Happy belated birthday baby!

The Buddhist mudra, or hand position, known as Bhumisparsha. The name translates into “touching the earth”, and with five fingers extending towards the ground, it symbolizes the Buddha calling upon the world to witness his enlightenment. Photo © Andrea Sirois Photography.

According to United Nations predictions, mother earth welcomed her seven-billionth child on October 31, 2011. If we play the odds, it was probably a boy, and probably born in either China, or India. Regardless of gender, or home nation, happy belated birthday baby!

Today, well after many nations have already welcomed their own symbolic seven-billionth milestone, I would like to pass on my best wishes, and hopes for you in the years to come.

You have arrived into a world filled with seemingly unlimited potential, fuelled by the creativity, intelligence and vision of your many brothers and sisters. You will hear about their exploits: how they mapped the globe, climbed the highest mountains, navigated the longest rivers, and explored the heavens of the night sky.

Like you, they were filled with wonder, and excitement. They sought to learn, and share their knowledge. Some were great inventors, learning to fly like the birds, and making the world a smaller place with amazing technologies. Some were great doctors, fighting sickness and disease, and allowing everyone the chance to live a happier, healthier life. Some were great communicators, whose inspirational messages told us to respect the earth, as well as each other. While others taught us to share, look after one another, and not to fight.

These are all great things, and represent much of what is wonderful about your new family. But, your life will not always be easy. As you grow up in your great big world, you will be met with many challenges. You will be tempted to avoid hard decisions. You may be convinced to look upon grief, and sadness as purely negative, something to be avoided at all costs, and lose sight of their lessons. You may be overcome with circumstances that cloud the real issues, and make it harder to find your way. You may be coerced into thinking about you, and you alone. And sometimes, you may see the very worst examples of our human condition.

But, amidst all of this, I wish for you the ability to think, and look for meaning and hope on the periphery, and in places where it might not readily appear. I wish for you the desire to grow your knowledge and creativity to the betterment of all around you. Lastly, I wish you a never-ending sense of wonder, at the rainbow that makes up your extended family, at the natural world you share, and has been entrusted to you, and at your important, and deserved place within it.

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Corporate greed: the plight of Indian Alphonso mangoes and the message of the Occupy movement.

Occupy Vancouver protest on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo courtesy of Andrea Sirois Photography

What do the spate of Occupy movements around the world have to do with a group of protesting Indian fruit growers back in the mid 1990’s? Well, at first glance, perhaps nothing. But for me, it is probably closer to everything. With the benefit of hindsight, it doesn’t take long to unearth the common underlying thread in these stories, one that has prompted action in the struggle against imbalance, social injustice, and quid pro quo economics, which first rose up on Wall Street and has since gone global.

In March 1996, I travelled by bicycle along India’s west coast from Mumbai to the subcontinent’s southern tip. After a routine descent from Maharashtra state’s Deccan Plateau towards the estuary of the Vishishthi River, I boarded a small ferry in the town of Dabhol. Dabhol, or at least the headland on the other side of the river, was to become the home of India’s largest power project, a fact often trumpeted by local, and regional politicians alike. Now, anyone who lives in India, or has travelled there will be aware of the electricity supply problems that plague the countryside, leaving rural areas with lengthy daily disruptions in order to benefit the major cities, a practice commonly referred to as load shedding. So, one would think a power plant to be a good thing for all.

Maharashtra’s Alphonso mango, India’s anointed king of fruit. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But, on that particular day, mango farmers and fishermen gathered along the roadway. They were part of the local population who saw, and were already experiencing the negative side effects of what was being heralded as an overwhelmingly positive initiative. They opposed the project, and its American backer, a company that I had heard of, but knew very little about. The company was Enron.

Unlike the Occupy movement, the complaints of Dabhol locals were simple and direct: pollution from the plant was ruining the local mango crop, and killing local fish stocks. As much as the Dabhol plant symbolized to some a change from the old socialist and corrupt India to the new capitalist and transparent one that benefitted the poor with jobs and financial compensation for expropriated land, it devolved into a case of environmental negligence, rampant cronyism, and allegations of both political and corporate corruption. It left the local economy in tatters, and over fifteen years later, the project still has not lived up to expectations. The power plant is not fully operational, Maharashtra State’s electrical power problems are arguably still the worst in the country, and the plight of local residents has worsened.

