Sunday, December 29, 2013

Year of the Astronaut

No, you will not find that on the Chinese Lunar calendar. Having said that, given the success they've had lately, they should probably legitimize the year of the astronaut.

It's that time of the year again. Another cycle of twelve months draw to a close. A couple of days before I left Stanford for home, I pulled out a small sheet of paper on which I had scribbled on goals for the year - a ritual I have followed for many years now; I even save each year's sheet so that some day in the distant future I can look back and see how my priorities in life have changed - to check how many of those items can be scratched off. Some of those goals end up taking many years to accomplish and as a result, find themselves repeated year after year. 

The cycle of twelve months has had its usual ups and downs, dotted with a few remarkable once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I found myself down in the dumps at the beginning of the year, and found joy and upliftment through two great projects that I wrote about earlier. It's strange what a fleeting sense of accomplishment can do for the soul. Somewhere near the end of the year, my friend J gifted me a book - "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth" by Col. Chris Hadfield. I'm quite the astronaut groupie, and even if you're not one, Chris Hadfield is one of those inspirational people you just have to know. The world first came to know him through his remarkable outreach videos from the ISS. I was looking forward to reading the book, but I never expected it to be such a life-transforming experience. I have now bored most of my near and dear ones with accounts of how the book is fundamentally affecting my outlook on things in my life. I want to be an astronaut myself some day (I think this is my first public admission in writing), which is probably why the book is affecting me even more. While it has been really fun reading about Hadfield's experiences during his years of training as fighter pilot, in the astronaut core and then three times on the ISS, there are some fundamental life lessons I have learned from the book. Hadfield discusses his thought process in handling any problem he faces in real life and how it has been affected by his astronaut training. Perhaps the biggest lesson I've picked up is to develop the mind of an astronaut, whether or not I actually become one - to be mentally prepared for (almost) any eventuality, to be disciplined and to work the problem at hand rather than frantically hurling the kitchen sink at it. I've decided to adopt this as my theme for the next year - the first item on my little piece of paper. The words "think like an astronaut" have slowly begun to take center stage in my head, whilst slowly getting on the nerves of everyone around me.

I'm preparing for what's going to be a glorious end to another difficult yet rewarding year, and I'm hoping my new philosophy will hold me in good stead for the coming year. 

Good bye 2013, and I think I'm going to be happy to see you, 2014.

Happy new year, everyone!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Climbing Concepcion

I got back from yet another summer of travel two weeks ago. The beginning of the summer of travel saw my friend K and I embark on an adventure in Central America. Armed with all of hundred words in Spanish between the two of us (98 mine, his being only "si" and "gracias"), we set out for the beautiful countries of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The trip itself will be remembered for the grace and kindness of the locals who we encountered, who were exceedingly friendly and cordial, even as we struggled to communicate with them. It made me realize the importance of the locals of a country being on your side when you find yourself in deep water, linguistically speaking. About a month after that, when I landed in Delhi, I vowed to actively spot and help any foreigners in distress. It so happened that I spotted no foreigners in distress. That may be because they were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, or they were getting taken advantage of at a different point in space-time.

We challenged many of our fears in Central America - a pact that K and I had agreed upon at some point. I challenged my fear of drowning by going snorkeling (the third time in my life, getting better with every time) and scuba-diving in Corn Island, while he challenged his fear of heights while ziplining in Costa Rica. Perhaps the most fulfilling experience I had, though, was climbing the Concepcion Volcano on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua. 

It was love at first sight. We arrived at the port in Rivas after a series of confused mutterings of "¿Bus para Rivas?" at Granada. Right there, across the Lago Nicaragua was Ometepe Island, with its active twin volcanoes - Concepcion and Madeiras, towering above anything nearby, their blunted tops shrouded in cloud and smoke. As our ferry slowly rumbled towards the island, I repeatedly told K, "If there's any way that can be climbed, please let's climb it!". At the end of the day, it was going to be a choice between climbing Concepcion and visiting the San Ramon waterfall. We had all of two days at Ometepe and both couldn't be done. However, as the mountain loomed closer with all its magnificence, and the decision was made. We went to a local guide centre right after we checked in to our hotel and requested a guide to take us up the morning after (it is illegal to go up without a guide). This was it - bright and early, a 24km round trip hike, 5000 feet of elevation gain, all in the same day. I had been watching an unhealthy excess of mountaineering documentaries (I still do), and the running theme was that you never conquer a mountain, the mountain lets you climb it. So I requested Volcan Concepcion to allow me to climb it the next day.

