Monday, February 23, 2009

Wood Apples and Avocados

I've been a bit lazy about posting here lately. There are still some accounts of hikes in Tierra del Fuego and some interesting historical tidbits I'd like to share. But for now, here's some more mundane stuff ...

I was in the World Market the other day, and saw this bag of lovely carved wooden balls. The whole bag was only $5, and the balls looked so pretty that I bought them and brought them home.

On closer inspection, upon reading the label inside the bag I realized that these balls were actually wood apples! I hadn't seen a wood apple (or bael fruit) in at least fifteen years, and hadn't ever seen any art using them. So this was an interesting surprise.

I did my entire schooling in a campus in South India where wood apple trees grow wild. As kids we have eaten these fruits in all stages of their growth. The shell of the wood apple is thick and hard, and we used to break the fruit open with a stone or by hurling it to the ground.

Here's a picture of a wood apple tree I found online:

While still raw, the inside is a green mass that is extremely sour, and it smears itself to the palate. I don't know why we would still persist at eating them at this stage! I guess when you are about 8 years old and have nothing else to do, this is good entertainment.

The ripe wood apple fruit is brown on the inside, and sticky with a sweet-sour taste. This is cooked into chutneys in India and rarely eaten as is, except by kids. :) These were hard to find because most kids had their eye on the same ripening fruit and I was rarely the one that got it. When I did though, it used to be a treat. Maybe the struggle to get it made it sweeter than it really was!

Here's a picture from Wiki of a ripe wood apple:

This fruit has a lot of good uses too: (info obtained from Wikipedia)

As food: Indonesians beat the pulp of the ripe fruit with palm sugar and eat the mixture at breakfast. The sweetened pulp is a source of sherbet in the subcontinent. Jam, pickle, marmalade, syrup, jelly, squash and toffee are some of the products of this versatile fruit. Young bael leaves are a salad green in Thailand.

Other uses: Bael fruit pulp has a soap-like action that made it a household cleaner for hundreds of years. The sticky layer around the unripe seeds is household glue that also finds use in jewelery-making. The glue, mixed with lime, waterproofs wells and cements walls. The glue also protects oil paintings when added as a coat on the canvas. The fruit rind yields oil that is popular as a fragrance for hair; it also produces a dye used to color silks and calico.

Nutrition: A hundred gm of bael fruit pulp contains 31 gm of carbohydrate and two gm of protein, which adds up to nearly 140 calories. The ripe fruit is rich in beta-carotene; it also contains significant quantities of the B vitamins thiamine and riboflavin, and small amounts of Vitamin C.

Medicinal uses: The bael fruit is more popular as medicine than as food. The tannin in bael has an astringent effect that once led to its use as a general tonic and as a traditional cure for dysentery, diarrhoea, liver ailments, chronic cough and indigestion. In fact, Vasco da Gama's men, suffering from diarrhoea and dysentery in India, turned to the bael fruit for relief. The root juice was once popular as a remedy for snakebites.

The seed oil is a purgative, and the leaf juice mixed with honey is a folk remedy for fever. The tannin-rich and alkaloid-rich bark decoction is a folk cure for malaria.

I wonder if any of you has seen other art using wood apples?

Moving on to avocados ...

I've read in several places that it's easy to grow avocado plants from the pit of the fruit. The process and the plant look so interesting and beautiful in the pictures online that I've tried multiple times to get this to work. I've never been successful.

But that doesn't stop me from trying! I made some guacamole over the weekend, and once again, I have suspended the two pits in water in the hope that they will grow into gorgeous indoor plants one day. Wish me luck!

Have you ever got this to work? If you have, do tell me what I'm doing wrong!

Enjoy your week!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Run for India 2009

Last week was a busy one, and the weekend was even more packed with activity. So I haven't been checking the blogs I usually read, or been able to compose new posts ... will hopefully catch up on that soon.

Sunday, Feb 15th was the day of the Austin Marathon & Half Marathon. Our team from the Association for India's Development (AID) runs this race every year as a fundraiser. This year, seventeen of us participated - eleven volunteers ran the half marathon, and six ran the full.

Over the past few months, Saturday mornings have been exactly the same: wake up at 6am, get to Lady Bird Lake (see my post about the lake) by 7:00 or 7:30am, and run the prescribed distance for the week. Some days were beautiful, and running was a pleasure. Other days were cold, windy and miserable, and running was really painful. But it all paid off on Sunday, coz all of us had a good run.

R and I ran the half this year, since we had lots of injuries after running the full marathon last year. It was a perfect day on Sunday, partly cloudy and cool. The 13.1 miles seemed pretty easy after having done the 26.2 miles last year on Austin's hilly course.

Our bright yellow team t-shirts stand out in the crowd (I designed these last year).

This run is the biggest fundraiser for our volunteer group each year, and the training program is called Run for India. Runners raise money through their run, for supporting projects in rural India that are sustainable and holistic in their approach:

"AID is a volunteer movement committed to promoting sustainable, equitable and just development. In solidarity with non-violent people's struggles, AID supports grassroots organizations in India and initiates efforts in various interconnected spheres such as education, livelihoods, natural resources, health, women's empowerment and social justice."

