really well! I'm known to be an exacting skeptic, but here I can happily say that I've genuinely felt like family and am so glad that places like this exist. To help others without ulterior motives, and to find joy in your work, is another reinforcing message that I'll take away from Matt India.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Homing in to India - To Where It All Began

Lucky to have a pro photog take this rather grimaceful shot at Peanut Farms one fine day. 
It is quite early and the sun filters through the gaps in my cabana's thatched walls to bathe me in warm light and gently break my spell under Morpheus. Accustomed to early morning wake-ups, my body stirs up slowly but deliberately after another night of restful sleep. This morning feels different. I feel rested but can't seem to follow the habituated motions of leaving my creaky bed, gulping water, and rushing out of my cabana, surf board and wax in hand. Yeah, I'm sore from accumulated fatigue, and the swell is forecasted weak, but frankly, after three months of non-stop surfing in Arugam Bay, I've finally hit a wall. I just cannot muster the effort to jimmy up for another sunrise session today. I have had double surf session days for all of the last week and for most of my time here. I've been remarkably driven and have foregone other plans to spend maximal time in the water. It's been early to bed, early to rise and out of the door most days to try and beat the crowds and make the most of crisp offshore conditions. My surfing that was progressing so well has also plateaued and honestly stagnated the last couple of weeks. When a place and an activity so inherently joyful starts to feel like tedium it is time to switch things up. 
One of the beach dogs had a litter. Unfortunately only these two survived. They are cute eh?
Friends, travel buddies, surfing brahs

It was nearing the end of September and I had completed four months in delightful Sri Lanka but it was time to move on indeed. The call of India was getting strong. In the fourteen years since I moved to the US i have been fortunate to have returned home often, annually and sometimes even bi-annually, but have spent scant time outside my parents' home and the city of Delhi. The call to visit and explore India was strong-to visit familiar as well as uncharted parts, for the amazing cuisine that is resplendent across the footprint, but most of all to visit a country as a native, to be able to talk in Hindi, and to feel pride in the kaleidoscope of wonders that my country has to offer. I was also very keen on discovering surfing possibilities. India has a vast coastline but information on the potentially innumerable breaks is difficult to access There are a few known spots as per Surfline, Stormrider and other resources, as well as blogs and websites that speak to some lovely breaks that are to be found in either coast. The surfing scene is quite nascent in the country and hence precise information is elusive. Brad and Semira were game for the adventure as well. I figured that we would plan a rough itinerary, look for quality surf, keep an open mind and dip ourselves in other adventures to be had around. Tickets from Colombo to Chennai are absurdly cheap - we scored ours for about $55 USD one way to arrive in Chennai October 10th. Conveniently a few of the welll known surf breaks are on the coast right next to Chennai and that would make for an easy gateway for exploration.I was getting really amped as I started devouring media on India online and acquired a Lonely Planet to add to the stoke. 
At the secret watering hole near Arugam Bay

The Arugam Bay season was ending and we thought we would give ourselves a chance to visit the West and South-West coast of Sri Lanka for a few days before we headed away. My good friends Vikram and Shweta joined us for a few days of traveling around the laid-back and gorgeous seaside towns that are strung like a necklace beneath Colombo and stretch all the way to the Southern tip and the town of Tangalle. In the town of Midigama, we found a cute b&b place right on the beach and possibly my favorite place to stay in my travels so far this year. The surf season hadn't kicked off yet and the town was empty. My room and verandah was right off the beach and I would wake up with the morning light glimmering off the ocean, take many swims through the day, and end with the rolling waves lulling me to slumber. We tried surfing one evening on small waves and choppy seas but Arugam had spoilt us and we threw in the towel pretty quickly . Last evening in Sri Lanka was spent luxuriating at a sea side five start hotel. We ordered mojitos and read in the plush lobby and followed up with a nice dosa dinner. Preparing for South India what else? :)

With Sugi's family in Midigama at my favorite accomodation ever in this trip.
The view from my verandah. The lazy left is breaking right behind the relaxed kingfisher
Galle Fort
The first thing that really hits as you as you leave the Chennai airport are the smells. Growing up in Delhi I don't remember noticing as much, but India is indeed redolent with a variety of odors everywhere. 6:30 in the morning driving out in the cool breeze, we were welcomed by the freshness wafting off the rain drying off from the night before, the aroma of rotis and garlicky onions frying over ghee from the dhabas in the narrow alleyways the taxi had to sometimes squiggle through, and unfortunately the smell of streetside faeces both human and animal. It made for a heady combination. I have faint memories of a Mahabalipuram visit as a kid aeons ago and chose this temple town as the first base of operations given its proximity to Chennai and promise of a surfable swell. Dylan and Moni, an Australian couple whom I met in Arugam and shared the flight to Chennai with, decided to join me for the Mahabs explore. Dylan a lifelong surfer, immediately perked up upon eyeing the wave breaking off the Shore Temple. The right facing wave broke off by the stone walls of the temple into a beautiful hollow shape that promised barrel rides to the expert, and then into a gentler peeling shoulder where the rest of us could play as well. 

