Ruth: Michele's Starry Ganga in India, ending days
11/27/2011 3:30:15 PM
Well we are all back and except for this great feeling of waking up at 3, ready to go, India is behind us now.
Michele's accomplishment, of paddle-boarding an area of the world previously not done, is magnificent. Her one-person support team of Nat Stone who rowed the beautiful canoe beside her, in front of her, and filming her, was an equal success for the world of not having been done before. His navigation was superb, and they mastered the camping in the middle of the Ganga River quickly. And I, support team on the shore in a minivan, found the needed water, chapatis and assorted supplies they needed, and only lost them a couple of times! Having friend Judy Casten with me for the first three weeks was the best as we each learned new systems in India.
Our last three days were so fun -- and funny. As previously described we had been out of contact by our only means, telephone communication, for 3 days. Seems if you don't file the right passport info, and on time, your cells are blocked. Each Indian we met carries at least two different phones and systems.
We spent hours at the phone office in Varanasi to be told "2-3 days to fix this, and you probably have to do it in Delhi-- a mere 500 miles away!" Michele on the Ganga came to a small village, tried unsuccessfully to get any answers, but this took 4 hours also.
And meet we did, rather dramatically, with me in a rented motorboat, and they, happily paddling away.
An Indian I met along the way then notified the press, and notified the holy men that Michele was coming. An hour later she was invited to be blessed in the evening Hindu ceremony and Nat was allowed to film it all -- a very big, very public ceremony with lots of Tibetan monks singing ancient Hindu songs, at one of the most ancient ghats, Dashashwamegh Ghat and lots of flowers and incense and fire, now in the dark at the very edge of Ganga. I joined her and it really was beautiful, timeless and such a glorious ending to her 700 mile adventure.
The next day was another press conference at an Indian Medical Association meeting where Michele presented. At least 35 male journalists asked her questions and listed in rapt attention to her. The docs were most kind and blown away by her honesty about both cancer and her own future.
A knock on our door in the morning had one of the bellboys delivering the Times of India with a page 3 big article on her. We thought we were free that last day in Varansi and just intended to shop a bit until the flight to Delhi after noon. Oh no. TV and newspaper media wanting to film Michele again.
So off we went in front of the hotel on a stroll down to the river Ganga. Fortunately our guide and translator had arrived and Michele was asked to tell some Indian women walking by about her trip and talk about cervical cancer! Which she did, easily and with a visual of her on her paddleboard!
A funny part, after the media was away, was showing Michele a snakecharmer, our first of the whole trip. He had a couple of cobras in a basket, and a deadly other snake he insisted on putting around her neck. Mind you this woman who had huge worries about snakes in the river and scarcely saw a one, but many a human corpse, got the willies as the pinkish snake was put on her!
Off to Delhi, only a 3 hour delay of the flight, and a whirlwind next and final day with 5 back to back interviews, another doctor's conference, and one last interview. Michele was delighted because the pr firm had selected top women writers from many fields -- health, human interest, prevention areas, and their questions were spot on.
Off to the airport and her flyer was posted proudly in the Galley of the plane, her bouquet of roses placed in water and a silver vase (and then back in Albuquerque she gave them to daughter Audrey), and we eagerly flew home to New Mexico USA.
So the Starry Ganga, just a crazy idea to be attempted, to raise awareness of and funding for cervical cancer for the women of India, is an outstanding success on all fronts, as Michele became the first person to paddleboard 700 miles of the sacred river, the Ganga. The media coverage in India was outstanding, and now to make the last part of the goal, the fundraising one, successful with Michele's story.
We had not had communication with Michele and Nat directly for 3 long days. Mind you Kishan, our great driver, was able to tell them I was in Varanasi at the Palace Hotel but not sure I could stay here. They had told him two days ago they thought they would be here by the 19th which he relayed to me. And then both sets of Indian phones went dead! And Kishan, with dear but limited English, had gone home, 12 hours by train away, to be with his wife and kids.
So a sleepless night. Not so worrying about their safety, but worrying about their running out of water, not having their passports (I have them, long story) and worrying about the connecting here in Varanasi. A dear young man here wanted the press to greet them, wanted a ceremony to honor them, but first we needed -- them. And three days seemed mighty long indeed.
So the dear young man, a salesman in a silk factory, named Shiva, honest, called last night to say he had a boatman with motor ready to take us (my guide Ashok) up the river to look for them or at least meet them if we could. But since I didn't get that call it was a knock on my door at nine this am by Ashok saying, "I have a boat, let's go look for them at 2!"
