Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Ladakh is a land of fragile balance. From the coexistence of the Buddhist and Muslim communities, to the stability of the political borderlines, everything stays in the loose cord. This is scarcely apparent when one contemplates the stark hand with which men have landscaped their habitat. Leh Palace, with four centuries behind that haven’t exactly tiptoed trough, is imposing enough to make a random observer believe he is in the capital of a solid and homogeneous empire. Visually closer to the high peaks behind than to the compact town beneath, it could perfectly be the dwelling of one of those kings who are never seen by their subdues, and to whom is irreverent to look in the eye. Sometimes, clouds with poor navigation skills dock among the rocky environ, giving the wrong impression that their emanating from the dilapidated landmark, as a sign of its holy character. This is anything but the case. This area of Indian Kashmir, as any other, belongs to the Indian nation only on the grounds of a strong military presence. People here are not Hindu, nor they speak Hindi. They are Ladakhis, of a such an orthodox Tibetan culture that sending one son to the monastery is still the rule in many families, keeping at line demographic growth in an arid area where agriculture could hardly support a baby boom. The other stratus of the rainbow is the Muslim population, that here is a minority, even if around Srinagar their figure hits 90%. Most of them live near the 16th century mosque, making trade their main activity. Despite most families in Leh, due to intermarriage, have members in both communities, and both sides exchange tiny metallic discs in the market place, there is a certain tension in the air, a scar of the last decade social boycotts that both communities imposed on each other. When each day at dusk the high speakers of the mosque call to pray, the nearby monastery replies with sounding Buddhist choral music, in what may be the oddest DJ contest on Earth. In another level, India attempts to retain its sovereignty in a region landlocked between Pakistan and China, all with their own territory greediness that little cares for the local determination.

The first thing that kept me busy since arriving in Leh, was finding a legal way out. As a result of landslides and roadblocks, my journey to Leh had taken five days, instead of the expected two. Well, expecting something in the Indian Himalayas is a mistake in the first place, but with my visa expiring, I had only another five days left to make the journey back to Manali, than travel a similar distance south to Delhi and cross all the Punjab into Pakistan. When I visited the Superintendence of Police at Leh I perfectly knew two things. First, that one week visa extensions are theoretically free for most nationalities. Second, that Indian police bureaucrats, sporting moustache and dark glasses as if copied from a 1970s Latin-American dictatorship, were good at the maneuver of receiving banknotes under the table. I decided to play the role of the die hard journalist instead of that of the ordinary backpacker, and got ready, as in many other occasions. My hair correctly tight, reading glasses on, and a folder full of newspaper articles under the arm. I introduced myself as a journalist from the inexistent Buenos Aires Times, showing at the time Respublika articles in Lithuanian language (they would never spot the mismatch).Yes, a journalist from remote South America promoting Asian countries through media reports, and also –of course- sharing these with local Indian papers. Reading between the lines: if you ask for a bribe, I will publicly denounce it. The high rank police on the other side of the unnecessary long desk listened to me with little interest, cupping his chin with his hands. While I spoke I could see other functionaries of brown uniform arriving in chauffer driven Ambassadors. As this local Indian cars respect in every detail the 1950s design, they seemed as returning from Philadelphia Experiment.
The policeman I was trying to persuade of how VIP I was seemed more interested in the teenage soldier bringing him tea. When I was done with my speech, he simply said: “No problem, the extension is possible, but you have to pay the visa fee of U$S 40”. So took calmly my camera and took a nice snap, and assured him he would be in next weekend Hindustan Times. From then on, they started to pay attention, but insisted in the U$S40 fee even if I assured them I knew it was free. Eventually, after parading around several offices and acting in front of several office workers, got my legal –and free- one week extension.

During my stay in Leh, I must admit, little I did to spin in the local orbit, and succumb to the temptation of joining the backpackers own kaleidoscopic existence. Sometimes I think that the Indian chapter of my trip will definitely lack the depth of field achieved elsewhere in Asia through isolation from my western pairs. I somehow consider India as a deserved break from this immersion experience. When I have met foreigners in Iran and Afghanistan, they were themselves part of the local landscape, NGO workers, for example, or soldiers, and a few adventurous travelers. In Leh instead, as in the rest of India, it’s all about café hopping and chatting with other foreigners. Just sit down, in five minutes you will be surrounded by Germans, Israelis, French, etc. Even if most of this café talk fades away rather fast, in Leh I had the chance to meet some people who impressed me with their sensibility. The first time I talked to Eugenio, he asked permission to my landlady to inspect the light conditions of my room. He explained he was a painter, and if the room was lit enough, would I be leaving, he would take over. A white beard as the one the fat man with the sleigh. A matching forehead with wrinkles as a philosopher. Bushy eyebrows. I couldn’t help thinking of Leonardo Da Vinci. When he said he was actually from Firenze (not far from Vinci) I started looking for the hidden camera. The coincidence of physical outfit, occupation and nationality was too much. His name could be Eugenio, but for me it was Leonardo…

