Villagers and Backpackers

March 2010

The humble, little home we built consists of three rooms: Our private room, a guest room we rent out to backpackers and a common living-room, which we rarely use as we spend most of the time outdoors.

Loft BedTo have as much space as possible I decided to build a loft bed, to gain some extra space beneath it. Our mysteries (carpenters) were pretty surprised and looked at me doubtfully while I somehow tried to explain them the idea. I had to show them some photos on the internet and eventually and despite their obvious doubts about the “weird” project we managed to get the beds done. The voice spread and soon the entire village came by to have a look at the construction.

 

The village people accepted us well, but of course we were a bit of a strange couple to them; a Sadhu MARRIED to a western woman and we did not have kids, but plenty of dogs hanging out at our place. But there is something that I really love about this village: The locals live their lives and the travelers live theirs’. No staring, no hassling, but a general mutual acceptance. Of course there is some of an understandable amazement among the inhabitants when a western tourist girl walks through the tiny Himalayan village in a Mini-skirt. That kind of situations still make me feel embarrassed in some way and I cannot understand what is so difficult about dressing in a decent way to show some respect towards the local culture.

Since I live here I met a lot of people from all over the world; they come and go.

…and then at some point most of them return!

This makes it much easier to say goodbye, as somehow I know or I feel that we well meet again someday, somehow. The village is very popular among long-stayers, many stay for months and come back here year after year. The travelers who decide to rent out our guest room are usually really nice. It’s not to everybody’s taste to share a space with strangers; some people rather prefer to have their own private space. The people who come to us are usually very social and used to live in some kind of community. Baba is absolutely a people-person; he loves to meet new people, to share his stories and to make others happy with very simple things, like the delicious Indian dishes he cooks. More often than not our visitors end up being really good friends, sometimes they even become part of the family.

Of course like everywhere else in the world there are also exceptions, but I firmly believe that all encounters in life, no matter how insignificant they may seem, are meant to happen and that we don’t cross people due to mere coincidence.

There is a lot to learn from others in so many ways. Each person gives us a chance to learn a bit more about ourselves, and maybe sometimes they are also meant to learn something from us.

Advertisements

A Problem-Free-Philosophy

October 2009

It took us about nine months to finish the house. Well, it was actually not really complete, but we moved in, as soon as one of the rooms had four walls and a door. Money was getting less and that way we could at least save the money we would otherwise spend for the rent in the guesthouse we stayed at.

The kitchen was not ready either, so we put the gas stove in a corner of the provisional bedroom, where we slept on mattresses on the floor. Most of the time life was taking place outside anyways and the camping adventure like living style even had a touch of romanticism. We had no running water and there was still a wall missing in the bathroom, too. We improvised and hung a mat where that wall was supposed to be, so that we could at least use the toilet with some privacy.

suryacottage

Everybody who has built a house probably knows that it is never really finished for good. There is always a bit of work somewhere, things to repair and to improve.

…WELL, IMAGINE IN INDIA !

We discovered what really went wrong during the construction only once we started living in the house;

that much for ‘No Problem!‘

which is the phrase I got most of the time as a reply to my questions while the house was being built. Actually it is one of the sentences you get to hear most of time if you have a doubt or are worried about something and expect to get advice from an Indian!

INDIA IS THE LAND OF NO PROBLEM !

I wondered for example why the wastewater from the kitchen and the bathroom was flowing through an open gutter and not through a pipe, why the wooden window frames did not close hermetically and why the floor was anything else but a plain surface.

One evening I was lying on my mattress on the floor staring at the ceiling and discovered with dismay a huge bump in one of the corners. It looked pretty ugly, as if someone had dropped a huge wrecking ball on top of the roof or as if the house got hit by a meteoroid right on that spot! I called Baba immediately and angrily pointed at the nasty bulge:

“Look up there! What is this?”

He shrugged:

“Oh, yes… There tin sheet a tora (little) broken when making roof; but, NO PROBLEM!

