Guru under a banyan tree

People under a banyan treeWe first heard of a guru in the jungle while lying on Arambol Beach. Supposedly, in the nearby jungle there was a banyan tree. Below the tree lived a hermit who had said goodbye to the modern world many years ago. I was skeptical of the whole story, told by a guy with a never-ending beard. And we didn’t came to India to seek wisdom; we came to have fun. But still, my friend Marko and I decided to check it out the next day.

As tree roots started replacing the beach sand, we put our shoes on. “Jungle” was not as impenetrable as the local name would suggest to European laymen like us: the trail was visible and easily walkable. And full of people.

“Just walk 20 minutes straight,” said the couple we asked about the banyan tree.

The man we asked 15 minutes later was more specific.

“When you hit a small stream, just cross it. Uphill you will see a large tree. You can’t miss it.”

He was right, Broadway Street was easier to get lost on.

We crossed the stream and arrived at a tree where four white people were sitting in a circle on a large padded area in the shade. We asked to join them, and they quietly agreed. Everybody was sitting in the lotus position, so I copied them. One had a guitar. Slowly, we started talking and connecting bits of the story. The tall, super-skinny guy was the man who permanently lived under the tree. He was Dutch, and he arrived seven years ago. He had a very primitive shelter in the back. There was a small fireplace. Metal mugs and pans were hanging from the tree, together with sacks of rice and bananas. But it was not only dietary products. One guy slowly rolled a joint. It started going around the circle; we didn’t mind when it came to us. It was strong, as you would expect from weed grown in an Indian rainforest. One by one, depending on personal tolerance, we abandoned the lotus position and lay down on the padded earth. I watched the sky swinging between the branches. It was great.

The Dutch guy seemed the least affected. He kept messing with his bags. But he was far from normal. As new people approached the stream, he stood up.

“Jump over the water. Don’t put your dirty feet in!” he shouted. “I drink the water from that stream, goddammit!”

Newcomers didn’t reply, although their eyes showed surprise. Could you contaminate a running stream just by walking through? If you want your water sterile, why do you live in the jungle?

Awkwardness continued as everyone sat down. During conversation, the Dutch guy raised his voice a few times to impose authority. He repeated that we needed to respect his place, not abuse his generosity. He seemed aggressive.

I nodded to my friend, and he nodded back:  it was time to leave. We said goodbye and started walking back.

“What an enlightened prick!” I commented.

“Yes,” my friend agreed. “I guess that’s what happens when you live in a jungle for seven years.”

But we were in for an even bigger surprise.

“You know that’s not the real guy?” said a woman we met on our way back. Her friend nodded.

“What do you mean?” We were surprised.

“That guy is a fake. The real Indian guy is under another tree.”

She showed us the path to the other tree; it was 10 minutes’ walking.

Tree number two looked less impressive. It was smaller and located downhill, and with a smaller padded area. But the baba sitting there was the real deal: dark Indian with an even darker turban, snow-white beard, and bare chest. We already knew the procedure. We quietly greeted him, he nodded in approval and a gestured to a place where we could sit down. Another tourist was explaining to baba that he was famous—a passage in a guidebook mentioned him as the local attraction. Baba gently smiled. We asked many questions, but he was not surprised; he was greeting many people every day. The tree was full of inscriptions from passing tourists.

He started living in the jungle 27 years ago, alone, under the large banyan tree that we visited. Seven years ago, a Dutch guy came and asked if he could join him. Although he was strange and sometimes abrupt, it worked for a few years. But two years ago the situation escalated, and one night, in a moment of insanity, the Dutch guy tried to kill him. Baba was unharmed but worried. What could he do? He didn’t want to call the police or use any kind of forceful action; that was against his beliefs. He decided that, after many years, it was time to find another tree. A week later, he found this tree—less prominent but still nice. That is where he had lived for two years, greeting visitors and leading a peaceful life. Indeed, his smile was contagious. We were impressed: he was glowing with positivity. How could the Dutch guy be mean to him?

