The Spiritual Supermarket
Rishikesh Travel Blog› entry 13 of 17 › view all entries
The ride to Haridwar is a bitch. An absolute bitch. I am waiting list, meaning I don't have a bed, and the train is packed. I manage to get a couple of hours sleep lying in the aisle with some old woman's toes in my face, until I am woken up at about 5am by another old woman standing on my stomach. I am fighting my way to the toilets when an old man calls to me, offering to share his bench. I am so fucking uncomfortable I accept. He seems a nice enough guy - one of these strange rajophiles who have somehow ended up more English than the English and think the British empire was the best thing ever to happen to India. Surely India must be the only country on earth where "hey, my ancestors oppressed your ancestors!" can actually make you friends.
I tell him my name is Cat. He says I am a "Cool Cat". He is also a "Cool Cat" apparently. Indeed. He says things like "I was standing precariously balanced in between those two females. I was making the greatest effort not to come into contact with either of their persons, but on occasion the swaying momentum of the train caused me to slightly bump them with my legs, whereupon they pushed me with considerable force." He says this in the sort of British accent I assumed died out with monocles and top hats. I am amused. Though not amused enough not to want to get off the fucking train as soon as possible.
Finally we get to Haridwar and I get a bus to Rishikesh. I ask around for cheap accommodation and am sent to the Swiss Cottage in Laxman Jhula, which turns out to be absolutely beautiful. Probably the nicest place I've ever stayed in on a low budget. I am tired and it is fucking hot, so I spend the rest of the day lying under the fan reading, but the next morning it is cooler and I head out to explore Rishikesh.
It's a weird place, Rishikesh. I'm not quite sure what I make of it. Everywhere I look are big glossy adverts for ashrams, gurus, reikki courses, yoga classes, ayurvedic spas... it seems you can get anything you want here (blessings, forgiveness, special powers, eternal life...) if you're prepared to pay enough. Some of the ashrams look like 5 star hotels, and charge similar rates. The phrase "Spiritual Supermarket" springs to mind.
I cross Laxman Jhula bridge and wander down the other side of the Ganga. There are temples everywhere, but I don't feel much inclination to go inside. Don't get me wrong, Rishikesh is beautiful. But I don't feel there's any truth for me here. I'm too broke to buy myself enlightenment. And even if I was a millionaire, I don't feel inclined to pay for it. Surely truth, like sex, loses all value unless given freely. Damn Westerners and their commercialised spiritual quests. I feel this place has been exploited, corrupted. I don't believe in going searching for extraordinary experiences. In India, experiences usually find you.
I am heading back to my hotel, moodily contemplating this, when an experience finds me. I am walking along when I pass a young baba. I notice him (shallow person that I am) because he is actually really good looking. So I look back over my shoulder at him, and find that he is looking back at me. So I wave, and he waves, then walks down to meet me. He's pretty direct.
"Your name? Your country? Want to smoke?"
So we walk back over Ram Jhula bridge and further down along the Ganga. On the way we pick up another baba, an old one with dreads. The young baba is whistling to himself, patting the cows and dogs as he walks past, saying "beautiful life! Beautiful life!" He seems completely fucking mashed - as all good babas should be. They take me right down to the bank of the Ganga where, on a patch of mud just a few metres from the river, are a couple of tents made out of sticks and tarpaulin. We go down and wash our feet in the Ganga, then crawl into one of the tents, where there are a few blankets, a small shrine and a very mangy dog. The young baba packs a chillum and we smoke and talk. He says he's been living here for sixth months now.
"Simple life. Beautiful life. Baba life, Shiva life - same same."
He has a scorpion tattooed on his arm and has grown his little fingernails very long. I ask him why.
"I like it."
We smoke another chillum and the old baba tells me a bit about his life. He used to have a wife and a jewellery shop in Haridwar. Then 10 years ago his wife died and he gave up everything and became a baba. He notices my bare feet and asks how long I haven't worn shoes for. I tell him 3 years, except when I really have to. He tells me proudly he hasn't worn shoes in 5 years. We compare toughened soles and giggle stupidly. We're getting pretty stoned. The young baba takes me outside and shows me his "garden" - a little patch of ganja plants on the bank of the river. Now that's the sort of garden I like. Suddenly I remember an email Chris sent me about a young baba he met in Rishikesh, so I ask him if he met a crazy Ausralian guy with a beard and sticking up hair.
"Yes! Fixing motorbike!"
Wow. Small world.
I have no drugs to share, so I give him a bit of money, and he gives me a bag of weed, which is an unexpected bonus. I walk back towards Laxman Jhula feeling a lot better about Rishikesh.
One again, I don't make it to Laxman Jhula. I run into an Indian guy I had a brief chat with earlier and he offers to take me down to the evening puja on his motorbike, so I go. I sit by the Ganga with all the pilgrims, facing the big white statue of Shiva on a platform in the river. Everyone is chanting as the sun sets, and there's something deeply beautiful and hypnotic about it. I am still pretty stoned, and cannot take my eyes of Shiva's face. I slip into a kind of trance. Suddenly everyone is getting up and wading into the water. Someone shoves a boat of flowers and incense into my hands and I follow them down to the water and make my own little puja to the Ganga. The water is freezing cold, but I don't care. It's a really special experience.
Afterwards, the Indian guy with the motorbike insists on buying me a thali. He talks a lot of shit and titters stupidly after every sentence. I decide he is a harmless idiot and humour him. He says he wants to show me the best view over Laxman Jhula, so I go with him to a high rooftop. He's right, it is a beautiful view - I can see all the temples lit up along the banks of the Ganga, with the steep wooded hills rising up on either side. But I am getting suspicious. It's the rooftop of a hotel. I wonder if it's his hotel.
Sure enough, as we walk back down the stairs, he opens the door to his room. I say I'm tired and I'm going back now. He asks if I'll watch one card trick. Oh for fuck's sake. Ok, one card trick.
The sneaky bastard is actually good. It's such an impressive trick I let my guard down and let him show me another. And another and another. Then he asks if I want a massage. No I do not want a fucking massage. But this does not appear to be an option - he goes behind me and starts kneading my shoulders anyway. I turn round to tell him to get off and realise that somehow, in a fit of dexterity that makes his card tricks look clumsy by comparison, he has taken his shirt off.
"I'm going." I say. I pick up my bag and go. He tries to follow me and I tell him to fuck off. He asks what's the matter.
"You went too far, man. Next time, try and be a bit more subtle."
"Where can I meet you tomorrow?"
He carries on following me, so I turn round and scream at him "JUST FUCK OFF!!!"
He stops, stares after me sadly as I march away, then yells - "Call me!"
Some people just cannot take a hint.