The joys of backpacker hostels and other differences between foreign and Indian tourists

I’m really regretting that I spent the last two nights in a hotel. It was affordable, sure enough (just over 10€ per night), but I’d done what an Indian person would have done. Okay, I don’t think an Indian girl would’ve hired a tuk tuk driver at 4.50am to drive into town and help find a hotel. Anyway, I know that the idea of hostels, i.e. renting out a bed in a dormitory, is not a common thought for Indian travellers. I’d gathered this beforehand, but got confirmation for this belief from my Delhi cohort. Which made me, stupidly, not even look. I mean, I wouldn’t have looked by myself before sunrise anyway. And booking the bus ticket in advance drained my planning-zeal, so I didn’t reserve accommodation in advance. But I wish I’d stay some more, getting in sync with whoever has been following in the footsteps of the Beatles since they had their famous retreat here back in whenever-it-was (now on the menu: visit to the “Beatles Ashram”).

Savouring this atmosphere that is similar all over the world, but like a safe haven wherever you go. People to talk to instead of staff who don’t understand English (although I was extremely proud the other day, stating my enquiry about hot water for my hotel shower as “garam pani?” – “hot water?”).

Okay, there’s also shallow always-same conversations with people who are maybe a bit too similar to you, but at least someone to follow so you don’t have to walk alone in the night. No constant suspicious faces about traveling alone, or doing whatever I want to do. I didn’t think it could have such an influence, but entering this little tourist bubble has made me feel safe immediately. Like Thamel, “my” district in Kathmandu, where I didn’t worry about wandering by myself anymore. Like when the receptionist at my current hostel in Rishikesh tells you that there’ll be live music in an hour instead of giving you odd looks that you’re going out at all.

There’s another difference between the Indian and foreign travelers I’ve met in Rishikesh (including lots of Americans on yoga teacher trainings and an overwhelming crowd of Israelis, which, oddly enough, I ended up mingling with yesterday as only one among two non-Israelis). It’s the speed. Rishikesh might not be as peaceful as it used to be, but the people I’ve met are pretty chilled out. Some of the favourite pastimes include writing or reading in cafés or walking up the hills, and of course yoga sessions everywhere.

When my Indian conference-friend helped me plan for this trip, he reacted in what felt like exaggerated shock to my idea of “just hanging around Rishikesh for three days” – “But you’ve seen all of it in half a day! What else do you want to do? Are you into river rafting?”. Indeed, this place, due to its hilly nature, is great for adventure sports… which seem, as a matter of fact, only be exercised by Indian people. As he explained, the idea of a trip to Rishikesh to them is summarised in riding up, renting motor bikes, roaming around, doing half a day of adventure sports, driving back, all in no more than two days. Which sounds crazy to me, given that it takes about 6 hours to even get here from Delhi.

I guess I’m not really getting the idea of doing stressful things even in your spare time, but then, the difference between “stressful” and “thrilling” is just a difference in taste.

Today, I tasted what un-planning means, one more of these things both precious and lost to me. I shouldered my bag, left the hotel with the TV I don’t need, and started following my gut feeling. It took me sampling Nepalese snacks (oh, I missed momos!), buying loose trousers and putting them on immediately (aha! Says the one who ranted about tourist-wear only yesterday), splashing in the holy river, and spending the afternoon in a most beautiful café. It was surrounded only by a small parapet, which I stood on to see the sunset. The evening chants started rising, filling the valley – and before I knew what was happening, I’d left the terrace, jumping from boulder to boulder, first sketchy, then more fluidly. When the chant was reaching a drum-underpinned frenzy, I sat on one of the rocks, watching as about ten monkeys climbed the metal wires of the big bridge spanning the valley, as if to pay tribute to the end of the day.

And now, I’m in said hostel, which I’d spotted on an idle walk. It was full, but I’m all set for sleeping in the common area, which is something they actually allow here, against a small fee. It’s nearly boring, knowing that a place for tonight is organised, but I will see what else happens when I find that live music place and perhaps the Israeli crowd again.

Nothing else is needed. Life here is easy. I pray it will stay that way.

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Orange Delhi night

I thought arriving would be more of a relief. Instead, it’s the middle of the night, and I’m wide awake and alone in a shabby dorm (which is either overpriced, or the exchange rate has changed dramatically since 2014, or the rest of the place really is that great to make up for it).

But! I am in India, once more, and unexpected memories and forgotten knowledge populate my mind. Like when I spontaneously want to say “sorry, I don’t have money” or “just a second” and catch myself in surprise because the words are suddenly there in Hindi.

Chatting to my taxi driver, back into the openness and confidence I used to feel. It is good to remember that there is a place where singing out loud is not all that strange, and a bit bewildering to receive all the tourist-reserved attention again. Most of all, however, this time I was less overwhelmed just by the country, and able to notice smaller things. The orange-patterned floor in the airport, the dusty sweet-ish smell that is very hard to describe, but immediately familiar. The orange-coloured night, in which the smog diffuses the light emanating from the lamp posts, the red street lights everyone ignores, magnificent temples in the most ordinary corners, oh, Delhi.

So, yes, I am full of wonder to be passing through this part of the world again, which for me feels like passing through a certain phase of my life again. Well, for now.

And I think I have decided on the theme I want to adopt for the coming days or weeks. It happened on the plane, when it suddenly clicked that I would land and be back, truly. I felt this joy, like vibrating with goodwill for all sentient beings, only better. Because there was this certainty that, at the core, there was nothing to worry about, as if anxiety wasn’t even possible, as if everything was just …good. It’s like having lost your compass and not noticing until you get it back. Which made it utterly obvious that the theme of, well, now will be to follow whatever this sense of direction indicates, just do what feels like the right thing to do, in the safety of a few weeks in which no decision will really matter anyway, and maybe learn to take some of this home. But because I’m starting to overthink stuff again, this is the right time to sleep, to then meet the wonder of the new day with a waking eye.