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Published: January 23rd 2008
The next morning, I rise before the crack of dawn and start my seven hour train trip to the foothills of the Himalayas. The previous night, I bought some bread and fruit for the journey. I needn't have bothered: a constant stream of sales people snakes through the train. 'Chai! Chai!' 'Brrrrrreakfast!', 'Tomato soup!', 'Chips, biscuits, cake, water!', they cry in a continous mantra. It is never-ending. As soon as I only tentatively glance into their direction, they stop and try and place a cup of tea in my hands. Two Indian soldiers with turbans sit diagonally across from me and play with their guns. I am pursued by the same cockroach for the whole journey. Every time I flick it away, it magically re-appears on the same spot a minute later. Eventually, I give up and let it go where it wants.
I am happy when we reach Haridwar at 2 pm. The first thing I see, after trying to keep up with my tall tree-like dreadlocked porter who carries my cement-like luggage swiftly through the station on his head as if it contained feathers, is a colourful statue of Lord Shiva outside the train station. 'Welcome back', he
seems to smile. I remember, we have some unfinished business. It gets better. I jump into a taxi and on the way to Rishikesh, which, I pray, will be nicer than Haridwar, another one of those polluted Indian cities I so loathe, I spot the biggest, most enormous, most impressive statue of Lord Shiva I have seen in my entire life. It's just.... huge, probably about ten metres tall. It's a bronze metal material, and he towers over us in his beauty, might and majestic power, with the snake coiled around his neck, and the trident in his hand. I gasp and crane my neck until the statue is out of sight. I tingle all over and know I am arriving.
When we reach Rishikesh, or rather, Lakshman Jhula, the spiritual back end of Rishikesh, I breathe a sigh of relief. I catch my first glance of Mother Ganga: she is huge, sparkling and alive. There are wooded hills all around me - left, right, in front, behind. The streets are small, and pedestrian-only in some parts. I can breathe. Again, statues of Shiva glance at me from every corner. How auspicious. I find a beautiful large south-facing room
with marble floors on top of a hill with balcony overlooking the Ganges. There is a temple room dedicated to the Goddess Durga on the landing, and a large Shiva statue next to my bed. Perfect. There are daily yoga classes a short flight of steps down from my room, as well as a great restaurant. I think I can stay here for a while. As I later realise, I am sharing the imposing, tasteful, marble-pillared house with a noisy Indian family: parents, grandparents, children, servants, who get up at 6 am amidst much shouting and banging of doors. When I complain about these miscreants the next morning and ask when they will finally be leaving, I find out that they are the owners of the hotel and will stay for another week. It takes a few days to reconcile Indian culture with a Western desire for tranquillity, but eventually, the dust settles.
At first I am a little overwhelmed by Rishikesh. The world's 'yoga capital' is a spiritual supermarket, with more yoga schools, ashrams, gurus and other esoteric folk than you can imagine. The Hindus say that Rishikesh is the most important place for meditation. It reminds me
of Glastonbury in some way. Like Glastonbury, Rishikesh has high and fast vibrations. Prayers and wishes are answered through synchronistic meetings at the speed of light. Shiva is everywhere: his energy is vibrating strongly, ecstatically and loudly. There are beautiful statues, temples and Shiva lingams
-Shiva's phallus in spiritual form, often placed within a yoni (vagina) - everywhere. So are the cows. Long-lashed, meditative, obese, big, small, they wander the streets lasciviously, nibbling on cauliflowers and garbage. Sadhus, India's holy men who have renounced all worldly possessions, wander the streets with them in their orange robes, clank their collection bowls and rub their long beards pensively. 'Ram Ram', I greet them, until I am solemnly informed by my yoga teacher that the pronunciation is 'Raaam', not 'Ram' - so far, I have been offering them Rum, apparently. The tourists are everywhere, too, and consequently, there are German bakeries, pizza, pasta and lasagne. Sorting the wheat from the chaff is quite a task here. The only way to go, other than through recommendation, is by intuition.
A few days ago, I am asked into the home of an Indian family. The house consists of little more than a brick shed,
with a big heart-shaped mirror on one wall. There are five delightful young girls, and a mother: the father, a tailor, is at work, and three other sisters have been married off, and one brother is in Delhi. They offer me tea and apologize that there is no milk. Despite the family's obvious poverty, the girls look well-fed, content, happy and clean. They all inspect my garnet jewellery and play with my hair. 'You marriage?' they ask curiously. No, I shake my head. 'How old are you?' '35'. They look confused. 35 and unmarried? That's clearly not on. They debate for a moment with each other. One of the girls rushes into the back room and emerges with a bottle of purple nail varnish. They grab my hands, and to my horror, begin to paint my nails. 'This will help you find a husband', they seem to say.
Life in Rishikesh is good. Although I've only been here for a little while, I've met some very interesting people and feel very much at home here. I spend my days practising yoga for three hours daily, meditating by the Ganges, attending puja
(Hindu worship) and fire ceremonies, meeting strange pot-bellied gurus that remind me of Father Christmas, getting ayurvedic massages, riding on the back of motorbikes, volunteering in a children's home for an hour a day (where I realised today, to my embarrassment, that I can't do simple division!), and sometimes, playing percussion and singing religious songs with a gang of elderly sadhus in a small temple. Rishikesh is the sort of place where you can do as little or as much as you feel like. The activities and sights are there if you want them, but it's just as easy to get away from it all.
I am not tempted to move around much for the moment: staying in one place and getting some sort of routine after all this travelling feels good. There is no season here until mid-February, which is when the backpackers start rolling in, and by that time I aim to be tucked away in an ashram. I found a nice one with good vibes and lovely gardens down the road, and plan to retreat there for a month or so. It's all 5 am starts, twice daily yoga and meditation sessions and lectures, but I think it will be good to get away from all of the distractions and do some inward journeying again, after the extensive outward travelling of recent months. Time to digest, process, focus, be still and dream the future, perhaps. People ask me all the time how long I will be travelling for, when I am going back to England, where I'll be going next. The answer is: I have absolutely no idea. Sometimes that feels extremely liberating, and sometimes, depending on my mood, it feels scary. I am still dangling in the unknown, but I also have the feeling that there is some kind of invisible plan that will lead me exactly where I need to be. My visa runs out in late June, so I might well remain in India until then. Right now, I have the luxury of following the moment, the impulses, the signs, omens and messages. My quest here is to develop and deepen my yoga and tantric practice, so I am following up some of those leads. To read more about my journey in India, my book 'Meeting Shiva - Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas' is available via Changemakers Books from 30 August 2013. Read the first few pages on Amazon UK and Amazon US !
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