Reeling and Retching in Rishikesh


Before Ken came to India, I tried to warn him that it was an intense place. I told him if one has never been to India, one should try to spend at least a month, and know that the first week or two will be spent on adjusting and getting over the westerner’s freakout that almost always happens when one first arrives. I remember well how disorienting everything was to me when I first came to India. The chaos, the crush of people, the smells, the poverty, the built environment — all of it an assault on the senses. Add to that the traffic, the dirt, the shit, and the noise. I think it is almost impossible to enjoy India and all it has to offer if one has only been here for a week or two. And I have never met a single person in my life who came to India for less than a month and enjoyed it. The only people who might possibly think just a week or two is ok are traveling in 5-star luxury, and have not really seen India at all, only some glossy, gauzy, carefully edited fantasy cooked up by greedy travel agents.

Our day started out well enough. We woke up, got packed and went downstairs to check out, which went smoothly. The hotel had helpfully arranged transport for us to the train station in the form of an auto rickshaw (known in other places as a tuk tuk), which was good since it was raining. Ken had never been in one of these, so I thought great, a new experience, but they can be a bit wobbly, especially on the uneven streets of an Indian town. We made it to the train station after about 20 minutes, and then went to find our train, which we did with the help of a nice local man. Since we had some time to spare, we walked to the station restaurant and ordered some breakfast and sat down, when suddenly the power went out. We sat in pitch darkness until they brought out a battery powered lantern, and they apologized that our coffees would be a bit delayed. Ken took a look outside on the platform, with all the sleeping people and others hanging about, and told me it looked kinda creepy out there. The lights came back on and we finished our meal and got on our train, which departed the station at 7:13 am, a very reasonable delay of only 18 minutes.

In India I book first class on trains whenever possible, because it is quite inexpensive and while not as nice as second class in most places, is certainly the best thing on offer. Alas, the train to Haridwar has no first class available, so I booked something called AC Chair Class. Our seats were pretty uncomfortable and I had to stand for part of the trip because my ass and back were so sore. Ken said much the same and seemed to be dealing with it well, but I think the 7 hours in that position must have worn him down a bit. When we finally made it to Haridwar, we were both pretty hungry, so decided the first thing we would do would be to search for food. As we descended the train, we were naturally assaulted by a variety of touts, most of whom were looking to taxi us up to Rishikesh. I have a lot of experience with this and so just ignored them or politely said no thanks as I calmly made my way with my bags to the exit and out to find a restaurant. But Ken became a bit agitated and then I think had a bit of a panic attack, because he started wandering off without me and seemed really out of it. I found him and we made our way to a restaurant and got a bite to eat, and he seemed a little bit better after that. But then we went out and I negotiated a taxi for us to Rishikesh, doing the back and forth that one does when trying to pay the correct amount to go somewhere. We actually ended up paying a little more than we should have, but I wanted to get to the ashram we were going to sooner rather than later so I tried to wrap it up. We got in the taxi and started to make our way through the chaotic traffic, past people and a wild boar, and some monkeys, stray dogs and cows of course, and all manner of cart being pulled by people or animals, and blaring horns and near head-on collisions, and drivers all trying to pass each other, and swerving and potholes and bumps and diesel fumes all around — you know, a normal drive in an Indian town.

By this time Ken was really looking queasy, holding his head in his hands, and at one point told us to stop the car, at which point he got out and threw up. He then got back in and was shaking a bit and telling me he felt terrible and sleepy and light-headed and just wanted some peace and quiet. Knowing we were about to head to an ashram that might provide still more strangeness, I told Ken that we could just go to a hotel instead. That seemed to cheer him a bit and so we picked one of the ones he had seen in his guidebook and decided to go there. The driver we had made a deal with had taken a slightly easier route (for him) to the ashram, letting us off across the river (Ganges btw) from the ashram, about a 10-minute walk across a footbridge and down a street. Fortunately, the hotel Ken had picked was quite close on the map to the ashram, so we thought it would be just as easy to get to. It was anything but.

Once we got out of the taxi, it immediately started to rain of course, and we made our way with our bags down a perilous and slippery staircase to get to the footbridge to cross the river. Once across, we had to follow quite a winding path that google gave us to get to the hotel. And this path was uphill part of the way, and not very suitable for rolling bags as it was only paved in places and even along those I have almost never seen as much wet dung to avoid as I did today. Along the way, Ken saw a guy selling oranges and decided he needed to buy some, so he did, and on we continued. As we got closer to the suburb where the hotel was, we noticed even more cattle and mangy stray dogs in the road and several monkeys. Apparently Ken’s clear plastic sack of oranges really got the monkeys’ attention, and they started following him trying to grab them. He ultimately stopped to put them in his sack, and we finally made it to our hotel, which is brand spanking new and clean and nice. I think this place saved Ken’s sanity today, and he is sleeping now and will hopefully be feeling better in a few hours.

I think the combination of jet-lag and unfamiliarity and non-stop activity made Ken feel sick, freak out, and shut down a bit. I got a little bit worried about him today in fact, but hopefully this rest in luxury (we are paying THIRTY dollars for this hotel) will help him relax and replenish himself so that we can explore Rishikesh tomorrow.

I hope it is not terrible to say, but this experience with Ken has made me feel a bit better about my own coping skills. I think I had a few concerns on returning to India, but it has been a bit like riding a bike. I certainly can note the differences with the US in terms of the way things work, but I have not grown so distant from my experience here all those years ago to find it overwhelming. I am actually really enjoying seeing the new places and reliving some of the old chaos, in addition to meeting up with old friends I had made here. I still find India to be an incredible place with so much to offer. I hope that the shortness of this trip will not turn my dear friend Ken off from a place that can be so magical when viewed from a certain perspective.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: As I was finishing this blog post, Ken woke up, ran to the bathroom and heartily puked a few times. Now that I think about it, and after having reviewed what we had eaten today, I believe Ken has a simple case of food poisoning. This was most likely caused by the Biryani he ate this morning at the station restaurant, since it is the only thing he ate today that I did not. These things usually last about 24 hours, so he will hopefully be right as rain tomorrow. And ready to bask in the glory of India after all.