Over the River and Through the Woods

 Awoke at 3 AM and just decided to get up and make some coffee. Ah, jet lag. Having been down this Inidan road before, I send a little prayer up to Starbucks for providing the world with instant coffee. I will migrate to chai later this morning when it is offered. I love chai, but the real simmer-the-spices-on-the-stove-top-warm-milk kind of chai that I just can’t get at home.

I read, I contemplate the 10 days ahead, and when it is appropriate I shower, wander downstairs and take from the breakfast buffet. Curd with a dollop of honey and a cut banana – my own concoction – will be my morning sustenance from now on.

We meet as a group today for the first time, yoga at 11 am then later at 3 pm we will make our formal introductions, but most of us don’t wait. There are only 11 including the two leaders so that keeps things simple.

I spend my free time wandering along the Ganges toward the cacophony of horns from rickshaws, cars and motorbikes. I am not alone, my friend Karin, whom I have traveled many times with (including twice before to India) is with me. But it is impossible, I think, to be alone here.

As new travelers to India, four years ago, we were informed what foods we should avoid. Water is a given – always get bottled water, even brush your teeth with bottled water. I have already slipped on this one, as I have in the past, with no consequence, but I have not swallowed the water. Fresh cut fruit is a no-no, fresh greens and even fresh juices should be avoided. Coming from Florida this is perhaps, the hardest rule to follow. However, there are a few restaurants that cater to westerners and they have adapted the cleanliness of their kitchens and the sanitary practices of their workers to accommodate our delicate constitutions.

We have found such a place. Sanskriti. It is an Ayurvedic spa, inn and restaurant. They still have a few things to work out. Like timing. It was nearly a half hour before we got our tea – there were two other people in the restaurant – and another thirty minutes until our food came. But. It. Was. Worth. It. Warm salad (steamed veggies) with ghee and diced figs. It was like medicine after succumbing to airline and airport food for the previous two days. Every bite was savored.

As we walk back to our ‘palace’ we are reminded of the mystery of Rishikesh: its fake and real swamis, spiritual seekers, business owners, beggars, smog, mountains, majesty, paradox. Here dogs, pigs, goats, cows, horses, donkeys, monkeys and the occasional cat roam freely. Dogs tend to find humans to sit beside and eat scraps left behind by those who still embrace littering. The other animals follow suit. Sometimes the humans do the same.

It is hard for a westerner to see this. Our dogs come with their own pedestals and groomers, they often precede human friends in importance. But it is how it is here. They are not mistreated, mostly ignored or maybe simply accepted as part of the general fabric. And they seem mostly okay with this, except for this; they are social. They want contact. Their tails wag when you look at them or pet them. And so it is hard.

The animals are treated and act much like the people here. There is only so much food. But it seems Rishikesh is a kinder place for all beings. Somehow everyone gets enough.

After making formal introductions, we head to the next town over, Laxman Jhula.  We walk to a boat to cross the river, then walk a few miles weaving in and out of the woods along the Ganges, then to a bridge we must cross. I have been here before but did not recognize it as its own town, separate from Rishikesh. We are being led by Swami’s assistant and she currently has one speed – get there. There is far too much for me to take in to simply rush past it, but I do the best I can to at least keep everyone in sight as I stop here and there to absorb this town to which I am making amends. I want to KNOW it, understand it. And measured observation is my medium.

We are guided across a bridge wide enough for two motorbikes to pass one another, yet there are many motorbikes, people walking at varying speeds, many stopping to take photos of one another on the bridge with the mountains in the background – mostly Indians, this is a special vacation place or pilgrimage for them as well – cows, a man pulling a cart full of bags of rice with another man pushing from the other side, monkeys swinging from the suspension wires overhead, and us.

From the bridge we can see our intended dinner destination, Cafe de Goa. It resides high on a cliff cantilevered over the Ganges we just crossed again. Up several flights of steps and through an enclosed dining room, we emerge on that extended balcony for our evening meal.

The view is magical, lights on the bridge, dusk on the river, an observers cup of tea. The experience is memorable, not for the food or even the restaurant itself, but for the sangha we have begun to create as a group. There is time, we have time to linger and converse, to relax into this space. And so we do.

I think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

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