Rishikesh, or Laxmanjulah is immediately easy on the eyes. Rishikesh proper sits at the mouth of the Ganges as it emerges from canyons deep within the Himalayas, and Laxmanjulah, a small neighborhood north of the city center popular with backpackers, is a few miles upstream at a beautiful river bend between two steep hill faces. The center point of the neighborhood is the Laxmanjulah bridge stretching across the Ganges where it is met by several towering Hindu temples and shrines. Rishikesh’s claim to fame is being the Yoga capitol of the world, a place where people align their physical and mental spirituality. I understand the pull of it for people, although I gotta say it doesn’t really do it for me.
I spent my first evening in Laxmanjulah walking around the neighborhood exploring, and then grabbed dinner with a young man from Delhi, Sahil, who I’d met while haggling for a pair of pants.
The next day I rented a motorcycle to ride up the road that follows the Ganges River Canyon north into the mountains. The owner of the hostel where I was staying gave me a ridiculous look when I explained what I wanted to do. I got the impression that I was the only one who’d ever had that idea. So I indulged myself, rented a motorcycle, and simply drove upstream.
I can confidently say that those winding canyon roads were the first time in my life that I’d driven a road that needs all of my attention, unconditionally, all of the time. That’s not to say that I’m an otherwise bad driver, but I will admit that I take advantage of roads I’m familiar with, or roads that I can quickly gauge as being simple, in order to let my eyes wander over the sights. Again, not that I’m a bad or distracted driver, but I am no doubt curious as to everything going on around me when I drive somewhere/anywhere. I just like to let my eyes wander…..sometimes I might be a bad driver.
These roads were all at once narrow, uneven, shoddily paved, filled with obstacles (cows, rocks, gravel, even boulders), left-side driving, fast-paced, with no guard rails protecting from steep cliffside drops. It was seven hours of exhausting riding through conditions I’ve never seen on a road. It was also seven hours of some of the most breathtaking scenery I’ve seen… atleast when I had time or space- microseconds even- on the road to process it. I made mental notes of how far I was going (my bike had a broken gas gauge and odometer) by keeping track of my speed and elapsed time. I also made note of any petrol stations I passed. Turned out there weren’t any.
I took the bike as deep into the canyons as I felt I could on one tank knowing I’d have to get back to Rishikesh to fill up, and did a mostly good job, running out of gas only 15km from the town. I’ve since learned from Iraq that running out of gas is not as harrowing an affair as it can be in America. In a lot of developing nations people are more than used to running out of gas or helping out others who have, everyone used to the prospect that the next petrol station is out of a tank of gas’ reach any ways.
Amanda and I met up the next day after her week-long Ashram yoga retreat had ended, and I was able to meet a lot of her fellow Ashram retreat friends; from all over the world and very interesting. The first thing we did was go on a short hike to a hidden waterfall, one of her Ashram’s favorite meditation spots.
Next on our list was a white water rafting trip down the Ganges River. We signed up for a 16 km trip that was barely an hour and a half with stops. The Ganges’ power and speed was deceptive, especially after having tried to gauge it on my motorcycle ride the day before. The rapids were equally misleading. From the approach most looked little bigger than the San Juan rapids that I was familiar with on the American River in Sacramento, California. There was little comparison in reality, the rapids of the Ganges nearly flipping, and several times easily spinning our massive 18 ft raft like a rubber ducky in a bath tub.
When the flow was easy and slow I hopped out of the raft to swim (with my guide’s permission) and even then I could feel the mighty tug of the river, nipping at my toes to pull me under and yanking me forward trying to distance me from the raft. At several spots it took whatever skill I had left from being a competitive swimmer just to pull myself back into a reasonable distance from the raft.
The following day, our last in Rishikesh, Amanda and I did a drop in yoga class. I enjoy Yoga, and have incorporated some positions into my personal stretching routine. Unfortunately however, I hadn’t actually done a full Yoga session since college. And I hadn’t even stretched since leaving Iraq a few weeks prior. So I was already stiff. In addition, the last two days had seen my do a passive workout of motorcycle riding for seven hours (where your body is essentially flexed and rigid the entire time) to the active workout of paddling and swimming in the Ganges River the day prior.
I figured that if I was in Rishikesh, the self-proclaimed Yoga capitol of the world, I had to at least do one drop in session. I just hadn’t considered that I’d spent the last few days and weeks setting myself up to be the most incompetent-looking Yoga failure ever.
The class started off innocuously enough with some simple poses, but increased in intensity far too quickly. Within five minutes we launched into a quick routine of poses. Not even five minutes in and I was the token white boy in the back grunting and struggling as his stiff body betrayed all efforts. I just imagined my cobra pose looking like a lifeless plank, my lotus a wilting flower, and my tiger pose a drunk hyena. The instructor briefly tried to help me and then let me be when I abandoned the routine for ten minutes to do my stretching routine.
After those ten minutes I tried again, with no improvement. I felt like a sumo wrestler trying to dance the nutcracker, grunting and sweating again with every limb pathetically positioned half way to where it was supposed to be. At about 25 minutes in to the routine the instructor came back to me (after ignoring me for the past ten minutes, which is the worst, because when you’re the one behind and you’re receiving no input it’s obvious you’ve been given up on) and politely enough told me that he couldn’t have me in his class. After asking for clarification just to make sure he was saying what I thought he wanted to say, I was getting kicked out of class. It was a new personal record for me, getting kicked out of a workout in under half an hour.
We left Rishikesh that afternoon, and both of us were more than ready to leave. Day by day the town had become more congested with tourist traffic and was slowly becoming unbearable as a result, denting the town’s charm. The day prior I’d been sitting in a cafe overlooking the Ganges River and ran into a girl I’d met at a hostel in Delhi. I asked where she’d been since and what she thought of Rishikesh. Her response; the town was “trying too hard”. I don’t think she could’ve summarized it any better. Rishikesh and Laxmanjulah, all of their merits aside, fell short of what it could have been, or maybe what it was. Really for no other reason that there were too many people in too small an area. From photos, Rishikesh and Laxmanjulah exude small town charm, in person it has too much hassle and hustle.
The town was a hippie mecca, (because of its association with the Beatles and the Maharishi), overcrowded with people looking for something within or outside of themselves, or trying to exude something. For every middle of the road traveler that I met like myself the feeling about Rishikesh was almost unanimous; that the experience was diluted at best or completely cliched at worst with too many people doing the same thing while seemingly trying to break away from it all.
But then again, maybe that’s the community that everyone in Rishikesh was hoping to find. Maybe the counter-culture-meets-yoga escapism is entirely and only what the draw really is. I was certainly approaching it as too much of an outsider, unable to fit in or understand hippie-yoga-cleanse culture, and I guess the pull didn’t really work on me.