I sighed loudly doubting that any “mystery” would ever see any problem where I did and thought about what could be done to fix the ugly corner. Maybe I should try something artistic and paint a 3-D planet on that bump, which might look nice.

Nothing like that ever happened; today it is still the way it was back then. I actually completely forgot about the silly bump. No problem!

Maybe it all depends on the point of view. Perhaps if someone here tells you ‘No problem’ he refers to himself. No problem for me, then why should it be a problem for you? Or maybe: Maybe it is a problem for you, but not for me, which means ‘No problem’.

Once I even found these two words being used as an advertising slogan on a signboard at my favourite guesthouse in Rishikesh:

‘Last Chance Café – The No Problem Company’

DSC04250

This sounded pretty much suspicious to me when I first saw it, but I have to say that it was actually all true! In the end I got married with a helping hand of the No Problem Company and things that seemed impossible eventually became reality.

I start to think that the No Problem Philosophy is a magic key to open certain doors; possibly not the ones you wanted to open, but maybe precisely those which you had to cross!

Mysteries of an Himalayan construction site

January 2009

When I first saw the piece of land we had bought, I wondered what kind of house could possibly fit on it; the plot looked pretty small. I thought that it might be big enough to put a larger tent on it, that’s it! It’s not that I didn’t like the idea of living in a tent or maybe a nice tipi, but after all the stories about leopards in the area we got to hear from locals and more after having seen one in full daylight I actually preferred to have four solid walls around my bed.

Construction site

After we had all the property papers in our hands, the first thing that Baba and I did was to celebrate a small puja ceremony on the plot amidst the high grown grass and flowers, together with the tourists who stayed at the same guesthouse. We chanted some mantras, lit incense and shared some food.

It took Baba a couple of weeks to gather the working people, who first proceeded to flatten the earth of the plot. To my great relief the land afterwards looked double the size and

YES! A REAL HOUSE COULD ACTUALLY FIT ON IT !

I never thought that I would ever have to bother about things like building a house! Until now I have always been renting the places I’ve lived in. First of all because buying a property of any kind was out of my range and second because it makes it easier to change residency whenever needed or wanted.

The only thing we knew for now was that we wanted to build three rooms: One for us, a living room and one guest room. Another thing I was sure about was that I wanted to have the bathroom inside of the house and not outside like most guesthouses of the area. Having an outdoor bathroom is a good thing, but due to my earlier experience with a leopard sneaking around the guesthouse all night long, restraining me to use the urgently needed bathroom, I had made up my mind. Otherwise we had no idea how people usually build a house in the Indian Himalayas. Baba tinkered a cute, roofless mock-up out of cardboard, showed it to the workers and on that base the building process started in the Indian way.Mock-up

He woke up every morning at six o’clock to go to the construction site to keep an eye on the situation all day long. People here are paid by day, which means that more slowly they work the more money they will get. Leaving them there alone meant that they would take things really easy and sit somewhere most of the time smoking beedis.

First, my German mind had an accurate idea, about how things should be done and eventually look like. In my opinion, I explained myself very clearly and everybody seemed to understand. My main job though was to cook and bring the meal to the construction site, where Baba and I would sit and have a picnic together.

Day after day when I arrived there with my tiffin, I had to discover that my plans for the house actually were not understood at all or simply completely ignored.

First I tried to fight it, but after only a couple of months to not become completely crazy, my German mind surrendered to the facts of the Himalayan construction “system”. After three more months I was just happy with the thought that soon I would have a new roof over my head and had no more expectations about the result at all.

It is very popular to hire mysteries from Bihar for building projects. A mystery is the Hindi word for the head workman. I didn’t know that for a long time and as in India people are often called by their profession, I thought that it was pretty funny that so many people had such a cool name like mystery!

The reasons why the workers from Bihar are very popular is that they have the reputation to be very good at their job and that they don’t drink excessively as their colleagues from the mountain area do. They also get paid more than the local workers, which usually brings jealousy issues along.

