RANIKHET EXPRESS. When I began to prepare the articles I felt the joyful energy that travel always provokes in me. In this case I was going to travel one thousand two hundred and fifty-six kilometers to the northeast on a train made to measure, as it began its journey in Jaisalmer, in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan (less than two hundred kilometers from the Pakistani border) and ended in Kathgodam, at the foot of the Kumaon Hills, where it returned for the umpteenth time in search of fresh air and clean forests and lakes (which are at an altitude of one thousand three hundred meters).
You could say that I was leaving Jaisalmer pushed by the unpleasant hot wind called Lu, which was blowing from the southwest giving you the feeling of being in an oven. My long-suffering lungs, which for the first few weeks had appreciated the dry air of this historic pollution-free city, now begged me to change the scenery.
The Ranikhet Express timetables were a bit… inconvenient, as it was punctually set in motion at one o’clock in the morning and would arrive at its destination, after twenty-eight hours of travel, at five o’clock in the morning (1,440 rupees. Euro: 78 rupees). I congratulated myself on finding that “my” car was practically empty.
It was shocking to instantly move from the embarrassing desert atmosphere (it was even at dawn) to the exaggeratedly cold air conditioning.
The night had no more history because I just slept like an angel cradled by the swaying of the train. But during the next long day I thought about it (if I wasn’t taking a nap, because I got stuck dozens of times fulfilling my role as a grandpa).
In doing so about my stay in Jaisalmer, I discovered that in all those days I had only dealt with real gentlemen, soft and well-mannered, with whom I was happy to converse (no women, sorry). I mention this because, in general and as you know, I give birth to the Indians (“Criticón, que eres un criticón!”).
While I had my eyes fixed on the landscapes that appeared behind the window, I duly filed in my memory the images that included the unruly Holi festival (better Joli, right?) in which I did not participate; although I did place myself like everyone else taking a very strong bhang lassi (cream of maria with yogurt) that took me to the stars.
I laughed when I remembered the popular belief that a bald man is invariably rich. I thought fondly of the woman who put food and water for the pigeons in the part of the wall in front of her house. By the way, the walls of Jaisalmer served as a public shithouse until about twenty years ago: “We ducked looking towards the desert”.
At night, above these walls, some big insectivorous bats fluttered around, which I took for birds, first because they almost always limited themselves to gliding around playing with the wind, and second because they had underneath the spotlights that illuminated the walls and looked white. Further down (20 or 30 meters?) and behind the slope, was the street that surrounded the fortress and that was the kingdom of dogs, bulls and hairy pigs like wild boars that belonged to no one.
I also reflected on the immediate future, and in doing so, the memories took me back to the past, exactly one year earlier, when I was last at the Kumaon Hills site, to which I was now heading, where in the spring you can’t miss seeing dozens of exotic birds of different breeds all over the place.
In the almost thirty years that I have been coming to those woods (in which a tree can sprout from which only the empty shell of a stump of one meter remains) I stayed in nine different houses that resembled each other in terms of the silence that reigned in them (especially at night). I automatically remembered the family I have lived with the last five times, the young parents (she commands) and their two little children.
The house is modern, but stands alone on the ridge that separates two small valleys. The local population, the “paharis” who speak “kumaoni”, do not have the slightest geographical culture; if I mention them, for example, Madhya Pradesh, the great state of central India, sounds the same to them as if I told them Timbuktu because in their mind there is not the least information about it.
Another memory: A night party in the luxurious home of a good friend attended by the cream of the expatriates of Delhi; people who, despite smoking the most expensive brands of cigarettes in the country, viciously threw themselves on my bidi folklore (I remind you that only peasants and those who are short on rupees smoke them).
There was a woman, young, fine and elegant, who had the typical exaggeratedly high-pitched voice of Indian singers; curiously, (or not), although it was annoying to my ear while she was talking (I was next to her talking to a writer), I was ecstatic when, later, she began to sing: It was a wonder! But don’t think she sang alone, because the rest of the long dozen guests also did it in chorus (and very well), and I thought India and Germany looked alike in terms of the value they gave to musical culture.
Um, let’s get back to the news. The Ranikhet Express arrived in Kathgodam with British punctuality. It was five o’clock in the morning and only the first flashes of dawn could be guessed. A taxi driver waiting for me by the door of the wagon accepted the price I offered to take me to my final destination about thirty kilometers away (600 rupees). Just like every other occasion, my emotions went wild as soon as we started to climb the narrow mountain road that I had covered many times in the past.
“Welcome home,” Uma greeted me when the taxi stopped in front of her home. I saw with a quick glance that nothing had changed. She made my day happy by telling me that I would occupy the same room, and would do so at the same price (which includes two meals and three chai). I cheered his up a little bit.
The temperatures were ideal, but the woman told me that they had only softened a few days before and that the winter had been long, cold and especially rainy: it was a good fact because, otherwise, these forests can become very arid during spring, adversity that is often accompanied by fires: fortunately last year there was none.
Similar to what I told you about Jaisalmer’s knights, the social relationship I maintain here is at a very high level of intelligence, culture, delicacy and psychology (writers, editors, photographers and even a submarine designer), so much so that I can’t help complimenting them from time to time: “You’re the host!”.
In the evening of this first day I went to greet Mr. Lobo (yes, the one who solves problems and works as a tour guide for people so rich that they can have the pleasure of traveling the world in a private jet). There was also his wife; a woman as intelligent as she was cultured who had travelled Africa carrying out projects for the United Nations. He showed me some photos in which a mother leopard was seen eating the sámbar she had hunted along with her pup (it is a large deer and a little while ago one passed in front of Uma’s house). I also had a video of several minutes in which appeared a real cobra of three meters to which several birds of a race that I know well risked annoying; born warriors who attack anyone who approaches the nest they have on the ground.
The next visit was to the hundred-year-old house of Señor Jabalí, poet and great music lover, who managed to hallucinate me by showing me a little “modelno” device that reproduced the song you asked for. As a first step, and in order for it to connect automatically, you had to pronounce the name of a woman who would then ask you which piece you wanted to listen to. My friend commented sarcastically, “She is the only woman who always fulfills my wishes. Then he said he was inviting me to dinner the next day: fish croquettes, rum, music and good local cost porritos. I gladly accepted without waiting for the meeting to be composed almost exclusively of Westerners: a dozen of them who had just spent a whole week in an ashram without uttering a word and now kept shoveling.
My social relationships on this site also include several dogs that, in an unusual case, are all still alive despite being the favorite dish of leopards.
I’m going to spend two months walking through these woods, and I’m already clamoring at the thought of all the birds I’ll see; perhaps also some beautiful Himalayan martens and, hopefully, some cute kitty.
In a week the Occitan friend will arrive with a bottle of rum in his backpack and wanting to crush me playing backgammon.
And that’s all for today, my dear papanatas. Bom Bom.
The Cosmic Chronicle, by Nando Baba