Leonardo had passed 12 of his 72 years in India. The first time in 1972, when he had rode two horses from France all trough Middle East, crossing Afghanistan on the way, something that instantly bebrothered us. What amazed me most about him was not his experience, but the calm and attention with which, in spite of this experience, he listened to each of the answers to his questions. As if planning to travel for some hundred years more, he justify his curiosity saying that “it’s always useful to learn fromother travelers experience” We would meet everyday in the Corner’s Café at 6 pm. He would arrive punctually with a copy of Dante’s “Paradise” kept under his arm. 1926 edition, printed in Milano. We would talk for hours over a tutti frutti of issues from photography to autistic children, for whom he felt an unparallel tenderness. Frequently, Jose, a Dutch girl, would join our table, to deliver the dosage of thriller, and relating how her guesthouse’s owner had misread the trust and started to enact an insane jealousy. The tendency rocketed out of control when the night of the party (because there are always raves and parties in these travelers hang outs) the local aspirant, in shock when Jose turned up with an Israeli friend, started a fight that ended with a motorbike chase across the Indus valley under white washed moon lit monasteries… And yes, there is always an Israeli involved, otherwise you are not in India. I have been running into many of them here and then on the way from Leh, since there is only one road to follow for everybody from Manali. I feel such nostalgia for Arabic language, that I still hope to fins one of them that has learnt, by osmosis, the language of their neighbors. But the most I could find so far, somewhat disappointingly was someone who could say the equivalent of: “If you make a step further I fire.” Very useful in checkpoints…

Virgilio didn’t leave the pages of Leonardo’s book to lead me trough the road to Manali. Classic poets still have a but at the time of hitch hiking. Instead, I earned the company of Ian, a South African of Dutch ascendance whose first language was Afrikaans, blend of old Dutch, German, and a dozen of black dialects. The Dutch that settled around the Cape of Good Hope are known as Boers. The trip to Manali was long enough to discover that, despite coming from different continents, there could be unexpected things in common. To begin, we are both grafts of European experiments in the New World. Both Boers and Italians climbed down their ships with more sense of the adventure than realism, in similar latitudes (Buenos Aires and Cape Town) and created a microclimate compact enough to psychologically exclude the place they were living in from the rest of the continents. In this way, when a South African goes to Kenya, he says he is going to Africa. Likewise, English buy ferry tickets to Europe when they cross to France and Argentinean backpackers happily announce they will set off to discover Latin America, when they intend to visit neighboring Bolivia or Peru. Comprehensibly, Peruvians accuse us of considering ourselves a branch of Switzerland…

Ian enjoys walking barefoot, for I nicked him Barefoot Boer, but his distinctive note is his passion for all things Asian. He lives and teaches English in Taiwan, what is not so terrible, if he wouldn’t loose his head for local girls. It’s this frenzy for the “narrow eye staff” what entitles him to the intensive care unit. Or maybe I should be more respectful for other people’s decision to follow the steps of John Lennon. So a Malasyan girl was waiting for Ian in Manali, and that kept him smiling, in spite of the slow pace of the local Tata trucks. In one of those we reached Tikse. A tire screeching halt and we jumped off to explore the local monastery. I still don’t see clearly the way monastic life is fully compatible with Buddhism. It was by abandoning his cloister style life and traveling that Buddha concluded that “life is pain” and that the reason of such pain is desire. But Buddhism doesn’t seem to take note of that importance, for I have never seen an image of a “Traveling Buddha”. Can you imagine a Buddha with his thumb up as a mudra?

The next stop was in Tso Kar, a brackish lake at 4500m, at which shores stands a compact tourist camp, mainly used by prearranged trekking groups who made week long walks with horses, guides and porters to take all their gear. The guides seem bored, since they have covered the route infinite times, but the trekkers seem to experience adrenaline, still don’t know how, even if they are guided and someone else is carrying their luggage. In the very shores of the lake, I also met two Austrian ornithologists who were the first people I have met that didn’t need forewords to know immediately the ring in my left hand is a cormorant’s tagging ring and not a spouse tagging one… In the third day of our trip together, Ian and I reached Pang, one of the many transitory camps I had already come across on the way north. There, the only thing heading our way was a big black stormy cloud. As if the road builders had forecasted the episode, a yellow sign by the road side said: “SMILE!”. But that was a difficult task under the rain that eventually showered us, so we sheltered in the camp. The tents there are old army parachutes forced into a conic position with a sturdy wooden pole. I said old army parachute, so that means that every time it rains (every night in this season) part of the stuff filters through, making my first Chinese lesson (language I will soon need) even more epic.

