Priya is only seven but she’s the toughest hustler I know. She sells flower-candles on the bank of Ganges river in the 3,000-years-old city of Varanasi, and never takes no for an answer. “How many you buy? Two, three? Good price for you! ” While I take too long to decide, she is scanning the crowd with her huge brown eyes, scowling to prevent other flower kids from getting anywhere near me. “Listen”, she commands before I even agree, “You buy from me only!»

They say it’s not the size of the dog in a fight, but the size of the fight in a dog. Which may explain how does this tiny body contain such domineering personality. And she will push her candles onto you in English, German, Japanese, or Italian, whatever it takes to close the deal. It’s an ancient Hindu tradition to float the candle-lit flowers upon the holy Ganges to make a wish. I tell Priya I got nothing to wish for, as I already have everything I ever wanted. It takes her a split second to come up with the solution: “No problem. You make good wish for Priya!”

The only concession I achieve in this ruthless negotiation is that we limit business to one candle a day. She agrees to it only in exchange for the exclusive supplier contract. The deal is immediately announced to the dozen of other flower boys lurking nearby. They are visibly disappointed – a foreign woman is an optimal target in this cutthroat business – but keep respectful distance. Only once in her absence one of the boys sheepishly approaches me, the others stepping closer to watch, when out of nowhere Priya descends on them like Kali, the Hindu Goddess of Wrath and Retaliation, her whole body vibrating with anger. The boys retreat, tails between their legs, but my honor is intact: I haven’t betrayed her even for a second.

For the rest of my month-long stay I am buying her flower-candles every time she spots me at the river. She politely allows me to sit and watch it in peace for a few moments, fidgeting in my peripheral vision, before she grabs my hand and leads me to water to float the purchased candle together. She’s way better floater between the two of us: when I do it, the candle sometimes lingers nearby caught in the current; with her push, it always heads out right away as if propelled by an invisible engine.

After a candle launch, I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up. She says a teacher. Because everybody has to obey the teacher. Family, kids? Oh, no, no. No husband and kids till she’s 50, Priya says resolutely, she’s got stuff to do. Priya’s mom is a street fruit seller, dad – a boatman. There are four other siblings at home, living hand to mouth, her candle sales paying for their school supplies. She started working at the age of five, cruising the river bank every night, and it was her idea. “So, are you buying two candles tomorrow or what? I can’t sit here all night.”

As lost as I sometimes feel in life, I never suffer from lack of direction in Priya’s universe. Here, my role is clear and well-defined. So every night I buy a candle or two from her, watch them float away into the dark waters, and every night at this oldest wishing spot in the world I ask Mother Ganga the same one thing:
Please guard her from harm
Please let all her plans succeed
Take away from me anything you want, but please give her the destiny she deserves.

Assi Ghat, Varanasi, India, 2010


priya and me

Church of Wanderlust

For decades I thought I wasn’t religious. Until I realized: my religion is Wanderlust.

The temples of my faith are scattered all over the world. They are Babylonian airports and abandoned landing strips overgrown with weeds; bustling city squares and sleepy fishing villages; mountain-top castles and back-alley dive bars, awash in neon lights, lingering smoke and that tingling feeling of déjà vu.

The scriptures of my religion come with blank pages. You fill them up yourself, with all the secret words you find along the way. Passwords you earn by showing up and taking it all in. Like the Japanese «kikubari», the Spanish «duende», the Tibetan «lungta» and the Finnish «kalsarikännit».

There are millions of us Believers, and we have our own sacred rituals: swapping road stories (that time you crossed the Tibetan-Nepalese border on foot), travel tips (never join a Great Wall of China tour) and anecdotes picked up around the world, like the one about popular Austrian T-shirts with «No kangaroos here» – because of how many foreigners allegedly confuse it with Australia.

Our altars are invisible and intangible, built of memories and scars: the first time you inhaled the air of India, that time your flight landed safely – but not the one right behind yours, that time you drank with a real Viking, that day you got to ride an untamed Mongolian horse and almost got killed in the process, that beautiful stranger on the opposite side of the planet who became the lover you’ll always carry in your heart – but will never see again.

Our priests are grandmas the world over who feed every stray soul that comes through their door before they even ask your name or where you’re from. Our angels are people finding creative ways to give you directions when you don’t share a single language in common. Our prophets are those who have traded security for discovery; achievement for contentment; retirement money for frequent flyer miles.

We are everywhere, and eventually, we will take over the world. We won’t need bombs or economic schemes. We’ll just blend the borders by blending our families. We’ll spreading our ideology through irresistible street foods. We’ll quietly convert everyone by making others fall in love with people in our stories – until each and everyone on the planet becomes us, the Wanderlusters.

And that’s the only thing I religiously believe in.


Way beyond Rudolph


You can’t help falling in love with the reindeer.

Among all the animals roaming Mongolian expanse, the reindeer stands out as the most sophisticated, the most touchable and definitely the tastiest one.   While a yak stares at you with all the emotion of a pommel, a reindeer casts a diva-like glance from under the long eyelashes.    A camel always wears the unsightly brown crust on its ass, but a reindeer’s classy butt is heart-shaped, while its antlers are gift-wrapped in velvety baby fur.  Camel milk tastes like the sour wind of the Gobi desert, but reindeer milk is clean, heavy and feels like hot silk in your mouth.   A horse has to constantly waive off the relentless taiga flies with its tail, but no flies swarm around a reindeer – the otherwise lethal taiga insects descend only  to create a beautiful shimmering halo around reindeer’s head for a brief moment of pure adoration, before moving onto the usual prey.  Standing in the middle of sheep or goat herd, you get DOLBY surround sound effect of the relentless group farting, but when the reindeer run past you like a beautiful stream of snow white and herring gray, all you hear is the delicate sound of ankle bones rustling – tsa! tsa! tsa!  – and that’s why “tsaa” is the taiga people’s name for the reindeer, and Tsaatan people call themselves just that.

Among Tsaatans, reindeer is very much a member of the clan.  Every family chooses a special reindeer to be sanctified by a shaman to carry inside the living spirits of the locale.  The designated reindeer wears a pretty scarf, usually of blue silk, it never gets eaten or even tied down, so it develops a habit of roaming around the village, sneaking inside empty yurts or following somebody around.

The spirit reindeer of my family happened to be angel-white and totally shameless.  The relentless beast viewed me as a personal entertainment channel with the 24/7 access.  My pet-owning friends often complain how awkward it is for them to act naturally in the bathroom in the family dog’s presence. Now imagine yourself on a mountain, in pristine taiga, ankle-deep in the early morning dew, preparing for the inevitable in the endless open space, with no doors or walls to create a comfort zone.  And now picture – three steps in front of you – a very patient white reindeer, staring.  You have to go urgently, and he’s got nowhere urgent to go.  Guess which one of the two has more fun playing this game and doesn’t ever get tired of it.

Sometimes reindeer are used as cargo transport for moving the tribe from an old pasture to a new one.  Loaded with pots, pans, solar batteries and other household stuff, a reindeer occasionally readjusts the cargo weight by shaking its skin, the pots and pans rumbling  as if the animal is performing a shaman ritual to procure good luck for its own upcoming journey.

But the very best moment in a reindeer herders’ place is when a herd pours back into the village at sunset, preceded by a delicate sound wave of ankle bones clicking, as if a flock of angels is descending upon you.   And you feel it’s the perfectly magical moment to make a wish, yet you can’t remember anything you ever wanted before, but it’s all right, it is actually quite all right with you.