Kolkata & Varanasi

Dear Lord, the great Healer, I kneel before you, since every perfect gift must come from you. I pray give skill to my hands, clear vision to my mind, kindness and meekness to my heart. Give me singleness of purpose, strength to lift up a part of the burden of my suffering fellow men, and a true realization of the privilege that is mine. Take from my heart all guile and worldliness, that with the simple faith of a child, I may rely on You. Amen.  –  Prayer of the Missionaries of Charity found in the Motherhouse in Kolkata

Would this prayer mark the beginning of each new day around the globe, the world would certainly be a better place …

In mid-January I was back in Delhi. My luggage contained a number of service-parts and a brand new set of tires for the 40,000 km inspection. This time I made sure I would use the same set of tires that made my way last year without any problems from Germany to the Chinese border.

It was a Tuesday morning but the very same day the Delhi-Metro line, which was supposed to get me through the city to BMW in Faridabad (South of New Delhi) was closed. I then decided to take the bus, which started out to be a little bit more adventurous than expected.

How would you actually define a fully crowded bus? A full bus is a relative expression in India. Usually there is still room for one more passenger … and another one … and one more … Sometimes the buses are so packed that you’d not have to worry about falling over. When I boarded the bus, I assumed people would as usual move closer together and the Indian potential for further compression offered still sufficient room for a few more travelers. It turned out that my assumptions were wrong this morning. Shortly after I stepped on the running board the bus started moving again. With the backpack full of spare parts on my back, the helmet in my left hand and a set of tires in the right … the doors tried to close … but here I was … Even the hardboiled Indians just looked at me and shook their heads. I think I offered them an unusually bizarre picture: An entertaining “farang” fixed to the outside of a bus. I pressed my tires with the right knee against the frame of the door and did my best not to get lost on the ride. I have to admit there are better ways to travel.

The service at BMW took me some time to get used to it. Although the team was extremely kind and friendly and even allowed me to park the bike over Christmas in their hangar, I was a little surprised that I had to argue with the mechanics whether my bike had two or four spark plugs. I knew there were four, but the team wanted to convince me that there would be only two …  The incident left me with doubts. What did one actually know about the boxer and what not? Certainly they never had a bike to service with 40,000 kilometers on the clock.

Delhi was cold these days. Of course when living in Europe you wouldn’t say that 12 to 14 degrees in January can be described as cold. Right. But houses in Delhi have no heaters. So lets go back again … What about 12 degrees in the evening in your living room? Or possibly only 10 degrees in the morning in the bathroom? It’s constantly cold and I was not particularly sad to leave Delhi a few days later towards the south-west of India.

About the traffic in India I have already stated more than enough and when I left Delhi in a tide of stop and go traffic it happened … A red little car bumped from behind into my bike. The impact broke, among others once again a rear wall of my aluminum panniers. Boy, this sucks … and it’s f… nerve-racking.

“My dear Indian fellows, you do not always need to push impatiently forward. You also don’t have to honk when you get stuck in traffic. It’s simply not helping anyone and it certainly does not dissolve the traffic jam. And by the way, the concept of a minimum of safety distance has some reasoning. Just think about it. At least once.”

The day turned out not to be one of my favorites anyway. In the afternoon, I was greeted excessively friendly at a gas station. The guy welcomed me with kindness and a handshake – a behavior, which should make you suspicious right away. I have gone through all of this several times and I think I know how to make my moves in many parts of this world.

But as I said already, this wasn’t my day anymore. The gas station attendant complained about one of my 500 rupee notes and requested another one. I could not immediately explain myself where I had picked up this bill, but I usually don’t accept pathetic-looking banknotes either. Within the next half hour, I continuously had to think about the guy at the petrol pump and tried to remember where I had gotten this bill. Then it “clicked”. That wasn’t my banknote at all. The crook must have swapped my note. When I tried to use the bill in the evening to pay the hotel, my guess got confirmed. It was a copy. The day was crowned with a most unspectacular and shabby room. Behind the window curtain there was not even a window. I checked out early in the morning and as annoying as the events of the previous day were, I was looking forward to my days in Varanasi.

The holy Ghats of Varanasi

Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth but it may also turn out to become one of your favorite stops. Also known as Kashi (City of Life) and Benares, this is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited towns and is regarded as one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities. Pilgrims come to the ghats lining the River Ganges to wash away a lifetime of sins in the sacred waters or to cremate their loved ones. It’s a particularly auspicious place to die, since expiring here offers moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death), making Varanasi the beating heart of the Hindu universe.

The place, however, is not for the faint-hearted. The most intimate rituals of life and death take place in public and the sights, sounds and smells in and around the ghats can be overwhelming.

The old city of Varanasi is situated along the western bank of the Ganges and extends back from the riverbank in a labyrinth of alleys that are too narrow for traffic. But Varanasi is at its brilliant best by the ghats, the long stretch of steps leading down to the water on the western bank of the Ganges. The ghats are spiritually enlightening and fantastically photogenic. Most are used for bathing but there are also several ‘burning ghats’ where bodies are cremated in public. The main one is Manikarnika and you’ll often see funeral processions threading their way through the backstreets of the old city to the these ghats.