Enron country. The Maharashtra coast, India. Photo by Mark Mauchline.

The story of Enron is now one for the history books. Among other allegations at Dabhol, and in the true spirit of baksheesh, opponents accused the company of bribing officials, and charging exorbitant electricity rates. These were business practices that should, and could have been a warning perhaps, if they were taking place in some place other than rural India.

In December 2001, Enron, the institution worth over $100 billion and voted by Forbes magazine as America’s most innovative company six years in a row, filed for bankruptcy. It seems that the company’s innovative tendencies also included entrenched, systematic accounting fraud. Its legacy became not that of one of the world’s largest energy, commodity and services companies, but one of corporate corruption and fraud. The business tactics and methodology used in the handling of the Dabhol power plant seemed to be consistent in the way Enron did business. For me, it was as simple as that.

More recently, barely two weeks ago, and in the latest example of corporate greed with criminal underpinnings, hedge fund tycoon and self-made billionaire Raj Rajaratnam was sentenced to 11 years in prison on insider trading charges – the largest prison term so far handed down for such a case. In addressing the court, US district judge Richard Holwell stated, “his crimes and the scope of his crimes reflect a virus in our business culture that needs to be eradicated.”

Occupy Vancouver, October 22, 2011. Photo courtesy of Andrea Sirois Photography.

The question has been posed: was this an isolated incident, or part of a wider culture of greed? With Enron sealing the fate of former “Big Five” accounting firm Arthur Anderson, and Rajaratnam’s conviction paving the way for ex-Goldman Sachs director Rajat Gupta’s guilty verdict on associated civil fraud charges, my guess would be that many of the world’s Occupy protesters, as well as rational and honest individuals of both the 99% and the 1%, see it as closer to the latter. While many Occupy groups meet daily to reaffirm their cause and stay on message, media and some opposing their protests criticize them for not having one that is clear enough.

For me, nothing could be further from the truth. Whether they articulate it to the media’s standards or not, they are protesting greed, and I would hope we take note. Often, real issues and themes can be found through the nuances of actions and events. The Occupy movement’s method of tugging at the shirt tails of democracy may not be to everyone’s liking, but what embryonic movement, whether democratic, economic, or environmental, ever was?

Inequality is both a perception, and for many of the less fortunate around the globe, a reality. The irony being that, as a perception, it is no less real for the individuals involved. We should heed the warnings of corporate greed and growing inequality. Now is the time to turn the lessons learned from hindsight into some decidedly honest and inspiring foresight. Perhaps then, and only then, will we disprove the adage that man learns nothing from history. I prefer to believe that we, as a society, will “get it,” but only if we choose to recognize the message.

Who could have guessed that the concerns of some fruit-growing rural villagers on the west coast of India could have pointed to the corporate corruption at Enron? If the Indian government had listened, if the world had known, and if anyone had perhaps cared, the whole Enron debacle might have been recognized for what it was, and much sooner.

Will we remember these pie charts fifteen years from now? Occupy Vancouver protest. Photo courtesy of Andrea Sirois Photography.

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Soul sport: much more than the Tour de France.

The spirit of the peloton. Christian Meier, Team Garmin-Transitions, in Vancouver’s 2010 Yaletown Grand Prix. Photo: Andrea Sirois Photography.

Bastille Day has come and gone. It’s mid July and cycling aficionados the world over are having to adjust their much-varied, geographical time clocks. For people who follow this sort of thing, it is the height of the professional season, and daily schedules are reworked in an attempt to watch the Tour de France: 21 days of racing spread out over three weeks, and some 3200 kilometers of French countryside. It is the time made famous by the bastions of the sport: Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, Indurain, Armstrong, and now, Contador.

But, for me, the colour, pageantry, and rabid crowds that turn cycling’s marquee event; the travelling circus that affords the most nondescript of wayside French towns their own Warholian fantasy, is not necessarily the true essence of the sport.

I know of no other human-powered pursuit that affords one the combination of speed to cover a significant distance, while offering the opportunity to truly absorb the surroundings. Bicycling can be as competitive as a Grand Tour, as social as a granfondo, and as solitary and deeply personal as you wish.

I never feel alone when I ride. Whether doing circuits close to home, or expedition length trips half a world away in South or Central Asia, I am in constant communication – with my bicycle, the terroir, and myself.

