A Stroll along the Ganges River.... (Part 1)
by Keveen Gabet
NB: To the author, a ‘stroll’ implies necessarily an extensive use of the body, a strong dose of adrenaline, boldness and misadventures.
NB2: Shall I remind you that the documentary entitled ‘Korakor in India’ will take you to the heart of those strolls.
As I sit by the holy river named the Ganga, I wonder why should it be more holy to the non-Hindu than the Seine or the Mississippi rivers? I could not yet answer that question although, for many years, my body and cultural thirst ached to explore the river around which a myriad of myths, cultural phenomena and cults were taking place.
Once again, my birthday was the occasion to destroy old prejudices. I ‘unfortunately’ left a day late (I nurtured the idea of combining the geographical birth of the Ganga with my own) towards the source of the majestic river. At midnight sharp, Gina, a delicious Latino mixture of El Salvador and Cuba enters my room with a Kinder Bueno chocolate bar (at least its India equivalent) served on a platter of biscuits, with a few matches on top serving as candles. It is just the two of us in front of my improvised sulphur-smelling birthday cake. The greatest present of all. We celebrate together my first step into my second quarter of century and I happily realised that so far, no grey hair has made an intrusion on my mane. Before Surya’s (the Sun god) first rays, I jump in a rickshaw that will eventually dump me in a crowded jeep. The vehicle flies into the Uttaranchal forest and drops me 6h later in Uttarkashi. 6h of being shaken like a cocktail, drooled on by exhausted Indians, my birthday cake threatening me to make a U-turn and of surviving from a pilot who defies both gravity and Murphy laws. We slalom long hours between oil tankers, monkeys, cows, flocks of goats, imprudent children and pot holes the size of craters.
6h trying to persuade myself that I do not like to be transported and that I get more satisfaction from pushing the limits of my body than having my bum hammered on rolling plank. The jeep’s final stop is my most desired wish during the trip, and when I finally step out of my nightmarish ride, I still have to struggle in the administrative labyrinth to obtain my permit. Essential indeed if one wants to have the ‘right’ (privilege?) to go to the geographical source of the Ganges, in Shiva’s (the great lord of the Hindu pantheon) glacier. However, it is the peak period for Delhi’s pilgrims and although they deliver 150 passes daily, I am doomed to wait for another 5 days before getting my authorization. Needless to describe all the tricks I used to try to obtain mine illegally.
Shiva and I had already had a powerful exchange during my first cycling stroll in India. He had tested most of my physical and emotional limits, my patience and my humility. Here he is again, playing with my nerves and throwing me in the midst of interesting obstacles.
I heartily accept his challenge as the alcoholic would raise his glass one last time in front of the disease killing him. I am only 140km of mountain roads from the source. So it will be my boldness and audacity (and a spoonful of luck) that will take me there. I hardly have started my long walk that I see a large truck filled with ripe bananas and moustached Indians. I do not waste a minute and jump in the loaded truck under their bewildered eyes. They obviously start throwing me tons of questions (Indian style for those who know what I mean) as I sit amongst them. 30km in their company will suffice me to understand the main goal of such a pilgrimage, its pragmatic functions in the life of a Hindu and learn a few tribal like chants that I will sing throughout the trip. I skilfully enjoy their company at the first pilgrim camp where we spend the night juggling between Shivaite prayers, ganja/marijuana smoking sessions (I regret being a non smoker sometimes) and frenetic dances with strident local music. Then, along with my new 6 friends, we walked down to the Ganges that finally starts showing more splendour and strength. It is on its left bank (we are heading north) that we deliver the last puja (prayer) of the day, drink some of its holy water and bathe in it. I immerse myself in a long monologue with Shiva and beg him to grant me the same freedom I had when I was travelling penniless and with the strength of my body on those south Indian village paths. The miracle with this god is that he always grants my prayers on time. I had hardly returned to the camp that I realised my bag pack (constituted of 1 T-shirt, 1 pair of pants and 1 pair of socks) is alighted of all my ‘fortune’. My last 150 euros have miraculously disappeared under the crowd’s eyes (NB: smoking hash can alter your perception). My passport, credit card and video camera have nevertheless remained faithful to me. Shiva knows what is essential to me and what is only superficial. My new friends are flabbergasted, mad and ashamed of such an act. They are definitely more affected than I am. They spontaneously organise a humble charity that I abort on the spot. I try my best to tell them that my main desire is to be alone with Shiva, nature and simplicity. ‘Om nama Shiva!’, ‘Bom, bom, bombolle!’ are shouted in the air as a faithful servant of Jesus would shout ‘Amen’.
I leave at dawn the next morning, with a French smile on my face and my little yellow back pack and off I am to follow the brownish water road. I have not even walked 6km that an oil tanker stops by my side as the side door opens with an irritating squeak. The invitation could not be any clearer. I jump on the opportunity and let myself doze off by the monotonous 10km/h cruising speed of those everlasting machines. After a 6h-journey mixing the adrenalines of a bullfighter, an equilibrist and a contortionist, I get off to walk the remaining 16km that separate me from Gangotri (the last village before the ascent). Although the village is only a few kilometres from the glacier, without this stupid permit, I am condemned to stay (I could sneak in at night but it’s the rainy season and I have no tent). Nevertheless, I see and feel more miraculous things and love in those 16km than in the last month. For instance, I bumped into a small old bearded man, with cute dreadlocks (Bob Marley’s weird hair for those who did not know) on his head and who spends most of his days making crafty windmills (with recycled matters found on the road) that he then places along the small streams. I guess the principle must be the same as the Buddhist prayers. We exchange a few vain words sharply contrasting with our rich smiles. He tries to mime me, like in a treasure hunt, the exact location of his cave so I can join him later for tea. It is his realm, his haven and I promise to come back the next day as night is coming near and I still have to improvise a free place to stay.