Rishikesh: Not an Easy Entry


After spending five weeks in the Ganges Plain, we looked forward to moving up into the foothills of Rishikesh. We stopped in Delhi for three days with our Indian family and felt revived and refreshed, ready for our early morning train ride to Haridwar. As it turned out, our guide slipped up and did not check the mobile app, ‘Live Train Status’. Arriving at the train station at 6.30 am, we were disappointed to find the train coming from Mumbai, was five hours late. This could have been avoided had the guide (or me) been on his toes!

We settled into a crowded, noisy waiting room. The hours ticked away watching the changing face of the crowd, but we noticed that ETA of our train kept getting later. Once a train loses its place in the queue, it only exacerbates the problem. After a light lunch of masala dosa at the downstairs cafeteria, we went to the designated platform, #2. Ten minutes before its new arrival time, the platform was changed to #1. That may not sound like a big deal, but if you’re carrying a suitcase and backpack up a long flight of stairs, over the tracks, down the other side, and in the heat of the day, it is significant. It was no surprise that the train crawled most of the way to Haridwar. Originally scheduled to arrive in the early afternoon, we called our guesthouse to let them know we were going to be very late. It was well after dark when we negotiated for a rickshaw for the remaining 25 kms to Rishikesh. Gerard made it very clear we had to be dropped off at Laxman Jhula bridge, the northernmost part of the town. “Yes, sir, no problem, Laxman Jhula!” It was a very long, cold, tedious bumpy 25 kms. Dropping us, he said, “Just there, the bridge.” The footbridge was still crowded even though it was getting late. We went in the direction where we thought the guesthouse was and asked a shopkeeper who said, “Just keep going straight and you’ll find it.” But as walked further, it began to look all too familiar. Seven years ago we stayed in Ram Jhula, another section of Rishikesh that’s also only reachable by another footbridge. We kept walking; it didn’t feel right but Gerard wasn’t yet willing to address the possibility that we’d been dropped off at the wrong bridge.

When we passed the hotel we stayed in seven years ago, we had to acknowledge the obvious, we were most definitely in the wrong part of town. Asking the same shopkeeper again, he said “You should be in Laxman Jhula, not Ram Jhula. It’s 2 kms up a small road.” It’s now getting close to 10 pm and things were shutting down. We started out again and quickly met a jolly man who said, “Where are you going?” Telling him, he said, “It’s too far. I have a friend who will take you on his bike for 100 Rs ($1.80).” Both of us were having a hard time visualizing what he meant. He yelled over to his friend who was just about to leave on his motorbike. He said, “Get on!” “What? How? What about the bags?” He grabbed one of the suitcases and put it between his arms, and then placed his back pack on top of it. I climbed behind him with my back pack hanging off one arm. There was about three inches of the seat left where Gerard squeezed on. No room for suitcase. Both of us held on to it, off the other side, dangling in the air. There was no place for Gerard to put his feet. With a wobbly start we went down the dark lane. I kept saying to Gerard, “This is really dangerous.” It took every ounce of strength I had to hold on to my backpack with my left arm and help Gerard hold the case with my right. The friendly biker dropped us off in front of our guesthouse. He was so nice to give us a ride, even apologizing; it had little or nothing to do with the 100 Rs, he was doing us a favor.

So glad that our long journey was finally over, we were shown to our room. It wasn’t exactly a dump but it was sub par for the price. Never mind, we’ll take it for one night. When I asked for towels and top sheet (most guesthouses only supply top bedsheet on request) he said, “Not possible.” Gerard was in no mood and said, “At this price we should have a towel!” But the answer was still no. We grabbed our baggage and hit the street again. It was now 10.30 and very few people were about. Up the street we went, stopping at every guesthouse and room for rent. All were full. “This is the high season,” we were told, “maybe tomorrow.” One of the guesthouses where we enquired, two men at the reception said, “You’re welcome to leave your bags.” They’d seen us on the street, “Why don’t you leave your cases here while you continue to search.” A kind offer, we accepted and continued. Then Gerard said to me, “I wonder if we’ll ever see our cases again!” I was too tired to care. Four or five more rejections, a woman took pity on us. “Wait.” she said. After a short conversation with her husband, “There is a large empty room downstairs, you can stay there. We’ll put a mattress on the floor and give you bedding. There’s a toilet and sink outside.” “We’ll take it!” It was now past 11 pm and hardly a soul on the street.

