Although I hadn’t spoken with the majority of them – beyond an assurance that I’d have their toilet fixed right away – I made a strong connection with the female meditators I served in the Vipassana course. As the end of Noble Silence approached, I started to get excited to speak to them. I wanted to know who these women were, where they were from, and what they were doing. When I finally had the opportunity to ask them these questions, the answer to the lattermost was an almost consistent, “I’m going to Rishikesh.” I wanted to join them all in the “Yoga Capital of the World,” but I had some business to take care of in Dehradun first.
In the funny way the world has of taking care of me, my friend from Delhi called as soon as I reached Dehradun. He was on his way up with a friend from Sweden. They were going to trek to a waterfall in the Himalayan foothills the following morning, then drive to Rishikesh in the evening. Did I want to join? What a silly question.
As I’m sure you can well imagine a hike to a waterfall in the Himalayan
foothills would be, the hike was beautiful. The Dehradun valley stretched out below us and the majestic mountains rose above us. The weather was hot, but the walk wasn’t particularly strenuous, until you consider that my primary activities for the previous few weeks had been sitting and meditating. The farthest I’d moved at any one stretch was 100 meters, from the dining hall to the pagoda. As such, by the time we arrived in Rishikesh, it was too late and I was too tired to properly appreciate the Ganges as it flowed past our ashram. I showered, shoved some food down my throat and dropped off to dream land.
After a few hours of making deliveries in a white van (of what and to whom, I can’t recall), I couldn’t sleep anymore. I sat up and started meditating. Suddenly, my eyes popped open. The river was calling me. I had to see her. I stepped out into the cool pre-dawn darkness and walked to the riverbank. The sound of the rushing water filled my senses, along with the distinct feeling that I’d stepped off the right path. I didn’t know where I was supposed to be or what I
was supposed to be doing, but I had an overwhelming sense that I wasn’t supposed to be in Rishikesh. Like a good meditator, I observed the sensation without reacting. I just sat and watched the river come to life as dawn approached.
The sky grew lighter and people began to appear on the shore. They bowed to the holy Ganga as they approached the water’s edge. Many got down on their knees to dip the tops of their heads in the water. Others lit incense and scattered flowers. Everyone had his or her own unique display of devotion, but the love they shared for the river was the same. They had come to chant beside it, to pray to it, to bathe in its healing waters. More and more people arrived – young women, old men, young men, and old women. One old couple held hands as they fought the current and the slippery rocks to submerge themselves in the deepest part of the icy water. Another couple of middle-aged women sat cross-legged and waist-deep in water, meditating calmly as the river surged past them. A strong wind caught the ends of their scarves and sent the colorful fabric
dancing around their heads. From the temple at my back, a bell started ringing and the sound of chanting filled the air. The feeling that I shouldn’t be there subsided as the beauty of my surroundings filled me with peace and happiness. I went back inside to wake my sleeping friends.
Our ashram was located in a tranquil spot a few kilometers to the south of the main hustle and bustle of Rishikesh. After a quick breakfast, we ventured into Laxman Jhula, the heavily touristic part of town. A haven for foreign hippies, Rishikesh provides travelers the opportunity to do anything they could ever care to want to do: raft down the Ganges, attend yoga classes, learn to play the didgeridoo, get an Ayurvedic massage, eat familiar foods, take copious amounts of drugs, buy souvenirs, and so much more. It’s the type of place where German bakeries and trendy, laid-back cafes outnumber street carts and greasy hole-in-the-wall eateries, the type of place where people become the same for being different. I’d normally use the term tourist trap, but the foreigners in Rishikesh aren’t technically tourists, they’re travelers. They’re people who go to foreign destinations to experience new cultures; they’re
people who don’t wash their hair or shave their legs, and they’re people who are more comfortable sleeping outside than in fancy hotels. In other words, they’re people just like me, but when they all come together in a place like Rishikesh, a strange pseudo-utopian travel society emerges, and I find that I’m not very comfortable being a part of it. I was glad when the suggestion was made to leave town and drive 80 kilometers north on a narrow and winding mountain road to Devprayag, where the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi
Rivers merge to become the Ganges.
The next morning, my friends returned to Delhi. I stayed in Rishikesh with the Vipassana students. With each passing day I fell more in love with the Ganges – and more in love with those who shared my love for the breathtaking body of water. I loved watching all the little rituals that take place along its shore. From the washing of dirty clothes to the sacred offering of aarti, every activity is performed with so much love and devotion that it creates a sense of magic. Scratch that. It is
magic. One particularly magical afternoon, I met a beautiful soul on
the beach. A young cow ambled down a narrow stairway onto the soft, white sand and walked directly towards me. When she reached my side, she plopped down, tucking all four of her bony limbs beneath her as she stuck her head out to be scratched. Like a cat, she turned it from side to side to allow me better access to all the extra-itchy parts. She remained there for the better part of an hour, begging pets until a couple eating fruits further along the beach caught her attention. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, anything
is possible in India.
I was with good company, and hesitant to leave, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t supposed to be in Rishikesh. My spirit was high, but my energy was diminishing more every day. I couldn’t afford to play tourist any longer. I took one last dip in the glacial Ganga water and caught a hot, sticky bus to Delhi. I had a friend flying in from Germany and a long-overdue date with a dance club.
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