Above: Approaching Ometepe Island

The next day began on the wrong foot. At 5 am, we had a knock on our door. Somewhere in the gaps in communication, our guide had misunderstood 7 to mean 5, and was obviously rather disappointed to find a foggy-eyed me opening the door and explaining to him that there was no way aside from the volcano erupting that I would agree to step out of bed. And so it was that two hours later, we met our jovial guide Luis, who was a surprisingly happy camper for someone who had been woken up mistakenly at an unearthly hour. Luis informed us (and repeated this fact many times over as the day progressed) that as of three days ago he had climbed the mountain 18 times in three weeks. Luis was also one of the Nahua people, native to the island. A very good start, we thought. A short bus ride later, we were dropped off at the trail head along with a few other groups, one of them consisting of people who were staying at our hotel. On the hour's hike to the base of the volcano through dense tropical forest, K and I pressed home our height advantage on the flat trail. Luis was left yelling "stop, Speedy Gonzales!" a few times. On the hardest section of the climb a few hours later, he would show us who was boss. We'd be the ones asking him to slow down very soon. 

An hour later, we began our ascent up the volcano. We climbed slowly through the lush forest; the water vapour under the canopy made the air soupy with moisture. We couldn't just look up and walk. On the ground below, an entirely different biological order was flourishing. Scores of ants of different kinds were busy at work, and we had to be mindful to not disrupt their routine. As I sweated and panted up the mountain, I was amazed at the variety of life forms that called the rainforest home. We also made some friends of the non-fluttering kind along the way, who we chatted with as we headed up the mountain. Just when the trail seemed never-ending, the trees suddenly gave way to grass. A short traverse across the mountain face led us to a flat shoulder on the mountain at 1000 meters called El Floral. It was surprising how quickly the mountain's behaviour changed. From the hot, soupy atmosphere in the forest below, we transitioned to a chilly, windy shoulder where it was hard to stand out it in the open and resist the wind. The view from El Floral was breathtaking - one could see the entire Northern side of the island and the Lake beyond that. I was glad that the base of the mountain was roughly at sea level which ensured that there was a lot of breath to take, failing which this would have been an excruciating climb.

Above: The view from El Floral
El Floral is a bifurcation point for groups heading up the volcano. Most groups decided to head back from this point. We bid farewell to our existing friends and acquired a new set of climbing partners. Of the roughly 50 people who left that morning, it was 6 of us (4 tourists and 2 guides) who would go beyond El Floral to attempt to reach the peak. It was immediately obvious to me that the climb was going to become a lot more difficult. Within minutes of leaving El Floral, the grass gave way to loose volcanic gravel and rock. The grade of the mountain became a lot steeper and K and I were now climbing on all fours to prevent toppling backward down the mountain, while Luis the new Speedy Gonzales was practically racing up the mountain. I was made increasingly hesitant by every one of the few times we would step on something and it would slip under our weight. We somehow struggled up the next 100 metres when we hit another roadblock - a gully had been partially washed away by rain the previous night, leaving about a 5 foot wall with a sheer drop on the other side. It was at this point that one half of the six that headed up turned back. K was one of them. Later he would describe his return using a once-famous sentence on his Orkut profile - "I am obese and I can't climb walls". He's nowhere near obese now, but I guess he still can't climb walls. So it was my friend J (who was living at the same hotel as K and I), myself and Luis who headed up the final stretch. The terrain became somewhat worse as we went up. As I went up, I started to wonder about coming back down. Six weeks ago I had taken a terrible tumble during descent which had cartwheeled me two hundred feet down the face of another mountain. I had surprisingly escaped with just minor injuries but the ghosts of that fall were definitely playing on my mind as I climbed up. To worsen the situation, the clouds around the peak started to become dark and dense. By this time, the sulphur spewing from the crater had also started to mingle with the water vapour, so our eyes would burn every time a drop of water in the form of rain or sweat would come in contact. 

