Posts Tagged ‘Western Culture’

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

April 19, 2011

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 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?


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.



South Tour: Goa – The beginning of the end

January 2, 2011

11 Dec – 14 Dec

NAGPUR: In the three days since boarding a Nagpur-bound train in Mumbai, I’ve spent more time asleep than I have awake.

Sleep debt is the reason I’ve waited three days to write my end-of-tour recap, which I’d planned to write on the final leg of our journey, and the reason I penciled nothing in Mumbai or Goa – two destinations which gave me much to say and little time in which to write. I could have taken out my laptop to finish these entries, but it seems more prudent and appropriate for me to write these by hand first.

Now that I’m back in Nagpur, well-rested, well-fed, and more comfortable than I’ve been in weeks, here’s what I did before I got here.

Our train from Kochi to Madgaon arrived before sunrise on Sunday – the only time of day, in retrospect, when Goa actually seems to sleep.

I think it’s safe to call Goa the beach and party capital of India. Nowhere else on the tour – save perhaps the hill stations – can match the natural beauty of the beaches we visited. From the cliffs where we parked our bus, the beach looked just as it was billed beforehand: relaxing and beautiful.

As we made our way down from those cliffs, however, relaxing didn’t seem an appropriate word anymore. Unlike the beach at Mahabalipuram, tourists clogged the shores of Goa – especially after morning turned into afternoon. Rather than lying underneath a palm tree sipping coconut juice, I took an active approach to enjoying the beaches we visited: tossing around a small ball that Amanda [Washington, USA] had been “given”, taking a brief but exhilarating ride on a jetski, and attempting (and failing) to bodysurf the gentle waves that rarely came in higher than my head. Goa was the setting for a lot of great memories that day – and that night. I fell asleep before we could finish watching Scream together – at 4:30 a.m.

I woke up late Monday morning, and the day seemed much more relaxing than the day before. It was late afternoon before we drove to the beach and buried Jakob in the warm Goa sand. Our attempts at bodysurfing failed once again.

Mostly what I’ll remember from this day is the sunset.

Having missed it the day before, and having not seen a true sunset since the Golkunda Fort in Hyderabad, I was eager to watch the sun set over the Arabian Sea. After half a day enjoying the beach, I stood facing west with my arms crossed and my shirt over my shoulder as the others gathered their things, ready to head back to the hotel for the night. The sun crept lower in the sky.

“What are you doing, Chris?” someone asked me.

I’m brought back now to a lecture we had at the Grand Rapids conference in July. The speaker cited a survey wherein adults were asked an interesting question. I don’t remember the exact wording, but the jist of it was: How much time in your life have you spent really enjoying life – blissful, exhilarated, and purely happy?

The average response: ten minutes

For about ten minutes, I watched the sun fade into the clouds just over the horizon. It was a dull orange sunset, the kind that brightens the nearby clouds and makes them glow in multicolored streaks and puffs of light. The sun grew darker and darker as it went down, to the point that I could stare at it without holes being burned through my eyes. As we walked back along the beach, it grew fainter against the clouds until it nearly blended into them. I plucked my eyes away for a second, looked back, and it was gone.

What was I doing for those ten minutes? Just enjoying life – amidst some of the best friends I’ll ever have. Some were snapping pictures of the moment, some were chatting with each other, and some stood like I was, just looking, caught in the world’s best timepass. It was just one of many moments from this tour where I could put my happiness atop the scale from 1 to 10.

I feel bad for the people who’ve only been happy like this for ten minutes – not because they’ve never seen the sun set in Goa – but because moments like this aren’t about where you are in the world, they’re about who you’re with when you have them.

By our third and final day in Goa, it was becoming clear our time together was coming to a close.

Even for a tourist destination, Goa seems less like India than anywhere else on this tour. We found items we hadn’t found anywhere else in India – Oreos and Pringles for some, Gatorade and a Frisbee for me. Combined with the chips and pizza we so frequently consumed on the tour, we may as well have been in a different country.

The highlights of our third day in Goa were the two cavernous churches we visited in Old Goa that dwarfed the one we’d seen in Kochi. In a cathedral large enough to hold several houses, it was hard not to feel a sense of awe, however out of place a building seems amidst rickshaws and palm trees. Seeing this, combined with the imminence of our departure, was too much for some of us to stay composed. It was just too much like home.

I don’t remember much from our train ride to Mumbai except the arrangement of our seats. Normally when we traveled by train, our compartments were separated, sometimes even on different cars. This time, however, our three compartments sat next to each other, and we spent our last train ride together closer than ever before.

If for no other reason than symbolism, it was a nice arrangement.


Click to enlarge