Wednesday, 1 February 2012

(Don't Go Back to) Rishikesh

crowds at the Taj Mahal

The last couple of days have had some of the worst and some of the best parts of my trip so far. Seven hours on the most appalling bus journey of my life, then the rip-roaring relief of getting off and blasting into Delhi's unique brand of insanity, and a trip to Agra (short for aggravation) to see the Taj Mahal. We even saw the elephant.

After a few days in Rishikesh, I was ready to leave. Although it was beautiful, I found the people who tended to go there mildly annoying. Dressing in purple robes, never smiling, and probably looking for a good crystal healer to erase their negative thoughts. One English girl had been robbed, groped, mugged and had her laptop stolen during her five months in India, but was still insistent that security wasn't an issue, and had been to every yoga and meditation class going in Rishikesh to restore her inner calm; given how sharply she banged the keyboard while updating her Facebook status, I thought she could do with asking for her money back. We did doss around the campfire with some very interesting people such as Teddy from Chicago whose amusing descriptions of the goings-on at Varanasi convinced me to go there, or Aussie Tim from Newcastle (NSW) who'd been around India in an auto-rickshaw, but there were also some rum 'uns there. A guy I named Mr India said that he'd done South India. In two weeks. He described it as "disappointing", then proceeded to complain about the quality of chicken he'd been given by the poor waiting staff, and the next day he was describing his experience at the Yoga Education Centre, using the word "energy" more often than I'd consider appropriate in somebody who doesn't work at the local power station. Earlier that day I'd seen an enraged monk in saffron robes punch a cow which tried to nick his dinner - that was probably the selfsame yoga instructor after spending a few hours in Mr India's company.

Buying alcohol in Rishikesh, where alcohol and meat are prohibited, was a clandestine affair. The little man who sold it was nervous, twitchy and hilarious. He asked me who'd told me that he sells beer, then pulled beer out of the various alcoves where it was secreted while furtively watching for the authorities. It did put me off going back to buy more, so when Stavros the Greek offered me a beer, I took it, even though he then charged me 150 rupees for it. They do say to beware Greeks bearing gifts. The next night, he started offering a couple of bottles of whisky around and charging people to drink it, and I decided I wasn't that bothered about having a drink after after all, even if it meant leaving Stavros's party early. We were the most interesting people there anyway.

I probably shouldn't be so judgmental, and God knows what they made of us, but some people try so damn hard to be cliches.

Hey, Rishikesh is the place of good vibes and positive energy, (although we didn't manage to do any yoga). It's where the Beatles went to study with the maharishi, and the sound of sitars can occasionally be heard over the car horns. These things cannot penetrate my shield of tranquility. Much. Maybe I should just get permanently stoned like the staff at the hostel.

Neep Waterfall

Visiting Neep Waterfall helped. Well, until the quarry on the other side of the valley set off about 200 pounds of dynamite. If it wasn't for the chance of shell shock, I'd say more people should go up there to seek inner peace, as it was beautiful. But more people would only spoil it, and since it was only 30 rupees maybe you don't get the same quality of enlightenment as you do if you pay 10,000 rupees to one of the city's many gurus. I meant to ask Mr India about that, but I didn't get chance as he was still sleeping off his hangover when we left.

On the whole, I was happy to leave, but we had to negotiate the bus on our return to Delhi. I had mentioned to Aussie Tim the irony that my cycling trip has so far involved seven ferries, two buses, a couple of wagons and a plane, and he was most amused by the fact that I'd cycled across Iran before I'd ever caught a plane.