The night had closed in long before we made it to Koksar, an insignificant village more notable for its checkpoint. The policeman there was of the kind that sticks to the word and letter of the laws and opened the door of the truck to scream ”Illegal! Illegal!” Indian laws, apparently, forbid tourists to travel in overloaded local trucks whose drivers consume brandy at 5000m to amuse themselves. That’s quite sensible. The Indian laws of course ignore a tiny part of the foreigners love all that mess, but philosophy was not the way out in this case. The roles were set from the beginning, Ian would play the goog traveler, I would play the tough one. In these occasions in I feel grateful to have dogged into theatre many years ago. It’s only a matter of turning on the switch of emotional memory and speak to the policeman as if he had just dropped my pint. And of course, take him a eye blinding snap with flash…. The man smiled confusedly. Then recovered his seriousness, and ordered the truck drivers to follow him to the police station, parentheses we used to jump down and walk past the checkpoint, enveloped in darkness. We had barely done a hundred meters when we heard a scream, and noticed a torch advancing as an acrobatic firefly in the nights of the Himalayas. After our truck sped without lifting us again, we were hopeless. Obviously, they had instructions not to help us. The policeman fastened his steps. Then, unfolded from the pen of a hidden novelist, with the synchronicity of a guardian angel, a white jeep stopped and asked: “Manali?” Wemounted it as we would mount the flying dog in Never Ending Story and let the driver understand we were in the run: “Chelo, chelo!” (Go, go ,go!). “Stop!!!” – was the last we heared from that isolated policemen interested in applying the laws of an artificialentity called India in the middle of eternal mountains. The flow had rescued us once more.

There is one technical way to describe our arrival to Manali: we were stinking, with a fragrance I would commercialize with the brand ‘AFTER475”. Four hundred and sevety five kilometers of unpaved road. Eau du routard. At Manali, Barefoot Boer and I split ways. The day after I only waited for ten minutes for a fast car of three young professionals from Delhi who were back from a short holidays in the North. “What is the aim behind traveling?”- they asked. “Well, I guess traveling is the aim”. As everybody in Asia, they found it hard to accept the concept of a project that doesn’t lead to a economic progress. They dropped me in Delhi Bus Station a couple of hours before sunrise. There is something oppressive in those places that have the same rushed pace in nighttime as in daylight. They seem cities built for machines, not for humans. But those were my last 48 hours in India, and my mind was craving for crossing the border into kind Pakistan.

Conclusions about India. I often receive letters from readers asking me about the famed spirituality of this nation. It’s true, many travelers find a denial of western materialism in the frugality of the local lifestyle. I just see the contrary. I see that India is not in the condition of rejecting anything, it simply can’t afford things as a starting condition. A potential West. The upper classes exhibit a worship of success with a typically Asian abandon, as the one Max Weber attributes to the Protestants who forged capitalism in the 16th century. For them, the magnitude of the local market is an addictive predicament: “If you make a profit of one rupee per sale, in India you are earning one billon rupees.”-would state categorically one of my drivers, as dollar symbols aligned in both his eyes. In the meanwhile, the low casts combine the lack of any self improvement discipline with the instinct of everyday fight for the basics. I assume that in the 60s and 70s India sounded out enough of the bipolar world to attract seekers of spirituality, but it’s clear that today India is galloping in the same global horse as the home countries of the travelers who come here to find the source of spirituality. It seems curious to me that the disenchanted of our side of the world find shelter in a society which is far too hopeful to produce a disenchanted bunch. Isn’t disbandment a privilege of the West? Are there Asian Carmina Buranas? To make the matter more complex, most of the travelers that arrived here in the 70s used to come overland, and comparing. Now people just arrive by plane with the prejudgment that the rest of the continent, except South East Asia, is a battleground. Arrive by plane to study yoga in Rishikesh.3 days course, fast food. Valid, as everything else under the sun. But there is also a bit of fetish, and I say this having done myself a 3 days Reiki training, but aware that it was the same to do it in Dharamsala or in Caracas. I mean, yoga, reiki, ayurvedic medicine, have been traveling with international passport long enough and don’t need to be discovered in the Himalayan foothills. But well, of course, there is the plus of cheap cafes to hang around… A Spanish fellow insists that I should revisit India and I will realize that Mother India is beautiful and feeds a lot of people. Of course, he had never tested India and never needed to be fed, plus India was the only Asian country he had been to. I held my ticket gladly and took the train to the Pakistani border. (I had to gave the thumb a rest due to the visa expiry date inching dangerously closer).

On the way to Amritsar, by night, sleeping, I could know we were traversing a city due to the smell of urine that invaded the carriage. My last vehicles were a locally made truck who engine needs to be spinned manually to achieve ignition, and some cricket players in motorbikes thanks to whom I bated my first cricket ball before leaving the country. In the border I met a French couple that were driving all the way to Paris. They pushed me to the other side, to Lahore, with the Pakistani customs unobserving the whiskey bottles hidden in the back. Once in Lahore I phoned Tabreez, my local C host, from a phone shop whose owner produced a chair and a glass of chilled water. Evidently, I had crossed the border. Once in more in lands where hospitality is not a lateral consequence of higher education.

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