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.

Monday, August 14, 2006


“Himalayan Queen” was certainly an undeserved novelty title for the ‘squat over rails’ that transported me from unbearable Delhi to Shimla, in the cool Himalayan foothills. I cannot say the trip was pleasant, and with whole families packing the corridors and quantic-proportioned mothers attempting to sleep their children over my knees, it didn’t take long until I reexamined my opinions on population control. The scene reminded me of a creepy pension in Delhi Bazaar called “Prince Palace”, where the closest thing to a shower was buckets of boiled water. I repeated myself that the important thing was that I was leaving Delhi, even if Delhi hadn’t actually been that bad in the last week, partly thanks to the social life I borrowed from my friends at the Spanish Embassy, and also to the interesting conversations with Susumoy, my local Hospitality Club host.

Shimla is a collection of large Victorian mansions, a heir of the colonial era. Horror films could be rolled in any of them, since their state of conservation make them al look haunted. While today the pedestrianized “Mall” is a stampede of Southern Indian families in Sunday dress, boy-with-ice-cream included, it’s hard to imagine that back in the colony days it was forbidden for Indians –except for those carrying the luggage of their masters- to set foot in what then was a sanctuary of style and inequality. Today Shimla is the capital of the State of Himachal Pradesh (Land of the Eternal Snows) and starting point for venturing into higher and more desolate valleys.

The plan was to explore Kinnaur and Spiti valleys, in the border between Himachal Pradesh and Tibet, and then head up the second highest motorable road in the world, linking Manali with leh, in Ladakh, another exclave of Tibetan culture within Indian borders. But my visa was slowly expiring as the classic refrigerator lemon, so the trip would only be possible resorting to the undesirable “arrive and leave” strategy.

Thus, Kinnaur Valley passed as a slide show. Even though it’s one of the most scenic valley in the whole Himalayas, the fertility allowed by the punctual monsoon deprives it from any dramatism, making it rank, at most, as idyllic postcard. The view of Mount Kinner Kailash from Kalpa village, in fact, shines with the selection of memory. Its inhabitants, the Kinnauris, to whom the first historic records refer as ‘celestial musicians’, are easily identifiable from their caps, which resemble the ones of an impossible reggae army, with red and green embroideries. They are generally Hindu, with a special devotion for Kali, who they worship in stone and wood tower shaped temples. It’s interesting to note that, besides being Shiva’s wife, Kali is also one of his attributes. Another version of the old macho argument where woman is born out of a chunk of man….

Spiti valley rest behind the Himalayas, which doesn’t mean that mountains is not all what’s around. It happens that the Himalayas are only the most famous of a plurality of concentric mountain ranges forming the arch of high peaks separating the Indian Subcontinent from the Central Asian massif. Squeezed between the Himalayas and the Zanskar ranges, the valley stays sheltered from the annual rains, which accounts for its moonlike scenery. The water of the Spiti river has over the lands it washes the same null effect that modern world has over the monks of the numerous gompas (Tibetan monasteries). Following the systematic destruction of Tibetan culture by the Chinese (process the later proudly calls “Cultural Revolution”) the monasteries in neighboring countries such as India and Nepal have become repositories for posterity. The proximity to China, occupied Tibet, is a bit more than poetic data. Both countries staged a brief war in 1962, following a failed invasion by the Red Army, and still today the area is considered volatile. While the Tibetan are used to being in the fire line, it’s still to be seen how they resolve the interaction with the new pacific invader: the tourist. Just watch the novices of Tabo gompa –the place where the Dalai Lam is meant to retire- playing fascinated with the Enfield motorcycles parked outside the monastery by foreign visitors. They seem to enjoy to much our material world to seriously expect to abandon it.