The idea is to learn from our project partners on the ground, and have study groups where we try and understand the issues behind the realities that exist on the ground. As a result, we learn a tremendous amount from our NGO partners in India.

I coordinate two projects (with NGOs Kalpavriksh in Delhi, and Exnora Green Cross in Vellore), both of them related to environmental issues, since that is what interests me. I serve as the link between these two NGO partners and our group so that we can learn as much as possible about the issues - social, political and scientific, that relate to the projects that we support.

It is work that has taught me so much more than I have been able to contribute. Our group of runners are all volunteers - students as well as professionals. The energy and excitement in this group is awesome, and now that we have raised some money, it is time to invest it in some deserving projects on the ground in India!

Hope your week is going well.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Hiking in Patagonia

In my previous post I had written about the two major peaks in Los Glaciares National Park in Patagonia: Fitz Roy, and Cerro Torre.

One special thing about this national park is that entry into it is free. The ranger explained to us that they want to keep it this way, so that everyone can enjoy nature's beauty - and not just the ones who can afford it. I was very impressed with this sentiment.

The two main hiking trails in the park are the ones that take you to the base of these two mighty mountains, where mountain glaciers form jewel-like pools and melt into icy cold, crystal clear streams. This post is about these two spectacular hikes.

Laguna de los Tres hike

This hike is about 15 miles round-trip, with an elevation gain of 750 meters, and goes to the base of Mount Fitz Roy. It is also one of the most scenic trails in the park, and we chose this one as our first hike.

Due to the steepness and exposure to wind in some parts of the trail, caution is advised. On extremely windy days, which occur quite often here, the rangers advice hikers to not go on some sections of this trail. We were lucky to have a perfectly still day, on which we could complete this hike.

Even from the very beginning, the trail takes off steeply uphill, with wildflowers on either side, and with the views getting better and better with every turn.

The trail winds through densely wooded sections of forest, with gnarled, twisted trees with dark brown, peeling bark. These are old growth forests, with some species unique to this part of the world and the Australian regions (they shared these species when they were joined as Gondwana land). These forests seemed to me to have a different character, and a mystique about them. It was probably just my imagination ...

After a few hours of walking through the narrow, forested trail, we came to a more open and exposed area, with a cute bridge over Rio Blanco, formed from glacial meltwater, which we had to cross. The river didn't have much water in this section, but the water was clear and cold.

Soon after this, vegetation became sparse, and the trail again took off uphill. This is the section that gets closed off when it's windy, because it is quite exposed. It was quite still on this day, and we could see Fitz Roy looming closer and closer.

After some determined walking over scree slopes with pebbly trails, we went over a hill and saw the lagoon in front of us, lit up by the sun. Fitz Roy was completely covered in clouds though. What looks like sky in this picture below is really the mountain covered in clouds.

It was cold and windy by the lagoon, so although we wanted to sit down and take it all in, we decided to head back after a little while. Our fingers and toes were slowly freezing, and we still had a long way to go.

The weather in Patagonia is extremely variable, and quite windy. We were really lucky to have had good weather on this hike, because those that did it on the very next day couldn't go all the way to the lagoon, and had to turn back at Rio Blanco due to fierce winds.

It took us about 8 hours to do this 15 mile round-trip hike. We had left at around 11:30am, and got back to El Chalten by around 8:30pm, when the sun was still quite high in the sky! The hot shower and dinner we came back to couldn't have felt better. :)

Laguna Torre hike

Laguna Torre is the lagoon at the base of Cerro Torre, and the hike to this spot is 13.6 miles round-trip, with a 250 meter elevation gain. We started on this one around noon, and spent some time finding the trailhead.

And then we saw this landmark that we had read about, and knew we were on the right track. The sign says: Monument to a careless trekker. The story is that this tree's death was caused by a tossed cigarette. Due to the winds here, fires quickly burn out of control. So trekkers are urged to be careful on the trails.

For the first few miles this trail was pretty boring, exposed to the sun and very dry. I had been excited about this hike because this would take us to the base of Cerro Torre - the mountain that has had such a controversial history, and that is considered one of the hardest in the world to climb. But this initial stretch was a little disappointing.

Soon, however, we entered a stretch of dense woodland again, which was covered in bright green ferns and other vegetation. It was truly beautiful, and I soon forgot about the exposed section. There were hundreds of caterpillars along the trail, crawling slowly across it. Sadly, many had been squished by hiking boots. We tried to move many of them to the side, but it was a drop in the ocean.

Bright red Chilean firebush along the trail.

Soon we came to a wide glacial stream, which we heard even before we saw. It flowed briskly down, bringing with it a cold wind from the direction of the mountain.

Further along, all vegetation disappeared, and we were on pebbly, rocky terrain and it got very windy and cold. Cerro Torre loomed ahead, but was almost entirely covered in clouds. We could however, sense its bulk even through the cloud cover.

The trail went over a hill, and then there was Laguna Torre, dotted prettily with icebergs, with Cerro Torre and its glacier in the background.

