It’s a trifle weird, but I am politely stroking the hands of a stranger in a food court in Singapore. Checking for roughness, blisters, callouses. Wondering about these hands that have pulled her almost to the summit of Everest, hands that have just dragged a kicking camel across 1,600km of the Gobi Desert. Problem is, odd as it might look to my fellow diners, I should really be examining her feet. Because, as Sim Yi Hui says, when she got back from her minor stroll through Mongolia, she could have got a substantial “discount” from her local pedicurist.
“I lost seven toenails in the desert,” she laughs. I’m appalled. What sort of people are these? I once chanced upon a picture of Reinhold Messner’s feet and could not look away, for they were a misshapen, amputated mess. For him and his tribe, though, this was a cosmically perfect deal. Climb all 14 peaks over 8,000m across the planet, without oxygen, for a handful of toes? Any time.
My business is athletes and the more introspective ones will speak of journeys made—past circumstance, through doubt—as their true reward. In this, they are adventurers themselves. But if athletes explore the boundaries of the self, these travellers to peaks, forests, rivers, deserts go further, they often explore the boundaries of the planet. Even as we remain imprisoned in our citadels of concrete, they venture out. Weeks ago, Diana Nyad set off on a swim, just 103 miles between Cuba and Florida. Sixty hours was the estimated time in the water. Sixty-one is her age.
Also Read | Rohit’s previous Lounge columns
The adventurer is distinct from the athlete because their risk to self is greater and death—sharks in Nyad’s case—hovers in the distance. Their rewards too are intriguing because they not defined, not how we like it to be. There is no winning here, no pay cheque, no medal. Even mountains when climbed aren’t really conquered for there is a hubris to that word. Perhaps, that day, nature has just allowed them in. It is why every solo sail, every climb—even across the same geography—is different because no water, snow, sand is ever the same. Still, without material reward on offer, the city slicker is often baffled: Why climb, why walk? What did George Mallory mean when he explained his pursuit of Everest thus: “Because it’s there”?
We can identify a little with the athlete’s accomplishment because most of us have competed—even with a sibling—as children. But the adventurer’s pleasures are more foreign, even if simpler. I understand them only when Yi Hui begins to speak. She talks of the sense of privilege at walking amid nature’s fragility and of a world where nothing is instant like the city. She talks with a wonder about small things, perhaps just a gecko on an ungainly morning trot or bursting blisters with a sterilized needle. She talks of the beauty of the endless, open plain, about a sense of absurdity (she started talking to her camels), about having faith in adversity. Yet when she returns to the city, she is confronted with prosaic questions: “How did you manage without a bath for 51 days?”
Because it’s there: The beauty of open, endless land attracts adventure travellers. Emmanuel Berthier
I am envious of her, of her tribe, and their refusal to be chained by excuses. Because they push themselves towards their vertical and horizontal limits in the outdoors even as our adventures are restricted to fingers trekking across a phone. They are not prisoners of the trivial, not strangers to nature’s beauty, not deaf to the call of the wild and different cultures. We need them, in a way more than athletes, for they are mankind’s scouts, protectors of a spirit which once led us to discover this planet.
Once there were no maps, no water bodies marked, no routes known. Now adventurers, of every sort, are aided by technology, but it does not diminish them. Technology assisted Nyad, but it could not swim for her. Eventually, choppy waters, an asthma attack and injury stopped her midway. It is possible someone will affix the word “failure” to her, as they do to athletes, but it is misplaced. Not all solo sails across the world are completed, but “failure” is to miss the point of these expeditions, for they are the uncaging of a spirit.
Three hours into her swim, Nyad’s shoulder hurt. Yet she swam on for 29 hours. When she was pulled from the water, she was vomiting. “I don’t feel like a failure,” she said. How could she? How could a person of such fortitude, who reminded us of where the physical and mental self can go at 61, be a failure?
I talk about Nyad, hope and toenails with Sim Yi Hui. Few athletes I have met are like her for she is a dreamer of landscapes, a challenger of the self, a philosophical pilgrim. She is also crazy. In two years, she wants to walk across the Greenland ice sheet. I tell her, when you start training, let me know. She replies, I’ll be easy to find. I’ll be the girl walking a humid city, dragging along car tyres like a sled, and thinking of the snow.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.
Write to Rohit at email@example.com