We hustled back to retrieve our luggage; the two men said, “You can have our room tonight. Don’t worry about us; if you like you can stay.” Another kind gesture. We took a look at the room and it was a typical bachelors’ quarters, dirty dishes, clothes on the floor etc. “Don’t worry, we’ll clean up and change the bedding.” It was tempting but I felt committed to the woman who was already making up a bed on the floor for us. We thanked and told them we’d be back in the morning to see if they had a vacancy. Back through the empty street, down into our cavernous room; we just wanted to lay down and go to sleep. It was a noisy section of the street, mostly Israelis who live and party by night, but we both managed to get some sleep anywhere.

Feeling much better in the morning, we went out and had breakfast (we’d eaten nothing since the dosas at lunch the day before), then started the search again. Repeatedly told to come back at 12, check out time, we didn’t want to wait. Maybe those nice men where we left the cases last night might have the vacancy. But when we got there, they said, the same thing, “Come back at noon.” As we were leaving, one called after us, and said, “Somebody’s just told us they’re checking out!” We took a look at the room, it had no view but otherwise would suit us fine. Back down the street to collect our cases, the woman said there, “I’m so pleased you have a room because we still don’t have a vacancy.” Now we’re settled into our spacious and clean room (Gerard still had to scrub the whole place down of course) and we’re feeling particularly grateful. It was a long day but in the end everything worked out and here we are in Rishikesh next to the Ganges.


Playful Krishna and Scheming Monkeys in Vrindavan


Last year in Himachal Pradesh, we met two American women who lived in Vrindavan. After bumping into them repeatedly on the mountainside, they encouraged us to come and visit the following year. Vrindavan is near Mathura, the Hindu deity Krishna’s birthplace, about 160 km from Delhi. Krishna is said to have spent his childhood in Vrindavan and where he met his lover, the deity Radha. Vrindavan is an important pilgrimage site and visited by many Western Radha Krishna followers, a number of whom, like Anita and Suleta, have made it their home. Sitting on the Yamuna river, it is an ancient town, a maze of narrow streets, populated with temples dedicated to Krishna and Radha. Up until just a few years ago, only bicycle rickshaws shared the streets with the cows. Now it’s quite different, with ear piercing motorcycle horns very similar to Varanasi.

Since we were passing so close and had such an amiable time with them both a year ago, we asked if we could pay a visit. Suleta was out of town, but Anita was most encouraging. Getting off the train in Mathura on a Saturday night, the place was packed and the pollution was horrible. Nevertheless, we survived the 30-minute auto rickshaw ride to Anita’s ashram. She was waiting for us outside.


After we checked in, we were given dinner served on a banana leaf and ate with our fingers. After the questionable hygiene in Varanasi, this was a welcome change! For the next two days, Anita was our personal guide through the twisting, winding lanes of Vrindavan.


All the while Gerard asked questions about Hari Krishna and her guru. She was forthcoming, explaining everything thoroughly, and it wasn’t at all what we had thought. All those we met are devoted and sincere in their practice…and it showed on their smiling faces.


Both in Varanasi and Orchha we had been warned about the monkey menace in Vrindavan. Unique to this city, the monkeys had developed the skill of approaching from behind and yanking the glasses off your face. But all is not lost, we were told. Some boy will offer to retrieve your glasses for a mere 100 Rps. How this is accomplished, the boy tosses a small carton of Frooti drink up to the monkey now perched in a tree who, in order to catch the delicious Frooti, drops the glasses. We were told the threat was real and you could not wear glasses outside. That meant I wandered around Vrindavan in a blur, with the little vision I had focused on the ground to avoid falling into an open sewer or cow flap. I was dependent on Gerard’s pictures to see the real Vrindavan.

Our second day, Anita suggested taking a boat across the Yamuna through the cultivated fields to a small village.


