I’d only just heard about Rishikesh two weeks ago while backpacking through Indonesia. I met an Italian girl on a boat who had spent the past eight months travelling throughout India. “You need to go to the North and check out Rishikesh, it’s the yoga capital of the world” she told me. Apparently, the Beatles had gone there in the 60’s to live on an ashram that specialized in transcendental meditation. It has since become a popular area for hippies and yogis alike. She told me about her experience on a “transformative” ten day silent retreat where she sat and meditated all day, every day, for ten days. She told me she went insane but by the end, she had overcome her mental demons and was flooded with a deep sense of peace. Although I had zero interest in doing a silent retreat (sounds like a fancy title for solitary confinement) I was interested in experiencing the hippy and yoga scene…
I landed in the closest airport, Dehradun, just after noon. Seat belts signs switched off and everyone poured out of their seats, reaching for their bags overhead. I swiftly made my way through the crowds, grabbed my bag from the carousel and headed to the taxi stand. I asked for a ride to Rishikesh. 700 rupees he told me. I agreed and climbed in the back seat. On the drive from the airport, I peered out of the front window and watched in amusement as my driver maneuvered skilfully around cows wandering nonchalantly on busy roads. We passed by vendors in tiny shacks, little kids playing and a forest completely overtaken by monkeys. After quickly checking into my hostel I ventured down the street to grab a bite to eat and watch the sunset over the Ganges. While walking back in the dark I watched as street vendors pulled down their blinds and sleepy cows curl up in front preparing for bedtime. These cows reminded me of big, docile dogs. Just before turning off into the alley that led to my hostel I was approached by a bald French man wearing loose, hemp clothing. “There’s a jam tonight, it’s just starting. Come join us” he told me as he handed me a flyer. I looked down at the flyer and by the time I looked back up to ask him where it was he was already walking away. I noticed a small map scribbled on the bottom and decided I might as well check it out.
I started walking down a dark alley until I heard faint sounds of drums and singing. I followed the music up a flight of stairs and peered into a room filled with people sitting together on the floor facing a small band. Noting all the shoes scattered at the entrance, I slipped out of my sandals and quickly found a spot in the corner to sit. I scanned the room and noticed almost everyone was smoking a tightly rolled cigarette, holding the smoke in and passing it around. Clearly, this wasn’t just a cigarette. Watching these expats puff on joints in a hazy bar in the middle of North India felt like a scene out of Banged Up Abroad. I was just waiting for a charismatic guy to sit down at my table and ask me if I’d be interested in smuggling some drugs for him. I later learned that it was hash they were smoking. Alcohol is forbidden in Rishikesh and the drug of choice is replaced by hash. It’s interesting to see how this changes the social scene. Beers are substituted with smoothies or spirulina juice and hard liquors are replaced with pure hash. To a person who does not smoke, this might seem like a nightmare but it’s an interesting pace of life to experience. It’s not all stoner talk and lazing around, there are lively, ambitious and mature people with unique experiences who are drawn to Rishikesh. Although hash is technically illegal, marijuana grows so easily and effortlessly in North India its difficult to control. It’s made by simply rubbing marijuana buds until the oils are thick enough to scrape off then are collected and pressed into dark balls. It costs about two dollars Canadian for ten grams of 100% pure Hash.
“Alcohol is forbidden in Rishikesh and the drug of choice is replaced by hash.”
