Dharamshala, Rishikesh, Agra: Holy, holy, holy

Dayaalu duniya,

To cleanse my plagued body, I planned a quick retreat to the mountains of India. As I tapped away on my computer, to research bus roots and accommodation, a girl from my hostel sat down next to me and began speaking with me. Somewhat annoyed that she had interrupted my typing, I eventually indulged the conversation and would come to learn that she was an Italian university student, visiting India for six weeks through the ISAC program. I immediately perked up and we proceeded to chat for about an hour, which brought up some painful nostalgia from my semester in Rome. By the end of our conversation, Elena asked, “Would you like to come with me to Dharamshalla tomorrow?” And in the spirit of any circumnavigator, I accepted the offer. Surely I had to change a few of my own weekend plans, but within 24-hours I was boarding a 10-hour bus to the Himalayas with an Italian girl I had just met.


Elena came to visit me during one of my intoned prayers at a devotional services at the Lotus Temple

I think there is something so beautiful about the (capital-t) Traveler. The Traveler is always caught in some liminal space between stabilities. Since the Traveler is away from the “home base” (if such a thing actually exists), they adopt a special attitude toward interaction. Especially the Solo Traveler, like Elena and myself, it is almost necessary for them to seek out people, open themselves at speeds they normally would not with people back home, and say yes to every (safe) opportunity. And when the Traveler is lucky, they can experience some wonderful corners of the world with people that become very significant to them. This has always been a curiosity of mine: why is it only okay to open yourself to others and seek significant connection quickly with acquaintances ONLY under special circumstances, such as traveling? In the Carrie Bradshaw tone of my internal monologue, I began to wonder: Why can’t we always approach interaction in the way the Traveler does?

Elena and I became very close, spending the majority of the bus ride to Dharamshalla sharing about our lives. When we arrived we lugged our 15 kilo bags up a grossly unpaved road to our remote hostel at the highest tip of Upper Bacsu (a northern neighborhood of Dharamshala). The hostel was open but not a single person at the reception in sight. So, Elena and I left all our invaluable belongings in the common area and walked back down the unpaved road to explore the town.


Up in the mountains

I was shocked to most every storefront sign in Hebrew. I would learn that such towns are holiday hotspots for Israeli young adults after their years of military service. After some DIVINE falafel and hummus, Elena and I were ready to take on a morning trek. We eagerly climbed up Bacsu waterfalls, which was about a 10 km trek through the greenest mountain I have ever seen. We passed over wading ponds, rapids, through barely trodden stone pathways, over fallen logs, and as we peaked we saw a small structure appear out of the slate stone. It seemed a man had build a house at the top of the two hour trek from the base of the waterfalls. Listening to the bleating of the goats and some rustling noise from the insight of the house, Elena and I were eventually greeted by the owner of the hermit house. His name was Vishek and he was a middle-aged father of two daughters, as he explained over a cup of masala chai that he prepared for us. Through his limited English, he explained how he had constructed the house over 6 years and he comes there to meditate. Is this man my American Idol?


Trekking the Bacsu Falls

We left with many “dhanyavaads” and “namastes,” and found our way to the base of the trek again, only to look down in HORROR at the leeches that were covering our feet. I tell you, Elena and I were spitting tears of terror and laughter at the same time. Some locals brought us some salt to kill those evil parasites, but the physical and emotional wounds remained. And perhaps not even time will heal the bite marks on my post-leech heart.

On our way back to the hostel, we passed various shops and Hindu temples; Elena got a leather journal and a dreadlock, and I got a Hindu candle blessing. Later that evening, we would venture back into town with a nice group of Travelers (note the capital-t) from the hostel for a delicious Indian dinner and Elena would get yet another dreadlock. We all have our exotic fantasies, I suppose.

The next day brought us to another neighborhood of Dharamshala, McLeod Ganj, which has the amazing Tibetan Bhuddist temple of the Dalai Lama. It was beautiful, hundreds of Buddhist monks were roaming the surrounding streets, the spirituality of the place was palpable. The temple itself was situated with beautiful views of the Himalayan mountainside and was rather simplistic on the inside. Elena and I took a turn spinning the mantra wheels, and we lit a few candles in the mediation chamber. I think this will be my favorite aspect of India: the ability to experience so many different walks of faith within the same geography and without exclusion. My time in Dharamshala ended with a final supper with Elena in an AMAZING restaurant called Tibetan Kitchen, where we ate the best momos (Tibetan dumplings) of our lives and Tibetan tea, which has butter and salt in it (I loved, Elena hated… where will you stand?).


