Go ahead. Say it. Eat, Pray, Love. I've had many trips in the past compared to this book, but I've never found the comparison quite true. Then I traveled to India. While I can't say I had the exact same experiences as Julia Roberts did, I will say that it was a trip like no other. It seems like you can't help but come out of India changed. I had heard this sentiment from other people and thought how is that possible, but having just experienced 3 weeks in India, I now understand. The adventure began on an ashram in Rishikesh India.
Nearly 30 hours of travel later, I found myself in Rishikesh, situated at the foot of the Himalayas (pronounced Him-all-ayas), along the holy Ganges River in Northern India. I checked into the popular ashram, Parmarth Niketan, eager to experience 4 days of yoga and spiritual enlightenment. However, when I was going through the lengthy check-in process, the attendant told me to just pay for 2 nights. He said you'll want to leave after 2 nights. I wasn't sure if that was a challenge or a bad omen. It didn't take me long to figure out which.
I was led down a long, dark, basement hallway with fluorescent bulbs shining onto a damp, white checkered floor littered with piles of rocks, wet rags and pieces of trash. Before the door to my room opened, I smelled fresh paint overshadowed by a mix of mold and backed up sewage. The thin, hard mattress had a cover that held all of the odors, as well as two blankets that would serve as both sheet (since there was none) and warmth in the freezing cold, cement room. Welcome to India.
Not being able to digest all that was happening in the room, let alone the bathroom with a short shower spigot at my knee, I decided I'd figure it all out in the morning. After some brief, intermittent sleep, I found myself awake at 4am with a pounding headache, so I decided I'd dive into the experience and join the local morning prayers. A few were gathered and chanted in Sanskirt to some light music, while I closed my eyes and hummed along. Cool air blew through and I was content to be out of my room.
I was anxious to get on my mat and start doing some yoga, and my first chance at Parmarth was shortly after morning meditation. The yoga room was large, and very dusty, and very cold. People did yoga with their parkas on and one step off your mat, brought chalky white footprints everywhere after. The teacher was no less chilly, but I couldn't help but think, I'm in Rishikesh, India, the birthplace of yoga, doing yoga. Cool.
Luckily that yoga class led me to meet some other travelers, experiencing some similar, disappointing discoveries at the less than stellar Parmarth Niketan ashram. I then started receiving tips on other classes to check out in Rishikesh, outside of our ashram. There were many different types of yoga offered from Ashtanga to Kundalini and Asana, and meditation and pranyama (breath-work) practices, so off I set with new friends in tow, and a resolve to get the most out of the experience.
Rishikesh is set along the Ganges River or the Mother Ganga as it's lovingly referred, and has tight, meandering walking paths that weave in and around open markets on both sides of the river. I walked down these narrow, bumpy paths beside many locals, which included cows, monkeys, holy men, business men and spiritual seekers. It's a lot to take in, but you need to be on alert because one wrong step and you've either twisted your ankle, stepped in cow dung, or gotten run over by a moped.
I was revived after experiencing some of the other yoga offerings around town, and grew to love the teacher and morning class at Nada Yoga, so much so, that I ended up moving in to the ashram. Somehow I survived 2 nights at Parmarth before switching ashrams. I can't say Nada was the 4 Seasons of Rishikesh as I did need to bring my own door lock and towel, but it was clean-ish, and I now know to travel with my own sheet in the future!
It was all worth it after discovering the Swami Sri Prem Baba at Sachcha Dham Ashram. I felt fortunate to catch him at the ashram he founded since he's only in residence 3 months each year. Every day there was the most beautiful and etheral singing and chanting, followed by inspirational satsangs, or talks, delivered by the Swami himself. The theme of his talks during his stay was love. He spoke simply, but powerfully on how we block love, cultivate it and extend it. Hundreds traveled to hear his daily satsang, and I'm not sure I've ever seen or felt such pure joy in a room before. It was truly inspirational and something I hope to carry with me well into the future.
I now have Pray and Love covered in Rishikesh, so it's time to eat! There's two restaurants you must visit while in Rishikesh. One takes a little perseverance and a good sense of direction, but is well worth it. It's called Ramana's Organic Cafe. It has a beautiful, tree house setting with large outdoor decks above the Ganges. They grow much of what they serve in an organic garden on site, and the food is wonderful. The best part is that 100% of the profits go to a children's home, caring for at risk kids, many of whom are orphans or have been forced into unfortunate situations. The kids also work shifts at the cafe, alongside other volunteers.
The other restaurant, the Little Buddha Cafe, also sits in an open-air setting above the Ganges and has an enormous, something-for-everyone menu. I saw sizzling fajitas go by, and there's pasta, pizza, all day breakfast and of course Indian food. I was thrilled with the veggie sampler plate (and free wifi), and it was a nice place to spend the afternoon.
I will say that my original ashram, Parmarth Niketan, did two things well. They had a cafeteria type restaurant on site that served well done thali, an unlimited supply of various dal, bread, rice, and vegetables. It was well spiced and quite flavorful, and each meal was less than $1. Can't beat that.
The other notable item at Parmarth was the nightly sunset ritual of aarti. A large crowd gathers along the Ganges River banks as the sun goes down and sings and chants in a ritualist Hindu ceremony. Oil lamps are offered up and people circle the lights around them for blessing. It was a beautiful ceremony and fitting close to the start of my Eat, Pray, Love journey in India. Much more to come as I head to Delhi next and begin a culinary tour through Rajasthan, and get my bed sheets back!