Winter had come and it got pretty cold, so whenever something had to be finished the same day, the local workers demanded to get paid in addition with “Gulab” with the excuse that it helped to keep them warm. Gulab translated means “rose” and is the brand of a local alcohol that smells like battery acid. Some say that if you drink that stuff regularly you end up getting blind, which I can pretty much imagine after having tried it once out of curiosity.

Well, maybe this is the reason why some of our walls have a certain angle which slightly reminds of modern art.

Of course, we also had our Bihari mystery and soon one of the workers said that he wanted to receive the same salary as him. Baba explained that he would do so, if he could somehow prove that he was able to do the same work in the same time with the same quality result.

One day, when I came to the building site, I wondered why the two arches on our porch differed visibly from each other.

The explanation was simple:

There had been a competition between the Bihari and the mountain mystery, which the latter lost!

But there was one thing that the Biharis and the local workers had in common:

After paying day, they did not show up for a couple of days without saying a word and then reappeared as if nothing had happened.

By the way:

If you like, feel free to watch the little movie about the construction process on the following link:

An adventure called life

September 2008

The three of us really wanted to stay at a peaceful place for a longer period after the intense time in Baba’s native Bihari village and Baba´s Food poisoning drama in Bodghaya. We  definitively needed a large amount of relaxation!

What a better place for that than the beautiful countryside of Almora in the Himalayas, which we had only recently discovered?

20140209_104635

We checked into an even nicer guesthouse with a large garden and found out that most of the accommodations in Kasar Devi include a kitchen. When you have traveled for a long time, you eventually get tired of eating out at restaurants, which are all offering mostly the same kind of menu. Having a kitchen made us more than happy, and it was also a way to save some money.

Someone had offered me a thick Indian cookbook for my birthday. First I thought that this person didn’t like me very much, because I had to carry the heavy volume with me through the whole country. But Pagli and I, both of us love to cook and we eventually went through the illustrated pages with the same excitement as a couple of teenager boys would do while reading their first playboy-magazine.

I love good food and admit that eating is something that makes me very happy!

Besides of spending much time in the kitchen, we wandered a lot through the beautiful lush green nature of the monsoon scenery, admiring the diversity of colourful flowers and collecting chanterelle in the forest. When it rained, the temperature cooled notably down and then Baba, Pagli and I would sit on the bed wrapped in blankets, drinking hot chocolate prepared of fresh milk coming directly from the buffalo, while telling each other stories or singing bhajans to the sound of Pagli’s Banjo.

The time had come to think about how life would go on from now on. Here I was, sitting in the middle of a small piece of paradise with my sadhu…

…BUT THEN WHAT?

Baba was not keen on living in Europe and not by a long shot I would dare to take him there to do any silly job and press him into the speedy western society. He was a free spirit and taking him to the other world would more than sure make him fade like a cut flower. Neither did I want to go back to the ignorance of an office job.

Kasar view

Life is too short to live only for making money that one will probably spend anyways in things that don’t really bring along any happiness and eventually will decay.

I could not come up with any alternative lifestyle, that appealed to me and that I actually would be able to put into practice in the west.

I loved Baba just as I loved India, even if at times the country made me really crazy. So, why not try to build up a life somewhere here? Of course, it is a place very far away from “home” and it was a big decision.

But my life-philosophy is:

If you don’t try, you will never know!

What was the worst that could really happen? Europe would not run away and I could go back there if I needed to do so anytime.

Now, the question was where in India?!?

I remember how Baba’s family in Bihar suggested us to build a house there in the village, as they owned a lot of land.

HA! NO WAY!

I would not survive there for even a month without going completely nuts!

On the other hand there was my beloved Rishikesh. But buying something there was too costly and everyone in town knew my Baba as he was part of Rishikesh’s sadhu society. A picture of dozens of sadhus coming to sit day and night at our place to enjoy chai, chillum and chapatis came to my mind. Nothing bad about that, but on a long-term that was not really an option!

