The Banian Tree

After climbing up a narrow track into the Indian jungle forest, so thick that barely lets any light pass through, I reach the Banian Tree. 2000 years old, the tree is made of several trunks together in one embrace and it covers and protects a wide surface under it. People come and hang by its roots, escaping noise and enjoying intoxicating moments in the smoky atmosphere.

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Right now there’s nobody there but I can notice recent traces: at the entrance- all the necessary for a meal, in the middle- ashes from the previous fire, high on top- colorful banners. The protector of these surroundings is Shiva, the powerful god of destruction and of smoking as well. His statue is placed in the center and the statue of yet another saint, a Christian one (Constantine, most probably), does nothing but to complete the New Age atmosphere.

As I continue climbing up the narrow track I reach a bare plateau high above the forest, with nothing but patches of small shrubs. It all looks weird to my eyes, unaccustomed to such colors and shapes; it looks as though I was on another planet. Frail and breakable black and brown rocks, reddish soil.

I find man-made signs here also: mandalas, symbols, crosses or plain blocks of stone offered to any other divinity or event. On top of it all … the sun sets! I find it hard to retrieve my way back through the maze-like landscapes in the state I’m in: in awe in front of such beauty and mystery, in a continuous state of contemplation that stops the thoughts from wandering.

On my return I found new guest in the Banian tree house: a very nice couple of kind (my apologies for the pleonasm 🙂 ) French people, their eyes red and gazing far away. We talk about our trips and about Grandpa Banian. They stay and I continue my way through the jungle.

The darkness sets fast, the monkeys are very close and noisy like hell. Monkeys carry most diseases and a simple bite or scratch coming from them can become a problem. There are many unusual noises, many birds and animals I still don’t recognize … And I don’t really feel very Mowgli! I suddenly get scared and I briskly start running, to use the last moments of daylight. Lianas creeping on me could be anything … my eyes scan everything that moves around, every muscle in my body tenses to the maximum and seconds seem to last forever!

Forever finishes, eventually. All of a sudden, the jungle opens up and the sea appears, at last: wild and distant, its grace has balsamic properties on my tensions and quivers.

To the right, on a high rock reigning the beach I see the red and white representation of a tree …

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Indiaaa!

the church where Vasco da Gamma was buried.

“Image: Fort Cochin: the church where Vasco da Gamma was buried.
Source
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India: the last air-conditioned zone is the airport. Outside the airport what I will find from now on is just fans. The weather is overwhelmingly hot, it makes me relax and abandon myself to what happens around me. People are just like the weather; warm, friendly, passionate and very relaxed.

Around me, lots of colors!! The traditional clothing for women, the saaree, is made of 6 meters of multi-colored fabric and is a treat for the eyes.

People smile a lot and never say no.
When I need some information I have to ask twice, because Indians prefer to never give negative answers.

Fortunately, Indians have a very rich social life and are always well-informed and in contact with everything that happens around them.

There is a special nodding that looks a lot like “no” but it actually means “yes” ). 🙂 They’re adorable when they do it, especially for allowing and approving.

Men show their friendship by holding hands. It comes naturally and has no sexual connotation whatsoever. Nonetheless, psychologically speaking both feminine and masculine roles are clearly distributed in the relation.

I try a hitch-hike but several rickshaws suddenly appear.

The rickshaw is a 3-wheeled vehicle, a curious mix of a carriage with a motorbike or bike and it has pedals also. It is used just like a taxi.

So I get in the rickshaw and the driver is very kind and friendly. He is even willing to give up the ride when he sees a taxi coming my way. Because the traffic is insane, crossing the street is a real adventure!

The rules on the road are the same like the British ones: they use the left side of streets and the steering wheel in on the right. They respect this rule sometimes. It seems to be the only traffic rule. There are no policemen in the streets, but their drivers are really good at it.

On my first trip on a bus the driver invites me to join him in front, to better see the road tricks and acrobatics. No, I’m not in one of those “Need for Speed” races or in a circus show. Is just that we barely milimetrically pass other cars, people and motorbikes…

Nonetheless, no accident occurs!

The toilet is oriental. There is no toilet paper, Indians prefer to wash themselves. As a matter of fact the majority of the planet’s inhabitants use this more healthy method. Because they use the left hand in the restroom it becomes a taboo once at table. They use the right hand for eating. The left hand is used only for taking a bottle or handling other utensils.

Vikash

Vikash – my friend in Dubai:
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Vikash is intelligent, sensitive and knowledge-oriented. This year he’ll graduate from a Master’s program in Business Management and he’ll probably make 2000 dollars a month. It’s not his ideal of a life, though.

We have the most exciting conversations and time seems to be expanding. He presents me Dubai at night; a lot light, many well-dressed people, night-clubs you can only get in if you are on the list, expensive cars, an image-centered universe …

The Emirates

At the border I feel like I am participating in the Olympics.

