Monday, December 22, 2008


In two days we will be off to Argentina, to reconnect with nature, and do a whole lot of hiking in the Argentinian Patagonia. So this will be my last post this year. Since I may not be accessing the internet while I'm gone, I'll just look forward to catching up on all my blog-reading once we get back in the second week of January.

Sweetmango had tagged me some time ago, to list 5 things I do to stay mentally healthy. While I am nowhere near as grounded as she is, here are five things I need in my life, even if I don't find time for them on a daily basis:

1. Exercise and a periodic escape into the wilderness to hike or walk.
2. Books - I couldn't live without good reading material.
3. Having a creative outlet through painting, writing, gourds or something else.
4. My family and friends - I need them in my life.
5. Volunteering - the problems in the world can seem quite overwhelming at times. While it's easy to get disillusioned by the complexity of the issues, the only thing we can do is to make a small start by volunteering our time to make a small difference where we can. I absolutely need this for my sanity!

I tag any of you who wants to take this up and think about the essentials in your life, to stay at peace.

I hope all of you have a wonderful Holiday season, and a new year filled with peace and good health.

I will be back in touch in about two weeks.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Midnight Turtle Walk

It's that season again! The season when endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles return to the East Indian Coast to nest after their mysterious wanderings at sea, having traveled long distances - even all the way to Australia!

It is a wonder of nature how these gentle creatures remember the beach of their birth. The female returns to it when she is around 12 years old, and lays her eggs in the night, after which she returns to sea, leaving her babies to fend for themselves. They arrive at the beaches of India during nesting season between end-December and March.

What sights they must have seen on their wanderings, and how interesting their stories must be! But sadly, rather than being received with awe and being allowed to follow their ancient tradition in peace, these smallest of the world's sea turtles are facing dangers in many forms as they return to nest.

Fishing trawlers, oil exploration platforms, and development along the beaches are all major dangers that they face. With the trawlers for instance, they get ensnared in the giant nets, and unable to surface for air, they suffocate and die. They are discarded by the trawlers and wash up on shore, dead.

In response, many volunteer groups and researchers have set up night-long vigils, trying to maximize the success of the nesting season. One such groups is the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network or SSTCN.

SSTCN volunteers walk the beaches of Chennai (my hometown) every night during nesting season, keeping a lookout for turtle tracks. They follow the tracks, locate the jar-shaped nests underground and retrieve the eggs within. They take measurements of the nests and re-construct them at a safe hatchery further along the coast and re-bury the eggs there.

Hatchlings emerge after 45 to 60 days, and follow the trail of the moonlight to the sea. Due to lights along roads and homes along the shore now, confused hatchlings head in the opposite direction instead. So volunteers use torches to light their way to the sea.

A couple of years ago, on a visit to India during nesting season, Raghav and I went on a turtle walk with the volunteers of SSTCN, to help collect eggs from nesting sites to relocate to a safe spot in the hatchery. It was incredible and sad in many ways.

I didn't take my camera along, because we would be working with our hands in the sand, and so all the pictures here are from the website of SSTCN.

We were led on this walk by an experienced volunteer named Arun, and were joined by half a dozen other volunteers as well. There was a small group of ~10-year old school kids as well, getting a first-class biology lesson right there on the beach. Their excitement and wonder filled me with hope.

The beach had completely emptied by the time we started our walk close to midnight. I watched the rolling, dark waves pounding a rhythm on the beach and wondered how many turtles were out there, swimming to shore right before my unseeing eyes!

Since we were not using torches and were walking by moonlight, it was very dark. The children had gone very quiet, and the whole group was intent on locating turtle tracks in the sand, as we walked along the beach.

Soon tracks were sighted, and we followed them to a soft spot in the sand. We watched as a volunteer quickly felt around the neck of the jar-like nest and extricated soft, ping-pong ball sized eggs that were quickly transferred to a bag. Once the nest was empty, we walked on.

Soon afterward, the kids started squealing in excitement. I looked in the direction they were pointing and saw two full grown females on the sand. Excited, we ran toward them. The experienced volunteers held back. They knew these were dead. Washed up ashore having met human-made obstacles as they approached the beach. It was the saddest sight ever.

