Day 61: Rishikesh
I wake with tiny icicles on my eyelids, but feel rested and happy. I peel back the covers and go to the door of my little suite. Pushing it open, I’m slammed with a towering wall of mountains, their frosty treetops winking, crests scratching the blue sky as though trying to see what’s beneath the azure paint. Arriving in the dark last night afforded no hints as to the majesty of the landscape that surrounded me.
The town of Rishikesh is built up around the Ganges River in the foothills of the Himalayas, in part making it one of the holiest cities for Hindus in search of higher knowledge. In the presence of these peaks I somehow feel vast and minuscule all at once.
I check in at reception (the guy was too zonked last night to bother), give him a bag of laundry (I’m on day three of the same undies) and head out to the street. The crisp weather has instigated a need to shop. It never crossed my mind that “cold” would be a factor in Asia. But it’s wintertime in North India, and this is just the beginning.
I walk down the vertical hill towards the main part of town. The Ganges sparkles below, glittering like the scales of a sacred emerald snake sneaking along the valley of ethereal peaks. Where am I? I suspect my bed may be a rocket ship–I fell asleep in a black void of dark streets and awoke in this prismatic landscape of holiness. I realize that this is not Planet India: Another World. Delhi and Rishikesh are planets; India is it’s own universe. Holy men dripping in shawls and jewelry squat at the edge of the road and little shops display gold rings and beads and colourful sweaters.
This must be where Aladdin and Jasmine lived happily ever after.
I stop at a table where a man ladels steaming milk from a massive pot into a smaller one filled with spices. It simmers for ages and when he removes the lid, it froths to nearly overflowing. Lifting the pot, he swishes the tea around and pours it through a sieve into the another container and finally, into a cup.
He hands it to me, and I’m not sure I will ever taste anything so delicious again. Milky, frothy, sweet and spicy. Not all chai is created equal. A man beside him gestures across the street, telling me of the temple he’s lived in longer than I’ve been alive. It’s seventeen storeys high, built above “Mother Ganga”, he says.
I follow him through the entrance and we walk to the railing. High above the river, this temple’s bleached structure is freckled with prismatic sculptures of Indian gods. The sun peeks over the mountain top, and even it’s first sliver offers a blanket of warmth from the early morning chill.
The sky is blue; the air hazy. Temples and ashrams and soft-coloured buildings are pastel pockmarks on the mountainside.
These temples are different from the somewhat gaudy ones of Southeast Asia–unfurled versions; exposed and airy, as if inviting the four walls of the natural world to be apart of the architecture. Sculptures of Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu watch over their homes.
This holy city is sprawling with temples; ashrams are everywhere. Rishikesh is considered the yoga capital of the world, and people from across the globe come with the intention of meditating, praying and bending their way into spirituality. The city is also meat-and alcohol-free in it’s dedication to living closer to god, or higher consciousness, or something along those lines. Although I am not religious and do not practice yoga or meditation regularly, this mecca of mindfulness entices my spirit to a lower pace, a higher vibration, just by standing amongst it. Maybe it’s Shiva, maybe it’s the mountains, maybe it’s the collective consciousness of a city of like-minded people. Whatever it is, I feel it.
The contrast from the noisy elbow-room streets of Delhi is startling–fresh air, open spaces, nature. The locals still stare, touts still harrass me to purchase guided treks and Vipassana retreats, but I feel at ease here, unthreatened. Smiling faces are as common as curry.
The temple owner produces a tiny plastic bag from his pocket and pulls from it a ‘bidi‘– a dried, rolled up leaf tied at one end with red thread.
I ask him if it’s marijuana.
“No lhasa,” he reassures me. Just tobacco.
He lights two at once and I take a drag. No chemicals, but no filter. It’s good in that throat cancer kind of way.
We remove our shoes and climb stairs to a white balcony with a small enclave. A man sits at a low table covered with beads and metal jars. We kneel on cushions before him, and with a gold spoon he pours holy water into my hands. Watching closely, I follow suit, slurping it into my mouth, patting the rest on my head and rubbing my hands together. He paints a stripe of red ink between my eyes, ties matching string around my wrist and puts a bead necklace over my head. Pushing the metal jars at me, used for ‘spirit cleansing’ in the morning, he puts his hands out. Money, he asks. I decline the jars but give him some rupees anyway.
I hit the streets as a holy woman and stop at a restaurant overlooking the river. I sit there for a long time, writing and catching up with family and friends.
Then I amble through Rishikesh, ogling the treasures laid out in the shops, buying tank tops instead of sweaters because the sun has me under its spell.
Spotting a narrow staircase, I follow it down to the river. Up over some rocks is a private nook. River rafters float by as I stick my foot in–liquid ice. I kick off my other shoe and baptize myself in the Ganges River.
Clothes dripping, I sprawl on the rocks in the sunshine to warm up.
When the goosebumps disappear, I scramble across to the stony beach, back up to the streets and then turn to face Laxman Jhula, the narrow footbridge leading to the other side of the river.
It’s an impressive suspension bridge constructed of iron, intended for foot traffic only. But even as it wobbles with the weight of hundreds of humans, motorcycles honk their way through the suspended crowd. Monkeys swing from the wires, babies clinging to their fronts. Families gather for photos above “Mother Ganga”.
At the other end of Laxman Jhula are more shops and restaurants steaming with spiced concoctions of every colour. Turning left down the main road, the shops thin out and it becomes less populated until only trekking vehicles pass by.
Then a car stuffed with an Indian family stops next to me. The man up front leans out the window.
“Hello! Can we take a picture with you, ma’am?”
People had told me that white skin garners a lot of attention in India and locals are not shy about requesting photos. Seven people spill from the vehicle and surround me for a group shot. They shove their baby into my arms, who bursts into wailing tears on contact. They ignore their child’s terror-stricken shrieks until they have enough snaps to fill the family album. I gratefully hand the screaming thing back and wave goodbye.
It’s hard to be alone anywhere in India, and this deserted road is no exception. One other casual walker strolls ahead of me. He slows to match my stride. He wants to know where I’m going.
“For a walk,” I say.
There is a waterfall in this direction, a couple kilometres away, he tells me. The road follows the river and now it’s hard to lose this guy since we’re both heading the same direction. He chats away, then points to the forested hill at our left.
“You see down there? That is where the locals go to have sex,” he says. I start scanning the street for potential weapons of defence. His next question crosses the line and I turn around, taking long strides in the direction I came from. No waterfall for me today.
I make it back to my hostel just before dark. The attached restaurant has adorable candlelit tables outside looking to the mountains. I order thali and my sixth chai of the day.
A woman holding a baby approaches my table.
“Hello,” she smiles. “Can I take a photo?”
She gives me her infant, and I wonder how many baby albums I’ll be in by the end of this trip.
I head to my room and lay there for hours catching up on first world things on my phone, leaving only at the point when it would be unhealthy to ignore my chocolate craving further. I buy a Bounty bar at the store next door and fall asleep with coconut breath.