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Mar 18, 2016

An adventurer who aims to be the first Lithuanian woman to trek to the South Pole

Read all about Ruta Sidlauskaite's training plan, an adventurer from Lithuania who plans to trek to the South Pole next year in January.

She will pull a 60kg sled over 1100kms for 60 days.

Ruta Sidlauskaite who is based in Delhi will be setting off for the South Pole in January 2017. Over 60 days, she will be pulling a sled over 1,100km. If successful, Ruta will be the first Lithuanian woman to trek to the South Pole. We catch up with her to find out more about why she is doing this, and how she will be training and preparing for the full-length expedition.

26-year-old Ruta Sidlauskaite. Photo ©: Viktorija Ramoskiene.
26-year-old Ruta Sidlauskaite. Photo © Viktorija Ramoskiene.

Q: You are fluent in Hindi and have a good understanding of Sanskrit and have been living in India for more than two years. Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your passion? Why do you do what you do now?

Honestly, India never has been my passion. It was a destiny. No, I cannot identify myself without it.

I remember from my childhood days when my elder sister was very interested in India. Not as in India itself, but more on its philosophy. I used to just shake my head looking at her books. My grandfather was also fascinated with this country after visiting it in the 1980s. When I started my Indian studies, he was very positive towards my decision: “You know, you will have a very interesting life,” he said. I agree, I do.

So why did I choose Indian studies? Well, I was interested in different cultures, folklore and tribes. I was choosing between anthropological studies and Oriental Studies. I chose the latter because they also offered the language discipline. I was fascinated with the idea of learning ancient languages like Sanskrit. Even though Japanese studies were first on my list, when I was admitted to Indian studies, I never regretted it.

Ruta bouldering during a trip to Chatru in Himachal Pradesh in July 2014, organised by Delhi Rock, India's first indoor climbing gym. Photo ©: Archana Thiyagarajan.
Ruta bouldering during a trip to Chatru in Himachal Pradesh in July 2014, organised by Delhi Rock, India’s first indoor climbing gym. Photo © Archana Thiyagarajan.

In 2010, I won a grant of 1000 Euros from the Europe Union and studied for a year at Delhi University. I started my personal acquaintance with this country then. This year was significant too because I discovered one of my passions: the mountains. My love for the mountains I found after a bike trip to Manali, exhausting as it was. We rode for more than 20 hours and Manali greeted us with a good amount of snow and ice on the road. After that, I started going on mini trips and trekking in Himachal Pradesh, which is still my favorite destination for holidays.

I returned to Lithuania, defended my Bachelors of Arts thesis and started an MA in Modern Asian Studies at the Centre of Oriental Studies. It gave me good knowledge of Asia today with its multi-disciplinary approach. Meanwhile, I joined my friends in Lithuania, who did climbing, at the “Montis Magia” climbing club in Vilnius. I joined outdoors trips organised by the Žygeiviu klubas (“Club of Hikers” in Lithuanian). Before finishing my thesis, I got an offer to work in the tourism industry in India. After defending my thesis, I moved to Delhi. I was happy that I could use my skills I learnt at university, as well as work for Lithuanians. I was heading exactly where I wanted to go after six years of studies. My duty is to take care of Lithuanian travelers, organise tours, hotels etc. In Delhi, I joined “Delhi Rock”, India’s first indoor climbing gym. I joined their outdoors activities. I am happy I met this group of people and have the opportunity to be trained by national climbers such as Ganesh Chhetri and professionals like Rushfit instructor Diwaker Sharma.

Members of Delhi Rock in Chatru, with its founder Anuraag Tiwari on the extreme right. Ruta is dressed in blue in the middle. Photo ©: Archana Thiyagarajan.
Members of Delhi Rock in Chatru, with its founder Anuraag Tiwari on the extreme right. Ruta is dressed in blue in the middle. Photo © Archana Thiyagarajan.

Q: Why the South Pole? What do you hope to achieve from this?

I met you at Delhi Rock and you became my climber partner, and the main initiator for this South Pole expedition. You actually persuaded me. Over the last several months, I have been running from point A to point B. So, when I was asked, what you really want to do in your life, I was lost. The idea to go to the South Pole was like a sign: that I needed to make a break and this break would be meaningful. Your work with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi and your wish to raise awareness for abused children through this expedition really touched me.