First of all it’s because the procedure for getting the U.A.E. visa has changed into an obstacle race with many desks. Second of all because the competitors in this race are from all possible races on Earth. There are many men of color, so different. They’re from Africa, Asia, North America. They’re Indians, Koreans, Japanese, Australians, Chinese, Europeans…

We all have the same goal, leaving this airport either on a plane or with a visa… and thus get inside the Emirates.

As usual, actually getting the visa takes longer than they say. Nobody seems to be able to provide me with explanations as to why extra-procedures are necessary: in the end, maybe I really do look like a terrorist 😀 The officer asks “problems with Tehran…!?” then smiles and stamps my passport.

Image: Burj Al Arab (which in Arabic means The Arabs’ Tower),a luxury hotel in Dubai, U.A.E
Source.
Burj Al Arab

The first step outside the airport is the first step outside the air conditioning zone. The high temperature and the wet climate make for difficulties breathing. The hitch-hike is OK and I reach the city on the second vehicle. 2/3 of the automobiles are Toyota. In here, in the summer nobody takes shower between 7 am and 11 pm. That’s because the cold water pipe is too hot.

Dubai and Sharjah are two cities close to one another, with amazing beaches, strange-looking and extremely high buildings.

After a short ride through the city I stop in a palm trees-park. With my backpack as a pillow, I lay down in the protective shade of a palm tree. After the mad race to Istanbul, nothing seems to bother me anymore. Everything is perfect. Outside there are 50 degrees and what I inhale is half water, still I fall asleep under the palm tree and it feels good, like nothing bad can happen.

The mosques are superb with their beautiful colors and the architecture different from Islamic standards. Is the people that impress me less. The Arabs in the Emirates are so different from all Arabs I’ve met till now. They are cold, distant and very suspicious. I have the longest and most interesting conversations with Pakistanis and Indians. In the floor I live in there are forty Indians. They are very passionate and interested in everything is new and different. They receive my presentation on Romania with obvious joy.

In Dubai everybody working in services is from other countries. It’s hard to believe they are building a city almost entirely on sands. The rhythm they build in is crazy, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In few years Dubai will certainly make in the Top 10 cities of the world. Not in my top of favorite cities. It’s artificial, expensive and so superficial.

Departure. Reloaded.

After a couple of days for 24-hour-a-day-Internet-digging, I finally find an excellent transportation mix. Istanbul to Cochin, south of India. Due to previous Iranian frustration I decide for a 2-day loop in the Arab Emirates.

Train is my best option for the Bucharest-Istanbul chunk of the trip. It’s guaranteed that I’ll make it in time, that I can get a rest after struggle times plus my ticket’s cost is covered from another project’s incomes. I’m done with all the packing and preparing, here I am on the platform, waiting for my Bucharest-to-Istanbul train… my Bucharest-to-Istanbul train which is not here. It just left, 44 minutes before time… that same train I recently used on my returning from Istanbul, that same train listed on the Internet with THIS departure schedule…

No, it is not the departures schedule that has changed. It is this train’s schedule and starting with yesterday.
So currently I have no other train option and my only other possibility is hitch-hiking. For now “Hitch-hiking for Peace and Soul” can only hitch-hike to get to the plane and get to India. I manage to overcome my shock and whining and I get out to find a hike. I have plenty of time so I chill, enjoying every second of time spent waiting. I reach the Bulgarian border changing two hikes, a brand new Mercedes and a truck. This is done with reasonable timing.

At the border I wait a long time, nearly 2 hours until a truck stops to pick me. My Bulgarian driver is an excellent and very sociable host. Nearly everything is perfect about this hike: the weather, the already-mentioned driver, the truck itself (very comfy), the fact that I can even sleep, the landscapes that pass my eye… but not the speed though! The truck is fully loaded and snail-fast. We rarely go over 30 per hour and time ticks-ticks-ticks! This truck is my slowest hike ever. I fidget but cannot get off cause I don’t know how much more I’ll be waiting and waiting in a deserted Bulgarian field. Definitely, the truck is better than nothing. Six hours later I’m 40 kilometers away from the Turkish border. I’ve still got enough time so I try to get another hike, smile on my face. So many cars that pass, none that stops.

Lots of trucks heading to Istanbul, Turkish drivers… and still none to stop. Heavy rain and I’m all soaked. Finally, a bus passes that will take me straight to the border. Special story about this bus: each little village means a detour, each stations means waiting for long and 40 kilometers take one and a half hours. Tensions builds up, each minute passing scares me… but I’m still on time.

I walk across the border, it’s almost 3 kilometers. Once in Turkey I get my visa fast, fill in the papers and get the best place for hiking: it’s where all cars and trucks going to Turkey pass, all vehicle coming from Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Europe. Each vehicle has to stop for checking. The people here are very nice, they let me go back across the border and talk to the drivers but still no luck. The drivers either have no more place, either go to sleep, some don’t even bother sparing a look.

