Hillstations of the Himalayas
Nainital, India. Nainital, at 1900 meters, is the lake of the Mother-Goddess, Naini Devi. On the far side of the lake from the bus stand is her temple. As her steep banks plunge into the emerald waters, nothing can be seen but the occasional jumping of fish, the wind on her surface, rowboats, paddleboats, and the ocasional "yacht". Around the lake the foothills of the Himalayas rise straight up to 2600 meters. Mere babies compared to the giants beyond. Yet in their steepness, and petiteness is a unique charm; one has a rocky pinacle outcropping looking not unlike a maiden`s breast, hence Raja and I named it Tit peak, and hope all who come refer to it as such so that in years to come there will be teeshirts for sale in the main Bazaar claiming, "I climbed Tit Peak!" That would make me happy.
This Sunday morning we woke up nestled in the Himalayan foothills, beside a pictureseque lake, Raja, and I on top of the world. Echoing through the pastoral valley at sunrise, the Hindu temple broadcast morning puja. Soon after, the local mosque echoed the call to prayer. Not to be outdone, the local Catholic church P.A. broadcast the morning mass in Hindi, for a solid hour and a half. Yes, you might just be in India if... So, the latter was not to be slept through, and as we dallied. I had the amusing sensation that if we looked out the window, we`d be looking down from the balcony of the church into the congregation.
So after morning mass, we restfully pulled ourselves out of bed, dressed, and left our decoratively wood-panelled `delux` hotel room and walked down the hill for breakfast at our regular place (we`d been there for three or four breakfasts, I think--however time slips by unnoticed). After breakfast of deep fried chapati and curried mung beans with achar (indian [usually mango] pickle)(Puri Baji), and a leisurely chat over chai we noticed the sun was shining and the wind was blowing so we went to the British Boat House and rented a `yacht` for a leisurely jaunt about the lake. Hold on while I go order tea from room service... Okay, so, our wooden-hulled, gaff-riggged, tank of a sailboat [oh shit televangelists are on cable tv in India too! By the power of Jesus where the hell am I?]... gotta turn the TV off... Okay so our wooden-hulled vintage gaff-rigged dingy made its way around the lake, myself and Capt. Rajindra Sing vying for command (he won). We tacked and jibed up and back along the lake, the boat a sturdy construction not given to fits and starts, but maintaining a very smooth momentum through the water. The wind was light, but filled the sails, and with the solid steel daggerboard, neither did the boat pitch or sway. The boat sailed like it was on a track, and the vistas were not unlike a ride in an amusement park. This was not the drama of the sea, but the romance of a Bollywood movie. I tried to teach Raja the basic principles of sailing, and she took a turn at the helm, disconcerted by the way the boat seemed to sail itself. Cap`t Singh looked on bemused. It was not a boat given to tactical maneuvering, and we did none. We outpaced the tourist rowboats and paddlebaots, though, the latter with the chugchugchug-chugchugchug of a limping tugboat. The former with the call, "hello! which country! One picture!"
I was on top of the world, for this day fulfilled my dream. I found Nainital at the recommendation of a man in India who found my website and wanted to enlist my help building a pyramid house which I declined. We struck up a brief correspondence which ended when he asked to be part of a threesome with me and the girl I`d be travelling with. But he`d mentioned Nainital, Mussorie, and Shimla, which sort of formed the first half of our itenerary. In researching Nainital, I saw the sailboats in the tourist propaganda, and my plan fell in place. I would whisk Raja away from Delhi and onto a sailboat upon this lake. How perfect. So for three months I`d been planning for that moment. I don`t plan conventionally. I don`t worry about the trivialites of bus connections or hotel accommadation. I plan for a continuous succession of "perfect moments." My plans are images, snapshots, previsualized images of people and places I`d like to see, and a moment of doing, a moment of being, together or alone, in a place. Its as if I previsualize still-frames in a movie and then improvise unto that end. So far, things were going well with Raja, well with India, well with my world, and I had found my way to that snapshot in my movie, through the trials and setbacks and adventures across America. More than that, I`d played my cards right in Amsterdam and reaped the fruit eight months ripened of being a gentleman. So many valences of planning and preparation, so many dissimilar agendas tied up at a singular event horizon. As open and honest as I try to be in my writing, its impossible to express how many thousands of considerations and compromises had gone into the act of arriving in the middle of a lake, on a sailboat, with Raja, in the Himalayas. But this was still mere foreplay for what was to come. This small, personal victory over entropy, malaise, and cynicism was itself merely laying the framework for that next stillpoint image: Khirganga in Parvati Valley..
