The Riverbed Kids

Day 65: Rishikesh

I dream that my trip had come to an end and I’d gone back home to Canada, but once I got there, no time had passed and nothing had changed, including me. I wasn’t ready to be back and, well, home didn’t feel like home anymore. But my eyes open in the silence of a simple room nestled in the mountains of northern India–I exhale.
I hit up another yoga class lead by the same gratuitously-toed teacher, who again guides my limbs into agonizing positions with the gentleness of a champion wrestler. And yet, afterwards, my body feels like that of a twelve year old gymnast. I feel the gain, and every bit of pain.
During breakfast at the Raasta Cafe next door, I listen to messages from my Vietnam motorbiking adventure crony, Flo. The German Stud has finally escaped Vietnam after a frustrating visa debacle.
There are more messages, this time from my preferred human of all time; my favourite idiot; finest friend; my sister from the same mister (and missus). It’s my blood, and her name is Marnie, and she has sent her flight details because tomorrow I am PICKING HER UP AT THE DELHI AIRPORT. (Dump out your coffee. The chronicles of the following exploits will be better enjoyed over a rye on the rocks and away from the neighbours).
It’s my last day in Rishikesh, and there is a temple I want to see that is a 27km drive through the mountains. The travel office is out of rentals, so the boss man loans me his personal scooter. I promise to bring it back crash-free. He peers at me through a furrowed brow as I zoom away in the direction of Kunja Puri Temple.
Through Rishikesh town, past hustling streets, northward. Looking at the map, the road to Kunja Puri looks like someone put the point of a pen to paper in a car ripping through the back roads of the Rockies. All sguiggles.
Monkeys stop picking through trash heaps on the roadside to watch me zip by.
The air becomes cold and thin and the views more incredible, the altitude showcasing the endless valleys and peaks–more ups and downs than a bipolar kangaroo on a roller coaster.
I pass through nickel-sized towns and tiered mountain crops. From up here, the road looks like a snake in yoga class.
I turn up a narrow path winding tightly through the trees and, still, UP somehow, until a few houses and a cafe appear at the end of the road. I park my scooter. My frozen fingers ecstatically wrap around a steaming cup of chai in the cafe teetering on the mountain’s edge, and I make conversation with the only other patron–a middle aged man rolling a joint. He’s a taxi driver, a motorized pilgrim, who’s covered more Indian ground than the collective population does standing.
I pay for the chai, then walk up an endless turquoise staircase and step on top of the bleached, open-air temple.
If the temple is a lamb–cute, white, unimpressive–then the view is a lion–majestic, powerful, and yet serene.
Sitting on the highest peak of this multitude of mountains, the Himalayan foothills extend into oblivion for 360 degrees. Drums resound through the valleys from other temples; gongs reverberate from some distant village in the hills. I pad around in my socked feet to every balcony railing, talking to the monkeys like an eccentric vagabond (read: lost lunatic).
They scamper around the temple stealing fruit from visitors and sifting through garbage piles.
Villages sit perched atop a few of the peaks, their roads like threads tangled through the trees. The sun has only just melted my goosebumps acquired from the ride up when it’s time to head back down to the scooter.
I stop at the first town that pops up in response to my growling tummy.
Parking my scooter, not a single sari colours the streets. Only men permeate the sidewalks, spill from the storefronts. I walk over to a man stirring a pot at a tiny restaurant. Behind him, almost every table is taken.
Namaste,” I say. Every pair of eyes looks up at me.
“Um, I’d like to eat lunch. May I sit?”
The guy stares at me over the pot.
“No.” That seems to be the only English he knows.
It may just be that 3:30pm isn’t a good time for lunch in this town, I reason to myself, after I am rejected by the next three restaurants. I finally find a place that will serve me, and I scarf a plate of rice and dal subconsciously as scores of male eyes watch my every forkful. I get back on my scoot-scoot and zip back along the winding mountain pass to Rishikesh.
Once in town, I steer onto a bridge crossing a dry riverbed. Along it’s sides, as though the polluted river’s debris had washed up and stuck to it’s shores, are the slums. The River Squatters.
Shacks made of corrugated tin and dry thatching and big stones and bits of trash are constructed into a ramshackle neighbourhood along the edges of the once-river.
Heaps of garbage adulterate the stony surface. Dozens of children play amongst it. Fires send smoke into the sky like an SOS signal. Pigs snooze in the dirt, chickens cluck, cows roam.
I park my scooter and watch a snippet of this life from the railing above. Life deconstructed. These people don’t go to the walk-in clinic when they have the flu or try sushi wraps at the new asian-fusion restaurant in town or give their kid an iPad on his sixth birthday. They don’t travel to different continents or take vacations or win door prizes at staff parties. I find a side pathway and head down there to get a better vantage point.