We left at 2. The Ganga river this morning was totally, completely fogged in and even this afternoon was very hazy. We boated and boated and finally saw someone standing up far away. My heart leapt, and sank like a stone (er, rock) it was a fisherman, bringing in his nets.
This boat of ours was huge, could easily hold 30 people, and we had to shimmy through a pontoon bridge which raised my worrry level because these things are very tricky to do in the complete dark -- for Nat and Michele -- and us!
So by 4 p.m. after our false alarm, and no one else visible on the river, I was ready to say "let's go back" because I didn't want to keep the boat out much after dark, and it truly is dark by 5:30. We had gone almost 60 kilometers by motorboat.
Then Shiva said "I see someone standing up!!!!" A blur far away. And then I swear, a dolphin jumped out of the water!
We sped up. We all jumped for joy because you could make out Michele's form on the paddleboard, clipped to Nat's canoe, but she was paddling away!
My team of course wanted her to come on board, but I knew she wouldn't unless she really was feeling bad.
And her remark "what are you doing here???" And I said "filling in for the telephone part!!!...""
Then I cried all that motherly mushy stuff when no worries are realized and she's safe, in the very best of hands with strong and able Nat. Both Ashok and Shiva (who had brought his darling 5 yr old son who curled up asleep in my arms for the ride home...) were equally proud as uncles to Michele! When they saw how beautiful and strong she is, they were amazed, and then to see her actually paddle away standing up, had them gobsmacked!
We told them how much further it was, but the current was deep and very swift at this point and we all hustled fast!
Then I told Michele press was waiting and there would be a small ceremony for her and others to be blessed at the Dasashwamedh Ghat, one of the most important of the 84 ghats along the river.
She paddled right up to the waiting photographers, with Nat filming right behind.
She was welcomed by the brahmin who knew her story already and the ceremony began.
It was very beautiful, filled with flowers and chanting and fire torches and brass bells ringing, and Michele, who had to have been so tired -- they started very early this am to make up for lost time -- was serene and touched and the ceremony was in honor of Ganga, so it was the most fitting of all. And Nat filmed a good 40 minutes of it, amazing even for that.
Nat and Michele then had to paddle UPSTREAM to get back to our hotel, well, their hotel, no rooms in mine, and Shiva stored her paddleboard inside his boat and latched Nat's beautiful canoe next to his own in a secure place. He did say he might take the board out at midnight to see if he could learn it!
And Ashok joined us for dinner and then the reporter called back for more info, and Ashok went to pr dude translating all the reporters questions from Hindi to English. And he answered some of Michele's burning questions about what they saw along the way and it was just the sweetest dinner.
Michele has two press conferences ahead of her and more meetings to tell her story and support GIAHC!
Life and that wonderful woman and the angel in the form of Nat are all now so good.
The Indian phone is dead. And so is Michele's. It seems that the the airport folks where we got them almost a month ago might not have filed the passport info on time, and the service is arbitrarily cut off. Just like that. No bam no wham no thank ee mam. So even trying to call Michele on the phone Jude gave her and Nat doesn't work because her service is cut off too. I'm sure she will be worried and not have a clue what this is all about, since the message you get when you try to call is in Hindi...
Oh, says the dear man at the fron tdesk, there is an AirCel office here in Varanasi...they will open at 10:39am tomorrow...if you take your phone and both passports and the info, they will reinstate your service.
The departure from Allahabad was remarkably easy. The support team has finally got the drill down!
Here's what it takes: Nat gives an approximation of when they might arrive based on his google maps of the river, laid out in roughly 25 miles increments. I have a copy of them as well, and then I with minivan and driver go scout out a landing spot and a place where the boat and board can be safely stored for the night, Sound simple? Not so.
Maps are a big rarity in India, and the Ganga simply isn't traversed much up and down. Across by ferries, yes. And what this means is that not many on the river know exactly how much further on a particular spot is. Our not knowing Hindi makes things even more fun. So Nat was off in what people had told him about exactly where he was when I took off fromLucknow, worried moderately that they might end up some 200 kilometers ahead of me and need help with taking out the boat, particularly in the dark. As it turned out, I got there a day ahead of them, and thus was able to,take page 75 of google map of Nat's, and with excellent driver Kishan's questions along the way found the neighborhood of Mehdaori Gaon and a great flat bank with not one but two shrines, one Hindu, one Muslim for safe storage for the night.
