You read about it. You watch movies, documentaries and videos. You listen to your friends’ experiences. It doesn’t matter how long you prepare yourself for the journey; the feeling you have the first time you step in India reminds of the one you have when someone hits you in the guts.
I planned to visit India for two years since the day I fell in love with yoga, and the idea of a trip to its mother’s land came to my mind as an inevitable step for my spiritual growth.
And so, after I had saved some money and finally had a few months available I bought the flight ticket to Delhi and got myself a six months tourist visa. It didn’t matter that everyone I knew was scared about the idea of me travelling around India by myself; I was excited and responsible enough to plan those months more than I used to do for other locations. After all, there was one particular place that called my name loud and clear – Rishikesh – the Yoga Capital of the World.
The city – located in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, right in the foothills of the Himalayas – became famous in the late ‘60s when the Beatles decided to visit the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and composed numerous songs during their time over there. After them, several other artists visited the site to contemplate and meditate, and Rishikesh has been a magnet for spiritual seekers and aspirant yoga teacher ever since.
The city is divided into two main areas very different from each other: one one side there is the ugly and crowded downtown area where I haven’t set foot; on the other side, there is the magical area packed with ashrams, yoga studios, vegetarian cafes and shops set on the banks of Ganges river and surrounded by forested hills.
To characterise the riversides are the two famous pedestrian-only bridges of Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula, where most of the accommodation, ashrams and restaurants are located.
If you are not interested in yoga, meditation or spirituality, you’ll appreciate the fact that Rishikesh is also well renowned for its white-water rafting centres with the main course starting from Kaudiyala, approximately 40 kilometers up by road from Rishikesh. If rafting is not your thing, a must-do activity while you are in the city is to hike the Himalayas’ tracks. It sounds fantastic, right?
If you are looking for a spiritual experience, it’s almost an embarrassment of riches. You can visit as many ashrams as you possibly can.
You can practice in plenty of yoga studios according to your yoga background and the style you prefer.
You can join a yoga or pranayama teacher training, a reiki massage courses, a yoga and detox retreat, a vegetarian Indian course, an Ayurvedic teacher training, a crystal healing course and even a gong meditation class.
Finally, in the evening – when a refreshing breeze blows down the valley – prepare yourself for the nightly Ganga aarti (a mystical and beautiful to watch fire offering performed on the Ganges).
As for my personal experience, it was the 1st November 2014 when a taxi took me from the tiny but rather organised Dehradun’s airport through the narrow and dusty roads of the city and finally to the guest house where I booked a room for the first few days of my Indian stay. It was late afternoon, and the streets were filled up with people carrying their yoga mats, wearing yoga pants and white tunics while the sound of the car horns rapidly started to resound in my ears.
I arrived at the guest house where the owner informed me that he couldn’t host me due to a problem they were experiencing with the water pipes and accompanied me to another guest house located right next door where he had arranged a room for me. And so I rapidly eased my big backpack on the floor, opened my brand new sleeping back and collapsed for a much needed twelve hours sleep.
The following day my Indian adventure officially started. And from then on my daily schedule was as follows:
8.30am YOGA CLASS
11.00am BREAKFAST/LUNCH IN TOWN followed by some reading, writing, relaxing in cafes
3.00pm SIGHTSEEING/ WALKING AROUND TOWN
5.00pm YOGA CLASS
7.00pm LIGHT SNACK followed by relaxation / Skype calls / more reading until bedtime
Everything went fine for the first two weeks; I tried lots of different yoga schools, tasted some amazing Indian food and familiarized with the city enough for me to have a few places where I felt like home.
Then it happened what happens to every single western person visiting India for the first time – I got sick. Nothing too crazy, just a regular “Delhi Belly” that unfortunately made impossible for me to leave my room for a period longer than half an hour. And so I ended up staying at the guest house for massive amounts of time and needless to say – practicing yoga was impossible.
Let me tell you that it doesn’t matter how careful you are over there. Even if you know all the rules, cover yourself with hand sanitizer during the whole day, avoid all food and drink that aren’t pre-packaged or served from high-end westernized restaurants – if you’re travelling in India for a prolonged length of time, it seems inevitable that at one point you will get sick.
What I did to contrast my undisciplined tummy was to get plenty of bottled water, eat the recommended dose of rice and dhal carefully prepared by a trustworthy kitchen and went to an ayurvedic doctor to get some natural remedies for fever and diarrhoea. But it didn’t matter how little food I introduced inside my body and how long I rested because after six days I was still feeling rubbish and my mood was hugely affected by my physical condition.
It took a remarkably long and meaningful speech coming from my Indian mentor to make me realise that a bad attitude was not going to improve my health conditions. What I needed instead was a positive mindset and the certainty that I was going to feel better soon. Miraculously, the following day I felt amazing – as nothing happened to my tummy and went back on my yoga mat happier than ever.
From that moment on I knew I was going to feel good for the rest of my stay but tried anyway to avoid dodgy places because – after all – I didn’t need to experience that crappy feeling one more time.
And so while winter was rapidly approaching, the days became shorter and shorter, and lots of backpackers started to leave the city and move to the warmer areas of Goa and Kerala in the south of the country.
Because I have always been a nonconformist, I decided to stay in Rishikesh and deepen my yoga practice with the one teacher/mentor I rapidly became addicted to. Probably mine was not the best of choices, maybe I should have explored more, but my sixth sense implored me to remain where I was and stay safe. Not that I ever felt in danger while in Rishikesh but the way from the yoga centre where I used to practice in the late afternoon to my guest house on a dark and desolated street made me feel a bit unsafe more than once. And to that, I have to add those unpleasant looks that I received on a daily basis from Indian men.
Now don’t get me wrong, 99% of the Indian people I’ve met are fantastic, and I would trust them with my life, but there was that 1% that stared at me and made me feel extremely uncomfortable. Nothing happened to me, and maybe this whole concept was a figment of my imagination but something I learned while travelling alone in the past few years is to trust my gut, always!
And so when my Indian trip came to an end I had a bittersweet feeling going on: I was euphoric to be back in Europe and start a new adventure in Germany, but on the other side I missed loads of things. I missed the yoga classes, the fabulous Indian food, the relaxed atmosphere, the smile of the kids coming back from school, the hours spent relaxing on the shores of the Ganges and the ones dedicated to some cuddling with beautiful and sweet cows.
I’m going to be back to my dear India, I just need to feel ready for it, and honestly it might take a little while.