Jorge, an excitable, lanky teenager from Venezuela, volunteered in a slum on the outskirts of Delhi, India. Sometimes he would come with his friends to stay at our hostel in the city. Before his final weekend, he wanted to visit an acquaintance he had made. He told me about an ascetic at a temple in Jaipur. He told me he was going to stay with the fellow in his home at the temple for a few days and that I should join him.
That Wednesday, I got out of class and hopped on the bus. After eating lunch in town, I caught a cab towards the hills. Upon entering an enormous stone arch with wooden doors I was immediately set upon by a group of young men trying to hustle whatever they could out of me. They told me I needed coffee, pastries, and necklaces and most of all I needed a guide to take me where I was going. Now, Jorge had given me directions and assured me of its straightforwardness, but these young men did not want to take no for an answer and I relented to the navigation of a thin boy with bright eyes and a smile that cut all the way across his face when he spoke.
The path went up a few switchbacks into the hills, passing by listless cows and wary monkeys who sized me up, trying to judge if I was more charitable or threatening. The boy shooed the monkeys away from us as we spoke some common English and Hindi phrases. We reached the high point of the journey and looked west, at a small temple cast against the reds and yellows of the setting sun. To the east we looked down between the cascading peaks to see the entrance to the grand Monkey Temple and its public baths. The boy pointed me down the path towards the temple, received his rupees, and left me to descend on my own. I promptly encountered Jorge and his host, the Baba Mukesh.
The Baba, a title for a spiritual guide, was a wiry, dark skinned Indian man with long brown dreadlocks, wearing a cloth vest and a traditional wrap around his lower half that he constantly played with by adjusting the length. He always had a thin blue towel around the back of his neck.
The Baba’s home was a set of concrete slabs laid into the corner of a switchback. It had only three walls; the fourth was a metal grate with a small door, facing the path. Inside hung a picture of his spiritual teacher in a very difficult yoga pose, his legs rotated so his feet came around the back of his shoulders, and a poster of the Hindu God Ram (Ram Ram yesh-ya Ram), as well as a radio, bed, and miscellaneous tools. He kept a fire going at all times, with a thick branch providing the fuel. He packed ash and other materials necessary to adjust the flame for warmth, cooking, and preparing endless cups of chai. The smoke was always rising, sometimes in thick, billowing clouds. We slept on the floor, wrapped in thin blankets with our heads resting on our backpacks.
We spent the next two and a half days walking around the temple complex, drinking tea and eating chapatis and daal. We hiked to breathtaking views, met locals from the community who showed our guide great respect, and listened to music on his small radio
The Baba didn’t speak more than a few words of English, but we communicated with basic phrases and gestures. Sometimes we had to give up. On our last afternoon, Jorge met a British tourist who spoke some Hindi. She joined us for tea and spoke to the Baba. She translated questions for us, and his answers. We did not think we would get this lucky. After a few minutes of silence, we requested that she ask if HE had any questions for US. We’d been there for days and he must want to know something about his visitors. She turned and asked him in Hindi, and he paused to think for a moment and then replied. She turned back to face us and said, “When are you leaving?”
This is just one example of the important work produced YaLa’s citizen journalists, a program funded by the European Union’s Peacebuilding Initiative in order to enable young leaders from across the Middle East and North Africa to document and share their experiences of the region.