Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Walk on the Wild Side

There are plenty of nice ashrams and temples to go walking to in the Rishikesh area. We have spent quite a bit of time walking about, although the heat and scorching sun have been a deterrent. Feeling brave, and needing to stretch my legs after all the work at yoga we decided on the 6km walk out to the Phool Chatti ashram, at the apex of a clear, blue stream and the muddy, swift opaque ganges. We ate breakfast and sipped spicy chai at our favourite breakfast spot and left the comfort of the fan for the steamy, sunsoaked outdoors.

The walk is along an Indian road, which poses dangers in itself, what with all the jeeps crammed with locals flying (sometimes literally) up and down the narrow way. And the motorbikes, with no less than three passengers, none of whom seem to be actually paying attention to the road. Most of the road is covered in cow patties. I guess that's one of the main downfalls of all the friendly, resident, wandering cows that beg passerbys for a chip or two from their bag, 'Magic Masala' preferably. (Or their favourite treat: cardboard boxes. Those they eat with relish. They especially like the Coca Cola variety.) Anyways. Poo. Everywhere. And these cows eat a diet consisting almost entirely of garbage and pretty much anything and everything, except grass, so you can imagine that they aren't perhaps the healthiest of beasts. This is reflected in their spattering, smearing, stinky poo that they effectively spread over every inch of the road. Impressive, really. They rarely miss a spot. A stroll anywhere in India is, essentially a Cow Pattie Obstacle Course. And many people seem to like to complete this obstacle course barefoot! So, to summarize, the 'steps' of walking.

Step One: Avoid being hit by a wayward vehicle. They honk, you moooove. That's it. The cows seem to manage... then again, they are the sacred ones.

Step Two: Good luck trying to avoid walking through cow poo. Get your wellies!

The thick, jungle-y forest that lines the road is sublime, though. And the monkeys!
Sometimes I think about the time when monkeys running amok, clambering through trees and peering curiously at you from the side of the road wasn't a normal, everyday sight. I would think it was a sad time- if the monkeys themselves weren't so terrifying. They don't mean to be, I'm sure. But they don't know any better. People have fed them in the past, and they are still optimistic about handouts, they get yelled at a lot, because they are so very mischievous, and people sometimes even hit them with sticks (sad, I know). So, really, people are much to blame for some of the behaviour. When we were getting all our shots for the trip, the nurse recommended we get a rabies shot, in case a monkey jumps on us. I laughed when she said that. What the heck kind of situation would we find ourselves in that a monkey might jump on us. Ohhh how little I knew. The nurses warning has stuck, and now, to me, monkey = rabies. And rabies = a lot of needles. You can die from rabies within 24hours. This I didn't know until the needle nurse horrified me with this little tidbit. Sad, but true.

Step Three: Don't feed the monkeys.

Anyways, on a positive note, there are two kinds of monkeys here in Rishikesh. Feisty smaller red-bummed rhesus macaque and large black-faced, grey bodied 'Hanuman' langurs. Both are abundant and abundantly mischievious. So, we begin our walk by hiding our water bottle and making sure that there is nothing fun-looking or shiny dangling from our beings. Although we see monkeys now, everyday, everywhere, I still can't help but be charmed by their monkey ways. "Hahaha! That monkey just clambered across the roof and stole that apple, and then skidded across the electrical wire, down the drain pipe, scrambled across the street and scared the wits out of that couple!' 'Hahaha! Its 6am and those monkeys are wrestling on the tin roof, causing one heck of a ruckus!' Its probably less entertaining when you live here.
So, what I am actually trying to say is that you have to have your wits about you when walking through the forest.

We walk to the edge of town and are joined by a cute black dog with an incessantly waggy tail. Stray dogs join us on walks often. 'Maybe because their doggie sense tells them that we're friendly?' We originally thought. But, no, its because we don't immediately yell at them, kick them, throw sticks at them or jump at them aggressively trying to scare them. That's what most locals do. Earning a dogs love in these parts is not hard. They do not have high standards. Therefore, dogs join us for walks, and use us for protection (and often protect us against other animals!). They seem to have figured out that people won't hit them if they are 'attached' to other people. We walked along, our new doggie friend heeling in between us. The monkeys and dogs aren't friends. "Dog" (aren't we creative with names?) hid from the monkeys behind us. We're walking along, sweaty in the mid-morning sun, taking in the green, the monkeys and the rushing ganges. Dog is sniffing a bush. Recipe for disaster. All of the sudden a large monkey, aggressively jumps out at him, barring his teeth in warning. We all jump in surprise and Dog runs to hide behind us. Sigh. And the adventure begins.

Step Four: Watch out for cute, trouble causing tag-alongs.

