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Rishikesh Times
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Phil's 1998 India Travelogue

Rishikesh Times

Hanging at Neelam's, I end up talking to a woman named Elizabeth, who is a Siddha Ma devotee (she is the successor to Neem Karoli Baba, the Guru of Ram Dass/Be Here Now). I told her if Siddha Ma is in NainiTal (a hill station I plan on visiting next), I would like to meet Siddha Ma. But Elizabeth informs me that no one knows where she is exactly. But she and Mr. Singh offer me a lot of great information which I am very thankful for. It seems Neelams is a place for westerners, as that is all I've seen. In fact, the second time I went, the same people were there. Weird.

The rest of the day was a frustrating adventure of trying to find the places Mr. Singh and Elizabeth recommend for setting up my next few days, to no avail. I go back to the hotel, and go to the Ganges. She will make it all better. The hotel has a little goddess temple right next to the ghat (steps/ stairs) leading to the Ganges. The Ganges is sometimes clear here, but since there has been recent rains in the mountains, it is brown and murky. I notice what looks like garbage floating in water, but it turns out to be a whole mess of flower petals from various pujas and ceremonies. Now _that's_ the right way to treat a lady, not by dumping sewage and dead bodies into her!

So I peel of my shoes, roll up my pants and go for a relaxing footbath in the Ganges, so cool and refreshing, melting away the heat and frustration of the day. While sitting there, I am soon joined by a group of children, who keep saying "Hallow", and I reply hello, and they move a few inches closer. Finally, one little girl, Andhyu, says "Pen?" and I'm thinking pan? is that a Hindi word... oh pen! they want some pens. So I hand out a pile of Bics that I have handy for just such an occasion, and one of the boys asks Toffee? and I'm thinking coffee? why's he asking me for coffee?... oh, they want some candy! So I hand out my mango candies, and I am the most popular person in their world for the next 5 minutes. And in return I get a group picture of all of them. Now, how do I avoid the little pests for the rest of my stay?

So I go to my room to rest, feeling at the moment overwhelmed, lost, and wishing I had those shoes one could click to go home like Dorothy in the Wiz. It's gotta arise every so often, like what the hell am I doing here - I'm as far away from California as you can get - if I go any further east, I'll be getting closer to home, being that mother earth is round. But this was really the first time that kind of feeling arose. The presence of the shakti, the distraction of the newness of being in a strange place and the feeling of awe and wonder really have dominated my emotion state for the most part. And sometimes I feel a little raw, rookie-like, and like a small person in a big world, but I've come to realize that most of those kinds of moods are attributed to hypoglycemia, low-blood sugar - put some food in me and then I feel strong, ready to take on the world again. This pattern has gone on so long for me, that I know how to read the signals. But I am alone, and have met but a few people along the way, and I sometimes feel the aloneness the most at dinner, which is really a social occasion as much as anything. But, despite the aloneness, which only occasionally turns into loneliness, and they are two separate states. And being alone and white-skinned in an Indian world, peoples' staring at me reinforces that aloneness. Walking down the street, I am an event, a rare bird in the whatever 'hood I am cruising. Men stare are me, the women too, but they avert their eyes as soon as we meet, and men are always hitting on me 'cause I got something they want. And it got me to thinking, hey this is what a woman in a something tight or short must go through when she walks down the street!

I've gotten used to it, and the best strategy is to smile, which breaks up the pattern, and most of the time I get a smile back. Every once in a while I hear something like "eoereiklsdkoAmerican woqdklsdeoeioklsiore" and I give the group of guys a stare. And almost always, walking through the street, I am the only white person to be found, but I feel totally _safe_ here, despite the fact that everybody knows I am a lot richer than they are, (just by the fact that I am here) and therefore probably have a lot more money on me. I don't go wandering too much at night, but here in Rishikesh that would be no problem. But having a shaved head and a goatee gets you looks everywhere east or west - it looks a little too masculine, mean, like one is a gang member or mental house escapee. Little do they know what a cupcake I am on the inside.

After a while, the desk calls to tell me that the hotel travel agent is here. I go downstairs to meet Beehm, a very nice fellow who sets up my next two days around Rishikesh. One of my goals is to get to Badrinath, the site of one of 4 of the holiest of temples in the Hindu world, as well as get a good number of Himalayan snow-capped mountain pictures, but Badrinath is snowed in and there are landslides along the way - I'm a few weeks too late, but the road is still open to Josimath, which is 40 km south of Badrinath. But Beehms says it's best to plan that as late as possible so that were working on good information. This relieves any suspicion that he's out just to sell me a package without any consequence. And this feels good - I'm now a man with a plan, to visit the sites of Rishikesh proper the next day, then into the forest to outlying temples and good Himalayan views the next.

(Are my days and dates correct? I am on vacation, out of the regular routine).

I setup my itinerary with Beehm with an additional fun lesson in Hindi, for words like stop, taxi man, go, please, thank you, etc.

