16th Feb 2010 - 19th Feb 2010
India (Part 5): A hippie experience
Day 11 – Long drive to Rishikesh
Another long driving day, full of “adventure” on the roads. For this journey, the group was split between a small minibus and a jeep. I had the privilege of sitting in the front seat of the jeep, which had its pros and cons. On the pro side, comfortable seat, decent leg room and the best view. On the con side, being in the front with the best view precluded any chance of sleeping during the 7 hour drive – there was simply too much happening on the roads – and too many near misses – to relax enough to sleep. To add to the previous list of erratic motoring encounters:
- We passed a number of small trucks carrying enormous loads of sawdust. These were contained in huge cloth bags and overhung each side of the truck so much that the width of the truck doubled, and anything higher than a small car coming the other way had no chance of passing. Needless to say, they weren’t exactly going fast so chances of overtaking were nil. We encountered several of these, all heading towards the local factory. One had got simply too ambitious … the truck has given up and sat with all 4 wheels splayed flat. It was like a scene from a cartoon.
- At one point we had to wait at a rail crossing for a rain to pass. It was a 2 way road, with one lane in each direction. So naturally, the impatient drivers queued in both lanes either side of the crossing. So when the gates went up … chaos! Everyone raced forward, hooting loudly, expected right of way. How there was not a mass pile up, I will never know. It did take about 5 minutes to disentangle all the vehicles though. Surely it would be quicker just staying in the right lane? Nope … this is India. On the roads, logical thought and consideration for other drivers are considered unnatural.
These were the more unusual moments; the rest of the time there was just a constant blur of motion and noise. I felt like I had been transported into a computer game in which we had to reach the destination before the clock ran down, while dodging various motorists with murderous intent and trying not to knock down innocent pedestrians. All it needed was a points tally on the top left of the windscreen ….
The drive was taking us to India’s most holy parts. We passed through Haridwar, which at the time, was preparing for the Kumbh Mela. As festivals go, this is the big one. Held four times every twelve years, alternating between four different locations, this is the world’s biggest religious gathering. Around 20 million Hindus descend upon a town with a normal population of around 200,000, all intent on taking a dip in the Holy River Ganga (Ganges to you and me). We saw the preparations – huge billboards advertising various religious leaders, and enormous tented cities to accommodate the masses.
Eventually, we arrived at Rishikesh, which is maybe the hippie capital of India. Its full of yoga-centres, vegetarian restaurants and European hippies, and is where the Beatles famously came in the 60’s to stay at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for a couple of months (well, three of them did; Ringo left after 2 weeks because he didn’t like the vegetarian food. Sensible chap). Is a lovely laid back town on the banks of the Ganges and we sent a couple hours wandering through the narrow streets and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere. At sunset, we went to the banks of the river, where the daily evening prayer ceremony took place. We were blessed by a holy man, splashed with holy Ganges water and given a red string wristband as a sign of luck. It seems to work … I survived three more days on Indian roads!
The prayer ceremony was actually a really relaxing hour; watching the sign go down over the river, with orange clad priests doing their stuff and a mish-mash of Indian and foreign worshippers mingling together in the fading light. There was also a collection of Western hippies, which could, if you were cynical, be divided into two camps: firstly, the twenty-somethings who are desperately trying to avoid going home to get a job, and secondly, the mid-life crisis brigade. It was slightly comical watching some of them simply tying too hard to fit in, and as a result looking faintly ridiculous.
Following the prayer ceremony, it was back to the jeep, and a further hour’s drive along an unlit, very steep, mountain road (par for the course) to get to our campsite, We couldn’t see much when we got there as the sun was long gone, and so we had to make our way down the mountain by torchlight. We had huge tents, with proper beds and a sink in each, and were fed some most excellent food before decamping to sit round a bonfire and look at the millions of stars.
Day 12 – Massage, Haridwar and yet another train
As morning broke and I looked out of our excessively large tent, I realised just how fabulous the campsite location was. Set on the banks of the Ganges, in a deep valley with mountains rising on either side, it was quite stunning. We spent a couple of hours relaxing and eating breakfast before heading back into Rishikesh. Some of the group went by white water raft, but Becca and I worked on the “when in Rome” principle and went for an ayurvedic massage. It was slightly perturbing to be told to strip completely by a sweaty fat bloke, but the massage he gave was fantastic. After 45 minutes of all over pummelling (well, nearly all over!), followed by 10 minutes in a steam room, I felt truly relaxed. I was glad of having short hair however – the oil used wasn’t exactly aromatic, and Becca’s normally luxuriant locks looked like they had been Brylcreemed afterwards!
