Sustainability is an integral part of Trek Leader Ramon Ram’s life. In this blog, he takes us through his journey. Ramon candidly shares how he starts with denial but ends up changing his lifestyle radically.
It started when my grandmother told me the story of The Squirrel’s Toss.
It goes like this: In the epic tale of Ramayana, Lord Ram and his Vanara army had to cross to ocean to reach Lanka. The mighty Vanara army started tossing huge boulders into the ocean to build a bridge. While the earth trembled under the vigour and power of Lord Ram’s army, while the ocean obliged to the wishes of the Lord and agreed to bear the boulders, amidst the cosmic display of divine strength portending the end of the evil King Ravana, the story goes that a little squirrel came to the ocean and started tossing tiny pebbles into the ocean to help the army cross. The story goes that Lord Ram noticed this squirrel and caressed it in the back, and that’s how the squirrel got its stripes in the back.
The story left me with a lot of questions.
Why did the squirrel help the army? And more importantly, did it matter whether the squirrel helped them or not? Would the outcome of the epic have changed if the squirrel did not help them out? Or was it just that the thought counted? Did the squirrel help only to redeem itself?
What would I have done if I were the squirrel, perched on the tree next to the scene of action? Would I have stupidly gone and started tossing pebbles into the vast ocean to build a bridge?
The Uninhabitable Earth, a book by David Wallace-Wells that shook me out of my denial
A squirrel perched on a tree watching the divine force of nature unleash its wrath on humankind. That’s what I felt when I was reading this book a couple of years back.
I turned the pages of that book in horror, realising that a mass extinction event was right around the corner, possible well within our lifetime. I read about how Climate Change is unfolding as I type these words, and about the stark consequences our generation would have to face if immediate corrective action was not taken.
Everyone seemed to know what the consequences were. Everyone seemed to know what corrective action was to be taken. But nobody knew who would take that corrective action. I joined the coterie of educated and well informed citizens to point fingers at the system (again in complete denial of the fact that I was very much a part of that system. A squirrel perched on a tree going, “that’s none of my business over there”).
The squirrel climbed down from the tree and went a little close to ocean. Waves lashed out at the shore and everyone advised, “It is not safe” or “It is pointless”. Kind of what people said when I joined Indiahikes too. In September 2021 I took the leap and switched from a cozy teaching job to a rugged outdoor life and right away my life took a 180. Everything changed, from my attitude to my fitness to my lifestyle.
Trekking clearing up a waste hostspot on an Indiahikes trek to Dayara Bugyal. Photo by Ramon Rajan
The most radical transformation was how I looked at sustainability in my personal life.
Indiahikes taught me that it wasn’t just enough that we do not litter the mountains, but that we must clean up whatever trash was left by others and also make sure that, forget littering, we shouldn’t generate any waste in the first place!
Pick up the trash left by others — I was taught that it wasn’t enough that I am not a problem, but it is also important that I do my bit in fixing the problem that already exists. And the overwhelming cocktail of pride, joy, satisfaction and empowerment I felt when I picked up those tiny wrappers strewn all over the trail; when others noticed me and my team pick up the trash, I sensed a spark of inspiration light up in them.
It was probably just one or two wrappers, but the squirrel had tossed its first pebble into the ocean.
Don’t generate trash in the first place. There is a story why that philosophy touched me so deeply…
In the early 2000s the Government of Kerala decided to establish a waste processing plant in a little village called Vilappilshala in the outskirts of Trivandrum district. The plan was to collect and process all the waste from Trivandrum district in that single processing plant. I remember reading news reports about mass protests against the project.
On closer investigation, I discovered the gravity of the disaster.
The entire village was destroyed by that wretched Waste Processing Plant. Land and water got polluted, agriculture and biodiversity was ruined, the air smelled so bad that I still remember my friend, who studied in a college near Vilappilshala (Not even inside the village) complain about how the classrooms used to stink because of the plant in the nearby village. The villagers fought for their livelihood for over a decade until the project was shutdown in 2013-14.
Trivandrum is one of the cleanest cities in the country along with Mysore and Indore and this is how the nearby villages suffer because of the waste generated from the city. I can only imagine what would be the plight of those villages and slums surrounding our big metros.
This story also points to the fact that the brunt of all the waste that we generate is borne by the poorest and weakest sections of the society! Every single wrapper, whether littered or “neatly disposed” exacts a price from our community. The squirrel realised that it can’t just stand by and watch any more.
So the brave little squirrels stood there, looking into the horizon, over the ocean, where a bridge had to be built. And then it turned around to the massive boulders that had to be thrown into the ocean. Its knees started trembling, beads of sweat rolling down its face, head spinning, heart thumping... an overwhelming dilemma. “Don’t think about all that. Just look at the smallest pebble you can find and toss it into the ocean. Start with that.”
