A birthday post somehow seemed personally indulgent, yet at the same time it really is just another day in India, full of fun and surprises; ups and downs.
Yesterday we rented a scooter, for 200 Rs, and went with our yoga instructor, Gyanendra, and his family on a daytrip to a temple, waterfalls, and to the banks of the frigid Ganges for a meal. No Indian journey can ever be fully encompassed by one sentance though, as obviously quite a good deal occurred during our casual daytime jaunt. Following Anderson's currently-all-too-daily ritual duel with diarrhea, we first had to obtain some petrol for our "Scooty Pep" - which it technically was not, being a Honda, but nonetheless it is an easy to use automatic scooter, and this particular one even had a comfortable seat! Getting petrol meant crossing over a pedestrian-only bridge, and then a drive down into Rishikesh proper. Indian traffic by now isn't that unbearable (besides the pollution, which is pretty nasty here), so weaving through the madness on a scooter is a nice change of pace, although certainly a bit scary at times.
After spending 80 Rs, on almost 2 liters of petrol, which was definitely more than enough, we met up with them. After a necessary purchase of some mangoes, we headed up into the hills. Twenty kilometers later, we arrived at quite a gathering. The Shiva Temple was packed, with offering-purchasing devotees, and we had to weave through a maze of wet passageways to find the line to the main shrines/altars. Indians seem to struggle with the concept of the "line," so the caged in areas were rather small, such that two-abreast would've a challenge. A slow march began, until our arrival at the no-photo zone, filled with large figures of the gods (all Shiva-related: Shiva, Parvati, & Ganesha), and a large stone Nandi bull (Shiva's vehicle) that people were pouring water on top of. More winding corridors ensued, before we reemerged in a main courtyard, home to a few souvenir shops and what can only be described as an "offering dump" - a large pile of gifts to the gods, primarily foodstuffs, which had attracted a serious swarm of hornets. Maybe the hornet is a Shiva incarnation, or something, but we're just glad we didn't get stung.
Next up was a walk through the source of the wetness - very much in use public baths, full of Hindus of both genders and all ages, getting somewhat clean. As Muslims ritualistically clean themselves, so do Hindus, albeit in a very different capacity - more on that later. We then exited the temple complex, back outside to the swarm of busy shops, one of which had our shoes. We bought a sweet Shiva magnet for 5 Rs, and then had some pakora and samosa for a snack. Descending back down the mountain, after a thankfully averted "walk an hour to another temple" mission suggested by Ghyanendra, we ended up at the main waterfall. It was really a public shower/bathing area in disguise, though primarily packed with men, only the occasional brave lady. We were encouraged to swim, but between our lack of desire to "shower," the inevitable crowd our bathing would attract, the grimy color of the water, and the literal garbage strewn about everywhere, decided we'd really rather not.
Then more scooter-riding, for us the definite highlight, now down to the banks of the Ganga via a small 2-wheeler road. Only after Ghyanendra placed all our mangoes in the river to chill them in the icy water did we realize that we probably shouldn't eat them. Funny how what is holy and sacred (and therefore safe) to some people is literally hazardous to the health of others. Nonetheless the rest of our packed lunch was tasty, but that was preceded by more showering in the river. We wish the Ganges here would be alright to swim in, and it probably wouldn't kill us, but at the same time it is running very high now, so it is full of natural debris as well as way too much garbage. And we saw a dead cow float by while we were eating lunch...
From there we returned to our current abode, took a much needed Western shower, before heading out for a birthday dinner of pizza. Birthdays are pretty low-key on the road, so to crank things up a notch we bought some books at a bookstore before getting on the internet and then retiring to our hotel!
Somewhere in there we also booked a white water rafting trip for this morning, from our next-door "brother" hotel, 20 km for 400 Rs at 10 am, with 2-3 hours in the water on the Shivpuri river. By sheer coincidence it was the final day of the season, the monsoon stops rafting for July and August. That's how we started today then, looking forward to rafting. At 10 we had to walk over the bridge, and then waited with a hotel employee for a taxi of some sort. It never showed, so eventually we got a motorcycle ride with another guy that showed up. The impressive logistics were still amazing us, when it soon became apparent that we were only going to be rafting 10 km, on the Ganges river. Sweet. Motorcycle man said the boss knew it was only 10 km, and then the rafting crew verified that 20 km wasn't happening at all right now. Clearly something is better than nothing, but being intentionally misled and lied to is another issue altogether. Sweet.
So we piled on with the Indian family we were sharing the boat with, received our brief safety instructions, and headed out. Rafting itself was pretty fun, but 10 km meant only 2 real sets of rapids, one of which happened right away. Which is what we wanted to avoid with choosing the longer trip, never mind that the ride really only took around 45 minutes. Not much "rafting" really. It was nice to float down the Ganges, which definitely got us soaking wet, though the continual splashing by the Indians, guides and passengers alike, guaranteed that anyway. We declined to swim again, faithless Western heathens that we are!
We returned home and showered, and then the Indian drama began, after waiting for some hours for the boss man to return from the market. He pleaded total innocence, of course, so much yelling and arguing ensued - why is it we whities are assumed to be so stupid? We can manage to get to India somehow, travel around, but we're supposed to overlook when we're lied to? His suggestion was giving us 100 Rs (our of 800) back, we wanted 400 - we should pay half since we got half of the promised service. He tried to blame it on the rafting company (like he didn't know he was selling a nonexistent trip), and plenty of other brilliant rationalizations...
Well, we got 200 back, so 300 each, as in $15 total, isn't really too bad, but hopefully Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth around here, forsakes his pathetic greedy soul. And we highly encourage no one to ever support Hotel Brijwasi Palace, Swarjashram, Rishikesh. It's listed in the Lonely Planet, and is apparently not content earning the inevitable torrent of cash that attracts, but is also trying to scam extra rupees.
Time is up, but shouldn't leave on a bad note - pizza (again) tonight for dinner was great, and Liz gave Anderson the best b-day present ever - no, no, not that... she washed all of his laundry! Wow!
Tomorrow will probably be our last full day here, then going north to Dharmasala.