Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Haridwar: Sacred Rivers, Baggage Check Annoyance



I had to go down the hill again. I had a train booked to Delhi, leaving from Haridwar. I'd planned to spend at least a day checking out Haridwar and the ghats, of course - since shouldn't everyone who comes to India see the ghats, isn't that entirely essential? But it looked like a non-rainy day was dawning in Mussoorie, and the air was crisp and clean, I had a plate of cheese toast - well, it all seemed very unfortunate. I arranged a taxi for 10:30 anyhow. And down the mountain we went.

Getting to Mussorie by car - the only way to get there - is never fun. I may submit that going down is worse since 1. you do pick up some speed and 2. all the hair-pin turns are done at a good 45 miles an hour give-or-take. At least there's little traffic. Some local wit has put up signs ruminating on the splendour of nature every half-mile or so along the route.

Haridwar is probably the most sacred city on the Ganges, though it recieves less visitors then Varanasi or Rishikesh. This is the point where the waters that flow down from the Himalaya meet the plains proper, and as such, it's an especially venerated spot. This also means the water is slightly cleaner then it is downstream, which is good to know if you are crazy enough to consider taking a dip. Hint: I wouldn't do it unless you are trying really hard to start an exhaustive tropical microbe collection.

It's considered one of the seven most sacred cities in India: the legends say that it was one of the spots where ambit, the elixir of life, was spilt from Garuda's pitcher. In Sanskrit, "Haridwar" is translated as "The Gate to God," in case you were unclear on the import of the place. It's about an hour from Rishikesh, give or take, but sees far fewer tourists. Rishikesh seems to have cornered the market on the whole "attracting spiritually minded and rather dim white people for yoga lessons" thing. (Ladies: If a man claiming to be a Sacred Indian Holy Man offers you a private lesson in spiritual yoga? For fuck's sake, do not believe him. Why do people have to be told these things?)


This is probably not a good idea for the casual tourist.

I vividly remember reading, in "The Search for the Pink Headed Duck," about the author's swim in the Ganges. He dove in to beat the heat, swam a few strokes, and promptly bumped into a bloated and half-burned corpse. Hindus like to burn their dead and cast the remains off into the water, you see. Which renders the Ganges a bit of a no-go when it comes to pleasure swimming.

Every four years, the massive Kumbh Mela festival occurs, and this year, it happened at Haridwar.. It is the largest gathering of humans in one spot in the world, with up to 5 million people participating on a single day.. (And if anywhere can pull that off, it's India!). The Kumbh Mela sounds like an astounding spectacle and a testament to the spirit and will of humanity. Sounds lovely, but Kumbh Mela celebrations are also plagued by the phenomena of deadly human stampedes Someone gets in an argument, someone gets frightened, someone runs, someone else runs, everyone is fucking running and unless you are fast, strong, or tall, your ass is getting trampled into putty. Poor Wal Mart guy on Black Friday here in the states had it easy compared to this. One recent stampede apparently occurred when a particularly stupid sadhu (Indian holy man) decided to toss a handful of gold coins into the crowd. What you might expect to have happened....happened.



The other interesting thing about Haridwar? It functions as a sort of genealogical center for all of India. Brahmin Pandits keep detailed records on a huge number of Indian families here. It's still possible for Indians to visit, submit their family name to the proper pandit, and learn about the history of their family - often dating back as far as seven generations, kept on hand written ledgers. This is possible due to Haridwar's status as a pilgrimage site: pandits got in the habit of recording family visits and taking down their genealogical status beside. When people came here to burn a deceased relative, they would dutifully go to their pandit (often assigned by region or family) and update the ledgers. A pretty clever system and one that continues to some extent today. You may be surprised to know that these ledgers are on microfilm in Utah at the Genealogical Society of Utah, Mormons being among the world's most dedicated genealogists.

As Haridwar is a sacred city, meat and alcohol are entirely banned within its confines. When I found that out, I was very glad I'd decided to spend four days in Mussoorie instead. Call me a heathen, but I really like my animal flesh and whiskey.


