We headed "back to India", as the British called the way down to Delhi and the sweltering plains. After four weeks of mountain roads however we were looking forward for good tarmac, soft going and oxygen.
Stopped at Ramban for a tea. Here I took the opportunity to document a Sikh's natural habitat: tools, engine parts, car batteries and oil everywhere. A stereotype, yes, but a positive one. I bought a Kashmiri license plate from him which is now on my car. Poor Belgian police.
And thanks to a truck driver I could have a look at the Taj Mahal.
Being a truck driver is a tough job - imagine driving a load of smelly chicken from Mumbai to Srinagar at an average speed of 40 km/h - but some of them obviously love what they do.
And there were these kids, using an irrigation canal for bathing and washing clothes. It was hot and I wished I could join them.
We crossed a tunnel, all the way behind a truck, gasping for air in its exhaust fumes...
...while others were gasping in the dust we left behind us.
Last view towards Kashmir.
The road to Jammu seemed so short and straightforward on the map. In reality it was long, very long and exhausting. We decided to skip Jammu and find a place for the night on the highway. After hours of driving through the night we stopped at the Rajan Hotel, which had a bar-cum-restaurant that resembled a serious drinking den. The rooms were the worst we had during the trip but for one night, it was OK. I made sure to drink enough beer in the bar to help me sleep in the heat.
We left as early as we could. Sunrise over the steaming plains is not a romantic experience.
We stopped at a dhaba - that means a roadside eatery - for tea and coffee, and first I thought it's only a coincidence that many buses and SUVs loaded with Indian tourists stopped there. Because the incredibly bad nescafé they served was certainly not famous all over India.
When I wanted to pay, Soni laughed and dragged me away from the counter. Back in the car I asked, was it for free? He replied: "actually yes sir, because when buses and cars were seeing that foreigner is in dhaba they all stopped to see you and this was good for dhaba's business."
All went well until we ran into a traffic jam close to Pathankot and the Punjabi border.
For three hours, there was nothing to do but to wait. I used the time to terrorize the truck drivers with portrait shots.
But at least I could witness some real parantha magic.
After crossing into Punjab, the road was totally flat at last with all kinds of freaks. It was great fun to photograph them from the window.
And then in the middle of nowhere a sign appeared, and I felt like a lost sailor who at last sees the beacon of a lighttower in a storm. Or like a car approaching the first Shell station after running for weeks on cheap and tampered fuel. Or like an alcoholic seeing a bottle of spirit after weeks of deprivation.
Originally, we wanted to stay in Ambala because the night was approaching and I wanted to check out a church there anyway. It's St John in the Wilderness, the first church built by the British in 1857, and a magnificent one even if in ruins now.
We found a church, but it was a Syrian orthodox church. Well beyond its heydays, it looked still impressive. Neither was it abandoned as dozens of worshippers gathered from all over India for an annual festival.
I took lots of photos of them, but the real attraction of the day was Priyanka.
I fell in love with this beautiful and street-wise girl. She was a natural born gang leader and obviously intelligent, and it made me sad to think about her future. Probably all her talent and charm will be lost in the inertia and poverty of India.
What could I do? Giving her polaroids. After a frantic search her mother also appeared, who by her age could have been Priyanka's older sister, with very sick-looking yellow eyes.
We left in the hope to return one day and find Priyanka studying nuclear physics or flying a jumbo jet, because "hope is the last thing to die", and although I was seriously tempted I couldn't give her mother a larger amount of money for Priyanka's education as five dozen eyes were watching me. I'm afraid Priyanka wouldn't have seen much of those rupees anyway.
Eventually, we found St Johns but it was on the ground of a military academy and I didn't bother, even if the church looked splendid from the distance. In exchange, we found the site of a huge Victorian mansion, maybe the former residence of the commander-in-chief of the Indian Army himself. I think so because both the church and the mansion are described in Peter Hopkirk's "Quest for Kim", a book I like very much. Sic transit gloria mundi was all I could think about while walking around the ruins, avoiding the huge piles of shit everywhere. A hundred years ago this sad and desolate place was probably home to one of the most powerful men of the world.
