Pilgrims and Peppers

In a village where I took out my camera to take a picture of a lovely gateway, a crowd of suspicious people suddenly surrounded me. I was lucky that there was a kid who spoke a little English.
“I am a tourist from the Netherlands” I explained, “and I am on a bicycle trip”.
“Ah” he answered, “all India tour”.
“All Asia tour,” I corrected him, “and now I would like to take some pictures of your village, so I can show the people in Holland how beautiful it is.”
The boy translated my story for the benefit of the others and immediately things brightened up. I was allowed to take pictures of anything I wanted. The only problem was that I couldn’t really take a good shot of the gate now, as everyone was posing in front of it.

India: a street in Old-Delhi

“Come, I will give you a guided tour of our village,” the boy said. I was allowed to park my bike in a house, which gave me the opportunity to look around in a more relaxed manner. However it wasn’t so very relaxed at all, because while we walked and talked the group of curious people behind us kept on growing until eventually there was an impressive crowd. In the village there was nothing to see and at the same time incredibly much. There was no impressive temple with thirteen story high towers, neither a Taj Mahal nor anything comparable that might warrant its being mentioned in a travel guide.
There were thousands of villages like this one all over India: just a place where simple people lived their daily lives. Nothing special, but through the eyes of a European it was an open-air museum. The houses were brickbuilt and just as in the Netherlands, with its abundance of rivers running criss-cross through the countryside, there was plenty of clay to make them from. They even looked a bit like Dutch houses, but from the 17th century: all leaning one way or the other, with sagging and torn walls. Every house had been built how and wherever the owner felt like it, some neatly, others haphazardly, but all were worth looking at.
One of the most notable things in this village, as in all these villages in the countryside, was the absence of rubbish. The waste culture as we know it in the west simply didn’t exist in India. There was no money to spend on ridiculous things like a plastic throwaway container costing 25 cents to hold 25 cents worth of yogurt. Yogurt was sold in bulk and if you wanted some you brought your own bucket or ate it on the spot. The same would apply to sugar, milk, tea, salt, flour and anything else you might need. Canned food was hard to get and, if at all available, it was a luxury not for the common man. If a tourist had eaten something out of a can he would search in vain for a rubbish bin, and if he just left it on the ground it would be gone in a flash as an empty can can be used for lots of things, for instance to catch the water dripping from a leaking roof or to buy yogurt in.
While in Iran you would find masses of rubber from torn truck-tyres by the side of the road, in India you wouldn’t even see a scrap of rubber lying around. Cut inner tubes into strips and you have a binder for a bicycle, while tyres can be used to fabricate shoe soles or ladles to scoop water with. Even the cowdung was recycled! I would often see children with baskets on their heads collecting it. The dung would be kneaded into small blocks and stuck against walls to dry in the sun. These dried little bricks were then used as fuel to cook food. India is the land of ultimate recycling.
Despite this, the village and all of India for that matter, wasn’t “clean” in the hygienic sense. In the middle of the narrow streets there would be an open sewer from which an odour came that even a badly developed nose like mine could not fail to notice. Children and adults would relieve themselves by the side of the road or even in the middle of it if there was no traffic.

 Turkey, rockformations in Capadocia.

The boy took me to a pond just outside the village that was covered with duckweed. A couple of oxen were standing by the water’s edge while a man threw buckets of water over them.
“This is where the oxen are taken to drink and be washed”, he explained.
It looked like a painting from a 17th century master: the green water, the brown bank, the black oxen, a small, pale red brick temple with a pointed dome, the green trees around it all. The composition was perfect, even more so because nothing was done to make it so. It was just the way it was. For me this simple village, that wasn’t even on the map, was just as interesting as the Golden Temple of Amritsar.

In socks I walked through one of the many temples in Ayodhya. This was the fifth one I had been to in this important Hindu place of pilgrimage, which was reputed to be the birthplace of the god Rama. The more of these temples I saw the less I understood of Hinduism. Of course I had read books about it and seen programmes on television. It’s so easy to say: “Most of the population in India is Hindu. They pray to gods such as Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh, Durga, Rama and lots more besides. And that’s it.” It’s a whole different ball game when you are walking around in one of those temples and see a man whom you would normally find wearing a suit and tie, sitting behind a desk in a bank, now wearing a white robe half covering his shoulders, with ashes or paint on his forehead and a garland of flowers around his neck, kneeling and praying to a stone statue with an elephant’s head!
I can understand Islam a little bit. That has the same roots as Christianity, namely the Jewish religion, but where should I place Hinduism with its many gods? Or should I simply conclude that everything I experienced here was senseless? That those 700 million people had got it all wrong and that I was the only one who had all the right answers? It was a fascinating experience to see these people, most of whom were pilgrims, doing their rituals in total dedication: lighting incense and candles, sprinkling flowers on a statue of Rama, kneeling before Kali and making offerings to Shiva.
I followed a man through several temples, but it left me none the wiser. The streets were crowded with stalls, selling various coloured powders, incense, framed mythological prints, pictures of gods, garlands of flowers and masses of other things, which either directly or indirectly had something to do with their religion. I walked between the temples to the banks of the Ghaghara, a tributary of the Ganges. Thousands of people were there having their ritual bath. On the ghats, the stairs that led down to the water’s edge, people were practising yoga or just meditating. This wasn’t a show for the tourists because there weren’t any. I was the only Westerner there. This was for real. Fascinated I watched how these people wholeheartedly and in total dedication gave themselves over to their religion. If I had been born here I would be taking part in these rituals instead of standing here shrouded in clouds of incomprehension without the slightest inclination to bow before any statue whatsoever. But if I had been born in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia I would be praying towards Mecca five times a day.

