2012 India Too

India Too

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It feels strange writing about Christmas one month later, many things happen in a month and anyway Christmas on a beach in the steaming sun, never fully felt like Christmas even when it was Christmas! After our prolonged stay at Goa we trailed slowly (very) south, first to a beach that had been indicated to us by other travellers- ‘Agonda’ – here apparently overland travellers meet every year to celebrate Christmas and exchange news. The air is warm and the sea pleasantly cool, whilst the coconuts hanging above our trucks windscreen gives the place an exotic feel.  We make the rounds of the other travellers and soon meet others like us, heading for Pakistan with the idea of travelling along the Karakorum highway. We organise to meet up in spring time and maybe travel a stretch together….. But after a few days when the novelty of the aggregation of so many travellers has worn off, our ‘black sheep tendencies’ get the better of us. Just because we all have trucks this doesn’t mean we share a common vision. A campsite of overlanders sounds fun, and is fun for a few days, until our personalities have time to transpire, and a village mentality starts to find space.

Again I contemplate the strange exotic animals that we are. A group of Indians far from home, all together for Holy or Dihwali would surely find an easy and spontaneous way of being together – we aren’t used to communal thinking and shared spaces, and are able to complicate even the simplest things!

A few days before Christmas along with one other truck we head a little more south in search of a quieter beach with a more local feel to it. We are lucky and to our surprise, only 13 km south find exactly what we are looking for, an almost deserted  beach near a small fishing village where you can eat a simple’ tali’. We chose our tree and set camp up beside it a few metres from the beach front. Christmas has that tranquil, and yet special feel to it that is possible only whilst travelling. Simple gestures and a few trimmings to distinguish it from other days. We are three families all with children of varying ages, none of us with particular religious tendencies, but eager to exchange rituals and good food. We colour stars and cut out shiny sweet papers into strange shapes. Fish fittingly became a main part of our decorations, and somehow even the Easter bunny gets represented. Our German friends tell their children (Neels 8, and Moritz 12, Theo 1) to look out of the window at the view…this is their Christmas present. They seemed satisfied and enjoy participating in the opening of Lusira and Giulios’ presents. Whilst the younger ones play on the beach, Neels helps Luca in preparing the freshly made tagliatelli, and Moritz (perhaps feeling more adult for not receiving tangible gifts) throws himself wholeheartedly into collecting and chopping dry branches for a Christmas fire.

A pang of consciousness gets hold of me at some point and I felt the need to inform them at least that this is also the day people celebrate the birth of Christ ( they are at the moment totally absorbed with Father Christmas and his magic!) …. Lusira looks at me amazed “What he’s born EVERY year?!!  “  My lesson in spirituality ends there. Apart from our travelling friends with the Unimog, we share the day with an Israeli family we met on the beach the day before, conversation is easy and we exchange our experiences, ideas, taste in literature…and of course politics. Once again I can confirm my little conspiracy theory, where the media takes the many faces of reality and  squeezes it  into a single chosen truth….so many untold stories, but then that’s the beauty of travel!

Gokarna , a sacred town in the state of Karnataka. We arrive late in the afternoon and struggle through the narrow streets with dangerously low electricity cables, resigned in a very Indian way to totally blocking roads not only to cars but also to pedestrians…..we follow a stranger into the jungly undergrowth and hope that we will find a place to rest our weary wheels. We are lucky…a race across the salty sand on the beach front praying not to get stuck, and we are able to park in a quiet spot in sight of a small fishing harbour. The morning is hazy and damp, we see small figures on the horizon pushing thin wooden boats  into the frothy sea. The morning is spent in the midst of the tangy smell of fish and the relaxed company of the fishing families. Everyone, old and young are involved in the pulling and sorting of nets. I can’t help noticing the miserable catches, but everyone seems unperturbed and I am lead happily to the bigger catches of tuna fish…..perhaps fishing will after all still be part of a few of these childrens’ future, their fathers are proud to point them out “good family!”  I can only agree.

After the intimate, atmosphere of the sacred Gokarna, we head for the no less sacred Hampi, capital of Indian civilization in the twelfth century and important trade route, Hampi is full of ruins covering literally tens of kilometres. Temples rise out of a lunar landscape with  huge boulders surrounded by green rice fields. We again struggle to find a place to park and camp; this time at night, and in a less’ Indian way’ we struggle through tiny villages to a place Davide had visited four years back right on the river front…just as we’re losing hope, we follow a local boy up an improbable lane and manage to park on smooth rocks a few metres from the river front.  Opposite us is an empty rest house cum  restaurant with candles lit and a cow for milk in the front courtyard,……I notice Luca looking intently at a thin man who has just entered the sitting area, he then springs up and embraces him, exclaiming “Roger!!” Precisely sixteen years ago whilst driving an Enfield back to Europe, Luca had been a guest in Rogers bus, crossing into Pakistan with the motorbike in pieces on the roof, to avoid custom problems. There’s a lot to catch up on, and we spend the next few days in his enjoyable company. The morning reveals an unexpected view, what in the dark looked like cement pillars strewn all around us, are in fact ancient carved stones that were once part of an ancient bridge. We have parked on the edge of the sacred river and pilgrims bathe with vigour and ceremony in colourful groups. Lusira watches a sahdu in amazement decorating his foreheads with bright yellow sandalwood paste and make patterns on their arms with white bars of ash. After washing their clothes..(Yes again) they too have a soak in the river and to their joy a Baba looking on, offers to bless them with perfumed sandalwood stripes. This becomes a daily ritual as we discover that Baba- Gi is in fact Roger’s spiritual leader. Like many Babas he’s come south to Hampi to avoid the cold months in Rajasthan where he has his Ashram.

