Sweat and Holy Water
In my last update I was looking forward to a long weekend trip to Dharamshala, home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. For those of you who have been wondering whether I stayed there, left all my worldly possessions, and became a Buddhist monk – such is not the case. In fact, I never went to Dharamshala! As India has taught me well, things don’t always go as planned. Luckily, though, in a country as fascinating as India Plan B (or C) is usually as good as your original Plan A when it comes to travel.
Following Plan A I met Daniel L., Blythe, and Daniel C. at 6pm on Wednesday evening to depart for our weekend in Dharamshala. Daniel L. had reserved four seats on an overnight bus which was scheduled to leave at 8:30pm. The plan was for the travel agent to take us from his office to the bus station – he had promised Daniel we wouldn’t pay the balance on our tickets until we saw the bus. This was a smart move on Daniel’s part because it is not uncommon for travelers in India to buy tickets for an AC Volvo bus (the Cadillac of buses) only to arrive and find an old bus with no AC.
The travel agent took us from his office to the bus station on the Metro. At rush hour the Metro from South Delhi toward the city center is as crowded as a rock concert mosh pit – and explodes into the same churning and frantic mess at each stop. If you have never had the experience of riding the Delhi Metro at rush hour, count yourself lucky and feel no need to put it on your Bucket List. I think it actually takes years off your life.
We arrived to the bus departure point at 7:15pm and saw a nice AC Volvo bus waiting on the side of the road. We then found out why our travel agent had been so nervous throughout the Metro ride. As it turns out the bus was actually scheduled to leave at 7pm and was now full. There was another non-AC bus leaving to a city near Dharamshala but after a group huddle we decided to call it a miss (Delhi to Dharamshala is a 12 hour bus ride) and spend the night in Delhi. Still wanting to take advantage of the long weekend to get out of town, we headed back to Daniel & Blythe’s to consult Lonely Planet over beers and pizza. By 11:30pm we had booked bus tickets to Haridwar, a hill station on the Ganges north of Delhi from where we could travel to Rishikesh, another hill station known for meditation, yoga, and adventure sports.
The bus left the next morning without a hitch (other than the 1 hour wait) and I think we enjoyed the 8 hour ride from Delhi to Haridwar. Thursday was a large Hindu festival, Dussehra, which celebrates the victory of goodness over evil. It is celebrated with fireworks and the burning of a large effigy of the demon Ravana, who was conquered by Rama (the seventh incarnation of Lord Krishna). Along the way we saw large parades of people dancing and celebrating in the streets and large effigies in most every village. We arrived in Haridwar and easily found lodging on the main road. We had a delicious dinner at Big Ben AC Restaurant and then hit the streets to explore Haridwar’s endless alleyway markets. The streets were lit up and bustling with families returning from the festivities. We didn’t think they would start until after dinner time so we were disappointed to have missed them.
On Friday we took an auto to the cable car that climbs a hill to Haridwar’s Ma Devi Temple. The cable car had a 3 hour waitlist so we decided to make the hike on foot. It was a very sweaty 35 minute climb but the scenery was nice – a view over the city and plenty of monkeys. We were required to leave our shoes outside the temple entrance so I reluctantly handed over my Nikes, figuring I had a 40% chance of seeing them again. The temple was bustling inside. Directly inside the entrance were gift stores and food stalls. Along the road up from the city there were numerous stalls selling offering bags with flowers, rice, a coconut, and other items to be offered to the deities. A group of Indian men in their thirties started a loud chant of praise behind us as we walked through the temple. Imagine the Litany of Saints as a raucous basketball cheer, it was something like that. We each received a tikka or two (a powder marking on one’s forehead) and asked to make offerings of a few rupees. On the way out of the temple we were able to find a quiet terrace overlooking the city. We stopped there to catch our breath and reflected that the experience was not anything like the serene temple environment we had expected. After retrieving our shoes we headed down the hill to meet our cab for the hour long drive to Rishikesh.
Rishikesh is to Delhi as Goa is to Mumbai – an accessible and amazing escape from the bustle of the city. We spent two days there relaxing in the “backpackers enclave” which is located in the foothills of the Himalayas overlooking the Ganges River. The stunning scenery of hills and the river valley reminded me so much of Bellagio, Italy at the confluence of the two sides of Lake Como. That night we went down to the Ganges and spent time sitting by the powerful river. It was so nice to sit by water. A woman gave us small paper dishes with offerings of flowers, rice, a candle, and incense. We lit them and let them go in the river. I thought of my dad who will come visit me and stand by the bank of this same river in December.
Saturday morning we woke up early and watched the sun rise from our balcony. It was stunning. Here are some pictures:
At 8:30am we had a fabulous yoga class and then an incredible breakfast and headed out on a hike to a nearby waterfall. The guidebook had described an easy 15 minute hike to a waterfall and we calculated that the trail should start about 30 minutes from our hostel. We ended up completing a 3 hour hike up a mountain (foothill). It was a crazy trek but completely worth it. We stopped and swam in an icy pool underneath part of the waterfall, which I’m pretty sure was part of the Ganges River so we are all very holy now!
Three hours up we were ready to call it quits but a group of hikers coming from the top of the mountain told us we “must climb up 10 minutes more, you’ll see really beautiful rice fields.” So we kept climbing and eventually ended up here:
Nestled in the foothills are a series of little villages like this one. We met a few teachers from the village who were trekking down the hill to the town below. They said that most teachers stay in the village all week, making the trek down on weekends, but that some of them climb up and down every day! There is a road that reaches a temple at the very top of the foothill (at least four hours more from the point we reached), but no road to access the villages in between by car or truck.
When we reached the bottom of the hill we jumped in the back of one of the many jeeps that shuttles white water rafting tours to and from Rishikesh. As I rode back to town in the back of the jeep, feeling free and refreshed, it hit me that this is exactly what I pictured myself doing in my twenties – traveling, living spontaneously, taking weekend trips to no place in particular with great friends and a taste for adventure, hiking mountains in Target sandals (I did not wear the proper footwear for the trek). When we reached Rishikesh we found a table at a restaurant overlooking one of the suspension bridges that crosses the Ganges. As the sun set we shared a delicious meal and reflected on how totally awesome the weekend had been.
The return to Delhi was just as adventure-filled as our first departure. We arrived at 8:30pm to catch a 9pm bus back to Delhi and ended up waiting until 11:30pm for the bus to arrive. So we made friends with the other waiting travelers – many Israeli students, Germans, a woman from Spain, and the Indian family that sat next to us on the bus from Delhi. When the bus arrived it turned out to be overbooked. But, as is only possible in India, the bus driver and his assistants somehow managed to get us all in the bus and we arrived the next morning in New Delhi in one piece.
You know the feeling of fun that comes with pushing yourself, challenging yourself to keep climbing (literally or figuratively) farther than you think is possible? That’s what I felt during our Saturday morning trek. I didn’t realize until just now, but that climb up the “mountain” is a perfect analogy for my time in India so far. Just when I think I will give up and call it quits I get a new burst of energy, turn a new corner, see a new side of the many faceted gem that is India and decide to keep climbing and see what adventure lies ahead. And at the end of each day I’m always glad I did. I am three months into my Indian adventure and what an adventure it has been. Here’s to the rest of the climb!