I started talking to a guy who happened to be on the border at the same moment as me, so we decided to take advantage of each other: I would buy him two extra bottles of alcohol in a duty-free shop (he paid for it, of course), and he would give me a lift in his car to the train station from where I would carry on to Delhi. At the end, it turned out that he did more for me – he gave me a ride almost to Delhi, to a little town where he lived. I was getting the hand in this hitchhiking without using the thumb.
We stopped at his parents’ place where they treated me to my first Indian meal and, I’ve got to say that it didn’t differ much from the Pakistani meals which I’d had the opportunity to try before, and all of them were delicious. As we got into a few traffic jams, I decided to skip Delhi and head straight to Kathgodam, where I would be volunteering for the following few weeks on a farm at the foot of Himalaya. Although I already had a ticket from Delhi to Kathgodam, which I’d bought online the night before, I decided to try to catch the train without the previous reservation. I had no idea what was waiting for me there.
At the station, I bought the ticket worth 100 rupees (just over a euro) for the next 400 kilometers. Also, I would have to change the train in a town that was half way to my destination. My first night in India – the first night in train. The train arrived to the station which was full of people. Somehow I managed to squeeze my way to a wagon where I found a group of people who also didn’t have a reservation. I had the feeling that they’d sold more tickets than there were seats in the train. There were five people where, normally, it could fit only three. While some were sleeping on the luggage shelves, others were just standing or lying on the floor. This was how it was going to be for the following 4 or 5 hours.
I looked around and saw all those poor people around – I didn’t know what to think. Some of them were buying food from random people paying it only couple of rupees. They fed little children who were twice as many as the adults. It occurred to me that I could treat everyone to a nice meal, but we started moving. Babies would cry for some time, and then they would sleep a little, turning over all the time. A 14-year-old girl was breastfeeding a baby; a 5-year-old was lulling his younger sister who was only a couple of years old. I will remember those scenes for ever.
Every few minutes a seller would find his way through a flood of people – he sold tea, snacks, bottles of water and mango-flavored juices. I didn’t get it how he managed to keep his balance with all those things in his hands while having to find a way to step on the overcrowded floor. In one moment a woman entered the wagon, at least I thought so at the beginning. She went from one person to another, asking for money. She woke up all those that were asleep. Some people didn’t even say anything to her, while others gave her a few rupees. As she was getting closer, I realized that she was, in fact, a he – in a woman’s body. I observed feeling pretty confused; I studied the easiness with which (s)he got money out of people – maybe soon I would have to do the same thing. I asked a young man standing next to me what it was all about, but he only laughed saying that he didn’t know how to explain it. He also added that I would find out soon enough.
In the middle of the night, somewhere around 3:14 am, I felt something dripping down my left leg. As it came as a surprise, I tried to move my leg, but I failed. The kid who had been breastfed by a 14-year-old had peed. The first filter had been the PJs he was wearing, the other his mother’s dress, and finally there was my foot. Instantly, I saw the whole thing before my eyes, and there were two versions. The first one was the impulsive one – I would push aside my foot in revolt, no matter what, try to wipe it on the first person who would be next to me and give the evil eye to the boy’s mother. The other version was that I would make my peace with the whole situation. I was in India, in an awkward situation and I couldn’t be objective until some time passed – I couldn’t blame anyone. The boy was sleeping when he peed – I did the same thing when I was his age. The 14-year-old girl was sound asleep, exhausted from the life and from the trains. She had also been peed on. Welcome to India. Here your leg was half clean, and not half peed.
A bit later, there were also a few drops of blood on the same leg. The blood was of a kid who was going to a toilet with his father because his nose was bleeding. I kept smiling. Welcome to India.
The train was a bit late, so I missed the early morning train going to Kathgodam, which was my destination. I had to wait for a few hours to catch the next one so I joined a bunch of local people who were sleeping on the floor. There was also a guy who was taking the same train as me so I could count on him that he would wake me on time. It was my first sleep in India. Before I actually fell to sleep, I’d wrapped my rucksack around my feet, and I took the guitar in my hands – just in case.
My fellow passenger woke me up in time so all I had to do was move from the floor of the station to the bunk bed of the train. This one, fortunately, wasn’t so crowded.
