The climb down

It was 2 PM; we were at the peak of Mt Washington. The wind had picked up, it was chilly. Hydrated, fed and bundled up; it was time to head back down. Battling the inner voice telling me to take the train back to the base, we set out to find the Jewell Trail to go to the Cog Rail base station, from where we would walk half a mile on level ground to our cars.

The great gulf wilderness is a part of the 110 million acre National Wilderness Preservation System which provides provides clean air, water, and habitat critical for rare and endangered plants and animals.
The cog railway line
Walking along the rail line
The trail was longer; therefore more gradual than the Ammonoosuc trail took up to the summit. It runs alongside the Cog Rail for a while above treeline; which also had some breathtaking views. It was surreal to see the tiny train chugging slowly up the mountain- a little machine in a vast expanse of rocks. 

Chugging along ..
The Cog Rail that runs from the base station in Bretton Woods NH to the observatory on the summit, was conceptualized by a businessman and investor from NH, Sylvester Marsh. His proposal to build a railway lie to the top was ridiculed by the town initially but he set out to build it by hand along with a father and son team, investors Herrick and Walter Aiken. Oxen and cattle had to haul up the materials from the nearest rail town that was 6 miles away; the average ascent is 25 degrees.  In July 1869, the first Cog Rail train ran up to the top of Mt Washington. In keeping with the times, the Cog Railway has now added a fleet of biodiesel cars in addition to the steam cars.

"Mooning the cog" can get you arrested. 
The sun is shining, but it was cold ! 
If the climb up was tiring, the climb down was even worse on the already tired knees. I promptly fell behind the group, trying to steady my quavering knees while hopping on the rocks. I thought, a lot, about going back up and taking the cog rail down; the views and the sight of the summit being so far above us  cheered me on. 
Uncurated views
After  rest stops and a lot of coaxing, we managed to make it below treeline; a relief to be on mud again. The rest of the descent was pretty uneventful, we ran into a few more hikers; some of them who were doing this solo ! We also saw some campsites on the way, signaling that we were close to the base. 
Finally, back to a "regular" trail. 
At the end of the jewell trail

3.5 hours and 4000' later, we were on level ground ! We walked the half-mile to the car, exhilarated and shocked that we made it in one piece. Spicy thai food and a lot of rehydration made us feel somewhat human again. 

Day 2 was a day of discovery : we discovered new muscles and aches that we had never known. Climbing up stairs was alright; climbing down was excruciating. A lot of stretching and tough love helped- we were out and about on day3. 
We climbed that !
PS: These were not the himalayas, but I do feel a sense of achievement, since it was the highest peak in the Northeastern US. Being strong is key - the hard work with all the cardio and strength training is worth the rush standing on the peak brings. It would also be good to do some "practice runs" before - we did not, but I can see how it would have helped. Good shoes and knowing how to tie your laces properly go a long way.


Climbing Mt Washington

I don't know when I developed a fascination for mountains - it is now an addiction that is fueled by the feeling of insignificance when surrounded by the vast landscape. The bubble that seems impenetrable everyday bursts and there is a sense of balance again.

I have wanted to climb Mt Washington in in White Mountain ranges in New Hampshire ever since I heard of it. The 4,000' elevation over a 4.5 mile hike to the summit is in moderate - difficult terrain, steep and slick in some places. The weather has a very large part to play, some rain or high winds can quickly turn a perfectly normal hike to a dangerous one.

Mt Washington is marketed as the home of the world's worst weather. I would like to call the weather fickle - especially for us city dwellers, who find it difficult to understand the effect of altitude and vegetation on the microclimate. It has recorded wind speeds of 231MPH and we have infamously driven up to the summit on a foggy day with under 3' visibility and winds gusting to 60 MPH; but that's a part of the allure of the mountain!

Warning sign above treeline; about 1.4 miles from the summit. 
Coming back to our glorious August day, we set out, later than planned, at 9.30 AM, to ascend on the Ammonoosuc Trail. We were a group of about 15 people that started the hike together; we quickly broke up into smaller groups as we got higher on the trail. The highlight of the hike up was a watermelon; which someone carried all the way up to the summit.
The group, just as we started the climb

Plaques to remember those who died trying to climb up
The trail runs alongside the Ammonoosuc river for a part of the way, providing some scenic relief. The first hour or so is a relatively easy hike, following which there is a steep rocky ascent that took us by surprise. I couldn't see where it ended, neither could I google the answer, which was a little unnerving to me.  The gem pool, a swimming hole formed by a little waterfall is a great place for a rest. By this time, we had fallen behind our initial group and had to keep ploughing through.

