I’ve been learning that when an opportunity presents itself, you should take it. The famous saying goes, you regret more, the things you didn’t do, instead of the things you did. This I believe is true, there is something to say for trying and failing, or ending up in not the most ideal place, then never trying. After all, failing can happen regardless of if we play safe or not. In saying all of this, it is always good to be mindful of where you’re going…
Now I’m the sort of person that should probably have constant supervision at all times. Otherwise I end up doing something crazy or being somewhere that I shouldn’t be. In my defensive, things always seem to work out for the best and as of it yet I’ve never been in any grave danger, however, having someone around to curb my curious wanderings may not be the worst thing in the world.
This became obvious to me about 3 days after I landed in India. I was staying in Rishikesh, at a yoga teaching training school and was preparing to immerse myself in the world of yoga and meditation. Not long after arriving at the school I had learned of an ashram about two miles or so down the road. An ashram is traditionally a spiritual hermitage or a monastery in Indian religions. It is a place to devote to a goal in a disciplined manner. Roughly translated, ashram means “a step in the journey of life”. There were a number of these operating around Rishikesh, however, the one in particular I had the most interest in had been closed for many years yet, still often frequented. This is because in 1968 when it was in full operation, it was the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ashram and it was where The Beatles came to stay. They lived here with the main purpose to receive advanced training in Transcendental Meditation.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi made transcendental meditation popular worldwide and developed a scientific explanation of Meditation and Yoga. The Beatles had met him at a seminar in London and then again in Wales, he had invited them to his ashram for this advanced learning. During their period of stay at the ashram, it is rumoured to be their most productive times. They wrote many famous songs which featured in the White Album and Abbey Road. But more importantly, in a time of high stress and personal loss, their tour and stay in Rishikesh gave them a new vision to their life and a way to maintain balance and good thoughts.
I have always been a fan of The Beatles, not just because of their music but because of what they stood for and their passions. I admire how for them it was about the music over the fame. So, the opportunity to walk through the streets of history, and literally be where these idols were, was something I couldn’t pass up.
On the first Thursday we had no theory classes during the day. The rest of the class had been to this ashram the Sunday before so I headed out alone. I left the hotel around 9am after our morning yoga class, I figured, about half hour or so to walk there, couple hours at the ashram and be back in time for lunch. Little did I know fate had another plan for me that day.
I found the ashram fairly easy enough, although I really wasn’t sure to expect when I turned up, and did question a couple times if I was in the right place. But after being reassured by the guard at the entrance this was the ‘Beatles ashram’ I settled in to explore this place. It was a lot bigger then I had expected, with lots of little brick hut villages all around the outskirts. Following these around stepping through the ruins, my mind did drift back to a sign I had seen near the entrance about this being in a tiger sanctuary and I did start to worry that out of the jungle that was slowly engulfing its way around these huts I may come face to face with one of those magnificent beasts. My heart quicken briefly, and I had that haunting feeling that someone or something was watching me, I jumped as a dry stick cracked underneath my step, and almost turned and bolted back down the cracked, overgrown path. I then regained my sense and calmed down my overactive mind. But still, as I stood there in the broad sunlight looking around these abandoned ruins I could almost feel the spirits that had existed here. I pushed onwards, hoping those spirits weren’t potentially hanging around, and if they were, weren’t mad at me for being there also!
I soon stumbled across what I found to be the yoga hall. I found this by moving inwards from the outskirts to find an actual path leading around the ashram with signs and information posts along it. Turns out I had literally been going off the beaten track for a while there. The yoga hall was magnificent. Huge, open air hall (well only open air now as the roof was completely gone), concrete walls and floor covered in beautiful artwork and graffiti. At the front of the hall was the words ‘Let it be’ painted in the middle of the podium, with amazing elephant heads painted on either side. Stepping into the hall was breath-taking, I didn’t realise it would have such an effect on me. The sunlight was shining brightly through the iron rafters, I felt the gentle breeze that was gracefully whistling through the pink flowered vine, which had crept up the walls and through the broken windows, and as I stood there in the middle of the hall, embracing it all, I had such a sense of peace and contentment. I closed my eyes to breath it all in and couldn’t help to question if this was real. I was standing on the floor where The Beatles had practiced their yoga every day, I was where they had been and I wasn’t seeing it in pictures or TV, I was actually living it. Naturally, I had to do a few sun salutations and allow my mind to drift back 50 years to pretend that to my side was Ringo Starr and John Lennon. Having an overactive imagination can really make some moments magical.
