An early morning in Munsyari, while waiting for the morning taxi to the plains, an elderly gentleman from Kolkata and I got talking.
It was cold.
The hot tea was fantastic.
He worked at the Directorate General of Shipping. During my days as employed journalist, shipping had been one of my beats.
We had a nice conversation.
Against my protests, he paid for my tea. Pointing heavenward he quipped, “ why make a fuss about payment? We are all heading to the same place.’’ Dawn in Munsyari, as the rising sun graces the slopes of the Panchchuli peaks, ` heaven’ isn’t a misplaced reference. A cup of tea and that sight – it is very satisfying. Earlier on realizing that I was still bachelor and no more employed journalist, the man had said, “ the outdoor bug is such – neither can you leave it; nor will it let you go.’’ There is a whole universe in such simple conversations inspired by the outdoors. That’s what the outdoors is even if it makes no sense to settled society and its commerce. You know this well, unless you are businessman committed to sell or someone for who the outdoors is business. Without defined product to sell, there is no business model even in the outdoors. I too was in Munsyari having finished work on an outdoor course promising specifics. Such is the powerful drive all around towards manufacturing deliverables. Expectation has become habit; deliverable, the solution. I have often been asked: what is your goal? It makes me uncomfortable. Does the universe have a goal except to exist? I think there is only the direction set by the values people embrace in life. Goals are like milestones. I can’t recall a single long run I enjoyed focusing on passing milestones.
In the outdoors, the ones who refuse deliverables and yet want life by outdoors, become hermits / ascetics, seekers, wanderers. They may be failures in our eyes. But theirs is honest existence. We can’t comprehend that chemistry. Yet we easily promise specific deliverables from the outdoor experience. Point is – we all know in varying degrees that there is something, maybe a fragment of timeless truth, in the outdoors. To the extent it is thus core to human existence, the outdoors and adventure are like water. We pay for bottled water and municipal tap water. But we resent water’s growing monetization. And, we definitely don’t want somebody pricing the air we breathe. How happy will we be if the outdoors was lost as our shared heritage and instead monetized like bottled water?
In the last couple of years, a few Indian states began formulating guidelines for adventure tourism. That is a fine aspiration. Except, I found the effort lacking soul for the urge is to address the immediate and practical ignoring the profundity of the outdoors. Metaphorically, the focus seemed bottled water; not water. It runs the danger of blessing monetization and in the process, forgetting that the reason people hydrate is water’s presence in our very being. Below is some of what I missed in the conversations about guidelines, I was privy to.
Many of the minds drawing up regulations enjoyed a freer world to grow wise in, at least be wise enough to decide guidelines for future generations. The present world uses the word ` freedom’ more than before. But it isn’t as free. How can you explain freedom to someone trapped by the mobile phone screen and happy for it or blinded by religion and feeling secure for it? Our world is tangled in ego; vanity, competition, community, achievement, possession, insecurity and such. It can’t sense loss of freedom while securing itself. We have been birthing a strange dictatorship of convenience. At the meetings I was lucky to attend, the guideline-makers were introduced as accomplished mountaineers; hikers, river runners etc. I sat in the audience and listened to them hold forth on the pioneering activity they did in their prime, which grants them eminence to recommend now. The tenor I gleaned was how the theatre of these people’s accomplishments is now endangered by too many people going in (which, as function of population and emergent demographics is absolutely right) – some even losing their lives through reckless actions – and therefore, the wise have gathered to save and protect the rest. It is a nice, relevant, responsible story line. Except, if engaging in adventure was prerequisite for the wisdom behind guidelines, then the protection of such access and not its restriction should be the guiding thought guiding the guidelines. And if free access is to be enjoyed without damage to life and environment in times of high population, then the only solution is education. I didn’t find this emphasised adequately.
Personally I believe the above mentioned free access shouldn’t be restricted to landscape. It should include – in fact it is more about – free access to adventure and solitude for the ideas they are. I say this because the same as thought or idea will be progressively misunderstood going ahead. Increasingly, we are caricaturing adventure to make sense to a large population; its crowding, its sedentary ways, its huge need for jobs and we are forcing adventure to suck up to action crazed-media (everyone’s bio-data looks sexier with a dash of adventure, isn’t it?). As the trend plays out, we will have adventure enshrined as packaged lifestyle or spectacle. This regime is what makes guidelines like the ones being currently imagined, acceptable even as they fail to articulate and support real adventure. We will have guidelines and no proper appreciation for the instinct they seek to address. Any policy / set of guidelines that fails to acknowledge adventure as human instinct, has got it wrong.
We are a society that lauds life and the act of staying alive. Strangely, the daily drowning and devaluing of life by more numbers of people added is not a blotch on life’s aesthetics. With its casual approach to population control, India is all about adding people and no bother about how they live or what life is. One gentleman associated with framing guidelines told me, “ you can’t blame society for being interested in guidelines for adventure. After all, society has to save lives.’’ How this equation works or should work in the context of adventure – this, needs to be discussed by those loving adventure and engaged in it. The question is not one of being above law, pretending to be tough, rubbishing insurance or discounting the importance of search and rescue. It is one of properly appreciating what adventure is and why you are in that space. Personally, I accept all adventure entails risk. That’s why I choose what adventure I would like to be on. It is only rarely that people die instantly, painlessly. I don’t like pain. So, most of my adventures are tame affairs. The key to safe adventure is self awareness. I accept my timidity. If self awareness is key, then it also means that the best guidelines you can have for adventure activity would be education, good training, adequate access to practise what you learnt and sufficient self awareness through both to avoid being abjectly foolish. That said, despite best practices, you can still lose your life. Life and death are two sides of the adventure-coin. How can we learn to accept the coin and not a side? You have to ask the question – what is the purpose of a policy for adventure; is it to prevent deaths or is it to encourage responsible adventure? This debate should engage any group deliberating adventure related policy because it ensures that the policy is not partial to one side of the coin. Unfortunately, this debate doesn’t engage. I felt the guidelines / policies spare society the need to comprehend why adventure and the instinct for adventure, exists. A major lacuna is that aside from the cerebrally dull celebration of adventure as spectacle by the media (and the perpetuation of this trait by media crazed adventure enthusiasts), there is no other sensitization happening. Life’s hijack by a society becoming duller and duller by the day is not life’s fault. It is our fault; we are dull society.
All outdoor adventure has a setting – the environment. Damage to environment is inexcusable in the context of being outdoors. At least one instance of shameful environmental damage at altitude by a commercial operator with subsequent penalties imposed and thereafter a ban, reportedly happened in the recent past. Other unspoken instances exist. Controlling environmental degradation – this can be taught and learnt. But reality is – in India adventure is clad in machismo and competition. Amid set notions of how the adventurer looks and behaves and what training for adventure is, learning about the environment seems tame, effeminate. The winner stands on the summit; the loser cares for the environment – that is the imagery. Can we change this? Worse, all acts designed to change things have media built in. This reduces the effort to publicity stunt and sponsorship tactics. We need to do things because it is important to do it and not because it looks good on media. I sensed some concern for environment and practically nothing about the two sided adventure-coin in the background conversation around guidelines. At least one discussion on guidelines I witnessed was dominated by talk on resorts and home stays for tourists, pilgrimage facility for pilgrims and aircraft / helicopters for the clients of tourism. It was the deep end of the business hug.
(……to be continued)
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)