Ganges Shore, Rishikesh

Rishikesh, 11 a.m. April 1, 2004
The sky is overcast but it is still very warm as I sit in the sand on the bank of the Ganges River in the ashram town of Rishikesh, north of Delhi. A little cow just came over and stuck her big wet nose against my hand. A little ways down to my right a man is swinging wet bedsheets over his head and whacking them against a rock while his older companion sits and watches. A wrung out stack is accumulating at his side. I’ve just collected some water from the sacred river into two little plastic flasks - one to take to a friend in India and the other to take back to Canada. I also picked up and a couple of dried flowers that had washed ashore, a stone and some sand for my sand collection. Today is the day I’m leaving Rishikesh to go back to Delhi. The train leaves at 6 p.m. from Haridwar, about an hour from here by bus.

Reluctant to leave the peace and solitude, I get up and climb back up the rocks to the path that leads back to the big Parmarth ashram where I’ve stayed in a simple but very comfortable room for five days. Before I start the packing process, I grab my camera from my room to take a few shots of the elaborately decorated gardens in the extensive grounds of the ashram. Out in the garden I position myself for a shot of the entrance. A small man with large glasses and a Nehru cap gets up from the cement bench he was sitting on and informs me in his few words of English that I should be taking the picture in the opposite direction. He points out the wheel of life depicted in the archway behind me. Okay, okay, I say… that one will be next.
Once I have taken the entrance photo, he takes the back of my arm in a surprisingly strong grip and steers me toward the wheel of life arch. He motions me to give him the camera and positions me in the picture. What the heck, I thought, I’ll go along with it. Then he steers me towards another tableau a little further along and takes a picture of me in front of the god Lord Shiva with Mount Kailash in the background. For the next fifteen minutes he leads me purposefully around describing various scenes and statues as best he can with his limited English and informing me which things I should photograph. I don’t mind, in fact I appreciate him pointing out some things I had missed or didn’t understand. At the end of the tour he sticks out his hand and says “Money. Guide.”. In spite of ashram rules to the contrary, he expects me to pay for his uninvited services. Since I have no money with me, I say so and explain that I’m going to my room to pack and will be back in fifteen minutes. I really don’t mind giving him a few rupees. But by the time I return, he has gone..

Rishikesh 3 p.m., April 1, 2004
With a bag hanging from each shoulder, I make my way down the crowded market to the small boat that crosses the Ganges . It is hot and the bags are heavier than when I started out, with the addition of two books and some bananas and biscuits for the train trip. Once I reach the other side, I climb up the steps to the road and board a tempo, an open motorized vehicle with room for 8 or so passengers on the red plastic-upholstered benches in the back, for the ten-minute ride to the Rishikesh bus station. The rickety old bus to Haridwar is empty when I board it. In the next twenty minutes it fills up and we clatter off down the road with the wind blowing through the open windows. I am a few minutes early for the train so I buy a cup of chai from a tea stall and stand with my bags between my feet on the platform watching several monkeys jumping back and forth from the track to the platform hoping to get handouts from the waiting passengers.

The train ride is a welcome respite from the heat - it’s one of the better trains with air-conditioning. A full dinner is served and bottles of water are passed out. I sit beside a retired schoolteacher from Delhi and his niece, a pleasant woman from Baroda, in the state of Gujarat, who invites me to visit with her next time I go to visit my favourite ashram there, with which she is familiar. We exchange contact information and I look forward to seeing her again.

I am very tired and anticipating a good sleep in Delhi. My friend John who has been staying in Delhi for the week has emailed me that he has moved to a new guesthouse. I asked him to reserve a room for me for one night. Tomorrow I am to meet my friend JK at a Delhi hotel for a party at the Spanish Embassy. The train reaches Delhi just before 11 p.m. and I take an auto rickshaw from the train station, following John’s directions. I don’t see the guesthouse at first in the dark of the night but eventually locate a dimly lit doorway leading up a flight of stairs. The cement stairs go up several flights and at about the third level, my tired legs miss a step and I go down on my left knee, scattering my bags across the landing. Ouch! I pick everything up and limp up the last few stairs. I’m relieved that the deskman is expecting me and, picking up a key, he leads me to my room.

My heart sinks when I see a rumpled and spotty carpet in the small dingy room and smell a strong musty smell. The bed is like rock. No, I say, this will not do. What else do you have? We go back to the desk and he has his subordinate show me two more rooms, both more expensive, of course. One is just as bad as the first. The second had a softer bed and doesn’t smell as bad. I reluctantly agree to take that one since I don’t seem to have much choice at this point. I don’t want to go back out into the street at this hour to try to flag down another rickshaw and go to a hotel I know I’d like better.

