Gregory Eckart went to India in March to retrace Mahatma Gandhi's steps for more than 241 miles in the pivotal Dandi, or Salt March. Eckart is in the green T-shirt, imitating the statue of Gandhi behind him picking up salt.

Journey of

For a UH student who walked the
protest path of Mahatma Gandhi,
there is no turning back

Retracing the 241 miles that Mahatma Gandhi marched in a protest through India, University of Hawaii student Gregory Eckart made a journey of self-discovery.

At the end of it, he chose to walk down a more difficult road in life.

"There's no going back into a life of idleness, the easy carpenter/surfer/paddler lifestyle, where I have a small family, barbecue on the weekend. ... If I chose a life like that, I would always regret not stepping forward and not putting myself out there, making a difference. The suffering I would feel inside would surpass walking 241 miles," Eckart said.

Eckart was among the 500 marchers in the trek that started March 12, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the protest march. He kept a daily journal published in India's largest newspaper, the Times of India.

A student of Peace Studies and International Relations at the UH-Manoa campus, Eckart said, "I was strengthened by the courage Gandhi had. This little man loosened the grip of the strongest imperial power at the time. My resolve in wanting to make a difference became much stronger ... I always wanted to make a difference, but never had the courage to put myself in the light .... (Now) I know what I'm here on Earth to do," Eckart said.

Gregory Eckart is shown with Tushar Gandhi, center, Mahatma Gandhi's great-grandson, and his wife, Mirabehn, right.

Eckart read about the Salt March to Dandi on the Gandhi Foundation's Web site. In response to his inquiry, Gandhi's great-grandson, Tushar Gandhi, e-mailed Eckart back with, "please, come."

"Then I knew I had to go," Eckart said.

Mahatma Gandhi organized the first march to protest against Britain's prohibition of Indians making their own salt -- a critical element to human survival, especially in such a hot climate, he said. The penniless Indians could not afford to pay for the salt or the tax on it.

At the end of the march to the ocean in 1930, Gandhi picked up some salt. He was later arrested and Indians protested.

The event -- which duplicated Gandhi's moves as much as possible -- was "overwhelming to the senses" for Eckart, a Salt Lake City native who made Hawaii his home eight years ago and who had never been to a foreign country, he said.

"Picture the most noisy parade you've ever been to, and multiply that by a thousand ... There were hundreds of thousands of people on the street" in every city they visited from Sabarmati (the starting point) to Dandi, and flocks of people from dozens of smaller villages to greet them in between, he said.

"We were the stars," he said of the international marchers, who were mobbed by television crews for interviews everywhere they went. Crowds decked all the marchers with leis made of roses and marigolds up to their ears, and collected autographs, he added.

Thousands of Indians would join the march for part of the route, creating "chaos on the road," Eckart said. Cars would constantly toot their horns, which played a myriad of sounds, he recalled. "They speak to each other by honking," just to greet someone or to show support.

But the "obnoxious" cacophony, the relentless 115-degree heat, and noxious rubbish fires dotting the roadsides caused a lot of marchers to complain about the ordeal, he said. Walking 10 to 15 miles per day, they saw appalling poverty and filth, he said. The marchers bathed out of buckets and ate a sparse, vegetarian diet cooked by the villagers, he added.

The most heartwarming moment of the march for Eckart occurred when Ramesh Patel, a social activist, drove three hours to thank Eckart for sharing his thoughts via the journal, and to give him books and mementos.

"I was so touched. He told me that: 'As I was reading it (the journal) I realized our hearts and minds were connected.' And that I was writing what he was feeling and what needed to be said," Eckart said.

In his first entry, Eckart wrote that the reason he participated in the march was, "I want to know if Gandhi is felt in India even today."

Gandhi's spirit of peace and self-denial is felt more in the villages than in the big cities, he said.

The march "left an impression on my heart and mind -- something that no one can take away."

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