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I backpacked in the Argentine side of Patagonia a couple of months ago. Here are some handpicked photographs from the trip.

Patagonia is a breathtaking location and it is impossible to return without being awed by nature. Throw in some charming strangers for company and it becomes an unforgettable experience.

I don’t have a travelogue this time around. I have one short story that I was hoping to expand into something resembling a travelogue. That never happened because I continued travelling after Argentina. So all I have for you is this short story. Enjoy:

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“Do you think it’s possible?”, I asked the flight attendant, more curious than hopeful. She wasn’t sure about the answer. She huddled with another flight attendant and the pilot, who had by now stepped out of the cockpit sipping a cup of hot coffee. 

 She narrated my request for a few seconds in Spanish and paused. I looked for some–any–positive reactions.

The pilot very cool-ly nodded his head in a classy way that only pilots can and went, “Yeah. We can do that.”

Now I had to make a final decision, and quick. The flight crew in all likelihood hadn’t encountered very many requests like mine. They were a bit excited as well, I could tell. One of them egged me on, “This is the southern tip of the world!! It’s a very beautiful place.”

I knew that latter bit. I was watching the landscape below as the plane circled around the airport waiting for clearance. It was indeed a stunning location. Ushuaia, a small city by the sea, right at the foot of the slopes of splendid mountains covered with ice and glaciers. I hated myself for not having included this town in my trip.

Just a few minutes ago I was talking to L as the plane was waiting for passengers from Ushuaia to board.  I had casually mentioned to L, “It would be amazing to stay at this place. I wonder if it’s possible to hop off.”

****

L was an incredibly charming fellow traveller and travelling solo like many others, including me. She was one of the only two Americans I met in Argentina. (The rest were all from Europe or Australia.) A doctor from Denver, she was overly expressive and an often talkative person, unlike a stoic demeanor many doctors are known to have. I’d only met her a few days ago when we shared a dorm room in a small, happening hostel called America del Sur in El Calafate, a small town in the Argentinian side of Patagonia. Backpacking in Patagonia was the purpose of my trip this time around.

She had been a delightful and entertaining companion during the times our paths had crossed, which were a few. Most backpackers often traced a similar route so it was normal in this part of the world.

****

Out of curiosity I asked a flight attendant if I could get my checked-in baggage should I decide to alight at Ushuaia. I could, the pilot had declared a few seconds ago.

“Would you be interested?”, I asked L.  I was hoping she’d agree.

“I’m really looking forward to Iguazu. But you should do it. This looks like your kind of place.”

A tad disappointed, but if Ushuaia was anything like the rest of the trip had turned out, I’d have another darn good adventure on my hands.

“OK. Get my bags off.” I handed over my baggage tag from the boarding pass for the crew to locate my backpack.

I turned around to L, who was likely a bit amused by the entire set of events that happened in just over a minute, one last time, “You know, you can always go to Iguazu three days later. You’ll still have time on your trip to see the falls.

And I’d really like it if you came along as well.”

She took a couple of seconds–it felt much longer–shrugged her shoulders, threw her hands in the air succumbing to the opportunity, “Alright, let’s do it.”

Perfect!

****

L and I were on a flight from El Calafate to Buenos Aires. The flight we were on went through Ushuaia, often known as the southernmost city in the world. A roundabout way to get to Buenos Aires for sure, but this was the first flight we could get out of El Calafate on that day. Our plan was to get to Buenos Aires and onward to Iguazu falls. We didn’t have any bookings for the rest of the trip; this was itself a flight two days earlier than both of our original itineraries.

And now we were hopping off the plane just as passengers were about to start boarding. This would have been close to impossible in most countries, not the least of it because I was a middle-eastern looking guy with a beard indicative of the length of the trip. If this were the U.S., I bet I’d get a, “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to go back to your seat.” Indeed, a bit more than a week ago, I was asked to step aside at the Miami International Airport for a “random” check just as I was about to board my flight to Buenos Aires. The brown-guy-with-a-beard look had set off their intelligence sensors. I had almost missed my flight while *five* TSA agents wasted their time and mine interrogating me–because, you know, potential terrorists are rather conscious about their image and don’t want to be mistaken for harmless citizens.

But I wasn’t in the U.S., and indeed part of the reason why travelling in this part of the world is such an exhilarating experience. Unexpected events both of the good and bad kinds are more frequent.

This was just one of many.

As we almost sprinted towards the terminal in our excitement, I kept wondering where this would stack up in the list of crazy things I have been a part of. The highest on this trip, for sure, but that’s only because the otherwise considered crazy act of backpacking by myself in a new country was to me by now, at the risk of humblebragging, banal.

Two years ago, I wrote about a wonderful and gracious family I met while travelling in Mexico:

Both of Mario’s younger brothers were participating in a state level swimming competition later that evening. They were both families of swimmers. Mario asked if I wanted to join them to see the event. I gladly agreed. So I hitched a ride back in their car to Mexico City. More talking, more stories, more laughter, more exchange. On the ride, I learnt I was having dinner at Mario’s home after the event. Requests went out to his home for vegetarian food too.

