Appreciating India: From Yamunotri to Pune

In 99-00, I spent a year in India. This is a chapter in the journal of my adventures there.

Trek to Yamunotri

Saturday morning we left for our trek to Yamunotri: a place on the bank of the Yamuna, with hot water sources which guarantee you a painless death if you bathe in them (Yamuna being the sister of Yama, god of the dead).

We were due to leave at 6.30 a.m. (the organizers wanted us to leave at six!). At twenty to seven we were told the jeep would be half an hour late. We left at eight, after another demonstration of Indian efficiency at getting things done on time.

Surprisingly, I’m even starting to find that normal.

We had a guide and a cook with us. The latter was sick during the whole journey (we prayed his cooking wasn’t at fault) and the former was in fact the organizer, who was replacing the guide who had run off with another group, as they had understood we were doing the trip a week later, and had had to put everything together in two days when they suddenly realized their mistake. Are you still following me?

; )

We drove through Dehra Dun (where our driver ran over a dog), Mussoorie, Kempti Falls, and the breathtaking scenery or the valleys surrounding the Yamuna. They were illuminated by this end-of-afternoon-on-a-stormy-day light… I didn’t have the courage to stop the jeep to take pictures, and I definitely regret it. We passed several groups of nomads, accompanied by herds of water buffaloes. I wish I had taken some pictures!

Two blocked roads and one nightfall later, we arrived at Hanuman Chatti, our halt for the night. We had to walk the last bit because of rocks which had fallen across the road.

Our cook made us some delicious food. Such a nice change after three weeks of the same hotel meals! After a good night’s sleep (a second giant spider, no running water in my room, no hot water in any case, a roaring generator and a couple of bugs on the bed-sheets – how glad I was to have my sleeping-bag with me!) we set off for our next destination under the rain.

Eight kilometres further and five hundred metres higher, there we were, at Janki Chatti. The temperature had got quite cold – hard to imagine the scorching heat of Delhi up here in the mountains. One of our party had some ball-point pens and started a distribution amongst the village children (and a couple of adults). We were escorted to our hotel by a crowd of smiling – and eager! – children.

Pune Camp; Saturday, October 2

We set off the following morning for Yamunotri. The climb was hard for a few of us (out of practice or sick).

At Yamunotri we bathed in the spring water. Must I mention that the women’s “pond” was ankle-deep and that the men’s was chest-deep? We had rice cooked in the hot spring-water, did a little puja, and ate on the riverbank.

On the way down, I noticed that my judo-injured knee was slowing me down quite a lot – more than I had imagined (I hadn’t really had a chance to do any walking since I had got hurt about two years ago).

In the evening we went to a village lying on the other side of the valley (a twenty-minute walk).

It was an old-fashioned village with houses made all of wood and stacks of hay hung up to dry everywhere. We had seen the people cutting grass during the day, high up on slopes so steep you wondered how they got up there, sometimes above sheer cliffs.

There was an old temple in that village, so old that the oldest living person in the village did not know when it had been built. We were allowed inside. Dark. Wooden steps. Three floors. A little altar. Down and out again.

The kind of village you would like to have the opportunity to stay in for a couple of weeks.

In the evening we made a little campfire at the hotel and chatted with our neighbours.

I took a pony for the way down. Quite a painful experience for my behind, but altogether positive, and cheap enough for me to afford it… That is of course one nice thing about India for a foreigner: even if you live normally, you could afford almost anything if you wanted it. So every now and then you can go to eat in a luxury restaurant… or hire a pony if you feel too lazy to walk.

Pune Camp, Sunday, October 3

Our guide had asked us if we had any special desires for lunch. Most of us were longing for some non-vegetarian food, so we asked for fish.

He took us to a small place where we were served “fish”. That is, a kind of soup in which were floating heads and tails (I was one of the lucky few who managed to fish a central part out of the pot).

We were a bit perplexed. Is this the way people eat fish in India? What do they do with the fillets?

In fact we had been served leftovers. To make up for that, the guide bought us some real fish in Dehra Dun. And it was good!

Going back home to Pune

It was nice to be in Rishikesh again. I went for a massage (even stayed for supper there with Nicola), and at last got a chance to bathe in the Ganga. Ever tried swimming in a lungi? Well mine got undone, so I had to catch it and put it back on underwater…

We found a good bus for Delhi, and settled back in the YWCA for a day.

I went to the railway station to buy my ticket to Pune (got touted there by the way: the guy managed to lead me to the travel agency, making me believe it was the railway’s tourist office, but he didn’t manage to get me in… growing wise with age!).

During the night I saw my Swiss friends off, apart for one of them who was staying a bit longer in India. One of his friends was arriving at the airport the same night, so we greeted him and escorted him to our hotel.

I spent the next day packing, and window shopping in the Central Cottage Industries Emporium (a “fixed-price” place). In the evening the three of us went to have a meal at the Embassy hotel *licking lips at the memory of the meal*.

