Woke up hungover again despite being in a booze free town because I am scum. Had breakfast with the new gang – Ellie, Jonas and the newly-revived James, who had recovered to the point where he was now able to go an hour without erupting out of both ends. At midday we headed out on what turned out to be my favourite day in this country so far. We went on a quest to find Aloo Baba.
We’d planned it drunkenly the night before, but I didn’t think we’d actually go through with it. Ellie had first told us about Aloo Baba over breakfast the previous morning; the name literally translates to potato guru. Aloo Baba is a holy man who lives in the craggy hills outside Pushkar, and his strange name comes from the fact that he has eaten nothing but potatoes for the past fifty years. We had no idea why, but straight away we all began feeling giddy to seek out the old guru and find what wisdom he had to offer.
To kick things off, we lit out into the town and hit up a motorcycle hire shop. Ellie and I chose these little 90cc hairdryer-sounding motorbikes, and Jonas, who has more experience on two wheels, hired a booming 350cc Royal Enfield. To hire our bikes for the whole day was 250 rupees each – about 3 euros, with a 20 euro deposit. They didn’t even ask for a driving license. Only in India.
We had a brief practice up and down the street with absolutely no safety talk or instructions on how the bikes worked. Breaks, gas, off you go. I did my CBT a while back, and was glad to have at least a modicum of experience. I had a helmet with a cracked visor, so just rode with the screen up and my sunglasses on and prayed to Brahma that I wouldn’t swallow too many bugs.
James climbed on the back of Jonas’s motorcycle, and we set off through the streets of Pushkar, weaving between trucks and cows and stray dogs, market stalls and tuk tuks and rattling cars and pot holes. When I did my driving theory test in the UK I remember the hazard perception module being an uneventful first-person simulation of driving down an empty road, where a car eventually pulls out in front or a motorbike overtakes or something. An Indian would piss themselves laughing. You need to be hyper aware, constantly, of five hundred unfolding events around you. And somehow, though it shouldn’t at all, it works.
We breezed out of the town and hit country roads, overtaking each other and honking our horns and hi fiving the kids that held out their hands as we passed. On my shitty bike every bump jangled my spine, but I couldn’t help but love the rickety, chugging little contraption. It maxed out at roughly 55kph, whatever that is in miles.
We crossed the desert and wound through soaring valleys and a dozen dusty villages. Jonas led the way, with James navigating over his shoulder. At one point we took a wrong turn and had to double back, and as I pulled away I noticed Ellie wasn’t following. I waited for her to catch up, and it was only when we next stopped to check directions that she told me she’d got left behind because my wallet flew out of my back pocket and she’d to stop to pick it up. Whoops. That could have been messy.
We rolled down a long, fast hill, and I thought my bike was about to judder itself apart. We took a right and hit a cobbled road, and saw ahead of us a huge white structure, with a painted message by the arched gateway that read:
Over the gate itself, daubed in large blue letters, was ‘ALOO BABA’, along with murals of various gods and events from Hindu folklore. We pulled up and parked our bikes (it later turned out I left my key in the ignition, because I’m a twat) and removed our shoes, before gingerly entering the temple. We were greeted by an old man with kind eyes of deepest brown and a grey beard that reached his stomach. He told us to come inside and not to be afraid. We’d found our guy.
We walked through his white stone temple, seemingly carved into one enormous white boulder – a boulder the size of a house. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how it got there. Aloo Babe had a few friends hanging out, lying on the floor in the shade while flies zipped around in the warm breeze. Someone unfurled a blanket for our wisdom-seeking motorcycle gang to sit on, and Aloo took a seat crossed legged on a little wicker stool. And proceeded to do nothing.
We sat in the silence batting away flies, exchanging glances and smiling amiably at Aloo Baba as he sat and surveyed his surroundings. Nobody wanted to be the first to attempt conversation. After an eternity, he asked us where we were from. We answered the UK, New Zealand, and Denmark. Jonas receives a vague nod when he says where he is from; nobody in India has ever heard of Denmark. I was too tired from the heat to attempt conversation, and so I was thankful when Ellie spoke up.
“So… is it true you only eat potatoes?”
“Yes. Fifty year, only potato. Very simple, very nice.”
Silence. Flies. Wind. Rocks. Spuds.
“And… you live here?”
“That’s great… so why do you eat only potatoes?”
“Very simple, no worrying.”
