Primera parada: “Last Chance”

Junio 2007

“Señoras y Señores en breve aterrizaremos en el aeropuerto de Nueva Delhi. Son las cuatro de la mañana y la temperatura local es de 42 Cº”

¿Cómo?

¡Ahora sí que estaba despierta!

¿Podría ser verdad, 42 Cº a estas horas de la madrugada?

¡Claro que era verdad!

¿Qué esperaba? Estábamos en junio, el último mes antes de que empiece el monzón, cuando el calor sofocante está llegando a su culminación en el Norte de la India.

Una vez fuera del aeropuerto, la intensidad del calor casi me tumbó. Subí al Rickshaw que se me había asignado en el contador del aeropuerto para dirigirme a uno de los hoteles baratos recurridos por mochileros que me había recomendado un amigo. También me había dicho que era uno de los hoteles de bajo coste más decente del barrio de Pahar Ganj y que era un buen sitio para alojarse en Delhi.

Como la mayoría de los hoteles de la zona, la habitación no tenía ventanas y dentro hacía al menos el doble de calor que fuera. Tomé una ducha rápida rezando que el trozo de madera que se estaba desprendiendo del techo no me iba a caer en la cabeza. Pensé que una ducha iba a refrescarme, pero el agua que salía del grifo tenía la temperatura de un buen caldo casero. Me tumbé encima de la cama debajo del ventilador ruidoso y tambaleante, intentando no moverme. Esto tampoco sirvió de mucho y en cuestión de segundos estaba igual de empapada que antes.

Tenía pensado quedarme una noche en Delhi y tirar hacía Rishikesh el día siguiente y aprendí que en la India hay que ser flexible. Había intentado salir de mi habitación para explorar el bazar, pero abandoné la idea después de solo cinco minutos. Era una tortura estar allí fuera, era como alguien me estaba poniendo un secador industrial de aire caliente en plena cara y con cada paso tenía la sensación de encoger. Volví al Hotel a por mis cosas y subí al siguiente autobús de turistas rumbo Rishikesh.

¡Qué ganas de salir de Delhi y que ganas más aun de llegar a mi destino!

El trayecto duró unas ocho horas y no pegue ojo en toda la noche. Por un lado porque no sabía que la intensidad de los golpes producido por las carreteras en mal estado se triplicaba en la parte trasera del bus (que por cierto estaba compartiendo con una familia India y el hijo más pequeño durmió tranquilamente con medio cuerpecito encima mío) y por el otro porque estaba muy nerviosa. Baba me había llamado el día antes y le dije cuando el bus iba a llegar.

¿Vendría a buscarme?

¿En que guesthouse me iba a alojar?

¿Como los dos íbamos a reaccionar al vernos cara a cara?

Todo olía a aventura y al amanecer crucé el puente de Ramjuhla con mi pesada mochila. También en Rishikesh ya hacía calor a estas horas tempranas, pero comparado con Delhi era un verdadero placer.

Para mí, cruzar este puente antes de que salga el sol siempre es un momento mágico. No hay ruido de tráfico y la paz me invade mientras observo como unas pocas personas ya comienzan sus rituales matutinas en las orillas del Ganges, que fluye majestuosamente por debajo de mis pies.

Me dirigí hacía el Last Chance Café, el lugar dónde quedábamos casi siempre cuando había venido a Rishikish para participar en el Festival de Yoga. Sabía que también alquilaban habitaciones. Pase por la callejuela del bazar. Todas las tiendas aún estaban cerradas y hasta las vacas y los perros callejeros aun estaban durmiendo. En el Last Chance tampoco nadie estaba despierto, me daba cosa de despertar a alguien y de Baba ni rastro. Así que por fin me quité la mochila que apretaba mis hombros y me senté en el jardín. Después de un rato apareció Vijay, que es el encargado, seguido por el cocinero y al verme ambos sonrieron de oreja a oreja y su primera pregunta fue:

“Y dónde está Baba Ji?”

“Esto ya me gustaría saber a mi” contesté.

 Me instalé en una de las habitaciones, para llamarlo de alguna manera. Creo que ahora toca describir este lugar único llamado Last Chance Café: Hasta este momento no había visto la guesthouse por dentro, ya que siempre nos habíamos sentado en el jardín o en la cabaña de bambú, que es el café-restaurante.

