dirty chai

Heads up: this is insanely long and overly detailed because I wrote it 1+ weeks ago when I had a few hours and then didn't have solid wifi for a while. So much has happened since this story it feels silly to give it this much attention but it took long enough to write so here it iz!]

Spoiler alert: everything* everyone told me about India was right.

When I was in Gurgaon everything was easy breezy.  Was actually thinking everything everyone told me about India was wrong.  It doesn’t smell, it’s not THAT loud or crowded, I’m smashing fruit left and right and I'm not getting sick. Yeah well, life out in the suburbs is a cake walk.  Home cooked meals every night.  Solo walks through the gated community.  And then, I booked my overnight bus to Rishikesh.  I had heard lovely things about Rishikesh, a more remote town on the Ganga river.  This would be the real start of my backpacking.  And that’s when “holy shit” began.  (Jeremy Lubman and Jarred Mait if you’re reading this I hope it gives you a good laugh.)

Vallika put me in an auto rickshaw to the metro station at around 7:45pm, where I’d ride for about 40 minutes to get to the bus departure point. As soon as I get in the rickshaw it starts pouring. You know how we’ll throw around the term “monsoon” when it rains a lot in New York?  Yeah.  We know nothing about monsoons. The Indian monsoon is a literal force of nature.  It had been five minutes in the rickshaw and when I’m dropped at the metro station, I’m soaking, my backpack is on my back and it's also soaking.  I see the entire entrance to the metro station is flooded.  The inside of the station is a thick brick wall of people as hundreds (yes, it is that crowded) of Delhi-ites coming home from work are waiting inside for the rain to slow.  But I’m outside with no awning over my head and ahead of me lies a flood.  I’m not exactly sure how deep it is, but it's the size of a square New York City block.   Rain is crashing down on me, and I need to make a move into the station like, immediately, but I don’t know how to forge the flood.  I cannot get on a 12 hour bus ride with sopping wet shoes.  I have no more than ten seconds to think about it so I just do it — I take off my favorite sneakers (my oatmeal colored Vans) and clutch them for dear life as I wade through the flood barefoot.  Oh cool — it’s above my ankles.  Me, drenched, wading through a monsoon.

I am the only tourist in sight.  The Delhi-ites crowded at the entrance, mostly men, stare at me as I make my way through the insanely filthy water.  Some are laughing, some have a look of empathy in their eyes.  I get up to the train platform and put my Vans back on, and they're just as drenched as if I'd worn them through the riverflood.  So uncomfortable.  I wait at the crowded train platform and I am just one person dealing with the monsoon.  My own little world, a girl en route to Rishikesh, everyone else with their own missions and monsoon manias.  I think to myself, “Ah. I get it now,” and I literally start laughing to myself.  Like, did that just happen?!  I smile to myself and think, "Okay, yeah. India. Got it.

Turns out that was the easy part. 

I arrive at the bus departure spot at 9PM and it is complete and absolute chaos.  The driver and other people are shouting at each other — but not arguing, just speaking really loudly.  I cannot understand anything going on.  Everyone is speaking Hindi. What are they shouting about?  Is there a problem?  I step onto the bus and my luxury air-conditioned sleeper bed is actually essentially one mattress smaller than a twin bed, shared by me and an Indian woman with two broken ankles, on the upper level of the bus.  Like where you would put luggage on a train.  That part was turned into beds.  Innovative, right?  The sleeping-with-a-stranger thing was weird but I was like hey I did this to myself and her husband was also on the bus which for some reason made me feel safe.  But I wasn't really feeling the the center of gravity sitchu on the upper level.  I’m crunched up against the window of the bus, 15 feet or so above ground.  Lucky for me I was exhausted so I actually passed out within ten seconds of boarding.  But when I woke up over two hours later, we were in the same spot. Everyone still shouting, cars around us on the main road still honking, people still standing outside the bus!  I assume they are waiting to get on but I still can’t be sure exactly what’s going on.  I do not feel endangered — just extremely, extremely out of my element.  (Weisman and Dion if you guys are reading this, just imagine I’m thinking I can handle anything after that overnight bus to Prague where we actually disembarked from the bus and then we — along with our bus — boarded a ferry at 3AM… and then got back on the bus…and we were like isss this supposed to be happening?… but yeah it was more chaotic than that.)  About four hours later, we’re in the mountains. The road is so bumpy, I can’t believe this is a main road because I feel like a pair of sneakers in a washing machine to the point that I am glad the 'sneakers in a washing machine' analogy exists because that is exactly what the eff I feel like.  Still I do not feel endangered necessarily (besides that like, I am nervous the bus might tip over?).  Perhaps the most frustrating thing is the honking.

