Archive for the ‘India’ Category

Husk of India

Sweet and savory, ancient and colorful, varied and genuine. Dusty and nasty, tiring and exhausting, even disturbing. You can see India this way, or that way, or hundreds, thousands, and lakhs of others. No need to glorify, nor to vilify. India is neither this, nor that. India just is. And what we see, and moreover what we tell about it, is merely our perception. It’s how we filter the reality.

I have spent here six weeks, ridiculous amount of time. Besides, India has been my first encounter with a culture that is very foreign to Europe. That suggests I’m rather ignorant to draw conclusions yet. Well, this country hasn’t charmed me as I thought it would. But I’m not willing to label my feelings. Let the time distill them a bit.

Also, the truth is that I haven’t explored India that much. I haven’t spoken to the right people, I haven’t experienced the routine of everyday life, I haven’t done lots of things. It was not my purpose. India was my gateway to the different. It transitioned me from being a European in Europe to being a European in Asia. And one can’t blame a fork for not being able to convey soup into their mouth.

One way or another, these six weeks haven’t let me stay where I was. I’m not a person I used to be back then. What is more, I have even more questions to answer. I hoped that India would answer some of those, but actually it only raised more questions, and questioned things I already thought to be answered. “Does a person create a journey, or does a journey create a person?” I’m not sure whether Louis Vuitton knew the answer, but I’m sure he knew that if something is there to mash up your world, journey it is.

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The Beatles couldn’t be wrong. I haven’t seen so many tourists anywhere but in Rishikesh. And everything here is for them: from (pseudo) German bakeries and Italian restaurants to laughing yoga classes, dancing meditation, people reading aura and opening chakras. Book stores go further with books on power of Om, enlightment, and tantric sex.

I wanted to go a bit with a flow, and be more of a tourist. So I went fancy and rented out a hotel, was eating out in restaurants and drinking galoons of black coffee and freshly squeezed juice. Those things are more than affordable here in India, but still I’m usually keeping away from them. There ain’t much joy in there, those are merely guilty pleasures that one doesn’t derive much satisfaction from. On that occasion, though, that was what I needed. And at times, you need to get what you need to get.

Sure thing, I attended a yoga class. That was pretty different from the ones in Europe, more authentic, I dare say. We started off with chanting “Om” and our teacher singing a prayer in Sanskrit, something about healthy mind in a healthy body. Then a two-hour lesson followed, with really good explanations and analysis, besides practice. And we finished with a supposed-to-be deep relaxation, which was not really deep because of the flies tickling the legs. And the prayer.

Next stop – the holiest of all cities, Varanasi. Praised by Mark Twain. Its ghats, stairs leading to the waters of Ganga, represent life, and death, and everything in-between. They are full of people already before sunrise. Tourists are getting on boat rides, pilgrims bathing in the holy river, cows doing the same, locals washing and drying their clothes, people doing yoga, selling, begging, soliciting, walking, taking pictures, or contemplating over a cup of chai or a bottle of coke.

Burning ghats is another rather striking experience. At first, I was wondering why they wouldn’t call them cremation ghats, but then I understood that burning is what it is. No ceremonies, no rituals, no hassle, just corpses in colorful clothes being thrown on fire. Makes one think. And be happy they are still alive.

Bonus fact. One of the most ridiculous professions I’ve ever seen is an ear cleaner. They have a case of various instruments, most of them looking rather scary, with a big note on it: “Ear cleaner”. They can also provide you with pictures and references of happy clients. I pushed away the one reaching to my ears with a long sharp metal thing: “I’ll just look, it’s free”. I rather have my ears as they are.

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Kashmir: mounts and touts

Mountains. Magnificent. Great. As a bus was making curves along serpentine of the road, I was admiring them through the front window. I also tried to convince myself that a driver went there and back hundreds times, and I shouldn’t worry about his tricks like overtaking on narrow turns with other cars driving towards us. All that despite road signs like “Peep peep don’t sleep”, “Speed is knife that cuts life”, and other rather poetical warnings.

An infamous Kashmiri “attraction” is getting involved into multiple touts that houseboats owners arrange in order to take advantage of naive tourists. Like the one which happened to me: with a car stopping the bus, story which makes you almost a criminal because of not having some papers, a fake police officer, and a “helpful” houseboat owner. Since I was not that naive, they didn’t get away with their tout, and everything ended with them dropping me to the place of my destination and apologizing for what had happened. “It’s business, you know,” guy said.