Covered in dirt after my impromptu yoga session I continued on my merry way, surprised when I came across other living human beings. Up until this point I had been completely alone in my wanderings, and had been questioning if I was even allowed to be there. But I suppose, 9:30am is still pretty early by India standards. I ducked into another hall which turned out to be the meditation hall. This was covered in even more graffiti. As I made my way around, reading everything and taking it all in a group of three were sitting on the front stage, softly playing iconic Beatles tunes. ‘Hey Jude’ rang through the air and I couldn’t help but sit on the front stage with them and just smile. I could not have asked for a more perfect morning outing.
Skipping my way back down the hill and out of the ashram I assumed this would be the end of my journey that day, I would head back to the school for lunch and chill out for the afternoon. I didn’t realise that my adventure was only just beginning.
Just down the road from the ashram a youngish Indian man approached me, I was in a good mood so I humoured him and engaged in a conversation. Turns out he was a tour guide with the day off as a Swiss couple had taken his scooters out for the day, so he had nothing to do. He asked if I wanted him to take me up to see a waterfall, I sized him up and down, realised he was smaller than me and I could probably take him if he tried anything funny, and said ‘Sure, why not.’
The day rapidly progressed from here. We trekked up to the waterfall, stopping to have chai tea with an old man in his road side stall, made of corrugated iron and wooden sticks. Stopping further up the hill to sit and talk with another old man who was sitting on the side of the road smoking Indian cigarettes made of leaves. I’m not too sure what was said as my guide and this man talked fluently and only in Hindu, but was nice to sit in the morning sun and take in my surroundings and view. We then climbed further up, reaching a set of stairs stretching high up along the side of an Indian temple. The steps were steep, small and plentiful, they burned our thighs as we climbed. My guide needed to stop for a breather 2 or 3 times, which furthermore assured me that he was not a physical threat to me, as I was pretty sure if they event occurred I could outrun him!
As we reached the top of our climb and turned onto the mountain road, it levelled out a little and we walk with ease, chatting about life, love and all that was in between. To get to the waterfall we clambered through the bush, along the stream and over rocks. Once there, I wouldn’t have called it magnificent, but it was definitely serene and beautiful. I sat by the pool while my guide talked with a group of young teenagers about the importance of not being promiscuous, and again, took in my surroundings. Smiled at the sound of the water crashing down from the rocks above, and embraced the warm touch of the sun’s rays on my face.
We weren’t at the falls for very long before we headed back down onto the mountain road and were winding our way to town. The land climbed up to our right and steeped down to the left, the Ganga flowed below us and Rishikesh bustled in between. We had been walking about 20 minutes or so when an Israeli man on a motorcycle pulled over asking for directions. My guide offered to show him where to go. So, next minute, I’m sitting on a motorbike in between an Israeli and an Indian man, holding on tight as we now cruised along the road, twisting and turning our way along the valley. There was no need for stereotypical judgements here, neither these men had ulterior intentions. Their cultural backgrounds, the stigma that may have been placed on their religion, didn’t factor into their thoughts, they were just out to enjoy the day. Every individual, despite where they are from or how they have been raised is an individual separate to that which defines their stereotype. To trust a stranger is terrifying because we tend to look at the individual, not as the person themselves, but as the predetermined actions and attitudes of their collective group that they are associated with. We convict them of crimes they have not committed and judge them by these.
