About two years ago, I read an article about a talented individual who had shown a lot of promise at a young age. She was the top of her class, the captain of an under 19 cricket team and a person who was destined to make a positive impact on the world. Sadly, a small accident made her lose her lose mobility of her limbs and she was confined to a wheelchair. In spite of her special needs (which isn’t well supported in India), she graduated college and took up a job that sustained herself. She had even started an organization called SoulFree to help other people like her. I was inspired by this story and wrote my first check to help them. I could not contribute a lot during my Masters and once I graduated, I started contributing to SoulFree again.
As a part of my yearly goals, I wanted to swim in open waters this year. I found an event near my city and registered for the 5km swim. I hadn’t participated in the open water events before and for the past year I had only been swimming in the indoor pool at the university. The highlight of my swimming career was when I swam the Micheal Phelps 10Km challenge almost a year ago. Theoretically, the 5k seemed doable but I hadn’t covered over 3km in one session in a while. The event was a good opportunity for me to get a practice routine and correct my stroke a little. I also wanted use this occasion to raise money for soul free. A few years ago Sarah Peck swam Alcatraz and raised 33,000$ for charity water. Inspired by Sarah, I found a site online called Milaap which helped me transfer money to SoulFree in India. I contacted Preethi who encouraged me to raise money for the wheelchair donation drive that needed funding urgently.
I assumed if I ask my circles to donate we may be able to contribute 500$ (~30,000 Rs) which would account for three wheelchairs but soulfree needed thirteen. It was far more than I could contribute personally and I would get to learn about crowdfunding. It took a while to setup but we finally created a campaign on milaap. I started by asking friends individually, first over the phone and then reminding them over email(s). I made a list of people who I knew would contribute based on my relationship and their financial situation. I assumed Preethi’s story would move people who woud read it but I needed to validate my assumption which turned out to be true. Luckily, I seem to be surrounded by generous people and we raised 500$ within a week. I was happy with the outcome but I emailed my friends as much as possible. Thanks to people’s generosity, on the week of the swim we reached 1500$ (~1Lakh) which was 60% of our goal. This was thrice the amount I hoped and I figured it was a good place to be.
I planned to go to Miami with a friend but sadly due to poor planning I ended up going alone. I booked a cheap Airbnb with good reviews about 15 mins away from the event. I had a promotional offer from Lyft so I planned to use it to travel. The Airbnb turned out to be a very small house with lots of decorative lights, cute dog and hidden stories. It was run by a Cuban senior citizen called Maria with help from two of her house guests. The house had a vibe of having an eternal Christmas with lots of cute little dolls. On the first day, I walked around the beach and was accidentally dragged into a Turkish restaurant by a very attractive woman. I have a hard time saying no and this lady looked almost enthusiastic about convincing me to spend my money there. Her eyes behind the makeup were fatigued and bored, she knew I didn’t have a lot of money but I looked like an easy kill. I asked for a quiet place to sit and worked on a blog post that I had been putting off. The restaurant was pricey and I have learnt to say no now. I bought some items from CVS and retired for the night. The Lyft driver during my return journey could not understand English and I used Google translate to speak to him in Spanish.
The next day, I got up early and contacted the race officials and asked for a place to practice. They recommended I try the Jewish community center pool. It was very sunny and the water was much warmer than the pool at the university. I knew the sunscreen was critical as I needed to prevent my already tanned skin from deteriorating further. I swam in intervals of 30 mins and got out of the water to add sunscreen on my face and hands. I did that for 6 sessions after which my body was dehydrated because of the heat. I knew this stress test was the most vital practice for the 5k swim as I needed the outdoor exposure. My arms were uncomfortable because of the direct sunlight and warm water so I occasionally swam with fists to alter the circulation in my hands. At the end of the session, a coach told me that she had been watching me and was amazed that I had been swimming for three hours. She had been teaching a child with special needs to swim the mile and said she would be cheering for me in the race. I remembered my coach had given up on me when I started out but my dad taught me how to swim. Today, I am a long distance swimmer thanks to his effort and encouragement.