I woke up at the last station, from where I would have to take a bus to get to my final destination – a 15 kilometers distant Do Gaon. From there I would start climbing to the farm. However, I couldn’t afford myself a cab, so I decided to ask a local policeman some information about the bus timetable. He smiled, stopped the first truck that was heading in the right direction, mumbled something to the driver and then just gestured me to get in. He even helped me with my things. Hitchhiking can be so easy sometimes…
After a half an hour I got off the truck and the first thing I saw was a group of monkeys that were jumping around a nearby forest and getting all the way to the road. The locals weren’t especially fond of them – almost every person held a slingshot in their hands so they could chase off the monkeys if they got too close to the food stands. Despite all their efforts, every once and a while, monkey did succeed in stealing some food. They would show off for a while and then, hiding through the trees, would almost sprint to the forest.
The locals quickly became aware of my existence and without even asking they showed me a path that should take me to the farm. Too heavy backpack on my back and off I go! After a hundred meters or so, sweating like a pig, I met two indigenes who were sitting next to a buffalo that seemed a bit tired, or even like if it was dying. There were drops of blood everywhere so I carefully bypassed it, said hello to its protégés, gave it my blessing and moved on. The path was leading me higher and higher with each step, which wasn’t so weird when you knew that the name of the farm was Himalayan Farm Project. On my way up, I saw a number of signs that showed that I was on the right track. In one moment the path split up in two directions – one was uphill and shorter, while the other was longer, but straight. Acting like a little girl, I chose the latter. That was my first mistake.
I crossed a stone bridge thinking that I hadn’t seen any signpost whatsoever. I didn’t think there was anything suspicious in it so I carried on. That was my second mistake. Eventually, I didn’t find it that difficult to keep on walking. Was it for the fresh mountain air or for the fact that I was going downhill – I didn’t know. You’ve probably already guessed – that was my third mistake. I guess that the basics of hiking say that if you are supposed to climb up, you shouldn’t be going downhill. Maybe even that would be the basics of logic. Oh, well. I started humming old Catholic song There’s a long road and in half an hour or so I actually got to a – road.
Feeling completely exhausted from all that wandering uphill and downhill, I came to a courtyard where two misses gave me a funny look and offered me with some tea. One of them wasn’t actually a miss because she was in a high state of pregnancy – she looked like she was about to give birth to a baby Indian any second now. She knew a word or two of English so she explained that the local kids were about to come home from school and that they could take to the farm because they lived in its close proximity. While we were sipping tea I tried to explain what I was doing in their village – we laughed quite a lot. I believe that by the end of this journey I will have had a PhD in body language because that was the language I used wherever I went – and I was pretty good at it.
When the kids came back from school they were excited to be my guides. I found it funny observing them – in total, there were five of them and although all together their age barely reached a two-digit number, they showed great ability in clambering up the path, while I found it difficult to keep up with them. The race wasn’t fair because I was carrying backpacks so I started arguing with them – I gave my backpack to the oldest of them – an 8-year-old girl, a guitar to a small 5-year-old, and my heavy rucksack to the rest of them who were 4, 7 and 5. Now we would see who would be the first one on the top!
I keeeeed, I’m not that mean – I only followed them without saying a word. They would stop every once and a while – I wasn’t sure if it was because of the smallest among them, who, honestly, didn’t have more than five years, or actually because of me. Anyway, in an hour or so, we arrived to their house where they handed me over to a young man who was supposed to take me all the way to the farm. He had more than twenty years, so I could at least give him the guitar to carry, without feeling guilty for doing so. Before we started walking again I turned around because I wanted to thank the kids somehow for showing me the way. Since I didn’t have anything sweet with me I gave them the crayons I used for writing my hitchhiking signs. Let the children draw; sweets would be bad for their teeth.
We were pretty close to the top and suddenly I noticed I was no longer able to hear the noise coming from the road. There was only forest, greenery and wilderness. We saw two workmen who were digging up a huge stone, but still they found some time to say hello beaming at me – Namaste. Our next stop was a sadhu, a holy man in Hindu religion, who had been for the past twenty years living in a small stone temple. The next time I see him I will ask him some details from his life because then I only saluted him with my hands pressed together and carried on.
Just before I was about to pass out, I spotted a little house, which was my final destination. I saw two familiar faces outside of the house – Keveen, the best person I have never met, and Gina, a girl I had met a couple of years before, in Keveen’s camp house in the middle of woods on the south of France.
I was finally home.