It has been almost two months since I’ve last posted. It has also been two of the best months of my life.
The summer at AIIS came to a close at the end of August. We were busy constantly, working on our final projects and attempting to cram as many experiences as we could into our final weeks: nights of going out, nights of staying in and talking on the rooftop; much last-minute gift shopping for those returning home, solidifying of plans for those staying.
My final project was translating a scene from one of my favorite plays — Sarah Ruhl’s contemporary rewrite of the Greek tragedy Eurydice — a song — More Adventurous by Rilo Kiley — and two poems. I spent a few hours every night of the final two weeks working on these; in the afternoon I would spend hours working with one of my favorite teachers on correcting my mistakes and learning the proper way of saying many of the things that I couldn’t. Two of my friends wrote, shot, and edited an excellent movie called Shaharwali Aasha (City Dreams) for their final project, in which I was the hero, and a lot of time was spent traveling through Jaipur to get the necessary shots for the love song.
After days of constant studying, writing, editing, and living the dream, our program’s end sadly arrived and through tears we assured that the memory of and appreciation for this once-in-a-lifetime experience would not fade.
In the morning, an end; in the evening, an adventure.
Between the summer’s AIIS program and the fall’s SIT program I had a week free. Wanting to save on airfare to the states and take advantage of the opportunity of being in India, I decided to spend the week traveling. My friend Manish had spoken regularly about the beauty of his native state — white marble temples among the snow-capped peaks, waterfall after waterfall next to the stone paths that wind through the mountains. He had invited me to visit here, to meet his family and friends and to see the places to which many Hindus journey yearly. I saw off my American friends in the morning and packed my belongings during the day. We left after dark on an overnight train to Uttarakhand.
Haridwar, Manish’s hometown, is one of the holiest towns for Hindus the world over. Here, on the banks of the Ganges, Hindu bodies are burned and their bones released into the flowing water as special mantras are chanted by the priests. The very poor walk hundreds of kilometers to reach this destination — they collect water in large plastic jugs and send leaf-boats filled with candles and flower petals to safely release their loved ones’ souls back to the great soul, Brahman. Thousands of people crowd the banks of the Ganges nightly.
Manish took me to meet one of his best friends — a Brahmin Panda named Amit.
One of the most fascinating traditions I have hitherto encountered is the practice of keeping sacred Hindu genealogical records. Amit was one such record-keeper (known as a Panda). His office was lined with old wooden cupboards; yellow script above each door labeled the date and author. Manish excused himself to the bathroom, and Amit sifted through some of the books — known as vahis — to show me entries he had recently written of people coming from the States. One matriarch had passed away in Baton Rouge, a different man from California was on his way out via prostate cancer. He then revealed the crown jewel of his family’s work: the vahi belonging to the lineage of Bhagat Singh — one of India’s most famous freedom fighters. Amit spoke little (read: no) English, and every few minutes would have me synopsize the conversation to ensure that my understanding was as complete as my nods suggested. When Manish returned, Amit excitedly had me repeat what I had learned; a geek-out over Bhagat Singh was almost certainly not what he expected from this twenty-year-old with large glasses.
The next day, Manish and I borrowed a motorcycle from one of his childhood friends to aid our journey to Rishikesh, a touristy town twenty kilometers from Haridwar. By my request we took the road through Rajaji National Park, an 800-square-kilometer jungle filled with wild tigers and elephants. The road wound through the trees and at points ran alongside the Ganges. We passed elephants and abandoned temples as the fresh air blew against our faces. As I’ve discovered is common in many parts of India, the road was bisected by a creek. Or what at most non-monsoon times of the year was a creek, but at the present was a small river. A few cars and scooters were lined up on either side of the rushing water; drivers signed their suggestions for wading the rushing waters. A brave pair attempted to cross on their motorcycle, but unsuccessfully chose to move diagonally and ended up in three-foot deep water. Luckily they managed to salvage their motorcycle, which was now stalling due to the intake of water. Manish was not willing to give up, and we reared ahead on the edge of a small waterfall and were only met with a foot of water. His pants and shoes were drenched, however, and halfway to Rishikesh we stopped so he could adjust his dripping clothes.
Manish showed me his favorite areas in Rishikesh — a waterfall and swimming hole ten minutes into the woods, an Angrezi-food restaurant, and a large ashram were Manish led me through all of the avatars of Krishna. We drove home after dark, this time choosing the dry path.
“Rasta band hai. Paidal se jana hai.” (The path is closed. We must go by foot.)
Manish, Amit, and I left Haridwar at 6.00am the following day, headed via local bus to the Himalayan town of Gaurikund. On a normal day, the drive takes approximately twelve hours; Manish made sure to warn me that my butt was going to be sore. He did not, though, mention to me that due to the monsoon rains it would take nearly twice that long.
Five hours into our journey, I awoke from my nap to find the bus vacant, save two old people whom I did not know. The bus was sweltering and I was pouring sweat. I looked out the window to see a line of busses, jeeps, and cars nearly a kilometer long. In the distance the path had been covered by falling rocks and dirt, and large construction equipment was working to clear the obstructions. Crowds of people gathered on either side, cheering the workers on until the path had finally cleared. Traffic slowly moved in one direction over the small stretch until we eventually made it past and were able to once again wind through the mountains.