It was a beautiful sunny morning. However, moments after disembarking it started raining. I can only blame Raja for the excellent timing [Its Rrra-EYE-yah; roll the `r`. get it straight!], it rains on me differently, but certainly before disembarking. After sailing, walking around the lake, we came upon the Sikh temple in time to catch the end of the afternoon prayers. We stood outside and listened, but just as we were leaving a man invited us to Gurū ka lanhal (kitchen of the Gods) for lunch (Sikh temples always serve free food to all comers). Who could refuse such an offer? So after second breakfast, we went next door to the hindu temple, and were under cover of the pavilion just as the sky opened up for a few minutes. We looked around at the Naini (mother) devi (goddess) shrine, the Shiva shrine, the Radha-Krishna shrine, a Balaji [a.k.a. hanuman... anyone know why he`s alternately called one or the other?] shrine and the other two shrines I can`t recall, and then wandered back home to our hotel to write. Now, as the sun comes out, we`ve had a full day and its only four thirty.
But this is only today, an average day in India... Yesterday we visited the Tibetan Buddhist temple on the hill, sat in on the afternoon study-chanting period and had butter tea (yum!). Following that we climbed a mountain and caught the briefest of glimpses of the snowpeaks of the Himalayas proper. On a cloudy day that was no small feat. It helped that we sent a ladybug up to ask for a break in the clouds... Again, as soon as we were off the mountain and in a restaurant (decorated with party streamers and laid out like a diner car on a train) it rained, only to let up again moments before we left to walk home.
tonight, on the eve of our departure, there`s a party behind our hotel. Discoteque music is pumping, following puja ceremony songs. Through the cool night air comes the sound of "Brazil" set to techno`s insistent beat. Raja and I lounge in our room, the techno music thumps on, blending with the call to evening prayer, and we turn to the Jataka tales and attempt to lift the mode of discourse.
Today we went our seperate ways. Raja went to climb a mountain, and I to write this, I sit in a swan floating in the lake (no really, not metaphorically). I really feel like most people don`t exploit modern technology as much as they could. So, I take some space in India, which is moderately effective, rent a paddle-swan-boat, and just float. I found a bouy in the lake, and tied off with my bandana to it; thus moored, I have found a piece of peace in the chaos if India. Its a grey day so I can see the screen, yet the view of the mountains is still sweet. The honking of traffic in the distance reaffirms my commitment to not leave this spot.
The Himalayas rise steeply from the banks of lake Naini, and the town of Nainital climbs the less-steep slopes. Yet everywhere foot trails weave through the old-growth trees. (they`ve survived as its too moist here for good timber and nothing is growing straight, I think). The dome of the Sikh temple rises in front of me and the prayer flags of the Tibetan temple are peaking out from under the clouds over my right shoulder. A cool breeze blows up the valley, over the natural dam that formed the lake untold years ago. The water is a healthy murky green and when it rains, fish are jumping. (Fishing is not allowed.) Around the lake other paddle-swans and paddle-dragons, and boring paddle-boats lie in wait for the next comer willing to shell out 80 rupees an hour for the privilege of flailing about the lake. For me, its enough to just float. Floating... floating on a sea of ambiguity...
holy shit. I`m picking up a wireless access point... here. In the middle of the lake... in the middle of the himalayas. What fucking planet am I on???
Rishikesh, India. Ganga-ma was excited. She loves the monsoons. I could remember rocks which Anikka and I scampered across five years previous which were now submerged. I was a month earlier that time, so she was not so high. For those unfamiliar, The Ganga is a river, but Ganga Ma is a woman. She is the mother earth goddess in the form of a MASSIVE, and inexplicable river. The foulest and most polluted water in the world, and yet somehow the purest all the same, for no matter how many dead bodies float downstream, the water is still considered drinkable.