Unfortunately, I didn't get to see much of Haridwar, due to yet another Indian Stupid Ass Rule, of which there are a remarkable number. You can only leave luggage that locks in the left-baggage room at the train station. Great. I had a large, lockable backpack, a day backpack, and a duffle bag. Needless to say, the duffle? Wasn't locking. As I had all my valuables in the backpack, which I intended to carry with me all day - you don't leave good stuff in left luggage rooms - I tried to explain that all the duffle contained was dirty underwear, contact-lens solution, clothes with mud stains on them, and some mildewing shorts. No go. IT MUST LOCK, MADAME. IT MUST LOCK.

Which meant I had to leave the (lockable) day pack behind. And put my laptop, my wallet, my camera, and all my computer stuff into my large, unwiedly duffle bag and haul it around all day. This was not the most secure I've ever felt. And considering how off-balance I was, all a thief would have had to do to make off with all the things I value most in the world was trip me, snatch the bag, and run like hell. Haridwar not being known for its order and civility, I was, needless to say, worried.



I did try. I wandered around town for a while, watched people abluting in the river at the Har-ki-Pauri ghat. There weren't too many of them. Guess it's the off-season. There's an enormous warren of shops around the river banks, catering to the almost incomprehensible number of pilgrims that come here during special occasions, and I wandered through there for a while. Had an all right thali at a fast food place that looked cleanish. Evaded a couple of crazy naga-sadhus. (They like leaping out at you since they are naga-sadhus and they get to do weird things). Beggars: everywhere, very aggressive.

I'll confess that I'm a dick about beggars. I completely ignore them. I look through them. I don't acknowledge them. If they're really forward, I might shake my head as subtly as possibly. If I'm pissed off, I might use the old hand-sweeping gesture, which is known and respected throughout the world as Please Fuck Off. I will also relate to you that being a dick (like me) means that beggars and touts almost always leave me alone or go away after a minute or so when they realize that nothing short of punching me in the face or tripping me is going to get my extended attention. We're brought up to be polite and acknowledge people who address us or come up to us. This behavior is great in developed countries and is very stupid in impoverished ones. I don't really have anything against these guys, I guess - trying to hustle for a living, whatever - but I also am not going to give them any of my time.

If you want to help the poor and hungry and sick in India, donate to an organization. (I have my own thoughts on "volunteering" for two week stretches so you can get adorable pictures of yourself with pathetic looking street children and show all your friends how nice you are, but that's another post). Don't give handouts on the street. And if you must, be careful and remember that this will often result in a mob of people *all* wanting a couple hundred rupees. I've seen it happen, and it's not something you want to experience.



Ended up taking the gondola up to the Mansa Devi Temple at the top of the hill, mostly for the 10 minutes of peace and quiet the ride might afford me.

Unfortunately, it's impossible to get a good shot from the top. I declined to go inside the temple. Didn't feel like taking off my shoes and wading into a crush of people in a small space with all my possessions dangling awkwardly off my shoulders. There's a tree in there you can tie a string onto for good luck. Thankfully, my luck held out just fine throughout India this go round.


Very large and very cool statue of Shiva in the middle of the river.

I gave up, eventually. Too many child beggers around with little grabby hands, too many people looking at the duffle bag and contemplating what was inside it, etc etc etc. I ended up spending two hours in an Internet cafe. I headed out of the cafe to see if I could score some more cheese toast at the curiously named Big Ben Cafe right outside the train station. The cheese toast was awful, but I did get to meet a girl named Susie Hughes. She was from Northern California, on a round the world trip, and was having one of those bad days, the bad days that occasionally creep up on you when you are traveling alone, getting kind of sick, and are not sure about what's happening next. I struck up a conversation with her, since, well, that's what I do, I'm all about the small talk. We figured out we'd be in Bangkok at the same time in a month and exchanged contact information.

By then: getting dark. Still had my laptop and my Iphone and my wallet in a large, unwieldy duffel bag. I decided to take the cowards route out. The Luxury Hotel Route. There were signs all over town for this place, one of the very few luxury hotels in this city. Not surprising that they are building luxe hotels in Haridwar now, though - after all, there are more and more rich Hindus every year, and sure, they want to ablute in Mother Ganga, but they also want someone to press their clothes for them while they're away and leave a little mint on the pillow, you know what I mean?



