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 skillfully 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 sun set 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 a lot of dogs, just a bit bigger and slower. 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. I scanned the room and noticed almost everyone was smoking a tightly rolled cigarette, holding the smoke in and passing it around. I later learned that it was hash. Alcohol is forbidden in Rishikesh. 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. 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.
After returning to the hostel I met one of the people sharing my dorm. While sitting on the balcony outside, she told me she had just come from Varanasi, the most religious part of India. 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. I asked her 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 theres no hiding this, instead its 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 had never even considered this before. 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 and what it deemed “taboo” was simply years of social conduct, rules of behaviour ingrained into me.
The thought was exhilarating. This is exactly why I travel, I thought. To change my perspective, to understand my own culture to realize what it really means to be a human being. Nothing does this quite as boldly as India.