To visit one of the main temples and the famous ‘Hampi Bazaar’ we have to cross the river in a cocoa’ boat, shallow round boats made from bamboo and  tar. It’s a captivating way to reach the ruins, silent and slow. The temple and bazaar are hives of activity, with clouds of dust raised by stray cows and vigorous street sweepers. Monkeys sense their place of supremacy and pose nonchalantly in front of  strange and fantastic sculptures, the  intense  colours of  the sacred powders, mix with the just as intense colours of the dwellings, houses built inside the ancient ruins encompassing the ancient rocks. As I film the scene ,I get obsessed by images of bulldozers coming here with their court injunction endorsed by UNESCO to ‘restore’ the ruins to their former glory … it seems impossible. The place is so vibrant, full of energy and life, a seductive mixture of the ancient and the present. In its prime it too would have been full of animals, spices and human activity….why do we think that monuments are more authentic when stripped of any representation of the present?! I marvel even more when I speak to our cocoa boat rower….he too lives in Hampi bazaar –“ where will you go?” I ask , he smiles “ I don’t know, they have given us land but no houses” I would be in a frenzy of worry and yet they are a week  away from eviction proudly sweeping their yards and washing the steps of their houses. I think of the crisis in Europe and try to drink up some of this tranquillity , to bring out and remember in moments of doubt….

Going north to Rajasthan we can’t resist to visit the rock hewn temples of Ellora. They were carved in a similar way to the Churches in Lallibella in Ethiopia, from a single piece of rock, and constitute perhaps some of the largest Monoliths in the world. The most impressive and active are the Hindu temples. Enthusiastic, amongst crowds of Indian pilgrims and school children, Giulio and Lusira  jump up and down the steps, smile at the life sized carved elephants and touch the Shiva lingam with their right hand…..but it’s the Buddhist temples with their quiet and serene air , simple structures but intricate carvings that inspire them most. Mimicking the children from a Jain temple visited the day before, Guilin copies Lusira in an intricate ritual with perfectly studied gestures, praying below the benevolent statue of Buddha.

In the evening their imaginations still sparked, Guilin scribbles a ‘laughing Buddha’ Lusira following suite for the first time attempts a drawing of a cross legged figure with long ears and a smile. She tells me he is magic and moves according to where you sit….and not only. I’m informed that he has heard of our visa problems and has many stamps….Buddha will prolong our Pakistani visa!!

I have now  realised at this late hour a few days before leaving India for Nepal and desperately trying to finish this chapter of the blog , that my ramblings have got the better of me, and if I continue to  present day, most of you will have  in the mean time, wandered off to do something more ‘useful.

So…….short and concise. Pushkar, relaxed, yes touristy but also very beautiful, a place that slowly works its magic on you making it hard to leave. Smokers’ haven, and place of Giulio’s third  birthday, celebrated in style eating cake from Indian newspapers. In the guest house a little removed from the main Ghats, we meet many young  couples preparing their collection of clothes to sell on various European beaches next summer, others are buying precious stones, whilst also attending traditional dance classes or yoga.  The atmosphere is open and friendly with fires at night to keep out the chill. We get to know Federico and Cini an italo-brazilian couple who have a way with kids. Federico becomes Lusira and Giulios’ favourite playmate, teaching them kite flying, juggling and yoga lessons on the roof top. I hope our paths will cross again…

We head for Jodhpur  ‘the blue city’ passing on small unmarked roads. Our enthusiasm at being on small roads again is so great that we lose sight of our what’s ‘sensible’ and end up in such small dusty paths that we can no longer turn around. A load thud on the roof brings us back to our senses as we smash two metal boxes on our roof into the low branch of an acacia tree. Slowing  down we head for a more  reasonable road for cars rather than tractors, but it will soon be night. As we  park near a well an old man with a goat insists we follow him to his house, Lusira and Guilin trustingly walk beside him  and soon I’m sitting near a small fire being offered chapatti and fresh milk. There is no electricity and the voices are hushed by the night…I’m happy, it all reminds me so much of my childhood memories of Pakistan, the smell of the dough, the wood and dry dung, the soft abundant  laps to sit on and food pressed affectionately into your mouth. The house is built around a courtyard encompassing little huts for the animals. The goats are milked and a bed is set up for the elder boy to keep an eye on the animals. The morning brings spicy chai, photos and jumping games for the children. Communication is always easier in the open.

At this point I can confess that we never got to see the blue city, but spent all our time in a family establishment dealing in  antique furniture on the outskirts of the city.  An enormous Aladdin’s’ cave that took us three days to explore.  When we felt it was time to leave, in the busiest part of town approaching the historical centre however, the clutch of our truck no longer responds, forced to a halt, people immediately surround us and with their little English arrange help. We sheepishly ask if we can stay a little longer in the now too familiar yard, and start to take the clutch apart. Of course it’s not the clutch itself that’s broken ( we have a spare one) but a silly unlikely piece and a bearing…which we don’t of course have…but ‘ivrytingispossibleinindia’ and  indeed we manage to rebuild the old bearing and weld the broken piece, with the help of  Sajai and his father. I ask Lusira if she minds having to stay longer, she looks at me quizzically “ oh no, we don’t have to drive and can play all day!” they spend their time pulling the wooden Tata truck we bought them around the dusty yard in their work overalls, and at lunch I find them happily seated with their friends (some of the workers) happily eating chapatti and curd.

We are now on the road to Nepal, sharing most of our time with truck drivers along the road…tomorrow Nepal…maybe.