I was lucky to score a basic sea-facing room at the Sri Harul Guest House. At Rs 800 a night it was a bit pricier than the other options but you can't put a price on a stunning view, esp of the wave itself as it formed and broke right outside my personal patio and the rising minarets of the Shore Temple just past the rocky point. It's a treat to be able to relax in the room, or the rooftop restaurant, read and chill, observe the waves, and then jump into the water whenever conditions shine. Talking of which, we are lucky to catch this place good. This is nearing the end of the season here but there is a nice swell this weekend due to winds generated by a cyclone off the East coast of India. The wind is offshore all day. So it doesn't even matter when you get in the water. Usually high-tide is better, but today it's been good all day. The main point does get busy but there is also a nice beach break where you can have glassy peaks all to yourself. After the easy point breaks in Arugam, I've 'enjoyed' getting schooled here. Catching waves has been harder, but I'm polishing skills in wave selection and peak-chasing which are critical for similar beach breaks back in San Francisco. The ride here is short but fast and steep. A really quick take-off where you need to angle the board immediately, pump down the line and abruptly bail before the vicious shore break catches up with you. Brownish murky, the water is dirtier indeed though. You cannot see your feet when you are sitting on the board and you leave the water not feeling very clean. Slightly vexing but not a big deal.
Cyclone Phailin delivered and this guy catches a barrel at the Shore Temple point break. The audience in front are not too impressed though.

Mahabalipuram (or Mammallapuram, before it got renamed by the Brits) is a fascinating town. An 8th-century Tamil text describes this place as a Sea Mountain ‘where the ships rode at anchor bent to the point of breaking laden as they were with wealth, big trunked elephants and gems of nine varieties in heaps’. And while this happened centuries ago, the colourful historical past is apparent as one walks down the ancient streets, and from the old temples dating back to the 7th century that portray events of the Mahabharatha. Visiting these sights was a welcome change from the other Asian countries that I've visited in this trip -  for here I could relate to the history and the religious myths, having been fond of them as a child. It's nice to be a tourist in my own country, yes indeed.
I'm watching ya watching me...

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Getu, and Breakthrough to New Levels

A belated post about tripping to Getu Valley, China in April / May 2012. 

The first ascent of Lost In Translation on The Great Arch (courtesy Petzl)
An overview of one of the climbing zones in Getu from the Petzl guide
Rock climbing in Getu was barely an idea when I was planning my trip to climb in Asia this past year. The wonderfully-made video of the Petzl Roc Trip had fired the collective imaginations of the climbing community, of discovering untouched lines on the magnificent limestone of the hidden valleys and caves that remote China had to offer. Last Thanksgiving (end of November 2012) I had my delightful cousins over from SoCal visiting me in San Francisco when one evening found us tired from a day of urban adventures, relaxing at home and looking up stuff to watch on Roku. They had expressed curiosity about rock climbing and I figured that the Petzl video projected from my home theatre would be a great introduction to the wonders of outdoor climbing. I was happy to re-watch and relish the amazement in their young faces as they quizzed me about the sport and then wondered whether I would visit Getu as part of my travels. I had certainly planned to call in on Yanghsuo - the current epicenter of Chinese climbing - but doubted that I would go much farther.

The prospect to visit Getu started to take real shape once I met other climbers on the road who were indeed enticed by the same and had already started collecting beta on the logistics of the journey. Once the Yangshuo weather started deteriorating my excitement for Getu started perking up. With nothing to lose, and armed with travel beta and enough snacks to fill a hungry schoolroom, Tim and I started off for the remote village of Getu He, high up in the Ziyun river mountains in the Guizhou  province. In the middle of the journey we ran into four other climbers and teamed up over the length of two buses and one final bumpy van ride that would bring us to our quiet (and quaint) destination. Arriving in the cool breeze of the setting sun, high up in the hills, the place immediately felt a world apart from the hustle bustle of busy Yangshuo. The village of Getu He is a strip of small two-three storey ramshackle structures over a 250 meter stretch of the road that had barely seen any foreigners until the Petzl athletes showed up a couple of years ago. There were kids playing outside their homes - some of which doubled up as home stays for us climbers - and a couple of shops which sold basic provisions. The famous arch was faintly visible from the distance. Tim and I ambled up to the base of the arch and shared a silent moment of awe and gratitude as we thought about the forces of nature that created this stunning formation and the first people climbers to discover and fathom it's climbing potential. 

The Great Arch at dusk
Tourist boats at the Lower Arch on the Getu river flowing through
As climbers we were the only tourists in this small village. For some reason it did not feel that strange to have 15-20 foreigners who barely spoke any of the local language interacting on close quarters with the locals, most of whom had not set foot outside their province and did not understand a lick of English. Tim and I found a room to share and for about 5 USD each we had our own beds and a private bathroom with a hot shower. The room was crying for a scrubbing and and the shower had to be held up so it wouldn't collapse but it was cheap and there weren't many choices.

We gathered in one of the few restaurants for dinner with the rest of the motley crew of climbers. One of the singular delights of the climbing world, that I'll never tire off, is meeting old friends everywhere. Let me see if I can remember some of the names (it's been a few months!) - Tim, Ben, Kenny, Carolina, Nat and Nick, the three Slovaks, Doug, Keren, Vang and both the Erics. The food - rice, noodles, and different kinds of stir-fried veggies - was fresh and tasty. Grub that would eventually fatigue, in the four weeks that I'd ultimately spend in Getu. But I definitely didn't tire of the 50 cent beer. Not a huge drinker, I do enjoy the occassional frothie at the end of a climbing day and it was literally cheaper than bottled water.