Walking along a pathway we came to a flooded area and were about to turn back when a bullock cart pulled up piled with sacks of grain, women, and children. They called us to climb up and ride with them to the village.


We squeezed on board and as we bumped along the rutted track, the women laughed all the way. Entering the village, it was as though we were a parade, people smiling, pointing and laughing.



After staying too long in the village, walking back through the fields to the river was brutal, the sun high in the sky, beating down on us fiercely.

fullsizeoutput_3d8We arrived back in Vrindavan hot and dazed. Stopping for a cold drink, I had forgotten I was still wearing my prescription sunglasses (monkeys were not a problem across the river). Suddenly I felt a thump from behind, and my glasses yanked off my face in one swoop. Everyone was yelling while a monkey perched in a tree above, gleefully clutching my glasses. We paid a boy the obligatory 100 Rs, who threw the Frooti and the monkey dropped the glasses. I was fortunate he’d not chewed on them; it was a cheap 100 Rs to get the glasses back in one piece!

Before sunrise the third morning, Anita led us through the still darkened winding lanes to the bus stand for Delhi. She’d been a wonderful host for a fascinating all to brief visit of Vrindavan.





Another Golden Moment in Orchha


Orchha is still not a major tourist destination and it should be. This is our fourth visit and we’re still fascinated by its antiquity. It’ s development began in the mid-1500s but was soon conquered by the Mogul Emperor Akbar. A Rajput ruler who was aligned with the Moguls was installed and further development continued. In the early1800s the city reached its peak and then fell into decline after Indian Independence, losing its city-state status.


What is equally interesting is why relatively few tourists come here. Tour groups arrive here not even for the day and are hustled through the palace, shunted back on the bus, gone before the dust settles. A handful of travelers, like ourselves, come for an extended stay, savoring this unique environment.



The fort/palace is in amazingly good condition, despite the Mogul conquest. The Laxmi Temple, which dates from 1650,


has remarkable murals that have been tastefully restored.


In the past we’ve seen such heavy-handed restoration; not the case here.


Another reason we enjoy stopping here is that after three weeks in Varanasi, Orchha is such a change of pace. Even though the temperature hits 95F/36C the air is clean and the humidity low. After early breakfast, we go for a walk to one of the many sights and try to get back to the hotel before the heat of the day. Hiding out in our room underneath the ceiling fan, until late afternoon when we reemerge.


In the past four years, the most noticeable change is the increase in traffic, buses, motorbikes, tractors, water buffalo, Brahma bulls – not to mention wedding processions – all vying for space. We’ve yet to figure out where they’re all going!


The town sits on the River Betwa, a surprisingly fast moving river for this time of year.


From the hillside, the river creates a green ribbon through the countryside that is otherwise burnt to a crisp, patiently waiting for the monsoon. But there are many flowering gardens dotted throughout the town.


Still not feeling well, the combination of slow space and compromised health has made it easier for me to just be in the present and enjoy this unusual place. Gerard doesn’t need illness to ‘just be’!


A Last glimpse and farewell to Varanasi


On our last morning, we managed to get up early to walk on the ghat at first light. Late night concerts, sickness, or just pure laziness had prevented us from enjoying my favorite time in Varanasi. The sun just rising, the air cool and fresh, and lots of activity.  I was so pleased to be feeling well again and out on the ghats.









Even though respiratory and intestinal infections are common in Varanasi, our small circle showed their concern and Sanjiv our, hotel manager, worried over us.  Over the years, he’s become friend and confidant, making it harder to say goodbye each year.

Old and new friends alike gave us a heartfelt farewell. I did a last errand through the neigbhorhood lane where the pharmacist, cookie lady, restaurant owner, travel agent all called out goodbye. Frederic came and ate with us, Helene and Remy dropped by our hotel as we were leaving and Premgit and Sandhya came to the door to see us off.


More music and the back lanes


The musical bonanza continued. Gerard went to three more concerts. One was a sitar player we knew called Shujaat Khan; it was the first time he’d seen him live. His playing was impeccable and his voice hauntingly beautiful. I was unable to go because of the usual intestinal malaise of Varanasi. Few who stay for any length of time avoid it.


