Rishikesk, a comfortable routine

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Ram Jhula still is largely filled with ashrams for visiting pilgrims. The only time we’ve seen the Dalai Lama was in Ram Jhula.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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It’s unlikely we’ll come back, but we’ll miss all the friendly people we’ve met.

Rishikesh: Not an Easy Entry

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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.

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