Dec 23, 2010

The sky is always bluer on the other side

"Nature is not a place to visit - it is our home", says a signpost next to the road up from the lower Dharamsala to McLeod Ganj. Taking the tip, we went to explore our home more profoundly.

We set off before dusk for the 3-4 hour walk up to Triund looming above McLeod Ganj. We barely managed to crawl halfway up through the tiny village before the sun rose from behind the ragged horizon. Cheeks flushed, sweating and breathing heavily, we sat down for the first breakfast, munching on our usual round Tibetan breads bought from a certain old man at a certain street corner.

Estimating another 3 and half hours at the same pace, we soon took another break on the cross-roads, or rather the cross-paths, making friends with a pack of dogs who decided to join our gang for the way up. Numerous resting stops followed, the longest and the nicest one was half way up, with guitar music and chai, under a considerably bluer sky than before. Still, it couldn't bare the comparison with Triund - the actual mountain top.

As for provisions, worrying or carrying extra is unnecessary: there are several tea stalls on the way up to the summit, one every half-hour or so. One of them sells tissue packs, named "Estonia". Commenting on that memorable event, I learned from the guy in the booth that the day before some other estonians had been laughing at it too. There's an estonian in every port, they used to say back in the old days. There's an estonian on every mountain top, I should add to make it more contemporary.

It was a strenuous walk on a well established path winding through the patches of ancient forest as well as out in the open, but always staying within the limits of moderate exercise. With the pretty views, beautiful weather and in good company, the time passed surprisingly fast. The clear air and closeness of those snowy summits (which I had been staring at down in the village for over a week) were more than a fare prize for the hours of trekking.

With the Southern sun fiercly blazing, the daytime weather was still quite warm and dry in mid-October, although a week before there had been a snow-storm up on Triund, transforming into a rainstorm 1500m lower in Dharamsala.

When talking about the Himalayas I find it hard to speak without overusing clichés. Whether the grass is always greener on the other side will depend on the season of a given spot in the mountains, the climate zones change very fast with the hight and whatnot. However, there is no doubt as to the sky being bluer than in my wildest dreams.

Dec 22, 2010

Miserable failure in the staring contest

How many Indians does it take to change a light bulb?

The correct answer is: as many as can be found loitering nearby, bored. They're a friendly crowd and like to give each other a helping hand. About the same goes for producing a pancake in a one-table restaurant - father cooks, the youngest son washes a plate, his brother polishes a cup, their nephew greases a spoon and the oldest son waiters. You'd better believe me when I say that there are always plenty of lanky men around doing nothing - as for women, they are hidden away on hard physical labour while making an effort to stay pretty, wearing make-up, colorful saris and tons of family jewels.

How many Indians does it take to explain the location of a bus to a Western girl?

The equation is about the same, multiplied by the factor of boredom and divided by the size of the town, giving a result somewhere between thirty and fifty. Not less, because obviously nobody wants to be the one to miss the spectable; and not more, because fifty men surrounding the traveller would be a dense enough bunch to block the view on the object of interest. Most of them help by staring, wide-mouthed (literally). Thinking back, it's quite funny, but at the time I went through a whole scale of negative emotions sometimes leading to unusual social experiments, including staring back or pointing and laughing back when (un)appropriate.

Needless to say, I still miserably failed the (inter)national staring contest. I can assure you that even the worst attention-seeking freaks would eventually freak out! From then onwards, I've symphatised with celebrities. So when I kind of accidentally slapped the thousandth randomer who tried to force his camera up my nose in the hopes of getting a photo of that wierd creature, I decided to pack my bag and hide in the mountains. Eventually, I failed miserably even in that, but first I got to have some awesome adventures and a great time in the Himalayas.

Staring aside, I felt quite safe, strolling on narrow back alleys of narrow back alleys of crowded streets of unknown villages or even New Delhi. I felt particularly comfortable after I had figured out that I'm an alien and therefore, that different social rules apply to me. I could neither be considered a man nor a woman - for, in India, I resemble neither of them too much. So, anomaly that I was, I ventured around joyously, unravelling the mysteries of that mysteriously mystic culture until I understood a lot more about them that they did about me.

