A place where cats eat dogs

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Yes, I know. The photo to this post is a bit tough. Sorry about that… just try to focus on the beautiful Himalayan Magpies feasting over the dead body…

The victim’s name was Shankar and he was our second dog, which ended up as a leopard meal. None of our dogs got actually older than 18 months.

When I first came here, I had no idea about the existence of those big cats in the area. I first knew about them, when one of the two friendly dogs that visited us regularly in the guesthouse, didn’t show up anymore. When I asked the owner about the dog, he shrugged his shoulders and just said

“Oh, this…. leopard taking!” and then smiled.

Wait a minute… WHAAAAT? LEOPARDS?

I assailed him with questions and he smilingly assured me, that leopards only attack at night, from time to time they kill dogs, a goat or a young cow and NEVER eat people. Ok, this was good to know.

The guesthouse had a nice big garden bordering to a slope that lead down to the forest. Its inviting fireplace was just waiting for a bonfire party. Together with the other guesthouse residents we decided to get things started. On this mellow summer evening, everyone would cook something different to create a little international buffet.

We were sitting happily around the fire enjoying delicious food creations. Someone was playing the guitar and the atmosphere was pretty idyllic, when I suddenly heard a strange noise.

“Guys, what’s this sound? Who is sawing wood in the middle of the night?”

The music stopped. Everybody paused for a moment to listen. Then out of sudden the dog started barking like crazy and raced straight into the kitchen to hide under a shelf behind the door. No need for words, just a couple of looks and everybody understood: “LEOPAAAARD!” All of us jumped up and dashed also to the kitchen, which was the nearest shelter.

There we were; 8 people and a shaking dog, cramped into a tiny space, listening so hard to the sound of the leopard that we could hear our own breaths.

About 30 minutes passed until we finally declared the party as over. Everybody felt uneasy and ready to go back to his room. The sound was still somewhere out there. Our room was on the upper floor, the only way to go there was crossing the big garden, passing the slope. Great! All of us upper floor guests went up as fast as possible, followed by the dog, who had decided to spend the night in our room.

Lying in my bed, I felt as if I had drunk at least one liter of black espresso coffee. My eyes were wide open and I just couldn’t stop listening to the leopard sounds that were moving from one side of the slope to the other, while the dog was trembling under our bed, whining from time to time.

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And there was something more that kept me from falling asleep: I had to pee really badly! Maybe at this point I have to explain that many of the guesthouses here have a shared outdoor bathroom, which in our case lay on the other side of the pretty long porch. Not even in my dreams I would have left the room in this situation! I will tell you something pretty embarrassing: I came to a point when I almost cried, because things were getting really painful… as an emergency solution I emptied the waste bin and peed in there. I guess most of you would have done the same. Well, if you’re a guy, you might have used an empty plastic bottle or something like that.

We lived in this guesthouse for almost a year while our own house was under construction. A couple of months after the bonfire party there was an incredible uproar coming from a gang of monkeys that had occupied our roof. I was busy cooking lunch, but I stepped out to see what was going on outside. There I stood, like numbed, with a wooden spoon in one hand and my mouth wide open; I couldn’t believe my eyes: A huge leopard was sprinting down the hill at about only 30 meters away from me! He was amazingly beautiful! And he was also tremendous! I always thought that they were about the size of a big dog, but what I saw outmatched all of my imagination! That meant that the theory that leopards only come out at night, was proved to be nothing but rubbish!

My latest leopard story dates to about one week ago. This is a village area and from time to time stories come up about leopards attacking women while working in the fields down in some valley or while cutting greens from trees for their goats. Last week a woman got killed at 3 km distance from our place. Apparently she was mentally challenged and went out to the fields by herself in the middle of the night. According to the sayings of some locals, what was left of her looked more or less like the mortal remains of our poor Shankar.

Babaji, once met the forest ranger, who explained to him that there are about 20 specimens roaming through this area. This is not a small number! Anyway, I think that one has to be very, very unlucky to end up as a leopard’s dish. Most of the locals who lived here for life never even saw one.

One thing I admit is that I like to be accompanied by a dog when I go out. Don’t get me wrong, I really love dogs, but still it comforts me to believe that the leopard will prefer the animal to a chewy human.

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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!”

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.

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!”