I put on the ceiling fan, insert my earplugs and cover myself with a sarong I carry as an all-purpose sheet, towel, cover-up or whatever. I don’t sleep well and wake up feeling tired and cranky. Rats! Later in the day I have to clean myself up, get dressed and party! I can’t bear the thought of showering in the grungy little bathroom so I have a bit of a wash and get dressed. John and I are going to Nirula’s for croissants and raspberry jam, which is an expensive breakfast, but at this point, a decent setting and predictable food is necessary.

Delhi , 10 a.m. April 2, 2004
After breakfast we walk through the Paharganj, a busy, narrow market area filled with people, motorcycles and bicycle rickshaws, to pick up some eyeglasses John had ordered. Distracted by avoiding being run over by a bicycle rickshaw, I step directly into a large, soft cow patty. My bare toes and sandal are coated and my white cotton pants splattered. Aargh! Fortunately, a nearby tea stall offers their metal water tank with a spigot near the base and I stand with my foot under the running water, gingerly wiping off as much as possible. And this on top of being tired and headachy from too little sleep.

Once the Paharganj errands are done, we head back to the hotel to pay my bill and check me out. Since I’m short on cash, John pays the bill and we set off to find an ATM. John is carrying one of my bags but walking is still cumbersome in the heat. I pull out a cotton kerchief, wet it with some water from my water bottle and drape it over my head in lieu of a hat, which I should have, but don’t. Ah, that’s better. I may look strange, but at this point, it’s worth it to have a cool barrier between me and the blazing sun. After a long climb up a broad flight of stairs that could rival the entry to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York , we find an ATM at a Citibank.

Then off we go, tearing along the wide boulevards of Delhi in a noisy auto rickshaw to the hotel where I am meeting JK. John drops me off and leaves to do some shopping. I go into the air-conditioned comfort of a rather nice, upscale Taj hotel. I turn up my white pant leg so the cow poo streaks are hidden inside.

Delhi , 3 p.m. April 2, 2004
Once JK arrives and we check into a lovely two-room suite, I get right into a lovely bubble bath while JK takes a nap. Later, while he goes out to do some errands, I order tea brought to the room and lie on the couch reading a magazine. Then I call the hotel beauty salon to see if I can have a manicure and pedicure and I spend the next hour getting my hands and feet cleaned and massaged. By now I feel quite a bit better than earlier in the day. Back in the room, we order beer and a light snack from room service. Then I get myself dressed in my beautiful silk sari in shades of mauve and blue, my diamond earrings, a pearl necklace and glittery sandals. JK looks resplendent in a white kurta (knee-length shirt), churidhar (those pants with the extra long legs that push up to form folds) and long black cotton coat.

Delhi 9 p.m. April 2, 2004
We get into JK’s beautiful silver car with the leather interior and his driver takes us in air-conditioned comfort the few blocks to the Spanish Embassy where the party is being held in the garden. We are welcomed by the Spanish ambassador, Raphael, and are introduced to the Egyptian ambassador and his companion. I notice that the garden feels quite cool in spite of the warm evening and wonder if the in-house air conditioning is being blown into the garden through the windows. Waiters are circulating with trays of drinks and the many guests stand in small groups chatting and laughing. A dance floor is set up under the trees with fans at the corners to cool the dancers. A live band is playing surprisingly good popular 70s and 80s rock music.

Delhi, 11 p.m. April 2, 2004
We’re seated at a table with Miles and Juliet, a lovely English couple; JK’s friend Meredith and her husband Salim; Belinda Wright, who is a well-known tiger conservationist and another ambassador of somewhere-or-other. We’re eating a marvellous dinner we chose from the many scrumptious-looking dishes on the buffet and drinking a delicious white wine. Champagne is served to toast the father of the Spanish ambassador’s wife, who is the guest-of-honour at the party on the occasion of his birthday. Raphael, the Spanish ambassador steps up to the microphone and sings a very good rendition of Me and Bobby McGee. The Irish Ambassador sings Paul Simon’s Sounds of Silence surprisingly well. The Greek ambassador sings an unfamiliar Greek song. I get up from dinner to dance to the band’s impressive version of Queen’s Crazy Little Thing Called Love, and the long shoulder drape of my sari swirls behind me with the breeze from the fans. An almost-full moon shines overhead. I’m giddy with the magic of the moment.

Later on, lying in bed back at the hotel, I can’t help but laugh to myself at the past 36 hours and the unbelievable mix and sheer quantity of events. I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity to be part of glorious, challenging, enigmatic India . Though the experiences may not always be pleasant at the time, in the end, they are all part of the rich and colourful fabric of the life with which I’ve been blessed. To say no to any part of it would be to say no to it all.

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