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india

11: Channeling Energy in The Yoga Capital of the World [Rishikesh, India]

October 13th, 2019

I was awoken on the 12-hour night bus journey from Dharamshala to Haridwar by a nudge from the man next to me, signaling that we made it to our destination. It was 6 AM, and I was still foggy from my lack of sleep on the way. Another 50 Rupees (70 cents) afforded me the next hour-long bus ride from Haridwar to Rishikesh, which was my final stop in India before I crossed the westernmost border into Nepal. It was a stunning bus ride through the jungle, and the channel of rugged human development had its own glimmering prominence. Feeling nostalgic for India as a whole, I felt inspired to write some poetry to the general tune of “POWERFUL LOVE,” my anthem for the trip, which I share with you below.


Rhythm of the Road

Monkey families eating trash on the side of the road

An old man coughing from inhaling too much smoke

The bus in motion doesn’t stop us from jumping on

The seats are taken so we stand up bumpin ‘round

A raspy murmur escapes from inside his throat

He wears a tanktop with sandals doesn’t need a coat

Crumpled up Rupees will take him where he needs to be

Street’s too noisy, he takes refuge in his family

Our bodies shakin’ to the rhythm of the road

This is the rhythm, the rhythm of the road

Yeah I’ve been shakin’ to the rhythm, quakin’ all down the road

The sun is shining, filtered through the hazy sky

She clasps her hands at her heart, lets out her deepest sigh

Rice and bananas are grown for the masses today

To keep feedin’ more people, we’re takin’ the forest away

We are speaking, more than words straight through our eyes

We are reaching, grabbing out through the skies

We are running, freely playing life’s old game

We are woven, in this web from all the same

Our bodies shakin’ to the rhythm of the road

This is the rhythm, the rhythm of the road

Yeah I’ve been shakin’ to the rhythm, quakin’ all down the road


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I made it to Rishikesh, and a rickshaw ride later, to my hostel. As soon as I checked in, the staff told me that some other guests at the hostel were looking for another person to go whitewater rafting down the Ganga (English: Ganges) River with them. I’m typically a yes man – especially when traveling, so I agreed. The next thing I know I’m squished in a Jeep with a family of 7 Indians from Mumbai, bumping around together down some really poorly maintained roads.

We made it to the river banks and I could feel the cold air rushing down from the lush mountains above. As I gazed into the mouth of this holy river, I considered the irony of doing such a touristic adrenaline-rushy activity as my introduction to it. For in fact it was the only holy river in India I knew of before coming here. I dreamed of it being this sacred, slow, ominous moment where I gently kneel down to dunk my head in the water, and visions of Krishna come swirling all around me. Yet here I was, feeling more like I’m about to ride a rollercoaster than achieve enlightenment, and it felt perfectly in place. For it became immediately evident that like Dharamshala, Rishikesh has been heavily shaped by the tourism industry in the past few decades.

As we were launching the raft into the river I couldn’t help but to ponder if this was disrespectful to it, or to the Babas (a word with many meanings, usually akin to guru/teacher/saint) who revere it. Yet there was no backing out now. 

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Helmet on and paddle in hand, our guide was soon aiming us towards the rapids. I could see a slight look of fear in the eyes of my friend who I chatted with on the ride there. Trapped on a raft together, we approached, we splashed, and we conquered. It was surprisingly turbulent, causing the whole family to scream in excitement, and making me just laugh at the whole situation I spontaneously found myself in.

Riding the river was indeed like a rollercoaster at several points, but once we drifted further down it became calm enough to jump in and lazily float alongside several other rafters doing the same thing. The water wasn’t as chilly as Pacific Northwest rivers, but comparable. Half of the Indian family found it too cold for swimming, but the other half dared with me to submerge. The light-heartedness and true joy expressed by their family was what made that journey for me. An added bonus was the scenery along the way: plenty of temples, populated beaches along the banks, and a few iconic pedestrian bridges. I loved how the urban development was juxtaposed with looming jungle-mountains surrounding it. ’Twas was surreal to say the least.

Our spectacular 30-minute river journey eventually came to an end as I wished the Indian family goodbye (“Namaste!”). I air-dried my clothing on the back of a motorbike as I headed towards the hostel. I hung out there until an hour or two before the sunset, when I went out for a walk. 

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In five minutes I was crossing the famous Laxman Jhula bridge that I had just floated underneath, which was now chock-full of head-scratching banana-eating creatures such as humans and rhesus macaques. I weaved around plenty of picture-takers, then through some more tourist-packed sections until I reached a fine sandy beach just in time to watch the sun dip below the treetops.

Ineffably gorgeous with perfect temperatures, it was fitting that Rishikesh is known as the yoga capital of the world, and is one of the holiest places to Hindus. Aye, lingering in the air was a supernal aura, which was unsurprising given the plenty of Hindu sages including Shiva, Rama, and Lakshmana who are said to have strolled these riverbanks. Pondering the spiritual history of this place, I realized that it’s continually being written right before my eyes, 21st century-style. For there was a curious baptism-like ceremony taking place in the distance, so I climbed atop a boulder to get a better view.

