AUGUST 2001: LADAKH TO VARANASI
|Michael phoned his family from Leh, Ladakh, in early August having parted company with the Israelis and run out of money. The banks were closed and no ATM could be found. His father wired through some money through Western Union, however Michael then found an ATM, collected his father's money and all was well. He then headed back to Delhi. In the meantime his brother Peter had emailed to say that he and his then partner Kristina would be coming to India in December.
Michael (email 13 Aug 01): Hey everybody, hope you are all just super. Good to hear you are coming to India, guys, keep in touch and we'll hook up for sure. I'm a wee bit shitty just now as I've just spent nearly 2 hours typing away only to have the entire system go down and everything lost! Oh well, the little computer man has apologised profusely, offered me a thousand pardons and assured me it will not happen again . . . let's hope!! (Praise be to Shiva and all the presiding deities of the internet).
Well we made it . . . 3 weeks, 400 kms and 10 mighty mountain passes led us slowly but surely into the dusty Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh. The things we have seen! There were days when we would almost stagger into a village that was like an oasis amidst towering razor-backed mountains of dirt. Perched high up a nearby cliff face would be an ancient gompa. We would climb a ludicrously steep and precarious path to reach the top and be warmly greeted by beaming, wrinkly faced old lamas who would solemnly take us inside, feed us endless cups of gur-gur chai (butter tea with tsampa) and then go about their nightly puja (mostly the reciting of mantras in Tibetan, very fast!). I was amazed at the change of landscape after we passed our first pass, the Shingo La, and entered Zanskar. The mountains lost none of their sheer sharkfin-like steepness. Tthe Himalayan range blocks nearly all moisture into the north so we entered a kingdom of dirt and rock, punctuated by startling valleys of green. These were usually fed from mountain streams that came from glacial snowmelt. I've fallen in love with glaciers, we had to cross a couple and we saw many from afar.
The land of Yaks!! I'll never forget my first yak! We had pitched our tents near a raging stream that was near a small village called Kargyak on about the 7th day. We were woken by Tashi, our guide, shaking our tent and telling us to get the fuck out of bed. The whole village, with its herd of yaks, donkeys, horses, cows, goats and sheep in front, was headed straight for us, the smiling men whistling, yelling and throwing stones so as to keep the herd from straying. Somehow, they managed the herd over the rickety log bridge while the children played with firecrackers (!) and we took photos with huge grins on our faces.
Our horsemen were 2 Zanskars, both Buddhist, one middle aged and one my age. They spoke pretty much no English but smiled easily enough. I remember Chetin alternating between devoutly reciting Tibetan mantras and then teaching us dirty Zanskan drinking songs the next. A funny little man.
After ending up at Lamayuru, west of Leh, we hopped on the top of a truck for a 9 hour ride into Leh (It would have been 8 if the driver and his friends hadn't stopped to pray at the Sikh temple and sip tea while we sat on the roof and tapped our feet to no avail). A bit touristy was Leh, so I got out pretty fast. I also decided not to do any more trekking in Ladakh as it seems to have become a bit of a French trekkers mecca . . . it kinds of takes the fun out of going to any gompa when a busload of overweight froggy tourists rock up with their handycams and fluoro T-shirts. Tonight (in 1 hr in fact) I go to Rishikesh. By train thank god. I've spent 3 of the last 4 days on a bus and have developed an unshakeable fear of bus drivers . . . I'm not talking about the fat, potatoish little man you see slowly and calmly driving the 400 to Bondi, but an adrenalin-charged demon of the
mountain highways who laughs in the face of all reason and probability as he overtakes round blind corners on a one laned road while smoking a fat hashish joint.
Methinks tis best to travel alone, and besides I want to take a trip down the Ganges while looking at some ashrams along the way. Give Gabby plenty of good lovin' and say hi to Pop. I love and miss you all. Mike.
(Click here to view Michael's photos of Ladakh).
Gabby was Peter's dog. Michael had his own dog (a St Bernard!) and also a cat, but both died, at a ripe old age, in the months before he left Australia. Pop was his grandfather, then 93.
A package arrived in the mail from Michael to his family a few weeks later. It contained 20 or so enlarged photographs which were a selection of the many shots he had taken before and during the trek. These were magnificent. They were the first indication of Michael's new-found skill as a photographer. These pictures and many others he took later are on this website.
Michael's next email came after two weeks on the Ganges.
