Wednesday, March 23, 2011

If I Ever Reach Enlightenment I Want It In Technicolor

My opinion of Hindu Yogis in Rishikesh isn't very high

So I should have been in Amritsar right now getting some rest after an 8 hour bus ride.  But waking up with explosive diarrhea (thanks one-eyed falafel guy) meant a quick rethink.  I could take some loperamide to stop up my system but the general advice with this stuff is to let it run its course and get out.  Luckily I feel fine otherwise so it's just an inconvenience and will limit my itinerary in Amritsar.  I'm really glad I brought that netbook though, a day of TV and video games is what I need when I'm sick.  Anyways, on to the blog.

My journey into the Himalayas started with a 20 hour train ride from Varanasi to Haridwar.  The timings were terrible too, it left at 8 in the morning and arrived at 4 AM the next day.  I tried to be sneaky and stay on the train to Dehra Dun (an hour north of Rishikesh instead of an hour south) so I could sleep a few more hours and have some sunlight.  But no, fates weren't smiling on me that day and they disconnected my train compartment before continuing.  So there I am, barely awake and stumbling out of the train in the dark of night.  It wasn't even left at the station platform so I had to wander around the tracks and follow Indian people's leads of ducking under the no crossings barriers to find a road.

I persevered though and found an open restaurant where I could get some chai to warm up.  As a change of pace the owner spoke almost no English so I actually had to use my pathetic Hindi to get some food.  Which then took an hour to get but good daal takes awhile to make I suppose.  For those of you that heard me talk a big game about studying Hindi before coming here...yeah that didn't happen.  For a few reasons actually:

1) I started in the South where more people speak English than Hindi anyways
2) Since I promised my girlfriend Jess I'll be back in Taiwan sooner rather than later it meant taking classes would have meant a lot less travel time
3) it isn't a very useful language unless your living in North India
4) My plans to go to graduate school in history evaporated once I found out what the life of Adjunct Professors is like and finally
5) I'm lazy.  Yeah, it's probably #5.  Whatever, I've learned to speak a fair amount of Chinese so that's good enough for me.

Once dawn came along I found the bus station and asked around to find the bus to Rishikesh.  Pretty uneventful, your usual smelly bus station with people peeing on the outer wall and a bunch of stray dogs hanging around.  On the bus itself someone dropped a bottle of water and broke it.  So in true Indian fashion they pass it up to me (I was next to the door) and ask me very politely to throw it out the open door.  I had one of those moments of indecisiveness.  I HATE the cavalier attitude Indians have towards litter and the way it ruins the countryside here.  But the guy was also asking in the most polite way possible and I didn't have the heart to say no and then insult his culture by telling him he was doing it wrong.  And it is part of the culture here, it's just that they didn't modify things after plastics were invented so the whole place gets covered in non-biodegradable rubbish.  The worst are these little packets of chewing tobacco with a scorpion on them, people will just dump them into their mouths and drop the packet on the ground in one smooth motion.

I should explain myself when I saw littering is part of the culture.  Even today in more traditional or rural settings you can still find things like cups and bowls made out of natural materials.  Chai gets served in clay cups that are thrown on the ground to dissolve afterwards.  Dust to dust you know.  And several times I've gotten samosas or other street food served in a bowl made out of tree leaves that are sewn (?) together.  There's no problem tossing out that sort of stuff.  But the fact that there are very few places with a garbage disposal service (most of it gets burnt) and a sort of "not my problem" attitude towards litter in public space means that pretty much anywhere you go in India you're going to see a lot of litter on the street that isn't going anywhere.

On the bus I double-checked the Rishikesh section of my Lonely Planet and decided to head to High Bank as it looked to be quieter and away from the main tourist area, which is actually away from the main city of Rishikesh proper if you're that interested.  I arrived in Rishikesh and had to do some quick haggling as I got out of the bus.   Immediately a young guy approaches me saying some nonsense like 150.  I counter with 50.  Now sense should dictate that you meet somewhere in the middle and should work towards a compromise.  That's the stupid way.  I learned from watching Jess haggle for something she didn't really want is that the best way is just pick a price that sounds fair and stick to that price til the bitter end.  It meant the young guy trying to rip me off was getting all excited, then a second rickshaw driver tried to rip me off for a slightly better price (80) until finally a third rickshaw driver came over and agreed to 60.  Happy that I got a decent price we start driving and I get dropped off at the base of the hill to High Bank.

Now at 7 AM everything is closed anyways and in High Bank the guesthouses are all called "Swiss Cottage" or "Swiss Villa" or crap like that.  It sounded a little too pricey for me so I kept walking and stumbled upon Mama's Cottage.  I had to call out a few times and was about to leave but just then Mama herself walks out and in her own unique form of English ushers me in for a chai while they clean my very nice double room with attached bathroom and actual hot water, all for under $5 a night.  It was a little strange at first because Mama calls all her male guests son and all her female guests daughter but the sheer novelty of it boosted my spirits.  Mama also made me realize what the word wizened really means.  You know how people say dog owners begin to look like their pets?  Mama owned a pug named Booju.  I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

High Bank was a blessing too.  The areas around the bridges, Laxman Jhula and Ram Jhula, are both insanely busy and filled with new-agey types in orange pants with Om-printed scarves and shawls.  I went down there for food, shopping and to go on walks but it didn't have the peace or laid back feel of High Bank.  Granted the 3 "Swiss" restaurants in High Bank all had identical menus that weren't so great but such is life.  Mama's thali (a set combo meal) was awesome every night I had it, with a pumpkin curry that really blew my socks off the first time I tried it.  I also tried banoufie pie there and loved it in all its diabetes-inducing glory.

I don't have too many photos of Rishikesh because for 3 weeks I mostly just relaxed and went on daily hikes through the forest.  It's at the start of the mountains so the views were nice but not spectacular.  The wildlife was really cool though, with two species of monkey to be found everywhere.  I dubbed them the cool black faces and the angry red butts.


 Another big attraction in Rishikesh is to go see the Maharishi ashram where The Beatles stayed in the late 60's and wrote parts of the White Album and Abbey Road.  There's a whole history to the encounter with the Beatles eventually leaving in disgust, though George Harrison and Paul McCartney later reconciled a bit ( ) .  The ashram itself is kind of spooky, it was abandoned about a decade ago and is a fascinating example of urban decay.  It's supposed to be closed off but there's a guy who you can bribe to open the gates for you.  Apparently he gets harrassed by the police sometimes but in true Indian style I'm sure he just pays them off and all gets smoothed over.

The entrance.  Lots of buildings had this kind of egg-shaped room and walls made of inlaid stones
The buildings were literally falling apart.  This South African girl followed me for awhile and was really friendly.  There's only so much an adult can talk about with a 12 year old girl though
These look like prison cells and were the living chambers of people.  It was pitch black in there, really spooky stuff.  I was glad some other people were around at the time

Well, that's about it for Rishikesh.  The best part, and why I stayed 3 weeks, was definitely the mix of people at Mama's.  I already talked about Steve who I got to know the best.  There were also some college students from Luxemburg there, a couple of german girls, plenty of Israelis (nice people, they get a bad rep), and a Scottish guy who was great just because his opinion was often the exact opposite of everyone else's.  As I said in an earlier post, people count and Rishikesh was by far the best mix I've found in India.

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