I am at peace with the world today, as I walk the tiny streets of Rishikesh, a small village at the foot of the mountains. The sun is slowly rising and conquering the Ganga river, monkeys are peaking through the glass doors of the 'Cyber Gafe', the owner is singing loudly some Hindi song. How peaceful it all is, after over 2 weeks in Delhi, with all the excitement and noises and activity! And truly exciting it has been: I could not have dreamed of a better host than my friend Shivina! Looking back, I had the opportunity to mingle with fashion top models, chat with the latest Bollywood movie stars, dance with the maharajah's, sit with the VIP's at the Polo finals, discover the secret underbelly of the city, and meet some really wonderful people along the way.
You can probably imagine my thirst for some more introspective silence after such a rush of amazing adventures. That is how I found myself getting up at 5:00 AM (NOT usual for me since the long gone days of corporate life!) to start the long journey: taxi to the train station, train to Haridwar, local bus to Rishikesh, rickshaw to the upper part of town, then long walk across the bridge to find the hotel (well, at least it seemed long with my heavy backpack).
But let's go in order.
First the train. Interiors all of the same color: seats, walls, ceilings, doors. Lost somewhere between a gray and a light green. The kind of color you still see in old hospitals in Italy and on WWII ships in the US. Vaguely uncomfortable. I sit next to 2 Tibetans, only one speaks (good) English. We talk for a while about the Tibetan cause, people, history. Until he shares that he is part of a militant group, in favor of guerrilla violent actions to reach independence. At which point I feel it is time to kindly disengage and start enjoying the scenery (on the other side...). Funny how familiar seems this landscape escaping in front of me. So very similar to the planes of Piemonte, where I was driving less than a month ago. But then some very Indian reminders. Like men pissing against the walls, everywhere, proudly looking at me. Or the cow dung, dried in neat round tiles and piled up in small towers on the side of the roads.
The bus ride costs me 15 Rs. (about 30 cents US), it lasts about 2 hours. A young Canadian girl sits next to me, scared to travel alone. She has just arrived in India, she has that panic in her eyes... When the bus overtakes other cars at high speed in the middle of a mountain turn, she grasps the seat in front of her, sweat dripping on her chin. While I listen to music and enjoy the ride, I can't help but smile, remembering my own terror on that first rickshaw ride... As time passes, I become so much more aware of colors and smells and feelings and thoughts. Is it true that the real essence of life is savored in wondering, travel, uncertainty, growth? Is Bruce Chatwin right with his analysis of the roots of unrest in our western world? Or is travel one more escape from the self, a feeding of the Ego?
Sitting at a rooftop cafe, I enjoy the scenery bathed in the warm yellow tones of the afternoon sun. It is pleasantly warm. The Ganges, here still clean and white from the glaciers, is very calm. It has been only two days and I start already to recognize the local characters: the old man sitting at the same spot every morning to ready his newspaper, the local Baba still trying to sell me some hashish, the schoolgirls in bordeaux uniforms crossing the pedestrian suspension bridge, the same cow always blocking the way on the bridge, the same 3 monkeys sitting on the cables waiting to steal some food. I am alone, but less and less lonely.
I realize now just how much I have been escaping loneliness up to now. A busy and stressful job, feeding my arrogance (I am changing things, I am smarter, I make money, I can work harder than 'them', I reply to emails at 2:00 AM and on Sunday's, ...). Sports and other activities: snowboarding (everybody goes in winter!), biking, fitness, barbecue's, dinners, bars, fixing the house, dinners in front of the TV, surfing the web. And so on. And on. And on.
So loneliness is being alone and feeling bad about it. While aloneness is being alone and feeling good about it, at peace with myself. Like I feel now. Not that I am quite there yet. I cannot claim enlightenment! I still miss my friends, making love, a juicy steak. I still plan my days. But I can start to have glimpses of inner peace. There is such a powerful beauty in sitting in meditation on a white beach on the riverside of the Ganges. With nowhere to go. And nothing to do. It is just astonishing how we cloud ourselves with goals, ideals, thoughts, worries. We search left and right, when all we have to do is sit!
