My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Revisiting the people I met 25 years ago during my walk along the Ganges (recounted in “A Walk Along The Ganges”) seemed like a great idea at the time. India’s changing, everyone was telling me. So I went, eager to reconnect with some of those who welcomed me so warmly to their country and their homes during my 7-month walk.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out as intended. I did visit some of the people I’d met and that was absolutely fantastic. But what I found in India repelled and depressed me. I went to one ashram on the banks of the Hooghly just north of Kolkata where I’d been very impressed by the sincerity of the people there living under the guidance of a holy man who hadn’t cut his hair in many years – it stretched nine feet across his room. When I returned, the holy man had died and the new leader of the now almost empty ashram was watching football on satellite television.
And so it went on. Clay tea cups have been replaced by plastic that’s just as casually tossed aside but will never decay.
I was able to visit Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha gained enlightenment. To be in the precincts of the temple, to sit under the bodhi tree where the Buddha sat and to enjoy the peace and quiet was a wonderful experience – especially as in the intervening years I have become a Buddhist.
The organizers of a two-day conference about the Ganges invited me as a guest of honour to Varanasi and I met many people involved in the fight to keep Ganga clean and alive! So much water is now being diverted from the river that even at the end of the monsoon season, when the river should be in spate, there were islands of sand emerging from the water. But I had to wonder if they were really going to get to the root of the problem – while complaining about pollution along the river, delegates and organizers dropped garbage anywhere they wanted around the conferecne hall.
Afterwards, I went up to Gangotri by bus and from there planned to hike to Gau Mukh where the river flows from the base of the Gangotri glacier. There are far more buses bringing pilgrims to Gangotri now than 25 years ago. This is one of the holiest pilgrimages a Hindu can make, yet that did not stop the new middle class tourists from Delhi and farther afield throwing all their plastic water bottles and biscuit wrappers out the window of the buses and often down the bank into the sacred river. Perhaps I was naive but what does “sacred Mother Ganges” mean if you throw garbage and sewage in her face?
25 years ago, several dams (including the Tehri dam) were under construction for hydro electricity. Yet all the power that’s generated goes to Delhi and the local villages are just as gloomy at night now as they were a quarter of a century ago. What is progress when its benefits go to light up and run the air conditioning in shopping malls and local schoolchildren living under the power lines must still use oil lamps to do their homework?
The footpath from Gangortri to Gau Mukh was officially closed, evidently because eight people had been killed on the trail or the glacier in the summer. But I was not going to be put off. Having walked 2000 miles beside Mother Ganges, I feel a special love for the river and a special relationship that no bureaucrat or politician was going to frustrate.
I set out from Gangotri at 4.30 in the morning and tiptoed past the sleeping guards. I could barely see two steps in front of me despite the clear moon but was really excited to be back on the trail that I had walked so slowly and with so much exhaustion 25 years earlier. Few pilgrims make the hike from Gangotri up to the river’s source at the foot of the Gangotri glacier, even when the trail is open. It’s 24 miles and to go all the way up and back in one day is exhausting. (Limited basic accommodation is available near the source.)
It was with further dismay that as daylight filled the valley I saw the bhojbasa trees and low bushes strewn with garbage that devout pilgrims had cast aside. I gathered several kilos of the rubbish, leaving them at one of the rare garbage containers, but had to abandon the chore because there was so much and bending and picking up everything was too exhausting in the thin air.
The Gangotri glacier has retreated, as it has been doing slowly for centuries. This time I did not bathe in the holy water, but I did say my thanks for the past 25 years. I met some young Indians from a club in Kolkata who’d bribed their way up the mountain path.
If there is any hope for their vast nation as she develops and becomes a sosphisticated consumer society, these engaged students are it.
However, if you do a few basic calculations it quickly becomes clear that the people of India can never achieve the affluent of people in the West by following the same methods as the West. Apart from any other reasons, there is not enough water. For all Indians to have flush toilets wou;d require sewage treatment of 4 – 5 trillion litres of sewage per day. There isn’t enough water. Waterless toilets might be a solution but the new middle classes and all the advertising are focused on possessing the same consumer goodies of people in the west.
After praying at Gau Mukh, I didn’t particularly want to stay any longer in India. (As it was, I needed to leave to sort out funding for the Labrador project.) The evidence of “economic upliftment” was almost everywhere but this doesn’t seem to have improved people’s manners or public hygiene. I just got tired of being jostled by unsmiling people, as if everyone around them were tree stumps.
India has now celebrated its first mission to the moon. Yet not a single place I visited along the holy Mother Ganges had a reliable supply of electricity. This in a region in which 300 million people are living. That’s no improvement in 25 years.
© 2008 Dennison Berwick. This article may be republished for noncommercial purposes, with full copyright attribution and notification to the author. Any other use is a violation of copyright.