The next morning I wake early. The air is sticky, I’m sweating profusely and – to my horror – I realise the creaky fan has stopped creaking. My worst fears are confirmed – Rishikesh has been hit by a power cut. This is not a tremendous surprise to me – over the years I’ve learned to know and love them – they’ve haunted me in Maharastha, Kerala, Rajasthan and Delhi and now it seems one has snuck up on me on the Ganga – in 44 degree temperatures no less. Ah well – I’m an intrepid traveller, who’s sweated a few kilos in her time. It looks like I’m set to suffer and I shall endure.
I stand under the (dodgyish) shower for a long, long time, desperate for some cool relief, though knowing at the back of my mind that it will be short-lived. And it is. I walk outside and it feels like I’m putting my head in an oven. On the porch, Ajay informs me it could be 2-3 hours before my creaky fan is back in business. I’m not remotely surprised, but not even that put out. This is India – and anything is possible. Well, when all else fails, find caffeine and juice. I figure I’ll sweat it out – literally. After all, I bought the ticket (literally) so now I’d better take the ride.
Back at Little Buddha, I order my usual (“my usual” – it’s very comforting) and stare out at the river. The Ganga is extremely still this morning, with barely a breeze to cool my moist forehead. But the beauty of the area takes me aback – greenery, forests, hills, and the river itself, bending and curving out of sight, for hundreds of miles, all the way to Benares (one of my favourite Indian cities). Here there are suspension bridges, with Indian pilgrims swarming across, en route to make prayers at its edge.
In contrast, at Benares, there are small rowing boats, burning ghats and nothing but desolation the other side (somehow, when I think of Benares, the image of Charon rowing his ‘clients’ across the river Styx to Hell comes to mind – not because Benares is hell, but because of the sheer emptiness). But it’s not like that here – it’s utterly calm and the gentle flow of the river lends an air of tranquility to the setting.
I look up. The deserted restaurant now has a second customer – a young guy, reading a map. I sip at my coffee and debate whether to bury myself in my book (as a rule of thumb, I prefer to eat breakfast alone, in blissful silence) or show some common courtesy. Inevitably, though, my good British manners prevail and. I walk over and introduce myself and he smiles and asks if I’d like to join him. Before I know it, I’m chatting away to Nir, who lives two hours north of my home in Tel Aviv. He’s is an engineering student, who’s trying to decide what to do with his life (yikes!) and taken time out, to make a 6-9 month trip around Asia. He’s just arrived from Sikkim, in the east, and, before that, he was Nepal. I’m envious (I loved Katmandu, when I was there, 15 years ago) and bombard him with questions.
We’ve been chatting ten to the dozen for some time when a third diner arrives and boldly asks if she can join us. We motion to the empty chair and down sits Yael, a fellow-Tel Avivi, therapist and smart gal (I can tell immediately, and my instincts are confirmed when she tells me she studied for her MA at the New School in Manhattan – arguably one of the most radical academic institutions in Gotham City). Bet you she’s a cool dudette. The three of us order more coffee. Could this be the beginning of a beautiful friendship?
Indeed so because, by midday, the two of them have moved into my guest house… and – hurray – the power’s come back! Even better, Nir’s fan creaks less than mine so it doesn’t take me long to decamp to his room, where I spend the next hour lolling on his bed, blasts of warm air assaulting my face as he recounts stories of trekking up Base Camp.
But back to Rishikesh. This place is pretty New Age by anybody’s standards. Without a doubt the yoga and ashram capital, of India, there’s no better place to come if you want to stand on your head, stare at a wall (I’ll give this one a miss) bang a drum, use healing crystals, learn to play the sitar or just ‘get spiritual man.’ And Rishikesh attracts westerners and Indians alike, since it’s a holy city. Like its neighbour Haridwar, it’s a centre of pilgrimage for religious Hindus who, in the high season (e.g. right now) flock here in their thousands to pray at temples, float candles and throw petals in the river at dusk and chant mantras as the sun sets slowly.