I must tell you a story. I volunteered in an orphanage with a student’s organization Ne Imti, Bet Duoti (“Not to Take, but to Give” in Lithuanian). It organizes outdoors activities and cultural events, whilst helping the children with their homework and giving them tuition. It was important to get back the self-esteem of these children and prove to them that they are not outcastes in society. I love teaching.

I had a gypsy boy, whose both parents were in prison. We were reading a children’s story book. Suddenly, he asked me, his eyes shiny: “Tell me, what is your biggest dream?”

I thought for a while. What should I tell a 9-year-old child, whose parents are both in jail, punished for offences involving drug trafficking? He and his siblings have been living in the orphanage for more than four years. These children are often ashamed of their background. “Oh no! If I were to tell classmates that I live in an orphanage, they would stop treating me as an equal,” one teenager told me. The boy I was reading with was in an even worse position as he was a gypsy. Despite his talents, he was discriminated against and was never encouraged to reach his dreams. So, I thought that I should talk about something big.

“To go to the North Pole,” I finally said.

“Where is it?” he asked. I pointed at the map. “Oh,” he smiled. “It is marked white. It must be very cold. And so faaar. This is a ‘Big Think’”, he added. He started to calculate the distance from Lithuania to the North Pole.

“What is your ‘Big Dream’?” I asked.

“I want to repair cars. I want to have a huge garage with vintage cars and a huge office.”

“That’s a ‘Big Think’ too,” I replied. And then I realised that this dream for this 9-year-old boy will be a big thing, and a big fight.

This was the very first time that I aimed to go to the North Pole. But before the North Pole, one must make preparations and start for example, with the South Pole. It is a great chance to challenge yourself: to prove that big dreams can happen if you are ready to make sacrifices. At the moment, I am searching for an opportunity to converge all my passions, instead of doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that. The South Pole will be a break as well as a starting point. Does it sound too ambitious? Definitely. But after the South Pole, I want to go to the North Pole. The North Pole is where I am aiming for; the South Pole is where I have to go before.

Ruta watching other climbers during one of Delhi Rock's daytrips to Dhauj in Haryana. Photo ©: Eirliani Abdul Rahman.
Ruta watching other climbers during one of Delhi Rock’s daytrips to Dhauj in Haryana. Photo © Eirliani Abdul Rahman.

I am also quite excited to plant a Lithuanian flag there once again after a fellow national Arvydas Avulis. If successful, I will be the first Lithuanian woman to do that. I still have this pride of small nations: that we also matter and can do big things and write our own history.

Q: You will be pulling a sled weighing up to 60kg for up to 60 days in -30 degrees Celsius. How are you preparing for the expedition mentally and physically?

For physical training, we are consulting professionals and creating our personal schedules for training. We have also planned outdoors trips, which more or less require learning skills similar to those needed at the South Pole. I am quite confident about my physical preparation. I trust myself as well my instructors and our Master Polar Guide Sarah McNair-Landry, whom we have chosen to train with. I know I am able and I am willing. Whatever I do, I will do one hundred present. I have the typical Lithuanian character: stubborn and hard-working. I don’t know if this is good in every case, but in many cases, you can achieve a lot with that. I feel weaker on the mental aspect. I am sure that once I start, I will finish. I know about negative thinking and its effects, but I also know the mantras, which has to be repeated to get rid of that. For someone young and female from a small country in Eastern Europe, who works with a boutique travel agency, it really is possible to reach the South Pole, and get sponsorship and support. Still, a lot of my people do not believe in me, and grin at me when I talk about it.

Ruta climbing at Dhauj. Photo © Eirliani Abdul Rahman.
Ruta climbing at Dhauj. Photo © Eirliani Abdul Rahman.

Mentally? How do we get ready for this? It is doing research, and talking to people who have had this experience and know how to cope with the mental challenges. It is hard work. You should work on your attitude and learn to control your own thinking. I consider myself quite self-disciplined and self-controlled having had experience operating tours in India. I do understand that the situation in the South Pole is different. But I believe that for mental preparation, nothing is better than your own experience.

