The Journey to Rishikesh

As soon as I left Rishikesh, India, crossing the footbridge across the Ganges one last time in the chill before dawn, my whole experience there began to take on the quality of a dream. Did I really spend six weeks of my life doing nothing but yoga, chanting, meditation, and philosophical study? Did I really make it through yoga teacher training in India by myself without any serious physical or mental breakdowns, without any noteworthy foodborne illnesses, without any moments where I realistically considered packing up and going home? Did I do that? Wow. Yes. I did. And I feel like a different person; I am a different person, even as my mind plays with this feeling that the whole thing was a mirage.

On January 30, I kissed my husband goodbye at the Bahrain International Airport, and felt nervous and a little teary as I boarded the plane for Delhi. I hadn't been away from my family for this long since Michael and I first got married. The India weirdness started as the plane taxied down the dry, manicured runway. The glamorous Indian flight attendant walked the length of the aircraft with a huge smile and four metal spray cans of insecticide, two held aloft in each hand. She sprayed the whole plane as passengers covered their eyes and noses. The smell dissipated after a minute, and I was left with the question of why the plane would be sprayed with insecticide going from a desert location to hot, juicy India? The mystery deepened when I left India, flying from Kolkata to Dubai for a connecting flight. The flight attendants did not spray us with insecticide or anything else at takeoff, though the Kolkata International Airport waiting room was crawling with cockroaches.

I sat on the the aisle. Sitting by the window (mercifully separated from me by an innocuous-looking man in the middle seat) was a young man with a very productive cough. He repeatedly hacked and spit onto the carpet at his feet. The man in the middle seat didn't seem to react at all, and in fact they chatted pleasantly throughout the flight. I had chicken tikka masala and a glass of white wine for dinner on the plane--the last meat or alcohol I would have for nearly six weeks. (I say "nearly" because of that pasta salad with canned tuna that I ate with ecstasy during week six.)

In Delhi, I was met at the airport, as expected, by a representative from the yoga school. The confusion and crowd at the terminal was not as bad as I understand it can sometimes be in India. Nevertheless I was grateful to see a friendly, middle-aged man standing outside the baggage claim doors holding a sign with my name on it. (When I was selecting a yoga teacher training course, this was the very thing that sold me on Rishikesh Yog Peeth. I was talking to a friend who is also doing her yoga teacher training, in the United States. She told me about how she had carefully researched every yoga teacher training course in her area, considering the instructors' philosophy and background, taking classes from each of them to see whether they would be a good fit for her. She asked me, how did you pick Rishikesh Yog Peeth? My answer: they're going to pick me up at the airport!)

The driver put my American-sized suitcase in the back seat, and told me to have a seat up front. I said sure, opened up the right side door, and--oh yeah. The former British colony still drives on the other side! The driver offered a bemused smile as I walked around to the other side of the car and got in. 

Delhi was a jumble of construction, smog, beat-up looking buildings, stray dogs, honking buses and auto-rickshaws. On the drive into town from the airport, we witnessed an auto accident. A car crossed an intersection and bumped into a cement jersey wall that had been set up for construction, but not lit up or marked with any kind of sign.

Despite the crowds, the smog, the rush of people and animals and smells, I immediately felt more relaxed in India than I do in Saudi Arabia. People seemed friendlier, and most were more willing to communicate with me as a person--albeit, a very tall, white, foreign person--than simply as a female and therefore an object to be either ignored (which is considered respectful behavior in Saudi Arabia) or ogled.

I stayed in a hotel overnight in Delhi, and was picked up early the next morning and taken to the train station, where I boarded the Shatabdi Express headed northeast to Haridwar, in the foothills of the Himalayas. On the train, I noticed that people wear anything and everything--it's so bright and funky! On a bench on a train platform, there was an older gentleman with a handlebar mustache wearing a Siberian-style fur fat, a leather jacket, and jeans. Next to him was a young man sitting cross-legged, wearing a vivid red sweater with black epaulets, patch-pocket pants, and sneakers. Two rangy, matted dogs slept against the wall next to the bench. A vendor rolled a paperback book cart down the platform, with English language paperbacks (White Tiger; Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus), wrapped in crinkly plastic. The train car was surprisingly large and comfortable, though it was ancient and grimy--which can be said of almost everything in the country. We were given tea service: sweet packaged British digestive biscuits and tea, which consisted of a battered plastic cup of scalding hot water and a little package with tea bags, sugar, and powdered dairy creamer. This was followed by breakfast. I chose the "veg" option, which was some sort of spicy vegetable patty, peas, and "hand chips," which were flaccid, unsalted french fries. Then we had another tea service, and by this time I had really gotten into the spirit of things, and scarfed down my second set of digestive biscuits. Why don't we have those in the United States? They're positively addictive. 

