In Rishikesh in February, it is possible to see your breath in the shivery cold morning, and get bitten by a mosquito in the afternoon. When I first arrived, I wore all of my clothes at once. Yoga pants, then more yoga pants, then sweatpants. Tank top, short sleeved shirt, long sleeved shirt, sweater. Hat. Wool socks. Flip-flops. (That was annoying, the socks/flip flops combination, but shoes always come off when you walk into the yoga hall, so sneakers weren't practical.) In the middle of the day, layers were subtracted, and then as the evening set in, they were piled back on again. In addition, all of us students went into town and bought wool prayer blankets. We used these as shawls to huddle under during chanting and meditation, and also during mealtimes, which were all outside.
Rishikesh is stretched out along both sides of the Ganges, and two pedestrian bridges span the river. (I say pedestrian, but mopeds and even motorcycles also zoom across constantly, honking the whole time.) My first trip into town was to buy that blanket, and I walked in with two other students. We must have had the saucer-eyed look of new arrivals, because the street merchants and beggars worked us hard.
One panhandler had a startling technique: at a spot where the street narrows and rounds a corner, he stepped towards us with a distressing, loud groan. He thrust his can in front of us as we walked by, and then, after we passed, he stepped back and was silent. Now, seriously, I am not belittling the plight of India's many, many impoverished street people. But I walked by this guy almost every day for over a month, and his routine never varied: step forward, belt out freakish moan, step back, wait for next person. With each passing day, I became a little more hardened to the poverty that is everywhere. It's not possible to do otherwise and still function in India. But every day was a blaring megaphone of a reminder that I have everything, EVERYthing. That reminder stuck with me, week after week, and I am grateful for that.
As we crossed the footbridge, we were accosted by beggar children with little bowls of peanuts. They wanted us to buy the nuts to feed the fish in the river. Crazy! Who ever heard of peanut-eating fish? I looked down into the bluish-grey river, and at first I could only see the sunlight glinting off the water's ripples. Then, suddenly, I saw dozens and dozens of large, beige colored fish wriggling just under the surface, going wild to gobble up the peanuts that people were throwing off the bridge. There were many, many of them, a disconcerting jumble of fish wriggling down there in the water like piles of light brown eels (but they weren't eels). Creepy.
After a few days, I guess I started to look more at home in Rishikesh, because the children stopped crowding around asking for money. The guy on the corner stopped approaching me with his tray of sparkly stick-on bindis. I got better at navigating around the constant crowd in front of the restaurant where a blue-painted man--a live man--sits on a pedestal as still as a statue. I'm not sure who he's supposed to represent. Krishna, maybe? To me, he looks like a cross between Shiva and Buddha, which is indeed a strange cross.
In my journal on day one I wrote this: "On the way to afternoon asana class, there was a cow standing sideways across the alley. I ducked past when she turned her head to the side. I wasn't sure whether it was wise to walk around behind her. Are cows, like horses, likely to kick behind them?" The answer is no. Good thing, too! If you couldn't walk around behind a cow, it would be hard to get much of anywhere in Rishikesh. Cows are all over the place, and the streets and alleyways are often narrow. You do want to be careful, though, not to get peed on by the cow while you're walking behind it. You can tell it's about to happen because the cow gives a little twitch of its tail. Tragically, I speak from experience.
Journal entry, day two: "No hot water for a morning shower. So, cold shower. Sinus headache. Will it dissipate? Yesterday our meditation teacher said, 'The only time you know you have a head is when you have a headache.' Hello, head."
After several days, I bought an Indian SIM card for my cell phone. Here's how I did it. I walked down the hill, stopping to say hello to the guy who sells organic snack bars, incense and toilet paper. He dispensed Hindu philosophy and offered me chai for "hospitality." I passed the Half Moon Cafe with its Tibetan prayer flags fluttering on the rooftop deck, and turned left at the German bakery (which does not actually sell any German-style baked goods, but they do have these meatball-sized chocolate cakey things that are addictive.) I continued down the street past a long line of tables and two-wheeled carts with fruit for sale, and chai, and little sugar pastries that look like flattened donut holes. I turned right and headed down the hill, past the moaning man and the wall where the holy men and wanderers lean and smoke hashish and watch the day pass. At the bottom of the hill, I spotted the red Vodaphone banner over the door of a tiny shop. The shop also sells cigarettes, candy, and single-use packages of laundry soap--just enough for one bucket of wash. The shopkeeper was chatting in the shop across the way. He came in as soon as I approached, having to squeeze past me to get behind the counter, as the shop was hardly larger than my closet.
The process of buying a SIM card is elaborately bureaucratic. I would expect no less; this is India! First, I presented my passport. The man photocopied it on the old machine in the back that is, as it turns out, one of the only copy machines in town. He asked me to sign my name on the copy, and he carefully compared that signature to the one on my passport. Then, he did not know how to open my iPhone, and had to go next door for a safety pin, which is the tool that's needed to open the hatch where the SIM card fits. I opened the phone with the borrowed pin and he installed the little chip. Then, because a photograph must be included with the SIM card application, the shopkeeper sent me down the hill a little further to get my picture taken at the music shop.
So, I walked past the restaurant with the blue man, and the crowd of vendors sitting on the ground offering jewelry, bhindis, peacock feather fans, noisemakers, incense, mala beads, bangles, plastic toys, and Spirograph art. Beyond all this, there's a music shop. I told the guy behind the counter that I needed my picture taken, and he invited me to come in to the back of the shop, where a blue backdrop hangs for this purpose. He snapped a goofy picture of me looking shiny and frazzled. While I was waiting for it to be developed, I browsed the CDs, which are arranged on narrow display ledges, floor to ceiling. I bought a yoga meditation CD for 195 rupees, which is less than $2. Listening to it back home, I discovered that it was not such a wise selection: I can hear the man breathing on the recording, and at one point he has a little bit of a nose whistle. Unfortunate. Anyway, a few minutes later, I collected four color ID pictures and I was on my way back up the hill to the Vodaphone shop.
The shopkeeper attached my new photo to the extensive paperwork, and asked me for more information. This included, among many other things, my father's name, my local address (I have no idea whether the Shiva Resort has an actual street address, but "Shiva Resort" seemed to satisfy), and my landline phone number, which is an American number that rings in Saudi Arabia. How is any of this information useful? Then he asked me to sign my name across the application and the photograph. I gave the man my passport to photocopy once again, because he was not happy with the quality of the first copy he made. He compared the two copies, asked me if I didn't agree that the second copy was clearer. Oh, and it was! I paid for the whole deal, and that's all there was to it.