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Phil's 1998 India Travelogue

Overnite in Gopeshwar

Gopeshwar is a town small town in the Himalayas that now serves mostly as a rest stop for the Char Dham pilgrims. But when we get there late, the town is pretty much all filled up. First we go to the Indian Gov't Tourist Rest Home, a chain run by the government to provide affordable accommodations for Indians. However the only room left is a four bed dorm room, and I am not all that thrilled about spending the night in a dorm. So Hari, Sumet and I go from hotel to hotel, and I know enough Hindi to recognize "Nahin" or "Neh", basically negatory, no rooms. At this point I feel exhausted, beaten down and wish I could click my heels and say there's no place like home. Hari and Sumet gave it the old college try, but the dorm room was all that was left. Hari tells me that this is third class Indian accomodations, which if you know India, may be dirtier than sleeping in the woods.

The room is funky but not too filthy, but the beds...yecch! There is only one sheet, dirty as hell and a blanket which makes me wish I had latex gloves. Now back me up here people, are clean sheets too much to ask? So I pay for the dorm room, at least I think I do, for 120 rupees, about 3 bucks! I mean, I'm no Jerry Seinfeld cleanliness neurotic, but I am a Virgo sun, and I do like some level of orderliness and cleanliness. I ask Hari to ask the manager for clean sheets and a towel and he tells me no sheets, and towel in the morning.

So when we come back to the room, there is a stranger Indian fellow laying down in one bed. What? I thought I payed for the whole room, but Sumet informs me that I only paid for two beds, and the third is free because someone backed out. I like my privacy, but there's no chance here, even gotta sleep with strangers.

Now every experienced Indian traveller that I've talked to told me that one way or another, sooner or later, events will spin out of control, and India will mess with your mind. In hindsight, it doesn't seem like such a big deal, but in the moment I felt pretty raw and disheartened.

However, you gotta get up prrrretty early in the morning to pull one over on ol' Phil Servedio - many months of investigation and preparation led me to be prepared for such a situation. I carry with me my own pillowcase and a sleeping bag liner to use as a makeshift bedding for just such an occasion. So I have a plan, I will fight back! With my plan, I feel cocky, and think out loud,"OK India, is that's the best you've got, hah!". Then I realize a lot worse could happen, like getting my bags stolen or falling into a pile of cowshit. Cancel, cancel.

Just then the Indian fellow falls asleep and starts snoring like there's no tomorrow. OK, the bar has been raised to a new height - despite my exhaustion, I gotta deal with a world-class snorer, not to mention that were right downtown with barking dogs, car horns, assorted truck stop noise, etc.

I go out to look over the downtown area, full of buses, cars, cows, cowshit and assorted levels of dirt, grime and garbage. Palm Springs it ain't. And by this time, I'm ready to take action. I go into the room in a bad mood and grab this Indian fellow by the feet and tell him in no uncertain terms to turn his ass to the side, he's snoring too loudly. Now here's this poor guy trying to get a good nights sleep only to be woken up by some angry white guy with a bald head, furrowed brow and goatee. I can look pretty mean if I want to, and he obeys me. I would love to simply wash my hands and face, but the hotel doesn't give out towels till the morning, and then only reluctantly. Forgot to bring a towel! So I say to myself, hey just like camping, no big woop.

So Sumet and Hari jump into their yechhy beds, and I ask Hari to lock the door, but it won't lock, which concerns me - even Mr. snorer wakes up to voice his concern. The doors wouldn't close, so we had to leave them open. The hotel does have a big iron fence around it, but it doesn't take a Houdini to jump the fence. Even though I don't think it's a big deal, this is all new to me, and so I sleep with my 4 inch knife, which I call Just In Case.

So I take some Melatonin and Tylenol to relieve the altitude shock and to help fall asleep. I sleep fitfully, waking up for a major dog fight, which also wakes up Mr. Snorer, which I feel is some kind of poetic justice. And somehow, someway, I fell asleep long enough to get a decent nights rest, much better than I anticipated. Good to be utterly exhausted.