Unfortunately, there is always a need to air on the side of caution, because as humans we do have that trait within us that is not always whole and pure, and there are many who chose to allow that trait to take over their being. However, despite what we might believe, or by what the media decides to convince us of, these people are still in the minority. The majority of humans are still loving, caring people who understand the need not to harm others. Also probably helped that Rishikesh is Karma central and everyone there believes that if you do something wrong you will get it back threefold…
The Israeli man dropped us off at the bridge at the other end of town, and cruised off with a massive smile on his face, ecstatic about life. Here, I believed would be the end of an adventurous morning, when my guide turned to me and asked, “Would you like to see where the Ganga begins?” Considering the spiritual significance of the Ganga, I thought, why not? After all, when opportunity comes knocking… and he also assured me that it was only about 20 minutes’ drive into the mountains. I soon found out that Indian time and regular time are two different contexts.
We hitched a ride with a policeman, who turned out to be his cousin and started heading out into the Himalayans. As it was probably around noon by this point, and I had abandoned the idea of making it back to the school for lunch, we stopped at a place on the side of the road for a meal. This place was also apparently run by his uncle (was beginning to think he was related to or knew everyone in Rishikesh). We sat on plastic lawn chairs on the edge of the road under a shelter made of corrugated tin, there was an old man and 3 middle age men sitting around, eating and doing nothing, while a young girl busied herself out back making meals for everyone. This was where I saw first-hand how, despite what the culture teaches and values about women, how they are treated within society does not match this. She worked hard created delicious meals for everyone, without so much of a look of acknowledgement. She didn’t meet anyone’s eyes, and looked as if she had barely managed a smile much in her young life. I found it sad to view and be a part of this, it made the realisation of the inequality that still exists in this world today even more prominent. The way that we not only place judgements on cultures and religion but also on the other sex. The belief that men are sexual predators and woman are worthless. Again, this is not a view of everyone, but it is still a view of many, especially within the Indian culture.
Moving on from lunch we kept driving, stopping again to meet more relatives of his, then to hitch a ride with another cousin, or stranger (couldn’t quite tell). As we wound our way further and deeper into the mountains I began to question if this was only 20 minutes away, considering we’d already been driving for about an hour. By this point, my phone had died, I didn’t have a watch and I had run out of water. Every time I asked how much further he said, just 10 more minutes, again, this didn’t leave me with much faith as I was beginning to understand the Indian concept of time. We had just picked up 3 Indian ladies and were all crammed in the back with them and all their bags of groceries, when the driver came to a stop at the end of a long line of traffic. Looking up to see what had caused this delay we saw a huge landslip across the road up ahead, Massive rocks were tumbling down the side of the mountain, over the road and down into the valley below. Rocks the size of cars bounced careless along and crashed over the ledge while men casually stood around by their cars waiting for a safe time to drive across. I looked at my tour guide, he seemed just as unconcerned by it, “we’ll just wait, and it won’t take long”. I knew that at this point there wasn’t much else I could do, I had also come too far not to see what we were heading for, so, in the famous words of our yoga teacher Saarita, I thought ‘What to do?’ and sat there crammed in the back of a white tin box on wheels, with three old Indian ladies and their turmeric’s.
45 minutes later….
We finally drove past the terrifying landslip and were on our way once more. The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful, we dropped the ladies off at some roadside village type place, picked up a young school boy a bit further down and dropped him off at another point on the windy Himalayan road. Then finally the car pulled over and out we hopped, then off it sped. Looking around, we were on the side of the road, next too what looked like an abandoned building. It was really a motel/restaurant type place, but didn’t look like there was anything in it or anyone else around. I couldn’t see much else past this building, and couldn’t really see much in either direction, just that same dusty road, I felt like saying, “Is this it?” But, he beckoned me through to the back of the building, where I saw it was in fact occupied, but the men, as usual were sitting around in those off-white plastic chairs doing not much else. Once out back we stood on the balcony which overlooked the valley below. There I saw it, the waters of the Bhagirathi River and the Alaknanda River, flowing together to form the River Ganga, in all her glory. Despite, being slightly pissed knowing that I had definitely missed my afternoon yoga class with my favourite teacher, I had to be thankful for this moment. For the opportunity to be there, in the valley of these magnificent mountains, looking down on the formation on the most spiritual river in India and to see the sun gently sink lower, casting brilliant streaks of reds and pinks across the darkening sky. It was pretty special. The 20 minute drive into the mountains, which turned into a 4 hour drive, was all to bring me to this spot, at this time and to allow my eyes to take in the natural beauty surrounding me.
