So! After 20 long, loud, bumpy and bodily fluid filled hours, we arrived at the Western Nepal/India border crossing. It was a complete mess trying to get across the border. Because Indian and Nepalese nationals can move within and between both countries freely, the infrastructure for tourists crossing from one to the other was lacking quite severely. Eventually we made it to Banbasa which was probably the biggest mistake of our trip (the Indian side of the border). I had read that Banbasa was only about 8-9 hours from Haridwar/Rishikesh, our next destination. I expected us to go straight there from Banbasa. I did not expect, however, we would be getting of a 20 hour bus ride at the time. Obviously, Dustin and I did not think we would make it to Haridwar without going on a mass murder spree in India, so we had to reevaluate our options on the dusty side of the road in a shit hole border town. We opted to go to the nearest place in the Lonely Planet that also happened to be in the direction we needed to be heading; Nainatal. We had one more 3 hour bus to Haldwani where we would switch busses for another hour ride to Nainatal. Okay. I can last 4 more hours.
After 4 months on the road, you get ridiculously lazy with planning, which was exemplified by our experiences in this 48 hours. Better planning might have spared us the horror of this journey. I was nodding off severely on the bus to Haldwani (my phone keeps autocorrecting that word to Hawaii. I wish, phone, I wish.). I was leaning on my arms on the seat in front of me and kept falling asleep so my whole body would just slump and any bump would send me crashing into the window beside me and wake me up. And it happened multiple times. We got off the bus in Haldwani and set about trying to find the bus to Nainatal, which was only 1 hour away. One hour left.
I think Haldwani is the birthplace of the world fly population. Like, billions. In one square meter. I was sitting in the bus “station” waiting for Dustin to inquire about the bus when a little boy came up to me, asking for money. This is super common in India, although more common in touristy places (and this was not one of those places). I thought I had gotten better at brushing them off, but this little human was persistent. I tried waving my hands to shake him off. I tried saying “no” in Hindi. In English. I tried saying go away. It was BY FAR the most persistent begging I have experienced in India. He kept motioning to a small picture of Ganesh (a Hindu god) as if to convince me. Does that normally work on all the white people you come across? I’m sorry, little human, I do not share your beliefs, please leave me alone.
After probably 5 solid minutes of him touching me, talking to me, waving things in my face, he wandered off. I watched in horror as he approached my boyfriend, waiting in a queue. Dustin gets really stiff and uncomfortable around the beggers, which I find funny, but this time was different. The kid was literally touching him everywhere and waving things one inch from Dustin’s face. I could tell, from across the station, Dustin was getting really annoyed. Is there going to be a brawl in this tiny Indian bus station?
There wasn’t. The kid got the hint eventually and realized he had already destroyed his chances with us and sulked off.
After another hour on a public bus and one more person puking out the window (incidently, the girl in front of me so I had front row seats to the whole thing), we arrived in Nainatal. Another hill station, it was cooler weather, but unlike Kodai, it wasn’t very nice. They did have one pastry shop, though, that changed my life.
We caught a bus at 5 am from Nainatal to Rishikesh. Catching that bus meant we had to walk 1km along a dark and deserted street to the bus station at 4:30 in the morning. The walk was going fine at first, we could hear thousands of street dogs howling and barking, but they were hanging back in the shadows. All of a sudden, three of them came bolting out of a dark doorway and came barreling towards us, barking and snarling. My heart stopped. Adrenalin coursed through my bloodstream and in a instant I became equally rabid and 20x more terrified. I raised my arms above my head, like I was trying to be a bear, and began screaming as loud as I could. I began faking steps towards the three, as if I was going to seriously mess them up, and they would get scared and back off. I was terrified. We have dealt with crazy street dogs so many times but never have they gotten so close and growled like that. After several of my blood curdling shrieks, they ran off and I turned back to my boyfriend who was standing behind me. I think he was saying, “it’s OK, Sara, it’s okay.” The adrenalin took a secondary effect now and I began to sob. I did calm down once we got to the bus station but I think Dustin will have a hard time trying to shake the image of me trying to be a bear.
9 hours later, we got to Rishikesh. Oh, to finally be back on the regular traveler trail. Rishikesh is the Yoga capital of India and hosts the International Yoga Festival every year. Fortunately, we arrived on the final day of it and did not have to deal with the influx of Yogis and crowds. I never realized what an anti-festival person I have become until realizing what a complete shit show they are in India.
It was such a delight having a spot to relax for a while in Rishikesh. We had planned to head farther north to a small place called Manali after a couple days in Rishikesh. After spending the last week on public busses and realizing the only way to Manali was another 9 hour public bus, we decided to take a second look at our plans. In other words, Dustin took one look at my face when the travel agent told us about the bus and realized he would have to drug and drag me to get me onto that bus. Instead, we spent a week in Rishikesh, and it went by so fast.