The beautiful Pusayan crag

The endless steps lead to...
....the inside of the Great Arch. A little like Jurassic Park once you start wandering. (for scale look at the guy walking on the right side)
The next day early morning, we headed out to explore Fish Crag that is described in the Petzl Guide as 'the crag that every climber wishes they had in their backyard. Spectacular, bulletproof yellow limestone lined with blue striations, sculpted to perfection ...'. On the way we stopped to warm up at 'Left of Red', a wall with more intermediate grades in the 6a-6c range. The rock felt sharp, but not chossy or friable. After two quick warmups we made our way over to Fish Crag. We didn't actually started climbing on this sun-facing crag till mid-day but lucked out as it stayed cloudy and breezy all day and temps were just perfect for crimping and high-stepping on the slight rigidities on the just past vertical stone. The climbing was technical and though-provoking, forcing smart and precise movement. While I was fairly tired from the long bus rides of the day before I did put a good effort in that day and came out with one of my best onsights ever - Le Général Arrive à Pied par la Chine 7b. A 30 meter long climb, it traverses through small cruxes and half-decent rests never quite letting up. I forced myself to be patient and optimise any recovery points and didn't get excited until I had safely clipped the chains. There was barely any chalk on the route and I climbed hanging quick draws .Pleased with the effort. I also tried Corazon De Melao another beautiful 7b+, doing all the moves but didn't get a 2nd try to red point. The end of the day Eric in his smooth effortless style cruised up a slabby 7b and suggested that I try as well. I should have known better. I was exhausted at this point and 12b slabs are not quite my niche. Unable to muster up the strength and gumption to make a scary move a few meters above the bolt I took a quasi-intentional fall, tumbling maybe 5-7 meters down, and yelled as I whipped. Hit my ankle on the wall as I stopped but nothing too serious. I was too shaken to try the move again and Eric gamely offered to go up the route, again, to get the quick draws down. What a guy. My hero for sure. In fact Eric is one of the most elegant climbers I've ever seen. He makes climbing look effortless and graceful like a ballerina. He reads the route beautifully, climbs fast without any wasted effort or movement, and commits completely to every move. In fact he reads sequences so well, his onsights look better executed than red point tries by most climbers! Completely drained I made the long walk back to the hotel, early dinner and early to bed.

Fooling around at Fish Crag. Endless unexplored rock behind us. 

Around Getu He. Karts hills and rice paddies.

Over the next few days I'd sample the climbing at most of the crags around. The weather was gorgeous, cool, and mostly sunny all around. Not dissimilar to early fall weather on the US east coast. Manna from heaven after the endless rain and wetness we got in Yangshuo. So glad that I had decided to come. My favorite crags were Banyang's Cave and The Great Arch. Banyang is your typical sport crag. Long overhung routes with grades all the way up to 8b. The Great Arch is of course the crowning jewel of the region - a spectacular arch that is rightfully one of the many wonders of the natural world. Full of exotic flora and fauna, it features climbing on interesting scoop like features. Grades of the established routes go all the way up to 9a, including Dani Andrada's visionary multi-pitch Corazon De Ensueno 8c, a striking line over the steepest part of the cathedra. Fortunately its also host to easier climbs for us mere mortals. I had a proud flash / onsight of a Dani Andrada 7a+ the first day there. Not a hard grade but featuring a scary crux with movement on crappy features sideways from the bolt. Admittedly I did want to take at one point but couldn't as I was too far from the quickdraw so kept plodding on and soon found myself at the chains. I had lately been having issues with pushing myself on committing moves and this one satisfying. Towards the end of the day I spotted the route that I'd dedicate the next week to. Autochtono 7c+ is 25 meter climb on gently overhanging rock on upside down scoops the whole way up.  The movement had me in knots and I barely got up the route moving from draw to draw and taking some long falls at the end. It was like learning to climb all over again. A very frustrating end of the day experience but also surprisingly psyched to have found a worthy adversary of a route of the 7c+ / 5.13a grade. I had been looking for a project of this difficulty and realised that while the beta was emphatically cryptic, none of the moves would be impossible. So I decided to commit to this route and found myself returning to it 4 days in a row. The next few burns were frustrating still as my thick skull couldn't seem to unlock the sequences easily enough. Just as important as the grade was the sheer uniqueness of the climb. I felt that here was an opportunity to try something hard, unique, and beautiful in a place as wondrous as the Great Arch of Getu. By the 5th attempt I had finally sussed out all the moves, and learnt of the crucial knee bar that would be vital to obtain that small rest before the final crux. I was now linking the routes and feeling better with every burn. Tim got psyched on the route as well and I had now a steady partner to work on the route. Progress was coming quick and after a day of rest Tim and I were back on the project after a quick warm up. I was relishing the route enough and surprisingly did not feel the pressure to send. Redpointing was just a matter of time. First try that day I found myself at the knee bar with plenty of energy to spare and soon found myself cruising the final crux (but not without a loud exhalatory yell to ensure I made the move) and then quickly after was pulling in rope for the precarious clip to the anchors, balanced between a siippery fat right hand pinch and a smeary left foot. The route done I let out a small whoop but also felt an immediate tinge of sadness. My relationship with this beautiful thing was over now. I was barely pumped from the effort and felt good when Tim remarked that I looked smooth and fluent through the climb. He tied in right after me and egged by that bit of peer pressure went on to red point as well. Team send. Did a couple of other climbs and went back to camp. Extra ice cream to celebrate my first 5.13a. I had come close to doing this grade before so it was more relief than anything else to have succeeded. 