I slapped away a fly that whizzed into my eyeball, and gazed around the garden. Then James spoke up, totally skipping the foreplay and leaping straight for full karmic penetration.
“So… what is the meaning of life?”
Yikes. Wouldn’t have been my first choice of question. Bit much. The old man nodded atop his little stool and answered in broken English.
“There is no life. Life, one second, no life. Life, one second, no life. You understand?”
“Yes,” we all lied.
“Life, one second, here, now no life.”
“Must love everything. Love, happy. Dog, person, tree, rock. Love. One second, no life.”
“What is love?” asked James.
And then Aloo Baba laughed, lit a spliff, and told us he was tired; it wore him out speaking English. Chai was brought out and gently handed to each of us. We sipped from the dainty cups as we sat cross legged, each silently wondering what ‘life one second no life’ meant. Then a tray of boiled potatoes was brought out to us, and we were invited to tuck in. Everybody was hesitant to start chomping on a tatty as though it were an apple, but we needn’t have worried; they were absolutely delicious. We were given salt to dip them in, and it was so good I had seconds. I suppose if you only eat potatoes for half a century, you’re gunna get pretty good at cooking them.
After we were presented with a strange sweet bread with a condensed rock of pure brown sugar on top, that was so powerfully sweet that even the buzzing flies wouldn’t go near it. We all nibbled and said it was delicious and placed it back on the tray. While we ate, I asked Aloo if he ever felt sad. I suppose it’s kind of my thing. He told me that, yes, there are good times and bad times, and that all things are equal and one. The good times come and go, the bad times come and go, it all rolls on. The tattoo on my shoulder shares the exact same sentiment. It made me smile.
Aloo told us to feel free to explore his home. We crept around every crevice of the big white boulder, finding multiple rooms in the cracks. He slept on a camp bed downstairs, and the upper levels were filled with shrines to various gods, all with small statues and slow burning incense. Around the other side of the boulder house, we were delighted to find a carved stone slide from the upper floor to the ground. We took turns going down it; it seems even holy men have to have their fun. The mental image of happy Aloo Baba whizzing down the slide every morning made me deliriously happy. Holy men are some of the silliest buggers you’ll ever meet, and it’s no coincidence.
We went back to Aloo and told him his home was wonderful. He thanked us, and we took a photo together – with the old man by far the most photogenic of us all. He wished us well on our day, and told us to visit an ancient temple a mile up the road. The old man said that if we wanted to, we could come back again and spent more time at his boulder. We thanked him, took one last look around this strange little oasis of serenity amid all the chaos of India, and climbed onto our motorbikes.
I wondered quietly to myself how many times a day Aloo Baba must have to summarise existence for wisdom-seeking kids. Just like eating potatoes for every meal, it must get tiring. Repetitive as hell. But then again, we tolerate our bland monotonous office jobs for 50 years on end without question. Staring at spreadsheets, eating potatoes, where’s the difference? The world doesn’t seem quite so crazy and bewildering once you realise that you’re batshit insane too.
We rode another ten minutes and came to an ancient temple in the middle of a huge valley. We parked up, took our shoes off, and stepped inside the walls beneath the lancing sun. We arrived during a beautiful yet unintelligible ceremony; two women in bright red saris were sitting cross legged outside the little stone temple, and inside a baba was chanting a the same phrase over and over while preparing what looked to be a drink, or meal, or potion, or incantation; I’ve no idea. I wish I could tell you what the chant was (I should remember, I heard it 3000 times).
I sat with Ellie on a rug to watch the ceremony. As he was chanting, the baba was opening bottles of rose water and pouring them into a large bowl. However, the screw tops on the bottles were too tight, and he had to gesture for the two women to come and assist him. The three of them all began to wrestle with the water bottles, all the while attempting to retain the spirituality of the process. It was the sweetest thing I ever saw watching the wise old baba crack up and begin laughing mid-chant. You can go to the furthest corner of the world, and the humour is the same.
We rode back to Pushkar, I was nearly crushed to death on my motorbike between a tuk tuk and a camel, and we had khatti rolls with mango juice overlooking the lake. Back at the hostel the four of us lay on huge cushions on the rooftop, waiting for the worst of the afternoon heat to abate, then headed back out to catch another sunset. James stayed behind while Jonas, Ellie and I rode outside the town to a temple on the top of a mountain – no chair lift option this time. We climbed up, sat together looking out over the city, and watched the sun set on another extraordinary day.