Sketches from India: Part I — Delhi, Amritsar, Dharamshala, Rishikech

Day 1. 

Arrival in Delhi. The sweltering, relentless, scornful heat envelops us. The streets are full of skinny, dark men pulling carts piled with sacks, honking horns on their rickshaws, sprawled out taking naps on the ground under trees. The transition from life in the occidental world, where traffic bears some resemblance of order and splintering, bent electric poles would be considered a public safety hazard, to a city like Delhi is drastic and unsettling. There is filth piled up everywhere; tiny stores lined up one after another stock second-hand car doors, trinkets, shoes. Everyone in the city seems to be loading up carts, driving, or watching the traffic and passersby like us. There are just so many, many people — filling bus after bus, entire families on rickshaws and motorbikes.

Fatigued, thirsty, and hot, we climb the steps into a red-stoned mosque. I walk across the sunny plaza in a kimono-like robe which they have given me so I can enter decently. The Indians have big, curious eyes and a smile upon exchanging words with you. There are sickly dogs lying in the streets, goats and pigs and cows. Women are the most colorful creatures among the grime, clothed from shoulder to toe in bright garments and with sacks on their heads, clutching tiny, wide-eyed children.

Air conditioning is pure luxury, insurmountable pleasure from the boiling heat. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this hot, not anywhere, not during any summer. I’m afraid to touch anything, to go into bathrooms, to step into any toxic puddle. It’s the culture shock of arrival day, and Delhi, a city of slums, makes it almost unbearable.

At the train station, old, bearded men with orange robes, who look like monks but who are really social outcasts, sadhus, sit chatting intensely on blankets. A man sweeping the floor with a broom made of twigs picks up the pile of trash with his bare hands and tosses bits of it into the trash can.

Day 2.

Amritsar is another big city, 5 hours from Delhi. Its highlight is the Golden Temple, a massive white structure of marble with a large pool in the center where gigantic goldfish swim about. The Temple is bustling with Hindu families, men and women, turbaned Sikhs, a handful of foreigners. The marble floor scorches our bare feet; we walk carefully under the shaded interior where people sit around, nap, or request photos with us. A traditional group begins to play a soothing, religious music on the Indian violin, sitars, and drums.

I have never been inside a Hindu temple before. The women kneel and bow gracefully, reverently, with their heads touching the carpeted floor, in fluid movements which they seem to have spent a lifetime repeating.

In late afternoon we approach the Indian-Pakistani border to watch the changing of the guards. A massive crowd anxiously waits for the soldiers to open the gates. After women, children, and tourists go through, the men surge through their gate in a frantic race in which many sandals and shoes are lost. The ceremony is like a football game rally plus Indian dance party. Both the Indian and Pakistani soldiers parade down towards the border separating the two arenas, lifting their legs in dramatic high kicks and looking like contestants in a speedwalking competition. The atmosphere is fun, competitive, like in some kind of sporting event.

Day 3.

On the road to Dharamshala. Indian breakfast is delicious after hours of driving. Under the shade of a small food stand by the road, with the heat already bearing down on us, we eat dosas, delicious bread filled with onions and potatoes, and drink masala tea.

McLeodGanj is a touristy village at the skirt of the Himalayan mountains. The air is wonderfully cool, at an altitude of 1200 meters, and the streets are filled with shop after shop where we buy pants, bags, scarves, gifts. The mixture of Indians and Tibetans is interesting; Buddhist monks wander the streets alongside Indian families who are vacationing. There is a tranquil atmosphere which always exists in a place nestled in the valley of mountains, even though it is disrupted often by incessant car horns.

Day 4.

The shopping expedition continues, after climbing up to get a glimpse of the not-so spectacular waterfall where crowds of people are splashing around. It’s the weekend and everybody has come to cool off. This is a consumer’s paradise – everything you can possibly buy, at dirt cheap prices, handmade crafts, journals, bracelets, stickers, a world of knick-knacks.

We have lunch in a bright restaurant with floor cushions for seating and windows overlooking the street. I relish the food in this country – the creamy, tangy sauces with paneer, which is like a mixture of cheese and tofu, the biryani (rice) with vegetables and cumin seeds, buttered naan and the dosas filled with potatoes, the banana lassis which are a liquid, refreshing yogurt. Everything is so good, so vividly flavorful, spicy, sweet, pungent.

The temple and home of the Dalai Lama is found here, a simple and clean structure which doesn’t seem like it would house one of the most important spiritual leaders in the world. But there is something pure and humble about it which affects the soul when you walk around the spinning mantras, when you look out to behold the Himalayas in the distance.

In both Western and Eastern religions, one has to take his shoes off to walk on holy ground, one has to go barefoot in a sacred temple or any place close to the divine. The monks which pass by are so calm, they don’t even seem to notice anyone around them. Some of them offer their prayers, kneeling and lying down in a series of salutations on mats. I go around turning the mantra wheels, not knowing what they mean, but hoping they will instill some kind of new energy in me.

