Tag Archives: pilgrimage

Classic India: Crossing the Ganges at 5 am

A lot of hilarious and crazy events took place during Kate and I’s week in Rishikesh. We took sitar lessons, I got stopped for a record number of photos with locals, the Ganges flooded (again), and we saw a man slap a cow in the face for eating his chapati. We adopted a dog for a few days with a local shop owner who named it Joy, we made friends with the man we bought water from every day to the point where when we left, he felt so sad he demanded a photo shoot and gave us free Oreos, and once again we spent way too much time drinking chai and talking about things decidedly, un-Indian.

But by far the most undeniably insane and memorable story comes from our first morning in Rishikesh, or rather, our journey there from the train station of Haridwar, when the chain of events that took place was so increasingly unbelievable and stressful the only possible time we could top it was the day Kate got bit by a dog in Jaisalmer and the resulting hospital visits and Googling of “rabies” made for one hell of a four day stay. But we’re not talking about Jaisalmer, we’re talking about Rishikesh. But to get to Rishikesh, we must first journey backward to Varanasi, where Kate and I booked an “overnight” train ride that would take us about 25 hours, in second class sleeper, to the Himalayas we so longed to gaze upon.

So, with our packs stored under our slatted bunks, we happily ate Oreos (the official snack of Kate and Erin in India) and listened to the hustle and bustle of the train car, engaging our bunk mates in talks of arranged marriages and saris and mendhi until they hopped off the train at their stop. New bunk mates joined us, angry, old, man bunk mates, and so Kate and I decided to take turns sleeping so that one of us could alert the other when our trained pulled into the station. Because here’s the thing about Indian trains- they don’t announce what the next stop is. No one tells you when to get off. And 98% of the time there’s not even any labeled signs in the train stations to tell you where you are. This meant Kate and I were (and now that I think back on this the mental image and what the Indian people must have been thinking cracks me up) jumping off the train at every. single. stop., frantically looking around for any sign of where we were, and, if we could not find it, literally just grabbing the closest person and asking, wide eyed, “IS THIS HARIDWAR?! HARIDWAR!?” Most of the time the answer was a resounding, “I don’t speak English”, but after awhile someone would say, “No, it is not,” and we would jump back on the (sometimes already pulling out of the station) train car to wait for the next stop. Cut us some slack, this was our first overnight train ride.

Cut to 3 am. It is my turn to sleep, and I am suddenly awoken by an extremely frantic Kate. “We’re here! Get your stuff, WE GOTTA GO!” So, I throw my backpack on, grab my day pack, pull the iPad out from the thin pillow I’d been hiding it under, and we attempt, unsuccessfully to disembark. Indian men are standing around, drinking chai, not moving from the narrow aisles we need to exit from. We start to ask nicely, then ask sternly, then, as we feel the train start to move again, we start to push. We are screaming, “Move, move, God, how rude!” as we elbow our way off the moving train and into the Haridwar train station.

Another thing about Indian train stations and, really, just India in general: people will sleep anywhere. We were stepping over and around families, all sleeping on the floor of the train station at 3 am, trying to get to the taxi stand. This took about three times as long as it should because when you have a backpack strapped to your back, and a daypack strapped to your front, and are clutching an iPad like an idiot in a third world country, you have a lot of people coming up to you asking if you need a ride, and a lot of people grabbing at you for what seems like inexplicable reasons until you notice the Apple product in your right hand. I quickly stuffed my iPad into my day pack, and we booked it out of there.

We made it off the train, at 3 am, into a strange town, full of people trying to swindle us, and we needed to get 25 miles to Rishikesh by tuk tuk or cab. It seemed like all we needed was to find a decently priced tuk tuk and we’d be home free…and then it started to pour down rain. We argued with a few tuk tuk drivers over what the price should be to Rishikesh, but after a few minutes of standing in the rain we relented and agreed to pay 800 rupees to get to our accommodation, The Green Hotel. So we climbed into the tuk tuk of a seemingly friendly 30-something Pakistani man (read: seemingly), and took off for Rishikesh.

The rain pounded down on the tuk tuk and we passed over bridges, through little towns and villages, and as we drove, we noticed hordes of people in orange shirts, walking along the roads, carrying buckets of milk and river water, flower wreaths, and incense sticks, now put out when the skies opened up to soak us to our bones. “Bolba, Bolba, Bolba,” they chanted. And Kate and I, confused, watched them fade behind us in the distance, but more would always be found walking the roads, barefoot and clad in orange, toward the rushing Ganges.

