Tales from Abroad
Every time I’ve gone back home to India in the summer, I’ve been a little troubled by my sheltered urban existence as a resident of Mumbai, one of India’s largest metropolises. This summer of 2017, I wanted to do something a little different. So I packed the largest backpack I could find, just enough money to last me about three weeks, and took off for the (until then) alien North of the country that I call home.
I travelled alone, taking buses and trains, hitching rides and renting cars, meeting people and making plans as I went along. In the process, I became acquainted with more dialects of Hindi than I knew existed, had the best home cooked Indian food I’ve ever tasted, meditated by the banks of the Ganges, saw a couple of tigers in the wild, tried to break up a drunken street fight, and almost got caught in a landslide. Described below are some of the places I visited. These are well off the beaten tourist trail, and should probably not be on your itinerary if you’re visiting India for the first time. But if you’re feeling more adventurous than is probably healthy for you, then read on:
A small town on the foothills of the Himalayas and the banks of the Ganges, Rishikesh is often called the "Yoga Capital of the World" for the masses of ashrams and yogis one finds. The fast flowing Ganges, the surrounding forested hills, and the warm discipline of the town’s inhabitants create an atmosphere conducive to meditation and mind expansion.
My bus pulled in to Rishikesh on a warm and clear July morning. The first thing I noticed was how fresh the air was. This was my first stop since leaving the polluted haze of New Delhi, and the crisp mountain air jolted me with energy after an agonizing twelve hour bus ride. The next thing I noticed was how welcoming everyone was. I found out that no one in Rishikesh turns down a traveler looking for food, and most people expect repayment only in gratitude. I later found out that this is due to an ancient Hindu practice, prevalent throughout Rishikesh, known as "atithi devo bhav" which roughly translates to "a guest is equivalent to god."
I spent most of the three days I was in Rishikesh hearing about, reading about, and practicing meditation, and I discovered how easy mindfulness is to cultivate, and how difficult it is to master. I even found a favorite meditation spot — on a small ledge by the banks of the Ganges, where I could hear the temple bells and the whistling wind in the distance, and feel the gentle splash of water on my feet.
Kasol, Kheerganga, and Tosh
Getting to Kasol, especially in the monsoon month of July, is an absolute nightmare. Kasol, Kheerganga, and Tosh are amongst a handful of tiny villages high up in the Himalayas, that are famous for some beautiful treks. There are no flights. There are no trains. The only way to get to Kasol is by road — taking the long winded, mountainous, and poorly maintained Shimla Highway. In the monsoon, this highway is notorious for the frequent landslides.
My bus was about 30 miles away when the heaviest landslide of the season hit Mandi, washing away two tourist buses and killing fifty people. They had not finished cleaning up Mandi when my bus passed it later in the day, and when I looked out of the window, I saw two buses that looked just like mine, overturned at the bottom of the ravine. My mood in Kasol was subdued. My original plan was to complete the famous Kasol-Kheerganga trek, a two day uphill climb crossing forests, rivulets and peaks. However, conquering the mountainside like didn’t seem all that exciting (or safe) anymore.
Instead, on a friend’s advice, I took a cab to the nearby Tosh — a place so out of the way that news of the landslide hadn’t spread yet. I found accommodation at the coolest guest house I’ve ever visited, the Pink Floyd Cafe (their bar even served a drink called Comfortably Numb) and spent the next two days exploring the village, and meeting locals and other travelers.
I drove down to this quaint town in the Northwestern desert state of Rajasthan for the adjoining Sariska National Park, the nearby Bhangarh Fort, and the peacocks. There are peacocks everywhere. Approaching the hotel, I couldn’t drive more than a couple of thousand feet without slowing down to let a bunch of peacocks pass.
The National Park itself is one of India’s tiger reserves, with 18 adult Royal Bengal Tigers. The tigers are especially difficult to spot in monsoon because they tend to venture deep into the forest, and the increased foliage due to the rains doesn’t help either. My Safari got very lucky, our tracker was able to retrace the steps of a herd of retreating Sambar Deer, and we caught a male Tiger stealthily tracking his prey cross our path.
BuzzFeed and ScoopWhoop have given Bhangarh Fort a reputation for being a haunted fort. It always comes up in those "most haunted places in India" lists, and has thus attracted a generation of millennial spook seekers, myself included. The Fort is built into the side of a hill, think smaller version of Gondor from Lord of the Rings. It was tall and grand, but the steps were dangerously steep and the place felt older than death itself. If you can get to the top, however, you get these amazing vistas of the Rajasthani countryside, with its hills and plateaus, as the fort spreads itself in jagged lines ahead of you.