I feel the wind, both around me and self-generated. I hear my surroundings with an amplified ability, ready to react, while at the same time being lulled into a trance by the sound of tires on pavement afforded by a generous tailwind. I see the world with a certain focus, and peripheral perspective whose intimacy is dictated by speed. I smell the earth, the flora, and the approaching rain.

Spinning down the road, the slightest increase in grade translates into more force going to my pedals, a tensioning of hands, arms and shoulders as I grip the handlebars or brake hoods tighter, and the burning sensation of air as my breathing ramps up to the point where it forcefully mimics my pedalling cadence.

Once crested, a climb rewards me with a levelling out, or a brief pause before the inevitable, gravity-induced adrenaline rush of  the downhill. All the while, the back and forth swagger, and up and down nature of the terrain supply the rhythm for my pedalling, my breathing, and my thoughts.

As the pro peloton snakes its way through the Pyrenees, the Massif Central, and now the Alps, I watch the almost super human efforts of the sprinters, the puncheurs, and the rouleurs as they connect with the environment of the parcours in their own way.

I am not a competitive athlete. But, after a relatively late start in life, cycling has provided me with a means of healthy transport, some fulfilling work, adventurous travel, challenging workouts, and ample opportunity to think, and ponder my surroundings, as well as my place in them. It transcends the basic role of recreation, and sport in my life. It provides a connection to the world around me, while forcing me to delve deep within myself. For me, it embodies, and represents a pursuit of the soul.

Bonne route.

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Our world out of balance: rioting in Vancouver, and for what?

Superman? I think not. An example of the sad events in Vancouver, Canada on June 15, 2011. Photo by Jonathan Hayward AP

So, what is wrong with this picture? We could start with the fact that it is a depiction of the flagrant destruction of public property in the form of a police cruiser. Then, we could point out the not-so-subtle spitting in the face of the rule of law, and the authority that, although not without its own issues and problems, attempts to keep order in a society where the majority prefer safety, respect, and common courtesy over chaos, anarchy, and criminal activity. Lastly, we could point out that this is not some flash point on the global front pages showing unrest in the Middle East, North Africa, or Asia. This is my home, Vancouver, Canada.

How do we, as citizens of Vancouver, explain what happened on June 15, 2011 to the world’s most livable city, according to The Economist magazine? A little over one week ago, after the Vancouver Canucks lost the decisive seventh game in the Stanley Cup championship final – ice hockey’s Holy Grail – the city’s 100,000 strong street party turned into a riot.

The growing 100,000 strong crowd during the game. Photo © Cameron Brown / http://www.cameronbrown.ca.

The response from the citizenry was immediate. Disappointment, embarrassment, and anger were common sentiments. Fingers began pointing almost immediately as the blame was laid squarely on a small minority of hooligans, anarchists intent on trashing and burning regardless of the outcome in the game. The government, police, and even the CBC, the nation’s broadcaster and original host of the outdoor gathering, were also held partly responsible by some. And then, an unprecedented social media backlash began by exposing the perpetrators of the civil disobedience, the vandalism, and the looting through the posting of video and photographic records.  Contrary to popular belief, a belief initially voiced by the police, government, and broadcast by media, many of the culprits ended up being very average adult citizens, albeit of the young variety.

I know I must sound like my parents when I say the extent of the destruction; the wanton disregard for property, respect, and common courtesy leaves me scratching my head, and searching for answers. Sure, I was taught to obey traffic signs, be kind to strangers, and not litter. But, what is hidden deep within the human psyche that would allow a group of people, however small or large, to seemingly toss away a society’s professed values as if it were an empty drink can?

To quote David Bowie: “This is not America.” Nor is it North Africa, the Middle East, or any other political hot spot. Photo © Andrew Ferguson / http://www.goldengod.net.

The experts are already in deep discussion over so-called “mob mentality”, and the connection to an under-developed prefrontal cortex of the brain, and its inability to manage critical and rational thought, as well as action, in a “schooling” scenario. No doubt, the causes, and responsibility for the 2011 Vancouver riot will be debated for quite some time, and the feelings, for many of us, will remain raw.

I think back to the democracy protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo, to the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and to the current protests in Syria and I am left with a feeling of emptiness. Personally, I feel not only embarrassment, but also shame; shame at the fact that all which transpired that night in my city, my home, was for no good, or rational purpose. Not only can it never be justified in my eyes. But, this stupid act of civil disobedience serves to cheapen the efforts of everyone around the world who really has something to protest and fight against.