India: pilgrims near the bull Nandi in Mysore.

Could you tell me the way to Hyderabad?
On the main roads you are often disturbed by the large amount of traffic and the work being done to improve them, but small roads also have their own specific problems. In this particular case it was a fork where it wasn’t clear in which direction I had to go. There was a road sign but whatever was on it was illegible due to the mass of election propaganda that had been pasted over it. That was understandable, because road signs are very suitable for that purpose. Also other important information is often glued to them. Everybody knows which way to go, so for that you don’t need signposts. Even if the posters hadn’t covered the sign it probably wouldn’t have helped much, as on these smaller roads the signs were usually in Sanskrit anyway. The few letters visible below the posters confirmed this.
In between the two roads stood a small hut. The owner was digging on his land next to it.
“Do you speak English?” I asked him.
“Yes” was the convincingly sounding answer.
“Could you please tell me the way to Hyderabad?”
“Well, which way is it to Hyderabad then?”
“Left?” I said pointing left.
“Or right?” I said pointing right.
“So you don’t really speak English do you?”
Suddenly his vocabulary turned out to be twice the size of what I had up to then presumed. This answering in the negative to a negative question is really confusing in India because, contrary to practice in Europe, it is often used correctly here. The man was probably denying that he didn’t speak English, which confirmed his first answer. So his answers were logical, but I was beginning to doubt if he was speaking the truth.
It reminded me of a situation where there was also a house situated between a fork in the road where two brothers lived. Knowing that one always lied and the other always spoke the truth, you could find out which was the road to Amsterdam by asking just one question. Here the situation was a bit more complicated. On the one hand the man had lied when he answered my question if he spoke English with a “yes”, but on the other he hadn’t. He just didn’t speak a lot of English and that is something he had never claimed to do anyway. Apart from that, he had resolutely answered me truthfully when he said that he could tell me which road went to Hyderabad. He just hadn’t told me though. He had lied once and spoken the truth once to my questions whether Hyderabad was to the left or to the right, unless both roads actually led to Hyderabad. In that case he had spoken the truth twice, but if neither of the roads led to Hyderabad he had lied twice. From this analysis it could be concluded that even the simplest of conversations can still be rather complicated.

Sherpa in Nepal.

I thanked the man for giving me this abundance of information and with plenty of misgivings and doubt chose the road to the left. Luckily I encountered a man on a scooter a little further down the road who stood talking to a group of men. Again I asked if anyone spoke English and the man on the scooter said he did and even commanded a greater vocabulary than the farmer who always spoke the truth back on the corner. Unluckily though he didn’t know if this was the correct road to Hyderabad as he wasn’t local. But not to worry, he would ask the others who, although they didn’t speak English, would undoubtedly know the way to Hyderabad. Much to my surprise a long and lively discussion ensued. Hands pointed in the direction I was already heading, while others pointed back down the road and everybody had a different solution. It seemed that such a simple matter as going to Hyderabad was a very complicated expedition after all. Eventually it seemed they reached some sort of consensus as everyone suddenly was in agreement and they all set off in various directions by bike or on foot. Even the English speaking man on the scooter left without bothering to tell me what the outcome was. In the heat of the discussion he had probably forgotten all about me.
In my hotel that evening I met a Frenchman who was also waiting for the boat to Sri Lanka. After the predictable conversation with the usual questions like: “where are you going, where do you come from and how long have you been under way?” he said:
“I know a restaurant where you can get really good food. Do you feel like coming along?” It seemed like a good idea, so I went with him to this restaurant where the food was said to be so good. On arrival we met two other travellers sitting at a table. They turned out to be an Englishman and a Canadian who were also going to take the ferry to Sri Lanka the next day. Every Westerner in Rameswaram was either on his way to Sri Lanka or had just come from it.
“Please join us”, the Canadian said pointing invitingly at two empty chairs. We sat down.
“Have you already had dinner?” the Frenchman asked.
“No, but we have just ordered,” the Englishman answered, “the curry here is delicious.”
This the Frenchman already knew and he also ordered curry. Just like me, my three dinner companions had been travelling for quite some time, and so weren’t really tourists as much as globetrotters. The Frenchman was a teacher, but had taken a year off with the guarantee of getting his job back when he returned. “Année sabbatique” they call that in France.

Bus in Pakistan.

