Our Couchsurfing host Rajesh has given us directions to take "a shared auto for the price of 20 rupees each" to find his house. But we have no idea what a "shared auto" looks like or where to find one. Nor can we find anyone adept enough at English to explain this. We do find a nice solider (holding an automatic weapon) with a nice enough smile to help us negotiate a private auto-rickshaw for the price of 150 rupees (that's three dollars, as opposed to the noted 60 cents). The driver is very proud of his deluxe rickshaw with new polka dotted upholstery but clearly has no idea of where we are going. Even after asking directions he has to speak with Rajesh on the cell phone to find the house. He scowls when I pay him just the 150 we agreed upon and flies off in a huff. Rajesh assures me that I have just paid a king's ransom and not to feel badly.
We do finally figure out how to catch a shared auto (these are simply auto-rickshaws that stop and pick up many passengers) for a few rupees. They pack people in to full capacity and Amanda ends up with an old woman on her lap on several occasions.
Rajesh greets us in the yard and we are brought into the house for chai (tea) and a concert by Khanak on the harmonium.
She is a gorgeous and talented six year old who sings, dances and reads well in Hindi and English. We give her the gifts of crayons and coloring books and get kisses on the cheek and "thank you auntie and thank you uncle" in return. She later reads to us from the copy of "Goodnight Moon" we have brought. For the rest of our visit we hear "in the great greeen roooom there was a telephone and a red balooooon" in a singsong little Indian voice from rooms away. Kamal is a fantastic cook and we are treated to home made Indian soul food for dinner and the next several meals. We return the favor by making American comfort food (grilled cheese sandwiches and mashed potatoes) to go along with the chapati and alloo mutter.
The next day we brave the "shared auto" and go into town to walk about and try to find a rumored "fair" or maile. We ask about and no one seems to know of this fair so we wander along the Ganga (Ganges) river. Children play cricket and we are approached by several beggars who we politely acknowledge but do not give money to. Amanda forbids me to and it is very difficult, but she is correct in her assertion that we are doing the next folks a favor by refusing. Several beggars are "Sadhus" or holy men who give up all of their possessions to take up a little pot and beg for a living. They are supposed to be spiritual aesthetics, but smoke unholy amounts of ganja and wear dreadlocks and orange rags.
We would never take a picture of one, so I have downloaded one. This guy can apparently afford a decent watch!
As we wander we peek into the yard of a temple and stumble upon the maile as it is being erected. There are several rides that are miniature versions of ones we are accustomed to, but that run on people power. The merry go round is pushed by people, the small Ferris wheel is the same. The glaring exception are the "teacup" ride and the giant Ferris wheel. These are run by gas power and we watch as three men climb the nearly 80 foot structure and climb into the topmost basket.
Sadly we are too slow with the camera to catch video as they all jump from one basket to the next until the wheel starts to roll and the operator throws a clutch and "jump starts" the wheel! We visit for a while with some curious school kids and then head home to Rajesh and Kamal's place for another amazing dinner.
The following day we arranged to take the whole family for a safari in the national park that borders the property where we are staying.
After twenty minutes of paperwork, logging of passports and home addresses, paying of entry fees and bureaucratic niceties we get into an open Land Cruiser and are carefully driven through Rajaji park. We get to see some elephants from a distance, many deer, monkeys, langurs, wild pigs, peacocks and parrots. It is a very peaceful day away from the honking and bustle of India's streets. For some reason we took just one or two pictures all day.
In the evening we make a journey to Haridwar to see the Aarti
. We have read about this evening ceremony on the Ganges where people purify themselves in the river and pray in the presence of the four elements. After paying an official looking man who wants 1,000 rupees from us (that's $20 dollars!) but gets a donation of 250 rupees, there is the taking of names and filing of official documents. We are then seated as the only westerners amongst a massive crowd on the steps of the Ganga. For the next half hour we watch as people ritually wash in the water and float lamps on little boats of leaves (fire and earth) down the river. Eventually a lot of gongs and clanging commence and we are treated to a firestorm of prayer as men wave giant lamps about. In the end we shuffle off with the crowd into the cramped markets of Haridwar. When we stop to buy a snack the vendor charges us twice what he would a local but then gives us a second round of the fried potato pancakes for free to ease his conscience. This being fleeced only to then be shown remarkable kindness is not at all uncommon in India. We try not to be taken advantage of, and at the same time not sweat the small stuff. Most of the time it comes out even.
After staying with families for several days Amanda and I decide that we would like some time alone. We take off of the next morning for a place nearby called Laxman Jhula and book into a luxurious hotel for a whopping 1200 rupees ($24)! It's almost a guilty pleasure to spend that kind of money and stay in a place with marble floors and a gorgeous view of the Ganga. Next to our hotel is an orphanage called Ramana's Garden School for Destitute Children. The school runs a little restaurant where we were treated to one of the best meals we have ever eaten. We arrive at recess time and are greeted by whooping and chattering children who direct us to a lovely stone building. We order fresh salads made from produce grown in their gardens and eat on the roof. Older children serve us our meals and smile demurely. We learn that Dwabha, the American founder of the school has been away for several weeks for medical treatment and will be returning in just a few hours.
Amanda had made it clear that there is no way that she will ride a motorcycle with me in India. And while I respect her survival instinct, I feel strongly about not missing the opportunity to ride a Royal Enfield along the Ganga River. As it turns out Laxman Jhula is one of the few places in India where a compromise could be reached. It's very quiet there, with few cars and a highway that leads directly out of town and up into the mountains. It's the Sedona of India with the added bonus of being able to ride across a suspension bridge spanning the Ganga!
The man at the rental shop says to "add petrol" and for some reason I think that this means I should fill the tank before I return the bike. After riding for 2 kilometers I run out of fuel. I coast in to a parking space next to another Enfield owned by a river runner who instructs an employee to take me to the petrol station on his bike. He rummages in the trash for a bottle to put gas in. I go next door and buy an empty bottle for 40 rupees, but don't have any small bills (my 500 rupee note is a fortune there). I take the bottle and promise to return with coins. We get my bike running again, but when the shop owner hears I have filled his friend's bike while at the station he refuses to take my money. I arrange for a river trip with the company for the next day.
We chug along the highway, high above the Ganga to the satisfying chitty chitty of the 500cc Indian made version of this awesome British relic. We stop for a warm and very dusty bottle of Fanta and see an official entry to a waterfall hike. More papers, passports, niceties and rupees shelled out for entry. I speak enough Hindi now to tell the boy with the urine stained pants that we don't need a guide, but thank you! Eventually he catches on and we are left to hike in the pristine wilderness until.....splash!!!! Giant boulders are sliding down the mountain dislodged by the heavy equipment teetering high above. We rush to get past not knowing what would fall next, rocks or machinery. The hike is pleasant and very lovely.
It ends at a waterfall that has several stages. All look like features of Grand Canyon.
We return to Ramana's Garden for dinner and movie in their cafe. The food is fantastic and we are in the company of fellow western travellers for the first time in a week.
If you count the driver, then we were outnumbered by guides on our river trip. If ignorance is bliss then that would account for my light mood as we negotiated the class three rapids on the short section of the Ganga that we travelled. Amanda was underwhelmed by Indian safety practices and insistent that we "stay in the boat", even when the guides insisted that flipping "is part of the adventure, madam"!
We did manage to stay dry-ish and safe enough to return for hot showers before what would prove to be the "hour of darkness" of our trip..... but more on that later.
Tune in next episode as we try to find the only roll of toilet paper (rumor perhaps?) in the most "off the beaten path" town we endured in India!