In a global sense, it was an example of the privileged few rioting when given the opportunity, versus the world’s disenfranchised protesting to gain it. It was the irony of looting when having everything, versus not looting when left with nothing. Perhaps the rioters, those who were just caught up in the excitement, and those who otherwise embarked on acts of destruction that were entirely out of character, should think about that. And perhaps those same people should not only apologize to friends, family, and our city, as some have already done, but also apologize to the global community for their role in contributing to a world seemingly out of balance.

To all those Vancouver citizens who showed up the next morning to help clean up the mess, and shared your voice through written sentiments on boarded up windows, and even police cruisers ticketed with post-it notes, thank you.

To the people of the world who gather together in the hopes of bettering their lives, and the lives of their neighbours; to all those who seek freedom and true democracy; to those who yearn for equality, and who risk non-violent protest at the expense of their own safety, and perhaps life, I would like to say I am sorry for cheapening your sacrifice.

Vancouver, Canada, June 15, 2011. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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Chiang Mai’s custodians of tradition.

A novice monk hurries to class in Wat Phra Singh, old Chiang Mai. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

Ten years ago, I was in northern Thailand bicycling, taking in the vibe, and hanging out with a group of young artists as I escaped a portion of a Vancouver winter. My thoughts returned to that time recently, as my partner Andrea and I began promoting a photography trip to the area through Vancouver’s Langara College, highlighting a part of the world that has become very special to both of us. These were my thoughts, as I recorded them in the Buddhist year 2545 (2002 for us Gregorian calendar types):

As northern Thailand’s population ages, it is becoming harder to find people who can play the traditional instruments. It is even rarer to find someone who can make them. Self-taught, and almost thirty years of age, Somboon Kawichai does both, and he and his friends represent this art form’s hopes for the future.

Somboon lives off a quiet road in the southeast corner of Chiang Mai. Like many young Thais, he lives with his parents and grandparents in the family compound, although he has built his own house. Reflecting his diverse interests, it is a Japanese style bungalow with a central vaulted ceiling. Its delicate rice paper covered wall panels are a little worse for wear, courtesy of the claws of the pet cat. A few simple woven mats, a couple of low-slung coffee tables and a traditional harp of some type sit quietly inside the perimeter alcoves. Occupying center stage and visible from every corner stands his current woodworking project. It is a tammat, or pulpit. Usually found inside Thai temples, this one is bound for the new Chiang Mai Cultural Center. Next to it, in the far corner, stand a row of traditional instruments in the Lanna, or northern Thai style.

Somboon Kawichai plays a hand-made seung. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

They are mainly suengs. Guitar-like in nature and composed of two to four strings and a one-piece, intricately carved neck and body, they are usually made from teak or jackfruit trees.

On accompaniment we have a pair of kluees, or bamboo flutes, as well as the exotic pin pia, another stringed instrument composed of two to four strings stretched the length of a round wooden shaft which is attached to one half of a hollowed out coconut. Often played bare chested, with the coconut pressed up against the musician, its resonant tones are said to come directly from the musician’s heart.

Upon further inspection, one soon realizes that Somboon Kawichai has crafted virtually everything in sight, at least everything made of wood. You see the man is something of a genius. A former trade school student in mechanics, and one time interior decorator, his home has become one of the hubs in a renaissance of traditional Lanna culture, specifically music.

Lanna style wat detail in Chiang Mai. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

Back in the thirteenth century, when King Mengrai unified much of the north’s independent principalities into Lanna: “land of one million rice fields”, the playing of musical instruments was a right of passage for most young men. But this popularity did nothing to promote the passing on of information. Men used music to initiate a dialogue with women, and as such, the ability to play it became a jealously guarded secret.

So, with the help of an accommodating uncle, he taught himself to play, wearing out all his market bought suengs in the process. A perfectionist at heart, he wasn’t happy with the quality of the replacements, so he decided to make his own. He was fifteen years old when he started to make instruments that reached the sound, tonality and weight he sought. Then he began to sell them to other musicians, who loved them.

