The Bihari Adventure starts

Village Bihar

August 2008

The trip was long and very tiring. Our American friend Pagli, Baba and I took a normal sleeper class train, in which we spent two days and almost two nights. I never manage to get a good sleep on such a train. For instance there are shouting travelling vendors constantly jumping in and out of the train trying to sell chai, snacks, cheap watches or whatever; and usually they do so when I am just about to fall asleep. I always admire the Indian art of being able to sleep in whatever place and under whatever circumstances; it’s amazing! Yet I prefer train rides to busses; at least you can walk around, there is a toilet (even if most of the time bringing yourself to use it might take a larger amount of courage) and you can sit at the open door to watch the landscapes rushing by for a while.

Pagli and I were imagining how it would be to live in a small Bihari village, but actually had not idea of what to expect really. We asked Baba many questions about life there, his family and his 103 year old grandfather who was presently on his deathbed, which was the reason we decided to go on this trip in the first place. Baba told us some of his childhood memories; He remembered the elephant his grandfather once owned, recounted some urban myths like the mysterious money printing machine, which somebody one day buried somewhere in the village, but which never could be found, that many Biharis out of necessity work as illegal gun-makers and how quite a number of scorpions used to sit on the ceiling of the classroom during the monsoons.

If that didn’t sound like and adventure, well then I don’t know!

Late at night of the second day we finally arrived in Patna, the capital of Bihar. I don’t remember that I ever felt that much exhausted before. I felt sweaty and dirty. It was July and it was sticky and unbearably hot. Another disadvantage of sitting in a sleeper class train is that the windows don’t have glass panels and you end up breaded with dust like a pakora.

Baba's village

It was raining when we went off the train. The streets consisted only of mud and puddles. Baba’s brother was supposed to pick us up at the railway station, but we couldn’t find him. He had probably been waiting at the station for a long time, as our train, of course, had a delay of several hours. Finally Baba found him and after a short and a formal greeting he led us out of the station area through the mud, where I lost one of my slippers in the thick dirt. I was carrying a pretty big backpack and felt like in a boot camp while I was trying to follow the small group through the rainy night.

Baba’s brother, who resembled him a lot, reckoned that Patna station was a dangerous area and more for two female foreigners and that it was safer to get away from there as fast as possible. It was about 2 a.m. and the rickshaws and taxis were not operating yet, so we took refuge under a tin roof that belonged to one of the closed shops. We wearily sat down on a couple of wooden benches. There was a police office next door, which felt kind of comforting. A whole regiment of mosquitoes was attacking us under the ugly neon lights. I had to fight hard to keep my eyes open; at least the insects helped me to stay awake. For a moment I even thought that I was hallucinating when I discovered some tiny snakes that looked more like earthworms crawling underneath the bench on which we were sitting. With excitement I informed Baba about my discovery

“Oh, look Baba! Little Baby-snakes!”

Baba looked and jumped up to shove them quickly aside with his foot

“This wallah very dangerous! Much poison! This biting you then you dead!”

OOOPS!

Bihar

Three hours later the first Rickshaw-wallah showed up and we headed for Baba’s village, which is 12 Km away from the capital. During the ride my mind did nothing else but to repeat the following mantra like a zombie over and over again:

“SHOWER, SLEEPING! SHOWER, SLEEPING! SHOWER, SLEEPING…”

The sun was already rising while we were driving by lush green rice fields. The rickshaw suddenly stopped on Baba’s demand. We finally had arrived! We had to walk down a slope to reach the village, which we could see in a near distance. Pagli jumped out of the Rickshaw, slid and sled down the slope holding her Banjo high over her head to save it from getting damaged.

Like this we marched towards the village:

Exhausted, stinky, dirty and clustered with mud!

