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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Skylights on the Ganga

I’m back in Rishikesh, where I was last seven years ago. Back then, I was bustling with hardly contained enthusiasm, gasping at the hippies and the holy Ganga, rummaging through colourful Nepalese garments. Now, I am embarrassed by Americans dressing up like priests, and wear my black jeans and shirt because that feels like what a “normal” person would do, Indian or not.

The moments that have brought me most contentment lately were those that, for me, signal a good time almost anywhere. Reading the new novel by Arundhati Roy, for example, wonderfully set in the streets of Old Delhi and perhaps within a part of Indian mentality. Visiting the co-working space which a friend’s friend’s friend – she had temporarily joined the delegation of people supposed to occupy me in Delhi – is helping to set up.

Most importantly, finding the minuscule fraction of New Delhi’s mega-population that shares my interests. Everything was good once I jumped around an old fort and a park with Abhishek, the one parkour coach I’d found online. The simple act of doing something strange fuelled by a mentality we both follow made it easy to belong. I was no longer the European surrounded by countless Indians, but we were two traceurs within the ever curious crowd, as stunned and intrigued in Delhi as elsewhere. I am dying to get a chance to go to the climbing hall they set up inside an old temple…!

Other joys, also still before boarding the bus to Rishikesh: trying to understand, properly this time. Any of the insights gathered in previous travels feel incomplete, uncomfortably muddled and shallow. If I’ve lost the insouciance that previously enabled me to embrace other people’s worldviews without so much as a blink (which is a skill in itself!), I have gained something else. While, on my trips before University, I was good at listening, I don’t think that I’ve always asked the right kind of questions.

Being able to ask the right questions is also a matter of recognising the right moment… I have way too often asked questions in the wrong instants, where they ensued in awkwardness instead of opening doors.

I spent the second half of yesterday (after the parkour morning) with someone I’d met at a conference in 2013. It took until right before the end that we started talking about touchy issues such as family and relationships, and I still tried to tread carefully when asked “how’s that different in Europe?”. I know that young urban Indians are getting more relaxed about sex and relationships, and I found it great that issues of gender equality are being adressed more visibly now. At the same time, my own horizons have broadened quite a bit in liberal student environments, and I don’t think he was ready to hear about pansexuality or polyamory, or other things that now sound very commonplace to me but which, in that environment, felt rather… out of place. Instead, I found out that he’d only ever had one girlfriend, which her family married to someone else while he was abroad, because they were from a different cast. So, yes, the kids can have relationships before they marry, but things get trickier once it comes to marriage. A woman about my age told me: “my family encourages me to get a love marriage, because arranged marriage is such a gamble. But I don’t want to find someone… I’d rather not be married at all, but that is something my family will not accept”.

And so, when wandering Rishikesh, I wasn’t sure why I should even be here, and brooded in a little solitary circle in a café near the river. Some time later, I joined its owner on the roof, watching the Ganges and the monkeys in the late light, finding it hard to follow while he spoke. But he noticed my mood and the thing I understood was when he said: “You don’t have to be unhappy”. Which didn’t seem to help in that moment. Yet, by now the café has filled with people and guitars and the smell of food…and maybe it does make sense to be here.