Making Friends Outdoors

Doesn’t it sometimes feel like a majority of our life is now driven by technology? Most of our communications with friends and family happen on a screen. Even when we are out for dinner we spend more time communicating with people far away on our phone than we do the people we are eating with (I’m totally guilty of doing this myself.) By forcibly removing technology from your life the outdoors helps you build connections that are actually real. A ‘ digital detox’ every now and again is great for the human soul!

When I was 17, my father and I embarked on a cross country skiing expedition across the Greenland Icecap. (We had been to Greenland before on a sea kayaking expedition and had seen the Greenland Icecap. There was something mesmerizing about the vast icy expanse that had us talking about returning as soon as possible). We spent months training for the expedition which  entailed cross country skiing for a total distance of approx 600 kms, from the west to east coast of Greenland, close to the arctic circle. We would be on the Greenland icecap, the second largest chunk of ice on the planet for up to one month with an ambient temperature of – 20 degrees Celsius, dropping to -40/-45 C with the windchill factor. At 17, I was a typical high school student, my life revolved around academics, friends and of course social media. So, one of the things that worried me the most was that I would be so bored during the evenings- stuck in the middle of nowhere for 3 weeks with no access to the internet or people my age (everyone on the expedition was much older than I was). However, I had the opposite experience.

The days were long, we would spend about 8 hours skiing every day and spend the first part of our evenings setting up camp. We would then all gather in a kitchen tent, melt snow, cook food together, sing songs (Bohemian Rhapsody was one of our favorites) and tell jokes. Though our expedition team of 8 members had people from 5 different countries (Greenland, USA, Belgium, New Zealand and India) we all bonded through our love of outdoors (and Queen, got to love Freddie Mercury for bringing the world together). Our two Inuit guides barely spoke English, but through the 3 weeks we spent with them we realized language is only one form of communication and that not speaking the same language is never a barrier to making a friend.

The Greenland icecap expedition was one of the first expeditions where I experienced the magic of how the outdoors can bond people for life regardless of how old they are, where they’re from or even what language they speak. When you spend 24 hours a day with a group of people and with no communication with the outside world, you are forced to get to know each other. So, whether you want to spend time with old friends or make new ones, the outdoors is one of the best places to do so.

Scuba Diving with Manta Rays (and sharks!) in Thailand

“Have you ever wondered why scuba divers roll into the ocean backward?” asked my dive instructor Fran, taking her regulator out, as we sat on the edge of the boat, ready to start our dive. I look at her confused and respond saying  “No idea, why?”

“Think about it, I’ll tell you after the dive” she said grinning, and put her regulator back on, gracefully rolling off the boat. I held on to my regulator and mask with my right hand, and waited for the captain’s signal to roll off the boat as well. The feeling of doing a backward somersault into the ocean is disorienting to say the least, and it took me a couple of seconds to catch my bearings once I was in the ocean. I gave Francesca the ‘all okay’ signal and added more air to my Buoyancy Control Device,  waiting for my father and sister to join us in the ocean. 

We were in Thailand for a family holiday and Dad, my sister and I had just completed our ‘Rescue Divers Course’, we were celebrating by going on a fun dive to a site known for its sightings of manta rays. With the regulators in our mouths, we couldn’t speak, so once Dad and Meghna rolled in, we gave each other the ‘all okay’ signal followed by ‘let’s go down’, and deflated our BCD’s. As we moved further down underwater I looked up at the beautiful trail of bubbles going up to the surface from our breaths. It was a sunny day and the ocean waters were clear and calm. 

Being underwater is always a magical experience, it feels like you’re in a different world. All you can hear is the sound of your own breath through the regulator and an occasional boat as it whirs past. It’s a surreal and strangely meditative experience. 

‘Follow me’ signalled Fran. I took a salty breath and began to follow her, trying to move my legs as slowly as possible so that I wouldn’t disturb the fish as they went about their day. 

Halfway through our dive, Fran turned back looking excited, frantically signalling something with her hands. I moved a little closer and my heart skipped a beat. She was making the sign for a shark! I kept breathing steadily but I could feel my heart pounding louder and faster. As I looked at the direction she was pointing at, I could see a black tipped reef shark swimming towards us. Reef sharks are significantly smaller than their much maligned Great White counterparts, the average height of a reef shark is about 5 feet in length. This was just a harmless small shark that only eats much smaller fish – but after watching all the scary shark movies, the familiar shape of its fin and its menacing teeth still brought a shiver down my spine. The entire encounter lasted about 30 seconds, the shark gave us a fleeting uninterested glance and swam away. 