Once the train left the squalor of Delhi, the countryside opened up and I watched the mist rise from the fields as the sun grew warmer. The air quality improved as we left the urban areas, though it wasn't great even outside of the big cities, because they burn trash everywhere in India. The acrid, throat-constricting smell of burning plastic is ever-present. The railway towns I saw were all dramatically crumbling, and trash blanketed the ground around the tracks at every station stop. Bright laundry was draped over laundry lines and grimy walls, and the contrasts in this gorgeously crumbling country were already starting to melt my heart. What will become of this place?

Three Rishikesh Yog Peeth students were on the Shatabdi Express that morning, and we were met in the Haridwar station parking lot by drivers who would take us the rest of the way to Rishikesh. We milled around the parking lot, within easy striking distance--or perhaps smiting distance--of the giant blue Shiva statue at its center. It was the first of many, many enormous Shiva statues that I would come to know in the Rishikesh area. It's funny how the familiar becomes comfortable, even when the familiar is a gigantic, vividly colored statue of the Hindu god of destruction.

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On the drive from Haridwar to Rishikesh, I got my first glimpse of monkeys on telephone poles, lounging at the side of the road, looking right at me in a most intelligent, disconcerting way. I also saw the first of many, many cows meandering along the road, snorfling and chewing on scraps, trash, whatever. We dodged pedestrians, rickshaws, dogs, mini-cabs, elaborately decorated cargo trucks, and wooden carts pulled by people. We drove on a dangerously narrow, windy road up and over a mountain, past signs saying "Watch for Elephants," and into the next valley, where Rishikesh embraces both sides of the holy Ganges River.

The cars pulled up to the place where all of us Rishikesh Yog Peeth students were staying: The Shiva Resort. Indeed.

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With my freshly laundered western sensibilities, I looked around and braced myself. The dining hut on the roof of the kitchen building was completely charming and the garden was pretty. However, the residential buildings, two stories overlooking the garden, looked like they had seen better days. And when I was shown my room, my first thought was, can I really live here for six weeks? Will I be able to sleep at night? The bathroom paint was peeling, and the showerhead shot water across the room (there was no shower enclosure). The sink had only a cold water tap, the toilet leaked and one of the window panes was missing, replaced by a piece of cardboard that flapped around when the wind blew. The bedroom sported a big burn mark on the wall, along with a partially charred bedside table (an unfortunate mishap with a candle?) The bed was a simple platform cushioned with a piece of foam and made up with a sheet of questionable vintage and a blanket that smelled like a damp basement. The window curtains were stiff with age and dust.

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I put down my luggage, opened up the windows to air the place out, and wrote out a list to make myself feel better: bathroom cleaner. Scrub sponge. New sheets. A cloth to cover the charred tabletop. Looking back, I have to laugh. My desperate attempts at sanitary living seemed absurd to me, really, within the first week. After a couple of days, I was in bed and sound asleep by 9:30 every night. I could not have cared less about the stain on the wall, the unattractive bedside table. The bathroom paint more or less stayed put, and the floor could be kept reasonably clean with a few swipes of soap every few days. Or, maybe not, but a shiny clean bathroom became less of a priority. It's not that I descended into sloth and filth. (I don't think....) Instead, I started noticing that the view out the back window included a pretty field and sometimes a horse. When there was hot water, the shower felt amazing, AMAZING! The bed was actually pretty comfortable, and the blanket was nice and warm. We were all fed and housed and safe, and that was enough. It was more than enough. It felt incredible. It felt like home.

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Next: Six Weeks of yoga teacher training, with some river rafting and a frenzied Hindu festival thrown in.