Dec 21, 2010

Ear cleaning, ma'am?

There is chaos all around, but in an organized kind of way - once you start getting the system. Walking on the streets of Haridwar feels like being in a movie about India. The air is hazy with the mix of dust, mist and smoke, boiled to around 30 degrees by the hot sun and the blue sky is nowhere to be seen - it is all yellowish white.

Getting somewhere means wiggling through the narrow strip between shops and traffic, dodging oncoming pedestrians. On one side a slow colourful maelstrom of vehicles of all kinds, powered by men, animals or petrol, honking their way through the rickshaw jam with pimped-up musical horns mixed with jangling Hindi pop music; on the other side: coal, socks, bangles, cucumbers, toothbrushes, offerings, buckets - you name it, we've got it! Ear wax removal? Shoe shining? Chai? You name it, we'll do it! There is no colour missing on any section of the market street and every imaginable service has someone to offer it. I personally didn't plan on letting an Indian boy anywhere near enough to poke around in my ears but I did see him in action from a safe distance. Dirty ears, ma'am! is a catchy phrase, I must admit.

All life happens on the streets. A shop, workshop or a restaurant usually means a hole in the wall, stacked with merchandise. Bananas jostle around on a cart as well as apples, papayas, potatoes along with various unidentifiable fruits and veggies. On the riverside you can get plastic bottles to scoop out some purifying Ganga water and take it home with you. I have no idea what they do with it - drink, wash or do whatever it takes to finally catch that longed-for cholera. Purifying means different things for us and them.

Can it possibly get any more colourful? Yes, it can! Especially at Diwali time - the Hindu New Year's celebrations. If adding more colours would make no more difference, there's always tinsel! And after you've done what you can with tinsel - fireworks! Our team of four western giants had trouble finding a safe enough way back to the hotel. In fact, it was impossible to find since the fireworks exploded constantly all around us at ground level so that the overall impression was that of a warzone. Thus we resigned and picked the street we already knew (and knew to fear) - the riverside - and made our way through it under a thick smoke blanket.

There's nothing quite like running from car to car, taking cover and screaming delightedly after throwing aside the fear for one's life because there's no way of coming out of it alive anyway. Might as well enjoy the ride! Our enjoyment lasted until a happy family chucked a bunch of fireworks and matches in our hands and made the more courageous among us go face-to-face with the explosives... which in turn lasted only a few minutes, cut short by a racing scooter that hit our lovely Basque and took a bite out of his shin. Hence we started a frantic midnight rickshaw-race, making reconnaissance with the indoors of two hospitals. The intelligence concluded that direct hit fireworks' victims were too abundant to accommodate someone with a petty scratch like that.

Dec 20, 2010

Each time I buy a bottle of water, I twitch with guilt

I cannot look away any more, letting them pack all my goods in unnecessary plastic bags. A strip of a thin pink or blue plastic bag hanging out of the corner of the mouth of a homeless holy street cow is quite a disgusting sight. I have seen it far too many times. It really is easy to insist that the cashier take the bag back even if I have to do an extra hand movement and lift my bananas out of it. Somehow, at home, it eventually seemed easier not to bother any more and accept the ten bags on an average market day: one to wrap a few oranges, another for a bunch on bananas, then one for bread and yet another for cucumber. It looks so stupid now.

Even if there are no plastic-eating cows in Europe and the rubbish is neatly hidden away from my sight, it doesn't mean it's really gone. Landfills are as effective as brushing the dirt under the carpet in the living room. Recycling still uses up natural resources and in turn creates its own pollution. India, being an incomparably poor country, simply does not have the money nor educational or infrastructural systems to deal with it yet.

Visiting India is a perfect crash-course on environmental issues for a Westerner like me. I know that at home I inevitably produce ten times more garbage than I would ever do in India, where I mostly consume only to cover my basic needs. Even then, the locals undoubtedly produce even less rubbish than me.