People stop us to take pictures. Its all part of the routine now. One snap of us, then everyone takes turns taking a photo with us, they thank us, shake our hands and we move on. I feel bad that I am so sweaty and gross-looking for their photos. One guy even insists on hugging us. I am wet with sweat. Its so hot. Poor guy. I'm gross.

Step Five: Smile for the camera.

We keep trucking. If it wasn't so darn hot, it would be very enjoyable. 'I wish it wasn't so hot!' I whine for the tenth time in as many minutes. There's barely even a breeze. Dog lies down in a river that has taken over the road, covering the patch in muddy, cool water. He slurps up the drink. Yum. I, on the other hand, don't do heat so well. I complain. 'I wish it weren't so hot!' I say again, in case Jonathan didn't hear me the first eleven times.

Step Six: Get your sweat on.

As if on demand, a wonderfully cool, even cold, breeze envelopes us. Wow! Its such a contrast that I look around to see if we have passed some sort of hidden, magic air conditioned shop with its doors open, somewhere in the middle of the forest. Weird. Its soooo nice. But not free. A very black cloud appears over the ridge of the mountain and almost instantly huge raindrops start splattering around us. Splat! Splat! Splat! Of course, we haven't brought our umbrellas as the sky has been a hot, hazy blue for days. Splat! Stupid! Its monsoon. We've been tricked again. We dash under a dense tree and hope to use this jungle canopy to our advantage. The cooler air is welcome, and we wouldn't really even mind getting wet- but I have my cameras in my bag and Jonathan has the passports and money. The tree diverts some of the rain, but not for long. The rain gets heavier and the drops find their way through the leaves and onto us. 'Well, you got your wish. It's not hot anymore,' Jonathan says to me as his shirt changes colour the wetter it gets. We stand under the tree, getting soaked. So, this is what they mean by 'monsoon,' eh? Realizing that we probably couldn't get any more wet than we were we decide just to walk through the rain back towards town. Jeeps and motorbikes pass at breakneck speed, aiming for puddles (I'm sure) and defiantly splashing us with the entire contents of the puddle. 'Thought that is as wet as you could get?' they seem to be mocking.

Step Seven: Bring your umbrella.

We stomp on. My sandals are slimy and slippery and really annoying to walk in. Jonathan's hair is plastered to his head and his pants are dragging in through the mud (we're telling ourselves its mud anyway...). I am about to complain about our new set of frustrating circumstances when my thoughts are zapped from my head by a massive, shocking, terrifying BOOOOM!!! right above us. I yelp and jump impressively high, no doubt. We look up in time to see a burst of yellow and orange sparks/flames exploding from the power box on top of the wood posts and quickly showering towards us. 'That thing just EXPLODED!' I cry, my heart pounding. 'It EXPLODED right over us! There is a fire! Fireworks!' Do we run? What happens next? We are too shocked to do anything but look at each other. Swerving jeeps and motorbikes, killer monkeys, curious Dog looking for trouble, a monsoon and now an explosion. This was some morning walk! 'If Ronnie were in charge here, that would have NEVER have happened!' I tell Jonathan. Its still 'monsooning' but we push on. A few minutes later, we hear another loud BOOOM!!! from behind us and think that maybe our luck is changing. Explosions from a distance are probably of the safer variety.

Step Eight: Maybe bring a hard hat too.

We finally get to the edge of town. Its still raining with vigor. The roads are flooded and the water covering them is the grossest variety of gross. The cow patties are now floating, disguised in the muddy rain water, and nearly impossible to avoid. People's garbage has grown legs (that they all insist on haphazardly throwing out into the middle of the road) and is chasing us down the street. Garbage cans are not popular here. Why, when the street is closer, bigger and there. Food pieces float by, wrappers, diseases. Who knows, really. Its so gross I can't bare to look what I am wading through anymore. It couldn't have been raining more than twenty minutes and everything is a disaster. And flooded.

Step Nine: Don't get caught up the flooded street without a paddle.

A man sitting irritatingly dry and comfy in his shop tries to sell me an umbrella. I glare at him. I think its a little late for that. In town, everyone is hiding in come cubby hole or another. Under this plastic or that, sipping chai, staring at us as we pass. Soaked to the bone. Our clothes are stuck to us, and I am trying to cover my bag with my dripping shirt, to protect the cameras. My clothes are falling down under the weight of the water. I don't want to think what my feet are touching.

We arrive back at our hotel and leave a trail that looks like a river to our room. Jonathan is happy because he has an excuse to wear his sarong the rest of the day.

Step ten: Be careful what you wish for.

ps. Happy Birthday Fun Aunt Maryann!

pps. We felt the earthquake, but we are fine. Although extensive, damage did not reach to the Annapurna. This should mean we will have no troubles getting into our trek.

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