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Escaping the Bam-Bholes

View Kasar

July 2008

It was raining season in Rishikesh; which means: PILGRIM SEASON! This is when thousands of pilgrims, many of them from Hariana, invade Ramjhula. Waves of young men clad in orange march 24 hours a day through town shouting: “Bham Bole, Bham Bole” to announce their presence to Lord Shiva. They carry holy water from the Ganges up to the Neelkanth Temple to offer it to the Shiva Lingam. One rule is that the water shall never touch the floor, so all the dhabas and chaishops on the roadside build improvised holders where the pilgrims can hang up their holy offering during their breaks. What I found very funny is that they come back from the temple wearing their underpants on their heads! ‘Strange rite’, I thought and then found out that they do so to dry their pants after having bathed in the temple compound. I wonder what the Indians would think I they saw a horde of Westerners marching through town with their underwear on their head…

Anyways, things get tough for a foreigner during this time of the year, as the pilgrims usually give them a hard time. The foreign tourists actually get evacuated by the authorities from the hotels and guesthouses next to the pilgrim trail and are sent to accommodations in more peaceful areas. So it happened to us and we decided to simply escape from all the turmoil. Baba and I had made friends with a girl from America and we decided to travel together. None of us felt like traveling too far, so we checked on the rarely used travel guide to find nearby attractive places. I hate to read instructions of any kind and also dislike reading guide books! We went through the section of Uttarakhand and stumbled upon Almora, which was only a one-night-trip away. I liked the melody of the word “Almora”. There was not much text to read about it, but as we skimmed it and read

“There is a nearby town called ‘Hippie-Land’ by the locals; ask for accommodation at the chai shops on the road”

it was decided: CHALO ALMORA!

As soon as we left the town of Almora after having survived another crazy local bus ride through the mountains and arrived in the village, I fell in love! It was simply beautiful! Peace, pure nature, village life, cool, fresh air and colorful flowers everywhere! I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland. Actually there is not much to do for tourists, life there is still pretty much authentic. No shops with tourist stuff to buy, no courses or classes, no distractions; it is the perfect spot to chill after having traveled through “Indian hard-core tourist places”. The scene really forces people to calm down, to be with themselves and nature.

We found a simple guesthouse where we spent a lot of time in the roof-top restaurant while the monsoon was pouring down and simply enjoyed the amazing view through the big windows, which offered a great view over the ever-changing clouds, rainbows, valleys and hills while we were munching on chocolate pancakes and sipping chai. It was off-season there, too and we only met one more backpacker. One day early in the morning I stepped out of the room and could not believe my eyes! The rain had stopped, it was a bright clear day and there they were, as if somebody had hung up a painting just in front of my eyes:

THE SNOW-COVERED HIMALAYAS !

Himalaya range

I had no idea that they were that close! Shame on me! Maybe sometimes reading a guide book is not a bad idea, but if you don´t read it you might get blessed with unexpected surprises like this one.

Some peaceful weeks later, Baba suddenly received a phone call from Bihar. His 103-years old grandfather was dying and his last wish was to see his grandson he had been missing for too many years. Since Baba ran away from home at the tender age of eleven he had returned to his birthplace only once after 17 years of absence. After the initiation to Sadhu-life you are reborn as a new being and should break all the attachments to your previous life, which also includes the physical family; at least until you have reached a certain stage.

But once it happened, when Baba and I were visiting Benares, that he suddenly became very introverted. When I asked him what was wrong, he said that soon it would be Rakshabhandan, the festival when the bond between brothers and sisters is worshipped and that he would like to see his sister again. Varanasi is not very far from his birthplace and I told him that I would buy him a train ticket if he wished to go there. He called his Guruji to ask permission and when Baba received his blessings, he took a train to Patna. All of his family thought that he had died and was more than pleased that he returned as a Sadhu, which is believed to bring seven generations of good luck to the family.

So now the grandfather wished to see his beloved grandson again. For some time the three of us were just sitting there wondering what to do. The Himalayas are pretty far from the plains of Bihar; to be more precise about 1000 km, which can be translated into 2 days and 1½ nights of traveling in pubic transports.