Ruta finishing second in the Women's Intermediate category at Delhi Rock's Bouldering Competition in February 2015. Photo © Raie Dey Egle Januleviciute.
Ruta finishing second in the Women’s Intermediate category at Delhi Rock’s Bouldering Competition in February 2015. Photo © Raie Dey Egle Januleviciute.

Q: Why do you choose to train at Delhi Rock? What draws you?

I feel like I owe Delhi Rock’s founder Anuraag Tiwari. When I decided to move to India, I was checking all the opportunities to train in rock climbing. Unfortunately, by the time I checked, only the facilities offered at the Indian Mountaineering Federation (IMF) was operating. It was too far and their opening hours did not fit mine. I was so disappointed. I even thought about not moving to India after all, because there was no place for climbing in Delhi. Having lost all my hopes, I decided to check on Google one last time, typing in “climbing in Delhi”. I got a few links to Delhi Rock. I checked the location. And, oh my God, it was just a 10 minutes’ walk from the office! My dream materialised. I was so happy that day!

The interior of Delhi Rock, located at GK-II. Photo ©: Eirliani Abdul Rahman.
The interior of Delhi Rock, located at GK-II. Photo © Eirliani Abdul Rahman.

So I joined Delhi Rock once I arrived in India. And I think I have the right to consider myself one of the first members of Delhi Rock. I know the staff working there: they are professional and the most important thing is that they believe in us and support us in our goals.

Q: Do you have any advice for young women like yourself who are setting out on their first milestone adventure?

Go for it! I should cite now the line from my favorite theatre group Keistuoliu teatras. “Juk labai svarbu noreti, pasistenkti ir tiketi”: After all, it is important to have a dream, try for it and believe in it.

Feature image: 26-year-old Ruta Sidlauskaite © Archana Thiyagarajan

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Oct 22, 2018

Surfing the Dream in Taiwan

In a small coastal village of Taiwan, something special is emerging between the jungle and the ocean.



Alison Watson

Tucked away in a remote part of the eastern coast of Taiwan, surfer and board-maker, Neil Roe is working on his next creation. It’s a magnificent piece of crafted wood which begs you to touch it. On seeing it, I am seduced by its smooth curves, the rich grain of the wood and the delicate geometric insets. Is it possible to fall in love with a surf-board at first sight?

A deeper admiration surfaces when Roe explains that this board has literally emerged from the jungle outside. Roe shows me a log of wood lying in the workshop: “This is the wood we use. It’s called Paulownia and it’s a very strong and light wood that doesn’t absorb salt water and won’t rot. It’s also the fastest growing hardwood.”

The jungle road to the workshop is a doozy.

“Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed.”

My eyes are drawn to the twisted hunk of fallen tree. It’s difficult to believe that this transforms into the gleaming surfboards that rest against the wall. Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed, and after haggling with the local indigenous people for a good price, he will haul the log back to the workshop.

Roe and business partner, Clyde Van Zyl, currently work from a rough studio that rests beside dense jungle some 2 km from the small town of Dong’ao. The town is perched near a bay with dramatic cliffs that plunge abruptly to the Pacific Ocean. Roe describes it as the ‘start of the real east coast of Taiwan’. Other than some low-key fishing operations and guests of organised kayaking trips, the pebble-lined beach in the bay remains relatively deserted. I’m told it’s possible to camp for the night and enjoy a fire on the beach.

Rough Jungle Workshop

“Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing.”

To get to the Zeppelin Wood workshop, however, we need to drive inland on the opposite side of town. We direct our taxi driver, flagged down from the train station further up the coast in Su’ao, deeper towards the jungle-clad mountains. As we drive onto a muddy dirt track she becomes increasingly agitated. It’s a relief then, when we see Roe popping out from a derelict-looking shed on the side of road and giving us a wave. She promptly tells him that we owe her more money for the rough driving conditions she has endured getting us there. It’s an exaggeration but I’m not about to argue. I’m keen to get inside the workshop and check out Roe’s creations.

Normal greetings aside, I can’t help but ask the Mandarin Chinese-speaking Roe how he ended up here. It’s a long way from Durban, South Africa. He explains that he was once slaving away behind a computer as a product designer, enduring constant deadlines, and feeling unsatisfied facing the daily office grind. He started dreaming about the possibility of going to Japan, famous for its woodwork and joinery, and finding some wood design guru who would agree to mentor him. And so, off he set.