On the way out, I came upon this parade. Don't ask me what for, but it pleased me. A New Orleanian is always pleased on some deep, essential level by a good noisy parade.

I ended up at the lovely Godwin Hotel on Rishikesh Road. I will gush about them because they are very nice, let me hang out in their lounge drinking fantastic cappuccino and using wi-fi for free, and even gave me free chocolate since I looked lonely. Please patronize their business if you are in Haridwar.



They had an excellent (vegetarian) restaurant, called The Golden Mushroom. In accordance with the title, I had saag with mushrooms, which was excellent. The texture is a bit odd at first, but just think of creamed spinach and you're pretty much in business.



This mixed vegetable tandoor platter was absolutely superb. The key: high quality paneer. Paneer is usually low quality and utterly tasteless, but good paneer is at least on par with a quality feta for texture and deep flavor interest. This was the good stuff, marinated in yogurt and spices and served on skewers with capsicums, onion, and pineapple.

I got to the train station early, since it's what I do. Sprung my luggage from jail and chatted with the luggage-keep man about his son studying in California. A remarkable number of Indians have kids studying within a 100 mile radius of my Northern California hometown. It was cleaner then most Indian train stations -not saying much, but at least there wasn't the pervasive smell of piss in the air like there is in Delhi. There were foreigners, everywhere. Most of them my age and traveling in groups of three and four, wearing clothes they thought were "Indian" so that they might respect the culture, and at the same time sporting piercing that would make any respectable Aunties' head explode if her own offspring had them.

In lieu of entertainment and in need of a united front, I chatted to an extremely spaced out looking European couple, who allowed me to drop their bags down with theirs. We drank tea and waited. "We just came from a month up in the Himalaya," he said, "near the Valley of Flowers. Just rented a cabin up there with no electricity, no running water. Just kinda ran around and got back to nature, you know? Like a three days hike up there."
"Yah, it was very lovely," the woman said. She looked somewhat terminally stoned.

Wow. Hippies, yes. But hippies with resolve.

"Then, we come down to Rishikesh for some yoga,yeah? But shit, so many messed up yoga teachers there! Such bullshit! You know,you are doing a pose and the guy, he call himself a sadhu - he's coming over and adjusting you, getting really close. Grabbing you all over. Rishikesh."
I mentioned I'd spent some time in Bangalore.
"Oh, yeahhh, we live in Gokarana," the man said. "I live in Gokarana for, like, past 11 years, teaching yoga. But India, ah, fuck India! I cannot wait to get the fuck out of here! Everything always dirty, always smelling like piss.."
At this moment a child beggar with bandages that may or may not have been fake came up and attempted to grab at the German guy's leg. He growled a couple of words in Hindi and the kid slunk grudgingly away.
"Why'd you stay so long?" I asked.
The kid had hid himself behind a column and was obviously planning another attack.
"Ah, you know? You get caught in one place, man. But it's all going to hell, Gokarana, whatever. Maybe it was nice when I was younger. Now? Maybe I go back to Spain, whatever. Ibiza, the coast. Like, a fucking civilized country."

He may sound extreme to you but I understood him reasonably well. The more time you spend in India, the more you despise it and - at the same time - you more you love it, find it impossible to leave. The German man was trapped in a classic Indian feedback loop. He will probably never escape. I doubt that I shall, either.

Our train schedule seemed to be posted very late. I went to the schedulers office and personally hunted it down. "Fine, fine, fine, Madame," he said, speaking in Indian triplets, "Fine, fine, fine," and he pulled it out from subterranean desk and showed me. The window to the office was immediately crowded with the faces of seven exceedingly eager looking young railway workers, staring at me with extreme interest.

I leapt on the train. Had managed to secure myself a first-class bunk, not that it really mattered - only a five hour run to Delhi. Another woman was already in there, and we exchanged pleasantries and I sacked out with a quickness. Thank goodness for the free blankets. They air-condition those things to Arctic-wasteland temperatures. (I know a couple guys who only travel Sleeper - ie, 3rd class - just to avoid the Death Fans).

One more day in Delhi, then off to Bagdogra airport. Where I'd hop a remarkably economically priced helicopter to Sikkim.

1 comment:

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