Uma in Wonderland

My friend looked at me and asked:

“You feel like going on an adventure?”

“Why not?” I replied

“Okay, then… CHALO BIHAR!”

An (un)traditional Indian Wedding

April 2008

At 5 a.m. I started up from my sleep and sat straight as a post in my bed.

“Today I’ll get married!”

sitaramtent

It was impossible to think of sleeping for a couple of hours more. Someone had suggested a purifying morning bath in the waters of the holy Ganges before the ceremony. So I went to the riverbank where I found my future husband snoring soundly in Sita Ram Baba’s plastic tent.

“Chelo! Ganga shower!” a murmur came from under the blanket

“Too cold!”

“Chicken!”

The water was in deed bitterly cold and my will was weak. I made do with sprinkling some water on my head asking for her blessings.

“Sorry, Ganga-ji, but I cannot do it”

I turned around and saw Baba sitting in the sand grinning broadly.

At 8.30 my bride-manager was supposed to show up with the saree. One hour later still no sign. The jeeps that would bring the Wedding party to the temple in Haridwar were booked for one o’clock. At ten, finally the saree arrived together with a good friend from Spain who I met perchance in Rishikesh. She would help with the preparations and give me some moral support. We went to the chai shop to get ready. A girl was polishing my nails, while the Indian ladies wrapped me into the pink wedding saree. The Mataji borrowed me her wedding -jewellery made of real gold that she had been wearing on her own big day. It included a bridal nose ring that would be attached to the earring by a chain. At that time I did not have my nose pierced, so we decided to simply clip it on somehow before the ceremony. When I eventually looked like an acceptable Indian bride, my electic-blue flip-flops stroke my eye. Nobody had thought about the shoes! Oh, no problem, in the temple everybody takes off the shoes anyways! My Baba appeared in the chai stall. He looked wonderful in his white kurta and lunghi!

WeddingcarThe jeeps parked in front of the chai stall; they were old army jeeps. The wedding party slowly gathered together: A handful of Sadhus and backpackers from Japan, Brazil, France, Canada, USA, Belgium and Israel. Kashi from the chai shop would be the bride’s father. The colourful potpourri of people squeezed into the jeeps and off we drove to Haridwar. The Babas were playing the dambru and everybody was singing and shouting cheerfully.

The temple compound was amazingly beautiful, situated right on the shore of the Ganges. The wedding party sat down on the stone benches under the trees in the huge garden, some went bathing in the river. Someone brought snacks and soft drinks; the sadhus smoked chillum on one side and the backpackers rolled joints on the other side. I thought “Ah, this is what an Indian champagne reception looks like” …and that it was actually okay that there was no biological family present; my parents did actually not know that I was getting married.

The atmosphere was pretty fun and jolly, somehow I felt more as if I was at someone’s big birthday party then being the bride on my own wedding. The local newspaper and TV channel journalists showed up. Our friend Vijay had told us that there would be one of each. Apparently they had told all of their colleagues; seven newspaper journalists and eleven TV channels had come to document the event. Good that we wanted only a humble ceremony without much fuss!

They immediately gave instructions for the shooting of photos and film:

-Now, only the Sadhus!

-Now, only the tourists!

-Now, you all dance!

What do you mean with dance? There is no music!

-No problem, you dance!

One of the backpacker started singing “Dancing Queen” from Abba and everybody else joined in.

Hey, you! Bride! You don’t dance, stand still!

My god! I wondered what the outcome of that shooting would be!

My bride manager called me to put the nose ring on. She seemed a bit confused about how to do that. A discussion among the Indians started and I feared that they would pierce my nose right on the spot (in this crazy country, you never know…) finally she managed to clip it somehow on my nose. A Baba showed up with rubber flip-flops; pink colour. Great, now I had rubber flip-flops in the matching colour to my wedding dress!