At one point, my friend asked if he could take a photo. Baba said no, we could get unlimited words of wisdom but not one tourist photo. My friend took the camera down. But I knew what he would do. While the camera was in his lap, he discreetly pressed the trigger while Baba was looking away.

I know what you’re thinking. We broke the promise given to the old, welcoming man. Bloody tourists. But there is a workaround. On a philosophical level, baba was not against photo-taking per se. After all, photons reflecting off his body and entering the lens of the camera didn’t do him any harm. He was against other people looking at his photo, as a matter of privacy. We can solve that. As a moral person, you are going to respect baba‘s wish. And you are not going to visit this link with a photo of baba sitting under a tree. No eyes looking, no problem.

We left baba with heads full of questions. What was true and what was a lie? Is the whole story about 27 years in a jungle a way to get sympathy from tourists? Maybe he sleeps in a proper hut and just comes to the tree in the early morning? Regardless of that, we learned one important thing—how to become a guru in a jungle:

  1. Get a distinct look. Nobody is going to believe you are in touch with divine wisdom if you look like the average Rahul. Grow body hair extremely long or shave it completely. Show that you don’t need worldly things such as underpants. But, since there are millions of babas doing the same thing, be even more extreme. A common idea is to demonstrate the strength of your penis by wrapping it around a stick or a heavy block.
  2. Find a place of solitude. A tree, a cave, a giant rock. But remember, it still needs to be accessible to people, otherwise nobody is going to visit.
  3. Just sit there. Somebody is going to see you and start spreading rumors. A divine man? A guru? A healer? You don’t advertise in any way, so the only way to learn about you is to visit you.
  4. Become a good psychologist. Every question a visitor asks you is a hint about what they came to find. In the beginning, you are probably going to have difficulties answering some of them. But every visitor is a practice session. You see which answers make them happy and which don’t. After you accept visitors day after day and month after month, you will have a wise answer for any question.
  5. Make a living out of it. If you are good at satisfying visitors’ needs, they are going to spread the word. You will become a local guru. New visitors will come in flocks, and they are going to bring presents. Flowers, food, sometimes even money. Now you have a work-from-home office and an extremely busy social life. Complete strangers visit you from far away and share intimate details of their lives.

But it’s not so easy to become successful.

If you give nonsensical advice or make your visitors uncomfortable, the word is going to be that you are just a crazy man. Some may still visit you, but they will not feel obliged to bring you presents. You will be labeled as a fake guru. Tired and hungry, one day you will pack all your earthly possessions in a small sack and return to your village.

We experienced two different examples. I could imagine myself bringing a bag of rice back to baba in the jungle; he was interesting and positive. The Dutch guy was not, the only reason to go back to that place would be to smoke pot.

It seems the history of organized beliefs was often like that. The Bible warns about false prophets in 70 different places. But I never learned about minor, fake ones. How many other prophets were there for every Jesus, Buddha, or Muhammad? Buy a ticket to India and experience firsthand how it worked for millennia.

Or be even bolder: become a prophet. My friend and I joked while leaving the forest; we just needed a nice tree, long beards, and we could offer a third option to visitors of the Arambol jungle. It would be an interesting endeavor, cheaper and simpler than the Kumaré experiment.

My beard is currently only three centimeters long. But one day, one fine day…

 

 

How do you know you are in Asia?

You are somewhere in Asia if..

..convenience store sells a single egg, with instructions for use and a soya sauce:
DSC_0267

..they also sell a single slice of toast, already with butter:
DSC_0269

..but the smallest pack of rice you can buy in a convenience store is 5kg!?!?
DSC_0270
Because why would anybody need less than 5kg of rice!?

 

Photos taken at 7-Eleven at Chiang Mai, Thailand: http://goo.gl/ANc5i4

Longest Vulgar Palindrome

As you probably know, a palindrome reads the same backwards as it does forwards. Computers can generate really long palindromes but they are completely meaningless. For example, this is the current computer record holder (105,302 characters).