An Indian couple from Atlanta, Georgia sitting in the local teashop ask why we choose to come to Varanasi every year. Their comment about the city is the peaceful coexistence between Moslems and Hindus, not always the case in many parts of India. I’ve always found the presence of Moslems surprising because Varanasi is the most sacred Hindu city in the country, the birthplace of Shiva. But perhaps they’re right – there are at least five Mosques within sight of our hotel on the edge of the Moslem quarter and we’ve never witnessed a hint of a communal clash here. Sanjiv, our hotel manager, says although there is very little cross marriage, the communities depend upon each other for business.


Our friend Katinka arrives at breakfast today saying she needs a new hotel because her bed has collapsed. This prompts the elderly French lady, to tell the story of when she stayed at the same hotel in the early 80s, the room boasted an impressive four poster bed although she had to make minor repairs each year. Then one year, when she came the bed was gone. What happened to the four poster? The landlord told the bizarre story of two Americans stashing money in the hollow of the bed, Little did they know, the bed also had termites. When they returned a month later to retrieve their money, it was half eaten by the ants. Enraged they smashed the bed.


Once again, Gerard had the chance to walk the back lanes with two other photographers. They happened across a wedding in full throttle.  


Later, stopping for the never-ending cup of chai


with Santosh and Remy.


Varanasi is a magnet for photographers and we’ve met our share on this visit. Frederic who is focused on photographing dance; our English friend Premgit has been photographing tribal devotion for many years, an Australian Kirran has spent the last couple of weeks photographing the dobi washermen on the Ganges. And yesterday we met an American living in Thailand, who focuses on youth and street photography. Both of us vacillate about being inspired and discouraged by these professional photographers.




We hope this isn’t indicative of the state of spiritual endeavor in Varanasi!


Old Friends and Dhrupad Mela


For nearly ten years, we’ve spent most of the winter in India. It has become a home away from home. And a prominent room within that home is Varanasi. Through the years we’ve done our best to convey what this place means to us in pictures and writing. And of course, those efforts fall short. To put it simply, we now feel very comfortable here. The area around the guesthouse is a neighbourhood we feel part of. Even though most of our acquaintances up and down the lane are merchants, Gerard and I are warmly and sincerely welcomed.


Varanasi draws a specific type of tourist, ones that are not easily put off by cow flaps and dog turds in the lane. It seems that we respond more to something that’s harder to put your finger on that’s found in abundance here. So often we spend our meals talking with another traveler and trying to gain their insight on Varanasi, on India, their home country and perhaps the world. Just this morning, we shared breakfast with a young woman from St Petersburg (Russia not Florida) who certainly did not tow the party line. Even though there are people growing concerned about Putin and his power, the question is why weren’t they concerned 17 years ago? He’s been around that long. She called him a thug. Another interesting conversation is with a young woman from Shanghai over our masala chai at the Boatman’s tea shop. Again she is far from typical; 31 and not married, and at this point has no intention of getting married. When Gerard asked what does the society think of unmarried women, she said, it’s completely unacceptable. And what do your parents think of you travelling alone in India? I told them I was in Asia! But what if they want to see a picture of where you are? I pretend that I didn’t hear them! Most upwardly mobile Chinese think India is one of the worst places to go, too dirty and dangerous. They would rather go to Europe or US. Gerard laughed, quoting statistics about gun ownership and violence in the US.


Our guesthouse is near a few small music schools where European students return every year to continue their learning of various practices of Indian classical music. Many of them coincide their visit with the Dhrupad Mela – as we do. Dhrupad is an ancient style of singing that needs to be studied for decades before it can be performed. Its progression is also very slow therefore many Indians and Westerners alike are not attracted to the style. But those who are drawn are very passionate about the music. For me, listening to Dhrupad is a bit like listening to Cecil Taylor, an extreme avant-garde jazz pianist. When I’m there I’m totally involved; if I’m listening to a record it’s harder to get into it.