Almost immediately after I noticed that everything was getting a little dark, “there must be a boat above us” I thought to myself, while turning to look up. Instead, I saw a school of giant manta rays swimming above. Excitedly I looked towards my sister and dad making the sign for MANTAS!!! They had already spotted the school, I could see them both looking up, completely awestruck. The school of mantas gracefully danced above us and we watched their performance completely enthralled by the beauty of these gigantic creatures. I felt so tiny in comparison with the majestic mantas. Too soon they swum away and Fran gave us a thumbs up (the signal that unfortunately marks the end of our dive). We slowly ascended up towards the boat and clambered back on (this part is always quite a task with the fins on our feet.) 

We took off our gear and my stomach rumbled as I smelled the green curry the captain had heated us for lunch. We all had big smiles on our faces while discussing all the sights we saw while checking our stats for the dive and filling our Dive Log Books. I remembered the question that Fran had asked me at the beginning of the dive. “Fran, why do divers roll off the boat backwards?”

Fran responded with a hearty laugh saying “Well, if you rolled forward you would just roll into the boat”.


The 7 types of Pictures Dad Takes (A Series)

When I was younger, I used to HATE posing for pictures. I also used to always forget to get my camera out when I was out on expeditions…

Both of these things hold true till date. It’s a pity because I’m often in these incredible places, and while I’m experiencing the situation 100% when I come back home I always think to myself- I really wish I had taken more pictures. 

Thankfully, my father LOVES to take pictures. Once we started going out on expeditions together, he found an extremely unwilling subject to practice his artistic skills on. 

I now present to you….

*drum roll* 

The 7 types of pictures Dad takes –  A Series. 

  1. The Extreme Close Up
    For some reason, my father LOVES to take extreme close ups. In this picture, we’re on a sea kayaking expedition to Greenland. I still know very little about photography, but I’m thinking he could have moved a little bit further away for this one. 
  1. The Unhappy Deeya Picture

Another classic in Dad’s repertoire, he loves to take pictures when I’m in a “mood” aka if I’m a little grumpy . He thinks it’s the best way to cheer me up. (To be fair sometimes when I see how funny I look- it totally works)

While on a hike in Rajasthan, India
On a boat to see Penguins, Chile

Punta Arenas, Chile
  1. The Classic With Prop Picture
    Sometimes to supplement his artistic vision, Dad will ask me to pose with a wide variety of props. In this picture, I don’t think I was really feeling the whole paddle thing. 
Sea Kayaking in Greenland 2009, looking extremly uncomfortable while posing
  1. The Funny (?) Sign

My father LOVES signs. I am often made to pose with any sign that is even vaguely funny.

Lhasa, Tibet 2018
  1. First Thing when I wake up 

Dad usually tends to wake up about half an hour before me on expeditions (logistics are just easier when you’re sharing a tiny tent). He inevitably decides to take pictures of me just as I get up.

Greenland Ice Cap Crossing 2011
  1. When my face is ENTIRELY covered pictures
    Often accompanied with dad making a “smile for the camera” joke.
Mt. Denali Mountaineering Expedition, USA, 2019
Mt Vinson Mountaineering Expedition, Antarctica, 2018
Mt. Vinson Mountaineering Expedition, Antarctica, 2018
  1. The GEMS
    But all things said and done, I’m so grateful to have my own personal photographer on expeditions. What are your favourite pictures from this series?
Greenland Sea Kayaking Expedition, 2009. One of the rare times I was open to taking pictures.

A Sea Kayaking Expedition In Greenland

I’ve adapted this post from an account I wrote when I was 14 years old right after my first ever expedition, a 2 week sea kayaking expedition along the coast of Greenland.

My family’s idea of a holiday is not a typical “relax on the beach and go sightseeing” sort of holiday, it’s more like a “lets climb up this mountain while it’s raining” sort of holiday.

