There was a reason why I signed up for the Gangotri Hike as my first choice the moment the Activity Week sign-up sheets came out. I was absolutely certain about two things:
- I lacked the capability of hiking in mountains for days in sub-zero temperatures. Or any temperature.
- I really, really wanted to prove myself wrong.
On the first day of the pre-Activity Week workshop, I very innocently asked Joshua Lyndem, a friend who was on the same trip, about the toilet facilities. He looked at me coldly for several seconds and answered, “There are none.” I could feel my enthusiasm plummet.
At the second workshop, we were strongly discouraged by Mr. Gaurav, our chaperone and outdoor educator at the Hanifl Center, from using toilet paper. We were appalled. Already regretting my choice, I clenched my fists and listened to all the eco-friendly, extremely inconvenient policies of the hike. I internally groaned and made a quick promise to myself to not put myself through anything like this ever again.
All the workshops, packing, shopping and borrowing of hiking gear later, Oct. 7 finally arrived and we set out for our journey to Gangotri. A quick background of Gangotri – it’s a Hindu pilgrim town in Uttarkashi district in the state of Uttarakhand. Being the origin of the holy River Ganga, it embodies religious significance and attracts large numbers of tourists annually, who visit Gangotri because of their urge to placate the gods above or to quench their desire for adventure.
Our journey was motivated by the latter attraction. The hike officially began on the 8th and after we crossed civilization and were engulfed in nature, I wanted to scream, “Beautiful. Beautiful. BEAUTIFUL!” Because it was. It was mesmerizing. The word picturesque crossed my mind. One thing that I noted during the hike to our campsite was, there were human imprints at every interval. The nature was beautiful, and yet it wasn’t unadulterated. Human presence left marks on it in the form of names painted on rocks and garbage casually lying around.
When I reached the campsite at Bhojwasa and saw the river after 9 kms of physically exhausting, yet emotionally satisfying hike, I could see why people associated religious significance to that specific water body. I could see it in Ganga’s pristine blue water. I could hear it in the waves crashing into the white, marble-colored rocks. I could feel it in the Alpine glow that enveloped the snowy peaks surrounding us.
And then I saw it. Piles of toilet paper, plastic bottles, tin cans and other non degradable waste just lying around the river bank. I felt anger gushing through me because a) It was straight up disrespectful, and b) Which dumb bunch of humans thought that it’d be a good idea to use a beautiful, holy place as a trash can?
So I decided. I’d go through every inconvenience without complaining because, well, it was worth it. The price of treading carelessly on Earth is too high anyway. It is bound to have devastating results on regions with ecological sensitivity and the only way to prevent that from happening is for people to realize the importance of not harming the land they occupy and travel to. The dire consequences stretch from declining attractions towards tourist spots to economic recession.
During those seven days of being away from the comforts of society, we learned a lot. We learned to pick up the trash after ourselves. We learned to waste minimum natural resources. We learned a whole lot about regulated tourism. And most interestingly, we learned how to survive without using toilet paper, resorting to barks of birch trees instead, which were way more decomposable than toilet paper.
And guess what? It wasn’t all that hard either. What seemed super inconvenient on the first day seemed easier on the second day and absolutely natural by the third. Being completely immersed in nature absolutely transformed my viewpoint on nature. Nature is glorious, yes. But it is also vulnerable. Centuries of mistreatment left nature frail and battered, just like the hike left my body in tatters. But my mind felt as crystalline as Ganga’s clear water (God knows how long that will last, but okay). There remained two things I was absolutely certain about.
- Humans have ravaged nature beyond repair. Nothing can be done to fix what we’ve wrecked.
- I’ll prove myself wrong once again.