A very telling moment occurred on Facebook a few weeks back. A friend of mine traveling in India had updated their status as “first stressful moment in this country, two weeks in”. Now normally, when someone we know says that they’re having a stressful vacation, we might ask for more details about what the reasons could be, why this was happening. Vacations are supposed to be fun, right? But in this case, no one needed any further explanation. In fact, the post was followed by a series of astonished congratulations from those who had visited the country before. The only interesting part of this situation, it seems, is that it had taken so long.
Of course, travel is always a little stressful on some level. Finding your way from one place to another, having trouble with the local language, lost or stolen luggage. These are all common for your average traveler. But really weathered veterans, those who have backpacked through Central America and ridden trains across China with nothing more than a backpack and a sense of steely determination, these people aren’t affected by the sort of problems that might befall your grandparents, right? You’ll hit pitfalls and you just have to roll with them; adapt. And yet, more than any other country, it seems that India has the ability to conquer even the most seasoned explorer.
What is the reason for this? I mean, isn’t India supposed to be a place of peace, serenity, and spiritual fulfillment? Why am standing in the road yelling at my taxi driver when I should be sitting under a Bodhi tree contemplating the universe? What exactly has me so on edge? Well, the heat is certainly a contributing factor. This summer, India reached all-time record high temperatures, with some places measuring an excess of 122° F. When you’re schlepping your bags across New Delhi in that kind of heat, surrounded by a million hawkers trying to sell you things or get you into their rickshaw, it is literally quite difficult to keep a cool head.
Or maybe it’s just that smell. India has a massive problem with waste, be it solid, liquid, chemical, or human. There’s just not enough infrastructure to support the needs of its population, so people put their garbage wherever they can, which so often seems to be right in front of you. Add to that the dirt, the grime, the dust and the smog, or any combination of the above, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a stressball holiday.
So why does India lure us in with visions of beautiful colors and delicious food, peaceful contemplation and awe-inspiring adventure, only to present us with so many obstacles? Is this some sort of test? Perhaps India is a place you’re supposed to go to endure quite possibly the most stressful living conditions imaginable, and through doing so learn to find peace with it. If so, I failed that test miserably. But maybe you’ll have better luck.
For those brave souls that have read through the first part of this post and still desire to seek enlightenment, there are many places in India that are specifically designed for this purpose. Dharamasala in the north is home to the Dhali Lama and the center of Tibetan Buddhist exile. Bodh Gaya is the site of the tree where the Buddha sat and gained enlightenment. And there are countless temples and holy sites spread all across the country, and particularly in the northwestern state of Uttarakhand, that are devoted to any number of gods in the pantheon of Hindu mythology.
And then there’s Rishikesh. Billed as the “world capital of yoga”, it was to this sleepy town in western Uttarakhand that The Beatles came to meet their Maharishi, sparking a massive influx of travelers seeking to follow the same path, and paving the way for the popularization of yoga in the west, which continues to this day. Located in the foothills of the western edge of the Himalayas, the town sits directly on the holy Ganges River, close to its source. It’s said that three dips in its freezing water will cleanse the soul and bring one closer to God. I’ve done this myself, and without going so far as to call it a holy experience, I can certainly vouch for its transcendental quality.
We arrived in Rishikesh just as the Kumbh Mela – the holiest pilgrimage in Hinduism and the largest gathering of people in the world – was kicking into high gear in nearby Haridwar. As our bus arrived in the area after a 13-hour drive, we were greeted with sights of huge tent cities, masses of people crowding the roads, and colorful lights spanning the banks of the Ganges that more resembled a traveling carnival than a solemn religious gathering. We wanted to give Rishikesh a fair shot, we even stayed in an ashram for an “authentic” experience, but ultimately it just wasn’t the right time or place for us to be there.
Packing our bags, we headed east to the small hill station of Nainital. With cooler temperatures, a relaxed atmosphere, and a beautiful pear-shaped lake, Nainital offered the solace that we so desperately needed, while still giving us more insight into India, and furthermore what we would later see in Nepal.