[…]

It was late in the night after we finished dinner and talking. Mario offered to drop me at my hotel. Everyone agreed to come along. Mexico is culturally very similar to India. After I thanked Mario’s mother for the great food and hospitality, she told me that I was like another son and could drop by any time. The family happens to own a holiday home in northern Mexico. I was told I could go there anytime ‘with your friends, family or even your girlfriend’.

***

Cut to the past weekend. The three brothers and I summited Iztaccihuatl, one of the highest peaks in North America. And the family offered the same pleasant hospitality that humbled me two years ago. It was as if besides time nothing had changed.

The climb itself was epic made even more memorable by the shared experience of being stuck in a thunderstorm at 17,000 feet. Looking at this photograph in hindsight, one might have guessed that we were right in the midst of forthcoming precipitation. But look at the smiling (and innocent, why not) faces—we were blissfully unaware.

Another hike, another hard lesson learnt.

 

As I learn more about mountaineering, I realize that there are only hard lessons. You can gather information from past experiences of others and that’s easy, but the ones that truly matter, the ones that teach you, the ones that stay with you are only the ones you experience yourself. It is therefore no wonder that the best mountaineers are the ones who have climbed so many mountains that they have experienced much (and to be fair, been lucky as well) and not the ones who have read the most.

***

There was a time when coincidences and chance encounters would excite me. Anything I found in common with strangers would be something strange and amazing. Now, some of the people I’m closest to are those whom—statistically—I had a very low probability of knowing. And now, I almost like to gamble with low probability events in life and see where it takes me. As of now, I have only been taken me to wonderful places.

Try it sometime.

Speaking of Mexico City, it’s not a weird creepy place just because there are hordes of clowns on the streets. Sometimes it’s just the International Clown Convention.

You learn something everyday.

I’m still in two minds whether to write about my time at Burning Man or not. Regardless of whichever way I go, I’d like to share something I learnt there.

Think of coincidences or miracles—whichever way you look at things—that seem to happen in your everyday like. Theists call coincidences miracles; atheists call miracles coincidences. As an atheist, sometimes I hesitate to call something a coincidence because it feels so much more than a mere coincidence. Yet, I don’t want to assign a divinity to it by calling it a miracle or destiny.

And then I learnt a word: Synchronicity.

When I first heard it, it took me a few seconds to have the epiphany: it was so simple, so beautiful and so devoid of connotation. How could I have not discovered this earlier?

***

Guess who taught me this? A girl who only ever studied till the eighth grade, and who happens to be a stripper.

People will never cease to be amazing.

Here are some pictures from Burning Man 2012 at The Atlantic.

The pictures are pretty good but I’m going to be a douche and tell you that the pictures have nothing on the experience. I lugged my camera around for a few hours before I realized how futile it was to try to capture the experience. That point on, I didn’t even bother to take snaps. And for the same reason, I don’t want to write about it either. If you can ever make it to Burning Man in the future, check it out once. Just don’t be under-prepared.

I loved Burning Man! It was an intense experience and one of the best I’ve ever had. The downside is that it will take a few days or perhaps weeks for the experience to sink in and the effects to pass.

The blog will be inactive for about a week. I’ll be at Burning Man.

***

I always knew about Burning Man but never enough to interest me. Then few things happened during my visit to Ecuador that made me want to be at Burning Man this year. And here I am.

See you back on the other side—assuming I don’t completely lose it after the event.

A.K. Hangal saab passed away earlier in the day.

***

It struck me that when we hear about the pitiful condition of yesteryears’ personalities, they are either athletes or film industry personalities. I struggled to come up with another field where the same is true. The common factor to the two fields is the disparity between the zenith of their fame and the nadir of their eventual destiny, which makes us feel especially guilty about the whole thing.

But I’m not here to preach that we ought to treat people like A.K. Hangal saab or P.T. Usha better. The fact is we haven’t, and there are several reasons for it. What I do feel is that like so many other things we read, the news of a former celebrity being forgotten and living badly now has become so banal that I find myself moving along when I come across such news.

Let’s say I didn’t. How would I react? Self-flaggelation that we as a society need to treat them better? Then I’d be stuck at how exactly to go about it. Must a nation financially support a prolific actor or a Olympian for the rest of their list? That’s not feasible and we know it.

Or must I not feel guilty because there was nothing unfair about it? That doesn’t sit right with me either—more so when I delve deeper into their lives. We, for instance, have no reference point when someone says A.K. Hangal was forgotten. I was looking for his famous scene from Sholay when I instead came across this video. Now I do have a reference point. And I do feel bad. And I cannot do anything about it. And I will move on in a few hours.