Flowers in KasarWe decided to give Kasar Devi a try, we really loved that place. People are respectful, there is the tourist season when to meet nice people from all over the world, but also the off-season to enjoy the peace of the simple village life. The climate is pleasant, too, as it never got unbearably hot, though  the short winters can be pretty chilly.

Only a couple of weeks later Baba found a small piece of land that we could afford. This went so fast, that I interpreted it as a sign that things were flowing towards the direction they were supposed to.

Time had come to start a new adventure: The beginning of a new life in a new place

The revenge of the chicken

August 2008

Baba did not get too many chances to spend some quality time with his sister Kamla during our short stay in his native Bihari village. There were always too many people around and he was most of the time involved in some “men activities”. I knew he would have loved to meet her more in private. We came up to the idea to invite his sister to meet us in Bodhgaya. Her husband’s village where she lived was not very far from there. We told her that we would come up for her room in the same buddhist monastery where we were staying.

Om Mane Padme Hum

Om Mane Padme Hum

Actually I was a little nervous, because I barely spoke a handful of words of Hindi and I was very insecure about the social expectation as an “Indian” wife. There are plenty of social “rules” about how to act and what to say (or better not) in all kind of worldly situations and I really did’t think that I would do very good at it. I just wanted them to like me and make a good impression. I was so thankful to have Pagli, our American friend around to give me some moral support!

WOULD I BE ABLE TO DO AS WELL AS AN INDIAN HOST?

…BECAUSE THEY ARE REALLY DAMN GOOD AT IT !

__________________________________________________________

Something strange must have been in the air, because I don’t know why Baba suddenly decided that he wanted to eat that chicken curry! At the end of the meal we even started arguing, which is something we do extremely rarely:

“You really have to order this chicken?”

“Me long time no eating chicken! I want chicken!”

“It’s expensive!”

“no problem!”

Few minutes later…

“Why you don’t eat the chicken?”

“This chicken strange taste!”

“Well, you wanted it! And I told you! Common, now you eat!”

“NO! Me not eating this possible! Chalo!”

__________________________________________________________

The three of us left that strange restaurant in a grumbly mood. His sister would arrive tomorrow morning with her husband, her mother in law and her youngest son; this didn’t help much to improve my state of mind.

In the evening Baba started to spend several long periods inside of the bath-room and ended up spending most of the night there, too. In the morning there was nothing more left for him to get rid off and he was crouching in anguish next to the toilet. His head was really hot and he was bathed in cold sweat. It was the first time that I witnessed an Indian’s skin turning into a greenish complexion.

We girls put him to bed and tried to make him drink water, but that effort only ended up in further stomach cramps. Baba stopped talking. He did not react to us at all anymore. Suddenly he started to repeat in a weak voice:

“Doctor, Hospital…!”

This really made us panic! Baba never went to see a doctor in all his life, neither did he believe very much in them. This situation was truly not looking good at all!

Monsoon in Bodhgaya

Monsoon in Bodhgaya

Kamla arrived with her family and it was all a big mess! Baba couldn’t talk, Pagli and I didn’t speak any Hindi and non of them spoke any English. She immediately started to take care of her brother, sitting on the edge of the bed holding his hand. We told her that we would go out to find a doctor. It took us some time to find the doctor the resident buddhist monk had recommended us. The doc and his assistant followed us immediately to the monastery. He performed a quick check on Baba and shortly after I saw how the assistant started sticking all kind of needles into my poor husband’s body. I tried to find out what they were giving him and why, but without success. The doctor talked vividly to Kamla and her husband, but the only thing that I understood was that they had to put a drip and eventually the word

FOOD POISONING!

I felt helpless and numb, but at least Baba’s fever went down fast and he had fallen into a peaceful sleep. I wanted to be a good wife and a good host. We didn’t have any kitchen to offer snacks or chai and the street sellers were not out on the street due to the heavy rainfall of the monsoon. We managed to get some chai from the monastery and explained Kamla that we would go out to bring some food and asked her to stay with Baba. The only thing we could find was some momos and samosas. When we came back the doctor explained us somehow that Baba was okay now, but that his assistant would stay that night with him to change the glucose drips.