I joined the main road in Manali, and soon moved to an outlying pacific village called Vashisht. Pacific, in spite of the hundred or so Israeli backpackers, that you may also find in any other touristic village in Northern India. As far as I understood, after two years of Army service, the average young Israeli compensate with a couple of years plane hopping around the world. Those I chatted with were twice as happy to be in India: if they had been at home they would have certainly been called to duty. The night arrived, but I resisted the temptation of cheap guesthouses and instead wandered the streets, a bit lost, knowing that little could I wait from the locals in terms of hospitality. I was, in fact, rescued by a fellow foreigner, a German called Rogelio, who is resident in the village. I had just watched “The Lord of the Rings” in a café, and the in-stage of Rogelio, with his broad never ending ginger beard and his Saxon warrior outfit, made me wonder if Frodo legions hadn’t escaped the 24 inches. In any case, reality and Rogelio were not best friends, and even if he offered a space in his room as promised, he went all night speaking incongruously with himself. I pretend to sleep, but I listened in awe: “I have an Enfield motorcycle. I can ride it to Germany, and drive around the Reichstag, and inside stadiums, no problem, but slow…” At midnight he would stand up in bed and proclaim: “The German Parliament of Schroeder is a debate club where people get paid to talk nicely…”
Standing out of town I stretched my thumb towards Leh, 475 km further north. I didn’t expect an easy trip, knowing that it takes two days by bus. I reached Keylong without difficulties, with two rides in a jeep, one carrying tomatoes the other pipelines. Keylong is situated at 3350 m, and it is the last town of any size in 280 km, before reaching Rumtse, already in Ladakh. In the middle , the road runs almost always over 4000m, with two passes over 5000m, and there are no settlements except for army barracks and transitory yurt camps offering accommodation and basic food to travelers. And the travelers are not few: since the road was opened to foreigners in 1989, thousands of our specie complete the arduous journey every season, whether in bus or in rustic Enfield bikes. Personally, I couldn’t avoid evoking similar South to North trips in the Argentinean Calchaqui Valleys, but without the perspective granted by recurrence. Behind lied the Beas river, that responsible for discouraging Alexander the Great, that traveler disguised as conqueror, who thought the “End of the World” was around here. I stayed overnight in Keylong, where Ailine and Stephanie, two Swiss travelers, smuggled me into their room.

It took me the following morning a jeep and a tractor to reach Parsu village, 52 km north from Keylong. There I saw in the horizon a caravan of Tata trucks, one of which, a tanker, stopped for me. After so many short rides in jeeps, tractors and motorbikes, I had a reason to smile when they said they were going all the way to Leh. Of course, things were not going to be that easy… The first day everything went smooth. Kuldip, the driver, and Guddu, his assistant, were kind in each detail and never spoke about money. So, slow but steady, the Tata opened his way across the winding cliff roads that characterizes the north of Himachal Pradesh, where the high peaks hold the eternal snows so precariously that one expects an avalanche at any moment. More the geography I feared the human factor: Kuldip chose the Baralacha Pass (4830m), the first of a series of high passes, to train Guddu in such tasks. Eye opened Guddu gave stern turns to the wheel, hardly correcting the direction in time for the next curve. I started to choose what memories to retain in the second of my life.

But Gudu did the job. The job of a trucker assistant in India exceeds those of a mere navigator, for in top of those tasks in relation with the road, such as clearing the way from heavy rocks and monitoring the progress of the truck in dangerous curves, there is a devote Guddu who lights incenses very morning to purify each corner of the cabin, from the dead speedometer to the mandatory Shiva image, before joining hands in prayer position and clapping twice. Darkness surprised us soon after the pass, and we stopped at Zingzingbar camp, in a yurt where also three Israeli bikers took rest. These people always surprise me: one of the, with long hair and a pacific aspect, is, in the reserve service, a tank driver! That night it rained harder than ever. My Israeli friends will have, I thought, some genetic skills in Arc construction. Given the circumstances, I couldn’t make clear if the terrible headache was the product of the altitude or the first symptoms of the rabies shared by the dog that bite me in Delhi bazaar… Way or another, we were up 5:30, ready for a long day of traveling after which we should reach Leh.

We hadn’t covered 20 km when we found a column of parked trucks by the roadside. The rains of the previous night had caused a landslide and the road was blocked. A group of 15 workers from Bihar (the poorest province of India) struggles with shovels to make the surface even again. A digger was on its way from Zingzngbar, but it would take hours for it to arrive. With such scenario, Kuldip stared at Guddu and invited (imposed) with a scream: “Chai?” (Tea?). Chai, that Asian way of punctuating the void. Each second, in all Asia, from the Bedouins in Syria to the mullahs of Iran or the lamas in their gompas, millons of throats coordinate the exact inflection and invite (impose): “Chai?” As the tea was not going to be enough to quench my hunger, I decided to walk over the landslide to Sarchu, the next camp, 4 km away. After filling the stomach I looked for a quiet yurt, rented a mattress for the day (1 dollar) and, lethargic as the altitude had rendered me, I fell in a deep sleep. Between the gaps of unconsciousness I believed to hear the engine of the Tatas roaring through. Could it be possible? Could the way be already repaired? I decided, with more instinct than rationality, that resting was now the priority and that next morning I would eventually find another truck bound to Leh. I woke up at 8 pm. It was still raining outside, and there were no other foreigners in my yurt to talk to. Feeling a bit miserable a bone-wet, I emigrated to a yurt across the road, where some Israeli and four Indians from Bangalore, all riding their bikes to Leh, were having some greasy soups as dinner. While crossing the road I could noticed there were several trucks pulled by the muddy roadside as defunct dragons, but being the camp several kilometers long, I rejected the idea of searching for “my” Tata. I had been talking for a couple of hours with my new friends. Raghu, one of the Indians from Bangalore, worked for Dell and had offered to sponsor my up coming website for the first year. In that moment I saw Guddu emerging out of the semi light provided by the kerosene lamp, leaning his head to a side and another, as if it was about to fall, in that polyvalent Indian gesture that can mean everything from affirmation to acknowledgment. They had arrived while I slept, and they were looking for me. “Tomorrow, 6 am, up, evening, Leh” –said Guddu in his broken English, which in that moment sounded as a Shakespeare sonnet. “See you in the next landslide!” – I greeted my fellow travelers and went back to my yurt.

