Thursday, March 20, 2003

You might say I'm stuck in Rishikesh. Not really, but the beautiful weather and excellent scenery along the banks of the Ganges makes it easy to forget that there are other places to see, other ways to be.

Then I hear news of Bombs over Bagdad, and my simple bliss passes. Though I have not found a satisfying alternative to the question of what to do about Saddam, my sense is that continued surveillance and indepth inspections could have kept his regime off-balance enough to find a more creative way to handle the situation. My friend Odelia here, who despite high school and college in the States remains Israeli through and through, points out that making war on terrorists hasn't done any good in her home country. Chay Baker back in Austin writes that a pre-emptive war is criminal, and I'm inclined to agree with him.

Who knows? Eleven years ago, I joined with activists against the war in Seattle, protested down in San Francisco, and ultimately got myself arrested (but not charged) by helping take over an Army recruitment station. I've voted and voted and voted since then, but it seems the tide is reluctant to turn. In this most religious of places -- on the banks of the Ganges, surrounded by temples and pilgrims -- one cannot help but wonder why God isn't listening to the many people praying for peace. As I say: Who knows?

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Yesterday was the Hindu equivelent of Easter, the first day of Spring, when people "play" Holi, which is to say splatter each other with colorful dyes and like so many human Easter Eggs. I had come to Rishikesh on the banks of the holy Ganges River to witness this spectacle and take a break from the doldrums of Dharchula. It's a town that was made famous first by the Beatles, back in the '60s, and now enjoys a profusion of hippies and searchers looking to learn the keys to the human heart through yoga and meditation. (Actually, the other reason I'm here is because a good friend from college teaches yoga these days in India -- Odelia Weinberg, for those in the "know.") So call it a pilgrimage if you will, although I've been avoiding the sadhus, holymen, who treat so many foreigners to chillums filled with cheap hash, and searching for more earthly pleasures, namely local trekking and rafting routes.

But before I got my search underway in earnest, I thought Holi would be a cool curiousity. My neighbor in the hotel, a searcher from Boulder of about 60 years, warned me off my Holi holiday plans. "They fill tubs with manure, and surround foreigners and dunk them," he told me, adding another horror story to the growing list I had been collecting. Back in Dharchula, I was warned to stay in doors or run the risk of battery acid being cast in my direction. It seems that like many traditions, this Holi one has taken a turn for the worse. So I snuck out of my hotel, and caught a lift with a rafting company and spent the day on the water instead. It was cool and calm, and pretty much what my body needed: A little sun, a little adrenaline, a little exercise.

You see it took some days to get here, which led me to skimp on sleep and has left me with a small cold. I arrived in Haridwar the other morning after an all-night bus ride (make that a half-night, as I arrived at 4 AM) and watched the families making their way to the ghats on the Ganges. More than Rishikesh, in fact, a charming but thoroughly touristed town in the foothills of the Himalayas, Indians consider Haridwar the most holy of places, because it is there where the river leaves the mountains and joins the plains on its way to Calcutta and the Bay of Bengal, many miles away.

I was pretty confused coming off the bus as to what day it was, and actually thought, "Oh, good, locals celebrating Holi," as I joined them in their parade to the river. But it was not yet to be, so instead I found myself in the company of some Indian men intent on showing me all the various Hindu temples lining the banks of the river in Haridwar. As the sun rose -- beautifully, coming up through the clouds like a Rennaissance painting -- watching the Indian lovelies and businessmen bathe themselves in the fast-running water at the ghat, I was struck that for all the jokers, scheisters and touts in this country, a good number still take their spiritual practice seriously.

Not that I was going to risk a bath in cow shit! So instead I tackled a short stretch of the Ganges in the company of a new outfitting business, Red Chillies, run by a couple of guys who really know the river and how to run it. We bashed through a series of Class 3 rapids, Roller-Coaster, Golf Course and Club House with no problem, then grabbed lunch on the beach. By the time we got back to town, I had missed the major chaos of Holi, which had prompted my sleepless bus ride in the first place. Such is the traveler's lament, especially in India where there is so much to do it's easy to get overwhelmed. Last night, untouched by dye, corrosive acid or poop, I slept like a baby.

Tonite, finally, I will get to have a meal with Odelia. It's been 15 years since we were freshmen at the University of Michigan. But the accident of time and place looks pre-determined as we have kept in contact and after a decade finally can hang out again!