To create a meaningful one you need to ditch the dictionary and use your creativity. A long time favourite is:

“A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!” (32 characters)

For those with dirtier minds, the question arises – what would the longest meaningful vulgar palindrome be? I abused the Google and the longest I fund was:

“A slut nixes sex in Tulsa.” (26 characters)

Not bad, huh? It is only 6 characters shorter than the Panama favourite.

But, it gets better – if we change the language.

In Croatian (same in Serbian) there is a really nice one:

“Mišu pita Dara: ‘Da ti pušim?’” (30 characters)

It translates to “Dara asks Mišo: do you want a blowjob?” First time I heard it, I couldn’t stop laughing. It is funny because it is completely natural; that is the exact phrase Dara would ask Mišo. Contrast that to the Panama and Tulsa examples and they seem a bit stretched.

So I asked Google for more fun in Serbo-Croatian. To my surprise, I found an even longer one:

“U Bejrutu Arapi kipara u tur jebu.” (34 characters)

That one translates to “In Beirut Arabs f**k sculptor in the bum.” Less natural, less fun, but this is the new vulgar record holder! And it is 2 characters longer that the English Panama favourite.

How can that be? English has 19x more native speakers!

Is this because of the language? Maybe Serbo-Croatian is more “melodic” in terms of profanities?

Or it is because of the culture? Which brings the question:

WHAT KIND OF SICK PEOPLE INVENT VULGAR PALINDROMES ANYWAY?!

People who like both crosswords and swear words? Do they sit down with a pen and paper and try to match reverted “slut” and “sex” with other words? Instead of sudoku, they relax by finding names that start with reverted “blowjob”? That is a some fun creative process, and it seems that thousands of man-hours went into it 😀

 

Delhi Taxi Scam

I thought I was an experienced traveler. But my first night in India proved me completely wrong.

Prelude

It was 2007 and I took a very nonchalant approach to getting to India. I booked an airplane ticket but decided not to reserve any accommodation. I wanted a real backpacking experience, directly going to cheap hostels in search for a room that wasn’t too dirty. I was so relaxed that I started reading a guidebook (Lonely Planet India, 1232 pages and thicker than the Holy Bible) a mere three hours before the one o’clock night landing in New Delhi. I quickly found the section about Delhi and learned that:

  1. The arriving terminal has decent currency exchange.
  2. The best way to avoid overpaying a taxi is to use the Traffic Police Prepaid Taxi Booth.
  3. Most backpacker joints are located in the Paharganj area, and a taxi ride there was 210 Indian rupees.

I felt jolly good. The plane landed, I exchanged money and purchased a prepaid taxi slip. Although it was two o’clock in the morning, when I walked out of terminal with a slip in my hand, dozens of taxi drivers noticed me and started shouting:

“Taxi! Come here my friend! Best taxi!”

Best taxi?! They all looked the same; black english cabs like in the middle of Piccadilly Square. I showed the slip to the closest guy, he said “No problem, my friend!” and we jumped into his cab.

It turns out it wasn’t his cab — at the driver’s seat was a scary looking dark guy with a big turban. The driver didn’t speak a word of English, but my new “friend” with a big smiling face was there to act as translator. Nice.

My Translator Friend started to chit-chat, “Where are you from.. Croatia? Do you play cricket there?” I interrupted him when I noticed that some cars on our highway are going in the opposite direction. “Crazy people!” he said, “Some people don’t know how to drive here!” After five minutes we came to a road block – a big truck had overturned and was blocking all the lanes. Our quiet driver started mumbling, looked at the situation for a minute and then, without saying anything, just turned the car around! “Holy crap,” I screamed in my head, “we are driving on a 4-lane highway in the wrong direction!” Translator Friend awkwardly smiled and said, “Roadblock.. Heh.. Long Wait.” It seems that in India you can violate any traffic rule, as long as you use your car horn to warn other drivers of your violation.

I started to feel scared and I gripped the car seat.

The Scam

“Are you first time in India?” asked my Translator Friend.

“Yes, first time in India,” I replied.

I was so stupid! You never say to ANY taxi driver you are a first-timer, especially when you are on night shift with Translator Friend and Mister Turban.