I shouldn’t have used such a dangerous formula. The following morning we had covered less than 10 km when we met again a queue of trucks and jeeps. “Chai!” – shouted out Kuldip, as if two landslides in 10 km would be part of the routine. The second landslide was, nevertheless, more peculiar, for this time the foreigners who traveled in buses and jeeps delayed at both sides of the landslide, joined the Bihari workers and shovels in hand helped to repair the obstructed road. The bright skinned black Bihari workers are always found where the most difficult tasks are required, and remind me of the sub races imagined by A.Huxley. The job demanded more than 5 hours, and only after midday we speeded again. By now, landslides had imposed their rhythm, and we traveled in an involuntary convoy of three trucks. One of the other trucks carried goats, which loomed with through the gaps of the wooden bars of the cargo compartment; the other five hundred hens drugged by altitude. In each landslide, the three truck drivers (and their assistants) would gather and ask each other: “Chai?”.

After we overcame the second landslide, our Tata galloped like a wild horse. The road unexpectedly got paved and led to a plateau of pastures, inhabited by a few khampa nomads, from whose faces can be told that they are still complaining to the Gods for the draw of destinies. The plateau lasted some 20 km, and we started to climb the side of a gorge. The outcome of such steep zigzagging was Taglang Pass (5360m), the second highest motorable pass in the world. With the attitude of a surgeon, Kuldip extended his left arm, where Guddu appropriately fitted a bottle of cheap whiskey. It was their way of celebrating the safe crossing.

On the other side, and after three days in the truck, we reached the first town, Rumtse, which is culturally, a point of inflection. We had left Himachal Pradesh and entered Ladakh soon after Sarchu, but the absence of any settlement had concealed the evidence: that Ladakh is a “Little Tibet” in India. And in Rumtse that fells like a verdict, it is enough with looking at the architecture and the faces of people in the street. Tibetan architecture somehow transmits the stoicism and solidity of the Tibetans. Even the humble most of dwellings looks like a fort built to last a millennium. The slightly inclined angle with which the Hellenic white walls part from the ground enhances this illusion. Near Miru, another Tibetan village with eroded stupas –symbolic Buddhist altars- on the sides, our third landslide surprised us, and tamed us until the next morning.

The last stage on to Leh was clear of landslides but not uneventful. In Karu, a large military base, a young local palmed down the Tata. I thought he was a conscript heading back home to Leh. Once inside, with the premeditated eloquence of a TV presenter, he took a dozen film black plastic tubes refilled with opium and started a real auction. The drivers of the other trucks were already in our cabin. The always ready dealer had even a manual weight like the ones jewelers have. All the transactions went on just in front of the military base…

In Karu I said goodbye to Gudd and Kuldip and boarded an Army jeep of a General who had lived a year in Angola and spoke Portuguese. We soon reached the broad Indus Valley, with its enormous gompas that, far from having been conceived and built in the same instance, are real rag puppets, the babelic result of infinite additions and earthquakes and… Finally, the road seemed to crash against a arch of high unforgiving mountains. A couple of curves and these slided like a theater’s canvas. What was behind was Leh. 101 hours and ten vehicles had been necessary. But I was there.


By definition, the capital of a country of almost a billon inhabitant cannot (and will not) be a pleasant site, I knew that, but besides my wishes, New Delhi was the place to obtain Pakistani and Chinese visas. Being the Indian Himalayas, where I had already spent two weeks, a culturally diverse region I comforted myself by saying that now, traveling southwards, with the unforgiving heat of the plains growing closer, I was in an exploratory mission. Thinking ahead, I imagined an overpopulated metropolis, poorer than Cairo maybe, and surely with more rickshaws and street cows. But I was being distracted by frivolous differences. New Delhi, the heart of the beast, was going to let me with recurrent fantasies of a trip to a South Pacific Island as Cook or Tokelau.

I had always read travel guide authors empting the dictionary when time comes to describe how hospitable Turks, Kurds and Iranians are. En route through such grounds I had found comments of the kind fair, and I had started to such amount of generous adjectives wouldn’t have sense without any of the neighboring countries being hostile or at least sensibly less inclined to help strangers. With its widely acclaimed pacifism and spirituality, India ranked as the applicant less likely to incarnate such eventuality. And yet, I am convinced, acknowledging all what the country has to offer in terms of culture and history, India is, as regards hospitality, the element that allows for the contrast.