After returning to the hostel I met one of the people sharing my dorm. She was around my age, from New York City. Her Dad was Egyptian and her Mum was Korean, a beautiful mix of contrasting cultures I’d never seen before. She giggled shyly with a hand over her mouth like a Korean and when her laughter faded she held her head high with delicate regal Egyptian grace. I told her how surprised I was that hash was so commonly accepted here. She laughed and said, “oh yeah, everyone smokes hash here. Did you want to smoke actually? I was going to ask but I wasn’t sure if you did.” We stepped outside to the attached balcony and shared a joint. The lights from the shops in front of us illuminated the balcony with a hazy green glow. A light rain drizzled as we smoked and she told me about a horrifying experience she’d just had in Goa with the Indian mafia. Her and her friend had frantically bought a ticket and flown to Rishikesh as a refuge. She was clearly shaken up by the experience so without pressing for more information I asked her what she did back home. She was studying illustration and design, had a part-time job she hated. Her face lit up as she explained how much she loved drawing and capturing the human essence in cartoons, specifically manga (Japanese anime). We talked for a while about everything from careers to our hopes and dreams, when suddenly a small British girl sitting in the corner joined our conversation. She told us that she was an ICU nurse who had just quit her job and bought a one-way ticket to India. She had just come from Varanasi, the most religious part of India. Varanasi is a shocking city to visit because it’s essentially a place where people go to die. Dead bodies are burned publicly in a traditional ceremony by the Ganges. I went to Varanasi as a naive twenty-one-year-old with my Dad and was reluctantly invited to watch a funeral of a man burning on a pile of sticks. I stared in horror as the family watched on and smoke from the body billowed up into my face. I saw his body turn charcoal black and his intestines ooze a yellowish hue. The experience was so overwhelming I felt like I was going to faint, the images of his body are still burned into my mind to this day. I politely excused myself and walked away to sit under a building alone. My Dad eventually came and sat quietly beside me. It was one of the most intense cultural clashes I’ve ever witnessed.
I asked the British girl what she thought of Varanasi, half expecting that she’d experienced the same amount of shock and horror as I did. “It wasn’t so shocking to me. When I worked in ICU I saw horrible things every day. I saw people die all the time. It’s just a part of life” she shrugged. “In India, there’s no hiding this, instead it’s celebrated. It really is just a body, it’s just the shell of the person. Why do we treat it with such disgust? Why don’t we just embrace it instead of keeping it hush-hush?” I found this to be a startling concept to take in, one that I’d never even thought about. I had never fully realized that funerals and the way we deal with death are simply constructed by our culture. In India, they wear white at funerals and watch the body of their loved one burn to ashes. In the West, we wear black and bury the body in the ground or cremate it in a cold facility to never (or rarely) discuss again. Death is a subject that causes people to cringe yet its an inevitable aspect of life. With just a few sentences she unintentionally cracked a layer of my Western culture, allowing me to examine it as an outsider. I was able to see that my culture was simply years of social conduct, rules of behaviour ingrained into me. I found myself suddenly wanting to retreat into my room alone to take it all in. I ended up slipping away and laying awake in my bed too inspired and energized by our conversation to fall asleep.
“Death is a subject that causes people to cringe yet its an inevitable aspect of life. With just a few sentences she unintentionally cracked a layer of my Western culture, allowing me to examine it as an outsider.”
The next morning I woke up early ready to seize the day. The weather was good despite monsoon season. It was bright and sunny and swelteringly hot. I passed by shops and street vendors, monkeys, and cows. I peered into ashrams as the students sat together chanting melodic songs. I hummed a Hindu song I’d overhead as I dipped my feet into the crisp and refreshing Ganges river. While sitting on a rock and staring at the sheer power of the Ganges I was interrupted by curious locals who wanted a selfie. It’s amusing that I am as interesting to them as they are to me. It’s also interesting to be able to experience what it feels like to be a celebrity. One selfie turned into seventeen and groups started to form so I decided to head back to the hostel. I met another person who was also sharing the same dorm. While sitting outside on the balcony, he told me he was from Yorkshire, England. He had deep blue eyes, bronze skin, a dark well-trimmed beard, and a short, stunted body. While rolling a joint he told me he had just hitch-hiked his way to India all the way from England. I found it amusing watching him talk about some incredibly unusual and daring experiences he had while sitting in his seat squirming and smiling like a kid talking about his first day at school. It seems a lot of people I meet with a blazing adventurous side tend to also have a very child-like way about them, it almost seems like a prerequisite trait.