Above: J and I at 1500 metres
On two or three occasions as we slowly laboured up the mountain, it showed us what it was capable of. There was a sharp shower for about 15 to 20 seconds and then it stopped. The few seconds were enough to make us realize the trouble we would be in if it started to rain - the rocks would become slippery, the lava gullies would turn into rivers, the gravel would wash away, and the thunder from any storm would literally surround us. An important aspect of climbing a mountain is to know what you value more - your ego or your life. J and I both agreed to turn back when Luis felt it was unsafe to go ahead any more. We finally reached 1500 metres - which was the highest reachable point on our side. A traverse across a bare cliff face would follow which would take us to the other side, and the access point to 1610 metres - the peak of the volcano, but we decided that it was too unsafe to do this with the impending rain. We decided to descend after a few photographs, before rain came down and decided to play havoc with our plans to get back alive. It never rained that day. As we descended, I was constantly reminded of my fall. But we descended very slowly and carefully, taking support from the mountainside, and a painstaking hour and a half and a few minor falls later, we were reunited with the other half our six member team that had headed up. 

Above: Luis and I at 1500 metres

Above: A treacherous descent
The descent from that point on was easy. We enjoyed the breeze that had picked up since morning. Our legs hurt from the effort of the climb, but we were happy to have life and limb intact as we sped off the volcano. Almost as if to make up for not allowing us to summit, the volcano offered up a nice, rare sight - a pair of howler monkeys swinging and hollering at each other. In a few hours we found our way back to civilization and as we drove in the back of a truck to our hotel, I turned around to look back at the mountain. The clouds had cleared almost completely from the peak and we could see the  the point at which we had turned back. Somewhere between our descent and arriving at our hotel, K also earned the nickname "El Largo" - the Large One. We eventually reached our hotel, extremely tired and very ready for a nap, followed by lots of beer in the evening. We also bid farewell to Luis, and thanked him for his support, without which we perhaps would not have managed any of this. 

We bid farewell to Ometepe island and Nicaragua the next day. Concepcion towered over the entire island as always. The rest of our trip was just as memorable, but the experience of climbing an active volcano is one I will not forget for a long time to come.

Above: Concepcion shortly after we descended

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Fleeting Encounters

It was somewhat late today as I drove through the forested ridge that separates home from the rest of Delhi. For once, I took my time to notice how beautiful the street lights streaming through the tree canopy looked. This only happens for a very short while during the monsoon. I've always admired how after months of being baked brown in the searing Delhi heat, the forest just comes alive with the monsoon. As weeks progress, if the rain is as heavy as expected (increasingly fickle these days), the trees on either side of the road will grow to form a thin canopy above the road. 

I have all of three days left in Delhi. It promises to be the same sequence of crippling sadness and disappointment followed by a slow recovery back to "normal", only to (thankfully) repeat again in a few months. Just yesterday, I stopped for a second to think about my sister's whirlwind visit over the weekend. She came and left before I even realized she was there. That seems to have become the nature of my relationships back home - they must all somehow draw strength and survive through encounters that don't last for more than a few days at a time, sometimes even a few hours. That they survive, and even flourish despite this is probably proof of their strength. I meet my sister for barely four days a year now. She lives in a different city and our holiday schedules don't match. We are fortunate enough to have the means to make sure we're in the same city at least for these four days in the year. We barely talk on the phone, but it's refreshing how in those four days, we'll still sometimes talk in made up voices like when we were 10 and 6, 14 and 10 or 18 and 14. There are also those whom I will barely see for two hours in an entire year, but we'll still manage to fill up a year's worth of stories in those two hours and pick up where we left off last time. The internet and social networking have perhaps helped in keeping all of us acquainted, but even those haven't saved relationships that lacked the will to fight against disappearance. 

