I love India, I’ve been there twice before. This country, so rich in culture, so vibrantly colorful, so noisy, so full of life… it amazes me. This is where I made my first solo trip over 10 years ago. I came back with incredible photos. I was infused with a new energy and my thoughts in turmoil, racing with exciting new ideas, new adventures, new dreams.
I absorb everything I can from all the places I travel to, and I am very lucky today to consider myself a citizen of the world, and therefore a little bit Indian! My objectives are above all gliding, sharing my experiences, trying to enrich myself and the lives of my fellow human beings and hoping it will inspire them to do something positive and rewarding in their lives. This is what drove me to go to India, on this, the first ‘flat water surf trip’ ever made there…
After two days in the chaos of New Delhi, crossing the city in a tuk tuk and breathing in highly contaminated air, I decided to go west, towards Bikaner, a city at the gates of the Thar desert. To get there, I took a night train: its rhythm made me sleep like a baby…
The city of Bikaner is vibrant and very animated. Its old town drew us in, taking us back into the days of camel caravans and colorful markets. As soon as I got there, I asked the locals if they knew of a lake in the region where I could surf foil… Everyone pointed me in the direction of what turned out to be the best spot: the famous Gajner lake, with a magnificent palace standing on the shore. The next day, I awoke at 5am so that I could get there before sunrise. The morning freshness and the first gleaming rays of golden sunlight always enchant me. The place is incredible, almost unreal. A magnificent pink building embraces the lake. The site is a nature reserve where thousands of birds live. Their song made my heart soar. Time to surf… A session that will forever remain in my memory. Some hotel workers spent a few hours with me, asking me questions about how the foil worked. My explanation and demonstration left them goggle eyed and astounded. Their smiles and kindness assuaged my fears that I might be causing offence by foiling in places that were maybe prohibited or perhaps could upset their sensibilities. But I learned that as long as I showed respect, I could do most anything.
After another night on the train heading 100km west towards Pakistan, we found ourselves immersed in a golden city in the heart of the Thar Desert. Jaisalmer appeared floating above the desert plains, a mirage of an immense sandcastle, golden ochre crenulated walls loomed out of the dawn. After touring this splendid city, I decided to check out a lake which was close to the historic center. The photos I had seen of it on the internet were crazy. The spot looked so beautiful. Arriving at sunset, the place was absolutely charming, and merited its reputation. Some temples are placed in the lake. Their reflections in the mirror-like water illuminated by the setting sun invite people to sit and contemplate. Life is beautiful. Everything seems perfect, except that the water supply is stagnant, and a lot of the local residents pour their wastewater into the lake… I asked if you can bathe here, and everyone told me “no way José, are you nuts?! The water is completely unsanitary. If you jump in, your skin will turn red and you will die!” (or at least get very sick).
My disappointment with their response forced me to look for an alternative place. On the way back to my hotel, I chatted with my host who told me that about 40km away there was an oasis in the middle of the desert, with clean water where the camels go to drink. With hardly a moment’s thought, I organized a small road trip for early the next morning. I was about to embark on another adventure…The sun rose, the lagoon was pure, and a beautiful tree stood just where I could take off. Suddenly I felt really far from home, intense emotions overwhelmed me. I realized how lucky I am to be able to fly over this lake in the middle of the desert… For me, surf foiling is a mixture of all the gliding that I have ever learned whilst kiting or paragliding, combined with the balance and concentration of the slackline. It’s a great way to connect to the here and now.
“The city of lakes”, one of my favorite places on Earth. Above all this is where I really wanted to go to foil. Everywhere I went on route, “Udaipur” was always the answer to the question: “Where’s the most beautiful place to go to find mirror-like lakes?”
It didn’t disappoint. The water is so pure because it comes from the surrounding mountains even though it’s situated in the middle of the city. It is highly valued by the Hindus that live there for this reason.
Again, early in the morning, I find myself on the shores of Lake Pichola, just before sunrise, my foil under my arm. I approach a temple and see that I am not alone. Every day, the morning ritual consist of the Hindus coming here to wash and saying their prayers.
I was rather shy on interrupting their daily ablutions and traditions, so I just quietly observed them from afar. Then a man in his fifties came up to me and asked me what I was carrying under my arm. I explained that I was here to surf foil the lake and described the equipment and the techniques to him. He looked at me a little disbelievingly with a big smile on his face and said that once his prayers were over, he would like to see me “fly” over the lake because he’d seen an elephant fly, but that was Dumbo in the Disney cartoon, so he didn’t believe a human really could.
So I waited there, drinking in the beauty of the place, while they carried out their routine. The sun caressed my face and I was enjoying the moment. When he finished, the man came over to see me and asked me if he could be of help. I said “Yes, please hold the board up above the water so I can get started.” I ran and leapt onto it just as he let go (actually I think it was the 20th attempt that he finally got the timing right). I rode the board around the lake in front of my small audience who became connected and shared in the experience with me, and in an inexplicable way it transformed into a powerful emotive communication between very different cultures and people. Not just a surf foil session any longer… something deeper with the magic supplied by the setting of this beautiful lake.
I really wanted to finish my quest in Varanasi, the capital of spiritual India but, unfortunately, even though it’s an untouched spot as regards surf foiling, it’s been subjected to so much use because it is their holy place where they all dream to have their funerals. The Ganges river that flows through there is consequently very polluted because some bodies are not always burned before they are put in the river.
So instead of my first choice, I went to the capital of Indian eroticism to end my trip, the ancient city of Khajuraho, full of temples that were built over a period of a 1000 years. The artists were free to use their imagination to sculpt their wildest sexual fantasies onto the walls. The Kama Sutra, a hymn to love and sensuality. With a wry smile on my face, I go foiling. The foil at Khajuraho is for me a hymn to gliding and freedom. Having the privilege of flying over the region’s largest water reservoir, which will soon supply this great city with drinking water, regenerates me for my homeward journey.
I thanked Khan, the kind-hearted tuk tuk driver who brought me to this place that I had sought so hard. The lake had just been filled thanks to heavy rains of the previous months, so it was now completely pure, reflecting the light of the heavens above whilst the darkness of its depths hid all its mystery. This is how my trip to India appeared to me.
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My DNA was formed in the Ardennes region of France, where I grew up around a lake because my father was the director of the nautical base there, and we did all types of water sports. This is why I am inexplicably drawn towards any pond or lake, in fact anything bigger than a puddle. From the Trocadéro fountains in Paris, the Retiro lake of Madrid, the Hudson river in New York, right up to the ochre pools of the Luberon… I will ride anything (although maybe not the puddle). These smaller bodies of water are always more beautiful and cinematic than the ocean, because there are visual limits; landmarks, vegetation, buildings, animals and people too, that all lend scale and interest from the foreground to the background. It has a beginning and an end unlike the ocean, which is limitless. The horizon blends into the sky, the sky into the universe. I still love the feeling of infinite freedom that this gives me. I feel at one with everything, incredibly serene. We are all stardust, it’s where every single atom in our bodies came from billions of years ago and where they will eventually return, to be recycled for eternity.