Let’s take a moment to understand the honking.  In India, every vehicle is honking. All day every day.  It took me a couple of days to get this, but many of the vehicles do not have turning signals and directional rules are rarely followed, so the honking is sort of a language here.  People,  cows, rickshaws, motorbikes, taxis and personal cars are all converging in the streets, so they honk at each other. They honk to say “I’m on your right” or “I’m on your left,” they honk to say “hey I’m here in the neighborhood,” and they honk to say “get the f*%k out of the way!”  

The cows are the best.  The cows just chill in the middle of the street like, “go around me, brah.”

So back to the bus… incessant honking.  For 12 hours.  If you have a moment right now (lolz, I’m sure you don’t but if you want the full effect) open ‘Sounds’ on your iPhone and listen to ‘Horn.’ It’s that sound. Nonstop. Every - EVERY - other vehicle we pass, we honk at.  Every - EVERY - vehicle that passes us honks at us.  At first I kind of drowned it out.  By hour 8 I’m so irritated by this honking that I truly want to cry.  I don’t want to be upset by it, I want to embrace it… and I feel sad and bad for hating it.  But it’s such an irritating sound and it’s so repetitive I just… literally can’t even?  I think back to Delhi when I imagined getting on the bus and meeting lots of backpackers and handsome Indian men (right Jen? ugh) and instead I am too cold from the one-freezing-temperature-fits-all AC vent, crunched up in a ball, bumping around in the middle of the night for hours and hours.  I think a thought to myself that I really, really do not want to think: do I not like the real India?

We stop at a row of stalls on the side of the road serving chai and street food.  It’s about 4am but this rest-stop-like area is filled with Indian locals and bus riders alike.  No white people, though. Still haven’t seen another white person.  No communication about how long we are stopping here.  Do I have time to pee?  And then think to myself, wait… pee where. Side of the road okay cool got it. It’s pitch black.  Are they going to find me to make sure I’m boarded before the bus leaves again? How far until Rishikesh?  I meet four Indian guys outside the bus.  They speak English. They are going to a different stop. One of them buys me a chai. They ask me if I want to smoke.  Smoke what?  Oh, cigarettes. No thanks.  They laugh.

A few hours later I wake, around 7am, to see that there is a huge festival in Rishikesh.  Hundreds of Indians, mostly men, mostly barefoot, are walking on the side of the road.  Many of them walk all the way from their home towns to the temple in Rishikesh, carrying water from the Ganga river. This scene is so foreign to me I can’t even describe.  It is religious, but it is not solemn, and you can tell these people have prepared, they way we would prepare to camp at a festival.  They have props and gear and works of art and are marching along by the hundreds in the rain. 

Crossing a bridge over the Ganga river in the rain. Taken from the bus, approx 7am.