The train journey in AC two tier was calm. I had a compartment to myself, as the carriage was more empty than full, and I read all the way along.

I had the opportunity to stay at my Internet friend Mithun’s place for a little while, until I found a flat. His sister Mili came to fetch me at the station.

The next morning (goodness, I’m starting to get used to that!) my temperature was 102 F. I stayed two days in bed before coming alive again (thanks to the antibiotics).

Finding a flat

Once I was back on my feet again, the flat-hunting thing started. Mili found a couple of interesting ones in the papers. After one missed appointment where we went through half the town on the scooter under pouring rain (and when I say pouring, I mean what I say!), I visited my first flat. What a shock!

In Pune, you have one-bedroom, two-bedrooms etc. But that is exactly what you get! If you ask for a one-bedroom flat, you get a flat with one bedroom, in addition to a big hall or dining room, whatever you may call it.

Up to then I had been looking for a two-bedroom flat, with the idea of sharing it with a friend. And suddenly I realized that a one-bedroom flat was quite big enough for two people!

Let me explain. In Switzerland (at least in my town), you count the rooms in a flat, considering that a room is a space with windows, where you could imagine sleeping. So I had been translating a “one-bedroom flat” into a one-room flat!

Yesterday evening, I ate my first Indian pizza, and I was positively surprised. It almost tasted Italian!

Calcutta; October 16

So, after two nice weeks including a couple of flat visits, a baby dog expert at chewing various items (particularly toes during breakfast) and making puddles all over the house, a scooter trip under buckets of rain, a shopping evening on Main Street where I ended up walking 200 metres to find a place to get off the pavement without going knee-deep in water (shoes take four days to dry in the end-of-monsoon dampness), I finally found a flat and started taking Sanskrit reading courses.

The flat is in Kothrud – on Karve Road. Although it had been “cleaned” for me it took me three full days of sweating and panting to make it acceptable – and I’m far from finicky as far as cleanliness is concerned (by Swiss standards of course).

I chased four or five big cockroaches from the bathroom drains, dislodged a pigeon’s nest from the loft, scrubbed doors and windows to remove years of grime, got dust and cobwebs off the ceiling and walls, and poured concentrated hydrochloric acid on the floor. (When I bought that acid, I enquired about its concentration. The answer left me open-mouthed: “Oh, acid concentration, Madam!”) As I had just one litre of it, I only succeeded in producing a few white (understand: clean) blotches on the black (understand: dirty) tiles. It turned out to be a rather strong concentration…

Buying cleaning items here is quite an eye-opener. “What is this brush supposed to be used for?” Buying socks was interesting too: they come in two sizes, “ladies” and “gents”. What do you do if you want ladylike socks in gents’ size? But the real surprise is that you can try the socks on (believe it or not, “trying” clothes before purchase isn’t such an obvious thing – ever imagined the fun of buying a bra without being able to try it on first?).

Moving into a flat put me in a position where I might buy a whole lot of unexpected things – buckets, bed sheets and a sweeping brush, for the start. The flat has no hot water. Should I get a geyser or a heating-rod? Obtaining a gas cylinder for cooking takes ages – should I get an electric stove instead? Oh, and 40 Watt light bulbs aren’t enough.

In Switzerland, you can just walk into one big store, and with a bit of luck find just about everything that you need there. In India, you go into lots of little, specialized shops with non-specialist salesmen most of the time, and it can really be worth the trouble of comparing prices (not to mention taking an Indian friend along to protect you from an abusive skin tax).

Aleika

A couple of days before moving in, I had gone to Juna Bazaar (second-hand items of sometimes-doubtful provenance) with Mili and Mithun’s mother, to get some cheap, minimal furniture. So on Tuesday, I went to collect my furniture.

There, I bumped into another foreigner. “Hi, what an unlikely place to meet a foreigner!” We would most certainly have gone our own seperate ways if the tempowallah (tempo: three-wheeler transport vehicle) hadn’t arranged to transport the furniture for both of us (without consulting us, and even though we did not live at all in the same area of town). So we ended up in the same rickshaw for the first part of the journey, to her place, where she invited me for a cup of tea.

On the way to my flat (I left the rickshaw and sat in the tempo) I experienced my first (and hopefully, last?) Indian road accident. At the top of a hill, I suddenly realized the tempowallah was trying the brakes a little anxiously. In fact, they were broken. He slowed down as much as he could by changing gears, and I was actually getting ready to jump out of the slowed down tempo when he drove it against a side-road tree-stump to knock it over. I survived with just a scratch, and not even a tear in my pants, lucky me!

Aleika is my age, has a one-year-old baby, and her husband is a professor in IUCAA (Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrohpysics), in the university campus. At that moment, he was on a three-month trip to England.

The next day I went over to her place for lunch. Before the afternoon was over I had been invited to go with her to Calcutta – she was seeing her in-laws for her son Akirno‘s first birthday and the Durga Puja festival. The plane was taking off the next morning. We spent the end of the day getting my ticket and finalizing things for the departure.

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