I've also observed my parents this time, albeit somewhat unknowingly. Just as I walked out for dinner today, I was just struck by the sight of them having tea and talking about their day. Something told me what I was witnessing was one of the big reasons for their success as a couple - I think my parents have mastered the art of (for the want of a better word) "chilling" with each other. It's probably the first time I've taken notice of them hanging out, maybe because I'm looking for answers myself, or maybe because it's the first time they have a routine outside of their children. Usually, when I leave for dinner with friends, my mother is just back from work, and my parents have a cup of tea together and talk. When I come back from dinner with my friends, I find them watching TV together where my mother will exercise her excellent memory of  old Hindi song lyrics, movies and their composers, while my father appreciates her knowledge and enjoys the songs presented in a talent show. There are of course other reasons why they work, but the realization of this one brought a very strange sense of comfort and happiness.

My interactions with those who know me the best has turned into an unending sequence of fleeting encounters. There may be no escape from it in the near future, but it's comforting to know that the strength of my relationships with those who see me so little remains unaffected by the number of minutes or hours that I spend with them.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Our Golden Days

"...A golden age,
These golden times,
Our golden days,
Seem to have us

- strange little song called Monkey Man.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Life-Altering Pursuits

There are these days when I look back and think about all the things that have happened to me over the last two years that growing up in India, I couldn't ever imagine happening to me. Back in high school, going to MIT or Stanford or Oxford was a playful joke between all of us who were breaking our backs and (perhaps needlessly, in hindsight) giving up the joy of being seventeen over the rat race to get into IIT. The fact that that's not a joke anymore gives me a lot of joy every time I think about it. Every now and then, there comes an opportunity to embark on a potentially life-altering pursuit. Only, I didn't know I'd be getting so many in such a short span of time. The going has been tough, but it surely has not been without its rewards. So this post is primarily a reflection that concludes with a sense of wonder and gratitude. 

The first three months of this year have probably been the most eventful I've had at Stanford; March, perhaps the month with least sleep. There were points of time in the last three months that I just had to sit up and look around to see the grand scale of the things I was getting myself immersed in. Yet,  two days beyond the end of those three months I have to say that the experience was wonderful. 

First, there was PEMDAS-1. Our rocket was in its build phase these last three months. Twelve of us poured our heart and soul into raising the 13-foot behemoth and sending him on his way to 45000 feet. As the quarter progressed, afternoons blended into evenings; by the end, evenings were blending into mornings after. There was the igniter test that swallowed my birthday whole (no regrets). There was the ground test that swallowed two-thirds of a long weekend. Then there was launch week, when no one got any sleep. Everyone sacrificed their daily lives for us to become the first team in four years of the class to have made it to launch- perhaps the first ever to have done so within 6 months from the start. Sharing all-nighters with people is probably a nerd's best way to bond with other nerds. The all-nighters pulled together had a big role to play in turning us into a well-oiled machine. The day of the launch came by; only that it didn't go as we planned, or as we deserved. We stood under the bunker and helplessly watched months of hard work catch fire as the rocket stood where it was, in submission to the flames below. Hearts were broken, days were ruined, and we returned disappointed, dissatisfied and looking for a second shot. Hopefully, we will be able to rebuild everything that is needed and try again in the next few months. If there's one thing I know, I worked with a remarkable set of people, that you must be very fortunate to have worked with. My knowledge grew by leaps and bounds in the few months I spent working on that project. Even the failure taught us a few things about doing things right.

