Asia | India | Indian Himalayas | Uttar Pradesh | Rishikesh – The first two days
Not that it’s been that long since the last installment, but things have moved so fast that I now
a) have a lot to say, and
b) am going to be sleeping on a mat and eating plain rice for the next ten days, and will be pretty far from a computer terminal
I guess I should go chronologically. There are all of these tiny details that just gobsmacked me — or at least really amused me — at first blush, that will probably seem too mundane to mention by the time I get back to Rishikesh in a week and a half. But right now they seem the pinnacle of the exotic.
Landing at Delhi airport. Airports tend to be very anonymous places. An airport in Istanbul isn’t so different from one in Nairobi or one in Seattle. But this is India, and as I’m quickly discovering, there is not a damn thing in India that is anonymous. No matter where you look, you are in India, with a vengeance.
There is an escalator down to the Immigration hall at the airport, and next to the escalator is a sign explaining to you how to use it, and the sign is seven feet high. the top half is in English, the bottom half in Hindi. The writing is not particularly big, the sign needs to be seven feet tall because there are six or seven rules for use in each language. Down at the bottom of the escalator is a stern looking man in uniform, wearing a peaked cap, intently watching the users of the escalator and resting his left thumb on a large red emergency shut-off button for the escalator.
After successfully negotiating the escalator and its many pitfalls, the next thing you see is a group of five or six professional welcomers, not employed by an airline or a tour company, but by the government of India. They seek out all of the non-Indian faces in the crowd decending the escalator and its many pitfalls and welcome them in enthusiastic tones to India. The one who got me also draped a garland of bright orange flowers over my neck, which was I suppose preferable to getting intercepted by the woman in sequined sari who dabs your forehead with sandalwood paste, or the man in jacket and tie who decks you out with an indescribably ostentatious tinsel necklace. Standing in line for immigration, all the non-Indians who got caught smirk silently at each other; the ones who got the tinsel look like human Christmas trees gone horribly wrong.
So yeah, no mistake about it boy, you’re in India.
There’s also this uniquely Indian combination of overwhelming openness and friendliness, coupled with the constant threat of getting scammed. Before I made it out of the airport, I’d had 10-15 minute conversations with the guy who’d been sitting next to me on the plane (travelling from England to attend a family funeral), the guy standing next to me in the immigration line (a TV cricket reporter returning home to Delhi from an international conference in Wales) and the guy at the tourist information office (describing to me exactly how to not get ripped off by the pre-paid taxi guys).
The taxi driver, as expected, attempted to take my pre-pay slip on three separate occasions before arriving at the Hotel Bright, once so persistently that I was obliged to yank it back out of his grasp when he said he needed to see something written on it. By all accounts, as soon as the pre-pay slip is out of your hand, he’s got you over a barrel and will suddenly be ‘unable to find your guesthouse, very sorry.’ But aware of another one, very good, just over here.
The next day’s con was similar, but much more subtle. John is studying computer programming in Delhi and his parents have a small tea estate in Sikkim. I don’t know if any of that is true, but he’s a really nice guy and his English is excellent. He just happened to be wandering through Connaught Place as I was, at 7 in the morning, commented on my beard (goatee, no moustache, very unusual in India, ‘But it suits you!’), and we got to chatting, and he bought me some tea, and offered to help me find my way around as I ran my errands. This is where I started buzzing, something like Spiderman’s Spider Sense; I can almost imagine little wavy lines of suspicion emanating from my head as I wonder ‘Why doesn’t he have anything else to do today? Why does he only want to talk about my travel plans? Why did he walk me to the email place and then just wait around outside until I was done?’
So we walked around together, chatting while my suspicion buzzed, and under it all I wondered if I was just being a paranoid American, and weren’t all those other guys I spoke with just as friendly and open? And genuine?
And what is so sad is, paranoid me was right. He was trying to rip me off. After hours of walking through central Delhi, going to bookshops, and pointing out a chemist where I could get my malaria tablets, he took me to a bogus tourist information center where a friend of his told me that there were no trains to Haridwar with open berths until Tuesday and tried to sell me a grossly overpriced bus ticket. He’d gotten as far as writing out the ticket when I finally stalled and made some lame excuse about wanting to comparison shop a little and got out, telling John I’d meet him that evening at 5 and then standing him up and feeling bad about it. The actual booking office *was* open, contrary to John’s advice (and corroborated by an official looking man standing at the stairway, also in on the con), and I got a berth booked that night. It was easy, in fact, especially now that foreign tourism’s down 60% due to worry about war, and the Foreign Tourist Quota is wide open.
They post your name, in Eglish and Hindi script, on a big list on the train platform so you can find out where you’re seated, and next to you name is your Quota Code. Most of the names don’t have one: Indian citizens who have to wait in The Big Line and don’t get any quota at all. A few are more exotic, the VIP Quota and the Handicapped Quota, but my Quota Code says FT, and directly above and below me on the list are four more FTs. We all travel together, me and Zoe from Brighton, Daniel from Ecuador and that Canadian with the Spanish accent whose name I never found out, but he’s headed for an ashram outside of Rishikesh with a juicer and a spice grinder on a little luggage cart. We pile off the train at Haridwar together, 5:40 in the morning and the platform dappled with prone sleeping families and straight-backed baboons, and then onto a bus to Rishikesh, where every one of us pays a different fare.
Zoe is good to meet, she’s got the wide-eyed wonder I’ve been too cagey to realize for more than a few seconds, says things like ‘It makes you wish you had four pairs of eyes, so you could look at *everything*!’ and she doesn’t think I’m odd for tapping her on the shoulder and pointing out the temple perched on a cliff overlooking the Ganga as we pull through the northern margins of Haridwar. It’s good to be reminded, in the midst of all the worry and suspicion, that it’s OK to let youself be excited, pleased, charmed. We’re staying at a guest house that’s also an ashram. We can watch the Ganga flow by from our window, the bells from the 13-story temple next door ring through the windows all day, the streets are full of art and bhangra music and schoolchildren and old saddhus in the same pose when you wander by in the afternoon as when you did in the morning.
Erez is the Israeli two rooms down at the guest house, looking for a trekking partner, so we rented a tent and a sleeping mat and bought some kerosene and we take a bus to Joshimath tomorrow morning. Erez is a little more hardcore than I am. The nine day trek I was proposing wasn’t long enough for him, and he’s going to peel off on the last day and head for a couple of sacred lakes just so he can at least get above 4000 metres. He plans to eat nothing but rice for the entire trip (‘well, maybe some nuts too…’). It’s gonna be an adventure, that’s for sure, if I can only get my wide-eyed wonder open again. Mountains are usually good for that, though.