The rooms were reorganizes in Indian style: Kamla’s husband would sleep in Baba’s room on the other bed. I would sleep with Pagli and Kamla with her mother in law and her son. This was all very strange.

Was I supposed to oppose?

I just agreed and decided to check from time to time on Baba during the night. On my first inspection the assistant was snoring loudly in an armchair. On my second visit he was for some reason sleeping next to Baba; in the same bed and almost hugging him. Was that normal?

I guess that sometimes it is better not to think too much and to let things simply happen the way they are supposed to in the Indian way without asking oneself too many questions.

The next morning the assistant looked rested and Baba looked much better, too. He could speak normally again and around noon he even started to feel hungry. The following day we all went out to do some sight-seeing and to eat out in a restaurant. Kamla ordered Chinese Noodles. I think she never had tried such a dish before.

It was touching to see her trying to manage to handle the long noodles with a fork and I remembered how some women in the village whispered with each other and laughed at me when they saw me eating, saying:

“Look! She doesn’t know how to eat properly only with the hand”

…and I could not avoid a smile…  

Baba &  Mathilda

Baba & Mathilda

Floating cups and water snakes

August 2008

As soon we sat in the bus heading from Baba’s tiny Bihari Village near Patna to Bodhgaya, a sensation of freedom came over me. Free from masses of staring eyes, expectations from the Indian family side and I would have not to worry about if my behaviour as a western wife could accidentally offend anyone.

In Bodhgaya we checked into a buddhist monastery. It was a big compound, but it was off-season and the three of us were the only guests in the entire building.

Of course! To whom else but us crazy monkeys it would occur to travel through Bihar during the peak of the raining season?

It felt just like haven to have such simple things like an own room with a door, a toilet and a shower again. Baba, Pagli and I were in a very happy mood. We celebrated our freedom with a small dance party in the room and playing card games.

Monastery "Garden"

Monastery “Garden”

The next day it started raining; a warm constant monsoon drizzle – which didn’t stop. To leave the monastery we had to cross the garden to reach the main gate. In the evening the garden had started to turn into a pool and the water accumulated came up to our ankles.

On the second day the water had reached knee level and some kids were bathing and playing in the growing pool. It was still okay to cross it after taking out the sandals and rolling up the pants.

After the third day of rain, the water came up to our waists and as I looked down from the balcony to the waterscape I discovered several water snakes and a couple of rats swimming happily through the green element.

No way that I would cross that pool any longer!

To get out of the monastery to have some food we took the safer way: Balancing on the narrow edge of a long wall along the pool. And naturally at the first crossing mission I fell straight into the pool accompanying my clumsiness with an hysteric shriek. All the diseases one might contract during the monsoons described in the Lonely Planet rushed through my mind. The thought of touching the ground with my bare feet made me panic and I paddled at high speed back towards and up the wall.

On the fourth day it stopped raining and Pagli and I decided to visit an Indian family with who she had made friendship during a previous trip to Bodhgaya. The pool was still full of all kind of creatures, but at least I was able to figure out a suitable balance technique to walk on the wall. Outside of the monastery, all streets were filled with stale water or there were still streams of brown soup rushing down the sides of the roads.

Eventually we reached the family’s house; well, actually it was not a real house, but a bamboo structure covered with plastics and tin sheets. The residents were busy piling up all kind of objects in front of it. A fatty mataji in a thin cotton saree spotted us and started to beam as soon as she recognized Pagli.

“Come in, come in! Welcome, welcome!”

she said joyfully and hastily pulled a few leeches off her leg. Blood ran down her skin. We took out our sandals (well, I did, as Pagli most of the time prefered not to wear any) and stepped through the small entrance, where we found ourselves up to the ankles in a nasty broth of monsoon water.