I won't say much about the bathroom, just that I wouldn't walk barefoot in there. And in the morning we finally get a towel. I also run out of bottled water, and finally resort to using tap water to brush my teeth. I lived. But Indian men do this yogic technique to clean their nasal passages, which is actually a good idea, considering the amount of diesel smoke we all inhale. But it does sound the cross between a vomit wretch and a snort, which Mr. Snorer is performing in the bathroom and a lot of guys are doing in the street. Morning wakeup music. And oh yes, some store or ashram plays morning bhajan music on a loudspeaker for the whole town - it's like it would be a national crisis if there was any quiet during daylight hours.

By the morning, being refreshed, the previous nights 'crisis' seemed silly. I mean, I still wouldn't not like to sleep on dirty sheets, but I made do and it all seems a bit silly now. We meet Mr. Snorer, who is a nice man, a salesman for a healthcare instruments company.

Before we hit the road, we go to the other side of town to stop at a Shiva temple, again with a mountaintop kind of roof and small 4x4 inner chamber, only this one is open, supported by four pillars filled with the grime of centuries of incense smoke. I take of my shoes, wash my hands, and customary as in many temples, there are big bells suspended by the doorframe which you ring before entering, which I believe is used to scare off evil spirits, since evil spirits are apparently environmentally sensitive to noise.

We stay for awhile, and I go to chamber and offer some rupees, for temple maintenance. The temple priests show up to do a morning puja, and one of them is banging on a gong next to my ear, which doesn't help in generating much equanimity. But it is still a good way to start the day, and we take off for parts unknown, particularly Josimath and Auli.

Josimath and Auli

We reach Josimath by noon, situated in a most beautiful area of the high Himalayas. The sky is deep blue, the snow-capped peaks are so close you can almost touch them, and Josimath, despite the dirtiness common to all Uttar Pradesh cities is a pretty neat place, with all kinds of shops selling in particular these great woolen blankets and quilts.

We stop for lunch in a small open air restaurant. By now, the dirtiness of the restaurants doesn't faze me, but as we sit down for a lunch of potato parantha, subji, mango-pickle and chai, I remembered watching the restaurant owner sneeze into his hands about ten minutes prior, and now he is sweeping butter on our paranthas with the same hands. Did he wash them? Ya know, let's not even think about it, this is India. Besides I've got my Kyolic, Nutrobiotic and just in case, doxycycline a powerful antibiotic.

Then we drive to Auli, a ski "resort" a few thousand feet up from Josimath. We have to drive through a military base to get there. Hari informs me that in 1962, China attacked India, getting as far as capturing Badrinath, but the Indian army pushed them back recapturing the sacred Badrinath and other towns. Way to go, Indian Army! Fucking Commie bastards! But India did lose some border land in the subsequent negotations.

So we drive through the military base, which in contrast to Uttar Pradesh, is spotlessly clean and orderly. The road to Auli is a mess, this is the road skiiers have to contend with to go skiing? Yow.

About halfway up the mountain we stop to take pictures of Josimath below. I then realize I am photographing an Indian Army base, which perhaps could get me shot, which I tell Hari, and he laughs, but doesn't disagree. India does not want you to photograph any strategically important places like airports or train stations, and I'll just extrapolate here, military bases.

The scenery is just amazing. In front of us, across from the 8000 foot valley, Hari points out Elephant Mountain, and sure enoghh this mountain is shaped perfectly like an elephant, even the color is close. Cool. Finally we reach Auli ski area, and there she is, the mountain I've been wanting see see - Nanda Devi, the highest mountain in India (until it annexed Sikkim), 25,000 feet, glistening in the day sun. Majestic.

I purchase lift tickets for all four us, a whopping 320 rupees or 8 dollars, as this is the first ski lift experience for my 3 compadres. You know that feeling when a quad lift clicks in, that warp drive acceleration? The boys got a quite a quick over it, laughing and whooping it up.

The view from top affords yet another 180 degree view of the snow capped peaks. You can see the mountains are in rows, separated by extremely steep valleys, creating a unique visual effect. I photographed to my hearts content. After sitting for awhile in a beautiful meadow, Hari says,"let's walk to the top of the mountain", but I say," let's not and say we did". No way am I gonna duplicate my experience in Tungnath, and this place is a 1000 or 2 feet higher than that.

We go down after a while, and the boys get the same kick going down. I tell them about the US Airforce jet cutting down the cable car in Italy, but we're safe here. I've seen one plane for a whole week.