I rent an old Indian Vespa and head up the mountains, as the sun is still finding his way down the valley. It is cold, but I am so fascinated by the rays piercing through the foliage and glowing in the morning mist, that I do not care (too much). There is only me on the road. And the monkeys, of course. I cross a really big black one, with a white face. Big enough to scare me away.
As the road winds up the mountain, flirting with the Ganges, I get a bit worried of the huge vertical drops. In a few places the road just collapsed down some 200 meters. Which would not be a problem, if it was not for the occasional truck coming down at full speed and not being impressed at all by my little scooter. Which leaves me with less than a meter between the big noisy monster and emptiness. Comfortable enough for the other motorcycle drivers, less for me!
Fortunately I have plenty of road signs to bring a smile back. Green signs in a green world, with magnificent hand writing and warnings like: "Be Soft On Curves" (my favorite, also in the version "Go Soft On Curves"), "Speed Thrills But Kills", "Horn Please" (before every town), "Drive Slower, Live Longer", "Hurry Makes Worry" (I appreciate the universal nature of this one), "If Married Divorce Speed". I squeeze between the ever increasing number of dhobi of the road (there are men sweeping the street!) and some 70 Km. later I reach Devprayag, a small village where two rivers merge and the Ganges officially starts.
As I walk the omnipresent suspension bridge, I start conversing with a sannyasi (monk). Of all that I have crossed in the past weeks, this one really seems to glow from inner peace in his eyes. He decides that I should be blessed by the river, so he brings me to the water and makes me repeat a long prayer in Hindi, followed by offering of flowers and rice. As fascinating as the moment is, it would not be so amazing if it was not for the striking coincidence of my reading just those days of the "Bhagavad Gita".
So I am almost not surprised when I run into a chanting and prayer session by a large group of young children in orange robes, the evening of the same day back in Rishikesh. And it almost feels natural when the day after the lead monk invites me to perform the sunset prayer with him, in front of all his disciples. Once again, none of those events is exceptional per se. It is that they are happening to me now, just as I am plunging into the sacred scriptures. In such rapid succession. I could be cynical and attribute it to my presence in Hindu pilgrimage sites. But I rather sit and meditate on the power of our thoughts in making events happen, situations come together, increasing our awareness.
A blind man in Rishikesh approaches me in a restaurant to ask for help with his email. The next day I spend a few hours typing messages to his friends, then we go for lunch and he tells me his story. When he was 11 he was in a car accident, in which he lost both his parents and his vision. The rest of his family decided he was too much of a burden and closed their doors. So from an early age he had to decide if he wanted to accept the position society was giving him (beggar on the street) or fight an uphill battle. By the time we met he was in his mid forties, well dressed and wealthy, a writer traveling around India and the world. Alone. With a disillusioned but very positive vision of life.
You cannot even start to imagine how hard it is to travel in India alone and blind. The taxi's charging you tenfold (how can you check?) or giving you the wrong change, the porters walking away with your bags, the ashrams (equivalent to our religious convents) refusing you access because you are "bad luck". His stories go on and on. I experience it myself, when we make the trip back to Delhi by bus the day after. Like the bank that did not give him access to his account because he confused his bank statement with another piece of paper of the same size. Or the ashram that only accepted not to charge him double after I (the Westerner) argued against it (he later told me that they most probably will not let him stay there again because of that).
So long for the kind Hindus and the spiritual places we supposedly go to learn from. Even the two German tourists in their 'peace and love' clothes initially refuse to help him get to his hotel when we get off the bus. It is exactly next door to where they are staying, while miles away for me. They probably think it is a scam to rip them of their old and worthless bags. After all, if he is really blind, why is he so well dressed? This man gave me one of the biggest lessons, both when he asked me to leave because he wanted my friendship and not my pity, and through his inner peace and kindness in front of constant abuse.