So when dad decided it was time for a father daughter bonding trip I wasn’t too surprised when he suggested a two-week sea kayaking expedition in the fjords of Greenland as opposed to a trip to the mall.

After spending months preparing for the expeditions (including training and logistics) we finally started on our journey to Greenland. The travel involved getting from New Delhi to the starting point of our expedition was intense! From New Delhi we took a direct flight to Copenhagen. We spent a night at Copenhagen and then took a flight to Kangerlussuaq in Greenland, from there we took another flight to Ilulissat, where we spent the day shopping for supplies for our expedition.  We got on a helicopter from Ilulissat to Umanaq and spent time there getting all our gear prepared. From Umanaq we got on a motor boat with all of our expedition gear and kayaks and to (finally!) reach our first expedition campsite.

Along the coast of Greenland: A bench overlooking the icebergs

We would kayak along the coast everyday till we got to our next campsite. After we secured our kayaks, we would set up the group tent before setting up any of our personal tents. We would all eat breakfast and dinner in the big group tent together. Our expedition leader Kim would usually be the chef, but sometimes other team members would take over.

On one of the final days of our expedition, halfway to our next campsite, the weather suddenly turned.  We were kayaking along a cliff and there were huge freezing cold salt water waves splashing on us. The salt water made my eyes burn- I could barely keep them open. I remember being cold and miserable, but knowing that we couldn’t stop, all of us had to paddle past the cliff. I was 14 years old, and had never experienced a situation so extreme and challenging before. I  remember my father kept encouraging me from behind and yelling “keep going Deeya, Keep smiling, We will get through this”.

Hearing that positivity in his voice, helped me grit my teeth and keep going. We finally did make it to the next camp drenched and frozen but safe. I think this where I began to realise how important a positive attitude is when it comes to any adventure sport. If the going gets really tough and you think you can’t do it, you definitely will not make it. However, if you plaster a smile on your face and tell yourself you can do it, the going definitely becomes easier. 

Sea Kayaking in Greenland

There are of course difficult moments on all expeditions, but what makes them special are the team members. I remember I was a bit nervous about going on the expedition, because I was going to be the youngest by quite a margin – 28 years to be specific (the closest person to my age was my dad). I soon understood that being outdoors with people is the best way to make friendships that last a lifetime. It doesn’t matter where your team members are from or what age they are, there’s something magical about being outside and facing the wonders and challenges of mother nature together.

The Beginning…

I often joke that my parents first child was not me but Snow Leopard Adventures – our family owned Adventure Tourism company which was conceived before I was born. My father is one of India’s stalwarts in the outdoors (he was the first Indian to kayak and raft down rivers in six continents, as well as the first Indian to complete the polar trilogy- skiing to the North Pole, South Pole and skiing across the Greenland icecap).

Growing up in a family like this, adventure was our normal. I went on my first hike strapped to my fathers back, before I even started walking. Our family holidays would consist of doing something outdoors whether it be hiking, diving or skiing, and I absolutely loved it.

My passion for mountaineering started in the summer before grade 8 at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering’s (NIM) adventure course. Growing up in India’s National Capital Region, the life I lead in NIM was very different from anything I had experienced before. It was simpler, the days were long and the learnings were life changing. I realised that I was happiest in the company of mountains, walking for hours with everything I needed my backpack.

From then on I jumped at every opportunity I got to be outdoors. My parents understood that the outdoors was a big part of my life, and they encouraged me to follow my passion. While supporting your children’s passions might seem like an obvious thing to do, in India girls aren’t often given the same opportunities as boys. I recognised, at a very young age, that what I had in terms of parental support was unique.

I am grateful for the fact that my parents have always supported me and left no stone unturned in helping me pursue my dreams. To my mother for constantly showing me what a privilege it is to be a woman, and to never let me gender define me and to my father for introducing me to the “great outdoors” and being my favourite “adventure buddy”.

Hi! My name is Deeya Bajaj and I am a mountaineer, adventurer and explorer from India. I have been extremly fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore some of the most remote parts of our planet (including to journey to the summit of Mt. Everest with my father, as India’s first father-daughter team). This blog is an attempt to document some of my learnings and experiences on my expeditions. Thank you for being a part of my journey! Keep checking this site (or subscribe to get an instant update) for more posts on my adventures all over the world!