Rishikesh is a spiritual center for not only yogis, but also Hindus as it is also located on the Ganga river. Therefor, it gets a massive influx of tourists, both Indian and non-Indian alike. Luckily, this is the spot where the Ganga emerges from the Himalayas and as a result is much cleaner than she is down stream (Varanasi). As a result of the tourism, there are multiple activities to do in Rishikesh besides eating – which is my preferred activity, to be honest.
Dustin has been trying to talk me into bungee jumping basically our entire relationship. I, being afraid of heights, have put up a massive front when it comes to even discussing jumping off a platform and dangling by my ankle. Unfortunately for me, Rishikesh has bungee jumping and it became the topic of several (one sided) conversations during our week there. I seemingly could not get Dustin to understand that it was just not going to happen. Even if he paid all the money and got me up on that platform with the rope around my ankle, I would not leave that platform unless Jesus Himself came down and held my hand. Plain and simple. No Jesus, no jump.
I get nervous when people stand too close to the edge of a cliff/building in movies. I get all fluttery in my gut if a staircase is too steep. Heights are just not a thing I get along with. But Dustin did not understand that. While I may not be a daredevil, I am an excellent negotiator and eventually talked him down (literally) to a combination of a giant rope swing and a head-first zip line instead of the bungee. Maybe it was the pale-green hue that my flesh turned when he mentioned bungee, but Dustin took mercy on me and agreed.
Unfortunately, I made the mistake of looking up “Giant Rope Swing, Rishikesh” on YouTube the night before and immediately regretted everything I had agreed to. Obviously, one major concern, especially in India, are the safety standards being less than stellar. I tried to raise this concern as a way of backing out gracefully (instead of in a mess of tears and hysteria that I would be in on the platform), but Dustin shot it down, telling me it was run by New Zealanders. Shit.
That day, we took the bus out to the Jumpin’ Heights venue, signed our lives away and were given vouchers for each activity. I wanted to do the head-first zipline first, in order to warm myself up to the feeling of almost dying before I jumped off any structures. We were the first ones up to the zipline for the day, which sounded risky, but they didn’t really give me a chance to consider what I would like to include in my will before they harnessed us in. Dustin and I were able to go together, side by side, which was a blessing. We were wrapped up in little plastic sausage rolls and strapped up to the wire. When I signed up for head first, I kind of did not expect to be half upside down and was immediately panicking when I realized how steep the initial fall would be. I would basically be upside down. They counted us down, I began to panic, and we were off. I can’t tell if the tears were as a result of the panic or the sheer wind as we hurled 1km down this zipline, but they were definitely there. Once we reached the bottom, a little mechanical thing came and pushed us up to the starting point backwards. This was almost worse than the plummeting head-first, because this was slow. All of the blood in my body was in my head as we creaked back up over a terrifying valley. But I lived. After that, Dustin was sent to do his bungee without me and I stayed in the cafe, watching the bungee jumpers and swingers (not that kind, you sicko) on the live television feed. They went off the same platform, so I watched, over and over, exactly what I was about to do. It was probably TWO WHOLE HOURS of watching bungee, swing, bungee, swing, bungee, bungee, swing before my boyfriend appeared on the screen. Alot of people doing the bungee basically “fell” off the platform and no one legitimately jumped, which I found hilarious to watch. I was sitting in a cafe with probably 30 Indians, also watching, when Dustin launched himself off the platform. Every Indian in that cafe gasped and said, “ohhh” and I laughed out loud. He looked like a diver. Although, I dreaded his return because it meant the swing was next. After lunch, we were sent to the platform for our swing. Again, we could do this one together, strapped side by side. The platform was 83 meters in the air which is ridiculously high when you’re considering stepping off of the damn thing.
We had to wait while two guys did their bungee jump, which was both a blessing and a curse. The platform was off a “bridge” and rattled in the wind, which felt really safe. It doesn’t matter how good your ropes are if the thing they’re tied onto collapses. However, all the guys working there were seriously calm, which I still don’t understand. HOW ARE YOU NOT FULL OF ADRENALIN ALL. THE. TIME. STANDING UP THERE? The first guy up to bungee, stood at the edge for 5 minutes and then backed out. I did not blame him one bit. His friend went next and did not back out. Suddenly they called us up. I was really starting to panic.
Did they wanna check our weights again? Could they strap my harness and raise me off the ground a bit to make sure it would hold? Can I see all of your training certifications? Exactly how high can a person fall from and still survive?
They sat us on and chair 3 feet from the edge and strapped the rope to the front of our harnesses and told us how hold onto each other so we did not injure each other. I think they were all joking alot (because they were all really calm, remember?). But I hardly remember what they were saying. Something about romance. If I was going to rate romantic experiences this would probably be down there with couples’ colonoscopies.
They made us stand up and move towards the edge of the platform. The weight of the rope was immense and it was definitely pulling us off the edge (more urgently than I was ready for). The weight of the rope made everything worse because suddenly it didn’t feel like I was choosing to jump off the platform, but that I was being pulled, which is so much worse. I was trying to hold it together but then I broke, “Dust, I don’t think I can do this.” He was being all loving and encouraging and trying to get me to look at him and all this shit, but I couldn’t drag my eyes off the ropes that were holding my rope. I do not think, had I not been strapped to Dustin, I would have stepped off. I was more afriad of the carnage of what would happen if one person jumped and one didnt, than the actual drop. They counted us down, I took a breath, and I stepped off the platform.