But, as special as it was, I also knew it had to end. Reality was, I was miles away from why I was there, from safety, from my bed. I was in the middle of the mountains, with no form of transportation to get back, and as much as I liked it there and was grateful for the experience, I wanted to get back to the school. I had come to India to learn yoga, I had plenty of the time to wander the earth afterwards. This is where I was thankful for my westernised, ‘girl-power’ upbringing, I told my friend, the tour guide that I was ready to go back. He protested a little, claiming he wouldn’t have a car till morning, and we could just sleep there and go back then. But that was going a little bit too far for my, ‘always say yes to opportunity’ attitude. Like I say, it’s also about being mindful of where these opportunities may lead you, finding the balance between being spontaneous and carefree, and knowing when it was time to be realistic and sensible (that time may have actually been before we crossed over the landslip of death…)
Since we now didn’t have a car, the only option was to hitchhike, so we stood on the side of the road waiting. Eventually an oil tank pulled over, the driver was another ‘cousin’, and as we clambered up into the front cab I was starting to wonder just how big this guy’s family line was. The tank, was more of a flatbed truck with a huge oil drum on the back secured on with very dodgy welding skills. It creaked and moaned just starting up, and the entire vehicle rattled as we rolled off. The cab was made up all of one seat that was two rows deep but both with no back. Was like sitting on the floor, but high enough up so you could see out the front window. I sat down next to the side window, which was just a hole in the truck door because it didn’t actually have any glass in it. There was a picture of Ganesha on the dashboard, with a statue of some other female, which lit up pink and purple every time we went over a bump, then there was incense burning in the back, completely safe considering we were transporting oil in a leaky drum just on the other side of a thin pane of glass that divided the cab from the back of the truck. We were driving up the narrow road that could barely fit two cars wide, let alone a truck and a car, and we were actually overtaking people. Around the corner we would fly, then pull out to swing around a car, that wasn’t going slow but was going too slow for our driver, and it didn’t matter if someone was coming in the other direction…all you do is just lay on your horn and they’ll get out the way, despite the fact that we were on the edge of a cliff with nowhere to go but down. It was actually a relief to get back to the landslip and know that we would have a break from facing death, at least for about 45 minutes. But even with the erratic driving, the ‘one match away from a burning rubble’ vehicle, the landslide and the edge of the cliff that seemed to be getting closer and closer, I was actually really enjoying the ride. If you take away your focus on the danger, and therefore the fear, and instead realise that sometimes it’s ok to allow events to be beyond your control, you surrender to your circumstances and are able to just be.
We crave control because we’ve been taught, that control is equal to safety. Once you lose it, you become unsafe and bad things will happen. But there is a trust that needs to be learned in knowing that it’s ok to not always have command over your fate. Because, reality is, we don’t, despite how much we think we do. Our thoughts and actions can determine how we get there, or how long it takes, but, we ultimately end up where we are supposed to. We need to know that it’s going to be ok, but we aren’t willing to trust that it will be. It’s about loosening that grip, trusting a stranger and enjoying the ride – in whatever form it may be. At that time, mine was in the form of an oil truck, followed by an old tin bus filled with old Indian men and darkness. Twelve hours after I had left the school I stumbled back into my room, hungry, exhausted, covered in dirt, sweat and grime. I collapsed onto my rock hard bed, sunk my head into a not so clean pillow, and smiled as I quickly drifted into a deep sleep.
Having adventures is a great experience, making it home afterwards is even better. Looking back on my story there were multiple times where it could have gone horribly wrong and you would be reading about it in a news article about a girl that was abducted in the mountains. However, it didn’t, I was lucky enough to have a random day out with a stranger who brought me back safely. It could have been due to where I was, or it could be because not everyone out there is evil. However, I say all this while still pointing out the need for caution, especially as a female traveller. Know your limits, know what you are capable of and know what to do if you need to get out. Seek for opportunities and adventure, but always be mindful. The human soul has two wolves, you never do know which one is being fed.