Early morning in the home of Lipikorn Makaew. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

In Baan Buakkhang, a little further north and east of the city, we find the raised cottage of Lipikorn Makaew. A studio filled with both his work and inspiration, it also sits on his family’s land. There is a calming feeling about the place. In one corner is the small shrine dedicated to Buddha, along with Lipikorn’s grandfather’s written village records, carefully transcribed on hand-made saa paper. His paintings, woodcuts, and gold leaf motifs are hung from the walls and supporting pillars. Interspersed amongst all this, we find evidence of this young man’s accomplishments in the form of certificates.

A recognized painter in the traditional Lanna style since he was seventeen years old, Lipikorn’s devotion to the northern culture stems from his three years spent as a monk, beginning at the age of twelve. He recalls his vision of the easy, and peaceful life of the Lanna people. Through his art, he hopes to show how faith, wisdom, peace and Thai Buddhism were passed down through important ceremonies.

The work of Lipikorn Makaew. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

It is a good thing that his studio doubles as his bedroom; he often wakes to paint at four in the morning. The rich, subdued earth tones, influenced by natural pigments like coffee and tamarind tree bark, seem perfectly suited for his brushes at this hour. It is at this peaceful time of day that he says he receives inspiration and is at his most creative.

Like his friend Somboon Kawichai, Lipikorn also plays traditional instruments. Considering his painting accomplishments, we soon recognize Lipikorn Makaew to be not just a talented artist, but also a multi-faceted one. What’s even more apparent is that both of these men possess a dedication to and versatility in Lanna art forms that belie their age.

The traditional music group Lai Muang in rehearsal. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

Then perhaps the term renaissance is a bit inaccurate. The life these young men, and many of their friends lead is not so much a re-birth, but rather a continuation of old traditions. Although under attack from what may be deemed the blight of the so-called developed world: technology, consumerism and the like, the spirit of Lanna is alive and well here.

Changing lifestyles seem to be the norm in this day and age. For their part, Somboon and Lipikorn seem comfortable with what this entails. They both feel change is inevitable and can be positive, as long as they remain true to their belief in promoting traditional culture.

They have both used the internet, with its inherent global reach, to share their art with those beyond their Northern Thailand home. And, they are hopeful that, like their use of modern technology to promote traditional art, there can be a symbiotic relationship between old and new.

School is out at Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

Today, roughly a decade and a half after both their respective artistic births, Somboon, Lipikorn and their friends perform traditional Lanna music regularly as the group Lai Muang. After starting out by playing village rituals and ceremonies, they ended up surprising themselves, and many of the older participants who were at least fifty years old, by winning a number of Northern Thai Cultural Heritage contests in the late 1990’s.

Students attending class at the weekend Lanna Wisdom School. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

Local institutions such as the Hong Hien Suep Sarn Phoom Panya Lanna, or Lanna Wisdom School, are further promoting these traditional techniques. Chatchawan Thongdeelerd, an educator with vast experience and contacts within the local NGO network, founded the school. Under his direction, and the tutelage of instructors like Somboon and Lipikorn, students of all ages can learn traditional music, dance and painting in Chiang Mai on the weekend. Perhaps it is not surprising then, to find many of the school’s mentors and students participating in cultural festivals throughout the seven valleys that at one time made up King Mengrai’s former kingdom.

The ancient northern Thai city of Chiang Mai is still surrounded by a moat. Vestiges of its rampart-laden walls are still visible in a few places. It’s dustier and noisier now. Internet cafes, western-style restaurants, and coffee shops compete with more traditional food stalls and vendors. Pickup trucks and scooters rule the streets and narrow sois throughout much of the day. Even so, at any given time, the visitor can still see Chiang Mai’s quaint samlors, or bicycle rickshaws, jockeying for position with today’s reality. In much the same way, the music of groups like Lai Muang competes with more contemporary strains, both Thai and foreign.

Lipikorn Makaew in front of his work. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

Thailand today represents a nation steeped in tradition, trying to hold on to its past, while forging ahead towards the future. And in the north, if artists like Somboon Kawichai, and Lipikorn Makaew have their way, it will do so to the sound of music – the ethereal sounds of traditional Lanna music.

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Reading the leaves after Three Cups of Tea.

The junction of three nations: the edge of the Takla Makan Desert, near the turnoff for the Mintaka Pass, provides access into northern Pakistan, and Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. Xinjiang, China. Photo by Mark Mauchline.

