Himalayan Highway to Hell

May 2008

During the six years I live in India I went on a lot of bus rides and of course  none of them was actually pleasant.

The Himalayan roads are situated on rank 5 on the list of the world’s most dangerous roads and the worst bus ride experience I ever had by far was driving down the Himalayas from Gangotri:

The weather was miserable, it was freezing cold and rainy. Shortly after the departure it started raining cats and dogs. Soon it rained so much, that I could barely figure out what was happening behind the dirty bus windows.

The bus driver did not seem to worry at all and rushed along the incredibly steep slopes. At each bend the brakes squeaked in anguish; and inside of me, my nerves did just the same! I felt as if I was sitting in a rollercoaster instead of in a public transport. The only thing I could see when looking outside was the sky; not even one inch of the narrow road was visible.

To cap it all, a thunderstorm came up gradually; soon the bus was not only shaken from side to side due to the extremely bad road conditions, but the strong wind contributed an extra thrill to the situation. I wiped the mist from the window and distinguished broken trees and electricity poles on the side of the road. Colorful plastic bags, branches and metal objects were whirling high up through the air. I held on tight to my seat and for some reason the movie “The Wizard of Oz”, with the scene where Dorothy’s house gets lifted up to the sky by a tornado, came into my mind. I would not have been surprised at all, if suddenly a cow or the wicked witch of the east would appear from out of nowhere swirling by my bus window.

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While Sita Ram Baba was complaining loudly about the driver’s craziness, I silently supplicated and prayed to all the 330.000.000 Hindu Gods. I felt terrified like never before and truly believed that I was spending my last moments on earth. I always thought that my life was good and happy and that if I had to die, it would not be such a big deal; everybody has to do so sooner or later.

In the end, death is the only thing that will come to all of us for sure!

But in that precise instant I suddenly realized that I had been wrong; I was not prepared to die at all! I still wanted to have kids and see them grow! I felt the urge to hug my family and friends who were far away back home and after all I still needed to meet my parents before I died, to tell them that their crazy daughter had married an Indian Sadhu without their knowledge!

..and by the way…

Where the heck were Toto, Tin Man, Lion and the Scarecrow?!?

Sita Ram Baba was still complaining and now started to threaten the driver with peeing into his stainless-steel-indian-tupperware-container if the bus would not stop immediately!

Suddenly the two jeeps that were driving just in front of us braked hard and so did the bus with a long and extremely loud and awful creak. The passengers had to hold on hard to avoid being catapulted towards the front; a huge tree had crashed onto the road, right in front of us. That was close! First nobody moved; then several Indian heroes jumped off the vehicles into the pouring rain and started to pull on the immense tree, which of course did not move an inch. As if it would help Sita Ram shouted:

“This not working, you Stupids! You need one elephant!”

 and grimly climbed off the bus to follow nature’s call.

A long queue of vehicles started to line up behind us. After about three hours of waiting in the standing bus and observing, like in a movie, how more and more Indian heroes dressed in different styles tried to pull and push on the tree, the rain ceased. Eventually someone tied a rope to a jeep and they succeeded to drag the tree to a side. From that moment on I had the feeling that the bus driver was driving a bit more carefully.

Writing and reading this post made me remember how precious life is and that I really should try harder to be aware of that fact more often in everyday’s life.

It will end one day and I for sure still have a long bucket list and much cleaning up to do before I will feel ready to leave this body; although I wonder if I will ever feel prepared for that last journey…

Thank you, crazy life, for being just the way you are!

wizard-of-oz

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Honeymoon With Rumpelstilskin Part 2

Gangotri‘s best chai

May 2008

Sita Ram found us having breakfast and ordered a potato parantha and a chai while he was giving his usual morning grouching-speech; on our behalf, of course. Again he decided to come with us on our walk.

We climbed over rocks and stones and suddenly stood in front of a small cave entrance. A local who passed by with his donkeys, who were carrying rocks explained that a Russian Sadhu was living there. Unfortunately the door was locked; I would really have liked to meet the Russian spiritual man.

Gangotri

Russian Baba Cave

We followed a small path when all of a sudden it started raining. A voice called us over, coming from an old Sadhu who was sitting at his fire pit under a ledge. I wondered why we had not noticed him earlier. The old man offered us chai. He even had real cow-milk, it was the best chai I had in all of Gangotri! His English was pretty good and he told me that for the last thirty years he had been living most time of the year in Gangotri, but due to the isolation and the rough climate conditions he was forced to spend some months further down in the valley. It was very pleasant to enjoy a good, hot cup of tea while chatting with the Sadhu. I marvelled at the beauty of nature; the rains had turned the rocks into glimmering silver.

A Russian couple, who was in search of the Russian Sadhu came through the rain out of nowhere an joined us. We talked little; everybody seemed to be absorbed by the amazing landscape.

When the rain eventually stopped, we thanked the old Sadhu and started our descent where we met another interesting figure; a Nath Sadhu jumped on the path from behind a bush.

I almost got a heart attack!

His long, thick dreadlocks were knotted together high upon his head. He wore nothing but a tiger patterned loincloth and many heavy malas. His entire body was smeared with ash, he held a brazen trishul in one hand and a Baba-bag hung over his shoulder. We ended up crouching in a circle on the side of the trail; the Tiger-Loincloth-Baba passed a chillum and the three holy men had a vivid conversation in Hindi. He spotted my digicam and his eyes became big as saucers. He started rummaging in his Baba-bag and pulled out a cellphone and a digital camera.

“I have a Sony Camera, 4 megapixel, very good quality! My cellphone inside also have one camera.”

This was the last thing I had expected from this particular Sadhu and I had to fight pretty hard to stifle a laugh.

Like that we spent several days in Gangotri; with Sita Ram Baba at our side. There was no way to get rid of him; the only moments I spent alone with my husbands were at night inside of our room.

What a great honeymoon in company of Rumpelstiltskin!

Baba and Sita RamTime had come to leave, but before that we wanted to visit the temple, which receives countless pilgrims every year. At the market Baba and I bought a plate with offerings for the goddess that contained kajal, bangles, a comb, a small mirror, coconut and a variety of sweets. Happily we approached the main temple and I wondered what had happened to the large queue that normally lines up in front of the entrance. Cheerfully I walked in with the plate of offerings in my hands. The pandit spotted me and snarled at me

“Now no godtime! You chalo! Fast!”

and shooed me away. Bewildered I looked alternately at my plate and back to the pandit. What was that? This was the first temple I visited in India where god apparently observed a timetable.

We waited for some time and eventually went to a smaller, secondary temple nearby. Confused I followed a line of women into the building. In Hindu temples, everything happens really fast; at least during the pilgrim season. Most of the time you don’t have time to take a proper look at the resident deity and before you even start understanding what is actually going on inside of the temple you suddenly find yourself outside of it again. I guess this is why I like the gurdwaras so much, there is always a place where to sit down to let the incredible vibrations rain down on you.

Anyways, it was my turn, the pandit blessed my offerings and after only a couple of seconds I stood again outside of the temple. In all this rush I forgot to hand over my 20 rupee donation, the bill was still sitting on my plate. I sighed and went to undergo the whole procedure again. Back in the temple I put the money next to the deity’s figure and the pundit eventually blessed me, too, marking my forehead with a vermilion tilak.

“Aha”

I thought…

“No money, no honey!”

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.