After this initial stoppage, we were stopped every two hours by similar conditions. The quality of the road deteriorated as we traveled further, and by Hour Eight, the vehicles could no longer make it over the closed portions of road. Police officers stood in the middle of the treacherous stretches, waiting for the intermittent avalanche of rocks and dirt to let up. They blew their whistles and hundreds of people ran from both directions, where they then boarded new buses and continued on their journeys. We reached the halfway point of our journey just after 6.00pm and found a hotel room.
Manish and Amit were content to settle in for the night; my boundless curiosity unsatisfied, I decided to roam the streets of Shrinagar. The town was small, mostly a resting point for travelers, and radiated from a circular park in the middle of the city’s bazaar. I stumbled upon a rally in support of the Jan Lokpal bill, India’s largest anti-corruption measure that has gained a huge amount of momentum this summer after a 12-day hunger fast by Anna Hazare. A middle aged-man with a microphone shouted chants: “Sare sare Anna ka; Pura desh hai Anna ka.” (Everyone is Anna’s; The entire country is Anna’s.). A group of 40 young men on motorcycles road around the town center, chanting in response to the leader’s words. Indians are in an uproar about this bill — throughout the entire trip, I overheard countless conversations on the proposed legislation’s strengths and weaknesses.
We slept in, leaving at just after 10.00am for Gaurikund. This time we boarded a jeep instead of a bus and made it to the small town in good time. Our hotel room there cost only three American dollars. Due to its altitude, Gaurikund has a much cooler climate than anywhere else I’ve visited in India. While Manish and Amit wrapped themselves in layers of thermals, sweaters, and shawls, I wandered in a thin button-up shirt and jeans. Manish told me that I must be very “dense” because I can handle booze and the cold; a sign of “matureness” according to him.
Our final destination of the trip was Kedarnath — the home of one of the holiest temples in all of India. Its fame comes from a story in the Mahabharata, which, in traditional Indian style, is very long and complicated (if interested, read the synopsis of the temple’s significance here). From Gaurikund, the trek to Kedarnath is a nine-mile uphill hike on a winding cobblestone path. Many Hindus in poor health insist on coming to Kedarnath before their death. They journey upward on horses, in baskets that single men carry on their backs, or on man-powered palanquin.
Sprinkled along the path every twenty minutes were small clumps of houses, dhabas, and dukans (small hole-in-the-wall convenience stores selling packaged snack foods). We’d rest there from time to time, refresh with a small cup of chai and Parle-G biscuits; for lunch we stopped for a samosa and Maggi noodles (Indian ramen, usually prepared with vegetables). We encountered natural waterfalls every thirty minutes, and we’d refill our water bottles with the crisp, clean mountain water.
Amit, in his very-late 30s, referred to me only as the “baccha,” or child, and would frequently compliment me on not being a very childlike child. “You’re a clever child, Nicholas,” “You’re a very adult child, Nicholas.” On our ascension, he tried again to reassure me of my good qualities, but I could not understand what he was saying. He is one of India’s many addicts to Dilbag, a nicotine-like substance that is formed into little rocks and carried on the tongue — in Amit’s case, almost constantly. The drug leeches a red liquid and stains permanently the mouth of those who fall victim to its addictive properties. Amit mumbled normally, and when he had this pebbles sitting on his tongue it was practically impossible for me to understand what he told me. After much struggle of him trying to explain the word in simpler terms, I realized that he was trying to tell me that I was good at understanding Hindi.
Nearing the summit, Manish hollered for me to stop; I had grown tired of moving at the slow pace of my seniors and wandered ahead. When Manish reached me, he put his arm around my shoulder and turned me around. There, in the distance, the clouds had finally parted — framed through their ethereal white window were the white-capped Himalayan peaks in the distance. Surrounded by rushing waterfalls, rolling hills covered with evergreens, giant stones scattered around the smaller mountains’ flat tops, the clouds within us also parted. “This kind of happiness rarely comes in life,” Manish spoke softly. We sat on the edge of a cliff watching the Earth as the day faded into dusk.
(Check out my photos from this leg of the journey here.)
My Tummy is Out.
Finally at Kedarnath, we once again found a three-dollar hotel room and settled in for the night. The main purpose of this journey was to do pooja (Hindu worship) at the Shiva temple; we awoke early to beat the crowds. The temple is a beautiful, large marble and stone structure. Inside, a giant gold vessel holds water from the Ganges, slowly dripping it onto the peak of the mountain around which the temple was built. We were instructed by the Brahmin priest, in turn, to rub the stone with ghee (clarified butter), tikka (the colored powder that Hindus put on their forehead after pooja), grains of rice, and water. While he was chanting the necessary mantras, we pressed our foreheads to the stone and circled inside the room three times. Outside, we circled the temple three times, as is convention.
The conditions of the road poor, we were delayed on our return journey and had to spend the night along the path. In Rudripriyag, we checked into our three-dollar hotel and stretched our sore legs. Manish, in his white tank top and yellow briefs, was observing himself in the mirror from every angle he could manage — entertained, I asked him if he was having fun. “No. Mirror time is only fun when tummy isn’t out. And my tummy is out,” he pouted as he patted his belly.
SIT India’s meetup date quickly approaching, I had to break off from Manish and Amit to head back to Haridwar, and then to Delhi. The pair continued to Badrinath, another Hindu pilgrimage site, to which they annually venture. I luckily encountered only two closed areas in the 12-hour journey and safely arrived in Haridwar that evening. After a night of rest at Manish’s mother’s apartment, I left for Delhi in the morning, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the new batch of Angrezi log (white people).