Some folks had started leaving Getu for onward travels but fortunately fresh muscles arrived in the shape of Hagen, Sabrina, Juri and Dan. I had climbed with all of them previously in Yangshuo, and Dan and I had spent time together in Thakhek, Lao as well. Before Tim left, he and I had started trying another classic 7c+ called Loco De Noodles ( or Crazy from Noodles, a name that I could well identify with after 3 weeks of a noodle-centric diet) at Banyang Cave. A very different kind of route and a more typical sport route. All power endurance with a knee-bar assisted crux. I was having trouble committing at the crux that was high above the bolt and required more gumption than I was giving. The falls were long but safe. And daresay both of us logged some air time. It always seems to take me longer to figure out the right combination of precision and daring when trying difficult routes. Maybe because I haven't projected much in the last few years I forget that facing moves at your limit requires that 'try hard' attitude. No pain no gain right? Anyway as it always magically happens the moves got progressively easier and I found that in about 4 tries I was linking the routes with two falls / takes. Tim sent the route in another couple of tries and left Getu to enjoy the freebies at the Le Ye climbing festival. I lost my steady ally in Tim but found Dan to accompany me to Banyang so he could window-shop some of the other stiffer routes. Dan, is mutantly strong, humble and patient, and about as solid a partner as one can hope for. I sent the route the 2nd try of the day. Another 13a in the bag. Sweet! Dan worked on sending harder stuff and he and I left satisfied. But not before a crazy rainstorm almost got us lost as we were making our way in the dark. We were groping our way down rice paddies, falling and sliding the entire way back. Finally made it back to camp and that hot shower was not underserved. I did not complain about the staple rice and stir-fry meal that night. Returned to Banyang a couple days later to try another route, a 8a (13B) that I felt I could have sent with better beta and a bit more effort. Not meant to be as by that time I had spent about 4 weeks in Getu and was physically and mentally spent. A charming little town with sensational climbing, it does lack for other diversions. A city kid, I need stimulation of many sorts and realized that it was time to move on. Fully satisfied, I left back for Yangshuo and hoped for dry weather to get back on some of the unfinished projects I had left behind.

Tim busted a flapper while working Loco De Noodles. Came back to send next day though!
Delicious string beans
Smoked tofu, a local specialty
Dan's pretty kicked up on this upcoming morsel of food (you don't wanna know what!)
One of the better things to have come out of the Getu trip was developing a habit of morning yoga. Inspired by Eric's pre-breakfast practice, I began utilizing my morning time with some asanas and found that my body started responding well. In fact after about 45 minutes of yoga my body was quite warmed up  and allowed me to be stronger and limber at the crag. Breakfast tasted much better too! Thank goodness of all the time that I've put into yoga whereas I can jumpstart a basic practice without a teacher. Thank you Eric for the inspiration!

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Parents Meet Your Love

The beach right outside Mambo's
And by 'love' I don't mean your significant other, furry friend or your ritzy new pad in Tahoe. I refer to the pastime or vocation that you keeps you up at night with pumping excitement and one you pursue with zeal and devotion. 
Meet the parents.
I've always wanted to take my parents rock climbing. Several years ago I did take Dad to the climbing gym in my former home in Charlotte. I put him on top-rope and he was quite a natural - hip-turning, knee-dropping and torso-twisting his way up the wall. He was quite spanked after a couple of routes but I reckon with a bit more fitness he'd have improved rapidly. However much I wish I haven't found the opportunity yet to take my folks climbing outside to real rock. It meant a lot to me to have my parents experience a whiff of this incredible sport that I had dedicated most of my free time for the past decade.
Preparing the staple muesli and fruit breakfast...yummsville!
In surfing I have recently discovered the same kind of love that I had for climbing in the early years. Hence I was besides myself with excitement when the folks announced a month ago that they had found time between work and would be able to visit me in Sri Lanka for a week at the beginning of September. I have been talking about surfing for a while now and my parents never really understood it, for good reason. They live in Delhi, a landlocked city in a country where surfing as an activity is virtually unheard of. I was eager to expose them to the sport, as spectators, or maybe even as participants if they were willing to try! 
Getting ready to head out for another mind-blowing session in the water :)
Their first day in Sri Lanka, and in Arugam Bay, after a long night of travel, saw them relax on the lounge chairs at the beach outside Mambo's (the popular hotel at the main beach in Arugam, watching me (gasp!) wait for some small waves, along with a lot of other surfers, learners, bodyboarders and other tourists splashing about in the water. Funny and silly as it sounds I suddenly noticed a bit of nervousness when I caught them looking at me - Dad with his fancy camera primed - as I sat waiting for the next set to come. It's been a long time since I have had to perform in person in front of them - school plays and performances in grade school were decades ago! Funny how one can be successful and prove oneself anywhere in the globe, but parental approval can still mean so much. Heck, I sometimes get apprehensive even if I have to drive a car with my Dad next to me! I went on to fumble the first couple of waves and as luck would have it, between the stage fright, the windy onshore conditions that afternoon, and with a lot of folks competing for limited waves, I didn't catch any nice rides the entire session. I was flustered as I have found myself improving by leaps in my stay here this season and was confident of displaying my prowess in the water. 
Longboard day outside Mambo's
Giving Dad a little lesson
The next day however was a different story. I left for the beach while they were having tea after a late breakfast. I don't know if it was whether I was more relaxed that I didn't know if they were around, or because the conditions were much better, but I was again surfing my normal self and caught some nice long waves. After one particularly good ride I turned to the beach to chance them on the beach and looking at me. Catching their eye I waved and smiled right back. Whoosh! I felt great that they had at least seen me on the last wave. Buoyed by that feeling I went on to catch some more good ones and then got out of the water to go over to them. My Mom immediately remarked that I seemed to have improved much since the last time…Haha. It felt great to see them share my delight. While I wanted them to try their hand at the sport too, I didn't want to push my luck too early. They were still recovering from the smidgen of culture shock that this backpacker surf town can be to the uninitiated and hadn't even gotten in the water for a swim yet. Dad though gamely suggested that he'd up for trying the surf board out. An adventurer, he likes trying new things and a surf lesson was immediately called for. I'm not an expert surfer by any means but I figure I know enough to at least pass on the very basics. We started by practising mock paddling and the popup on the sand at the beach, with Mom merrily clicking away at us with Dad's camera. I fortunately had my 7.6 long board with me (the 6.8 fun board would have been way too short). We made our way into the water and Dad started by lying on the surfboard and working on the basic paddling stroke. Balancing on the board wasn't that simple - a longer beginner board would have been better. I tried to push him into an oncoming wave to give him a taste of the ride but didn't have much success. Between my inexperience as a teacher and his newness at the sport, it was a short-lived session in the water. It was all good fun though and I was glad that he got to participate and get a feel for it.
My favorite cafe with the tastiest rotis and sambol.
Outside of the water, we went looking for elephants at a nearby watering hole, as well as a safari to Kumana National Park. Along with a lot of deer, wild buffaloes. crocodiles, jackals, monkeys. wild boards, and elephants of course, we were lucky to see a variety of birds, Luckier that Dad was there to help identify a lot of them. He's an amateur bird watcher and it was pleasing to see him brimming with delight as he identified the many varieties and kept a healthy chatter up with our park guide.