This Mela is the only Dhrupad festival in India and has been sponsored by a very wealthy Varanasi family for the last 44 years who are dedicated to keeping this music alive. In a small restaurant around the corner from us, a few students, mostly about our age, gather for dinner and speculate on who will be performing that night. By the way, with no advance program, the music goes from 7 pm to 7 am each night, free admission. In the morning, the same group is sitting around discussing who they heard, and how late they managed to stay. We never made it much past midnight. But at the end of the four days, Gerard said that he was nearly saturated. But he’ll still be ready for the upcoming two-day festival!


We’re very happy to be able to meet up with our old friend, Frederic in Varanasi. We met in Himachal Pradesh six or seven years ago and have stayed in contact ever since. He’s a semi-professional photographer and has been documenting dancers at a Kathak school. He manages to find time to have a meal or two with us so we can catch up.

Gerard had the idea that this was going to be a quiet visit with plenty of time for writing. But how could that happen in this place where there’s so many interesting people to talk to! One evening, on our way down to Assi Ghat, and constantly being delayed by Gerard talking to people, Frederic said to me, “Does he also talk to trees?” Please, Frederic, don’t even suggest that! Coincidentally, when we first met Frederic, it was Gerard’s persistence that finally broke through his reserve. Well, maybe at our next destination we’ll get back to the writing.


Pilgrims and Buddhist Caves in Nashik

fullsizeoutput_2d3Several people we’d met during our travels had suggested we stop in Nashik on our way to Varanasi.  A welcome break to our 32-hour train journey.  Nashik has a bathing ghat where the Kumbh Mela is held every twelve years and in addition, Buddhist caves dating back from 1st century BC.


On the river Godavari, Nashik is one of the four locations of the Khumbh Mela – a Hindu gathering of holy men that occurs every three years. (ie.e. every 12 years in Nashik).  It’s attended by literally millions who come to bathe in the holy waters.



For the most part, Nashik is the usual noisy, polluted, concrete Indian city, but Premgit and Sandhya recommended a guest house near to the ghat that was much less hectic. I don’t think we would have found it on our own. The hotel was adequate and the staff couldn’t have been more helpful. In fact, we found everybody helpful from the rickshaw driver to the passerby.


The hotel even produced a map of the city with the major sites listed in English, although the town doesn’t see many Western tourists. We didn’t see a single one during our brief stay; Indian pilgrims aplenty.



The following morning we set off to see the caves in Pandoleni, 18 km out of town. The hotel manager recommended we take the bus which, along with other city buses, stopped at a traffic circle just outside the hotel every 15 minutes. Sounded simple and a lot cheaper than an auto rickshaw. But the bus signs were all in Marathi (the language of Maharashtra). A young man also waiting for a bus offered to help. There were plenty of buses, but almost an hour went by with no bus for Pandoleni. I was doubting the poor man’s ability to read buses even in his own language when finally one drew up. By this time others knew what we wanted and there was an outcry of “Pandoleni!” There was a stampede. We managed to push our way on, and stood for most of the 30-minute journey, squeezed in beside schoolgirls. After asking us all kinds of questions, they let us know where to get off.


It was hot by the time we arrived and our energy was lagging. Looking up the side of a steep hill, we saw the caves. Somehow I’d imagined we’d just get off the bus and walk straight into them. No such luck. Fortified by a cup of chai from a stall at the base, we started off. Thoughts of the Jain temple in Gujarat with its 3,500 steps loomed. On the way, we had our picture taken with the very friendly and enthusiastic people of Nashik, visiting the caves for the day.


We were relieved it didn’t take as long as we’d expected.  There were to 23 caves along a ridge, many with simple interiors for the monks, a stone bench for sleeping, nothing else. fullsizeoutput_2f5

Other caves had elaborate entrances with intricately carved Buddhas, still in astonishingly good condition considering they were over 2,000 years old. Unlike other monuments, the statues had not been defaced by the Moguls.



These caves weren’t as grand or extensive as the more famous caves of Ellora and Ajunta, but they were well worth the effort. And the lack of tourist commercialism and throng of visitors was refreshing, as was the air. All in all, it was a pleasant trip into the countryside, and we decided to fork out the rupees for a rickshaw for a more convenient ride back into town. Over a thali at a restaurant close to the hotel, Gerard edited his pictures.