“What is the name of your hotel?” he asked.

At that moment I could have saved the situation, but I messed up even more.

“I don’t know. I will check a few guest houses in..” I looked at my taxi slip, “..Paharganj area.”

His eyes sparkled.

“Can I see that again?” he took my slip and showed it to the driver and they exchanged a few sentences in what sounded like Punjabi. Then he turned back to me.

“Paharganj? Where is that? We don’t know that street.”

Here we go. I paused for a moment and realized I have a map of that area in the guidebook.

“No,” he was looking at my Lonely Planet, “I don’t recognize that part. Delhi is very large. Veeery large!”

After a short pause he continued.

“You know my friend, I know one very nice hotel. Great for you.”

Then I realized the scam. They would take me to a very expensive hotel, where they get the commission for bringing naive tourists.

“No, I don’t want to go to YOUR hotel, please take me to Paharganj!” I raised my voice.

It didn’t help. He looked at the map, talked to the driver, discussed it for five minutes with me but he insisted they don’t know how to get there.

“You know what,” he finally said, “we can go to nearby tourist agency and ask there, they will surely know.”

I agreed. We soon arrived in front of a tourist agency, with big, lighted street windows, full of people inside. It was now 2:30am — a strange hour for a tourist agency to operate. I grabbed my backpack and guidebook and went in. They showed us to an office with a free agent. The agent was sitting behind his desk, popped up a big smile and showed a chair in front of him. I sat down and explained the situation.

“I don’t know how to get there,” the agent said, “but I can call that guest house you wanted to visit and we will ask them.”

I agreed. He called the first place I had circled in the plane, from a phone inconveniently located behind his back.

“Can I have directions to your hotel? What, you are fully booked? Aha..”

Somehow I wasn’t surprised. I insisted that he phone the next guest house and that I do the talking. He gave me the handset but I was not sure the agent dialed the right number.

“I am sorry,” said a man on the other end of the line, “we are all fully booked. All guest houses here are fully booked. There is a big festival in New Delhi right now.”

I hung up the phone and started looking at other accommodation in the guidebook.

“Don’t worry,” the agent said, “I know one hotel that is still available even now when there is a festival.”

Suddenly, I felt a strong sense of deja vu; as if I had experienced this situation before. But when and where? How could I have a memory of this, when this is my first time in India? Then I remembered.

I flipped my Lonely Planet to the page I was reading on the plane, where there is the section about scams in New Delhi. While my Translator Friend and the agent thought I am searching for another guesthouse to call, I started reading. The guidebook described my very situation. Here is the photo:

Lonely Planet Delhi Taxi Scam

I couldn’t believe I was swindled by the oldest trick in the book within less than one hour in India! And I still had six weeks to go.

“Guys,” I said after calming down, “I will read you one section from my guidebook.”

By the time I was finished, they’ve stopped smiling. But that didn’t solve it. I threatened to call the tourist police, but they insisted they didn’t know where that part of town was! Then I noticed on the map that Paharganj area is close to New Delhi Railway Station. Carelessly perhaps, I demanded that they drive me there. Sudden flash of enlightenment crossed the face of my Translator Friend as he remembered where the city’s central train station might be.

Aftermath

The cab was quiet on our way to the train station. Halfway there, the taxi stopped.
“Don’t worry, driver will take you to the station.” Translator Friend reassured me, and left the car. It seemed that the night was still young and he needed to help other poor taxi drivers, who don’t speak English, to scam another round of tourists.

When the driver stopped at the station, I gave him my prepaid taxi slip. To stop cheating, local government implemented a system where taxis only get money when they come back with the slip. Mister Turban then opened his right palm and said his first words in English:

“Tip! Taxi tip!”

I couldn’t believe my ears! After playing games with me and after delivering me to the wrong location, this guy was demanding a tip!? I swore something in Croatian and slammed the car door.

With the backpack on my back and a small map in my hand I walked ten minutes to the guesthouse. Of course, there were rooms available. I was so tired I didn’t mind getting the smelly one.