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A white lady was standing waist deep in the river, and after her (students?) released a leaf-cup containing flowers and a lit candle down the river, she invited them one by one into the depths with her. They stood face to face with palms held at heart center, spoke some words I couldn’t hear, and after a few minutes the leader gave her followers a swift dunk. The entire group (6 followers, 1 leader, 1 camera-man) was white, and I felt torn about what was taking place. For it was a serene ceremony, but where were all the Indians? If this was a traditional Hindu ceremony, why aren’t local Hindus the ones performing it? It seemed that tourists had taken over the best spots in Rishikesh and pushed most of the locals into crowded, polluted cities. This vexation about how tourism has shaped the environment reflected a greater theme of my month-long India journey thus far: Should I feel guilty as a fellow tourist?

Well, there’s no better time than sitting on a boulder overlooking a sunset on the Ganges to dissect a question like this. To start, guilt implies doing something morally wrong. I guide my moral life by virtues, and since my chief virtue is self-trust, I believe everybody must follow their own ethics (therefore when I claim “___ is good/bad,” I mean to me it is, not that you also should think that it is good/bad).

So, the spread of eastern spirituality in the west is generally good, for it brings the entire human race a little closer together. It shows us our similarities, widens our perspective, and has brought great peace and happiness into many people’s lives. Yet I can’t help but to consider the environmental cost of every action. And interest in eastern spirituality + the physical and financial capability to travel east = a lot of plane rides. Yet if many of those tourists deepen their inner peace and love for all humanity, is it worth it?

I say yes, to a certain extent. It would be wasteful to travel back and forth from Detroit to Rishikesh 1000 times, and still wasteful if I flew there for only a few days before heading back. But to make the most out of that plane ride by traveling around Asia with public ground transportation as much as possible for three months makes it seem more justifiable. Yet there’s no clear line I can draw between one big trip and ten big trips to the East. It depends on the intention behind each visit, whether one is acting out of virtue or vice.

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Aside from environmental concerns, the touristy (and often most sacred) hotspots have become heavily consumeristic. The prices even for basic goods in these areas are geared towards Westerners or well-to-do Indians, pushing most common folks into dirtier, busier areas. As a tourist all I can do to combat this is strive to only purchase what I really need. I must admit I’ve pick up unnecessary things like a magnet for my mom’s collection, which I gave to her for Christmas. But since my intention behind the purchase is to express love, I consider it justifiable. However, 1000 magnets wouldn’t be justified in my book. And just like plane flights, there is no clear line to draw between 10 or 20 magnets which could distinguish my intention as sour, greedy, or generally vicious. I must simply trust myself, reflect regularly on my intentions, and constantly seek to live by virtues.

Yet the materialistic environment which has been exacerbated by tourism has further layers of hidden harm. Excessive consumption of things we don’t need like extra t-shirts and knick-knacks not only is unsustainable but is distracting from the truly valuable aspects of our lives. We desire more and more nice things even if it is damaging to the livelihood of other people and living creatures. We weaken our relationships with family and friends by fretting over finances, and by the time we realize the hole we dug ourselves in, it seems too deep to hop out, and so the cycle ensues. 

In addition, being an American tourist is particularly dangerous to living virtuously in India, since I think Indians would be much better off with far less influence from America than they have now. Seeing how fond most Indians are of America honestly scares me. For as our goods and fast foods spread across the globe, so does our ideology. They listen to our music, watch our TV shows, follow our politics, and often look up to those same superstars who flaunt their shiny objects and array of large-breasted women at their disposal. Not all American values are bad, of course, but the values they see portrayed through our media I must admit are typically horrendous. 

What seems most infectious is the desire for entertainment and material things. Since many Indians are still struggling to meet their basic needs, they focus on doing so, and dream of moving onto their wants. This type of thinking is so easy to fall into and become trapped in. For once they secure their basic needs and look across the ocean to see what other “very successful” people are doing, they try to bolster their happiness with nicer things. And when that fleeting purchase-pleasure fades away, the most obvious answer to being satisfied is buying nicer, better things. This can cycle can continue endlessly until they realize that greed only leads to internal and external turmoil instead of peace. Of course not every Indian succumbs to materialistic desires, but the numbers seem to be rising higher and higher.

By simply being an American tourist in Rishikesh, some Indians may assume after a brief encounter that I’m living the good life with lots of fancy things, which is why I’m relatively happy and at peace with myself. Or they might simply associate a positive interaction with me with a positive perspective on America in general, including all the superfluous consumerism. I have no easy solution for this, other than to simply be myself and express how my values are not in line with the average American.

So am I doing something morally wrong by merely existing as a tourist in Rishikesh? Not necessarily. The intention is what matters. If I am here solely to have fun and serve my own curiosities, then I am not living up to virtues of Compassion, Generosity, Love, or Temperance, to name a few. The German word for curious is “neugierig,” which translates to “new-greedy,” and seeking pure amusement through new experiences is certainly greedy. Yet I don’t consider my curiosities to be vicious, since the intention behind pursuing them is one of Compassion, which aims to give back directly to the people I meet by sharing Kindness and Gratitude, as well as to the global online community by writing this blog. 

With a wider lens on tourists as a whole, I can imagine a good intention if one is traveling for personal healing/spiritual deepening, or to somehow serve other people, animals, or even Gods (if that’s their belief). Yet none of these actions necessarily verify the intention as good/bad. There is really only one way to know the goodness of an intention (and subsequently all actions), and that is by listening to your heart and trusting yourself.

Thanks for reading my blog! I know the last portion on consumerism and morality can easily stir up plenty emotions, so please comment with any thoughts you might have. Call me a hypocrite or a communist if you feel like it. I’d sincerely love to discuss this further. For more action-packed travel stories tied with moral introspection, you may follow my blog 🙂

Hop Hop Hop Hop Hop,

Hopper

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