10 Feb-11 Mar 2019
Well this is sweet. We’re in a huge airport lounge with everything we could want – deep comfortable chairs, a hot-food buffet of good food, Wi-Fi, beverages, snacks, flight monitors, and a peaceful quiet ambience. Don found this miracle through Lounge Buddy and I give thanks for whatever gods led him to it.
We are in New Delhi domestic airport prior to a flight to Dehradun and have about five or six hours to wait. We’d read that getting from the international terminal to the domestic terminal should only be about an hour by shuttle bus, but could be much longer than that due to traffic congestion. Also we had no idea how long it would take us to get through immigration and customs on our arrival in India so we allow time for long line-ups there too. Our schedule gives us seven hours between flights.
As it happens all goes smoothly, and on arrival at the domestic airport we are immediately allowed to check our bags and get boarding passes even though the flight is many hours away. Bonus! Then we make our way to this little slice of heaven where we lounge away several hours in complete comfort. It costs us $28 each. Worth every penny. I write, edit photos, watch movies, surf the net, meditate, get a small plate of food, give thanks, rest my head back against the soft cushion and close my eyes, and give thanks some more. How lucky we are.
Our arrival in Dehradun is not quite so lucky. Our driver has not shown up and we’re left dealing with the touts at the airport to get a taxi to Rishikesh less than an hour away. It’s the same at every airport the world over; if there’s no regulation of taxi drivers they will get you coming and going, even if it’s only going. Anyway there seems to be a man who’s job it is to connect passengers with a vehicle and we manage to convince him to agree to the price we’d originally negotiated with the driver who didn’t show.
It should be about a half hour or so from the airport to our accommodation in Rishikesh, but it seems to take much longer than that and for much of the drive there is nothing to be seen in the dark night. No lights of any city; just a tiny few specks in the distance. We’re glad the road is relatively quiet given what we’ve experienced of Indian traffic, especially after dark, but we are starting to wonder exactly where we are, and where we’re going. I do ask and am told that we’re going the back way. This doesn’t do much to allay my fears.
All is well. We arrive at our accommodation. Like many places in Indian cities cars can’t get you right to the door. We have a long walk down a crumbling alley and the driver comes with us, helping with our cases. He’s so solicitous getting us right to the door that we tip him an extra 200 rupees.
Our booking was a kind of desperate measure. We’d never been to Rishikesh and you can only discover so much about a place online, and because Mooji was to be in town for a month most places were fully booked. We settled on Vedansha Retreat Centre, far from the ashram where Mooji would be giving satsang, as a last resort – no pun intended. Vedansha is no resort.
We’re shown to our room. The walls are a grubby dull orange, the curtains shabby deep red, there is no place to unpack except for one small cupboard, and I do mean small, and no place to put our cases. I do what I always do when we arrive at accommodation that’s um, disheartening. I just get on with it. We need things for the night, we need dinner, and tomorrow’s a new day. And the whole time we were researching accommodation for Rishikesh I keep having the thought We’ll find it when we get there, we’ll find it when we get there. Nevertheless we book the entire four weeks at Vedansha just to be sure.
Next morning we set out to walk down to the river which first involves a longish walk down the main road. It is the only time we do it in four weeks. Every walk alongside a main road in India is a life-and-death experience. Will I survive? Please let me survive. The sidewalks, where there are any, are crumbling and pot-holed, and there is so much traffic vying for space that getting as far off the road as possible is your only chance of survival. Maybe. It’s a constant negotiation. Screaming motorbikes, cars, tuk tuks, and trucks whizzing by. Horns blaring. Engines roaring. Cows bellowing. Dogs barking. Trying our best to avoid vehicles and people and cows. Only a fool would relax walking along a main road in India; there is so much to be aware of that could be fatal, the worst being ear-piercing motorbikes. Or silent cow poop.
Eventually we come to the place where we can get off the main road and onto a pedestrian street. It’s busy of course, with people, but also with motorbikes and cows. The cows wander everywhere.
And then, just a little past Ram Jhula, one of two pedestrian bridges that cross the Ganges in this northern part of Rishikesh,
we can branch off and finally get right down to the ghats alongside river.
We are on a mission; first to find our way to the ashram where Mooji will be giving satsang, and second to find better accommodation. We pass this place, quite close to Ram Jhula,
and I notice the balconies. I’d like to stay there! So we go around to the front and discover it’s open, but not really, and there’s still some construction going on, and no Wi-Fi. I am disappointed. We keep walking and keep looking. We find the ashram. We look at other places but none have a balcony overlooking the river and I’m pretty clear I want that. We go back to the first place. They show us a room. They promise Wi-Fi within a few days so we take it. Home! Despite having booked for four weeks at Vedansha our only penalty is having to pay for one night more than the three nights we stay there. Worth every penny.