Back on the highway we decided to drive all the way to Delhi.
And there it was at last - after 14 hours and 670 km driving, I could hardly care less the noise, the smell, the pollution. We spent the night in a hotel called Florence Inn in Karol Bagh, recommended by Soni, and it was a nice and posh place but I missed the mood and roof top terrace of the Grand Godwin, my first hotel close to Paharganj...
...and asked Soni in the morning for a last ride to move me there.
And there it was at last - my favorite place in Delhi.
I was stupid enough to venture out for a last afternoon of photography and souvenir shopping. I had a very specific gift in mind for my friend Andre, who generously swapped his 5D Mark II for my 5D and a Lumix LX3: a Sikh sword called talwar which I knew was available in my favorite gurudwara (Sisganj) on Chandni Chowk. I also wanted to kill time (without a sword) in the bazaar of Old Delhi behind the Jama Masjid...
...and visit one more time the Red Fort.
I suppose I had a good excuse for being tired but Chandni Chowk nearly chocked me. I had enough of photographing but knew that for a long time all I can shoot will be family events and forced myself to look for juxtapositions, faces and lights for just one last afternoon.
This was the first time Delhi seemed to overcome me - the crowd and traffic was unbelievable, and I tell you I was not new to Delhi but this afternoon was very rough going. That day I was the most exotic freak on Chandni Chowk (and there are many!) as I made my way through the incredibly crowded sidewalks with a towel in my neck, a camera with battery pack and flash in my right and a full-size sword in my left hand.
Rickshaws refused to take me, probably because of the traffic jam, and my frustration reached higher levels than the Jama Masjid's minarets. I must have made a very sour face because, as I was walking in the choking exhaust fume of local buses, a guy shouted out from a bus window: "hey man, don't worry, this is Delhi!". I shouted back: "yes and I'm lovin' it!" and still can't decide if this was a moment of honesty and truth or an outright lie. Probably the earlier, as I knew that very soon I'll be longing for the experience again (and I actually do). Eventually a bicycle-rickshaw agreed to take me to New Delhi railway station (he wouldn't understand the hotel address) . Alas, he took me to the wrong side and I had to walk for half an hour over the metro construction ground and the countless platforms of the station. However, at least I could hear again the ta-daa sound of Windows 3.1 when the announcements sounded: "Golden Temple express is eight hours late. Mumbai shatabdi is twelve hours late. The inconvenience is deeply regretted." Fond memories...
Anyway, when I at last got through to the Paharganj side I sat down on the main stairway and looked at the travellers coming and going. I felt both relief and regret when thinking about my departure. My mission was accomplished - among the about 4000 images I took there was one truly remarkable (quite a good ratio). I also met that young fellow who had been me, walking up the same steps in 1994 where I was sitting now on his way to Agra, looking for a bus to Jaipur in 1996, hunting for a rikshaw to take him from here to Old Delhi station in 1999. Too bad I couldn't talk to my younger self - I had plenty to tell to that arrogant little bugger who thought he rules the world.
Back to Heathrow. When looking out from the window over the Caucasus, I didn't really want to believe that in a few days I'll have to fly back to exactly where I was then. I was dog tired and when I had enough of in-flight movies and closed my eyes, I was dreaming of a bloody T-bone steak in a London pub.
Colmar and Andre were waiting for me. How happy I was to see two familiar faces at last. And I got my dream meal in form of a home-made hamburger with home-made cheddar and about three or four pints of ale. Too bad that a home-made amoebic dysentery was included in my order. I survived the trip to India without any sickness (minus the cold in Rampur but that's another matter), but British food knocked me out good. We should have gone to an Indian restaurant.
We did all the things friends usually do when they see each other again after a long time; Andre drove my to St Pancras from where the train took me to Brussels Midi in two and a half hours.
I cleaned myself up, uploaded a few images from the trip to 1x (immediately rejected), washed my traveling gear and put it back into my duffel - now it was time to get my family back. And that meant another taxi reservation for Zaventem airport, destination: Nagorny-Karabagh.