We were plummeting towards the earth. Fast. Really fast. Free falling. I didn’t scream because I think I have an internal belief that I need to hold the air in to survive, but I believe I let out a groan. We hit the bottom of the free fall and began to swing out, and I began to cry. Not because the swinging part was scary, but because the free falling had just been that terrifying. Dustin was being really mature and trying to encourage me and remind me that we survived and we were okay but I was beyond the point of being consoled. We slowly were lowered to the ground and I began to calm down.
I still think about the feeling of what it is like to free fall and still feel sick to my stomach. I’m glad I did it because I can not definitely assure people that things like that are not for me and I am not harboring any secret yearning to jump off things 83 meters in the air.
The next day, we went white water rafting at 8am. We booked a couple days in advance and forgot to check the weather which was a big mistake. When we got up on Monday morning, it was rainy, cloudy and about 12 degrees. And the Ganges is glacier fed water. AKA freezing. It was just the two of us, the guide and one other guy. We were loaded into the raft and I was focused on trying to find the smallest spot to wedge my feet in order to prevent me from falling out. The first rapid was pretty easy, but the guide kept turning the raft so my side was taking on all the water and I was immediately an icicle. Before every rapid, the guide would splash water on us with his paddle and yell out, “Jai!” Which kind of made me want to turn around and push him out of the raft but I refrained. I loooooved white water rafting and I wish the weather was better so I wasn’t so focused on whether or not I was going to have all 10 toes at the end of the trip. And it was only $10 dollars. I love you, India!
Part of the reason Rishikesh is so famous with foreigners is because the Beatles spent a while here in the 60’s (I think it was that decade) doing some meditation training at one of the ashrams. While there, they wrote several songs. The ashram where they had done their training was no longer functional and had been abandoned and we were told we would have to sneak in or befriend the guards in order to see it. Obviously, that sounded super fun and Dustin and I were up for the challenge. We rented a scooter and took it out into the forest to try find this ashram. Down a dirt road, we discovered its massive gates. The gate was locked and quite high, with no one guarding it. Confused, we stood there, looking in at the property for a few minutes when we suddenly saw people wandering down the main lane. Clearly, we were not the only ones doing it. We followed the wall down one of the sides and found a point where the brick had crumbled and was low enough to climb over. I was so terrified of being caught. It’s really hard to be inconspicuous and pull the ignorant tourist card when you’re in the middle of heavy foliage. Most of the ashram had been reclaimed by nature, which only added to its beauty. When we were entering the meditation hall, two girls walked out, blaring beatles on their phone. I found this mildly brave, playing loud music, while on a property you had to sneak into. A couple street artists have taken up the walls of the Ashram to create beautiful pieces and it made for a seriously cool effect, walking through the buildings.
After seeing a couple more groups so casually wandering through the property, instead of cautiously sneaking like I was, I decided to look it up on the Internet and realized they had reopened it to tourists for a fee. No sneaking necessary. And here I was, acting like I was behind enemy lines.
Alot of the former residences/dormitory quarters were really creepy and Dustin and I opted not to walk down more than one dark hallway. All in all, the afternoon was really great. Getting to explore those buildings and their artwork was really fun, despite the possible haunting.
From Rishikesh, we had a 10 hour train to Amritsar in the state of Punjab. It was overnight and our first one in quite a while. I was just happy it wasn’t a bus. As always, I began preparing by dehydrating my body 6 hours before to prevent any unwanted bathroom trips. We were in 3AC which is still quite nice, but births are arranged 3 beds high. The whole night, I was in and out of sleep and kept thinking I was seeing people make off with our bags, but I was completely imagining it. It just meant I got 0 sleep.
Amritsar is the last city we will visit before making it back to Delhi for our flight out. There are a lot of Indians from this state in Canada and all the random Punjabis keep telling us they call Canada “little Punjab”. Which is hilarious when you consider the size of Canada. This does mean much of the cuisine in this state are the dishes we find most familiar in North America. Rest assured, Dustin and I have fully enjoyed them. We are also shockingly popular here. I’m not sure what it is, but we have never been called out to, waved at or spoken to as much as we have in Amritsar. Most of the time it’s harmless, sometimes it’s vulgar.
Amritsar also hosts the holy spot for Sikhs; The Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib). We visited yesterday and it was massively impressive. I think the whole complex is just as impressive as the Taj Mahal. Although Rajasthan apparently is India’s most flamboyant state, I think Punjab should be up there. It’s so colorful with all the Dastars (Turbans) in addition to the colorful female clothing. Many of the Sikh men grow long pointy beards and walk around with long swords, as well, which is so different and unique from the rest of India.
In a few days, we take our first (and only) first class train to Delhi where we will celebrate Holi and then fly to Thailand. Where has the time gone?