After a quick lunch – spent pulling faces at a monkey who sat forlornly on the windowsill looking in – we headed back to Haridwar, where we spent an hour wandering up the banks of the Ganges, watching the various comings and goings of the sadhus (religious chaps dressed in orange with white make up) and the people who had come to bathe in the river. The colours were amazing, especially with the forthcoming festival, and it must be one of the best people watching spots that I have ever visited.
All good things must come to an end though, and after 5 days in the serenity of the Himalayan foothills, we boarded the train back to the huge metropolis that is Delhi. Again, we were fed well and had plenty of room; the train really is the most comfortable way to travel though India.
Day 13 - Delhi
Our final full day before flying home the following morning, we spent the day in Delhi. The morning saw a visit to the Jama Masjid, or Friday Mosque. A staggering large building, around 350 years old, it was fascinating to visit. Despite all dressing conservatively, all the ladies in our group were presented with shockingly coloured robes to cover themselves up with, and as a results looked like a band of technicolour ewoks. Us gents were most amused. Anyway, once we had recovered from that hilarity, Becca and I climbed one of the minarets which gave a fantastic view over the city – it was high enough that you could almost perceive the curvature of the earth as the huge city sprawled all the way to the horizon. Sadly, we didn’t get as much time as we would have liked here …. Our Hindu guide, who had given us plenty of time and detailed history at all the other sights we had visited, did not seem too keen to spend much time in a mosque. Understandable I suppose, but it shows that religious differences are still strong in this wonderful country.
We had a quiet afternoon …. a brief wander around some shops and then a sit in the park in Connaught Square, which is pretty much the centre of Delhi. We didn’t stay there too long however, as we were pestered every two minutes by a whole range of people, either begging, or trying to sell things ranging from a polish of Becca’s flip flops to cleaning out my ears for me!! We tried instead to go to a Bollywood film, but security was tight and we were not allowed in with our bags and cameras, so instead we headed back to the hotel. Becca had her traditional afternoon nap, while I watched India squeak home in a thrilling Test Match against South Africa. In the evening, we took the very efficient underground to a restaurant in the centre of town where we had our farewell meal with the great group with which we had spent the fortnight. Naturally, we all had curry.
Day 14 – Flight Home and Reflections of India
On our last morning we had a unique experience: quiet streets. This was because we had to leave for the airport at 0630 and Delhi is still asleep. It made a pleasant change to the usual stress, and prefaced a remarkably smooth check in: within 90 seconds of arriving at the airport, we were checked in and on our way through the first security check. It was an uneventful flight home, although after 2 weeks in India, getting off the plane in Helsinki in -13C was a bit of a shock.
So, what are my memories of India? Well, it is definitely somewhere that I will go back to. It is so huge and varied, I feel like we have only scratched the surface. It is a land of huge contrasts: the super-rich and the dirt-poor, the spotlessly dressed people walking through filthy streets, the chaotic cities and the tranquil countryside, and a hotchpotch of different religions in one big melting pot. It is at the same time backward yet modern - next to a donkey plodding along the road, you see cables strung from trees taking broadband to even the most remote houses. The roads seem maniacal, yet there must be some mysterious unwritten code as no one ever seems to actually crash, and everyone is in a rush to get somewhere as the country plunges headlong on its path to becoming one of the world’s leading economies.
Most of all, what I love the most, is that it is happy with itself and is not trying to be something else. So many other developing countries try and attach themselves to Western culture; in India, they pay it a passing interest and no more. Bollywood and cricket are king, and western influences are adapted to fit the Indian culture if they are deemed sufficiently interesting. With a billion people, a sixth of the world’s population, India can afford to plough its own path, and it is doing so at an astounding pace. Having being there, and seen so many wonders, I find myself wanting to go back and explore the 95% of the country I haven’t seen. Maybe that’s one for the next year off …