“While rolling a joint he told me he had just hitch-hiked his way to India all the way from England.”
One day while walking around I kept hearing people say some kind of greeting to me. I smiled back but since they were speaking Hindi I had no idea what they were saying. It turns out it was Lord Krishna’s birthday, one of the most powerful Gods in Hinduism. I suppose it’s sort of like the equivalent to Christmas to us. That night the hostel told us they would take us to a Hindu temple to celebrate Krishna’s birthday. A group of us left the hostel together, walking down narrow alleys in the dark and waited on the main road as our guide from the hostel organized a ride to the temple. A group of drivers gathered around him, speaking loudly and rapidly. Eventually, a deal was settled and we were told to squeeze into a small jeep that could fit six people comfortably. There were thirteen of us. We shrugged and squeezed in, sitting cheek to cheek, some of us on each other’s laps and three of us standing near the door holding on to the bars. We all started laughing at how ridiculous the situation was. Our guide did a quick scan to make sure everyone was there and said “okay? we go now?” We all replied in unison with a cheery “Yea!” I love moments like these. When you allow yourself to be swept up in a hilarious and exhilarating situation shared with people you only just met. They are rare and powerful and perfectly overwhelming. Within seconds were off, going over bumps, making sudden stops and taking in the sweet sounds of incessant honking. When we finally arrived we looked up at a massive temple covered in pink Christmas lights and blaring music. To my amazement, a meticulous single file had been formed circling around the entire temple as everyone waited their turn to enter. I couldn’t believe how orderly the queue was. After circling the block trying to find the end of the line we finally found it. Within half an hour we were inside the temple, sitting on the marble floor, listening to Krishna’s songs play so loudly through the speaker I genuinely wondered if I would go deaf. Everyone beside me clapped and danced ferociously and sang their heart out. It was certainly infectious, I found myself clapping and laughing with Indians and foreigners sitting beside me.
One morning two of the guys from the hostel asked if I wanted to join them for a chanting session. Sure, I said, “when in Rishikesh.“ I imagined being in a large room overflowing with hundreds of Indians singing kirtan songs. When we arrived the three of us sat cross-legged on the floor quietly waiting for the room to fill up. A few minutes later our instructor entered and closed the door behind him, clearly, no one else would be joining us. We did an “om” together before beginning, each of our voices clearly audible. The instructor started a song, vigorously motioning us all to sing louder. We awkwardly tried our best to sing louder, not fully understanding or grasping the phrases. He became annoyed at how quiet we were, demanding we sing louder, asking we each do a solo performance. The situation reminded me of an Indian version of bible camp, at one point we were instructed to sing repeatedly, and as fast as we could “shiva, shiva, shiva, shiva” *deep breath*“shiva, shiva, shiva, shiva.” It felt a little like brainwashing. We left the room together laughing at the shared experience. We also went to a yoga class together and were twisted and contorted like pretzels. The instructor would start a position by saying, “next we will do grasshopper pose, everyone know grasshopper?” We’d shake our heads no. “You know, grasshopper. A bug, an insect.” Yes, we nodded, we know what grasshopper is we just don’t know what pose you’re referring to. Yet he would continue to go into detail about the grasshopper. He’d start each pose with the name of an insect or animal and ask us if we knew the pose. Again, some would shake their heads no. “you know camel? Like an animal in the desert?” This became an inside joke in the hostel later.
On another occasion, I signed up for a trek organized by the hostel. After hiking in the mountains we eventually reached a cave and stood back as our guide explained that the men sitting on the were Babas who lived in the cave. From what I understand, Babas are people who have devoted themselves to Hindu Gods and by way of showing their devotion, shut themselves off from the materialistic world by living in caves covered in ash smoking hash all day. Some will take their devotion further by standing for years on end, or sitting, or holding one arm up. While explaining this he pointed towards a man standing and leaning on a swing for support, “he’s been standing for over a month now.” I immediately looked at his legs, noticing the veins bulging. The group of us moved into the cave and sat cross-legged with the Babas. A woman from our group began chanting a Hindu song, call and respond style. We all started to sing as the Babas lit up their chellam filled with hash and passed it around the circle. It was one of those surreal moments when you realize you are in a cave, high on hash, smoking with Babas, somewhere in North India.