From Varanasi I made my way to Ranchi. Pranjal had invited me several months ago in case I should be on my way to visit West Bengal. It was good to see him again and I spent more days in town and with his family than I originally had in mind. His family was involved in the wedding preparations of one of his cousins. Now you have to know, that weddings in India are far from being comparable with wedding processions at home. When I mentioned that a wedding at home may be described as kind of big with about 80-100 guests, one just smiled at me. Hindu Weddings often involve 1,000 to 1,500 guests and the ceremony usually covers three full days. Even the preparation of the big day is an event in itself. The families will gather regularly in the evening for several weeks to organize the festivities in detail. I was asked to stay until the wedding and it was a unique opportunity to witness one of the most colorful and important events in India. However, I intended to spend the next few days in Kolkata and left it open for the time being, whether I would return to Ranchi to join the ceremony.

The life-work of a small woman

I don’t know when I first heard of Calcutta, but as long as I can remember, I always inevitably associated the name of the city with the name “Mother Teresa”. Thus it should not surprise that my visit to the home of 15 million people was primarily dedicated to the life-work of this woman. I wanted to know, see and experience what this little woman had built with the simple strength of her faith. Her unprecedented willingness to sacrifice herself for the poorest of the poor, her intimate devotion and her childlike trust in the grace of God moved mountains and anyone who has a spark of faith in himself and who sees the fruits of her work will probably pause in admiration. She put an example out there and served her community in the truest sense of the word. She also assigned herself again and again to the lowest tasks. She waived any privileges that would have favored her within the Community in any way. Looking at her way of “leadership” makes me feel ashamed.

Sunday morning at 6:00 a.m. I joined the morning Mass in the Motherhouse and after a breakfast consisting of bananas, bread and chai I was assigned to “Prem Dan”, the largest house of the “Missionaries of Charity” in Calcutta. Many volunteers remain for weeks or even months in Calcutta to support the daily work of the sisters. The work is simple and requires no special skills. All that’s needed is the willingness to help and an open heart. The first task of every day is dedicated to do the laundry. Blankets, pants and jackets need to be soaked in large basins, will be hand washed and rinsed. People need to be spoon-fed, hundreds of cups and plates must be cleaned several times a day and also the premises have to be wiped and sanitized. Those who stay longer can take on other tasks with time.

Here people are cared for. Most people have been picked up around the train station. People, who can’t take care of themselves anymore due to sickness, injuries, open wounds or weakness. The Missionaries of Charity will nurse them and provide for the poor until these people are capable again to care for their own lives. I spent two days in “Prem Dan” and then asked to be allowed to get to know ” Nirmal Hriday”, the house of the dying. The impressions will stay with me for a long time.

Kolkata became the city in India, which I liked most. The impressions are certainly related to my personal experiences, but not entirely. Calcutta gave me a surprising welcome. On my way into town, I noticed the clean streets along the Victoria Memorial while the marble building itself caught my attention. I also liked the old-fashioned yellow taxis, which I only noticed in Calcutta, and you will even find a tram running across the city.

When I left Pranjal, I mentioned that I intended to work with the Missionaries of Charity and depending on my experiences I might not want to dance at a wedding party afterwards … and so I finally left the city towards south and never returned to Ranchi.

On my way out of town, I took a picture of the “Calcutta – Bridge”. Somewhere, I think I have previously read that it was not permitted to photograph the bridge. But when I left the city I didn’t notice any prohibition signs. It came what was to come. While I took a few shots a police car stopped in front of my bike. The policeman came up to me, but barely spoke any English. However, it wasn’t to hard to put two and two together and I offered to delete the pictures from my camera, if that’s what this was all about. Frankly spoken, this “no-picture-policy” seems pretty pointless, since everyone can photograph the bridge unnoticed out of a car or by boat. Anyway, the policeman told me to follow him to the police headquarters of Calcutta.


This came as a surprise and was totally out of the question. I had a 500-kilometer ride to Puri ahead of me and a little joined patrol with these two gentlemen based on ludicrous accusations would cost me several hours. I explained myself more than once, but the officer continuously stated I should follow him. Hence we had a little argument, which consisted more of gestures than understandable words. He was not exactly the most energetic guy and maybe he was just up for some extra money on the side. However, in that case he was definitely addressing the wrong “tourist”.  Finally, I took my helmet from the cockpit, put my gloves back on, started the boxer and told him that I would leave now. To my own surprise, my behavior had no further consequences and I was on my way south.

And the day kept another very nice surprise for me in store. I saw my first Indian elephant along the highway. It was a great encounter. My GS looked literally small next to this giant creature.

The next three days I spent in Puri and had planned to stay another night in the Yogi Surfer Camp half an hour down the road. It was a Sunday and already late morning. The camp was less than 20 kilometers away from Puri and I had no hurry. But then it all turned out different. Local villagers had come together to form a political strike and blocked the road with a tree trunk. No one was allowed to get through. I spoke with the police, which was apparently on site to prevent the situation from escalating. But it became quickly clear that the police was not in charge here.

So I tried to talk to the grim-looking Indians. I explained that I was expected in the camp located only 2.5 kilometers away and kindly asked the guys to let me pass. But kindness wasn’t written on their Sunday-flags. All I could see was a hint of aggressiveness flickering over the dodgy faces of those men. It was a little frustrating to be so close to the camp and still not to be able to reach it. I looked at my watch. It was already before noon and far too late to start a day trip further south. But I also didn’t want to stay another night in Puri. Unceremoniously I called the camp and informed the guys I wouldn’t come. Then I turned my back on the striking Indians and dedicated the rest of the day to another 450 kilometers on the road. This Sunday was supposed to be entirely different.

Heading further south also meant to explore the last big stretch of my journey: The tropical side of India, the tea-covert mountains of Munnar, the backwaters of Kerala and some lonely beaches at the Arabian Sea …