Más o menos estas eran mis primeras observaciones:

En la entrada se encuentra un pequeño escritorio que sirve de recepción y un armario metálico oxidado. A la derecha se hay un dormitorio con ocho camas que parece salir de una película triste sobre un orfanato. A la derecha hay una sala con cuatro puertas que llevan a las habitaciones, que de hecho se parecen podrían pasar perfectamente por establos para ganado: Las paredes están hechas de madera contrachapada que no llegan ni al techo; este espacio está cubierto por una alambrera, es decir que se puede escuchar hasta un pedito de tu vecino que está durmiendo dos habitaciones más allá. Ah, y no nos olvidemos de la habitación “Deluxe” a la que llamamos “la suite de luna de miel”, simplemente porque es la única habitación del edificio que tiene paredes de verdad, pero que en estos momentos desafortunadamente ya estaba ocupada.

Los baños y lavabos están fuera y dan al visitante la oportunidad de conocer a la fauna local de cerca, ya que allí habitan salamanquesas, ranas e insectos de todos los colores y tamaños, siempre dependiendo de la época del año. Las instalaciones no están alicatadas y funcionan con el antiguo sistema indio, también conocido como “Cubo y jarra”, es decir, no hay ducha. Lo que se hace es llenar el cubo de agua y echarse el agua por encima mediante una jarra. Lavar pelos largos requiere algo de práctica. Si realmente hace falta, se puede pedir un cubo de agua caliente en la cocina. Los váteres, también son estilo Indio, es decir que no hay asientos y que tienes que acuclillarte y practicar la postura de yoga del cuervo. De hecho yo prefiero este tipo de WC ya que me parece mucho más higiénico, visto las circunstancias.

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Ya había pasado un punto de fatiga en el cual fue imposible dormirme. Así que dejé todo en mi establo de vacas para dar un paseo por las orillas del Ganges, que por cierto había cambiado mucho desde mi última visita en marzo. Sus aguas ya no estaban tranquilas como lo recordaba y su color turquesa, se habían convertido en un tono café con leche, probablemente causado por lluvia y nieve fundida de los Himalayas. Me senté en un banco de piedra y observé como un gran número de ofrendas entregadas a la Madre Ganga en forma de flores de todos los colores flotaban alegremente por las suaves olas, cuando de repente sonó mi móvil.

 “Hola?”

“Ahora tu donde?”

“Sentada en un banco cerca del puente.”

“Ok. Yo vengo.”

Cinco minutos más tardes apareció mi Baba acompañado por otro sadhu. El reencuentro fue bastante formal: Nos dimos la mano, pero mi corazón palpitaba con fuerza. El, como siempre, me parecía guapísimo!

Sonrió y dijo:

“Chelo Last Chance!” – “Vamos al Last Chance!”

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Honeymoon With Rumpelstilskin Part 1

May 2008

After so much excitement and nerve-stretching situations, Baba and I were looking forward to our honeymoon. Just the two of us! Anonymous and without having to satisfy anybody’s expectations!

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We decided to visit the Hindu pilgrimage town of Gangotri, where the holy river Ganges has its source and therefore is said to be the abode of the goddess Ganga. When we mentioned our plan while sipping on our cup of chai at Kashi’s Chai Shop, our good old Baba friend Sita Ram suddenly started to wallow in self-pity:

“Me always want to go Gangotri, but never possible… Now me now very old, possible die and never see Gangotri…”

Sita Ram BabaI guess that he was in his late sixties. He was this particular Sadhu who reminded me so much of Rumpelstiltskin; he was small, thin, wrinkly and brown. Usually he kept his grey hair matted into a couple of thick dreadlocks under a turban. He always showed a toothless grin and with his sly glance you could never be sure if he was joking or talking in serious. He uses to complain a lot about whatever and enjoys saying his piece; a habit some people could not deal with too well. But I kind of liked him and in the end, Baba and I decided to take him along with us to Gangotri. The deal was that once we would arrive there, he would go his own Baba-way and we would enjoy our longed-for honeymoon.

Many Sadhus travel to the Pilgrim places once the passes are open to the public from May to September and the heat gets too intense in the plains. Some few go there to retreat and meditate, the rest of them basically to collect their annual “salary” from the pilgrims.

At some point, after a long time of bumping up and down in the local bus with a complaining Sita Ram Baba in our back, people started to pull out shawls, woolen caps and gloves.

“How exagerated!”

