Following my trip to the Kumbh Mela in Ujjain, which you can read about in my previous post, the gang (consisting of Frites, Amelie, and myself) continued on to Rishikesh, which, as you might recall, is the iconic epicenter of Indian spiritual tourism where I spent my first 6 weeks in India studying yoga. Neither Frites nor Amelie had been to Rishikesh and I was excited to share with them the experience of living in a yoga strip mall. Despite the weather not being as temperate as we’d been hoping, we still had a good time attending yoga classes and river rafting in the Ganga. A particular highlight was teaching an Indian family power poses and then joining them for an anniversary dinner from which a cake fight ensued in their vacation bungalow.
It was time to hightail out of India since my initial 6-month visa entry period was due to expire. Nepal was the closest and cheapest option. Before hopping on a flight to Kathmandu, Frites, Amelie, and I made plans to rendezvous in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh.
I only had a couple days in Kathmandu before I was due back in India. My friend, Mira, who practically lives in Nepal these days, had arranged for me to stay with a Brazilian ex-pat named Paulo — a real mensch who employs himself building large, robust tents that serve as schools and other administrative entities knocked out by the earthquake.
I spent my time in Kathmandu exploring the city on foot, stopping off at various temples, stupas and momo stands. I also had an interesting experience visiting the abode of a Rajasthani family who, told me that they are reduced to begging for food because a shoe-shining kit was lost during the earthquake (talk about a shoestring budget). However, over the course of my discussions with the women of the family, I discovered that the reasons for the begging were more complicated that simply lack of work opportunity. My experiences with this family will be made subject in a forthcoming blog on the economy and culture of begging in India.
Although I would have loved to stay and explore Nepal, India was beckoning. Just two days after arriving in Kathmandu, I found myself on a bumpy bus en route back to Delhi. At this point, my friends were headed to Rainbow Gathering, which is both the name of a movement an actual event that takes place annually in remote forest locations around the world (the movement, essentially, being the organizing principle of holding an annual event in a forest). The Gatherings are free of charge and participants are welcome to come and go as they please during the month long camp-out. There are various levels of ideological subscription Rainbow Gatherers (who call themselves the “Rainbow Family”) ascribe to Rainbow Gathering viz. the movement. Personally, I perceive Rainbow Gathering as shards of Woodstock fermenting in an Occupy Wall Street colored petri dish.
This year’s Rainbow Gathering was held in a forest near Kheerganga -- a place regarded as sacred by Hindus (and guest house owners) for its proximity to natural hot springs. Since Kheerganga is not reachable by automobile, I booked an overnight bus from Delhi to Manali and then took local buses until I reached the Barshaini Parvati River Dam — the base of the Kheerganga trail. The 4 hour trek to Kheerganga boasts stunning scenery even though tea stalls and tent-cafes staggered every few kilometers deride the nature.
I arrived in Kheerganga just after dark. I had no idea where my friends would be or if they would even be in Kheerganga as they may have opted to sleep at Rainbow Gathering (a 20-30 minute hike from Kheerganga). There were about a dozen guesthouses competing for backpackers’ business, so I just turned into the first guesthouse that I had a feeling about, and there my friends were. Shanti! That night, I had a good sleep curled up on the floor of the guesthouse’s tent-restaurant (the guesthouse owners open up the floor when rooms and personal tents are fully booked). The next morning, I went to check out Rainbow Gathering, stopping to bathe in the hallowed hot springs along the way.
The scene at Rainbow Gathering was just what one would expect: a hundred or so young to youngish people, many with dreadlocks, singing and dancing around a fire. While most Rainbow Gatherers were white Europeans, there were also modest contingents of Israelis and Indians. I could’t use my camera to document any of the intense bonfire hippiedom since, under the power of “communal suggestion” — Rainbow Gatherings are technically free of “rules” —photography is prohibited at Gatherings, Instead of taking photos and, after coming to suspect that something in the core of my being was at odds with the Rainbow Gathering pageantry, I was inspired to write a poetry piece about my experience at Rainbow Gathering. You can read that piece here. If you read the piece, allow me to also add that, if for you my writing intimates a cynical hue, allow me to share in Saul Leiter’s words in claiming: “I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera.”
After spending just one day at Rainbow Gathering, I came down with dysentery and became bedridden for several days. I’ll spare you the details…but it was the most sick I’ve ever felt, and I had no choice but just ride out the sickness as there are no doctors or pharmacies in Kheerganga. The only treatment option available to me, and incidentally, highly recommended by the locals, was opium, which apparently is a costive (and I suppose an anodyne if nothing else). Fortunately (for my parents and future employers if they read this) I decided not to go the opium route, although the locals really did swear by it, and even offered me a few “doses” for free. Om nama shiva…
I recovered from sickness just in time for my birthday and had a small celebration in a guesthouse restaurant. The next day Amelie, Vidyut (aka Eric; an Indian guy the group met in the mountains) and I hiked down the Kheerganga trail and spent the several days exploring other hill-stations in the region, a time which will truly be remembered as a study in shanti for the ages. Here's the photographic evidence.