Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tough Questions

Some questions I've been asked which I always find it tough to answer:
1) How is France/USA? / How does it feel to be in India?
2) What next? / Do you want to work in academia? / Do you want to be a professor?
3) Why don't you like dancing?
4) Where will you settle? / I guess you don't want to stay in India, isn't it?
5) Why don't you eat beef?
6) Is it like this [insert some common stereotype] in India?
Actually, I now know one answer to this question. In his review of Dogville, Roger Ebert writes (about America)
All of these things are true, and all of these things are untrue. It's a big country, and it has a lot of different kinds of people.
I think this answer is good enough.
7) How can you not want to listen to songs all the time!
8) What type of robots are you building?
The answer begins with: "No. I'm not building robots for my PhD." But explaining what I really am working on puts most people who are not technically inclined to sleep.
Some of these, I am not sure if I can answer myself.

A loong looong hike

Day - 12th May, 2009.
When you like to take photographs and write (sometimes), its really helpful that they complement each other. I can associate stuff I have written about with the photos I took, and the photos I took help me remember stuff that I might have forgotten. I have been procrastinating writing this for a long time, but I know I'll be mad at myself if I don't. Right now, I remember stuff that happened, I have time and I also have the photos to help me remember stuff. 
To know what I'm talking about in this post, read Day One of the trip to the Smokies.

So I woke up a couple of times in the night, because I thought that the night was over. But it wasn't. Each time I felt fresh and then got mad at myself for waking up so early. I finally woke up at 5-ish (the common wake up time was 6 I believe) and got ready. When you wake up an hour early, its extremely peaceful. You can sleepwalk and take your own sweet time going through the motions, if you get my drift. Also, the darkness and lack of any sounds makes it a little eerie too. I realised that since I was up, awake and ready, I could sleep again until others got ready. :) (I absolutely adore my ability to sleep any amounts of time. The more the merrier is what my brain believes, in regard to sleep).

Judging by weather forecasts, we had decided the previous night that we should re-schedule our hike to Mt. Le Conte from 13th May to today. The chances of rain-free days later in the week were smaller. This is why there has to be a trip leader. Rick and Dana were calling the shots on this trip, which streamlined everything. No arguments, no bickering and no "alternative plans that will be better". Its nice to follow sensible directions and instructions. (If you are in Gainesville and Rick and Dana have planned a trip and invited you, go! Don't miss it!)

We got going soon, pretty much on time. Had breakfast at the Holiday Inn. Omlettes with cheese and meat (chicken preferably) or spinach florentineare awesome. Try them some time. We took our time with breakfast, and finally reached the start of the Alums Cave Bluffs Trail at around 11 am. The thing that I loved was how unlike Florida the whole place is: the twisting roads, huge mountains, tall trees and gushing streams close to the road. We began our hike. Rick warned us that the best parts are at the top and we shouldn't spend too much time at the bottom. After all, we had 2853 feet to climb, and 5.5 miles to walk.

But the waterfalls near the start are so pretty, we couldn't stop ourselves from trying to get the right pictures. None that I took seemed to do enough justice. We spent a good 20 minutes at the first half mile. We weren't holding the group up (We = Taran, Subrat, Me) but were pretty much making sure that we wouldn't get enough time at the top. Rick had to issue a stern warning again. The second time, it worked. For me, the warning served to remind me that it was 11.30 am, we needed 3 hours to reach top, 3 to get down and about an hour at least at the top. If we spent more time down, we'd have to get down in the dark. Funny how simple, logical arguments need so much time for our brain to register.

Taran and I pretty much decided to implement the blitzkreig strategy. We would run up some distance and stop when we felt that the spot was picturesque. Then we would spend all time we could taking the best pic and then start running up again. We left most of the group behind. We did occassionally catch up with Jim, Alok and his friends, but since they did not spend so much time taking photographs, they managed to get quite ahead of us. Us taking photographs was quite complicated. First, it involved scouting the scenery. Then, the location for positioning the camera was selected, followed by setting up the tripod, adjusting the camera settings (aperture, shutter speed and ISO). Auto-focus is way easier than using manual focus on a non-dslr camera.

I have done hikes which have entailed climbing 2800 feet or more. The Sinhagad Fort near Pune is about the same height. But, the distance that we traverse in to climb that height is much less. 5.5 miles of slow, uphill trail is a tough challenge. Rick, Dana and Jim need to be commended on their physical fitness for doing this hike. Rick and Jim surely would have been faster than us if there was a "race", and they are more than twice my age!

As we neared the top, I started getting mad at how large a distance of 5.5 miles is. It doesn't seem to ever end! We finally reached the top - the Mt. Le Conte Lodge. This place is so popular, that the rooms get booked around a year in advance. And there is no cancellation policy. If you are stuck with bad weather, tough luck. When we reached the place, all we wanted to do was unpack our lunches and eat in silence. The lunch served at the lodge is mostly sandwiches and stuff, since all groceries and supplies are carried up (on mules, I think). This makes it that much more expensive and so we had decided earlier to just carry our lunch with us. The lodge has an office where they sell souvenirs and we all knew we wanted something. The first thing I heard Dana say when she got there was: I want my shirt before I go anywhere else. The lodge sells great souvenir shirts with the map and height printed on it, and a line saying: "I hiked it in 2009".

We had our lunches and our share of photos and went to the topmost point on the mountain. It is officially 6593 feet above sea level at this point and it offers an almost panaromic view of the area. We had another photo session here and goofed off a bit. We came back to Lodge and we saw the sign that we had been searching for. The sign at the Dining Room reads the elevation (6593 feet), location (LeConte Lodge) and the date (12 May 2009). ALL of us posed with that sign in the background.

We started our way down at around 4.30 pm. Again, Jim and Alok's friends (Abhijeet and Jin) led the way. Taran and I started our mad dash down, with frequent stops to take pictures. There was a time when I was daunting by hikes - not because I couldn't climb the heights, but because getting down was harder; your feet slip, knees hurt and you always seem to be heading towards a fall. Over a period of time, I learnt how to "run" down without it being too risky. Running down makes it so much easy! The 5.5 miles breezed through on the way down. Of course, we still took around 2 & half hours to get down but it seemed much faster. On the way down, at Alum Cave Bluffs we caught up with Abhijeet playing the flute. Jim, Jin and he were taking a rest stop and Abhijeet decided to unwind by playing the flute.

I always hate it when people play music in the wild because it always seems incongruous with the surroundings. But I was wrong about the flute. It seems magical to listen to it. The only other sound in such areas is the wind through the trees and the flute seems to support that melody. I cannot express it well, but if you happen to have a flautist on your hike, make sure he plays. :P

Everyone walked down at their own pace. Finally by 8 pm everyone was at the car park. Alok, Jin, Abhijeet, Jim, Rick and Dana decided to head back to camp to rest. The rest of us were hungry. Rick warned us that we might not find anything in the town, since most places close early. In case we found nothing, we could head back to camp and eat there. Luckily about 30 mins of driving around got us to a Wendy's (or Burger King, I forget). Everyone ate at least 1 burger. I shocked the whole lot by gulping down 3. Honestly, I don't know where they disappeared.

We got back to camp where we stayed up only for a short while. Nothing had been planned for the next day. We debated about going to Clingman's Dome the next day, or just hiking around the other nearby waterfalls. No one was inclined to rise early and watch the sunrise from Clingman's Dome (something which one shouldn't miss, according to Vikas). We slept off still undecided about the next day...
Judging by the time lag between posts about this trip, I'm not sure when I'll write about the next two days. Pray that it happens soon...