Roe and Van Zyl’s surboard workshop in the Taiwanese Jungle

But a quick stop in Taiwan on-route visiting an old university friend teaching English quickly turned into three-months, six months, then a year: “I remember I was on a surf trip to Taitung with some friends, camping on an empty beach, jungle clad mountains rising up behind us, Pacific Ocean blue in-front, empty waves rolling endlessly down the point right there. I was hooked. I remember thinking… Can you really do this? Is this kind of life possible? I felt so free in that paradise. I never wanted to leave. I’m still here ten years later. Still smiling.”

Not long after this, he and Van Zyl searched the east coast for some place small to start building their business from, with key requirements of being cheap, close to the waves, and having accommodation to begin a small guesthouse. But the business has now outgrown the current facilities, and the owner of the guesthouse returned home and wanted his house back. The pair are currently searching for new premises to expand their dream of surf and lifestyle.

One of a Kind Craftsmanship

Their expansion plans also align with their new partnership with a surfboard manufacturer further up the coast who will do the final epoxy-fibreglass finishing of each board. It’s a messy, time-consuming job that’s best done on a larger scale and Roe tells me this will make the whole process more efficient. He’s hoping that once cranking they will be able to make finished boards within ten days.

Neil Roe left his office life behind to follow his dream

But this isn’t mass produced product at budget prices. Roe is aiming for the type of surfer who has a passion for a different type of surfing and is prepared to invest in a one-of-a-kind board, made by hand, and coming from nature.

I ask Roe to explain the difference between riding a wooden surfboard to the modern foam composites. He hesitates, searching to put into words the obvious devotion he has for his craft and surfing: “There is an emotional pull for a wooden board, a type of nostalgia that draws you in. Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing. The ancient Hawaiians used to shape boards out of Koa logs harvested from the jungle. There are so many classic stories and photos etched into our memories of pioneer surfers riding balsa boards.”

Hand-crafted surfboards to meet a variety of sizes.

Aside from the aesthetic and emotional reasons, wooden boards have other qualities according to Roe: “They are heavier, and this weight translates into a different feel in water. I think it makes you surf more in tune with the wave, as you start to use gravity and wave power to get speed and direction. You follow the waves lead and you end up surfing differently and a kind of graceful style evolves. Combining the extra weight with the stiffness makes for a silky-smooth ride you just don’t get on other materials. This is especially noticeable on the wooden longboards in bigger, faster and choppier waves.”

Taiwan’s Typhoons Bring Waves

“Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking.”

Surfing in Taiwan is gaining popularity but it’s still a little rough around the edges. But that’s probably what makes it special. The waves are most consistent between the months of November to March, although typhoon season from April to September can also reward surfers with big beefy waves. Water temperature doesn’t go below 20 degrees. Best of all, Roe tells me that you can easily find empty waves in the weekdays, and even in the weekends if you are prepared to look. There are plenty of places to rent boards and travel is relatively easy.

Taiwan is still relatively unknown as a surf destination but it’s an ultra-cool place with good waves and the laid-back style of Bali – without all the crowds.

Just remember to bring an international driver’s licence, as well as your national driver’s licence, if you intend to rent transport. We didn’t and renting a car was impossible. Luckily, public transport is good with a train system running down most of the east coast with plentiful cheap connecting bus services. Most surf shops run shuttles, can hire out scooters, or are close enough that you can walk to the break. But having a car would give you much greater freedom to explore this wild coastline.

While Roe and Van Zyl are concentrating on developing their surfboard business they also encourage people to visit the workshop and get involved in the process of making something. And the pair offer a small number of dedicated surf trips where travellers can: “Chase waves, camp on the beach, visit the hot springs, and explore waterfalls and mountain swimming holes.” Basically, Roe says it’s the kind of surf trip that they like to do themselves when they have free time: “For sure we’ll take some of our boards along for the surfers to try out. But hopefully we’ll also make some friends along the way.”

Finished Zeppelin Board in Taiwanese temple.

Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking. You may even fall in love with a piece of wood beneath your feet.

Images by Dr Alison Watson

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