Temple of the Dalai Lama


Elena, momos, Tibetan Tea!

And then my bones were prepared as a sacrificial offering to another Indian overnight bus, now to the yoga capital of the world, Rishikesh. As much as I am in LOVE with the affordable access to mobility around India, the bus system is truly evil. They will never show up on time or where they say they will. It is always very vague, which makes it a painful experience for an inexperienced, non-Hindi speaker. Nonetheless, I made it to the supposed pick up point and grabbed some food from the gas station. As I reached for my mango juice, two men asked me if I could grab them some juice as well and then proceeded into a longer conversation. I was somewhat stressed, but again I indulge the conversation. They happened to be locals from Dharamshalla, so they pointed me to exactly where I could find the bus, but this small gas station convo turned into an in-depth collective search of purpose. We engages topics from American politics, to Indian social issues, to religion… I was living for this, but losing track of time. I finally mustered the courage to check my phone and I realized that my bus was likely to leave, so I panically hurried to the pick up point…. GONE. It had left?!?!? I was freaking out! How was I going to get to Rishikesh, the yoga mat was awaiting my arrival. Witnessing my panic, the local Dharamshallans that had contributed to my missing the bus shifted into hero mode and threw me and all my luggage on the back of their motorcycle. Me and two Indian men I barely know were now cruising down the Himalayans mountains in a mad chase after this bus. The kind man in the middle was making vicious phone calls to the bus company as the driver found the perfect balance of speed of “safety.” Only a few close calls over some potholes and some minor swerves, we had arranged a new pick up point and quite immediately as we parked the Rishikesh bus arrived. Without even much of a goodbye, I departed from these two local Dharamshallans who had essentially saved my night. We waved to each other as the bus peeled away. The kindness of strangers, the kindness of strangers.

I landed in Rishikesh completely crusty eyed and heavy breathed, perhaps the best state to enter a three day yoga retreated. I was welcomed to my stunning yoga hostel by the resident yogi and a cup of green tea. Next, I was off to some exploration of this sacred town that is positioned right on the Ganga (Ganges River), which is a holy river in Vedic religious practice. After completing my own Indian baptism of sorts by swimming in the Ganga, I headed over to my ashram for a yoga class and meditation session. I got to catch a few words with the sage yogi after the class. He articulated that “yoga” means “union,” which can be interpreted as the union of the mind and body, union of the soul and God, etc. etc. It should be noted that this is not much different from the word “religious” which comes from the Latin word meaning “to bind.” In both etymologies, there is the image of two independent objects are being joined together. I meditated on this knowledge for a while as the sun gracefully found its rest from my perch at Buddha Cafe, accompanied by some glorious vegetarian food.


Sunset dinner over the Ganga

Other than the yoga classes, meditation sessions, delicious meals by the setting sun and temple exploration, I was also fortunate enough to take a few lessons in Classical Indian Voice by a Rishikesh Guru. We spent hours learning the Indian musical syllables (equivalents of Do Re Mi), which are Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa. There is an entire established world of vocal pedagogy that I was totally unaware of, and I would be so joyous to spend more time with Indian Classical Voice lessons. As I would later learn from some Baha’i singers, as a voice student in India, you must wake up at 3 am every morning to sing for four hours. This helps the singing soul align with the souls of ancestors that are most active during the dawn hours. Beautiful, but can you imagine? 3 am? I can barely make the 11 am call for Baha’i Temple choir (sorry Van…)!


Walking to my voice lesson

A friend that I had made in Delhi happened to be in Rishikesh the same weekend and he was kind enough to take me on his motorbike to my bus back to Delhi. Thank you, Bunty!

As my relatively long sojourn in Delhi started coming to a close, I figured I would plan the obligatory trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, which (little to my own knowledge) is about 4 hours drive away from Delhi. After what felt like eight scams from taxi drivers and ticket sellers, I was in front of one of the seven wonders of the world, and let me tell you… it was wondrous. Here is proof that I was there:

My last days in India were spent within the warm petals of the Lotus Temple. I served as a Baha’i volunteer and was so shocked by the intensity of the job: ushering tens of thousands of volunteers into the faith space. It was glorious and spending more time with the chanters of this Temple gave me some of the best learning experiences from my trip so far. (more to be discussed in my thesis!) India, through its people, through its Travelers, through its nature, through its buildings was becoming my love. I think the Delhi belly had finally settled, but now something was churning in my heart. And I don’t think it was just the leech scars.

Until next time,
Chris