Why don't we do it in the road?
Trip Start May 01, 2010
23Trip End Jul 15, 2010
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Agra, although beautiful, was not very relaxing. Unfortunately, our journey out of the city was similar. We settled into our overnight sleeper compartment on the bus and prepared for 10 hours of mildly interrupted sleep. What we got was a 10 hour drive on an uneven dirt road. Despite the (previously reassuring) fact that the route was entirely along a National Highway, we were not warned ahead of time that the road is almost completely under construction. So, in addition to the road being unpaved and extremely bumpy, it was also lit up like a football stadium so that the trucks and machinery necessary to complete the construction could work at night. Yes, that means the roadworks were being done while we were on our overnight bus ride. Since our bus was not air conditioned, we had the windows open. All of which equated to a bumpy, noisy, bright, and dusty journey.
We arrived in Haridwar, sank ankle deep in some raw sewage whilst dodging a reversing bus, and sprinted across the gravel parking lot to catch the rickety local transportation to our final destination
Rishikesh is a place of pilgrimage on many levels. Devout Hindus go there to pray and bathe in the Ganga; new-age Westerners go there to study and relax in one of the many ashrams; Hippies and music lovers go there to see the place that apparently changed the Beatles' lives; and, most recently, thrill-seekers go there to raft through the rapids of the Ganges and go bungy-jumping over the holy river.
As a result, people watching in Rishikesh is a fascinating pastime. We perched ourselves in a cafe that overlooks Lakshman Jula, one of two hanging pedestrian bridges that cross the Ganges, looking towards the imposing 13-story orange and white temple on the opposite shore. (A small aside: pedestrian means huge crowds of people, monkeys, scooters, dogs, motorbikes, and the odd cow or water buffalo). Indian devotees ring bells as they climb levels of the temple, western girls in trendy clothes carry their yoga mats under their arms, Sadhus (holy men) in their saffron robes roll enormous hash joints in the street, young men with blond dreadlocks and tattooed arms bathe in the Ganges, poor children and elderly people rattle their tin bowls as they beg for money or food, huge groups of noisy teens scream as they float down the Ganges, and all the time the dogs, cows, monkeys and people pour through the narrow alleys
Our impression of the spiritual side of Rishikesh was mixed. On the surface, it seemed like an easy brand of "quick-fix" spiritualism, for both Indians and foreigners: come to Rishikesh, ring some bells or take a yoga class, feel good about it, and leave. On the other hand, the number of ashrams was astonishing, and they all seemed to be full of people, most of whom I assume are much more serious about meditation and reaching enlightenment than we first observed. It also seemed strange that the adventure water tourism industry was so popular in a place that is meant to be holy. What must the truly devout pilgrims think of the groups of University students on their vacation streaming into the area and hurling themselves along the holy river in inflatable rafts?
That having been said, it is time I admitted that we did the latter! After watching the rafters from the balconies of cafes for a couple days, we couldn't resist it any longer. We piled into the back of a pickup truck, followed a road riddled with hairpin turns 16 kms up the river to the rafting point. There we donned lifejackets and hopped into a boat filled with what we thought was a group of 14-year-old girls: we later discovered that they were 19 and all Engineering students, despite their habit to burst into loud renditions of Bollywood film songs as we floated along the calmer parts of the river
Another day we relaxed by hiking up a mountain in the midday heat (not so refreshing) and cooling off under a chilly waterfall tucked into the forest. It was wonderful. To get to the waterfall, we hiked up a quiet pathway, far from the noise of honking horns that is representative of Indian roads, and found ourselves in a little piece of paradise. The spot we chose to swim was difficult to see from the pathway, and we had the place to ourselves for about 10 minutes. We were joined by two young medical students, with whom we had a nice chat as we chilled out in the pool. It was magical to have such a beautiful place practically all to ourselves.
But the highlight of our stay in Rishikesh was, without a doubt, our visit to the original Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram, which was abandoned in 1997. The Maharishi was the founder of Transcendental Meditation and is well known for, among other things, his interactions with the Beatles. The Beatles stayed at the Ashram for 6 weeks or so in 1968 where they studied with the Maharishi alongside other rich and famous people such as Mia Farrow, Mike Love (of the Beach Boys), etchttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maharishi_Mahesh_Yogi. For more information and some cool pictures of the Beatles at the Ashram, go to http://www.beatlesashram.com/) When the ashram was abandoned in 1997 due to tax and environmental reasons, the Department of Forestry took it over and it is slowly returning to a (somewhat) natural state. Our guide, Malay Chaknabonty, was a Beatles fan in the third stage of his life: the first stage is the learning and growing stage, and the second is the family stage and the time to apply the knowledge learned earlier. The third stage is the time to ask questions and seek answers. The final stage is the spiritual stage - when (hopefully) one finds the answers to his questions. Malay spent the second stage of his life living in Calcutta and working in state customs, ensuring that goods vehicles fill out tax and border forms correctly. Now, as far as we can tell, he hangs out at the ashram and gives tours to people who, in his words, "are interested in and appreciate the Beatles."
Malay was a fantastic guide and simply a fascinating man. We had a great time wandering around the ruined buildings, hearing stories about the famous people that stayed there, and imitating iconic photographs in a rather silly manner.
The night before we left we had a pleasant surprise. Sitting in an internet cafe, we heard a voice behind us exclaiming "I don't believe my eyes!" Turning around, we couldn't believe our eyes either when we saw Xin standing in front of us! The first time we met Xin was in the backwaters village in Kerala. Then we bumped into him in Kochi and went to a concert with him. We didn't think we would see him again - especially not 3000 kms away! We spent some time with him, and plan to purposely bump into him again in Delhi. What a small world!