It is always a problem how to dispose of the daily plastic remains of my drinking water. The scraps of newspaper used for wrapping food is less of a problem to throw on a pile of crap on the street. Also, it took me only nearly two months to learn to drop fruit peel directly on the ground as opposed to carrying it around in search of a hungry goat.

Bins are rare and I know that probably even the ones I find will be emptied into nature. Or in better cases, burned right there on the street, adding to the thick blanket of smog that covers the lowlands from Delhi to the base of the Himalayas. I got all too familiar with the smell of burning plastic. It was very clear how every action of a single individual adds up to the allconsuming pollution. Why the Himalayan glaciers melt and how on earth that heat-absorbing soot gets on top of them is not a mystery any more. I try not to think about the carbon emissions of all the flights I take. Education has a cost - this is how I excuse it for myself.

Dec 18, 2010

The usual - transdimensional logistical scheming

Going somewhere always starts with a story of getting there. Often it is an adventure in itself. If Frodo had taken the straight flight to Mordor and ridden a cable-car up to the Mount Doom, the story would have been over in two pages. Comfort and excitement are not friends.

My personal quest of getting to India started a long way back with all kinds of last-minute logistical problems such as not having any money; then having money but no visa; then having barely enough time to get a visa (and considering all the considerable neighbouring countries with an Indian Embassy); then telling all my friends that I'll leave Montpellier tomorrow but failing to leave until the day after with the first flight to Brussels (because barely enough time means impossible in French, compared to probable in Dutch); then battling a bad flu all week and a half while waiting for my visa... which I got in the afternoon before the morning that my flight took off from Frankfurt to where I had to hitchhike first, having only 3 hours of daylight left. Inevitably, as a bonus track, the visa application center included the mandatory 15-minute scene of mobilizing their whole crew to go about jittering, looking for my lost passport even though everyone else seemed to get theirs back swiftly enough. Mr.Murphy has always had a special spot for me in his heart.

So there I was in summer clothes, shivering in the freezing wind on the German border at sunset, still about 300km away from the airport. To deceive my body into not dieing of exposure and to keep the spirits up I let out a continuous stream of improvised heart-warming songs in the lines of Pleeeeease, take me to wooonderful waaaarm and sunny Indiaaaaaaa, ooooo, Indiaaaaaaa! I felt like an opera superstar, shouting the lines at the top of my magnificent voice. I doubt that anybody could hear me across the roaring of the cars on the autobahn. Lucky them.

As always, shortly after my thumb went numb with cold and anxiety started sneaking in, I started finding awesome rides. First a nice gentleman handed me a map of Germany. From that moment on I could stop relying on the extremely sketchy map existing only in my head. Next I had a good laugh with two young fellows from Köln who pampered me as best they could and made a long detour for my benefit. Without even knowing how incredibly hungry I was, they forced me to accept a bagful of food, including sandwiches made by grandma the same morning. And lastly, they drove me to a petrol station and talked me into the car of a chatty heart surgeon who had worked as a volunteer doctor in McLeod Ganj - just where I was heading. I took it as a sign and vowed to follow it.

Et alors, after all this everything suddenly seemed ridiculously easy from the moment I stepped out of the Delhi airport, carrying precisely 7.3kg of luggage. A familiar mischevious grin erupted on my face and I was ready toEt alors, after all this everything suddenly seemed ridiculously easy from the moment I stepped out of the Delhi airport, carrying precisely 7.3kg of luggage. A familiar mischevious grin erupted on my face and I was ready to start my 2-months' survival experiment in this new, unknown corner of the world. I called it my very first real holiday.

But still I hadn't decided the direction to take out of Delhi - Varanasi? Rishikesh? Amritsar? - as late as when sitting in the New Delhi train station ticket office, flapping a half-filled foreigner's form in my hand where only the destination gap was unfilled. All my very first day in India I had a curious tendency to befriend old Western women. There I got hints from a nice Czech Parisian and surprise-surprise, found myself on an upper berth of the overnight train to Pathankot the same evening with Dharamshala-McLeod Ganj due the next day.