Michael (email 27 Aug 01): Hey y'all. I'm in Varanasi! I left Rishikesh 3 days ago after spending 10 gloriously decadent and indulgent days there in an ashram by the Ganga. Rishikesh and the last few days have been the best but wildest time in India so far as I've hooked up with a crazy Canadian guy. On our last day in R we met a real 70s guru. He had sideburns and cool Elvis glasses and was around Berkeley for the LSD tests. I felt so unworthy to be even in his presence. We now have a spectacular room that actually overhangs the Ganga as the river is very high. It's a bit browner here so we don't do our daily bathing ritual like in Rishikesh . . . we have to settle for boat rides and breakfast on our balcony instead. Hope all is well. Love, Mike.
This "crazy Canadian" was Jimmy Goodrich whose life and Michael's were destined to be intertwined over the next 12 months. Here is Jimmy's account of how he met Michael . . .
Jimmy (email 10 Nov 02): Mikey literally burst into my life in Rishikesh in August of 2001. A French traveller was having a kind of breakdown at the ashram where we were staying, and Michael was rushing about the place, desperately trying to find someone who spoke French. He found me, and before I knew it we were performing an emergency pschology session together. We managed to calm the poor guy down and put him to bed. So, before I was even introduced to Michael Danckwerts by name, I had already encountered a person with a natural instinct to help, to provide comfort, to be compassionate.
The image of Mikey which will remain indelibly etched in my memory is of Michael the Traffic Director. Yes, Traffic Director. There we were, making our way down the chaotic lineways of old Varanasi - dogs, buffalo, beggars and vendors of all kinds, irritably carving out some space to move. We came to a trafific circle, where four roads of absolute insanity converged in the miserable heat of India. You couldn't make head or tails of a mess like that - pushcarts, donkey-driven carriages, rickshaws, scooters, horns blaring, faces scowling. Out of nowhere, Michael, seized by inspiration, jumps up on to a platform in the middle of the circle, shoves aside the real traffic cop and starts waving his arms and whistling and hollering "You go this way", "you go that way, that's right, that way", "Move along, steady, steady" . . . Michael the friendly neighbourhood traffic cop, moving along the mid-day rush with a bamboo fan.
People stared, they smiled, they waved, they laughed, were shocked and amused. This was Michael's energy, suddenly infusing joy into the mundane. He had no fear, no shame, just an overwhelming instinct to bring everyone out of theirn rut with irreverent goofiness.
Michael loved India. It was here that we had as much fun as two boys can have, like kids let loose inside a zoo. We hopped on and off trains, buses and taxis, seeking the next instalment of the bizarre, the hilarious, as well as the profound and inspiring. We wandered around temples, markets, ruins, everywhere. We met a million people together: Gurus, Sadhus, pretty girls, fakes and charlatans, all walks of life mashed together. With Mikey, all were accessible. He was so incredibly easy with people . . . laughing with them, sometimes at them. Together we seemed to attract the world like a pair of walking magnets.
Michael and Jimmy continued in this vein for a few more days . . .
Michael (email 30 Aug 01): Hey guys. hope all is well, been having a truly wonderful time in Varanasi. This place is truly magical and mystical . . . almost too much . . . you can easily choke trying to survive and digest over 5000 years of religious rites and traditions. People really lose it here . . . the energy is crazy and the locals are mercilessly relentless in their pursuit of your cash (you have no idea how fucking persistent some of these bastards are, believe me!!). Some of what I have seen here has really rocked my world . . . burning corpses, saints and sadhus, shrines, temples and crazy chanting, glorious boat rides . . . they all defy description so I won't bother. Lucky to be travelling with a bloke (I think probably the only person I've met here actually) who's on my wavelength, and together we give as much as we get from some of the sleazier elements of Varanasi while managing to really see the city.
Probably leaving tonight to go to Bodhgaya in Bihar. We'll only spend a day there as I wanna get down south soon to look at some more ashrams. Some in Tamil Nadu and some in Karnataka that sound good. Some so far have been OK but most seem to place too much emphasis on devotional service or mantra chanting and not so much on the traditional physical postures (asanas) and pranayama (breathing exercises) that are really what I'm after. (None of this guru worship bullshit for me, thank you swami). There are at least 2 down south, however, I've heard, that run really tough Hatha and Ashtanga courses for 6 months without the frills. Oh yeah . . . Dad, could you ask your friend Vidya for the names of the ashrams she suggested? I've lost the paper she gave me, thanks. Take care guys, I love and miss you both, Mike.
(Click here to view Michael's photos of Rishikesh and Varanasi).
Michael's request was duly passed on to Vidya, a former work colleague of his father's.
|September 2001 Varanasi to Bangalore