Rishikesh is where Ganga Ma, or Mother Ganga emerges from the Mountains. Specifically, Lakshman Jula, or Lakshmi Bridge, is the last valley bottleneck. Beyond Haridwar, where there is a flood control dam, the ganga spreads her banks at her leisure and caprice. But Lakshman Jula is a fabulous place. Seven story towers of Sacred Kitch, shrines of dubious historical merit, but very relevant, very current. Rishikesh is where you go to see Hinduism today, despite its exceedingly long and ancient history. This is not far from Harappa, just over 520 kilometers across a level plain. So, the name of the town means the place where the Rishis hang out. And Rishi is another name for Fakir, Sadhu, Renunciate. This region is also close to Ghandara, and just a couple rivers over from the heavily contested Punjab, which Alexander the Great`s troups threatened mutiny if forced to cross. Several of his men decided to stay behind, and interbred with Huns and Monguls and Persians and in the end produced the Sikhs, the only mainland Indians you just don`t want to fuck with. They and their international connections will all kick your ass.
But Rishikesh is securely within India, and nobody has contested that. Hindu culture stretches thus far, and always has, from the beginning of time. Rishikesh, 3000 years ago was the backwaters of Harappa, where the Renunciates, the nomadic farmers, and those who just wanted to get away from the hussle and bustle of City life drifted. Indus River, the river of commerce draining off the west coast of the subcontinent, and onward to trade with Persian, Arabia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Rome and Greece. The Ganga and Yamuna by comparison drain to the east coast through fearful jungle populated by hostile natives and big cats. Clearly, the renunciates would head in that direction. Thus the Ganga and Yamuna would form the backbone of the holy organization that is Hinduism. With the Aryan incursions upon proto-Dravidian Indus culture in waves over 10,000 years (as a result of cyclical climate change no doubt), there was a gradual push in the direction of the Ganga, and sure enough, over time Brahmanical Authority became established in Varanasi, which became the center of the world in their Iconography. Only Brahmins pray to Brahma, and they`re very tight-lipped about the inner workings of it, but for the general public, there is, and always has been yoni/lingam worship. Commentators often overlook exactly what it is that the lingam is resting in; being too careful not to snicker at the idea of worshipping God`s Penis. It is equally a worship of the penetration of the earth goddess by the sky god. The sky god being Shiva, and the Earth Goddess, in this case, being the Ganga. Evidence of stone worship is widespread enough from Japan to Egypt to allow this local variation a long and ancient pedigree.
Shiva is the only god consistently worshiped as an Icon. A pictoral representation of Shiva on alters is not usually the case. He appeared on the tails side of Kushan era coinage, so there is at least 2000 years of history to the idea of his pictoral representation, but stone statuary of Shiva doesn`t really appear in force until six hundred years later. All the other gods, Brahma included have pictoral images associated with themselves from the beginning. Krishna had a face, a beautiful face, from his inception. Brahma has five heads, so he can look in all directions. Ganesha has the head of an Elephant. Hanuman is a big, burly, monkey-man. Parvati sits atop a lotus, looking fertile, Kali has a swollen tongue and a necklace of skull, but Shiva-- he`s just a big cock. So why then has Shiva, who would semiotically more properly be termed a progenitor god, been cast in the role of the destroyer god? Clearly the majority of those who pray to him might be trying to stave off his anger, but they don`t worship him out of fear. Who would do that? They worship him as the divine manhood in the act of coitus with the earth. There is little attempt to reconsile all the contradictions in India. That was left to the British. And these are just my theories.
So, here, in the backwaters of Harrapa, I was with my friend Raja. We had a good time in Rishikesh. All the tensions of Nainital melted a way as I basked in nostalgia, and felt the natural tendancy Rishikesh has for allowing one to just let worldly things slide. The thousands of years of renunciation accumulated on these banks, and the caves surrounding have held the wandering mendicants of untold, unknown, forgotten and never documented sects that have risen and fallen in that time. Rishikesh is the sort of place where petty concerns melt away, and thought turns to salvation. And when you see Ganga Ma streaming by like a bat out of The Batcave, then even the smallest mind is a little bit broadened. Nor was I immune. I`ve loved Rishikesh since before I was born.