We spend our first afternoon walking for hours, all the way from Laxman Jula to Ram Jula (the next town along, packed out with pilgrims) and beyond, stopping to dip our toes in the river and drink lassis. By 5pm at night, the heat is abating somewhat and we make our way back to the main drag, where (shoeless) we wander into the huge temple and squash up on benches, watching hundreds of men, women and children chanting quietly, singing songs of prayer, some of the boys in orange shirts (studying at an ashram nearby perhaps?). the women in ornate saris, with bindis on their foreheads, the men quiet and unassuming.
An air of peace fall over the town…and we wander back to the guesthouse, in the dark, lost in thought. It’s my third trip to India, Yael’s second and Nir’s here for the first time… but all of us are marvelling equally at the beauty and grace of the prayer ceremony.
The days that follow pass pleasantly. wandering both the immediate area and its outskirts, hitching to a nearby waterfall, chatting with locals, sitting by the banks of the river (and wading in occasionally, though the water is simply freezing), hydrating ourselves with litres and litres of water, and having long, lazy discussions about the purpose of travel (if there is such a thing). None of us is in an obvious hurry to ‘get’ anywhere…and the greenery of the area lends itself to a certain degree of laziness.
We discover a local hospital – litter on its path, dirty windows, rusty gates and – ostensibly – semi-abandoned. Nir’s lost for words, I send a silent prayer up to the Big Guy, telling him on no account to let me get sick here; Yael takes a photo of the place, to show her sister living in Silicon Valley how millions of people live. I realise, yet again, how lucky I am to have be born with so much privilege.
We head back to town, where we hang out with the guy at the local corner store (he stocks all manner of Indian snacks, and is keeping Nir in coca cola). We’ve nicknamed him Mr Fantastic, Mr Boombastic because he loves singing this song – over and over again – to any customer who comes in to the store. Yael records him for posterity. That night, I fall asleep with Shaggy’s lyrics resounding in my brain (“She says I’m Mr Boom Boom Boom…Mr Lover Lover…”) – it almost takes my mind off the creaky fan.
As each day passes, I am adjusting better (to the heat, the power cuts and the poverty). I rise early and nap every afternoon between 1-4 pm. I take showers constantly and wrap wet sheets round me when necessary. And I let myself remember what poverty it here. Actually It’s not unbearable poverty (the type you would see in rural areas or huge cities like Delhi and Mumbai) but it still has the power to cause me pain and distress. I change a certain amount every day, break it down into 10 rupee notes, and then give money to certain people (usually the old and sick, especially those without a limb).
There’s no social welfare system in India, and people like this simply can’t work. I know begging is a controversial issue here, and I’ve argued with locals and foreigners alike, over the years, about whether one should give or not. Personally, I regard it (as my father so aptly put it once) as “conscience money.” And in a country where I’m living on $15 a day, I can give one tenth of that, quite easily, to people who have very little and, in some cases, almost nothing. My view is that there but for the grace of God go I.
In the meantime, the locals are friendly – and so are the tourists from the Punjab. En route back from a long walk along the Ganga, we’re accosted by six rambunctious Sikhs (all young, in high spirits and – apparently – on holiday here) who beg for photographs with Yael and me. Yael’s nervous but it’s not the first time I’ve been approached in India with such a request (from men and women). I regard the whole thing as harmless fun, in a country where relations between men and women are extremely conservative and it’s rare to see members of the opposite sex even holding hands in public, letting alone hugging or expressing any kind of romantic sentiment. I know they’re going to live off these snaps for months, back in Chandrigar/Delhi/Mumbai. And, anyway, I washed my hair this morning – so I pose happily.
They all line up, politely, to put their arm around my shoulder and their friend aim and shoot with their cutting-edge cellphones. (Bourgeois Indians love technology, and don’t leave home without plenty of it – unlike me who is travelling sans phone, laptop and MP3 player. Guess I’m a laggard (in techie terms) – though I’ve always loved to be uncontactable – freed from the ‘burden’ of communication which seems to define us all in the modern age. I realise – at this point – one of the reasons I came on this trip – because I’m suffering from information overload, burnt out with work and daily life, completely exhausted by constant (often banal and even pointless) conversations. And India, as ever, gives me the perfect opportunity to simplify my life – simple food, simple living, simple philosophies – don’t sweat the small stuff, be grateful for what you’ve got back in the west and (above all) wash your hands constantly
The sun is setting over the town. It’s glorious.