Though it was cold, the sun was shining brightly on us, so we were quite comfortable under our layers. We sat by the lagoon for at least half an hour, enjoying the view and marveling at Cerro Torre's sheer 2km of vertical rock so close to us.

The clouds were moving fast, but continuously swirled around the mountain's peak, refusing to allow us a glimpse of the summit that has mesmerized the rock climbing community.

Once we left and were a little distance from the lagoon, I turned back to take one more look at the mountain, and to my delight, the clouds had completely cleared and I could get some pictures of the peak.

Imagine climbing this needle-like rock! And climbing it when it is buffetted by 100-knot winds is another story. Jon Krakauer writes about his experience climbing this mountain in one of his books, and it is awe-inspiring.

We did a bunch of smaller hikes in the park which were also very beautiful, but these two hikes were the highlight of our time in Los Glaciares National Park.

It's time to get my thoughts back here though because it's Sunday night, and time to get ready for the week! Have a good one.

Monday, February 2, 2009

El Chalten and two Magnificent Mountains

The little village of El Chalten in the Argentinian Patagonia serves as the base for trekking and climbing excursions in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Until 1985, this region was frequented only by climbers from the world over who would come here to test their skills on some of the most difficult mountains in the world.

In 1985 though, Argentina successfully claimed this area f rom Chile, and founded this village as a base for trekkers worldwide who want to also enjoy the wilderness in the national park.

The name Chalten means "smoking mountain" in the language of the nomadic Tehuelche people who used to live throughout the Patagonian region until the 1900s. The "smoke" refers to the plume cloud that usually is seen at the top of the Fitz Roy peak, which the Tehuelche considered sacred.

El Chalten lies along Rio de las Vueltas, nestled among the mountains. It has several hostels and restaurants, one market and a couple of small shops as well as a bakery (where we bought freshly baked sweet breads every day to take on our hikes).

Here is a (fuzzy) view of El Chalten along the river, taken well past sunset. Darkness would come only at around 11pm here at this time of year. This was very convenient, for we could go on long hikes during the day and still return before it got dark.

Here is a picture of Rio de las Vueltas taken as the sun was setting.

From anywhere in the village we had a view of the surrounding mountains. The most legendary peaks here are Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. I have read several absolutely incredible climbing stories of expeditions on these mountains - world class climbers have come here to try their luck on these two peaks, and several of these attempts have ended in tragedy. So I was in awe the whole time we were in El Chalten, realizing that this is the place where all that drama played out.

Fitz Roy is the tall mountain in the center of the picture below. Cerro Torre is the needle-like peak on the left, covered in clouds.

Mount Fitz Roy is named after Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle, the ship of Charles Darwin's famous voyage. It is 3375 m tall, which is less than half the height of the Himalayan mountains.

However, its steep and sheer granite rock walls present difficult technical climbing for even expert rock climbers. The ever changing weather and constant strong winds in this region add to the difficulty of this mountain. It was first climbed in 1952 by French alpinists Lionel Terray and Guido Magnone, and its peak still remains fairly elusive to even the best climbers in the world.

Here is a shot of Mount Fitz Roy and its cloud plumes, with pretty pink lupins in the foreground.

The other famous peak here has fascinated me for a long time, and so this visit was almost like a pilgrimage for me! Cerro Torre was considered impossible to summit by climbers for a long time after Fitz Roy's peak was successfully reached.

Cerro Torre's needle-like peak thrusts sharply into the sky, and its 2 kilometers of sheer, perpendicular rock surface presents a dizzying challenge to rock climbers. The unstable ice the constantly coats the mountain, and the winds that whip around it are daunting obstacles that few climbers have been able to conquer.

The tallest needle-like peak in the picture below is Cerro Torre, taken from the trail leading to its glacier. It hardly does justice to the magnificence of this mountain, but this was the only time the clouds cleared for me to get a picture!

Cerro Torre is also shrouded in controversy, with the spell it has cast on the climbing community. In 1959, Italian climber Cesare Maestri and Austrian climber Toni Egger made the first serious attempt at reaching its summit. Egger was killed on this attempt, and Maestri returned with the announcement that he had reached the summit. No one believed him.

In 1970, an angry Maestri returned to Cerro Torre, and drilled bolts all the way up the mountain to its top. This act has been considered by many as a violation of the purity of the sport, though Maestri's bolts are still used by climbers today!

Even this attempt by Maestri was brushed aside by the climbing community since he hadn't climbed over the giant ice mushroom that tops the mountain - which is considered by the community as the true summit! In 1990 Maestri announced that he hated this mountain and wanted to see it razed to the ground. Such is the power of Cerro Torre to arouse passion in the toughest of men!

The first successful ascent of Cerro Torre that has been accepted without question is that by Daniele Chiappa, Mario Conti, Casimiro Ferrari (from Italy), and Pino Negri in 1974.

Here is a little alpine chapel built by Austrian craftsmen in memory of Toni Egger who first attempted Cerro Torre and lost his life on it. Fitz Roy is in the background.

In the five days that we spent in El Chalten, we had excellent weather, and went on numerous hikes around the Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountains. It was awe inspiring to be in a place that has seen so much drama and tested the strengths of so many strong men and women.

Here are a couple of charming views of the little village.