As previously stated, our entry to Rishikesh was traumatic. But then everything fell into place, we found a nice hotel, restaurants etc. The weather is perfect, hot during the day, but cool and fresh each morning after a wind whips up and blows all night through the valley. Sometimes in the afternoon, the sky darkens, and a thunderstorm comes in off the mountains. But as quickly as it appears, it also leaves, and the sun comes out again. We easily fell into a comfortable routine.
Since our first visit seven years ago, Rishikesh has changed quite dramatically…especially the area we’re staying in this time. Back then, Laxman Jhula was already a tourist destination, but decidedly sleepy. Now it has become a mecca for western travelers and yoga “bunnies”. The main street (the only street) is lined with yoga schools, hotels, vegan restaurants, beauty parlors and high-end clothing stores; jeeps and motorbikes roar back and forth, horns blaring. Previously, the road that connects it with Ram Jhula was a dirt track, with sadhus and monkeys perched along the 2 km stretch.
Now, one positive change – a pleasant, the newly paved walkway has been built beside the river to connect Laxman Jhula with Ram Jhula, with benches and pagodas along the way, occupied predominantly by sleeping sadhus.
Ram Jhula still is largely filled with ashrams for visiting pilgrims. The only time we’ve seen the Dalai Lama was in Ram Jhula.
The fast flowing Ganges and surrounding foothills are as scenic as before. At night, Gerard and I eat in restaurants overlooking the river, with lights twinkling on the water. It’s very beautiful. But during the day, the surroundings have the air of a holiday camp with tourists crowded into rubber rafts traversing the rapids, striking yoga poses in their bikini on the fine white sand of the river bank and sipping cappuccinos in New York style coffee houses.
I remark the first night that with so many western travelers, this is the kind of place where we should meet someone we’ve met before during our ten years of traveling in India. Then we go to dinner a small momo restaurant and join a woman at her table. She is French but says she lives in the U.S., in Truro on Cape Cod. As we talk we discover that like us she spends each winter in India, first in Goa and then in the mountains. She mentions a town in Goa that we visited last year with Helene and Remy, French friends we first met in Varanasi. Oh yes, she knows Helene and Remy well and we all know Nadia and Vinod, a Belgian woman and her Indian husband who own a beach restaurant. This couple spends the summer in Nagar, his own town in Himachal Pradesh we love. The French woman has also visited Nadia and Vinod in Nagar. Then number three coincidence: she tells us she has a yoga teacher in Boston and was introduced to her by an artist she met in Truro. The artist was a good friend of ours, Noah Hall, who a year ago sadly died of cancer. We spent another hour sharing stories about Noah and her family.
A day later, we receive a text from our good friend Jonny who just happens to be here in Rishikesh. We arranged a meeting but just happened to bump into him on the street. This is the kind of thing that happens in Rishikesh (and other parts of India also). Lastly, a young French couple stopped us on the street today. Being old and forgetful, it took a while for us to make the connection, but just two weeks ago in Orchha, we had met them in a restaurant. And here we all were again in Rishikesh!
Our friendship with Jonny goes back eight or nine years and we see him all too rarely. He is the kind of person you can warm up to almost immediately. His kind, sympathetic eyes are a reflection of his personality. Unfortunately, his partner, Jitka, left for Thailand the following day, but before Jonny went on a two-week meditation retreat, it was our good fortune to spend another day with him. With some luck, we’ll see him again in England in April.
I finally emailed my doctor in Boston about my sudden loss of hearing three months ago just after we arrived. I was afraid it was a stroke, but he didn’t think that is the cause. Sudden loss of hearing might be resolved with steroids and I should follow up with a doctor here who can diagnose my condition. I had already visited two doctors, one who thought I had an infection and prescribed antibiotics and another who said, yes, there is nerve damage and gave me nerve pills. We didn’t think it could be possible to find a hearing specialist here in the mountains, but Jonny told us there was a branch of AIIMS (All India Institute of Medicine and Science) right here and we decided to go, no appointment necessary. AIIMS is one of the best hospital groups in India. It is a huge operation with masses of outpatients, but I was able to see a doctor within a couple of hours. Everything is run remarkably efficiently although the staff seems totally overworked. After a hearing test, the doctor confirmed I had moderate to severe hearing loss but it was too late for steroids. She recommended a hearing aid and in the meantime prescribed a mix of allopathic and homeopathic remedies.
Toward the end of our stay, we woke up to see a crowd of mostly Indian young people, with a few westerners among them, in the gully where a brook runs through, beyond our balcony. Armed with large bags they were picking up all the garbage, mostly plastic, thrown in typical Indian fashion into the gully. The hotel staff told us they were a local youth group trying to change awareness of throwing trash into the river. This is going to be an uphill battle, in this pristine setting, you still see Indians throwing plastic bottles into the Ganges.
It’s unlikely we’ll come back, but we’ll miss all the friendly people we’ve met.