I thought. Well, only twenty minutes after I understood. We must have passed a certain hight level, because suddenly it became freezing cold. I was not prepared at all for that, actually I wore my flip-flops and a thin sweater and felt incredibly cold.

The first thing I did after arriving in Gangotri was to buy a woolen shawl and socks. The place was already very busy and it was not easy to find a room. There were only a few guesthouses and they were more expensive than what I use to pay while traveling. Sita Ram stayed in a Sadhu spot under a balcony where other Babas were sitting around a fire pit. I felt a bit sorry for him due to the cold, but in the end he was a Baba and probably knew how to get along.

It was really tough to leave the warm bed in the morning. As I opened my eyes I could see my breath. The water was so cold that I wasn’t sure anymore if my teeth were still there after I had brushed them. We decided to have a warm breakfast and a cup of chai.

Cave Gangotri

Sita Ram was already waiting for us in front of the guesthouse and invited himself to come along with us. Like usually, he was complaining. The three of us sat down at a window place in a restaurant at the narrow main road that lead to the temple. I agreed with Sita Ram, the chai in deed tasted horrible, it was made with powder milk and a lot of water. All groceries have to be brought up to this hight of 3100 metres which made it expensive and the choice was limited and of poor quality. In the off-season, nobody lives in the village.

I looked out and saw the holy men sitting in a long line begging for money and witnessed how some of them were getting really angry when a pilgrim gave them only a few rupees or nothing. Here, it seemed there was not much of a difference between being a Sadhu or a simple beggar; this made me really sad. My Baba must have read my thoughts and said

“Yes, many Babas sitting here all season. They begging much money for living the rest of the year; like job. Good Baba not doing like this. Good Baba sitting possible, somebody giving than he can take. He taking what god giving from heart, not asking, asking…”

We decided to take a walk through the area. Sita Ram followed us like a puppy, it was like being on a honeymoon with the senile grandfather. Anyways, the nature was amazingly beautiful. The holy glacial water rushed through ivory colored rocks that formed beautiful shapes. The dense forest with its rocks, mushrooms, small caves and high trees seemed to be enchanted and with the muttering Rumpelstiltskin in our backs I felt like strolling through a fairy-tale landscape. We came to a big rock with a cave entrance. A Sadhu was sitting silently inside the cave at his dhuni, the holy fire-place. He invited us for a cup of chai and the Sadhus had a respectful conversation. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the place and was happy to meet at least one Sadhu who seemed to take his chosen path seriously.

Gangotri cave

In the meantime our quiet guesthouse had been invaded by a large Indian family of about twenty members of all ages. The terrace was crowded with playing and crying children, women in  sarees were running from one room into another banging the doors and grandmothers and grandfathers were yelling at each other. Our room was in the middle of all that chaos, which was pretty irritating. I guess that the family was on one of the typical pilgim-marathons, where they book a bus to visit several holy places. They don’t stay more than one night; they wake up, pray, eat and chalo!.

At 4 a.m. we awoke by the sound of rattling dishes, yelling and singing sounds coming from the bathrooms in the neighboring rooms. The pilgrim family also had brought along a complete kitchen equipment! It takes quite a bit of time until about twenty people finish with their shower, breakfast and wash all the dishes. No way to fall asleep again! After half an hour I gave up and sat in the first rays of sunlight on the terrace watching the family clan rushing to the temple.

First stop: Last Chance

June 2007

“Ladies and gentlemen we are landing at Delhi Airport. It is 4 a.m. and the local temperature is 42 Cº”

This really woke me up! Could this be true, 42 Cº at these early hours? Of course it was true! What had I expected? It was June the month just before the monsoon starts, when the sizzling heat is at its peak in most parts of India.

I checked into a budget Hotel recommended by a friend, who also told me that it was one of the better budget Hotels in Pahar Ganj; a good and economic place to stay.

Like most of the Hotels in this area, the room had no window and the stuffy air pushed me down when I stepped through the door. I took a quick shower praying that the dangling piece of ceiling would not fall off and knock me down. I would have preferred an ice-cold shower to ease the burning heat, but only bubbling hot water came out of the tap. I lay down on the bed under the wobbly fan and tried not to move; that did not help much, I started to sweat anyway straight away.