We stayed in a new "Ashram," though hardly; it was the guest house appendage to the ashram in fact. However, it was a lovely appendage. With a third story balcony overlooking the ebulent, thrilled river. Ganga-ma was exuberent, leaping from Rock to rock sweeping away trees and rocks and having a go at any structure she comes across. She is swollen, and still hungry. This year she just barely stayed in her banks through several towns. The flooding was mostly rural, which even within India doesn`t usually count as newsworthy. Leaving between the feet of the last few foothills, she spreads wide, but does not slow down. She tears through Haridwar, and onward to water all of Northern India, and assimilate all her myriad tributaries. She`s one hell of a river to have outside your front door.
Rishikesh at this time was totally overrun with tourists. All local. All boys. All between the ages of 16 and 25. And thoroughly obnoxious. It was impossible to walk five minutes without a gang of these "pilgrims," here for a holiday to gather Ganga water for the Shiva Ratri which comes six months later, crowding around you and your companion and asking to take one "snap" with you. One actually means 12, or 24, or as many pictures as you seem willing to pose for, in fact. For you always have to extract yourself from these situations, for as soon as one group is finished with you, a second and third has gathered to see what all the commotion was about, and then they want to have their picture taken with you. Itachi goko -- a vicious circle.
We walked through some of my old haunts from last time I was here, while I thought a lot about Anikka nad wonder where she is now. Its hard losing touch with people you love. So I felt a little closer to her, even though the rocks we once walked on were now paved over with ghats, and the yoga program we took part in was disbanded for the summer. I noted all the new development, yet still saw every place we ate at still in tact. Even my favorite bookstore still had the same books I wanted to buy last time I was here. It all felt so different though. I can`t explain it. But my heart was in a different place then, and so, its true you can never step in the same river twice.
We decided to take a cab to Mussoorie, to avoid taking a bus, and it wasn`t far, an hour and a half, and about 20 bucks each. We splurged. It is a quite comfortable drive; we were lucky and got a rather new Ambassador Classic it was a nice drive. But On the way out of town the cabbie was instructed to take us by the office. There we met a very intimidating, heavy-set man surrounded by meanials, looking across the desk with hands folded in front of him, and asking about our onward plans. The man we`d arranged the taxi with was sitting there meekly; this was his father. Several others were in the office and silent, everyone thoroughly under this guys thumb. "Where are you going from Mussoorie," he said. I paried, "Its really late now, almost 1:00 we were really hoping to get an earlier start, but you know how time slips away." He was very courteous. I`d derailed his line of questions, and he whisked us out the door. A quick judge a situtation he was. It is rare that an Indian will catch or respect the preliminary clues which terminate discussion. Back in the car at least thirty minutes later we looked again at a clock; it was still almost one oclock, meaning someone`s set the clock in his office ahead by thirty minutes, giving me just the jolt I needed to get us out of the office quickly. I hate being taken into situations like that; one feels so trapped. It brings out a very hostile, alert Hudson. The driver was a sweetheart, though. And by perfect contrast to Satan`s bus driver, one of the mellowest drivers I`ve ever seen in India. He was in absolutely no hurry, and wound his way up the mountain with great reserve. From Rishikesh, through Dehra Dunn, and up the sheer side of the moutain. The road tacks across the face in quick hairpins, followed by an even grade across the width of the moutain. Those Sappers did good work.