Gem Pool - there were people swimming and (literally) cooling their heels
This was just like climbing stairs - except each riser was 14-16" high

The Ammonoosuc trail leads to the Lakes of the Clouds hut, which is a Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) hut. It is a welcome warm break, with hot soup, chocolate chip cookies, restrooms and plenty of fellow hikers for company.

About a 1/4 mile below the hut we reached a beautiful outlook, with dramatic panoramas of the white mountain ranges and waterfalls cascading at different angles. The climb up form here on was slick and steep, requiring us to be on all fours quite often, thanking our stars that it had not rained enough to make the rocks slippery. We also got our first view of the hut not too far from here, which was encouraging.

There was not a lot of water, but it was refreshing to touch and see

I felt like a seal - soaking in as much sun as possible while sitting on the rocks
About 1/4 mile from the hut - it only took us
about 20 minutes of hopping and crawling on rocks
 to get to the hut from here. 
This was also the beginning of the alpine zone that I was fascinated by

The hut was built in memory of two AMC members who were climbing up Mt Washington to go to a meeting at the Summit House. They encountered bad weather and didn't make it to the top. The hut was initially a wooden hut built at the spot where William Curtis had died. Allan Ormsbee perished a little further up the trail. Intended as a "place of refuge" and intended to be uncomfortable for campers; it has not evolved into a stone hut that can accommodate 90 people and is a comfortable place for a break.

Lakes of the clouds and AMC hut as seen from trail above
The hut is unconnected by road or rail, and the only way to get supplies in and out of there is to carry them on the back from the summit, where they are delivered by road. The staff, called 'croo' walk up and down effortlessly multiple times a day carrying supplies in and trash out from the hut. Their effortless hike with these large loads on their back made our task seem just a little easier !

pic courtesy: nationalparkstraveler.com
After a long-ish but much needed break at the AMC hut, we hiked on up, powered by the sandwiches we had carried with us and chocolate chip cookies baked in the hut. It was encouraging to see the observatory on the summit, but frustrating to see how we needed to take a circuitous path to get there.

We were now above treeline and the hike was essentially hopping on rocks, surrounded by alpine vegetation. Magnificent views silently cheered us on; the ominous looking dark clouds ensured that we didn't waste any time looking. The temperature had dropped into the high 50s ( considered very warm for the mountain), and the wind had picked up (~15 mph: very normal) ; we added on the thermal layers.
It looked like this when we left the hut
The clouds were starting to gather
Ten minutes later, it looked like this
These ominous looking clouds made sure we didn't slack on the last leg of the ascent.
About 45 minutes and .6 miles later, we were at the top ! After the initial exhilaration of having made it and taking in views, (we had never had a clear day on our previous two trips, these were the best views from the summit we got);  we went into the summit house which has restrooms, tables, a snack bar and (of course!) a souvenir shop. There was a long line to get our picture taken at the summit sign, we were joking that there needed to be a separate priority line for hikers.
From the summit

I was fascinated by the Alpine vegetation - plants and flowers in the most unexpected places.

We didn't spend a lot of time looking at the views from the summit - this was more about the journey than the destination. After some hot tea, a lot of water and a souvenir magnet, it was time to head back down.More about that in the next post.

The watermelon ! PC: fellow hiker


Car- Free Living

For the husband and me, it was not a cool lifestyle choice. We couldn't afford it. Plain and simple.

Courtesy : multiple websites on the internet
Living in Somerville, MA and struggling with finding a parking spot, keeping track of third thursdays, distance from street intersections, finding your shoveled parking spot being taken by someone else and numerous parking tickets for rules we didn't realize we were violating, we decided to call it quits and sell the car.

We had a newfound sense of freedom. We replaced our old bikes with new ones good enough for commuting, used the T to go to places we had never been before. We even used the commuter rail ! Our radius of activity was limited, but it gave us the opportunity to explore parts of the neighborhood and try activities that we never did before. We started frequenting neighborhood coffee shops and restaurants, inadvertently supporting local businesses.

We did rent cars to go on trips, or use zipcars to go outside the city, but the trips were infrequent. Our legs got stronger, carbon footprints smaller. We felt good. 

A little over a year later, things changed. 

My commute every morning
We needed more space and to travel with his visiting parents. As friendly as Boston (and close neighbors) is to car-free living and traveling , the rest of the North East is not. We had two options : spend a lot of money (with no tangible returns) on home and car rentals, or bite the bullet and move to a suburb and buy a car. 