It was time to enter the temple for the ceremony. The pandit lead us to the temple which was covered with wire protection against the monkeys. The cage of marriage was beautifully decorated with flowers and ribbons. We sat down in front of the altar and the pandit started the ceremony, guiding us through it:

Sprinkle holy water here, throw flowers there, make a symbol with red colour here, stick rice on the coconut and so on; all of it at top speed.

In the meanwhile the journalists had entered the temple and shouted instructions at us during the ritual: Look here, more over there; Smile…

Incredible! One can not even get married in peace in this country!

Journalists

The ceremony came to an end when Baba applied the sindoor on my head and forehead. We stood up to walk seven times around the holy fire and completed the ritual by exchanging flower garlands. Someone had chased the journalists out of the temple and they were now lurking outside.

Just breath and go!

Immediately they fired all kind of questions to Baba. Good! Maybe they would not pay any attention to the bride. As soon as I finished that thought all cameras turned towards me.

“Madame, you like Indian culture?”

No, I don’t. I got married that way just for fun I thought. And “PLOPP” in the same moment my clipped-on nose ring fell off. On the questions about our future plans I had to draw a blank one, as we had none. The journalist did not like that at all.

wedding

I wondered about the outcome of the shots and on which channels they would be broadcasted. I imagined my parents witnessing surprisingly their daughter’s peculiar wedding on satellite television. I wanted to wait to see them face to face to explain the entire story; in the end it is a very long one…

Small Talk On Wheels

Most backpackers’ first intercultural small talk probably takes place during a train ride. The bench seats are facing each other and normally it will not take long for your curious fellow passengers to start a conversation with you.

train

“What is your good name, Madame?”

It irritates me to be called Madame, it makes me feel old! Sometimes I am even called Sir, which is even more weird.

Have I been unknowingly growing a moustache???

I think that many Indians think that “Sir” is equivalent to their genderless suffix “Ji” which is used to address somebody in a polite manner. Some of our western “good” names though are pretty funny for the Indian ear. If your name for instance is Laura (which means penis in Hindi) you might like to optionally change it to an Indian version like Lakshmi or something like this.

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The next question will probably be:

“Your country, Madam?”

“Germany”

“Germany! Ahhhhh, AMERICAAAAA!”

Here you can choose to simply nod or give a small lesson in geography instead.

Some people though have a pretty broad knowledge; a police officer asked a friend of mine from here he was. When he answered “France”, the officer replied grinning underneath his thick moustache:

“Ahhh, you have this sexy president!”

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Another standard question is:

“Are you married?”

Answer option 1:

“No” – this answer will lead to bewildered faces and further questions, like “Why not?” and “How old are you?”; in rare occasions I got a thumbs up reaction from beaming elderly women.

Answer option 2:

“Yes” (which might be true or not, it’s up to you) – Now you have gained a lot more respect! You will probably be asked where your partner is if you are traveling alone. Then you have the opportunity to create the imaginary husband or wife of your dreams who is unfortunately very busy and can not accompany you on this journey. People love stories, so why not give them one? It’s not that I enjoy telling a fib, but if you get asked the same questions over and over, you just get creative.

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Next question:

“You have children?”

Answer option 1:

“No” – worried faces, followed by question “Why not?”

Answer option 2:

“Yes”, one boy, one girl, they are with their grandmother” – no more questions.

Occasionally I tried to look very concentrated while reading a book to keep people from asking; that plan never worked out and sooner or later I found myself joining the quiz.

crowded-train

The questions vary a bit depending in which class you travel. In 2nd AC class one guy did’t even want to know my good name or my country. His first question was directly:

“Madame, what is your qualification?

Was that a job interview?

I was pretty surprised and didn’t know what to answer. I think eventually I said something impressive with not much sense like polyglot administration assistant and the questioning stopped there.

Once a friend of mine, who works on an organic farm back in the US was asked the same thing and as she answered

“Oh, I’m a farmer”

the guy was horrified and shook his head in disbelief:

“No, Madame! Please don’t say that!”

Incredible, but even in the west some people work using their hands!