Thursday, 14 October, 2010

Travels in India

The Temple at Rishikesh

Annie and I had been in India for about two weeks, when our travels took us to Rishikesh. We had so far taken in a very small amount of Delhi before making our escape to Simla and on to the Himalayas, where we had hoped to get some trekking in, but were prevented from doing very much of it by our useless guide and a perverted local. I won’t go into detail.

We had found India quite a challenging destination to travel in, both of us having travelled before, extensively in Europe and South America, and a little in South East Asia, sometimes alone. But it is very hard not to be affected by the dirt, the noise, the heat and the hassle that hits you in Delhi. I have been to cities equally as busy (Lima), equally as noisy (Marrakesh), equally as hot (Perth), and with just as much hassle (Kuta) but never have I had to deal with the extremes of each of these in one place. And the dirt! Wading through piss, splashing mud as you walk, face coated in blackness by the end of the day. No matter how bright and breezy we tried to be, Delhi was many things, but it wasn’t fun.

So from Delhi we headed to Simla, as I have a penchant for train travel and had fancied the winding journey out of the city in the so-called ‘Toy Train’. I also love mountains, having spent a few months in the Andes and then the Alps, and I had been told that the Himalayas are something to behold. I also interested in the tortured Tibetan culture. The train journey was delightful, full of excited families on their holidays. We stuck our heads out of the window, taking pictures of the view, the end of the train as it wiggled its way upwards through the trees, of passengers on passing transport, and of ourselves.

Simla turned out to be the reprieve we were hoping for, offering cooler air, richer people and therefore less hassle, and monkeys a-plenty to keep us entertained. After a day or so, we booked an onward tour from Simla, being advised that it is very unwise to travel unguided in these parts, and the next few days were spent exploring remote Tibetan villages high in the Himalayas. Unfortunately, as my travelling companion was struck by sickness, any trekking I did was accompanied only by the guide, which was a little disconcerting, partly because it occurred to me that I might have been safer alone, and partly because he was pretty lazy and did not want to walk very far. The beauty of the mountains is unquestionable, but sadly, the magic I so desired evaded me.

On our return to Simla we felt torn between an energy for adventure, and an apathy brought on by our disappointing mountain experience. Annie wanted to go to Rishikesh for yoga, and as I had taken us to the mountains in search of the spiritualism I yearned, it was her turn to decide. So onwards, and what a journey!

Enduring a winding six hours back down the mountains from Simla to Chandigarh, this time by coach, we left our bags at the bus station and went to check out the incredible Rock Gardens. Chandigarh has a reputation for being India’s cleanest city, and Nek Chand created the Rock Gardens out of rubbish he collected. At over 40 acres of waterfalls, sculptures and bangled menageries overlooking the sweltering tourists – most of them Indian, it is a very special place.

The same day we headed back to the bus station and decided to save money on the onward journey to Haridwar by choosing the local bus over the tourist one. No air conditioning or comfy seats for us, we were bashed around with the dust blowing in our faces, bums pinched and stared at, as we melted in the heat. Although we were far from comfortable, comfort was not our major concern on this journey. That was for our safety. The driver seemed to be racing his way towards his destination with little regard for his passengers or fellow road users. We were right to be worried, as horror struck when we heard an almighty crack and looked behind to see a rickshaw split in two, a woman passenger getting up off the ground and the driver cradling his bloody leg. Despite protests from the passengers on the bus the driver carried on, leaving the devastation behind us. We arrived in Haridwar subdued, upset, and confused, as darkness was setting over another strange city. We got off the bus and tried to work out how to get to Rishikesh, when help arrived from nowhere in the form of a handsome boy dressed in white – our Disney prince. He got us on the right bus and twenty rupees saw us to Rishikesh, an hour’s ride away.

The evening to follow was one of those times when I realised that actually, sometimes I should think before going ahead and trying to achieve everything I fancy. So far on our travels, every time we’d arrived anywhere we had been ambushed by rickshaw wallahs, desperate for our business. But this time there was one. The scope for haggling was small, and we ended up agreeing on a whopping 80 rupees to get us into town, where we had a couple of hotels in mind.