Turkey is a country I love, the people here are most kind and welcoming. I’ve always felt at home in Turkey and I’ve had the most amazing relations with Turks. The drivers’ behavior could not surprise me more… The only other explanation I have is the time they spent out of their country: it somehow mutated them. Yet again, absolutely everything shows me I shouldn’t have left. Yet again, my quasi-mystical question occurs: what am I supposed to do, understand or finish back in Bucharest that does not let me go?

I check the time once more. Time never seemed to run faster than it does now. All my clothes dried while on. I feel like I’m about to explode. I really cannot miss this plane. It’s too late to re-schedule, I won’t get a refund and losing it would mean money going down the drain. A new ticket plus one extra week in Istanbul ’till the next flight, that would leave me with insufficient funds for India. I already start thinking of other possible destinations: Syria, Morocco…? I cannot get back to Romania now, that I’ve arranged all my issues for a few months… yet again I would find myself with no place to live… and I would feel like such a failure!

Text messages from friends
: “Vaya con Dios!”; “May you find good humans!”… Yes! Oh, yes! Thank you! It’s God and Humans that I need right now.

I pee every 10 minutes. My signals are mechanical. I’m not able to think anymore. Never in my life have I felt so full of tension. The buses that were supposed to leave via Istanbul didn’t leave anymore. The buses that were coming from Istanbul the way to Edirne didn’t arrive anymore. I had settled to meet a painter, a really great guy, for a coffee in the serenity of my hours before the take-off. Ha-ha-ha…

I find myself stuck in here, 300 kilometers far away from the place where my plane is going to take off in just hours. My plane without me in it

I feel like a machine running its program.

It starts raining again.

Nothing…

My hiking sign doesn’t skip one single car.

Still, from now on no truck or bus could make it in time!

I show my cardboard that says Istanbul and I put my hands together in a desperate prayer.

The next driver says “Come on up.” like it’s the most natural gesture in the world!

This angel arrived from out of nowhere is driving a BMW. God must have sent him to me to prove me that you can have misery and sheer ecstasy in just one moment!

I cannot believe my eyes when I see the speed, 220 kilometers per hour. Same day, the slowest and fastest speed I have ever traveled with in a hike. We reach Istanbul in one hour and 10 minutes. All of this time my soul stays connected to the heaven above, in a deep thanksgiving.

This insane day happened just to show me that God does exist. Whatever his name, He exists and is so much greater than my own will… All I can do is walk this road I chose until I reach the end… And accept whatever result comes my way!

In the airport I get to eat the yoghurt-muesli I had prepared for the train trip. An Australian couple manages somehow to smuggle a little bag of weed past the Turkish border. They smuggle themselves out of many years in the Bosporus prison as well… I fall asleep between the clouds and I wake up surrounded by sand dunes…

Technical data 🙂
Time spent on hike: 15h30mins
Vehicles needed: 6
Shortest wait: 2mins
Longest wait: 2h30mins

Visas

Getting the visas was the most difficult part of the preparations, because each embassy has bureaucracy and it also has its own requests. Immediately when I get the visa for India I leave Romania.

At the border, the last call I receive is from the Iran embassy. If they would have called me 10 minutes later probably I wouldn’t had answered at an unknown number due to roaming reasons. The officer tells me that there is a small problem about my visa, they need more information and I have to pass by the embassy.

“- Now I am basically in Bulgaria. If there is a small problem let’s solve it by phone.
– It’s fine, you may pass by the embassy of Iran in Sofia as well.
– I’m sorry, I am going straight to Turkey and can’t stop in Bulgaria.
– Ok, it is possible to go to the embassy from Istanbul. But if you don’t pass by an embassy you won’t be allowed to enter in Iran.”

Further on, the Iran embassy cancels my visa for good… in 5 minutes! They simply mark a big X on the passport and write something (in parsi I think), without any other comments. Probably – canceled. They only said “this is the request from the embassy of Bucharest” and send me back to Romania for more information… to the same guys who were telling me “small problem- no problem”!?

The shock doesn’t appear as it should… somehow, a part of me was expecting this after the phone call…

I am losing myself on the Istanbul streets and my mind looks for solutions… it is holiday and at a mosque they share sheep meet with rice and “ayran” (a drink based on yogurt). Delicious!! The Turkish cooks the meet seep wonderful! And life goes on

I already have something planned for Turkey. The participants are very opened and friendly, interested of inter-cultural learning. I am performing a workshop about understanding the communication barriers and the cultural limitations. The time we spend adds value, we start friendships and design future projects.

I turn back to Bucharest and, with the pain in my boots, I ring at the gate of the Iran Embassy. Here, my “friends” serve me bullshit: “military operations are on your way, near the Eastern board with Pakistan”. But I have friends who were coming from Pakistan on the same way and they had no problems at all.

And the Iran Embassy rejects my request for a new visa, even for a transit one.

On these circumstances, the route Bulgaria-Turkey-Georgia-Russia-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India remains the only way, on land, to go for Nepal. This implies a lot of time, an increased risk, lots of visas and small chances of success. From Romania – zero chances!