We chose the latter, decided to move. While house hunting, our criteria for looking for places to live was centered around being able to bike to work. We would have to buy a car, but wanted to keep as much of our daily activities car-free as possible. 

We chose Arlington, MA. Close to the bike path, but hassle-free resident parking. Between us, we still bike 90+ miles a week. The car goes to grocery stores and to visit friends and family on weekends. We are strong, our carbon footprint is happy and small.

P.S. I should preface this by saying that I grew up in India, where public transport or walking is a way to escape having to drive in traffic. Our family also tried not to use the car for more than what was absolutely necessary. I lived in the largest city in the US without public transport for 2.5 years. Also without a car. Being car-free in Boston was probably not as hard for me, especially since I was finding it more and more difficult to justify the effort and expense it took to maintain an aging rarely-used car. 



And then, just like that, on the day that the marathon "crime scene" opened to the public; the weather was perfect. The perfect amount of blue in the sky, the perfect little fluffy white clouds, the perfect amount of warmth to be out, the perfect amount of breeze to move the wind chimes. It was almost like it was reflecting the energy of Boston. Of hope. Of strength.


Oprah Winfrey's India

In an interview with Barkha Dutt, Oprah Winfrey, you said that she wanted to show your audience a "broad picture" and connect to the heart of people. You unfortunately missed one important group - your hosts.

While I agree that you are an American talk show host who deals with celebrities who might not hesitate to bare all, you were dealing with real families, real people and real emotions during your interviews. People whose lives will not change by your interview. It is insensitive to be invited to a person's home and comment on what it is lacking and ask them intruding questions about their personal lives. No one wants to be reminded of their misery. It would have been wonderful to talk about how well a 11-year old girl held fort and acted as the translator. 

It is also rude to comment on people's habits. Yes, we eat with our hands, just like you eat a sandwich or a slice of pizza. Yes, we have animals, we have birds, we have people in our country - just like you do. And no, we don't all look the same - all you need to do is to pay attention. We do speak english, along with multiple other languages.

As you might have learned, the Western way is not the only way of living. Not everyone needs a shower head or forks. Some people are happy living the way they are. 

I understand that it is difficult not to want to see the stereotypes. After all, that is all the media feeds you. But, you being Oprah Winfrey, we expected better. We expected you to work a little bit harder to understand the customs of the people you are visiting, and to shed the (unintended ?) "holier than thou" attitude. NO, having a saree made for you or wearing a kurta doesn't qualify. They play right into the hands of the myopic Western view of the East. We are a country of perseverance and strength. Of diversity and of sympathy. Of tolerance and understanding. Of contrast - so stark that it shocks us sometimes. 

Yes, we have our problems, but who doesn't ? Yes, our problems are probably a lot more complicated than a lot of others' but do you realize that we are 65 years old ?

You tried, but like multiple people before you, you failed. It is impossible to "experience India" (to use your own words) in 2 weeks. Trying to understand us and our country is like being in a relationship - you only get out of it as much as you put into it. Your show packaged the India that people want to see - not the India that is. It did nothing more for people to understand Indian culture than "Friends" does for the rest of the world to understand American culture. Which is why, I know, that someone in spite of watching your show will still come up and ask me if my family owns an elephant. 

Having said that, I appreciate some of the sentiments that you echoed at various points during this interview with Barkha Dutt, your heart and intentions are in the right place. Actions, however speak louder than words, and your actions, unfortunately told a different story. 

A note to my fellow Indians : all of us (including me) need to lighten up about how the West perceives us. There is some truth in what is being said, we just need to look beneath the layers of fluff that it is packaged in ! 


What is the best book you have read ?

I used to watch a quiz show on TV growing up where the mascot was a (book)worm, who would come in saying "A book is your best friend". I was sold on that idea and grew up believing that was true. 
In some ways, it was. I read a lot, loved that my father drive 45 minutes on a Sunday to take me to one of the best libraries in town. 

As an architect, I now like books with pictures more than books with words, but I will try to make a list of the books that have impressed me over the years. I should confess, however, that if you give me a list of top 100 books everyone must read, I will do poorly checking off that list. 

Favorite kids book: 
When I was 3 and couldn't read yet, my mom would read out this counting book to me about pom pom bunny preparing for his birthday party. I had made her read the book to me so many times that I knew the words by heart. I would sit there by myself, reciting the words out loud, turning the pages at the right time.  I forget the name of the book, but it started like this : 
"Pom Pom bunny is writing a letter - Please come to my birthday party, it said. How many letters are there? There are 10 letters." 