Any person getting introduced to sustainable living is faced with a similar dilemma — an overwhelming dilemma.
As I learnt about the horrid consequences humanity was staring at and the mountains that had to be moved to solve the crisis, a desperate sense of helplessness crept in. But then I was advised to start with the easiest thing I could do.
Sustainability was a journey and the first step should be something that you could easily implement in your life. From there you could work your way up.
I started by avoiding packaged food.
It was something that worked for me because packaged food was something I had been wanting to avoid for health reasons too. And being in the mountains, I again had limited access to packaged food, so that was an easy step to take.
Following up on my trekking habits, I started carrying my own tiffin box and mug everywhere I went so that helped me avoid waste while travelling too. And then last year I took a New Year resolution to turn Vegan — a journey I am so proud and has been going well till date. Again, it was an easy step for me because milk was usually not a part of my diet, I was not an avid tea or coffee drinker and I anyway wanted to cut-down on my dessert intake. Moreover, Indiahikes is a Vegan Friendly workplace which made that decision all the more easy.
But would these tiny pebbles tossed by a single squirrel ever turn into a bridge, or even have a meaningful contribution? I found the answer to that question in 2 different journeys. The first was when I was flying from Bengaluru to Dehradun. I reached the Bengaluru airport and went to one of the cafes to have a black coffee and noticed that everything was being in paper cups. By then I had made it a practice to specifically ask for non-disposable cups.
I asked the barista to serve me my coffee in a ceramic cup. But he bluntly said that he had only paper cups at the cafe.
Without a second thought I opened my trek bag, pulled out my personal mug and asked him that I would like the coffee in that mug. “But this is smaller than our usual size”, he advised me. “It’s alright. I would like to drink my coffee in this cup itself,” I responded and offered the steel container. He made my coffee and served it on a tray in my cup itself. I couldn’t contain my excitement. I immediately took a photo and shared the story on social media, explaining and exclaiming what I did and why I did that.
Yes, a number of people appreciated me for what I did. Some said they would also try the same thing the next time. Some people just made fun of me. But that wasn’t the point. For the first time in my life — I hadn’t just sat back and accepted the world for what it was. For the first time, I wasn’t helplessly perched up on a tree, watching the waves of disposable cups and plastic wrappers lash against my shore. Be it one tiny paper cup — this time I was in charge. I took control of that situation.
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Offering that steel cup to the barista was the most empowering, most liberating and perhaps that most fulfilling thing I have done in my life!
The high that I got when I ran my first 5k, the high that I got when I climbed a mountain for the first time. What I felt when I offered that steel cup was the same!
A couple of months later I decided to up my game. I was travelling from New Jalpaiguri to New Delhi by train, a 34 hour train journey, and I decided to attempt a Zero Waste Journey. I shouldn’t generate any waste on the journey, which meant no single use disposable material. I took a little time to plan the journey; I purchased some fruits, a jar of peanut butter, another jar of jam and 10 chappathis from a nearby restaurant before boarding the train. I had also packed 2 litres of water in my own water bottles. And it wasn’t a great experience. I realised that in 34 hours, you needed at least 2 meals to be proper, you need vegetables and salt and gravy and just peanut butter, jam and fruits won’t suffice. And thus, I managed to complete the journey without generating any waste (albeit a little uncomfortably) and came out with a bunch of learning for my next Zero Waste trip. Most importantly, once again I felt the joy that perhaps the squirrel would have felt tossing those little pebbles into the ocean. I started to understand why the squirrel did what it did.
The squirrel wanted to be a part of the solution (no matter how small a part). The squirrel also wanted to inspire others to do good too (many such small parts can build the bridge!). And ultimately, the squirrel wanted to feel good for its self; go to sleep with a clean conscience and a sense of satisfaction. That’s why the squirrel chose to help the army. That’s why I chose to make sustainability a part of my lifestyle.
And I am nowhere near living a sustainably life. It is a journey, I do mess up every now and then, I continue to learn and grow every day and I continue to improve on my processes and practices and refining my skills. This journey however has been perhaps the greatest thing I have done in my life and I am ever grateful that I chose to go down this road...
But then in one of my treks, I had the most inspiring conversations with a trekker that completely shifted my perspective!
Is sustainability in fact a choice?
Can you choose to do your part in not polluting your home and putting the lives of other plants, animals and fellow humans at risk? Can you choose not to destroy the forests, mountains and rivers to support your indulgent lifestyle? Can you choose to not contribute to the mountains of waste growing in every city of the world? Can you choose not to pollute the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil we live on? Can you choose to do the right thing?
Can you choose... or is it a responsibility?