I felt frustrated and deeply disturbed. As we rush headlong towards modernization, we should ensure that we take all the world's creatures with us into the future. Our actions are destroying habitat quality and availability at an alarming rate! We need to do something. Except, I didn't know what to do.

When the next track was sighted, Raghav got to extricate the eggs while I held the torch for him. I sent a prayer into every little egg that we pulled out and willed that baby inside to get a chance in life. That was the best I could do.

Here's a picture of SSTCN volunteers with freshly laid eggs.

After collecting around 240 eggs from 2-3 nests that night, we were at the end of our 7 km walk, and at the hatchery. I helped dig a jar-shaped hole in a corner by the fence, while another volunteer measured it so that it would match the nest from which that group of eggs was taken. After burying the last egg, the kids took their bus home and the rest of the volunteers went to sleep.

Raghav and I were too wired to sleep. We sat at the sea side in the moonlight and contemplated what we had witnessed. We were at a loss for words though, and sat in silence, lost in our own thoughts.

In a couple of months these eggs would hatch, and volunteers would guide the little babies out to sea. The big sea out there with its trawlers and polluted waters seemed too vast and dangerous for the tiny little baby turtles. They seemed just so fragile!

Only one in about 1000 hatchlings survive to adulthood, and we had collected just ~240 eggs! And even those that survive will face more dangers at sea as they make their way back here to nest. Will this beach welcome them when they return?

As the end of the year draws near and we enjoy the Holidays with family and friends, there are Olive Ridley females in the ocean out there, swimming against distant currents, following the magical instinct of their ancestors to the beach of their birth. I pray for their safety this season, and in the years to come.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Bandelier: A Walk into the Past

I had written about Santa Fe some weeks ago in this post. It's time now to revisit New Mexico and take a stroll through time ... we will visit an abandoned pueblo (village) at Bandelier National Monument where the Anasazi, or the Ancient Ones, lived over 700 years ago.

There is a short loop trail in the park that takes us through the Frijoles canyon to the remains of the pueblos. Tall cliffs tower over the landscape, silently watching history unfold below them.

Humans arrived in Bandelier over 10,000 years ago, when nomadic hunter-gatherers followed their migrating wildlife-prey through these very canyons. Ancestral Pueblo people (the Anasazi) settled here over 700 years ago. So these cliffs have seen the drama of life and death play out countless times here, over many centuries ...

After a short walk we come to a Tyuonyi, which is a pueblo of about 400 rooms - one to three stories high - arranged in a circular pattern around a circular Kiva - a room that was used for religious purposes by the Anasazi. What remains now are just the walls of the rooms around the Kiva. When they were functional, these rooms had thatched roofs and ladders to get up to the higher levels.

Here below, is the Kiva. Imagine a thriving community here. In these rooms entire lives were lived. People got together around this Kiva to celebrate and pray, to dance and to sing. If we could put our ears to these walls, maybe we can hear the rhythms that they have absorbed over the years ...

A short distance from this pueblo are the cliffs of Frijoles Canyon. The canyon was formed by erosion when Frijoles Creek cut through the volcanic rock in these cliffs, which are full of natural cavities. The cavities were formed from air pockets in ash deposits from volcanic eruptions several thousand years ago. The Anasazi moved into these natural caves and created homes there.

There is a walkway there now, with a railing one can hold on to. As I walked along this path, I imagined young boys and girls scrambling over these rocks and through these holes, playing and sometimes falling, as their anxious mothers looked on ...

I was amazed to see this face appear on the rock wall. Tuned in as I was to the many ancient lives and stories here, I imagined the many stories that this face could tell me.

There are ladders in a couple of places, by which one can crawl into these cliff cave homes to see the world through the eyes of the ancient ones for just a few minutes ...

These walls contained life at one time. Families slept here, huddled against the elements. Within these rooms there once was laughter and grief; mischief and melancholy.

Little babies crawled on these floors, young children played hide and seek. Dreamy lovers sat here watching the sky fill up with stars ... anxious adults tended to their aging parents, and found shelter here from the rain and snow ...

Can you see the festivities down at the Kiva below, with crackling wood fire lighting up the dancers, and music reverberating off the cliff walls? What a sight that must have been!

So many untold stories buried here ... life's transience was never more apparent.

Further along there are more clusters of homes backed up against the cliff walls. These homes must have been several stories high and must have connected with the cavities in the walls as well.