Talked with Nat/Michele again to tell them and we agreed they would make it by dusk that very day. Mind you, driving the minivan through dirt alleyways is a feat in itself, and Michele and I laugh at the entirely different experiences we are having of India -- she with silence and farmers and ashrams and beauty, and me with noise and people and colors and yes, incredible beauty as well!
So we arrived to watch a flaming sun set bright red and cast a bright red trail across the very wide Ganga. And a mere 20 minutes later, we could see the figures of Nat and Michele, bold against the setting sun.
We marvelled at the timing of it all, particularly since the day before seemed to have us all a bit lost, but happy endings here.
They love the hot showers at a modest hotel, and dinner to hear their glorious adventures, this time with a big dolphin chasing a school of small fish, and an invitation from an ashram for lunch and a rest at the best view ever of the river -- high up in a 3 story, open air ashram. This time they shared the newspaper article with the Brahmin and all the assembled monks read it and smiled so sweetly at Michele. Can't wait to see Nat's pictures of that...
And here they are taking off from Allahabad for the last leg of the incredible journey that is the Starry Ganga Expedition.
Michele calls us everyday at 5pm or so. Today's news was that they are making great time, Michele's feet are just great again, and they saw more dolphins, she swam in the Ganga with joy, and they saw a herd of some sort of elk-sized animals by the river. I'm off to google just what they were, but more pictures when I catch up with them on Monday. Judy and I are in Lucknow, a lovely city, and she'll fly back to Chicago from here on Monday while I head for Allahabad and the Starry Ganga Expedition-ers!
When last seen, Michele and Nat came off the Ganga at Farrukabad, a day early and in the dark! Surprise to Judy and me, expecting them late afternoon the next day.
They pulled the board and the canoe up the steps of a beautiful ghat and into an Hindu ashram for safekeeping. We all offloaded their bags, and the Starry Ganga minivan, driven by the intrepid Gushan, accompanied by his helper nephew, 16-yr old Bikas, drove through a very narrow market, ok, very narrow market to the nearby restaurant. Just when we thought all the storekeepers in the alley we are going through are hollering bad things to us as we topple through, hitting sides and tops of things, we hear a combined cheery "GOOD NIGHT"!
We are in areas of grassroots India where the tourist never goes, so our Ganga gang really gets looked at, wherever we go.
The food in the simplest of places is always served piping hot, all fresh ingredients and a great boon for Michele and Nat after their camping for several nights. All vegetarian, spicy and really flavorful dishes. Potatoes are the newest crop and the combos of these (aloo) with so many other vegetables is a taste sensation. Rice (chawal) is long-grained and tasty. Fresh hot bread, similar to our tortillas, called roti or chapatis, comes with every meal and is used for the forks. The dishes are served in small metal bowls, and we always order a great variety to eat till we are stuffed, and to keep that rowin' Nat a happy man, he finishes them all with gusto. $6!
Michele and Nat had paddled/rowed about 62 miles in two days. Michele is happy to paddle in the moonlight and they have sense a sense of the Ganga now that they are happy to go in the dark.
Michele is even able to do some yoga on her paddleboard, and loves this process, as well as meditation for long stretches. And on her long day to us, she even managed to swim and wash twice, right in the Ganga in deep areas!
We see the other side of rural Indian life as we travel ahead now, a couple of days in front of them. We see the markets, the throngs of people doing everyday things, but occupied as life requires. Lots of school kids in such varieties of uniforms from the plaid skirts and white shirts, to the saris with v-shaped scarves of different colors. And speaking of saris, India is nothing if not a riot of color and bangles. A dusty road in a small village suddenly comes alive with a flock of brilliantly colored women with sequins and bangles glimmering in the sun. The colors defy description and would make a rainbow blush. Traffic is along lanes as narrow as our bike trails, but with vehicles that are huge -- trucks, buses, buffalo with giant horns pulling enormous loads, donkeys with equal loads, and occasionally camels! Then there are the people movers: rickshaws with bikes, and 3-wheeled vehicles called tuk-tuks that are motorized. All are stuffed to the brim with people going on their ways. And always people on bicycles and walking. Now take that above combo and put them on a road all at the same time, and add all the horns of New York, all honking at once. Judy and I don't even cringe anymore at the truck plunging headlong at us, because we know Gishan is a great driver, and we pass with indeed micro millimeters to spare!
Michele and Nat love their camping on the white island beaches in the river. They have snug tents, Michele even was able to find a great piece of foam to supplement her air mattress, and they finally have the primus working correctly so hot food and coffee is a cinch! She says the quiet, the lack of lights and the great stars are such a contrast to the busy world on the shores.