The bus journey has this to say for it; it made me appreciate my bicycle so, so much. It was seven hours of pure shite. I get travel sick even on UK journeys, and spending seven hours on an Indian bus being driven by a horn-mad maniac who spent most of the time on the wrong side of the road when he wasn't aiming at every pothole, jerking around every obstacle and hitting the accelerator and the brake so frantically that I felt I'd wandered into the Indian astronaut training programme for dealing with extreme g's and heavy manoeuvring in space, was hellish. The bus was stuffy, hot, and loud, even before we were invaded by a half-dozen hawkers selling popcorn and "Man-e man-e man-e" at the tops of their voices, and the incomprehensible in-bus Indian movie, which, as Jonathan kindly pointed out, had nearly as many car crashes as the road outside the bus. I wanted to kill that driver. I wanted to get the loudest airhorn I could find and blast it next to his lughole for a few hours, or the rest of his life. As payback, I left my bag of sick on the bus for him to collect.

But getting off - that was such a joy. Back into the Delhi traffic. Back onto the bikes! I'd thought about getting him to drop us off early (like, about 40 miles early), but as it was we were on the wrong side of the river and about 10 miles from the hotel. 10 miles of unknown roads, an audience of stary Indians, no real idea of where we were, it was getting dark and we weren't wearing sunglasses.

Bridge over the Yamuna, Delhi

I don't think Jonathan was as pleased as me to get off the bus, but he did say that I looked in my element on the bike. I certainly felt more of a sense of oneness while navigating the traffic and the bridges with one eye on the iPhone in my right hand and another eye on the traffic than I'd felt in any other part of India, even trackstanding up the hills in Rishikesh to show off to the locals. And I enjoyed the bonkersness of it all. We followed Google maps, and as I had it set to Walking, we went along some roads that probably aren't drivable, though you never know in India. Back alleys with washing hanging out, cows and chickens to avoid, kids playing badminton and women chucking water into the gutter. It was very Jackie Chan. You might expect such a poor area to be unwelcoming, but the people looked pleased, or at worst amused and bemused, to see us riding through. We broke out onto the open roads, a seven-lane approach road to the main bridge across the Yamuna. This was where we met Captain Inappropriate Timing on his motorbike, who chose this moment to institute a conversation. I told him that it wasn't the perfect moment, and we touched fists in farewell. I don't think Jonathan even responded, since we had so much traffic to concentrate on. Over the bridge and down to Connaught Place, I wove between the cars, but I had to contain my enthusiasm at being released from the bus, as I was leaving Jonathan behind. Delhi is fabulous to cycle around: flat, with slow-moving traffic and no rules. Like India, just go with the flow and it works. Coming around Connaught Place, we even saw an elephant breasting the traffic on one of the world's busiest roundabouts, which made me stop and whoop and point in delight. While I was stopped, an Indian approached to ask if I needed any help - I told him I'd stopped to see the elephant, and pushed him around to see. He shrugged and turned back - it's probably an everyday thing in Delhi, like seeing a man with his head on fire walking down the road while conversing on his mobile phone, or being overtaken by an auto rickshaw with a couple of pigs laid across the back seats. It topped off a perfectly mad day.

mate, you're on fire!

The next day, more reinforcement of the rightness of cycling. We took a car down to Agra (short for Aggravation) and the Taj Mahal, stopping at yet-more bewildering service stations and firing our tour guide about thirty seconds into his spiel. To be honest, we didn't want a tour guide, and when it turned into a quiz which we refused to participate in, he threw a major huff and asked "Look, do you want a tour guide or not?" - I think he was genuinely surprised when we said "Actually, no". So, with the ten-hour car journey, the appalling crapness of Agra and its touts and filth and atmosphere of grubby desperation, with the crowds and the preposterous security precautions at the entrance (no diaries, no books, no food, no... there was a sign, but I didn't recognise half the things on it, apart from the handguns, which I hadn't intended to bring anyway), with the general air of being trooped in and out like characters in the painting of a Soviet-era factory, and despite the astonishing beauty of the Taj itself, I'd describe the Taj Mahal experience as "disappointing". I'd rather be out on my bike.

But whatever. We saw the elephant.

elephant in Connaught Place, Delhi

Taj Mahal photos on Flickr

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