India: Rapids, Ravines, and a Rant About Religion

Ricky, Poppy, Michael and I woke up from our hard earned naps at 4 in the afternoon. I was first up and went out onto the apartment balcony to gaze at the brand new landscape. It was green and pretty and a world away from Varanasi, but I’ve got to admit that I was a little disappointed in Rishikesh. But, if you’re willing to whip out the scalpel and hand mirror and perform a little key hole surgery into your soul, I reckon even crushing disappointment can teach you something. So here’s why I thought Rishikesh was wank.First off, the littering really upset me. You see it all over India, sure, but up in the pristine mountain air the strewn plastic bottles look so much fouler. From our balcony I could see a bright stream far below, and the clear mountain waters were clogged with old plastic. Now, there are reasons for the litter in India. Many people are too busy trying not to starve to death in the next week to ponder the decomposition span of a coke bottle. And India recycles a higher percentage of plastic than most other countries. I’m trying not to judge, but when you’re admiring a pretty flower and someone slopes past and empties a hot vat of masala gravy all over it, it’s hard not to get angry.

Another thing that irritated me about Rishikesh was the tourism. This is a difficult issue, because I am a tourist too, and often I do crave company and am glad of other backpackers. My beef with tourism rears its bovine head when tourism replaces the actual culture; when it feels like a town exists solely for me. Shops selling identikit ‘Om’ t shirts, restaurants hawking chicken chow mien and falafel and pizza, ranks of travel agents all with the same pixelated posters. I don’t know who to blame – we cash cows who travel there or the hustlers who milk us – I just know that it felt a little bit oily.

The thing that annoyed me most about Rishikesh, however, is the faux spirituality. I’ve thought about it long and hard (hehey!) and it really isn’t for me. If you dig yoga, sure, go wild. Go downward dog to your heart’s delight; I heard it’s good for you. But the people that Rishikesh seems to draw – the solemn spiritual types who snort with derision when you tell them you had fun in Goa – make my eyes roll like a roulette wheel.

There’s something about paying for enlightenment courses that just seems wrong. Transcendental tourism: travelling to India for a month and spending a couple of weeks in an ashram seeking The Answer. Like a dodgy samosa, it just doesn’t sit right in my stomach. You know what it is? It’s bone idleness. These guru-seeking hipster and hippies; they’ve never had an original thought. People seek out gurus and wise men and stay in ashrams and shit because they want enlightenment, and they want it quick, and they want it easy. Yeah, maybe you don’t talk for ten days, maybe you meditate for six hours and get a really sore back, but then you’re done, and you’re allegedly all the wiser for it.

I mean, come on. The holy men – and I’m sorry ladies, but in this country they do seem to be all men – have spent a lifetime dedicated to their search. They chuck all their shit out and live on the roadside in rags, and spend all day every day meditating and pondering and, to be fair, getting stoned as hell. Many of the babas I’ve met have apparently misjudged their intergalactic leap towards enlightenment and have instead barrelled straight into the depths of the cosmos and gone a bit bonkers. It’s a challenge and a risk and it takes them their entire lives. So what the hell is a 7 day class going to teach you? Nothing that you couldn’t figure out yourself if you were only willing to sit a while and think.

For me, I can feel it in every bone in my body that, whatever shape or form it may take, the next great character development in the lurching tragicomedy of my life won’t originate from sitting on a terrace with a bunch of hairy twenty somethings performing salutations to a statue of some gaudy deity that we all know damn well doesn’t exist.

Don’t mistake my cynicism for nihilism. I believe in the world, I believe in people. I feel so excited for the coming days and the years they will form. I believe in myself, and I know that I have a kind heart in my chest. I just feel bad for the droves of people who must flock to India in search of answers and leave empty handed. Life offers you answers and revelations at every turn, if only your eyes are open.

You don’t need gurus, you don’t need ashrams and gruelling meditative rituals. Just open your window, and allow your mind to wander, and realise that even the harshest, most punishing thoughts you can inflict upon yourself can be important and transformative. If you open yourself to wonder, there are no meaningless experiences. Go drink a coffee, watch a weird documentary, water the plants. Drive home from work and sing along to the radio. Smile at yourself in the mirror. Do whatever the hell you want, and allow yourself to be amazed.

And if you dig ashrams and gurus, fair play. You do what makes you happy. There’s a very high chance I’m full of shit.

What we did do in Rishikesh was go on a booze hunt. Yes, we are scum and you’re not supposed to drink in the town because it’s holy, but at the same time the locals booze on the sly and the taxi drivers rip you off and the holy men charge you for a blessing, so it seems like nobody really cares. Poppy and Michael and Ricky and I piled back in the Ford and drove to the next town, up in the mountains. Or at least, we tried to. We got halfway when the headlights went out, and found ourselves stuck several miles up a mountain road at night with no way to see in front of us. Oh, and elephants and tigers roam the hills, of course. Just for good measure.

I didn’t even bother suggesting we turn back because Ricky is Ricky. He just popped the hazards on and drove at 10 miles an hour for the rest of the trip, still checking his phone and putting songs on every five minutes, veering stomach-twistingly close to the cliff edge. Every time I yelped in panic, he would simply laugh at me and said he knew what he was doing. ‘Indians are the best drivers in the world’, everybody keeps telling me. Yeah, maybe they are good at steering, but they’re bloody terrible at decision making.

We let a car overtake us and drove along close behind it, stealing the glow of its headlights so we could see. After perhaps twenty horrid minutes of near-death pitch-black horror, our own lights flickered back into being. With a sigh of relief, we finished our booze quest, which was uneventful apart from a lightning storm and a few drunk locals that hurled British Empire-related abuse at me in Hindi. Ricky wouldn’t explain further what they were saying. Hey ho, shit happens.

We played drinking games back at the room but I felt sleepy and gloomy missing people back home so didn’t really join in. Once the vodka was emptied, Poppy and Ricky got into a heated debate over whether money could buy happiness. We westerners said no, it can’t. Look at Trump. That prick is fucking miserable. But Ricky had a different view: he said money can keep a family member alive. It can buy food. It can put a roof over your head. How many people in India lack those basic necessities? Tens of millions. It was an interesting debate with no real end, and I slunk off to bed when my eyelids grew heavy and I tired of drunken philosophising.

Next day we checked into a hostel and I did nothing all day because I had the shits.

The day after that we went white water rafting down the Ganges, and it was jolly good fun. I drank the water from the river, which was probably stupid because I was just barely recovered from yesterday’s illness but I thought fuck it, and lo! I didn’t get sick not one jot. Bueno.

The highlight of rafting was the spectacular comedy of witnessing a raft full of middle aged dudes hit a rapid and absolutely fucking soar into the air, spewing rogue flip flops and paddles and yelping bodies. I was at the front of our boat, soaked, tasked with setting the pace for paddling us through the rapids. While we ourselves were hurled around by the current, we hauled a couple of soggy dudes to safety, and delivered them back to their own vessel, totally empty save for the exasperated guide.

I left Rishikesh after 3 nights, heading out with Ricky once more, as well as a French girl called Tali and a Canadian called John. We had made the spontaneous decision to travel to Dharamsala, the Tibetan refugee city in the clouds, where I could seek out the Dalai Lama and ask him what his favourite Arctic Monkeys album is, and perhaps arm wrestle him.

2 thoughts on “India: Rapids, Ravines, and a Rant About Religion

  1. “I believe in the world, I believe in people. I feel so excited for the coming days and the years they will form.”

    I like this passage. I’m not sure if it means that the people will form the coming days and years or that the days, and memories of them, will form the coming years. Either way, it’s a burst of positive energy.

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