The Pilgrim Path
Tied up without beer in the home of the ashram
15th March, 2004
The flexible little brown man chanted on in his sing-song voice.
"Turn round, touch ground, amount depending on your ability, try."
I tried. The amount was not much. It wasn't fair. My toes were very clearly much, much farther from the rest of my body than anyone else in the class. Their bodies were all tied up in pretty little knots. Mine was
an awkward sqiggle.
He chanted on, voice never changing tone.
I thought about meat, beer and women.
Then I floated away.
After the Tour, A Tour
Our Rajasthan adventure was over. For three weeks our lives had been simple, our direction secure, all our problems resolved by Jenny, our Chachi (glorious leader).
Now we were to thrust out into the warm, smelly world alone. It was terrifying! What were we to do?
Jenny: "I'm off to Rishikesh for a week of rest and yoga. If you guys like, you can come along."
Janice, Jordan, me (pause of a pico-second for appearance's sake):
"We'd love to!!"
A Week in NightmareVille
Rishikesh is a holy place, set high in the Himilayan foothills. The Ganges flows through it, fresh and translucent before debouching onto the plains far below and its slow descent to the sea.
Hindu pilgrims come from all over India, to bathe in the sacred river and drink its waters, to make puja to the many shrines and pray
at the many ashrams.
The ashrams are built high above the river, great multilayered edifices with levels of railings circling a central tower, that allow the devotees to walk chanting, around and around in an auspicious clockwise till they reach the top. If only they included a giant waterslide from the top back down into the river, it might all be rather fun.
As it is they bear an uncanny resemblance to a multistorey carpark, complete with hundreds of drivers just wandering
around trying to remember where they parked.
It's clear that my attitude was not serene and fluffy enough for this place of meditation. Why? Rishikesh is
a holy place, therefore:
There is no meat.
There is no alcohol.
I was living in a Irishman's worst nightmare. The strange thing is
that, in normal life I can, and often do, go a week without beer. BUT NOW I HAD NO CHOICE, DAMMIT. It grated on me. It stole away my fluffiness. I was not serene.
I had no choice. I had go yoga.
The Mysterious Mr Bob
Yoga is a set of mystical oriental mumbo-jumbo designed to develop the body, mind and spirit along the principles of the seven major chakras, the 72,000 nodes and the essential force. Yoga is therefore the domain of doped-out hippies, Germans with unlikely beards and
comfortably-shaped women in loose clothing.
Until I took it up, that is. Then it became an invigorating exercise
that fills you with energy while adding to your strength and flexibility, focusses the mind and increases your cardio-vascular system in a deep and manly way.
The focus on yoga is within, to find a world free from superficial distraction. This was just as well as our yogi, our teacher and guide on this spirit quest turned out to be a small angry-looking man with a bald spot and a mullet who turned up wearing dirty tracksuit bottoms and riding a motorbike.
This was our Mr "Bob". We never learned his true name. Perhaps we weren't enlightened enough, or he was just sick of Westerners mangling it. He led us through Ashtanga yoga, a combination of stretches, postures, breathing and meditation that felt like a thorough workout. I enjoyed it immensely, found the spartan surroundings (two dirty mats and a bare room) more suitable to my clinical mind. Jenny declared Mr Bob to be insufficiently fluffy, and found her own yogi, who had more joss sticks, pictures of krishna and liked to roll around on the floor a lot. Each to her own.
Adding breathing and meditation to exercise is a great idea. It allows you to relax and rounds out the experience. You body cools down and the mind can float calmly on a cloud of contentment. You forget about beer. For a while.
The Cry of the Bongo
We found a place to stay, on a hillside overlooking the northern suburb of Lakhman Jhula. This was a backpackers' retreat. All backpackers' retreats anywhere in the world are exactly the same
You can tell identify one if:
a) they sell banana pancakes / ginger-lemon-honey drinks
b) they are full of bong-smoking Israelis
c) they advertise ayurvedic massage, "natural" medicine or spiritual healing (in other words, wishful thinking)
d) someone, somewhere, for no discernible reason, is playing the didgeridoo, and badly
So why go to a place like this at all, that almost nothing Indian
about it at all? Everyone needs a break from time to time. Plus the
banana pancakes are rather nice. And if you get desperate for the real India, the cow turds and samosas begin again just down the lane.
Needless to say, I didn't leave the compound all week.
The Whistling Castillian
There are several nations outstanding for their backpackers. Aussies
and English like to be loud, drunk and raucous. Germans can be ludicrously sincere in their attempts to take on the guise of Nepalese tribemen, Amazonian Indians or whatever deprived ethic group catches their fancy. But for sheer insularity and don't give a damn rudeness, nothing beats the Israelis.
Individually, Israelis can be great. But when a group gathers, watch out. These young men and women are straight out of two or three years of ugly army service, have seen too much and aren't concerned about anything any more. When they gather, the following occur(no particular order):
a) They grow their hair into bunches
b) They wander around wearing blankets
c) They insult everyone and laugh about it
d) They sit around for days and days and days and don't do anything at all
Noone knows why. Even other Israelis (who haven't been knighted with the Order of the Blanket) can't explain it. But the Israelis don't win
absolute first prize for rudeness.That goes to the Castillians. In Castillian Spanish, you don't beat around the bush with politenesses. If
you want wine, you say quiero vino, "I want wine".
That's OK in Spain. Translated into English... oh dear. I watched
dumbfounded one day as a Castillian man first shouted "Hey,more water"
at a passing waiter,
then shouted "Hey you", and finally, stuck his fingers into his mouth and whistled for service.
He may need to check his food very carefully.
The Road to Kunjapuri
Having borrowed Jenny's leadership for another week, I felt I should contribute some planning of my own to thank her for it. My thanks:
I planned a gruelling seven hour hike to a mountaintop temple called Kunjapuri. It was tough, hot slog, where I had to rely on instinct as much as experience to find the right path among a maze of cow trails.
The walk was worth the pain. We wandered through high mountain villages that were free of the refuse down below: the villagers could not afford the waste. Whenever we asked the way they pointed us happily to our godl. Kunjapuri! Yes, this is the way! They were proud to be on a holy path, a pilgrim's way.
We climbed steep forested slopes, through wild boulderscapes and above green mountain valleys. Finally, our goal. One last ascent up a series of whitewashed steps to the very top of the mountain, the shining white temple of Kunjapuri, sacred to Durga, the Mother Goddess.
We slipped off our shoes and went barefoot into the precinct. The world was all around us. Green, forested hills, sharpsided valleys, and
just discernible in the distance, the jagged snowcapped peaks of the Himilaya. The temple brahmins took us into the temple sanctuary where
we made offering to the goddess and they gave us sweet prasad to eat. The air of the mountain was still and pure.
Later, as we went down, I wondered if Jenny thought I might be stealing her special Chachi powers.
"Not while you're wearing that hat."
I laughed. We wandered down through forest and valleys again, past the clear running tributaries of the Ganges and under the leaves and the falling light.
I breathed deep, and gently, floated away.