It is a sad day indeed when our heroes fall from grace. The publishing of Greg Mortenson’s novel Three Cups of Tea provided readers with inspiration, hope and a desire for positive change; a counterweight to Bush-era foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia back in 2006. The book sold over 3 million copies on its way to becoming required reading for United States service personnel being deployed to Afghanistan, not the least of whom were American generals Stanley McChrystal, and David Patraeus.

Mortenson’s novel recounts a failed attempt to climb K2, the world’s second highest peak, his subsequent stumbling into the Baltistan village of Korphe after getting lost on the descent, and his promise to return and build schools after being nursed back to health by local residents. It’s a wonderful story. But, with the recent allegations by author Jon Krakauer, and CBS’ 60 Minutes, it may prove to be partly fabricated at the very least. At most, the deception may curtail the flow of donations that have included everyone from penny-saving school children to President Barak Obama, and ultimately hurt the very children of Afghanistan and Pakistan that Mortenson’s Montana-based Central Asia Institute was created to support.

On the way to fame, fortune, and philanthropic notoriety, we placed Mortenson on a shaky pedestal that has recently collapsed due to that most human of all traits, fallibility. Now, we are forced to confront the inevitable collateral damage as we try to comprehend the reasons why a New York Times bestselling author felt the need to embellish the truth. We feel betrayed as we question his decisions, and, more specifically, his foundation’s use of millions of dollars in well-meaning donations.

Life is difficult for the residents of many villages, like Korphe, in what was once known as Pakistan’s Northern Areas. Cataclysmic natural disasters like the October 8, 2005 earthquake, which wiped out entire towns and villages, and, according to the government’s numbers, resulted in 75,000 dead, provide an exclamation point to this understatement. Massive landslides occur regularly. The collision zone between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates results in the highest mountains on earth; their stiletto peaks defying gravity, inching skyward until the laws of physics finally kick in, sending huge portions of them back to where they began millennia ago.

In the spring of 1994 I bicycled through the village of Passu on my way to Kashgar, China. I spent a few days hiking and resting as I prepared to cross the 4730-meter Khunjerab Pass 125 kilometers down the road. One afternoon, I was invited to visit the local school by one of the village leaders.

Fields, emerald-green with the new crop of wheat and potato plants, and marked with short, stone-walled borders flanked the pathway through the village’s simple buildings. Small irrigation channels flowed with grey silted water, sparkling in the sunlight because of the mica sequins worn from the rock schist higher up. The calls of excited children followed me into the compound of the Pak-Tajik Model School.

Inside, I was greeted by the school administrator, and shown the two rooms that housed the current student body, and told of future plans for expansion. Classes had already begun when he pulled out a binder, and placed it on the lone table in front of us. He turned the pages carefully, delicately, almost with reverence, until finally stopping at a typed letter that was protected by a plastic cover. The letter was a confirmation of the plans and travel itinerary of a Canadian woman who was due to arrive the previous month, and teach English.

The expected English teacher never arrived, and there had been no further communication from her. Yet, her letter and commitment still maintained its place in the administrator’s ledger, a ledger that represented important milestones in the Pak-Tajik Model School’s young history. It embodied the hopes, and dreams of villagers who recognized the importance of an education for their children as they worked toward a better future. But, it also represented the tenuous foundation of such aspirations, as tenuous as the village’s position on a virtual flood plain with the Hunza River to the east, and the encroaching Batura and Passu glaciers threatening its existence from the west.

On January 4, 2010, a landslide blocked the Hunza River roughly 20 kilometers downstream from the 1000 residents of Passu. Even with the digging of a drainage channel by engineers, the backed up river flow has created a lake 21 kilometers long, and 300 feet deep that is now encroaching on the village. Passu may enjoy lake front property today, but tomorrow, it may be drowned. And, as frightening as that sounds, it pales in comparison to the fate of those villages downstream should the earthen dam suddenly collapse, purging the contents of the lake in a flash flood. As of today, the residents of this part of northern Pakistan continue to live with this uncertainty.

Considering all that the children in this part of the world have to contend with, it would be a shame if a cynical reaction to the failings of Greg Mortenson, no matter how justified, sealed their fate. Rather than be penalized for his lack of better judgement and actions, the children of the region deserve the benefit of the doubt. They deserve to benefit from the essence, and spirit of the man’s initial vision. But, ultimately it will be up to us, the donating public, whether or not we continue to support equality, democracy, and the end of poverty through charities like Greg Mortenson’s. Our decisions will decide how the leaves are finally read after Three Cups of Tea.