We decided to head over to Elephant Rock their last day in Arugam. Another lovely right-hand break that happens to be in a rather picturesque location, next to a large granite hill, just a few miles South of town. Mom was sitting on the beach enjoying the view and Dad was again ready with his camera as Semira (fellow surfer and friend from back in SF) and I paddled out and got in position for some of the nice sets the current swell was bringing in. A few minutes into the water I made a late drop onto a peeling shoulder high wave, didn't turn my board correctly and immediately wiped out. I go for a lot of waves and wipe out (fall) often - part of learning - but this was different. The board slipped and turned over right under me before I had a chance to undeck cleanly, and found the side of the board smacking my head, and then one of the fins coming right at my face and cutting a small slice into my left nostril. Ouch. I didn't feel much pain but detected the cut in my nose and warm blood flowing out. Damn. Over the years I have made a ton of learner mistakes without any serious injury and my time was up. My immediate thought was of disappointment as I didn't want my parents to have witnessed the accident. That was the end of the session certainly and I got out of the water to the look of shock on my parents faces once they saw me holding my nose with blood dripping down to my rash guard. Shortening the story, we rushed to the Pottuvil General Hospital, had the cut cleaned, disinfected and got two stitches to sew the hanging cartilage back up. No anaesthetics, I took it like a man :) My parents were remarkably understanding of the whole affair and I'm quite grateful to them for that. They did get a rounded view of the different sides of the sport. They've seen me get hurt worse. This is a small injury and I expect to be back in the water in a week or so. That's really it.

(Photos credit Sudhir Khandelwal Himalayan Adventurer)

Beautiful pair of hornbills at Kumana National Park

A lovely kingfisher

Sleeping or preparing to attack? What do you think. 

Medley of water birds....which ones can you spot?

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Road Trip and A Visit to A Hospital

(Some names changes to protect identities)

Though born in a poor country I've been quite blessed with excellent medical care all my life. My Dad has been a senior doctor in India's premier hospital for the longest time and our entire family enjoyed first class treatment from the country's finest doctors. And while India's medical system shakes and heaves with overwhelming demand, but short supply of medical care, my family is fortunate to have always been bumped to the front of the queue. Consequently, a childhood cosseted with these privileges didn't quite prepare me for a first-hand experience with the struggling medical system in a different developing country, during this surf trip in Sri Lanka.

A week ago, on Aug 21, a day that is celebrated as a holiday across Sri Lanka as Poya (full moon) day, my friend Jim was the victim of a head-on collision with an errant bus while on his motorcycle. Though the accident and the injuries were extremely severe he is on the road to full recovery. He was extremely lucky. Here is the run down:

I needed to make a visa run to Colombo and figured it was time that I took a road trip, saw some new sights, and took a break from the tourist bubble that is Arugam Bay. Here was also a chance to take my motorcycle on a real ride outside of the simple beach shuttles to the nearby surf breaks. Over time I've grown to appreciate the high risk of riding on two-wheelers and dislike it as a means of pure leisure. The idea of a long and self-sufficient motorcycle ride through the beautiful landscape that is the Sri Lanka hill country appeared seductive, esp when pitted against the long and hot bumpiness of the abysmal national bus network. My friend Jess gamely offered to accompany me on the back seat, and we left Arugam Bay one afternoon making our way through scenic stops in Nuwara Eliya for some tea tourism, and Kandy for the spectacular annual Perihara festival. Jess left Kandy back for the Bay and I continued on to Colombo for collecting my visa extension stamp. On the return I had to see an eye doctor in Kandy and figured that I'd meet up with my Aussie friend Jim - 22, healthy and full of adventure. My riding through the country had been mostly uneventful, though I did go through a crash course in biking through windy mountain roads and managing the various kind of road inhabitants - cars, buses, trucks, pedestrians, dogs and cows - that require constant vigilance and quick reflexes. The riding was more tiring than I could have imagined. It quickly became a chore and I decided that I wasn't riding motorcycles again for simply for pure pleasure. Short surf commutes on mostly deserted beach roads were one thing, long rides with chaotic unruly bi-directional traffic much different. It drove home the point on why I had not gotten behind a bike in the last 14 years. 