Our tuk tuk came to a stop. “I can take you no further,” our driver said, “the roads are flooded. Get out here and walk ten minutes that way, then you will be at your hotel”. We looked at each other, wide eyed. It was pouring rain, and we knew we were still in Haridwar. We weren’t even close to our hotel, and this man wanted us to get out and walk…where?

“No,” we blatantly refused, “You have to take us further. The roads aren’t flooded.”

“I cannot,” he explained, “but I will take your 800 rupees now.”

It was moments like this I was glad I had Kate as my travel buddy. “No way are we paying you 800 rupees to get dropped in the rain, man. Take us further or we aren’t paying you.”

“I canno-“, he couldn’t even finish before we watched two tuk tuks and a rickety old car speed past us on the road.

“Clearly, you can,” Kate said, and as we watched his face fall, we felt the tuk tuk rev its engine and start back up. We were back on the road, passing more pilgrims in orange, as rain continued to pelt us mercilessly.

About ten minutes later at the edge of Haridwar we came to another stop. “I can take you no further, the roads are flooded,” and this time he meant business. He hopped out of the tuk tuk, grabbed our packs, and threw them out of the tuk tuk and onto the wet, rapidly flooding ground. “Okay, well you’re high if you think we’re paying you 800 rupees,” Kate said, shoving 300 rupees at him.

Furious, the man demanded the price we set. Kate refused to pay, and as I watched them argue it occurred to me I should probably grab the rest of our stuff out of the tuk tuk, as I watched the man’s face grow red with anger. “You said 800 rupees! We agreed!” he was yelling. “I agreed I’d pay you 800 rupees to take us to our hotel. You are dropping us in the middle of nowhere in the rain. You’re lucky I gave you 300,” was Kate’s decidedly awesome response. With both of our 60 L backpacks on me, I handed her my day pack. Then she looked at me and just said, “Run.”

So, with our packs hanging off my weary shoulders and our day packs soaking through with water to destroy any and all electronics, we took off running (well, I was more waddling than anything) as the man yelled at us to come back. But we didn’t even look back, and instead, we disappeared into a huge crowd of orange pilgrims, our blue and grey backpacks the only things differentiating us from the crowd. And just like that, we were free, lost, and wetter than ever.

With absolutely no idea where we were, at 4 am, we began asking people how to get to Rishikesh, how to get to the Green Hotel, how to get some place dry. No one spoke English, and instead, they would grab our arms and lead us forward, chanting “Bolba, Bolba!” until we shook ourselves loose to ask another stranger. Finally, after about half an hour of walking in the rain we found a yoga studio with a man standing outside, and we rushed up to him, begging for help. He let us use his bathroom, dry off with some old rags, and get our rain jackets out to wrap around our day packs. Then, he pointed across the Ganges. “You cross that bridge, you’ll be in Rishikesh.”

Let’s just talk about this bridge: it was small, rickety, swaying in the wind, and absolutely every inch of it was covered in pilgrims. It was a swinging, orange bridge over the massive, rushing, Ganges, which poured at a hundred miles an hour downward from the Himalayas as rain added to it’s mighty flow. We were terrified. It was 4 in the morning. We were wet, cold, and in the middle of the Durga festival. We had no choice. The man told us unless we were going to pay him, we had to go.

So we went. And walked with the pilgrims, chanting Bolba, trying to make light of the day’s events, across the bridge, swinging and swaying and being pushed and prodded and pulled until we reached the other side. The other side, it turns out, was full of cows.

I mean at least fifty cows in a quarter mile radius. All of them horned, and stressed out, and running us into corners. It was still raining, we were still lost, and the sound of “Bolba!” was still ringing in our ears. We asked a police officer where to go and he pointed up a hill. So we walked up the hill only to find a dead end and no Green Hotel. We asked an old man where to go and he pointed left, so we went left, only to find another dead end and no Green Hotel, only more pilgrims, and more cows. We must have looked desperate, because a young man came up to us with his wife and asked if we were okay. We were absolutely not okay, we told him, and we needed to get to the Green Hotel, or be sacrificed to the Ganges, whichever was easier.

The Green Hotel? That was his cousins place! He would take us there right away. And in a moment of weakness, Kate and I trusted yet another stranger to get us there safely. And, in a moment of rare fortune, he and his wife took us to an alley way, and said, at the end of this street, you will be there.

We walked, expecting another dead end, but found, instead, The Green Hotel.

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