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The greatest gift, and the point of no return.

My relatives packing up for a road trip. That is my touring bike on top of the car, a full 25 years after I learned to ride a bicycle in this same Indian city. Jabalpur, India, 1997. Photo by Mark Mauchline.

The point, at which my life changed irrevocably occurred in December 1972. I was 10 years old.

My mother, in one of the many examples of her loving, and forward thinking nature, had decided the previous year that she would take my older brother, my younger sister, and I to see where both our deceased father, and she had grown up. So, in the summer of 1971, we headed to Calgary, Alberta where, with my dad’s side relations in tow, we explored Banff National Park in true family fashion – while camping.

The following year, the family, without my brother who was busy working his budding entrepreneurial calling, flew to India: the often overwhelming sea of humanity that I would learn firsthand included myself, and an out-of-body experience that would serve as the single greatest defining moment in my life.

My first truly epic adventure included a virtual daylong flight via Swissair DC-8, with stops in Zurich, Cairo, and Karachi. Hijackings were making the news, and I remember watching passengers board at our itinerary’s waypoints, looking through the slits of my pretending-to-be-sleeping eyes, wondering if our plane was going to be the next big story.

Eventually landing without incident in Bombay, we made our way to Delhi. Our short visit would include the requisite tour of sites in the new, and old cities, before our pilgrimage moved on to Christmas spent with our relatives in my mother’s hometown of Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh.

While in the capital, I remember, as if it were yesterday, staring into the bloodied, and blinded eye of a boy of about my age, whose gaze stayed riveted on me as I left the compound of the Qutub Minar, the world’s tallest brick minaret and a poignant example of India’s Islamic heritage. Later, I would come to realize that this was one of several experiences with déjà vu I would have on this trip.

I can still see the ashen face of the counter attendant in the Indian Airlines office. It was sheepish, and embarrassed as he recognized that his attempt to extort baksheesh, a bribe, from my mother for our supposedly confirmed internal flight had fallen on deaf ears. Worse yet, it was met with a demand to speak to his superior – all spoken in her until now hidden second tongue, Hindi.

Later days were spent in the geographical middle of the subcontinent, resplendent in new adventures as my sister and I inhaled the sensory overload of life in Jabalpur’s Sadar Bazaar. With our Indian aunts, uncles, and cousins, we journeyed in open Jeeps to live Kipling’s Jungle Book in Khana National Park. On elephant back, we waded through grasses taller than a man in search of tiger, all the while rocking to the motion of the pachyderm’s mahout-inspired gait, and soothed by the melody of my grandmother’s fragile voice as she recited her Catholic rosary prayers for the benefit of our communal safety.  Guided by the patient instruction of our cousins, we would learn to ride bicycles around the sweeping gravel circuit of the Commissioner’s residence circular driveway – a pursuit that would draw me back to India decades later.

It is hard for me to say if a childhood trip was in fact the first step of fate leading to an outward bound-style high school education, a vagabond’s life as an adventure travel guide, or the quest for great stories as an aspiring documentary filmmaker, one who would ultimately align himself with a group of exceptionally talented individuals and contribute to the telling of human stories that truly spoke to him.

What I do know is that I have been extremely lucky in life. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful life partner, family, friends, and countless acquaintances the world over, whose influence on me as a person, is entirely disproportionate to the short time we may have spent together. I have had my fair share of adventure, although I still crave more. I search for global news, preferring to glean local relevance from these decidedly worldly references. And, I still maintain that travel is the ultimate teacher of understanding, of empathy, and of our humanity.

But, in looking back, and with the decidedly 20/20 benefit of hindsight, one thing has become unquestioningly apparent to me. It was this six-week trip to India at the age of 10 that would prove to be the cornerstone of not only who I would become, but would continue to foster the person that I am arguably still becoming. Whether my mother recognized it at the time or not, this was the greatest gift she could have ever given me, and it became my very personal point of no return.

Postscript:

After a relatively late start, as compared to his childhood friends, the author has gone on to cycle extensively in 19 countries on five continents to date. He has subconsciously linked the notion of travel with cycle touring, dragging along anyone, and everyone willing to come along for the ride.

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