Mussoorie is a quaint little town, proposterously stretched along the ridgeline of a front-range mountain, exactly where a villiage shouldn`t be. The whole town spoke of British Engineering. As it was on the very front face of the Himalayas, it was right at the level of Monsoon clouds, and hence, constantly foggy, cold, and damp. I`m told its climate is much like London, which explains a whole lot about the British.. It was the kind of climate where nothing dried. Our hotel was funny for a number of reasons. If we were home at sunset, no less than three people would in turn ask us if we wanted dinner. The answer was always no. But for the four days we were there, this continued. Sometimes all five staff members would ask. I guess we just couldn`t take a hint. In the morning time a man came around window to window selling Kashmiri Shawls. The same ones available in every store in Mussoorie. And another guy came by offering massages. The market street literally ran over the ridgeline, with the town dropping off below and rising up to the one summit in town. It was a pretty little town. Little to commend it but its own charm. I doubt I`ll ever go back.
Tension had first entered into my relationship with Raja about five days into our trip. But the morning we were leaving Mussoorie, Raja broke my heart in a most inconsiderate way by telling me that she wanted to travel alone for the last two weeks, before breakfast. We were leaving for Shimla that morning, and I hadn`t had morning tea even, nor even gotten out of bed to pee. Its a hard way to start a day, much less a day of travel in close proximity to the person who has just wounded one so deeply. I suspected based on two or three trips similar to this that it was going to end in tears, but a cold breakup first thing in the morning really kinda checked them. We had fought a couple days before, the second time in two weeks, and I thought we were going to get through it, and then this. In the final analysis, she and I were superbly incompatible, as travellers, as lovers, and in accordance with where we were in life at that time. But, it was a mistake I knew I was making at the time. Fuck it.
We arrived in Chandhigar later that evening by bus, and found the Pinjore Garden, a Mughal Garden with a government guest house. Thiese are sort of the third world equivalent of the National Park Lodges. The cheapest room was the second most expensive we`d stayed in, and on the ground floor in a jungle. We asked if they had anything else, but they had nothing else under a thousand rupees, which is quite excessive for India, almost 25 dollars. So we took the cheaper room, and the first thing Raja notices are the spiders. She furnishes interesting statistics such as on average we eat six spiders each over the course of our lives. This is because they like to drink the spittle out of the corner of our mouths. As soon as we got into the hotel room, the hostility resurfaced. And after a quick shower, I took off without a third word: "I`m going." I was still trying to downplay the insult of that morning, and fortunately found the climbingest climbing tree I ever did see. It was sweet. Wide sinewous bows, the limbs looked like medusa`s head done in wood. I kicked off my shoes and quickly regained my composure. Once I recover my six-year old soul, girls revert to "icky," and life beyond climbing trees becomes inconsequential. Call it a defence mechanism, cause that`s what it is. So, the sun about to set, I ran to find Raja. She was in the garden and said a few minutes ago, some guy had walked up to her with his friend and just grabbed her tit and walked off. I assume there was probably some giggling on their part involved. I felt in some petty evil way revenged, but still offered to kick both their asses, which woulda been fun, too. Your average Hindu hasen`t got a clue how to fight. Nor do I, so it`d be fair, but at least I`m bigger. It would have been fun. I`d throw him into the fountain, his friend would start singing, and I`d call Bollywood for backup. Mughal gardens are perfect for that sort of thing... But she lied and said she couldn`t identify him, it was all too sudden, and she was so shocked. Caught off guard. Exactly the way you can`t be when you are travelling alone in India. Anyway, I was glad that that happened before we separated because I still felt my giri (duty, obligation) to protect her in India even though she`d just rudely severed my gimu (responsibility one takes upon themself) to travel with her.
Raja decided she needed four fingers of whiskey to help her sleep with the spiders, and I supported her in that. So we sat outside in the midst of a fountain on an open air patio, drank, and ate Pakoras. When I got my beer, I pointed out that it was evening, at the end of a long day of travel, and we were sitting in a beautiful, if unkempt garden, amidst limpid pools, under the setting sun with beer in our hands, and that this THIS was the appropriate time to be breaking someone`s heart. We fought it out, and we were through.