Chai time

Chai time

She led us to a charpoy in a corner of the room, as if there was absolutely nothing strange at all happening. There we sat down to enjoy an interesting view on floating cups, plates, flip-flops and even a paddling mouse. Mataji lived in that hut together with her husband and one of her sons, who’s beautiful wife was pretty advanced in pregnancy.

She went out for a moment and shortly after came back with two cups of chai. I wondered with which water this chai had been prepared, but I drank it.

INDIA TURNS YOU BRAVE!

I like to remember that story, for instance when I drown in self-pity or catch myself complaining about my situation too intensely. It reminds me that no matter how big my problems seem to me, I can be sure that there are people who have many more reasons to complain and worry about.

But they just keep on going;

…and they do so with a smile…

Inside the hut

Inside the hut

Bye-Bye Bihar!

August 2008

It was so hot, that we ended up sleeping all together on the roof top under the open sky. In the middle of the night the monsoon surprised us and the whole lot of us grabbed our blankets and drowsily went down to the rooms for shelter while large bats were flying across the open patio. Pagli and I slept together with our little caretakers on a large bed.

The Patio

The Patio

I woke up expecting to have a more peaceful day, as it seemed that all the village inhabitants had already come to stare at us “weird” Westerners for a while the day before; hopefully to their entire satisfaction.

Well, maybe the greater part of them did; the thing is that the voice about two white ladies had spread to the surrounding villages and by the time we were having breakfast we were watched again by an even bigger crowd than we had staring at us the previous day!

I think this was the moment when I internalized an important lesson:

 

In India it is better not to have any expectations all. Good and not so good surprises lurk behind every corner just waiting to jump on you! Every single thing usually turns out quite different from how it should have – sometimes much better than expected; or well, much worse….

…and what fascinates me pretty much about human nature, is how we manage to get used to all kind of circumstances and routines relatively quickly. It did not bother me that much anymore to have all those strangers at a short distance observing every detail about how I stuffed my Indian breakfast into my mouth, as if I were doing something absolutely amazing, like for example swallowing a box of nails.

After breakfast we decided to visit the village temple, just to get a bit out of the house in which we were trapped; of course, we were followed by a large crowd. I think the temple never had before that many visitors at once since its construction, not even on Shivratri!

Pagli and me were trying to go along with the joking and laughing kids that jumped excitedly around us, when suddenly a boy with a wicked gaze came up to me and kicked me hard in the leg. I have no idea why he did it; maybe he thought he’d better make sure in case we were a sort of ghost or he just didn’t like me.

File0211

The boy who kicked me

We thought it was a good idea to make a gift to the girls that took so good care of us, they were constantly with us, fanning us with palm leaves and making sure we were as happy as possible. When we went back in the house we went through our bags. We gathered some fancy jewellery and make-up items that we distributed among the girls; which turned out to be a big mistake! Soon all the kids were fighting with each other, grabbing the things out of each others hands and complaining loudly that they also wanted this item and not the one they got. Baba’s niece ran back to her house crying complaining that the other girls received so much nicer things than she did from the westerners, she came back with her mother and a big drama started to develop.

The 103 year old dying grandfather we had come to visit was still in the same state. He got to see my husband, his youngest grandson one more time, which was one of his wishes to be fulfilled before he died.

File0253

Village Kids

Actually we had planned to stay longer in the village, but things were getting really intense and on the fourth day of our visit, with a sugar rush for having had farewell-chais in most of the family houses of the village, we took our backpacks and walked out of the Bihari village to reach the bus stand by walk at one kilometer distance.

I looked behind me and the German story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who led the rats out of a village by playing his flute, came to my mind; a never-ending line of villagers was walking right behind us to say goodbye; they stayed with us waiting until the bus left and merrily waved at us as we drove off.

These four days which I will never forget felt like four years to me! So many incredible things happened in such a very short time, many situations were pretty tough, others just amazingly beautiful!

I learned so much about people, life, love and most of all about myself.

Related articles