Vasishta Gufta

My first stop is a cave about 10 miles outside of Rishikesh called the Vasishtha Gufta. This is where the famous Hindu sage Vasishtha did his sadhana (spiritual practice) ages ago, and now is a temple site. My taxi driver Pal negotiates the winding curves through the Himalayan foothills with skill and even some courteousness. I've finally figured out how the driving scene is in India - it's a pecking order: pedestrians give way to bicycles and motor scooters, then bicycle-rickshaws, then motor-rickshaws, then taxi, then busses and trucks, and at the top of the order, cows.

Auto-rickshaws alway pass pedestrians, who for the most part walk on the side of the street, since there is often no sidewalk, or if there is one, it is covered with street vendors. But taxis always try to pass the auto-rickshaws, and even the busses, who all have a sign on their back bumper: "Horn Please". You see, it's the horn that makes the whole system of chaos work. When you pass or about to pass, you lay on the horn, if you move into a mountain curve you lay on the horn, if you come up to a group of pedestrians, more horn. It's a bad thing for the nerves, but a good thing for bodily safety, especially for me - remember, we in the Americas drive on a different side of the road as the Brits and some of their former colonies like India, which means I must discipline myself from habitually walking into traffic by looking the wrong way! The horn is a constant help for me to know which way to look, since I can forget so easily.

Anyways we drive through some very pretty forested mountain scenery (but no view of the big boys yet, the snow capped peaks). The road is just enough for two cars most of the time, and horn blowing is a must. Making it to the site, we descend almost down to the beach (surprisingly, I thought most cave were up in the mountains), to a temple which houses a group of monks and sadhus, plus Maharaj. The cave has a wooden structure outside of it, adorned with flower petals and other ornamental details. I go into the cave which is straight, long and narrow, so straight it makes me wonder if someone dug it. About 20 yards into it is the main site, and there is a puja going on. The inner temple has a shivalingam ( a conical rock symbolizing Shiva and teh masculine side of spirituality, i.e. penis shaped), and a goddess icon/doll on teh concrete dais. For a while, all I can see is the small area around the candle, being pitch black in there. There are about 6 women in the cave attending the puja along with the priest/pujarist. During the puja, someone takes a flash photograph, which I thought was very tacky. Finally I can see a little, and sit down to meditate. Once the puja is over the women put out their hands to receive holy water, and so do I, but the priest says, "right hand please". Of course, you know what the left hand is used for in India. Being a lefty, I was wondering if people would get upset if I picked up my nan or chapati bread in my left hand, but I've seen plenty of Indians, especially the wealthier ones, eat with their left hand, as if to say," i'm rich with a flush toilet".

So I change hands to erase my faux pas, and everyone leaves, so I can meditate alone. I don't find the cave particularly potent, but after a few minutes I can hear inner music, subtle sounds that occur when energy flows through certain nerve currents in the body/mind, called nadis. This is pleasant, and I meditate for a half hour.

After I come out I walk past the temple the beach, and the priest says, " follow me we're going to the other cave." We walk on a beach of beautiful white sand to a spot that was just gorgeous; a small pool of water of the Ganges, butterflies all around. The cave is about 20 feet up the side of the rock wall, and tenderfoot Phil climbs up with the group of women and we take turns entering the much smaller cave, which is about 10 feet deep and conical in shape. At the apex is another Shivalingam, which we all take turns bowing to. The pujarist, a swami, tells me that this was Vasishta's summer cave, and the other was his winter cave. And I'm thinking, how do you like that, a summer home for the sage, upscale sadhuism. With plenty of available fruits, vegetables and perhaps even fish, he probably had little survival problems to disturb his practice.

On the way back we pass a pack/family of monkeys and I stop to take some photos. They are inquisitive, major moochers, and pickpockets if you are not looking, but basically a little shy of people. Cute as hell too.


The next stop was LaksmanJhula, the bridge where Laksman crossed. There are two garrishly painted temples on the other side of the river, one thirteen stories high with a great view of town. I crossed the bridge, which bounced and wobbled, passing numerous sadhus, beggars and cripples, snapping photos of the areas. Took lunch in another place where I would not call the cleanest place in the world, but I order the hot food, a garbanzo bean dish (chole) and chapatis. Decent food - for the whole week I've been waiting for Montezumas Revenge or some other digestive disorder, but I haven't had any major problem, even though I've broken many a rule - I hope that my tract has adjusted to the Indian bacteria. Careful with the water, drinking only bottled, even brushing my teeth with bottled water, which is surprisingly hard to do, as I habitually reach for the sink. The worst I felt was after drinking a Pepsi too fast.

The area around LaksmanJhula is filled with numerous shops selling rudraksha beads and other religious paranphenalia. Still too many taxis making too much noise and pollution. RamJhula was much more quieter and relaxed, and I pass out a few rupees to a group of sadhus. After my tour is over, a nap before strolling over the the major event in Rishikesh the Gangarati.


Rishikesh, con't.

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