Shimla, India. Shimla is what Mussoorie failed to immitate. Shimla was the summer capital of the British Raj, briefly. Its now the capital of Himachal Pradesh. As such, it is a nice gateway to the central Indian Himalayas. Shimla is not on the very front range of the mountains, but rather atop a mountain a few ranges back, so it has clear weather about half the day. Usually the clouds pass overhead, though some sneak up the valleys, blanketting the town in fog. A series of ring roads loop the central peak in town, which is crowned by a Hanuman temple. There are quite civilized monkeys living in every tree. They scamper noisily across tin roofs, swing from powerlines, and not infrequently cause outages. The roads also periodically try to slide off the slopes. One retaining wall collapsed in the center of town, no one was hurt, and there seemed little urgency to rebuild it.
There`s the "toy train" or a narrow-guage railway that runs from Kolka to Shimla. From Kolka to Delhi there are several connections on the normal railway. The train ride is well worth it though its almost twice as slow as the bus. There`s even apparently a first-class train that would be much better. But second class was also a delight, everyone who`d bought a reservation crowding in with all their luggage, for which there was no storage except under the very small seats or filling the aisle. From the Pinjore Gardens to the station is 7 kilometers. The ride cost 60 rupees, yet for some reason I fought tooth and nail to reduce it, though I don`t know why. I guess I was still wound up from the proceedings the night before which concluded with me giving the coup de grace to our relationship: "You`re just like I was when I was your age. You`re stubborn and pig-headed, and nobody can tell you anything." Which was true. However I`d learned my lessons with saying "when I was your age" with other girls, and it never hits the mark intended. However, this time, this was one mistake I wished to repeat. I was angry, as only a woman can make me. Clearly, she had stood up immediately and walked out on me (leaving me with the 420 rupee tab I might add, and without a thanks). Then the bartender then tried to take advantage of my inebriation and short change me on the way out. I just about slaughtered him, but mustered my calm and avoided the pool throwing scene I`d been craving. She was asleep by the time I`d finished my beer and the pack of cigarettes I`d bought there. I Slept beside her, woke up with a spider bite, and left for the toy train. I was as ready to be apart from Raja as she was from me. I sent Raja out in search of a bank to cash her travellers` checks, knowing we wouldn`t have the opportunity by the time we arrived in Shimla, while I waited at the station with the bags, also suspecting that it would probably wouldn`t be sucessful, which meant another day of having to pay the way for a woman who`d just broken my heart, and persisted in rubbing her heels in the shards.
The ride was beautiful, winding up the mountain alone without roads. We passed through several towns and villiages from the front range, over, and up the valley that leads to Shimla. There were dozens of tunnels. Perhaps 70. The views were great, and in the end, we climbed through the clounds, and into Shimla. Leaving the station I was doing my best to shake the hotel touts whom I can`t stand, and having a hard time because Raja was walking very slow. She also kept engaging them, and thus shaking my concentration on ignoring them. Eventually one I`m trying to get away from who`s been following us up the road for a quarter mile, trying to be slick, gives helpful advice which I ignore, at which point Raja yells at me, "why don`t you just go this way! Why do you have to be so stubborn." Barely keeping my cool, and dedicated to preserving a faltering friendship which Raja seemed, to my mind, equally determined to scuttle, I pointed out that that was not a very nice thing to say. Of course we couldn`t agree on a room when we finally finished a kilometer and a half of steady climbing to the ridgeline. She was exhausted, and verbally so. The most expensive room suited her best, but it was again, with low ceilings, long, dank and dark. I wanted the upstairs room with more light, but light was not to fall on this relationship. We took the dark room, and it was okay. I had plenty of room to ignore Raja and let her go to sleep at 10:00pm as was her wont, while I drank beer and stayed up past midnight reading or watching movies. We managed to patch up our friendship with a little salve, and cohabitated for a few more days in peace, but we spent most of each day going our seperate ways. She is, in a few specific and damnable ways alot like me eight years ago, and as it turns out, I couldn`t have stood myself either. Thanks to those of you who stuck around, and I`m sorry.
P.S. To Raja: I`m sorry I drug you half way around the world to India only to make your life miserable. I know I`m difficult to get along with, especially on the road, and I know that what is written above is very one-sided. If you wish to post a rebuttal, I`ll include it unedited. But I don`t regret the decision to travel with you. We did have some good times, and despite everything, I still love you.