Favorite toddler book: I loved the "Little Golden Books" The Poky Little Puppy, The Fox and the Hound and Bambi were my favorites. 
My pick : The Poky Little Puppy 

Favorite elementary / middle  school book(s): 
This is more an author than a book. I grew up reading everything Enid Blyton. From the mystery and adventure series to the Naughtiest girl and finally when my tastes started becoming more girly, St,. Claires ; she kept me entertained, informed and left me with a strong desire to travel to England and live in the English countryside.
My pick: Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton

High School books: 
I was a confused kids. My reading choices will tell you that. I would read Nancy Drew, Classics Illustrated, Sweet Valley and did the typical Jeffery Archer , Robin Cook and anything else I could lay my hands on. 
My pick : Kane and Abel by Jeffery Archer. 

Grown-up books: 
If I was confused in High School, I am worse now. I will try to pick some books that genuinely impressed me and left me thinking. 

A million little pieces, James Frey
It is a semi-fictional autobiography of a 23-year old guy through alcohol,drugs and rehab. Immensely powerful because it is bereft of any self-pity or excuses. It is blatantly objective and honest. 

The Namesake , Jhumpa Lahiri
An amazing story about the Indian diaspora in the US, and their identity crisis. The story is narrated in aw way that endears you to the characters and leaves you thinking about how to define home, family and identity. 

A Thousand Splendid Suns , Khalid Hosseni
A story of two generations of women in Afghanistan, oppression, terror and the Taliban. It is a story of a male-dominated society, of friendships and hope, of betrayal and the struggle to survive. It is a beautiful portrayal of Afghanistan before the Taliban and how their policies affected the daily lives of people. A beautiful book about human spirit. 

India Calling, Anand Giridhardas
First generation American citizen, NYT columnist goes back to visit the land his parents left decades ago in search of a better life and understand his roots. His book is an objective commentary on the state of the country now and his views on the future direction it will take.

The Snakehead , Patrick Radden Keefe
Another of those narratives, this time about the Chinese mafia in NY Chinatown. It is the story of how one woman almost-single-handedly managed to transport an entire district of China to the US illegally and help them lead a better life. It is also about perceptions and how a most-wanted fugitive in one part of the world is a most-revered figure in another.  

And, of course. Atlas Shrugged. Before I am accused of blasphemy, let me mention The Fountainhead. Although I might not agree in principle to the underlying message of these books, it is the idea of power and changing the world in these books that impresses me. 

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20 years hence ...

20 years ago, I was 6. Thinking about what I would do for the next hour and the next day seemed to be the farthest I thought. Today, I am 26. Thinking about what I will do in the next couple of years is how far I have gotten. 20 years is a long time - I will be 46 and hopefully thinking about the next couple of decades.

I am both terrified and thrilled by thinking about 20 years hence. I can only hope - life hands me lemonade; and not make me hunt for the lemons. I can sweeten it, still lemonade would be nice.

I am 26, have a masters degree in architecture and care for the planet and the less fortunate. I have also been unemployed since I graduated, for the last 8 months. In 20 years, I hope to be doing something that unites all three of my passions. Of course, I hope for world peace, healthcare and food for everyone in the world and an end to poverty, but lets be practical here.

I believe that the rich / poor divide is going to grow. It will be a survival of the fittest, and competition will get intense. Today's technology will become obsolete : kids will wonder how we survived without gizmos (you remembered things -really ? what do you mean you didn't write to everyone - you TALKED ?) Technology will start ruling architecture, we might see entire sections of the building 3D printed. LEED will be a part of the building code - wait - buildings will be blobs. Architecture will start becoming blobitecture - blobs will be self-sustaining independent living systems. People living in the blobs will only socialize with the people in the blob; therefore becoming independently functioning entities. Kids will think cows are a type of food and sparrows are found only in zoos. Villages and small-towns will become unheard of, with cities growing to 4 times their current size.

In the midst of all this mayhem, there will be a group of like-minded professionals who still find beauty in purity and simplicity. People who cared about the past, people who care about the future. People who do not think that technology is the answer to everything - people who want to help. People who believe that if we looked outside, we will find the right answers.

I will be among those people, hopefully not having abandoned my dream of becoming an architect because the world didn't have enough money to hire me and people wanted blobs, not buildings.
I hope.

A participating Lets Blog Off Post.
The table below is a list of the other posts in this series.