I didn’t quite understand what the Englishman’s job was, but apparently he had done something in the chemical industry. When he had had enough of that he packed his rucksack and set off into the big wide world. The Canadian had taken six months off. He was a friendly chap, who looked like a 19th century gunman with his wide brimmed hat and his full beard. In reality though he was a very twentieth century truck driver. He commanded a lot of respect from all motorists with his mighty 500 horsepower machine loaded with logs. Where he came from in British Columbia he was called “logger” and they are feared just as much as the 19th century gunmen were. He said that, although he had been sorely tempted many a time, he had up to now never run over a cyclist. “Those fools think they own the road and swerve like butterflies from one side of it to the other on their multi-coloured toys. I often have to slow down for them and then it takes me fifteen minutes before I get up speed again.”
Before I could ask him if Mexico wasn’t the ideal country for him, as truckdrivers there run over dogs, people and cyclists as easily as over ants, we were interrupted by a boy from the restaurant bringing the food. As a plate he placed a large leaf from a banana tree in front of each of my companions and then served a large helping of rice and curry. In the meantime I got my bananas out of my ruck-sack.
“Let’s have something to drink with it,” I suggested. The others agreed and so we decided each to have a Thumbs-up, the Indian version of Coca Cola.
“One Thumbs-up for each,” the Englishman said to the boy. Though this boy seemingly spoke English, there was still a language problem as the Englishman spoke a different form of English than he did.
“One Thumbs-up for all of you?” the boy asked.
“No, four Thumbs-ups for all of us,” the Englishman answered in his British accent again.
I had experienced linguistic confusion like this before and saw that we would be up to our eyebrows in Thumbs-ups in a moment. That’s why I called the boy back who was already running off with his order and, hoping to finally clarify matters
I said: “In total four Thumbs-ups and not four each.”
Judging from the mounting panic in his eyes it was obvious that despite this extra information our intentions were still not clear to him. The Frenchman decided he had had enough and to end all misapprehension once and for all he said:
“One Thumbs-up” pointing to me sitting next to him, “two” pointing to the Canadian across from him, “three” pointing to the Englishman to his right, and “four” pointing to himself. We were most impressed. This at least was phrasing it in a way one could expect from a teacher. Unluckily though even teachers are sometimes misunderstood and a moment later the zealous boy arrived with ten Thumbs-ups: one for me, two for the Canadian, three for the Englishman and four for the Frenchman. The people in the restaurant must have thought that all Westerners were total idiots.

 Himalaya scenery in Northern-Pakistan

After having looked at the overwhelming number of bottles on our table I asked:
“How are we going to divide ten Thumbs-ups between four people?”
I turned to the Frenchman with the question: “What subject did you teach? Maths?”
“No, history.”
That of course wasn’t much help.
“Does anyone have an idea?”
“Two and a half bottles each”, suggested the Canadian who turned out to have brilliant brainwaves every now and then.
“That’s too much for me,” the Englishman said.
“You will need it” I remarked pointing to his curry. “To put out the fire. You might even need more than ten bottles.”
“Well what we don’t drink we can always give to the boy and the cook,” the Frenchman said, and with that we had found a solution to our problem.
After dinner I took a stroll through the town. I needed batteries for my flashlight. There were two men playing chess in front of a shop and I asked them if they sold batteries. One of the men, probably the owner, went into the shop and returned with a box of batteries.
“Five rupees each” he said.
It bothered me that I had to pay five rupees for something which normally only costs four. Of course it wasn’t that one rupee that bothered me, but I always get an unsatisfying feeling about things like this. A Thumbs-up that costs five rupees doesn’t taste as good as one for four and a battery costing five rupees shines less brightly or, shall we say, gives less energy than one costing four rupees. That’s what it is all about. I took a look at the game on the chessboard. There didn’t seem to be much of a system involved: a couple of horrible double pawns, opposite coloured bishops, a white king who was moving aimlessly around the board and an incarcerated in rook without any prospects whatsoever. The game was either of such high standard that it far surpassed my knowledge of chess or the shopkeeper and his friend were complete amateurs. I gambled on the latter and took two batteries from the box and ten rupees out of my pocket. I then spread the rupees next to the chessboard and laid the batteries on top of them.
“Let’s play for them”, I proposed. “Whoever wins, gets the rupees and the batteries.”
“It’s a deal” said the boy who, while I had picked up the batteries, had given away a knight.
“But then I will get you another opponent”, and he called for a colleague from the shop next door.
There was no way back for me now and I prepared myself for a difficult match against the champion of Rameswaram. It turned out to be less difficult than I had anticipated and half an hour later I could take possession of the batteries. It had never been my intention to trick the shopkeeper out of two batteries, so I paid him eight rupees. With that, I had acquired the batteries for the normal price and had also played an enjoyable game of chess. While walking back to my hotel it seemed to me that my torch that I was using to light my way over the dark paths, so as not to fall into an open well, shone brighter than ever before. These batteries were definitely of exceptional quality.

Do you happen to be a publisher and are you interested in publishing an English (French, German, Spanish, Norwegian, Chinese) version of Pilgrims and Peppers, or any of my other 13 books? Please contact me or my publisher Elmar.