My “deluxe” bus from Delhi to Haridwar is hardly deluxe but it’s not local either. (After a few interesting trips around the Indian subcontinent on many a death trap, I’ve learned to be thankful for small mercies). I assess the situation stoically. Well, the seats recline a little, there is a tv – that plays Bollywood full-blast – and there’s no hole beneath my feet (as there was in Kenya) or smashed window out of which I can gaze (ah, fond memories of Indonesia). On the other hand, the engine belches and smoke is emanating from underneath my window. All that aside, it’s got what could possibly pass as air-con and there’s no standing allowed).
Predictably, I’m the only foreigner on the bus (Haridwar is hardly a hot spot for Westerners). But I don’t care – I’d sign over a bank account at this point, just to escape the heat. I jump on at 9.30 pm. In true Indian style, we then proceed to drive round the (uber-congested) streets of the capital for two hours.
At 11.30 am a couple with a ten year old get on and are quick to tell me how impressed they are with my knowledge of their homeland (“Amazing, simply amazing…”) I ramble on about previous trips, to Rajasthan and Kerala (they’ve never been there) and get brownie points, as usual, for being a vegetarian (naturally, they are Brahmins). The bus isn’t moving and I’m starving, so I hop off and find a dhaba across the street and order some piping hot chapattis and a sag paneer. It’s almost midnight but wherever we are (another petrol pump, with even more buses heading north south east and west) the locals are wide awake. I sit around the bench with the guys, eating…no-one speaks any English and I’m the object of much curiosity.
It’s another long night – the bus crawls along (it’s 250 ks all in all, and we’re averaging a ground-breaking speed of about 25 kms an hour), with stops in what feels like every village en route. The driver’s honking as we swerve to overtake is incessant. Children on the bus are wailing. A woman on the tv is singing what appears to be heartbreaking songs about a man who doesn’t love her.
The rather portly gentleman opposite me is dead to the world – and snoring loudly. I toss and turn, trying to use my fleece as a pillow, but sleep is almost impossible. At a certain point, I admit defeat and spend the next several hours staring out of the window, watching dark turn to dusk and finally to light. The chaos of Delhi has given way to lush green fields, tiny villages, men cycling along on bikes, women at the side of the road arranging their vegetables for sale that day. It’s 6 am…and here I am in Haridwar.
I’m dropped unceremoniously at the side of the road (where I am, who only knows). The driver and conductor gesticulate at me wildly in a certain direction then honk loudly and screech off. There’s no bus station in sight. It would be idyllic – if I weren’t dead on my feet. I drag my sorry ass to the side of the road and plonk myself down on my trusty Eagle Creek backpack (note to any would-be world travellers: don’t be cheap when it comes to this kind of purchase – believe me, you’ll live to regret it). I’m out of bottled water, and I feel grubby. But where there’s life, there’s hope and it’s not more than a few minutes before a auto rickshaw pulls up.
It appears he’s heading somewhere in my direction – and after wild gesticulation on both our parts I decide to take a chance. Off we go…and it’s not long before we’re picking up more passengers. Schoolgirls in their blazers, pigtails tied up with ribbon, women on their way to work, and a huge “babushka” type who shoots me a toothless smile. And it’s not long before we’re pulling into the next town. One schlepp across the road to the next shared auto rickshaw and I know I’m on the home run. (Incidentally, the two journeys, possibly around 12 kms, cost me a grand total of 20 rupees – about 50 cents).
We pull into Rishikesh – Ram Jula to be precise (2-3 kms from the centre). I look down wearily (I’m high on a cliff) and there they are – the holy Ganges. Spectacular, amazing, fabulous, awe-inspiring – all are adjectives I used before to describe this expanse of water, when travelling in Benares two years previously – but it really is something. I trek down the gravel path, Eagle Creek on my back, trying not to trip over and plunge headfirst into the freezing water below me, then trudge over the suspension bridge, looking out into the distance.
It’s 7.15 am and pilgrims are making puja (prayers), and I’m about to rock up in Rishikesh – just like John and the gang did in 1968. And (and I still can’t believe I’m about to do this), I’m about to eschew my “western values” and check into a heavy-duty ashram, on the banks of the river, for some serious soul-searching. Yeah, nerve-racking stuff for an Urban Girl like myself – but I figure I’m here, and I’ll try anything once (save bungee jumping and crack cocaine). If it was good enough for the Fabulous Four, it’s good enough for me. I mean, how bad could it really be?
Ah the naivety. The naivety.