On Saturday, I got a call from Milaap’s community manager Athira saying that they were willing to take over the project and help us with the rest of our journey. She said that she will take an additional two days to set up their process and I can continue emailing my friends. Preethi was excited about the development and I was happy to form this connection between the two organizations. Preethi had bigger plans for SoulFree to start the first rehabilitation center in India to help people with spinal cord injuries. Milaap would back SoulFree with their marketing campaigns and I felt it would be the baby steps needed for Preethi to receive the critical mass for her organization to grow. I had two more days to raise funds but I had exhausted all my contacts so I was content with reaching 66% of our target. I had to register for the event and practice in open waters today so I put that as major priority. Sadly, the event organizers didn’t have proper provisions for me to practice, I had to change in a portable restroom and deposit my bag at the registration kiosk. I met an elderly gentleman(John) in his late 60s who said he had completed the 5k before and was planning on swimming the 10K tomorrow. He offered to help me out by watching over me while I practiced as it wasn’t safe to swim alone. I got into the water and it was strange to walk in muddy shallow waters. I started swimming after walking a few steps and it felt very natural. The sea gave me additional buoyancy and I was able to swim easier than swimming at the pool. I am not the best at flip turns and was glad that I didn’t have to do it every 30 seconds now. I aimed for the ships in the far corner and started swimming towards them.
It was different from swimming in the pool, where I could clearly see where I was headed. I had to glance up every now and then to steer in the right direction. As I swam for a few minutes, the salty water got me nauseated but I managed to stay focussed on the goal. To be honest, I had no choice as I could not stop and hold anywhere!. As I crossed the halfway mark, the currents pushed me towards the shore and I was able to see plants and weeds underneath. Suddenly, I noticed a distinct feature jutting out of the weeds, it looked like a tail……!. I ignored it for few seconds after which I reasoned it could be a SHARK!. I quickly turned around and used the adrenalin rush to swim very quickly towards the nearest dock, which was 10 mins away. I was hopeful about being safe because the tail wasn’t moving. To be honest, the alternative was not a painless way to leave the earth. After a few steeled minutes, I reached the dock and was glad to see John waiting for me. He told me that there are no sharks here and I probably saw a debris of a broken ship. I then swam for about 20 more minutes and got back as John recommended I rest before the race day. The beach didn’t have showers that day so I had to go home. I had food at a vegetarian restaurant, walked at the beach nearby and came home early because of the rains. Maria, my landlady gave me some soup and vegetables and told me that I was like her grandson. I was moved by her gesture and slept early.
Sunday.. Race day!
I woke up early as I had a bad dream in which I was late for the race by an hour because my friend switched off my alarm. In my dream, I was annoyed when I realized it but I immediately reconciled thinking that I probably should have told him earlier. I decided to go to the event immediately because I was in it to swim. I then woke up to see that a friend(Abhinav Asthana) had donated ~400$(25000Rs) which pushed us to 85%. This was the highest contribution by far and it also renewed my spirit to complete the donation drive. I sent a reminder email to my friends who were most likely to donate and then I contacted more people whom I had forgotten but were less likely to donate. I was ready at 8:30 even after waking up at 5:30. The Lyft driver I met was a Spanish speaker again we conversed with each other through google translate. I thanked him for driving me there and I went to the registration desk. They told me to check in my bags and report to the starting about 10 mins before the race started i.e. at 9:50. I kept my bags inside and was really thirsty but noticed that all the cash in my wallet was missing. The only water available could be bought by cash for 2$. I decided it was too late to and I walked towards the starting position. Luckily for me, they were giving away free energy drinks for participants and I took one and quenched my thirst with a few gulps. I kept a small bag with a towel in a secluded location and wore my trunks. They had given us disposable anklets which were meant to track your times. As we gathered, I spoke to a few people who said they had participated in the event before. They told me about the dangers of being accidentally whacked by competitive swimmer and I could avoid it by swimming at the sides. Then the announcement caught my attention.
“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, WE ARE NOW READY TO START OUR 5K SWIM”
“LET’S GATHER AROUND FOR A DRONE SELFIE!!”
It was exciting to see people bursting with energy, there were people of all age groups participating in 800m, 1 mile, 5k and the 10K. We each had different colored caps which helped us distinguish each other while swimming. The under nineteen boys were to go first followed by men, girls and then women. I saw the children start off enthusiastically and then it was our turn in a few minutes. We were supposed to swim into the track which was a mile long, swim for 3 laps around it and return to the starting position. I knew, I could swim the distance but was intimidated by the thought of being whacked. I decided to stay clear of others and let them pass ahead of me.
“5…4….3 …. 2 … 1 … GO!”