Day 5.

We depart for Rishikech, an entire day of traveling in the car. Heat, curves, traffic, trucks, honking horns, pitstops for cigarettes, water, and snacks. I finish an entire book on yogic respiration within the 13 hours we spend driving. We buy sweets and spicy potato chips.

Prem, our taxi-driver and guide, grows on us. He has the skills of a Formula-1 driver, a bushy black moustache, and a humble gait. He likes to laugh at our dumb jokes and makes some pretty good ones himself. He seems sincere, good, with the calmness and directness that characterize the Indians, and with the patience to idle around and deal with Spanish tourists. He has 3 children, a wife, and a dog named Sylvia whom he loves, and seems to have traversed all of India. We’ve taken to calling him Premito, and he appears everywhere unexpectedly. He watches us spend mounds of money on stupid things which are overpriced, and has lunch and dinner with us. I think he likes us.

Arriving at Rishikech is a nightmare. We cross the bridge with our backpacks, exhausted, sweating bullets in the disgusting humidity, getting lost in a city stinking of excrement and filled with homeless men and women sleeping on the street, and cows meandering everywhere. After many twists and turns, we finally arrive at our hotel, covered in sweat, horrified. And Victor had said this was the cleanest city he’d seen in India. I guess times have changed.

Day 6.

A 7:30 morning yoga class with a world-class teacher. We do things I’ve never done in any other class I’ve had, like singing mantras and being corrected to perfection. His voice is unlike any other — powerful, graceful, melodic, clear, slowly diminishing like the echo of a Tibetan singing bowl. His presence is incredible — humble as well as kind, with a smile and a thumbs-up for encouragement. The poses must be perfect; I strain to make them perfect. And yet there is room for mistakes, for unevenly-bending wrists and sore shoulders. I am filled with a sense of wonder as he chants mantras during the relaxation. At the end of class he tells us it is a special day because of the full moon, when energies are strongest and the tide is high.

Through impossible traffic we make our way to the train station to buy tickets. It’s an unbelievable sight — thousands of people crowding the building, sleeping on the ground, waiting in line, children begging for money, for lollipops.

Rishikech is a city divided by a bridge. After heavy rain everything has such vivid colors, and there is a wonderful boisterous-ness to its streets. The sadhus sit on benches begging for change. Boys in orange t-shirts roam around in troops, eyeing us up. At dusk, we attend a ceremony dedicated to Shiva, barefoot on a strip of bridge looking out ono a group of priests who sing prayers, at women who set candles afloat onto the Ganges. The river is wide, with a powerful current and visible whirlpools. On television I’d always marveled at the mightiness of the Ganges and the steps which led righ into its waters, where women washed their clothing and children swam. Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m in India.

Day 7.

Rishikech in the rain. We are caught in the downpour while browsing the bookstores, the markets selling endless trinkets. Under tarps against a small crowd of Indian families, the water rushes downhill over our sandals, taking with it the grime and bits of trash littering the streets. The river and the bridge over it fog up; a mist blankets the other side of the city, across the Ganges whose waters get murkier with the monsoon.

There is something infinitely slow, peaceful, natural about this city. It seems like a city emblematic of India, or whatever I ever understood to be India. Children wander around admidst the cows and goats. Foreign yoga disciples mix with the rest of the crowd who are selling merchandise, sitting in groups watching passersby, carrying goods.

As we look out onto the Ganges at evening time we spot Prem sitting cross-legged facing the water. He says he’s praying. We sit with him by the Ganges as the cool night breezes wash over the heat and sweat of our bodies. He tells us stories of nightmare tourists, and when I ask if he likes his job, he shrugs. We figure it’s not the best job in the world driving around strangers for weeks at a time, but there are worse. He talks about the caste system, marriage, his children. There are always moments like this on every trip, when a local speaks, tells stories, and one is mesmerized, one becomes a student in that foreign place.

Day 8.

The road from Rishikech to Jaipur is long, filled with near-accidents, multitudes of trucks (which are, by the way, all happily decorated as if they were circus vehicles), blinding headlights by nighttime, exhaustion. India is such an incredibly large country; the distances are tiring.

There are always small towns on the way, erected on dirt, with stands selling soda, chips, sweets, fruit. And everywhere, curious eyes peer into our car. If we buy something, entire groups of young men swarm towards us, smiling, staring, wanting to shake our hands or take a picture. The Indians have stern faces from a distance, but once constact is made, their smiles are generous, especially from the children and young people. They are always ready to greet you, shake your hand, follow you, ask you where you’re from. Even with so little they seem content, they like seeing tourists, they like having their photo taken with us.

When we arrive in Jaipur, the monsoon has also arrived. Entire streets flooded with water, trash floating, groups of boys wading through the rain laughing, watching as cars splash huge waves as they attempt to pass.

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