06 January 2009

Instant Karma

The Ganges in Varanasi is a fetid sewer that sits at the bottom of the ghats like a lazy bloated cow, filled with shit and cud (a decidely gross word) and stinking up the planet. That said, I still wanted to see it - and it was a sufficient experience- as crazy, gross and kind of awe inspiring as the guidebooks told me it would be. And so I moved on - headed to the Himalayas and then to Bombay - not expecting to see the mighty Ganga again - at least not on this trip. But when my mum guiltily confessed that she wanted to do the typical tourist thing and see the Taj Mahal and the Ganges - I was forced into heading back to the North of India. Not that that is much of a chore, but I hate to backtrack. And so began the giant task of planning an itinerary that included Agra and Delhi, was interesting for my Mum and gave her an authentic slice o'India, and was also not visiting any more cities that I had already been to- especially not polluted, moist Varanasi. Thus - Rishikesh.

Yes, the fabled city nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, made famous by the Beatles, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and transcendental meditation. More douchebags even than Dharamsala. The yoga capital of the world. Fruitshakes and granola and pasta everywhere (for the weak stomachs - if not weak minds - of the hippies.) Yet somehow I really like it here... and am even staying at an Ashram and doing yoga twice a day, a mix of Indian and Tibetan styles that involves acting like a dragon, sinus cleansing and lots of "Aummmmmm Shanti Shanti Shanti Aummmmmmm."

While the Ganges in Varanasi is a stinking mess, here it is a crisp green ribbon snaking through the mountain valleys - almost translucent and much more clean than most anything in India. Ashrams and temples are everywhere, along with sadhus (painted, dreadlocked Hindu holy men dressed in orange robes and who have abandoned their families and possessions) who are either genuine and spiritual and begging; or whacked out on ganja and begging; or pretending to be sadhus so you trust them - and begging. Some - the smiley round ones who say "Namaste Madam!" with giggly voices - I like, and I say "Namaste Baba!" back to them. Others just make me think "jesus christ, go back to your family you filthy deviant deadbeat."

Rishikesh is different in a few other ways - even the cows are different than any I have seen, most of them are short and strangely stumpy. Their bodies are the same as regular cows - but their legs seem cut off at the knees - like a Welsh corgy. (My mum and I call them "uncows.") Until yesterday, I had taken to patting (more thumping) the cows on their heads, like the Hindus do for good luck (but because I like to pet anything that will let me.) Yesterday while walking through a square, after I lightly tapped one on his big handsome head, he gored my mum. He swayed his head at me, and as I shreiked and ran to hide behind a car he laid eyes on my mother, decided "close enough" and gave her a wack. His horns just grazed her, but now she is too scared to go to close to them. Which is difficult, because this is India - so you're always at least a little bit close to cow.
Or a monkey.
There are 2 kinds of monkey in Rishikesh: small tan ones with red bums and tiny babies that look like human babies who have that weird midget aging disease, and huge grey ones with black faces that stand to my waist and remind me of a crouching creepy man - those ones really freaked me out. Until today, when a three legged monkey of the first category carrying a wee baby on its back leapt up at me and slashed open the plastic bag of leftover channa masala I had been planning to feed to the dogs, escaping with the spoils to the top of the bridge. As pungent splotches of chickpea curry rained down on me, all of the Indians around shrugged their shoulders indifferently. They know better than to swing around bags of hot food. Now I am indifferent to the man monkeys, and slightly unnerved by the smaller guys with the progeria faces. And by unnerved I mean I avoid making eye contact and give them a wide berth as if they are a frenemy I've just run into at the bar.

I must admit, here it is a bit easy to get pulled into the spirituality of it all. The nightly "Ganga Aarti" - the evening veneration of the Ganges River with chanting, fire and drums; the constant echo of prayer bells ringing through the valley; the proliferation of yoga, meditation and books on knowing god. But its kind of a diet spirituality - at least for the Westerners here. Enlightenment lite. An easy answer and a quick fix - we come here to use India's ancient traditions for our immediate benefit while we listen to Bob Marley and drape ourselves in gauze. We come not with malice, but with a certain amount of panicked greed and naivete, like we are so overwhelmed with the beauty and magic of hinduism/jainism/buddhism that we have to cram it all inside us to take it home.

Today my Mum and I took a 30 minute walk to another part of Rishikesh, and along the way we stopped to look at what we thought were used dye-print blocks - a popular souvenir cuz they look nice on a shelf at home. As we peered down with interest at the wooden stamps laid on a blanket on the ground, the woman beckoned for my hand. I thought she was going to the block in my hand, but instead she quickly dabbed it into an inky sponge and placed a henna'd print on my hand. Next came narrower stamps - one for each of my fingers. Before I knew it, she had mehndi-ed my hands and I owed her 50 rupees. "Well," I said to my Mum "I think I just bought a henna-ing." Andit looks good - the stamps left a very intricate henna design on my hands - almost like the real thing, which takes hours and hours to do with a delicate quill, and then at least 4 more hours while you sit immobile while the henna dries. This took a total of 3 minutes start to finish.

And I suppose that that is as good a metaphor for Rishikesh as any. Attaining enlightenment takes time, yet the business here relies on a carnival of tourists to come and stay for a week - feel like they've found god, and leave. A pair of fucking mirrored ali baba pants isn't going speed it up, but it might help you believe that you're having an authentic experience with your chosen guru. It is possible here to feel like you are doing something important and healthy in a small amount of time, which is something in and of itself, I guess.

And I still like it here. I just wish that so many creepy European hippies didn't. And that the monkeys would leave me alone.

And we all shine on.....

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