Kashmir is not India. That is what they say, and that is what you see when you get there. Even Kashmiri chai is salty (while Indian is sweet). People identify themselves rather by their religion than by nationality, and when cricket (most popular sport here) matches take place, Kashmiri are always for Pakistan (another Muslim country), and not for India.

As if it was not cold enough (I slept under five blankets with a hot water bottle between my legs), I decided to go to the mountains. While in the summer the Himalayas are green and pretty, this time they are covered with a thick layer of snow, which occasionally produces avalanches. My trekking, or shall I call it crawling, to be more precise, opened precious views of the snowy tops, which were becoming clearer and more beautiful as I was ascending higher. And I thought it was pretty much life-like journey. We awkwardly crowl towards our dreams which are not even very clear, but we know they are there, and this is a path towards them, and as we come closer to our dreams, they become clearer and shine brighter in their beauty.

Not that I am back to India, I am happy to see colorful women, holy cows, and somewhat romantic road dust. The Himalayas? I should see them again in about a week. Inshallah.

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Colorful people

Have you ever felt like a candy mountain? That’s exactly what I felt like, when colorful torrents were coming down from me as I was taking a shower. Who told that fairy tales are only there in the books? For three days, I became a character of a very funky fairy tale.
If you think that I’m on drugs, that is not exactly true. The truth is that Holi is a mega colorful Indian holiday, but Holi in Vrindavan (town where Krishna spent his young years) is just an alice-in-wonderland-sorta-thing.

While in the States, I’m quite sure, one would be taken to court immediately for randomly throwing colorful powder on people walking by, Indians seemed to be quite happy to have a pink face, red hair, yellow cheeks, and Easter egg style clothes. A have never seen so many joyful people in my life. Even disciples of an ashram we were staying in, normally being smily but reflective, were excited like kids, as they got all wet and pink. Genuine, deep happiness.

In the evenings, as the sun was setting, locals were gathering on the stairs of an antient looking abandoned temple. With fire, flowers, candles, with dances and chantings, they were performing the ritual of worshipping the river. Monkeys climbing the walls and foreigners rolling around with their cameras were the reminders that all happening there was real, here and now. After it became dark and the ritual was about to finish, I joined the circle of worshipers, and was blessed with some silver bucket that a man in a long white dress with a long white beard put on my head. Not that it made me feel more holy, but for some short moment I became one of them – no matter what the color of my skin or my faith was.

The ashram I was staying in was a community of Krishna devotees, with disciples from various countries, mostly German speaking Europe. Everybody had their Indian name, wore a white robe, and was involved in surrendering to Krishna. In contrast to their brothers and sisters in Europe, those were fitting to the environment and didn’t seem affected. Constant presence of a smile on their face and softness of the voice seemed to be rather spiritual. In general, when you compare put on a cross Jesus and dancing among women Krishna, dark mystery of churches and Indian temples with their happy colors, funeral-like singing of “Jesus mercy our sins” and cheerful or at least reflective chanting of the religions of India, an answer to the question of why poor Indians are happier than wealthy westerners becomes evident. One doesn’t need to be religious to feel the impact that religions make on our lives, most of it is already in our genes and collective history.

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On a ride

Going on a journey. It’s very much like riding a roller coaster. In the beginning, you feel scared. You fasten all the security belts, hold firmly with your both hands, and hold a breath as if in an attempt to become smaller. As the ride goes on, you cool down, relax, loosen your seatbelt, and enjoy the thrill of your experience with arms wide open.
The ride I’m having does have its thrill. Not the one usually mentioned in numerous articles about India. Having arrived with expectations quite low, I knew about what’s going on in the streets, what is the reality of the country. On my ride, I focus on the things that are important for me: culture, habits, weird little things that make up our lives. And it’s thrilling.

I’m getting stuff to think over, that is also a part of the ride. Just like in “The Pilgrimage” by Coelho, which I have just finished reading (that was a book for an occasion, so to speak), it teaches me its practices, gives me its challenges, shapes my worldview as well as self-perception, questions me. Explains how to “fight a good fight”, literally. What is left is to discover the secret of my sword.

