North Tour: Rishikesh: On introspection, expectation, and white-water rafting

Monday, 14 March

AGRA TO VARANASI: About 24 hours after sifting through snow, we were presented with soft substances on the ground of a different variety. Rather than freezing our feet and evaporating off them visibly in the open air, this powder burned our bare feet and kept them moving. The beige stuff was just as welcome as the white. The bus had wound its way lower, to an altitude at which our breath was no longer visible.

We sat in tents on the bank of Asia’s most famous river Friday morning, the bristle and swish of its currents far sweeter to our ears than to the rocks over which they crossed.

Wide torrents of water passed us by, and the stream was so unpolluted it could have been mistaken for drinking water. (Actually, it later was.) We collected some in drinking bottles, and others were content to use it to brush their teeth. It was cleaner than the normal India tap water, anyway.

Though it’s certainly not best known for it, the Ganges, or Ganga, River is a great place to go white-water rafting. And cliff diving. And bodysurfing. 12 of us – minus Jordan, who was sick – sat comfortably in two boats with capacities of at least ten each. But while the empty space originally appeared an unnecessary luxury, we soon found we’d need all the space we could get.

See, white-water rafting is not for the unadventurous, risk-averse or hydrophobic.

For ten minutes you might flow comfortably, paddling with ease as the current ambles downstream. Then you see the rapids. You hear them. And you’re thrown into them like a roller-coaster descending – perhaps not as steeply or as quickly as at an amusement park, but with more unpredictable movement in every direction. Although there’s never worry of capsizing, the paddles do little to ease your fear of falling out.

Two minutes later, it’s over.

Then the cycle repeats itself.

We did this for 90 minutes, with two breaks for safe, voluntary, mind-shatteringly cold plunges into the water. During one long stretch between rapids, half of us submerged in the icy mountain water. Our life jackets were useful in keeping us afloat, but when returning to our boats, they provided more hindrance than help.

Our second plunge was more straightforward, but hardly any more comfortable. From a height of 20 feet, we all lined up to go jump off a cliff. Once you take the leap of faith, the only deterrent is the landing. After jumping, there’s no way to turn the gravity off. Though quite liquid, the water may as well have been ice – after all, it once was. The frigidity of the water was not helped by the mid-afternoon shade, both of which made refraining from shivering at the end of our journey an impossible task.

But both plunges were exhilarating. And we were already wet. So why not?

Actually, I have a better question for the many tourists we saw in Rishikesh:

Why?

Why are you in Rishikesh, foreigners? Why are you wearing Indian clothes that aren’t really Indian, in a failed attempt not to stand out? Why do you act so self-assured in situations wherein you obviously have no familiarity?

Call me a cynic, or blame it on the others’ jet lag, but something was missing from the puja our group attended that evening with scores of outside tourists. About two thirds of the crowd was foreign as mantras were sung, hands were clapped, and the sun made its way below the horizon. No matter what the faith, poignancy has been inescapable in every religious service I’ve seen in India.

But for once, it wasn’t there. In its place here was pretentiousness – not just a misguided attempt to be appropriate, but an aura of knowing without knowing. The bodies were in place, and the music was in tune. But the performance had no soul.

Perhaps its because we’ve spent seven to eight months in India, but there’s something about foreigners new to India that often perturbs us. In particular, it’s the stereotype of Westerners visiting India. Further, the concept of a spiritual journey, a quest to find yourself through various combinations of meditation, loose clothing, and whatever illegal drugs you can find. On at least one occasion, we were offered something illegal without a touch of subtlety, and we refused.

I can’t help but think it was only because of our skin color that drug-dealers were talking to us at all.

These kinds of situations make me ponder the perception of Westerners in India, one influenced by fair and lovely cover girls in Bhartiya advertisements and item girls in Bollywood dance numbers. Given our exposure in popular culture here, foreigners must seem an odd bunch, ambivalent about our futures, unable to bargain effectively, and unwilling to refuse a wild party. They make me wonder how exchange students are viewed – appropriately-dressed, Hinglish speaking teenagers who actually know how to barter. Forget that we’re spending a year immersing in Indian culture – we’re always assumed to be as wide-eyed and jet-lagged as the near-doppelgangers around us. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard someone call out “Welcome to India!” and how many times I want to call back “I’ve lived here for eight months!”

But I still have to think. Are we really any better than those tourists on their own “spiritual journeys”?

Take myself, for example.

The majority of my high school graduating class is well on their way to finishing year one of college, most committed to majors that will makes their careers fruitful ones. Meanwhile, I haven’t a day of worthwhile academic credit in ten months, I’ve yet to choose a major at my university of choice, and navigating my life after this exchange will be about as tough as navigating a Hindi-speaking auto-wallah through a crowded city without street signs, stoplights, or a map.

Heck, just the fact I’m taking a gap year is enough. Who in their right mind needs that much time to introspect?

For what it matters, I find the Ganga River a beautiful and uplifting place. I’ve meditated several times whilst on tour. I even packed my pajama kurta in my suitcase, though I haven’t worn it yet. Does that make me one of those annoying, gullible foreigners on a quest to find themselves?

Maybe.

But what I think separates – or at least what I like to think separates – us from hippie college kids on spring break is something really simple.

Understanding. At the very least, an honest attempt at it.

Oh, understanding Indian culture is a task that I have yet to complete. But the 13 of us on this tour are somewhere on that path – further than we were at the start of the year at any rate. We understand some Hindi. We understand why women wear burkas, shawls and scarves. We understand why the push to get to the front of every line isn’t rudeness, just a way of life.

Whatever you want to call this journey – spiritual, social, or some kind of bizarre extended vacation – I’m going to learn from it.

And no one, not even misinformed parachute pant-clad tourists, can stop me from enjoying it.

🙂

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One Response to “North Tour: Rishikesh: On introspection, expectation, and white-water rafting”

  1. John Says:

    Wow! I have fallen behind on keeping up with this blog… and your writing and story-telling, in my opinion, have gotten even better 😀

    I still have so many of your posts to read.. hmph. Why don’t you write a book and sell that?

    Glad to see that you’re alive, writing, exploring, and having fun.

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