This is another addition to that list of things that I feel bad about, realize I can do nothing about, then feel glad that I felt bad about it which means I’m not deteriorating as a person and my emotional wiring is atleast being lubricated.

There is something very wrong about this.

***

Once again, I have no answers if that’s what you read this blog for.

Start the video. Go to fullscreen. Enjoy.

***

If I may recommend yet another activity, go snorkeling or scuba diving at a place with rich aquatic life. Galapagos in South America and Andaman in India are two places I know.

Just once, enter the strange world under the sea. Forget you don’t belong there. With a snorkel or a diving mask, you will soon realize that you don’t need to breathe as much. Breathe as little as you can. Feel every breath of air you inhale. Be meditative. Use little energy. Slow down to the pace of the life around you. And be an observer.

Tell me how it goes.

It might not be as life changing as this, but it won’t be too far off.

***

It’s all I did during my week at Galapagos: Eat, sleep, snorkel, hike. For four days straight. And I was living on a boat with some incredible people for company. An Israeli guy who left home after his 30th birthday. He called himself a writer. He had lived quite a life travelling around the world. He discussed philosophy at ease—not a trait I come across often. We would speak for hours as the boat sailed on at night, almost comparing life notes. An Australian guy who was travelling for his 18th month straight. He almost had a strange connection with nature. He was convinced that he did. I wasn’t entirely convinced about that, but I was that it was real for him. A young German couple. To me, they represented normalcy—the good kind—but I still didn’t want it. And a father-daughter duo from New Zealand. Both wonderful.

I vividly recall every detail of that trip almost a year later. That’s one mark of a great experience.

I trust you have all followed with dismay the story of the theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

To be purely factual, it was not the deadliest shooting even in the United States. It is a much larger discussion as to why (If I write about gun control, I’ll only be preaching to the choir.), but such incidents are routine in the country. This particular incident however was captivating and that wasn’t by accident. It was designed to be so: The Joker reference, the insanely popular Batman movie, the booby-trapped apartment and the in general chutzpah of the killer.

At one level, I don’t understand the killer. But at another level, I do. It is so easy. There is usually a very straightforward reason that causes someone to take an affirmative decision to go on a rampage. Then they just work towards it. It’s not very different from how you and I decide things and follow through.

What struck me was the killer’s somber look in the court today. Several clues indicated that he was after fame and attention. And he got what he wanted. So then what changed between Friday and today that caused him to look gloomy? Was it the realization that he had taken and affected so many lives? Surely he saw that coming. Or was it that killing was only a theoretical concept until the shootout, and now that he has done it, it is a much more visceral experience?

As the trial continues, I’m hoping to get a few answers for my own closure.

By even talking about this incident, I am perhaps helping cement the killers place in popular culture. For all that we know, that was precisely his motive. But that doesn’t stop me from being fascinated by his thought process. To feel better about it, I’ve tried to follow some of the rules of covering a massacre the right way.

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One of the most common reactions is ‘I don’t understand the killer’s motive’. That assigns a certain aura of enigma to the killer. If I were a killer, I’d totally want to be enigmatic.

Which is why it is important to differentiate between not understanding something and not identifying with something. I totally understand Kasab and I’m sure you do too; it’s just that we don’t identify with him.

That said, how we express ourselves on the internet ought to be the last topic to discuss after such tragedies.

***

There is another reason why this incident prompted me to write about it. Colorado is one of my favourite hiking destinations. It is one of the most beautiful and diverse places I’ve seen. In the last post I wrote, I was in Colorado earlier this month climbing a few 14ers. I was there once again last Friday for some more climbing. I landed at the Denver airport shortly after midnight, rented a car and on the way to Denver, stopped at a dinner place in Aurora. I saw cops cars driving so fast on the road they seemed crazy. I did not realize what had happened until the next morning.

To be clear: I’m not drawn towards this incident because I-was-so-close-it-could’ve-been-me. I don’t consider myself that important. I’m drawn to it because it feels tangible.

Needless to add, hiking in the aftermath of this incident wasn’t pleasant. What was worse is that the feeling wasn’t new. On the previous visit, I drove through a town that had been evacuated only days earlier due to a massive and devastating forest fire.

I hate that I’m going back to Colorado in September once again for hiking.

Take a moment and see the devastation caused by one of the several recent wildfires in Colorado.

I crossed the town of Colorado Springs yesterday night less than48 hours after these pictures were taken. The fires in the city area were under control but the unmistakeable odour of smoke and ash was present for miles. Thousands of acres of forest land are burning and nowhere close to being contained. The residents of Colorado Springs were hoping that the wind didn’t switch directions and cause havoc, like it did a couple of days ago.

***

Right now I’m at Alamosa, a pretty town at the foothills of a few 14ers. If things go well, a friend and I will summit a few 14ers in this area over the weekend. This area also houses the Great Sand Dunes National Park. A stunning landscape from what I hear. Visiting it doesn’t look possible but we will probably catch a glimpse of the dunes from above 14,000 ft.

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