Cactus fruit adds a dash of color ...

The Anasazi were artistic people, as we know from their exquisitely decorated pottery. Artists must have lived in this pueblo as well, drawing inspiration from this very landscape ... there is one well-preserved petroglyph along the trail. One can only wonder at the fingers that created this one.

As we walked back along the snow-covered trail in the warm sunshine, other natives of this land watched us go by. Their lives are woven with our own ... their ancestors provided company and nourishment to our human ancestors who lived here. This is their history as well.

By 1550 the Ancestral Pueblo people had left their homes in the Frijoles canyon, and moved to other regions. This abandoned site was designated as a National Monument on February 11, 1916.

Back home, I made a small 6"x9" painting of a familiar Native American motif to remember this visit by.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Decker Challenge

On Sunday our team ran the Decker Challenge Half Marathon. Until last year this race was a 20K, but this year they increased the route by 0.5 miles and made it a half marathon.

We were up before sunrise - it was that time in the morning when the sky is still inky black, and the bright pink of sunrise is fighting its way into the sky's color palette. We were running late, so though I had my camera with me, we couldn't stop for a photo. All I got is this one a little later, from the moving car!

We were all ready to begin at 8am, and our Run for India team stood out in our bright yellow t-shirts.

This course is very hilly, and a little boring. But all those training for the Austin full marathon in February run this one as part of their training. It is organized by the Austin Runners Club, and they do another 40K one in January.

I'm just planning on running the half marathon in February, but wanted to do this one as well. Running used to be such a joy. But after about 20 years of it, the knees give up. I was fine until Mile 6 and doing a good pace. But after that my knees became very sore, and the run got increasingly more painful over the next 7 miles. The finish line was a welcome sight.

It is a very meditative activity, and I like its simplicity. I miss how it used to be though; running without pain, and just enjoying its freedom. But they also give awards to those who limp through the finish line, so here's what I brought home.

And speaking of awards, I'm thrilled to receive two from bloggers whose stories and pictures I enjoy very much.

This one is from Blu, who takes stunning photographs of her enchanting town and forest in Brittany, France. Thanks, Blu!

The rules are:

Copy and paste the rules and instructions in your post.
When you post about receiving this award, make sure you include who gave you the award and link it back to them.
Post five winners and link it back to them as well.
Post five of your addictions.
Add the award image.
Let your winners know you gave them an award by leaving them a comment on their blog.

I think I'll cheat a little here and pass it along to just one other blogger. Since Blu takes lovely photos, I'll give this award to Vagabond, who also takes lovely pictures.

Addictions ... my absolute necessities in life ... those would be

1. Silent time for contemplation
2. Hiking, and a periodic escape into the wilderness
3. Creating
4. Sunlight
5. Animals

The second award is from Chris of Shady Grove, who makes beautiful quilts, and totally unique quilt-jewelery. Thanks, Chris!

Here are the rules:- Five people are allowed to receive this award: four dedicated followers of your blog and one who is new to your blog and lives in another part of the world.- Please link back to the person who gave you this award.

I'm again going to cheat and pass this one along to just one other person - who lives all the way on the other side of the world in Australia: Sweetmango.

Have a great rest of the week!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

... continued

Let me pick up from where we left off on the previous post ... we were on the trail around Ladybird Lake in Austin, and had stopped at a water stop by the dog park ...

As we continue on the loop trail, we pass the statue of Texas musician Stevie Ray Vaughan, standing tall by the lake, silently watching the prancing dogs and strolling people around him with his guitar in hand, as if waiting for the right moment to break into song.

Now we are on the other side of Lamar Bridge. Framed by the Fall foliage, the bridge and its reflection make a pretty picture.

As the sun begins to dip even lower, there's a hush around the lake, and we pass fewer people. We can hear the plop of the oars striking the water as the last rowers return to the docks, and we hear the calls of birds settling in for the night.

The parts of the trail that are tree-lined get much darker, and the trees seem to loom taller as we pass under them.

We pause at the boat dock, to watch the intensity of the colors in the fading light. The deep blue of the water, and the reds and browns of the trees reflecting on its calm surface.

As the last of the runners drives away, and the last canoe is put away, a quiet descends on the lake, and the residents settle down for the night. I love the way the setting sun makes their orange beaks glow!

Have a good evening!