Jess left back for Arugam early on and after a quick run to Colombo for my visa, I returned back to Kandy to join Jim for the ride back from Kandy to Arugam. Tuesday early morning after a quick breakfast of tea and biscuits, Jim and I got on the road at about 7 am towards Mahiyangana, one of the stops on the way to the coast. In about 20 minutes we were outside Kandy and were hoping to soon escape heavy traffic as we headed out away from the congested suburban highway. At different points Jim and I'd take turns being in front. The windy roads were a bit tricky but we were alert after a good night's sleep and I was enjoying the cool air and casual pace on the scenic loops. Jim was ahead of me and next to a small lorry when a public bus rounded a corner a bit too wide and spilled onto our side of the road, directly on to Jim's oncoming trajectory. Jim tried his best to swerve away but there was no time or room. The bus traveling at perhaps 60 kmph hit him head on and his bike spun out, careening wildly towards the shoulder. I had to brake and turn rapidly to avoid running over the carnage. The next thing I remember is Jim lying besides his bike, screaming in agony as he tried to extricate himself from underneath the bike. I quickly parked and dashed over. I was in utter disbelief. In the middle of the bike debris, Jim was holding his right leg that was spewing blood out of a massive open hole on the front of the thigh. His femur had broken in two and was sticking out of his leg at an acute angle. You could see through all the layers of muscle, cartilage and bone. The calf and foot were also bent at unnatural angles indicating multiple breaks through the leg. Jim was apoplectic with shock and pain that I could not begin to imagine. A crowd of onlookers had gathered pointing towards the bike which had now caught fire owing to the punctured fuel tank. We moved Jim a bit away and I started jumping wildly and yelling to call for an ambulance. Ambulance / EMT services in Sri Lanka appear primitive at best and I guessed correctly that paramedics would not be so quick to arrive and we were losing time rapidly. I had to restrain some well-meaning but misbegotten folks who wanted to load him onto a tuk tuk (3 wheeler taxi)! Fortunately a van carrying a young family stopped and swiftly agreed to take Jim to the Kandy General Hospital. Being loaded into the van back seat, without a stretcher, with a crushed leg and untrained hands is an experience that hopefully nobody I know has to endure. Suffice it to say that we got him inside and I jumped next to him cradling his back and shoulder. JIm's face was completely ashen but miraculously he stayed conscious through the 25 minute drive to the General Hospital (which I was told is the biggest in town and the best suited for handling an accident of this magnitude). He was moaning the whole time and I remember shivering a bit too in fear and shock as I tried to calm him a bit - very difficult when you are experiencing unimaginable pain, holding your own bloodied leg that has split open like overripe fruit. 

The drive felt like eternity but we finally made it to the hospital. We parked outside Emergency and I jumped out and started shouting for help. The staff hanging around outside seemed stunned like deer caught in headlights and took a few moments to spring to action. We loaded Jim onto a metal stretcher and raced inside. While I'm not a medical professional it seemed that the staff was a bit rough as they wheeled him in and got some first aid organised. They didn't seem to be nestling his body properly and the metal stretcher was hardly designed for impact or comfort. The handling coarseness seemed a constant through the stay at the hospital that followed -- another bit of culture shock coming from the West where we are a bit over-diagnosed and over-medicated and we get treated with kid gloves at hospitals and every affliction gets plenty of care and attention. Anyway more on that later. 

Fortunately Jim was the only emergency patient at the time and the entire staff at hand galvanised around him. The ER doctor took a quick look, asked a few questions about the accident and directed the nurses to start cleaning his wounds and dress them, as well as prepare antibiotic and pain killer injections. JIm's wails were vexing and I was surprised that it took some imploring to get them to rush the morphine into his system. Because of the holiday the hospital was operating on a lean schedule and it took some time for the Orthopaedist on staff to show up. She took a look at him, barked some things to the staff around the quality of the dressings - she thought the broken bone sticking out of his upper leg underneath the dressing was a splint that was too short for the length of his thigh! Brad, Semira (visiting friends from the US) and Chaminda (Jim's local buddy) showed up and I felt immediately comforted to have friends at hand. We hugged and I broke down for a moment releasing some of the shock of the accident.

The Orthopaedic ward felt like a sick bay at an army camp. We were greeted by sick patients lying on stretchers (or sometimes even the floor!) on different sides of the hallway as we wheeled Jim in. Given the depth and severity of the wounds, surgery was an immediate need. They stationed him in a corner and waited for the Orthopaedic surgeon to arrive. We were told that he had been informed and would be over shortly. The wait might have been the most distressing period in the entire saga. Jim was in sheer agony. They were stingy with the pain meds - possibly to avoid overdosing, and also on account of the local culture where some suffering is considered normal. For this country had just come out of a bloody 30 year civil war and some of the staff were sure to have helped take care of war victims. That was hardly comfort for us though as we felt that Jim was being somewhat neglected and the assurances seemed a bit phoney. We continued harassing the staff to summon the specialist and also get the surgery under way. I was very glad to have friends around who could stay by Jim as I ran around like a headless chicken. Eventually Dr Sanet, the Ortho surgeon showed up - he had been occupied in the OT (operation theatre) with another surgery - and he started examining Jim's x-rays. His demeanour radiated confidence and expertise and his soothing bedside manner cut through the roughness and (sometimes) klutziness of the staff around. We felt immediately better when Dr Sanet suggested that after examining the X-rays and Jim's condition, he was going to rush him into the OT (operation theatre) to thoroughly clean, and then close up the open abscesses. For we learnt that more than the risk of losing mobility in the injured leg, there was risk of blood infection that could lead to fairly serious complications. The operation took a few hours and in the mean time I called up Jim's folks in Perth, Australia who promised to rush over on the first available flight. 