I had planned to stay one night in Delhi and leave for Rishikesh on the next day. But in India plans rarely work out. I had tried to go out of my room to explore the bazaar, but I gave up after only five minutes. It was a torture to be out there, it felt as if someone was constantly holding a dust spitting hot-air-blower right into my face. Back in the Hotel I booked a tourist bus ticket for the same night. I couldn’t wait to get out of Delhi and of course to arrive in Rishikesh!

It was about an eight hour bus ride. I couldn’t sleep all night. On one hand due to the bumpy movements of the bus that are even more intense on the back seats (which I also shared with an Indian family, who’s child ended up sleeping with half of its body on my lap)and on the other, of course, because I was incredibly nervous. Baba had called me the day before and knew when the bus would arrive. Would he come to receive me? Into which guesthouse should I check in? How would both of us react once we stood in front of each other?

It was just before sunrise when I slowly crossed the Ramjhula Bridge by walk, carrying my heavy backpack. It was still very hot, but yet felt more pleasant than the heat mixed with air pollution in Delhi.

For me it is always a magic moment to cross this bridge during the early hours of the day. There is no traffic noise; the sensation of peace is in the air while a few people already perform their morning rituals on the bench of the holy Ganges that flows majestically under your feet.

I headed towards Last Chance Café, the place where we met most of the time during the Yoga festival. I knew that they had rooms to rent, too. I walked along the market street to reach the end of Ramjhula. All the little shops were still closed, there was no sign of life, even the cows and street dogs were still sleeping. Nobody in the Last Chance Café was awake yet either. I dropped my backpack and took a seat in the garden. After a while the young cook showed up, followed by Vijay, the guesthouse manager, both of them with sleepy morning faces. They were grinning and obviously happy to see me. We greeted each other cheerfully and the first thing they wanted to know was:

“Where is Babaji?”

“No idea. Actually this is a good question!” I answered.

I checked into one of the rooms, to give it a name. I think at this point I have to describe this unique place called “Last Chance Café”. I never had seen it from the inside. Normally we had gathered there only outside in the garden or in the little bamboo restaurant hut.

These were more or less my first observations: At the entrance are a small reception desk and a metal cupboard. On the right side of it there is a dormitory with lockers and eight beds. To the left is a hall with four rooms, which actually reminded me more of cow sheds. The walls are made of wooden panels that do not even reach up to the top of the ceiling. The space between is covered with a mosquito grid, which means that you can hear every single of your room neighbour’s movements. There is also one deluxe room, which we ended up calling the honeymoon-suite, because it is the only single room with proper walls (That time it was unfortunately busy).

The bathrooms and toilets are outside and give visitors the opportunity to gain an insight of the local fauna; Geckos, frogs and colourful exotic insects frequently dwell there, depending on the season of the year. The bathrooms with the good old Indian bucket plus jug system are not tiled and there is no hot water. The toilets are also Indian style, which means that there is no western toilet seat and you have to adapt the squatting position, which I actually prefer as it is more hygienic; and by the way a good yoga exercise.

But there is a beautiful garden with a bamboo hut, which invites to have a tasty breakfast or a cup of chai. The rooftop is excellent for yoga practice and offers an amazing view over the Ganges. It is the last building on the way to the famous Beatles Ashram, there is almost no traffic and you can find good places for a bath in the Ganges nearby. The staff is really cool, they make great food and the rent is cheap. And if you think that you are a weirdo, it is a good place to find out that you are actually not that bad off. At Last Chance I met the creme de la creme of freaky people, what I really loved and enjoyed. In my family I think that I am considered a bit the strange one. While staying at the Last Chance Café I wished more than once my mom could see me there to find out, that I am actually pretty normal.

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I didn’t even try to sleep. I already had passed the point of fatigue, where falling asleep becomes impossible. I put my stuff in my cow shed and took a walk along the river.

The Ganges had changed pretty much since I came here in March. It was much wider and the water wasn’t of the same beautiful turquoise colour as I remembered, but had turned into a dingy brown, probably due to rains and snowmelt in the Himalayas. I sat on a stone bench on the shore and watched the colourful flowers that had been offered to Mother Ganga floating merrily down the stream. My cellphone rang.

“Hello?”

“You now where?”

“Sitting on a bench near the bridge.”

“Ok. Me coming.”

Five minutes later he showed up in company of a Baba friend. The second encounter was pretty formal; we shook hands.

Wow, he looks gorgeous! 

I thought, while he grinned broadly at me and asked:

“You already breakfast?”

“Not yet”

“Okay, then chalo Last Chance!”