Road back To Srinigar

So we start the same long journey home, back to the same roads. By now we're all bonded and feel a real cameraderie, and share all sorts of good stuff. They're good kids, there's the usual boyhood mischeviousness, but a real innoncence that I don't see in American kids. Minimal exposure to violence, though Hari informs me he owns a gun. They ask me a lot of questions about my opinions of India, and they are particularly sensitive to the world's opinion of their development of a nuclear bomb. I tell them that it's inevitable, and it seems that after chest beating by both India and Pakistan, cooler heads prevail. But I did think about my time being in Delhi as one of being at ground zero for angry Pakistanis.

Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright, In The Darkness of the Night...
-Rudyard Kipling

About 10 minutes before we reach Srinigar in the dark, Kuku starts getting animated. He yells,"Cheetah! Tiger!", and sure enough about 10 feet in front of our headlights is a most beautiful wild tiger, with a great colorful tiger coat, about 150 pounds I'd say. It was on the hunt and wasn't very happy with our arrival. Before I could reach for my camera, it darts into the mountainous forest. Wait till I tell all the cows in Srinigar! It was a wonderful bonus on this wild trip - sometimes people pay big bucks to go to Corbetts National Park, a wild animal preserve in Uttar Pradesh and not see a single tiger. Hari informs me that this is the 2nd time in his life he's seen one, and the first time it was way across a valley, so this was a very fortuitous moment for animal watching. Icing on the cake.

The road back was equally thrilling, and we reach our night time destination of Srinigar, a valley town about 4 hours from Rishikesh. Hari informs me that there's a nice hotel in Srinigar. Now you have to understand that cleanliness is a relative term, what's 'nice' for a 19 year old Indian is about several hundred notches below my standards. But I hope against hope.

And to my surprise, the hotel that is selected, the hotel New Meinka, is actually filthier, much filthier than the Tourist Rest home in Gopeshwar. By this time, I spring into action. and announce, "boys I'm going towel and bedding shopping". So we go out and I find a linen shop and by two sheets for 4 dollars each.

But this place is so, so dirty. The smell of the carpet would repel a rat. But not cockroaches - I picked up the carpet and there they were staring at me. By this time, I'm looking at the Hotel Ganga Kinares in Rishikesh as the freakin' Palace of Versailles. And I come to this place, with better sleep, with a sense of humor in the midst of the dirtiest. I think of Steve Martin and his skit,"Pigs! Pigs must have been here!". The bathroom sink doesn't work but there are two faucet pipes with the customary bathing bucket nearby. But there will be no bathing in this place for this boy.

So I prepare my bed in the usual fashion and hit the sack. In the morning, I watch the town wake up amidst the annoying bhajan speaker, using a record player that goes at variable speed, creating an acid rock/bhajan effect. I watch from the balcony the cows and pigs do their morning search for food, and see all the vendor shops open up and hose down their little piece of property, which fills me with hope that people are trying to keep clean, in contrast with the pranayama technique nose-blow into the streets by many men and some women. That's fine in the woods for me, but man, in the street?

So I reach my "safe" home of the Hotel Ganga Kinares, take a nice hot shower and a nap, and begin my plans for the next exciting episode of India Travelogue.

New Yawk Meet India, India, New Yawk

While writing this journal last night, I hear a commotion outside my hotel room. I go outside to see a group of New Yawkers who have just arrived at this hotel. They are freaked out and disgusted by the conditions here, having been spoiled by 4 and 5 star hotel. In their defense, the hotel was maxed out, and apparently didn't get a chance to clean their rooms. Being New Yawkers, mostly women, they make it clear to hotel management that they want their rooms clean NOW. I make quick friends with them and explain that when you go below a 3 or 4 star hotel, you drop many, many levels of standard. They are actually of West Indies origin who are practicing Hindus in the North Bronx, which is actually a nice suburban place. But they are so disgusted by the level of dirt in India, and this hotel in particular, I hear about for an hour (but they do say that South India is much cleaner).

Mr. adventurer/world traveler just shakes his head in agreement, knowing that India has just caught up with them. Welcome to India, folks. Howza about them Yankees?!


Himalayas, con't.

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