The operation went well and Jim came out in a new set of better looking dressings. However he was still in considerable distress from the pain. They continued to ration the pain meds, to prevent addiction, but to also spread scarce resources around. The first night at the hospital was tough. I spent it by Jim's side and he would wake up every so often in pain and also in misery because he couldn't pee. If I hadn't intervened then the nurses wouldn't have put a catheter on him and he would have continued to suffer. The nurses and staff in general seemed somewhat cavalier about the suffering around. I imagine 30 years of civil war and a constant barrage of road injuries in an under-staffed hospital will do that to you. The one bit of comic relief came when a couple of Jim's drunk local buddies dropped by at the friendly hour of 2 am. Friends are not permitted out of visiting hours (and I had to plead to be allowed to stay) and these guys in their inebriated states, barraged their way into the intensive care ward. They meant well but JIm was obviously not in a condition to see them. And they weren't either! It was only when Jim whimpered in pain at an attempt for a bro-hug (!) by one of the guys, did they realise their folly and left apologetically. Whew! I almost lost my own visiting rights for a moment there. After the catheter and a round of Bethadine, Jim drifted off to sleep. Chaminda came by sometime the next morning and I went back to the house for some food and a much needed nap. Brad and Semira were very helpful in staying at the hospital while I was away and continuing to apply pressure on the staff to look after Jim. We shuddered in horror when we learnt from some visiting British nurses that one of the patients, a guy in a bed across from Jim, was going to have his leg amputated soon. And only because they didn't have enough antibiotics for him and his leg became infected with gangrene . Woah. It made us doubly anxious to see that Jim was looked after and for his parents to arrive.

After a long day of travel, Jim's parents, Bruce and Sarah, showed up later that afternoon, and after initial shock at the state of the hospital, ('something from the middle ages', being Bruce's comment). they quickly took charge. They (and Jim) were very glad to see each other and I admittedly felt relief to be able to pass on the responsibility for critical decisions. For we needed to decide whether to plan the next round of surgery, or begin operations to have Jim medi-vaced back home. After much deliberation with the head surgeon, the family decided that the risk of transport at this stage was simply too high as any delay in surgery may cause fat embolism among other complications. The second surgery was scheduled for the next morning and was long and very complicated as I understood. They passed metal wires through his thigh as well as his lower leg to splint the broken bones and do some work with the Achilles tendon as well which was completely destroyed. Bruce and Sarah's presence had made a significant difference to the situation. Not only were the best surgeons operating on Jim, the nurses and other staff were diligent and attentive as well. Trickle-down effect from the top I imagine. Coming out of the surgery, Jim was put on a morphine drip and administered Valium to help him cope with the intense post-operative trauma. Chaminda and myself helped look after Jim the second night and were relieved by Bruce who came early in the morning to take over. Another interesting bit of local culture where women are not allowed in the men's ward. Hence poor Sarah was unable to stay with her son over night.

Things got slowly but progressively better from that point. It was apparent that Jim was being given the best care that the hospital could afford. He was the only critical patient at the time and the Orthopaedic staff started looking after him quite well. Sri Lanka does have a tradition of hospitality for outsiders and that started becoming apparent through the healing process. For at times it seemed that Jim received more care than other (local) cases around. Gentle persuasions from the parents certainly didn't hurt and having family around certainly bolstered Jim's spirits. Bruce and Sarah took over and I transitioned out of the care process. Semira, Brad and I left Kandy a couple of days later assured that the parents had the situation well managed and Jim was healing under the able care of the medics. In fact Jim showed remarkable progress even surprising the doctors. Great to have a twenty-two year old's mind and body!

I decided to leave my motorcycle behind for the time being and take a taxi back to Arugam Bay. I was still under shock from the accident and didn't like the idea of riding back on the same roads. Part of me still nurses some guilt that Jim got clobbered taking 'one for the team'. I was right behind him and it could have been me instead on that hospital bed. 


Today is September 7 as I finish writing this essay. Jim's accident was almost 3 weeks ago. Just spoke to him this morning after he had his dressings changed. Always a painful experience. His return home to Australia has been fixed a week from now and I think the imminence is buoying everybody's spirits. He won't need the usurious services of the Medivac company. He'll be able to travel in a normal airplane though on a First Class seat where he can keep his injured leg in a lying position. He enjoyed hearing about the big (surf) swell in Arugam currently though his next time in the water is a good bit away. He's looking forward to a complete recovery. 

The medical system in Sri Lanka can teach a lot to Western countries, esp USA, my place of residence. Medical care in Sri Lanka is almost completely free, even for foreigners, and even for very complicated processes like JIm's multiple surgeries and convalescence. What would be hundreds and thousands of dollars in the USA costs only a fraction here. Jim's parents were asked to pay for actuals used for dressings, bed sheets, pillows and miscellany that the hospital couldn't provide themselves. Unimaginable in our medical system where health care is run like a well-oiled business and profits are calculated every step of the way. Health care should indeed be a birth right and I'm sure with a fast-growing economy and rising GDP, Sri Lanka's hospitals will in time rival the West.