Life stories, those are precious as well. My host in Chandigarh is *that* sorta guy. After having spent 5 years studying physics in the UK, he’s going to ride a bike towards Nepal. There he will be teaching locals to build earthships – sustainable houses made of tyres and other waste materials. They are also independent in terms of water and energy, and even food. Watch the “Garbage Warrior”, if you got hooked up by the idea.

To end on a less philosophical note, a bonus fact. Most of the elderly population of India are ginger. Just because they dye their grey hair with henna, the same color tattoos are being made with. That makes them stand out, having in mind all the Indians have black like night hair.

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Amritsar

Oh, this sweet feeling of being fooled… Wherever I go, I feel like they always are ripping me off. This 100 Rs ricksha seemed like a fairly good deal though. I wouldn’t go far along no-name streets, would I?

“Can I get an accommodation here? You know, like to sleep,” – I put my palms close to the head as if I was sleeping. The guide book was saying one can get a free bed at temple facilities. Not exactly a bed was it that I got, but it was warm and (thanks mom and dad for the color of my skin) under the roof.

The next day I spent in a sorta vegetation, getting used to bazillions of people in colorful turbans (Golden Temple in Amritsar is a mecca for the Sikhs) and constant chanting of the Holy Book, translated from the Temple to all its premises. Being on my own was never an option though, one cannot escape from people asking to take a picture together with you and “where are you from” conversations.

The following day was marked with me having got some poisoning from the food in temple’s free canteen (happens when you serve 40.000 people 24/7). No toilet drama, just maybe some fever at night. “Welcome to India,” as a fellow co-traveller noticed. Sadly, it prevented me from going to nearby Indian-Pakistani border to cheer Indian guy outshouting Pakistani guy after the flag down ceremony – those two countries compete even in volume of the voice.

Bonus fact. While couples behave pretty modestly over here, guys like touching each other and even walk holding hands, which is merely a sign of their good friendship (against crooked interpretations of the foreigners).

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First steps into the unknown

It’s been 3rd day of me travelling, and I’ll be finished only by tonight. First impression: it’s not that bad. My only unfulfilled expectation is that people would speak at least some bad English.

Some 33h ago I got off the plane. Tiny airport building was finishing with the last official. Beyond the door, there was noise of small dark people, grabbing every person walking out of the airport and taking them somewhere to the morning darkness. Few minutes of hesitation, realisation that not many other options are left, deep breath, and I’m outside.

Through the window of my small taxi cab, I saw people cycling along the road, women carrying bowls on their heads, and small half-ruined buildings. A mosquito was silently cruising from me to the driver. All these villages on the way resembled the ones in Spain, or in Italy, or was it only my desperate attempt to convince myself it was no different here. But it was.

Being the only white person at a train station, I felt I was being looked at by every person, except for maybe those lying on the ground with their heads covered. I walked aimlessly here and there, and then decided to sit down and read a book. Holding to it looked somewhat safe, it was my portal of escape in some way. I remembered myself scanning foreigners on the streets back in Europe. That what it feels, being an alien.

Train was late for half an hour. My try to make friends with neighbours was not really successful, neither my attempt to stay awake and look through the window. I clumsily climbed up to my berth, and took a set of naps, interrupted by the conductors bringing trays with food. The only thing that looked somewhat familiar was rice. I tried the consistency of two other dishes with a spoon, gave a glance to my neighbours eating, another glance to the tray with food, and told my stomach to man up.

Delhi looked much more chaotic, but much more less scary. I already was in my element. As I had to get from one railway station to another, I tried to fix a rickshaw. Answer ‘yes’ to all of my questions, most of which required some open answer, was not really convincing, so I decided to find the way on my own. Suddenly, a car appeared. “Pavel?” My host (I’ll come to visit Delhi few days later) knew I was coming with this train, so he was so kind to meet me and drop me to a station I was supposed to continue my trip from. His current surfer who was together in the car appeared to be much more adventurous and courageous person than I, which gave me some strength and inspiration. As he was Australian, we discussed best ways of eating vegemite, tipping hijras and the poor, he mentioned he heard of an exceptional quality of Lithuanian honey.

My train to Amritsar is leaving in one hour. “We wish you a happy, comfortable and safe journey”

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