Walter Mitty and my mother

Walter Mitty and my mother
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First Published: Sat, Aug 18 2007. 12 38 AM IST

Updated: Sat, Aug 18 2007. 12 38 AM IST
Walter Mitty \wawl-ter-MITT-ee\noun: a commonplace unadventurous person who seeks escape from reality through daydreaming.
‘Adventure tripping’ is something I’ve coined to cover anything concerning adventure travel and adventure sports. It’s just a term that makes writing this article a little easier. So, why do we indulge in adventure tripping?
The first time I ventured into high altitude was nearly my last. Before I headed for one of the many base camps, a crumpled Sherpa had haunted my mind with words such as “potentially fatal” and “acute altitude sickness”. But, then, I was 19 and indestructible. I prided myself on voluntarily controlling my pulse rate, never getting sunburned, and for me, the cold was a state of mind. Once I reached 14,000ft, my pulse was already at the peak of the mountain, the sun had peeled layers of skin off my forehead, and my state of mind was too numb to process any kind of temperature. All I could think of was that I needed my mother.
On the second day of my month-long rescue diver course in Mauritius, I was 130ft under in very cold, dark water and my fin broke off. To cut a long story that seemed like an eternity, I ran out of air. I was in the middle of a rescue simulation, bringing up a fainted victim. Fortunately, my diving buddy, who was playing the “victim”, could nip his acting career in the bud and share his air with me. Unfortunately, he had just enough air for the both of us to reach 90ft below the surface. That’s when he calmly removed his mouthpiece and signalled to me that we were f****d. Thankfully, we were saved by a third diver who had returned in search of us, else I wouldn’t be writing this piece.
Bobbing along the Mekong Delta, in a six-man canoe with 12 people in it, we disembarked at a snake farm for lunch. While walking around as our meal was being prepared, my Vietnamese host opened a wooden crate revealing a massive python inside. My curiosity got the better of me and I deftly plucked it up from behind the head. Suddenly, I seemed to be the only person in a one-mile radius. My sudden change of expression from boastful to confusion to pure terror prompted my host to yell something shrill from behind a bush. After deciphering the tones and the odd consonant confusion, I figured the python was “very hungry”. That was it.
Now picking up a snake of this size is relatively easy if you grab it from the back. Letting it go is the unpredictable part. The “very hungry” python was also very pissed off. Before this 10-foot long muscle crushed my neck and spine, I flung it off me towards the local hiding party. Mid-air, it spun around and snapped the hair off my arms. I’m not lying; it was straight out of a sci-fi film with a Rambo backdrop. I was thrilled to be back in that six-man canoe. Needless to say, I had lost my appetite. Had I been slightly stupider than I was, my right arm would have been lunch and I wouldn’t be writing this article.
Last year we ran the Zanskar river in Ladakh. Most adventure operators had cancelled the run as the region had been inundated by freak rain; villages had been washed away and the river was in full spate. On our third day, both our rafts wrongly read a large though relatively regular grade 3 rapid. My mind’s eye clicked as the raft in front of us flipped vertically, ejecting eight people into the freezing water. It was just one photograph and then, just in case God had missed it, our raft did exactly the same thing. Now 16 of us where tumbling around in numbingly cold, rowdy water. Just as I managed to extricate myself from under the upside-down raft, I belched out half the river and extended my frozen hand to Carol, who was yanking people into the two-man kitchen raft. As she stretched to get me out of the river that now seemed intent on consuming me, she withdrew her hand, whipped around and screamed, “F***, we are hitting another rapid!” After that experience, I think twice before putting my clothes into the washing machine.
To come back to the beginning. Why do we indulge in adventure tripping? To help the Walter Mittys of the world live vicariously through our experiences? I really don’t think so. It’s tough to really care about them when we’re doing all the hard work.
I think the reason is because there is no other way. Ultimately, adventure tripping takes you to places so amazing in magnitude, it makes you realize that it’s the only way to travel. The experiences that it puts us through remind us that we are alive, temporary and thoroughly destructible. It’s also good to realize how infinitely small we really are. Yet, most importantly, being in the great outdoors can be so overwhelming that it honestly embraces your soul (and, once in a while, makes you remember your mother as well).
Write to Homi at lostdogtales@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Aug 18 2007. 12 38 AM IST