Walking through the little alley along the river, I’m greeted by stares and smiles and namastes. A group of women huddle around a fire in the fading sunshine. They look up and wave, inviting me to share their heat. A young girl runs up to me, asks my name in English and then shyly runs away. I thank the women, but my curiosity leads me between a couple of the crafty shacks and onto the stony riverbed.
I’m instantly swarmed by little kids with matted hair and dirt-smudged faces. Pretending not to see them, I walk through the muddy mob, then jolt around and scream wildly, arms flailing in the air. It scares them more than I planned. They shriek like banshees and run away until the screams bubble into laughter and they turn to face me with the mentality of a pack of wolves spotting a wounded deer.
Copying my flail-y form, the kids run at me like a wailing wall, chasing me upriver until I turn around and chase them back. In a few minutes, the swarm of children has multiplied until the caterwaul has reached a pitch that would alarm even the fire department.
A man approaches and in poor English, introduces me to a young man I assume is his son, and his daughter speaks to me in English. She asks my name, where I’m from, translating the answers to her family. The kids watch, attentive. Adult men and women sit in groups, cooking in massive pots over open fires. Play time is winding down. I thank them in Hindi, say goodbye, and walk to the alley towards the street. But the kid gang stalks me down the path, all riled up from running, their excited screaming becoming shrill and deafening until I have to stop and explain that I have to leave, and they have to stay. My face burns with the hardening eyes of the older ladies as they watch me go. I make it back to my scooter, sans kids, and wonder if, for the older crowd, that wasn’t all fun and games. Maybe I just left them with a bundle of wound up kids on the brink of bedtime.
I zoom back to Laxman Jhula, stopping for hot chai and thali before my 8pm meditation class. Arriving at the ashram just before 8, I stand before Swami Sanjit’s room. The door swings open before I even knock. I take a seat on a wooden chair against the far wall and he sits on the bed, crossing his legs. The room is starkly simple, featuring a bed, a desk in the corner, a single piece of luggage below it and a small mirror on the wall.
He speaks slowly, clearly, pausing often between sentences. Swami Sanjit begins to explain the ‘journey of meditation’; of the effect thought has on the mind. He says he cannot teach me meditation, only help guide me. He speaks for an hour, asking questions every so often. His thoughtfulness is apparent in the silences he takes before speaking.
As a solo female in a foreign place, I listen and observe openly with one ear and one eye, and with the other, listen for anything suspect; one eye peeled for a corrupt moment in the teachings.
“To meditate, you need three things: playfulness, flexibility, and a comfortable setting.”
Oh no. Corruption bells go off. Am I reading too much into this? I could read too much into the thread count of his bedding at this point. Alert is on high. An hour later, it’s time to meditate.
“This is a group practice, using ‘om’, but you can do it individually as well.”
He gets up from the bed, folding the blankets and putting them aside. He asks me to sit.
I cross my legs on one end and he sits on the other. He asks me to move closer, and then closer still.
“Be comfortable,” he says.
I’m as relaxed as a drum skin.
I follow his lead, putting both hands out in front of me, one palm up and one down, and he puts his palms to mine.
We close our eyes and chant ‘om’ over and over again.
My mind races. I try to free my mind of thought, the majority of which are about whether or not this guy is gonna try to get fresh during our ‘meditation practice’. I imagine what defence tactics I’d use if he tried anything fancy–screaming non-stop while doing nothing; poking his eyes in with the two-finger method; jumping out the window and getting stuck halfway through it’s tiny frame. What if he leans in for a kiss? What if he’s watching me while I sit here like an idiot with my eyes closed chanting like a lunatic? Oh god, am I one of those stupid girls who thought that “one-on-one” meditation sessions were real? I’m so getting molested.
The omming stops.
“Okay, now silence,” Swami says quietly.
I try to focus on my breath, but the sound of him swallowing a few inches away from my face is more distracting than a bowling ball hitting concrete in yoga class and I try to console myself with comforting thoughts, like how there are dozens of people in this ashram mere footsteps away; how the door is not locked; how Swami had pointed out the importance of celibacy earlier…
Overthinkers Anonymous, help.
Ten minutes later, he breaks the silence.
“Now, slowly, slowly, open your eyes.”
My peepers whip open in the blink of an eye, and I see that his are still closed. I shut mine again and slowly, slowly, open them, and this time he is looking at me.
Then he goes on to explain why he chose this meditation practice for me and if I have any questions I can email him and blah blah blah *a whole bunch of non-creepy, meditation related babble* blah blah.
I leave with a new experience and without having to poke anybody’s eyes out. I hit up the Raasta Cafe for chai and to visit Kumar and Akish, the lovely Nepali guys who work there. And then I go back to my room for the last sleep before I meet my sister in Delhi.

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