I was back from my rocket launch trip all of five days, when I had to leave to embark on the second of my life-altering pursuits- the Caltech Space Challenge with Team Voyager. This would be a much shorter venture, but no less intense. When I first met my fellow participants, my first feeling was one of panic- "How am I ever going to be good enough for this team?". The resumes were stellar, and the excitement was palpable. For the next five days, we sank over twelve to fourteen hours a day in trying to conceptually design a manned mission to a Martian moon. Once again, all-nighters served to unite what began as a somewhat disjointed set of very strong-minded and motivated strangers. There were surprise treats along the way. On day 3, I the breakfast table abuzz (no pun intended) with the words "Buzz Aldrin" occasionally finding their way through. Buzz Aldrin had decided to pay us a visit. That day went on to become one of the best days I've had in a long time. At night, I coincidentally landed up on the same table as him, and sat and listened as he shared gems from his treasure trove of stories. Later that night, as I headed back to the hotel exhausted yet exhilarated from a long day, I  remembered the occasion about year ago when I had the opportunity to have a 30 second long conversation with Neil Armstrong. The feeling of gratitude and amazement that I felt then, is the same feeling that I write this post with. If anyone would've told ten-year-old me, growing up in New Delhi that I'd get to meet the first two men who had walked on the moon, I would have laughed at them in disbelief. Then again, it happened; whether I believe it or not. Team Voyager's quest ended on a different note compared to PEMDAS-1. On the final night, in the presence of bigwigs of the aerospace industry, we were declared the winners of the challenge. 

I walked away from these three months physically tired, but mentally enriched. I walked away with a new set of friends who are remarkable in every way- all of us tied together by bonds of sleep deprivation. I have slower days ahead, which is a welcome relief from how busy life has been over the last few weeks; but a part of me probably misses the excitement of working towards a common goal with a set of like-minded people. Some of the members of the PEMDAS team have graduated and moved on to bigger things in life, but they have promised to return to watch PEMDAS-2 take to the skies, if that were to happen. Members of Team Voyager are back to pursuing their daily lives and hopefully continue to do well. As for me, I'm thankful that I got the opportunity to come to Stanford, and I'm amazed at all the wonderful people and experiences that being here has brought me.

Team PEMDAS -1 

Team Voyager

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Safe Place

I love music. I'm listening to music practically the entire time I'm awake. I'm also averse to change a lot of the time, so I end up cycling through the same songs very often. That's not to say I'm not open to new music- I have a comfort zone and a safe place that I like to visit fairly often. Today, for instance I ended up spending most of my waking hours listening to exactly two songs on loop. There was a strange comfort in the sombre tone of both songs and the sense of familiarity they produced.

The going has been challenging lately. I find myself involved in large scale projects that are taking a heavy investment of time and thought, leaving me mentally exhausted at the end of the day. One is also obsessively thinking about the course one's life is taking- as I find is the case with a lot of my friends in the same age bracket. I find it strange that it took all of that for me to return to write on my blog, just to find an outlet, which I haven't done for quite a while. My dashboard is now a cluttered pile of half-written posts that I lost the drive to complete somewhere along the way.

Today's a different story. I already mentioned the two songs that produced a strange sense of comfort all day today. By evening I was listening to a third, and I identified that one as the song that I will always go to when I need peace of mind. I had a chat with a friend soon after, asking him if he had a song like that- a "safe place" as it were. "High hopes, I guess", he said, "what's yours?". My safe place is this Dave Matthews Band song called #41. There are no inspirational lyrics, nothing that would obviously connect, but it's just there. I don't know if it's in that guitar lick that plays through the entire song, or in LeRoi or Jeff Coffin's saxophone interludes, but there's something that always presses the right buttons. When I want to feel like it's all going to be OK, that's the song I go to- again and again. I was first introduced to the song way back in 2007 by someone who wanted to share an example of how lively an acoustic guitar needs to sound. It was only a few years later, on my fourth day at Stanford that I felt the comfort that that song provided me. I was deep in the throws of homesickness, wondering how long I'd survive being parted from everyone I knew by half the earth- and then I bought my laptop and #41 was the first song that played. Within about 4 minutes into the song, I felt like I would be just fine, and things will get better soon. Since then, I have visited this song every time I have felt the need to calm myself down, when nothing else has worked, this has always rescued me. 

It was the same story today. This time I felt like I should acknowledge how much this song has helped me over the last two years, without ever really having any words in it that talk to me. This one time, it is purely the music that talks to me, and there's no other song which has the same effect.

Where is your safe place?