The room is not special but it has a balcony overlooking the river and all we need including access to the reverse-osmosis water purifier in the kitchen so we have an unlimited supply of clean water. Our mucky, well-lived-in room:
The view from the balcony at night:
We arrive on February 11th. By the 14th we have moved into our new deluxe accommodation, after several tries have found an ATM that will spit out cash for me (always a heart-stopping moment when the machine swallows your card and you wonder if you’ll ever see it again. Or not), have found the Mooji ashram and several good restaurants, have found a grocery store for some basics, and found another ATM in the main part of town that works for Don. Although we’ve travelled with it many times, this is the first time we actually use our immersion heater to make tea and coffee. It works like a charm. We take our hot drinks and some ginger cookies and sit out on the balcony watching the river flow by feeling settled, peaceful, lucky, blessed. We have arrived in Rishikesh.
Rishikesh sits on the banks of the Ganges River, Ma Ganga, the mother goddess, in the Himalayan foothills. The legend is that Raibhya Rishi, one of the great Hindu saints, performed an extended penance on the banks of the Ganges. In recognition of his sacrifice Lord Vishnu appeared before him in his incarnation of Lord Hrishikesh. It is one of the most sacred cities in India and a mecca for sages, yoga practitioners, and Hindu pilgrims. They come for the mighty Ganga, considered a god in the Hindu pantheon, and a strong sense of devotion permeates the town despite the crowds and crumbling streets. It feels as if Rishikesh, and the river, are blessed, and in return bestow blessings upon you.
It takes a few days to find the best place for an early breakfast but after some false starts we discover “special porridge” at Flavours Restaurant, a five-minute walk from our hotel through the cave-like underground tuk tuk parking lot. It’s porridge with granola and fruit added, and honey, and really good. Bit by bit we discover the best restaurants for lunch up the north end of town known as Tapovan. We get there by tuk tuk. Ten rupees for locals. Twenty (forty cents) for us. Sometimes as much as eighty if we have the tuk tuk to ourselves. Never again do we walk that road. In Tapovan we find the famous Beatles Café,
and next door the Shambala Café
and across the river the Ganga Beach Café,
and there are others, and all of them serve enormous delicious vegetarian meals. Again after a few false starts for dinner we finally discover thali at Flavours and end up eating it night after night – sharing one portion between the two of us. Naan bread, dahl, raita, curried vegetables, rice. So good.
We soon settle into a routine. Five days a week porridge and chai at Flavours followed by a gentle half-hour stroll along the ghats to the ashram where, along with about 2000 others, we sit and listen to Mooji for a couple of hours, immersed in a sacred space that initially I resist but gradually surrender to. There’s no escaping yourself in this space. Afterwards we walk back to the hotel and from there get a tuk tuk to Tapovan and find a place for lunch. Following this we walk down the narrow winding alley
past the restaurants and cafes and shops selling Indian artefacts until we come to the river and cross over on Lakshman Jhula, the second pedestrian bridge in this part of the city.
Crossing both Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula is its own special challenge. Once again much negotiation is required to make your way from one side to the other. There are no cars or trucks or tuk tuks, and usually no cows, but there are always crowds of people, and pushy insistent motorbikes (to the extent that I screamed at a bike rider one day Hey! I’m walkin’ here! Just like in the movie Midnight Cowboy).
And monkeys. Don’t ever be carrying any food around the monkeys.
They are ratty little thieves that will take whatever they want from you and you never quite know when they’ll pounce.
I walk the bridges clinging to the edge hoping not to be side-swiped by a motorbike on one side, or assailed by a monkey on the other.
We walk along the far side of the river.
Sometimes we cross back over the river on Ram Jhula. Sometimes we take the ferry.
We settle in at home for a couple of hours before making our way to Flavours for dinner.
The other two days each week are much the same except breakfast is much later and Mooji doesn’t give satsang on those days. We had so many plans of things to do on those 2.5 days each week but we never make it out of town except for one day to Haridwar, and one day to a waterfall. We are slow and peaceful, lazy and relaxed.
Despite the shantytown and the rubble, colours dance before my eyes. No one does colour like India.
Despite India’s insistent din all around us we feel grounded and calm. Nowhere can fill you and empty you like India.
I will finish with a quote about India from Camille Framroze. She says it so much more eloquently than I ever could.
By all rights, she should not—she cannot—exist. She is too old, too tired, and too full. She is made from shards of ethnicities, languages, beliefs, and religions that were patched and glued together to make an unlikely whole. She was founded as a secular republic even as tens of millions of her residents split off to form a religious state. She has stubbornly remained democratic through a balloting process that lasts five weeks and involves 900 million voters. And among those crowds, in those wrinkles, under that dust, and in those fissures, she still retains a profound beauty. So there is a way in which my faith in humanity is inextricably wound up in India’s subsistence. As long as she lives—and in the way that she lives—there is still magic in the world.
Next several posts: I have so much more to share about our time in Rishikesh: the holy men, the street vendors, the chai wallahs, the construction workers building new ghats, the pilgrims, the langurs, the endless activity down by the water, a temple ceremony, and the nightly ritual and prayer to the river known a Ganga Aarti. And Hello to the Queen!
This post, and those following, is about our time in Rishikesh February-March 2019. I am so far behind with the blog! On February 8 this year we return to Rishikesh for another four weeks so I’ll be writing about last year’s visit while we’re there this year. Perhaps I’ll do some kind of mash-up.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.