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What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?

- Henry David Thoreau

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Focus

Dec 12, 2014

The Aloha Vibe in India: Surfing with Ishita Malaviya

South India has 7,000 km of relatively unexplored coastline.

WRITTEN BY

Madhuri Chowdhury

On the west coast of this line in a small fishing village, Ishita Malaviya and Tushar Pathiyan are changing the lives of the local community, while spreading the shaka spirit.

She had been dreaming of California, its beaches and a parched summer, never knowing that her paradise was just a train ride away from Bombay.

Several years later, Ishita is the country’s first and only Roxy girl, flying to Europe for photo shoots and gracing glossy magazine pages. But before there was a surf community and before the flashlights of fame, there was just a girl, a boy and a shared surfboard.

The Beginning of the Beginning

Ishita and Tushar made the move from Bombay to Manipal in pursuit of something other than big-city life. While at Manipal University, a chance encounter with a German exchange student led them to a place called the surf ashram, where people could stay and learn to surf. ‘Our first reaction was “no way!”’ says Ishita, ‘You grow up assuming that there are no waves because no one is doing it; I always wanted to learn how to surf, but I just assumed that one day I’d go to California.’

The surf ashram was expensive, and to make it affordable, the couple made a deal to bring along groups of university students to get a group-discount. They thought their friends would be equally excited at the prospect of surf and sand, but by the time the weekends arrived, their original groups of ten would dwindle down to around four, including her and Tushar. It didn’t work out, and the ashram suggested that they buy a board and surf with them whenever they liked. ‘At the time even a second hand board was expensive, around 10,000 rupees, so we sold pretty much everything we had,’ says Ishita.

 

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India’s surfing poster girl

When they eventually got a board, they shared it. When Tushar would be in the water, Ishita would stay on the beach applauding his effort. ‘I think it took us longer because we pretty much taught ourselves. It was a really special time -back then you could count the number of surfers on your fingertips.’

One board led to more — bought with money the couple made giving their friends surf lessons. By the time Quicksilver made its entry into India, Ishita and Tushar already had a surf school. The brand recognised their effort and gave them the push they needed to find a proper location, and the Shaka Surf Club was officially established.

Building a Community

Passion is powerful, and theirs has changed the lives of many, especially the local community. At first, when Ishita and Tushar would surf, the children from the fishing village where the Shaka Surf Club is based would stand on the beach and watch. They were scared of the ocean: a fear that’s been passed on like an heirloom. ‘Most of the fishermen at the village where we surf don’t know how to swim, and their kids don’t know how to swim, even though they live right on the beach,’ says Ishita. When she and Tushar asked the parents of their spectators if they could take them along one day, they were surprised the answer was yes. ‘We took these two kids out and within minutes the entire village was out on the beach – they couldn’t believe their kids were surfing.’ Initially, there were just two, but soon others joined. They now have something of a clubhouse, a place where the growing group can hang out and surf. The kids that used to look down upon themselves for living in a fishing village, who aspire to someday move to the big city, now also know how fortunate they are to live by the sea. ‘We wanted to show them what they have. Ever since they started surfing, it’s changed their outlook on life,’ says Ishita.

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Ishita manoeuvres a barrel

These kids now want to keep their beaches clean, and they know the basics of water safety; each one is a lifeguard on their own beach. In a country where there are approximately 60,000 drowning deaths a year, a step towards promoting love and respect for the ocean is just what is needed. The positive impact of surfing on this community can be seen if you happen to be a passer-by littering their beach. They’d tell you off. ‘There should always be that aloha vibe,’ says Ishita, ‘everyone supporting each other and growing together.’

Why are there no women in the water?

 Apart from her talent and drive, Ishita is known for being the first female professional surfer in India. In the 21st century, in a country of more than a billion people. When I expressed my incredulity, she laughed, ‘I know! That was my attitude too.’ She and Tushar travelled along the coastline a few years ago, searching for women surfers. The hunt proved what they hadn’t believed at first: that Ishita was really doing what no one else was at the time. She’ll say it was luck that let her spend her days by the water, and chance that changed her life. But you should know that Ishita got here though sheer determination.

‘When I started I was really weak, and I was the only girl in the water,’ she says, ‘The guys would paddle with such ease, they have natural upper body strength. I would get beat up and go black and blue. I could see myself being physically weaker and it took me a long time to reach that same level.’ Those were her personal battles and she fought them well, but Ishita also faced disapproving comments about her skin colour. She says, ‘People in India are not shy about things like that! Everyone, including my professors at college, would comment, “Oh, Ishita you look so dark, you look like you’re working in a charcoal factory,” or stuff like that.’ It’s strange when you think about the flipside, and how all the international female surfers Ishita meets compliment her on her bronzed skin.

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The Shaka Surf Club trains the youth

This could be one of the reasons that Indian girls aren’t surfing as much, despite the potential the country has for a beach culture (beyond just partying in Goa). A lot of people come to surf with Ishita now, and amongst them are girls who like the sport but don’t want their skin to naturally tan in the sun. ‘It’s just not considered beautiful,’ says Ishita. I still can’t get over the irony of a Roxy model being subjected to negative comments about her skin tone.

Despite her recent success, Ishita knows there is always room for growth, she strives to be better every day and teaches her students to never underestimate the power of the ocean. If you want to catch up with her now, you’ll probably find Ishita near the sea, trying to balance work-life and surfing, while plotting her next revolution.

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Focus

Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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