I waited a few seconds till everybody was about a 50m ahead and then I started the race, I noticed that the water was extra murky today. My goal was to complete the first lap as soon as possible because the 5k girls, 5k women and Miami mile swimmers with the pink cap would be behind me shortly. I swam on the outer rims of the track and the winds helped me stay away from the track when I was swimming closer to the beach. I swim with bilateral breathing but couldn’t turn towards the direction of the wind. I turned right and occasionally forward till I reached the first buoy where I had to take a U-turn and swim in the opposite direction. The turn was tricky because I had to take a larger curve to avoid all the other swimmers. While swimming in the opposite direction i.e. westward I had to breathe in the left direction and couldn’t swim in the right direction as the winds were too strong. I occasionally found myself in between a group of swimmers and I imagined being followed by a shark and swam in the north-west direction to swim outside the track. As I finished the first lap, I noticed people cheering as the mile swimmers were completing their race. The second lap was easier but I tried speeding up a little because I was slowing down (procrastinating). I found it harder to swim with the currents pushing me. I assumed this swim would be like any other practice where I would be playing a song in my head or thinking some happy thoughts. Sadly, the water refused to let me do any of that. I was in survival mode and I had to be constantly vigilant for other swimmers or mindful about my sense of direction. In the midst of the swim, I remembered master Oogway’s quote. “Your mind is like this water my friend when it’s agitated it becomes unclear but if you allow it to settle (taps his staff) it become clear”. I calmed myself down and got a rhythm and continued swimming, I was mindful of the time as I wanted to complete by 2hrs. Though that calmed me down, I wasn’t quite at peace to swim in a periodic rhythm as I would have hoped because I would slow down when I had to look up. I wish I had practiced sighting (looking forward) which is an important part of open water swimming. I finished the race in 1 hour 48 minutes which is not bad for a start considering this was my first gig outside the pool.
After the race, a volunteer(Margaret) noticed that I was alone and convinced me to take some pictures of me with the race medal. I was not keen on it but I took the picture for the sake of memories and sharing with my family. She and her husband told me about traveling to Fort Lauren del instead of Miami to save money next time. They also suggested I stay at South Beach because it’s safer there. I thanked them and called home to tell my parents that I am safe. I went back home and took a shower and cleaned myself. I traveled to the South Beach and ate at an Arabian restaurant which had a lentil soup. I had a long walk on the beach and played with the sand to make a gigantic Yin Yang. I returned home and booked a ticket for the Miami bus tour the next day.
The bus tour started with me rushing to the city center. The tour guided recommended me to try the art district which has a nice view of the graffiti in the houses. I got off the bus and spent about an hour taking photos in the Wynwood neighborhood. I liked the “stop wars” from Yoda and Peter Tunney’s work. His work was writing things like “Gratitude”, “Everything will be ok”, “You are amazing” and “All is well” using newspaper clippings in the background without proper spacing. To be honest, those were the words I needed to hear then and was soothing to see it. I got off the bus and took the ride to the center. We then toured the upscale Coral Gable neighborhood and ocean driver. I got to know about the history of Miami and the art deco buildings that were preserved there. We saw the awesome multimillion dollar houses and passed occasional ships along the way. It was a wonderful experience to be in the magic city.
I woke up early on the day of the flight but I missed the flight because of an accident near the airport. The Lyft driver dropped me off at departures which has a tram to the main airport.The authorities were kind enough to give me an alternative flight and I reached home a few hours late. In retrospect, Miami trip was filled with people who were passionate about life. Miami is known as the magic city and the city of dreams. I was able to see it reflected in it’s people, who were immigrants from neighbouring islands. They went about doing their daily jobs and worked hard through odd jobs like driving Lyft to make ends meet. Some people had a language issue, they could not speak English but they were learning English through Duolingo. My landlady “Maria” worked all day and was very helpful inspite of being an octogenarian. The elderly gentlemen in the mid sixties was an inspiration too, he was retired but would run marathons and swim across reefs. All these people were humble, extremely passionate about ambitious goals and smiled in spite of their tough lives. A friend of mine suggested that people like them are called “The Salt Of The Earth”. They are the cogs of this gigantic ecosystem that we have and sometimes we may not give them enough credit. I feel, I need to learn to be like them. Humility, professionalism and passion are qualities which I feel are vital towards making a larger impact. For various reasons mine had dwindled and this adventure helped me revive it a little.
I came home and emailed a few more friends and we were able to meet the campaign’s goal a few days ago, it was a magical experience. This journey through crowdfunding, swimming and meeting people in Miami has given me hope. I have learned that an ordinary person like me can make a small difference thanks to the support of generous around me. I am grateful for my friends and family for supporting me in this adventure. A special thanks to Milaap, Preethi from SoulFree for giving me this opportunity to contribute. Hope to try something similar in a few months, feel free to contact me if you are interested in helping out early.
P.S. Here is the complete set of photos of my trip, I am not a good photo grapher but hope you get to enjoy a bit of Miami.