I do not like being on two-wheelers. I can see the convenience and need for one in poor countries or crowded cities where parking a car is an issue. And while I have many friends who ride motorcycles for fun, it does not appeal to me at all. On a bike it's all about speed and one of the clichey but sobering signs on Indian roads comes to mind  - Speed Thrills But Kills. So quite true. There were certainly moments of pleasure riding by the lovely mountain sides and tea plantations of Sri Lanka's hill country. However it was tiring and stressful to be on high alert the entire time. Mistakes can be fatal and all too easy to make while dodging pedestrians, animals and of course the maniacal bus drivers who spare no one. I'm convinced that the whole notion of driving motorcycles around Asia as a romantic escape is a myth, a very dangerous one. Getting into an accident is far too easy and without standard EMT services and properly equipped hospitals, even simple accidents can be life-changing. Jim's collision would have had much worse consequences had we not been near a major city and if I had not been there to rush him to a hospital and all of us weren't around to cajole and bully the staff into giving him the best care possible. While developed countries can offer better driving conditions,
Jim, Chaminda and I about 5 days after the accident.
motorcycle riders always come out the worse in any road mishaps. While I saw Jim's up close and personal, I've had many other friends who have been hurt on their bikes, in the US and overseas. Brad offered the sobering reflection that the worst x-rays seen by his Dad, a very experienced Radiologist in the US, of motorcycle accident victims. 

I implore my friends and readers to avoid riding motorcycles for fun, or at least be cognizant of the risks and take all precautions if you still choose to. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Surf Mobbin' in Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka

While Arugam Bay is an all around improvement over the surf at my home breaks in San Francisco (think warmer waters, no sharks, consistent glassiness and peeling point breaks), what leaves a bit to be desired is the means to getting to the waves themselves. While the main surf point of Arugam Bay is right at the edge of town and an easy stroll over, it does unfortunately get very crowded because of exactly that ease of access. The other 5-6 myriad surf spots are between 15 min-1 hr long car rides away. I've never missed my trusty GTI from home in SF as much. Getting to the waves was easy, jumping in the freezing wind chop was the hard part. 
Why I am in Arugam!
In Sri Lanka, the common means of getting to the breaks involves hiring a tuk tuk for the day, where you get driven to the break, get waited on, and then get chauffeured right back. While being driven around does sound grand, it can get costly if you are staying long-term like I am - the charge is between 6-20 USD round trip depending on the destination. The tuk tuk 'mafia' is an interesting study in Asian business practices. During surf season (May -Oct), tuk tuks from all neighbouring provinces descend on quiet Arugam Bay and loosely collude between them (and the Police as well) to the effect that the base rates they charge can be quite exorbitant by local standards and subject to arbitrary markups on what they consider the paying capacity of the client. While a decidedly thrify backpacker like me may get the lower end of the inflated rate, an older family vacationer from, say Scandinavia, and staying at a nice resort will definitely get quoted a high rate. More interestingly though is that they artificially follow a limit of two surfboards on the roof (while it could take comfortably 1-2 more) as that allows more tuk tuks to get employed. 

The tuk tuk dutifully adhering to the 2 surfboard limit
In any case, on a budgeted long stay of several months in Sri Lanka I had to look for alternative means of transport. After much much thinking I decided to acquire a motorcycle and get it kitted with a surf rack. This wasn't without some trepidation though - after surviving a rickety adolescence on a Kinetic Honda on hazardous Delhi roads, I had sworn off motos for life. I do admit to renting scooters occasionally and breaking this rule to get around while traveling in Asia this past year. But buying a motorcycle seemed a big and potentially perilous step forward. Why not just rent one you might ask? Not so easy Watson. Afraid of incurring the wrath of the aforementioned tuk tuk mafia, local rental places hesitate to provide surfboard racks. A bike sans rack is only good for an occasional joyride and pointless for surfing. (unlike some of my more skilled and daring surfing brethren, I refuse to ride with one hand while clutching a surfboard with the other!)
The surfing kin of the young tuk tuk driver above.
Consequently, one weekday evening found me returning from the town of Kalumnai with my local friend and shopping advisor Kadafy, on a shiny Honda motorcycle. I chose the latter over a scooter as it would offer bigger tyres, and hence more stability and competence on sandy tracks that need to be navigated to get to the beach from the asphalt roads. I would be lying if I didn't also admit to caving into a bit of vanity too.
The surfrack being installed by a local welder
After spending the next few days making the rounds of the welding shop in designing and fitting a surf rack, I was finally the proud owner of a vehicle that would obey my whims to schlep me around the surf spots at my beck and call. The only thing remaining was a bit of fear I had around raising ire with the tuk tuk drivers. For I have to share parking space with them at the breaks and didn't want to have my bike vandalised! So I have been extra courteous with them - for beneath the ruthless industry they partake in, they are nice people after all -  and resultantly my bike has been quite safe so far. Fingers crossed. What's funny actually is many people, tuk tuk drivers included, have already offered to buy my bike when I get ready to leave end of season. Everybody's looking of a bargain right?!
The surfmobile (and me doing a poor impersonation of Steve McQueen)!

While I'm quite content with the bike right now, I already know my desired means of transport for my next trip here. Yup, a Tata Nano! While my Mom is a proud owner of one back in Delhi, it seems to be a handy (and hardy) means of travel here in Sri Lanka. My Aussie friends Jack and Josh rented one and have been the envy of town!