“It was one of those surreal moments when you realize you are in a cave, high on hash, smoking with Babas, somewhere in North India.”
That evening, after returning to the hostel and having a well-deserved shower, we all met on the roof to learn some Bollywood dance moves. Our loud music and laughter had caused such a scene, people from other hostel balconies were watching us laughing and taking videos. By the end, a group of Spanish newcomers suggested we all go for a drink. “There is no alcohol in Rishikesh” we told them. They looked at us as in disbelief, “well, there has to be.” While they went downstairs in search of a bar, I sat upstairs with two Americans guys and shared a joint. A half hour later one of the Spanish girls came up to us panting saying “we found a bar, it’s only 6 kilometres away, we’re going to catch a taxi. You guys want to come?” The three of us were surprised that they found a bar when we’d been told numerous times alcohol was not sold in Rishikesh. We walked down the street and waited on the main road while our guide sorted out getting a ride. “It’ll be 700 rupees to get out there.” We agreed and all climbed into the rickshaw. We drove and drove and drove until we all started to look at each other with more and more confusion. “I thought it was only six kilometers away…” one of the Spanish girls said. Finally, we reached a quiet neighbourhood and were told we’d arrived. There was no evidence of a bar let alone any nightlife at all. I peered into the darkness at what appeared to be a rundown warehouse. I imagined a dim lit room with grungy drug addicts gathered around tables, holding a glass of whiskey, snorting coke. Our guide led us to a large metal door and slid it across revealing a spacious pristine courtyard with perfectly cut grass. Just beyond the courtyard was a restaurant with large windows and small groups of people sitting together, many with their children, drinking beer. “Wow!” we all said, laughing with relief. It was literally the opposite of what I’d imagined. We entered the restaurant and an empty spot in the middle of the room. We pulled in chairs and tables to seat us all together, causing high pitch squeaks and the entire restaurant to stop and stared at us while we set ourselves up. It felt like we were in a Mr. Bean movie. When we finally set ourselves up we ordered all ordered beer. “Cheers to finding a bar in Rishikesh!” we clanked together our beer bottles and took a gulp. Our guide got up and said he’d be right back, he wanted to make sure our driver didn’t leave yet. “I bet he’s getting drunk in his Tuktuk” one of the American guys said laughing. I really hope not, I replied laughing nervously. Within a few minutes, our guide fumbled over and plopped down in his seat, laughing to himself. We asked him what was so funny, “the driver is getting drunk! He is good, he’s still there” The American guy looked at me laughing hysterically, “I knew it!” The ride home was blurry, for me and likely the driver too. When we got back to the hostel, a few of us went back up on the roof to smoke a little more and listen to some music. The song ‘Bad Fish’ by Sublime came on and we sang the words together, swaying to that perfect guitar solo and I felt so connected to the moment I didn’t want the night to end.
“We asked him what was so funny, “our driver is getting drunk!” The American guy looked at me laughing hysterically, “I knew it!” The ride home was blurry, for myself and likely the driver too.”
Although I went in hoping for a week on an ashram where I’d reach a transformative experience of inner peace and incredible yogic feats, it didn’t happen. Instead, the experience gave me something a little more settle. For the first time since I started backpacking over a month ago, I gave myself permission to float to whatever intrigued me without trying to reign control. This led me to stay in a hostel and have inspiring conversations with people that caused an avalanche of new ideas and perspectives. A week may not have been long but it was just enough time to change the tilt of my perspective, allowing a light to cast on a whole new side that once was dark. Sometimes that’s all you really need.