Finally I get off at Rishikesh (the only person to exit here) and get into an auto rickshaw.  It’s still monsooning by the way and at this point I’ve given up on being dry.  About 6 miles through winding backroads in the mountains and then I am dropped at the top of a hill in an area of Rishikesh called Laxman Jhula.  Everything is hazy and wet and the massive mountains in the distance are deep green.  All of the people who have marched from the main road are now here.  8am or so.  Hundreds and hundreds of people in the streets, all moving in the same direction, apparently toward the bridge. Rishikesh has two sides - it is divided by the Ganga river. Driver tells me it’s a five minute walk to my hostel - just go down hill, down the steps, and over the bridge and the hostel will be there.  Okay.  I start walking… through crowds of hundreds of pilgrimage-makers of all ages.  Children and grandparents.  Chanting non stop.  I am li-ter-a-lly the only person not attending/observing this holiday.  Two Indian boys using a giant map as a cape-slash-poncho come up behind me and cover me.  They don’t speak English but we can communicate that they are 18 years old.  They then proceed to cover me the entire way - in the pouring rain - down the hill, down the stone steps, over the bridge. 20 minutes. Their friends behind them are cooing and whistling.  I can’t understand what they’re saying but I know they’re teasing each other and I know they’re kinda making fun of their friends for covering me.  But the boys don’t mind - they tease right back and stick with me. We cross the footbridge with hundreds of people and we can feel it swaying. 

(Taken later this same day, around 11am, from a cafe looking over Laxman Jhula.)

...And then I arrive at my hostel in the heart of Rishikesh, up a side street of the main road, drenched like I just submerged myself in water, with 18 kilos of shit on my back, and oh. my. god. I. am. in. heaven.  An 11 year old boy checks me in (read as: gets bossed around by his older brother to check me in) and immediately the stress of the journey goes away and I dissolve into the rhythm of Rishikesh.  Other backpackers.  Cafes. Yoga. Meditation. 100 degrees.  The fucking Ganga river in all it’s holy rushing glory.  Joints.  Handicraft shops. Monkeys. Cows. Hundreds and hundreds of Indians all here for the pilgrimage to the temple.  Shouting and honking… but almost a peaceful shouting and honking. I shove my backpack in my locker and head to a cafe with my new friend Amy from the hostel and feel instantly (Lizzie and Danielle - instantaneously? what’s the difference anyway?) relaxed. It's a bit of an odd feeling, being in a place where your company has no context for you at all.  But everyone is sitting on cushions on the floor around low tables and I'm into it.  I can just stretch in the middle of the cafe which is great because who doesn’t love a good chai tea and a stretch.

Rishikesh is an incredibly spiritual town.  It’s like Woodstock meets backpacker heaven meets yoga meets religious holy land in India. A valley town in the middle of the most lush green mountains, cafes filled with bongos and guitars and egg shakers, a town fed and watered and ushered through life by the Ganga river. Like where I’m sitting right now on Day 3 writing this:
Here is the pin! (thank you for this idea Lizzie).
The bridge has been packed with people all day every day for the past 3 days. 
Over the past few days I have:
Met the best crew in Rishikesh
Sang songs, played bongos (not good)
Eaten so many delicious meals (bugs crawling all over the table, I try not to think about it)
Practiced yoga (one alignment lesson, one ashtanga class)
Hiked twice  (good hikes)
Put mascara and black eyeliner on Sunnee, one of the Indian dudes who runs the hostel.  He saw me putting it on in the mirror (I went six days without a drop of makeup so give me a break okay?) and wanted some. I told him it was just for girls, he didn’t care.  Not gonna lie it looked really good on him. 
While hiking in Rishikesh...
And I'm getting into that Indian music… woot wooooot!
Mo Ashibi - Jason Bentley Remix

It probably sounds pretty gloomy from what I've described, but Rishikesh is like, holy bongos.

I did some googling.  Turns out I have been over 10,000 miles away from home in past travels. But at my current 7,800 miles from New York, I have never felt further away from home.  I have never been this relaxed.  I have never been so present.  I have never experienced anything like this town or this festival.  I have never felt so much like I didn’t want to leave a place. 

Yesterday at 4pm I spilled chai tea on my t-shirt (which by the way was really effing hot) and just like, didn't care. Wore it on the 9 hour bus to Manali.  Arrived in Manali at 5am and slept in it.  Then wore it all day today and am sleeping in it tonight.  Overshare?

Anyway… what’s dirty chai color with rope laces and NEVER dries? My Vans…
*almost everything.
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