Then our frazzled brains got the better of us, and Annie had a sudden, scary thought. Halfway into town, on a quiet, dark road, she turned to me and whispered that this was probably a plot. We had not previously noticed, but there were two men in the front of our rickshaw, who could easily overcome two tired young women. We worked out our options. Run, ask to get out, or confront them. I chose the latter. When questioned about the intention for bringing him along, we were assured that the driver’s mate simply needed a lift. We asked if he would mind giving him a lift in his own time, as we would feel more comfortable with only one driver. After a short argument, and some hasty sign language between Annie and I, I suggested to the driver that he stop, as we would rather just get out. And so his mate was unceremoniously chucked out onto the empty street, and we breathed a sigh of relief, feeling we might have narrowly missed an escapade. Then he stopped, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and pointed in the distance. ‘You have to walk from here’, he said.

We found that we were at the end of a bridge, not wide enough for a rickshaw, and that the hotels were at the other side. Anxiously, we loaded ourselves with our backpacks, and headed into the darkness, traversing a long and rickety bridge across the Ganges. We weren’t keen to get out our Rough Guide whilst carrying all our possessions and wandering through a new town in the middle of the night. That seemed a little too much like an invitation to be robbed.  So we snatched a swift glance at the book and headed in the general direction of the hotels. We followed a path beside the river, as fast as our laden, weary legs could take us, heeding the warnings of barking dogs not to get too close, until eventually we decided we were going in the wrong direction. And that’s when Annie noticed the sleeping bodies all along the banks of the river. She whispered to me our next predicament. We were going to be jumped on by a gang of homeless Indians, who would steal everything we had come away with, so it was very important to be quiet and look confident.

After another twenty minutes or so in the opposite direction, we were heartened to find an entrance to the town, and dodging cow pats, dogs, sleeping bodies and the odd wandering cow, began the next hour or two of circling the dark streets. With every minute and every wrong turn, I felt more on edge, until eventually we came across an Ashram, with bodies lying around the courtyard and one man awake. We asked him the way to the hotel we were aiming for, and he was happy to point us in the right direction. Ahead we saw the sign for the Rajdeep. We had made it! But it was shut. Pounding on the gates, trying the back entrance, we were, by now, exhausted and desperate for a bed. But luck was not on our side. We got out our mobiles and resigned ourselves to the fact that this night could be an expensive one, as we tried to book a room in another hotel. But no-one was answering, and as more yapping dogs approached, I made another decision. We would have to jump over the gate and sleep in the hotel courtyard until someone woke up. So over we went. And that’s when they opened the door. Safety, at last!

We booked ourselves into the Rajdeep in Swarg Ashram, and had never felt so lucky to be in a basic, dirty room. Our faces caked in mud, our feet encrusted with cowpats, and soaked in sweat, we showered ourselves blissfully clean and fell into bed.

When we awoke, the daylight revealed the true squalor of our surroundings, and we decided to spend some time getting to know Rishikesh and finding somewhere nicer to stay. We emerged once again onto the winding streets of Rishikesh, and were greeted by smiling people, wandering cows who ruled the streets, colourful stalls and shop displays, and temple after temple lining the banks of the Ganges. We quickly came to realise the error of our ways the previous night. The danger we had perceived was all in our heads, and as the days passed we found that we had stumbled upon the gentlest place on earth. We learned, through our interactions with some local boys who took a shine to us, our yoga and cookery teachers, that there was no way that any of the people on the streets of Rishikesh were plotting on our demise. People come here as it is, to them, an incredibly spiritual place. A place of river, mountain, cow, yoga, and peace.

We checked into our new hotel in Laksman Jula, the part of town frequented by tourists, and spent the next few days wandering, eating and shopping. We also climbed to the top of a nearby waterfall, once with the two boys we could not shake off, and who prevented us from swimming at the top as we thought they would enjoy that too much, and once alone, which was glorious.

The time came to move on, and we reluctantly left Rishikesh and all its wonders behind us, heading for the Taj Mahal on another exciting train journey. India had been an experience, not a holiday. I had expected so much, been shocked by the way people were treated, in many cases worse than animals, and lived the scariest night of my life, only to discover that I should have more trust in people. I would love to stay longer next time, visiting the South, with its superior cuisine, more forward thinking, and fantastic coastal train journeys, so that I can say that India is a good place to visit. At the moment, the magic of the Andes cannot be beaten for me, but our stay in Rishikesh taught me that peace and spirituality come in many forms. I discovered that sometimes it is the life around you and people who you share it with that makes a place peaceful, or an experience enlightening. Through the dirt, hassle, heat and noise, I found light in Rishikesh.

(c) Claire Higgins 2010


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