I never miss the opportunity to smile at a woman or a child, and the return smiles, usually shyly, sometimes exuberant are so dear and sweet to see. I'm sure we all wonder so much about each other's lives, but there must be so many areas that are the same.
And after a great dinner back to the hotel for re-organizing, downloading more photos from Nat, and sleep, we take them back to the river with some more lovely encounters with village people and off they go.
Late yesterday afternoon a disturbing call: Michele had a blowout on her board! Seems they went to see a funeral pyre, were invited to attend and Nat filmed, but the resulting blast got to her board. Fortunately Uli supplied a great patch kit, and she said they were back on their way! More on this when I hear.
Ruth: We're now in a hotel in Kanpur, India, Judy and I.
11/8/2011 1:45:48 PM
Last night was really a hoot. Michele and Nat weren't expected to arrive till noon or later today. At 6:30 my Indian phone rang and it was they -- already in Farrukabad, after about a 12 hour day! We rushed down and got them in the total dark, pulled the board and canoe up into an ashram, offloaded all their stuff and got them a hot meal from an on the street restaurant we had just eaten at! We had gotten them a couple of beers so that went nicely with their great food. And the hotel was full but we had a giant room with 2 baths, so we had two more cots wheeled in.
Off they went this am but just had a distressing call from Michele -- her board exploded! She got a 6" hole in it from being too close to a funeral pyre. They observed one at close range from the river, and then kablooey. But she was laughing, saying they had used the repair kit that fortunately comes with the board, and are back on their way, but a bit behind...And of course we are as far away from them as we've been, took us 4 hours to come this far [downriver] from Farrukabad.
sorry for the massness of this message but we are in the last throes of having internet connections as we return shortly to the Ganga.
Michele was interviewed by all the local papers in Agra and she and Dr. Shobha Krishnan (head of GIAHC) had a lengthy interview yesterday here in the hotel. And photographed. In the lobby. See the above link, but the photo on the water is Judy's picture!
And this is the 5star hotel which refused any attempt we requested for a press conference room.
So how the heck did we get articles in at least 5 newspapers in Agra? And a wonderful still photographer from Agra ...? And interviews in the lobby?
Simply serendipity. Judy and I walked wearily into one of the shops connected to the hotel, frustrated because of being blocked by the hotel to gather the press, and equally frustrated that the press wasn't returning our calls, except sporadically, and they, being vague about coming to Agra from Delhi. An older man asked the usual "why are you here?" thinking we were conference go-ers, and we said just a few words about Michele to him, and soon the big boss came back and heard our bigger story and said "the vaccine is vital! All children should have it." And he began the amazing process of calling his friends, the husband/wife team who run a great women's hospital, Dr. and Dr. Malhotra to meet Michele. And Dr. Malhotra said "do you want press there? He brought his assembled staff, press, Judy's great sliding Ipad presentation, bilingual translating galore, and oh yes, Dr. Malhotra left us at one point to go deliver a baby. A girl!
Then with all the Hindi press coverage on Saturday, the calls arrived for more interviews, and a photographer called and volunteered to film Michele at the Taj Mahal where security is very tight. Michele was certain she could get her board on the Yamuna River.
We went, took the board to the the ever so filthy river, and there were 20 guards, bivouacked, with guns. The photograher pleaded our case, we showed them the Hindi article, it was passed from guard to guard with the most sincere looks at Michele, but the answer was still no. So she plopped the board up on a wall, jumped up on it in her beautiful new saffron colored shawalcameez and we waited for good sunset light.
Not to be outfoxed, however, smart Michele had our crew move upriver from the Taj, shechanged clothes, took her great board and put it out on the Yamuna river.
Sorry to say the river is basically a cesspool, she couldn't get terribly near the Taj to be photographed, dear Nat was running along beside her, and the light grew dim. But she did it.
So incredible acts of kindness came our way from total strangers responding to the story of Michele and what she is doing. And people came forward to help. And find solutions when, on occasion, we get stopped
I will not forget the looks on the faces of the guards as they read her story, nor on the faces of all the female staff here at the hotel when they translated the first Hindi article for me which said in its headline:
A DEATH IS DECIDED -- WE SALUTE THIS SPIRIT.
Michele Baldwin has come across 7 rivers from far away to be in the lap of Ganga.
Sorry for the lengthiness of this one, but we are desperate at the end for the joy of the internet and we'll be losing this quickly!