After such a categorical statement I know some of you will be wanting proves. It may be enough to remember the rickshaw driver who, on learning that I wouldn’t pay him seven times the fare of my trip, preferred having a nap to driving me for the real price. Or shall I evoke that friendly local who, seeing the coming bus that we should both board overloaded with passengers hanging from the doors as bunches of banana, sent me to the wrong one and literally ran towards the correct one. In any case, it’s their poker face and deep apathy what now, with hundreds of Iranians and Afghans still mimicking invitations for tea in my retina, makes me miss Muslim countries.

Having said this, I must make clear that no specific resentment towards foreigners operates in Indian people, but they are rather democratic: they treat you as bad as they treat each other. The whole picture is both sad and comic, that of a nation regenerating daily their own suffering. Saying that Delhi inhabitants have an unchallenged capacity to turn unnecessary stressing the simplest events of everyday life would be to oversee far more alarming aspects. We are not expecting the vendors of the Paharganj Bazaar to throw their rubbish in the bin, because the haven’t been taught the trick, but then it’s funny to see them throwing rotten fruit in front of their stands and chasing tha happy flies with giant fans soon after. In fact, the average Indian seems to take an immense pleasure in being in close contact with filthiness. When the first monsoon rains hit Delhi, the narrow main street of the bazaar became an Olympic pool size swamp, and mother tenderly waved their children who set off to play and swim, dodging if lucky the open drainage mouths, where hundreds like them drawn every year. By night, control of the area shifts to gangs of rabid looking dogs (one of which sharpened his teeth with my right ankle) and homeless sadus (holy men, most of the times disguised beggars) whse only friends are those dogs.

It turned an immediate question to me, where does the famed spirituality of India comes from? After only two months in the country I am less than qualified to write an essay about the issue, but I suspect it has more to do with the spiritual vacuum of western new agers than with prevailing local state of facts. Many of the travelers I come across arrive to India with an a priori fascination and rapidly derive spirituality from the polychromatic simplicity of life. As for me, I still can’t find any depth in the abundance of incense and the mechanical worship of Shivas and Kalis. I am the first one to admire India for its theoric developments in the course of history, but it is quite obvious that little of that wisdom has filtered to present days. No need to say it is the of yoga and meditation, of the clever assets who wrote the Uppanishads, but this bulge of knowledge seems reserved for a tiny learned minority.

My arrival to Delhi overlapped with the Bombay blasts. Thousands of Indian in the streets stopped harassing each other to watch the news and vengefully exclaimed: “Pakistani people!” In the aftermath of the tragedy, even the noses of the street cows were pointing across the border, and the temptation to strike back was stirred by the contiguity with which TV channels broadcasted Israeli retaliation in Southern Lebanon. That’s within comprehension, but I am still trying to understand how can Indians ride in panic when the death toll is caused by the enemy and be so indifferent to the much higher number of casualties caused by their sole negligence. The supporters of spiritual unearthly India should have a closer look at statistics, and learn about the thousands of cases of parents murdering their newborn daughters to avoid paying hefty marriage “taxes” in the future. As women are considered worthless, the family of the bride has to pay thousands of dollars in compensation to that of the groom for taking their daughter. That also explains why pre-born analysis is forbidden in India. The slightest hint that it is going to be a girl is enough to result in abortion.

In perspective, levels of internal aggression, silenced and accepted, seem to more than enough to stop speaking at once about a land of mystic tolerance. The pacific strategy of Gandhi to drive the British away was emotive. Yet, I wonder, wouldn’t they value more the consequences of their actions had they had to fight for independence? In any case, any attempt of to understand Indian indifference requires looking further back at the emergence of the cast system. The cast system must be the most efficient social control device in history. In this way, the exploited low casts comfort in their misery, and those who receive the legal minimum wage of 7 dollars a month don’t blame anyone, but just believe that they are going through the punishment for bad actions committed in past lives. In India, logically, it’s more realistic to expect advancement from reincarnation rather than from the less than flexible social frame. While the higher casts –the businessmen, or waisha- continue to base their wealth in the management of an underpaid working class, the future remains hazy. Cows are, by far, the ones who result always unscathed from the struggle of Indian existence. The Hindus consider them the second mother of all India, since their milk replaces the mother’s breast. This turns them into untouchable beings who dwell victoriously around the city, smelling at the sign of Indira Gandhi International Airport, as if claiming the few areas not yet under their realm. Being native from Buenos Aires province, where probably the best steak in the world comes from, I can only regret so many cows are not on the right side of the fence (and in the menu).

After two weeks of waiting for Pakistani and Chinese visas to be issued, for anti rabies vaccines to be shot in my arm, and for Delhi citizens to show a more kind side, I left the city for the far North. The Buddhist valleys of Kinnaur, Spiti and Nubra – and the highest roads in the world- were waiting for me.