I woke up early and bagged up anything in my hotel room that wasn’t chained down. I didn’t know what the rest of my accommodation would be like so took two toothbrushes, body lotion, conditioner, shampoo, a shower cap, a comb and so many bars of soap that it looked like I was smuggling bullion.
I had a casual buffet breakfast and was told my driver had been waiting for me for over an hour. Again, I felt like an arsehole. The ride to Rishikesh made my time with Manish feel like The Dukes of Hazzard by comparison. His name was Pushpicker but he told me to call him Lucky. He asked why I wasn’t married. I put my sunglasses on to avoid eye contact and answering his questions. We struggled to chat, even when I asked what time he finished and if he had been busy, pages one and two of taxi driver small talk.
After four hours we pulled over and he had to lend me some rupees to buy a toasted sandwich and a coke – the most traditional of Indian lunches. Lucky and I were not going to be sending postcards to one another.
Just before 5pm we pulled into Rishikesh, having been stuck in a strike or protest or some other ridiculous thing where people were dancing in the streets like Bowie and Jagger.
As soon as I arrived at the yoga retreat in the base of the Himalayas, I realised I had very much arrived. They took my bag and gave me some beads and everyone bowed a lot. It was great. I was shown to my room and it dawned on me all at once that I was alone. It was all on me to have a good time. On the way across the lobby I noticed that everyone having dinner together. The noise was incredible. There was no way I could just walk in there. I felt anxious and awkward. I quickly changed and headed downstairs and outside. Across the road was a vegan cafe. Exactly the kind of ridiculous thing I needed. It was only there that I realised Rishikesh is a dry state and I wouldn’t have a beer for a week.
As I was in India it made sense to have a delicious spaghetti dish as my first in Rishikesh.
A wiffle ball rolled over to the cushion I was sat on. I looked up and a three-year-old kid from the next booth was staring at me. I passed the ball back to him.
“You’ll end up playing that game all night if you carry on” said his mum. She was attractive and American.
“That’s fine with me” I said.
“We will leave him with you then” said his dad who was also attractive and American.
I drank some sweet lime soda. I didn’t know what it was but I had heard it ordered in The Darjeeling Limited and decided that it was for me. It was a mix of soda water, fresh lime and sugar. The sugar sat at the bottom of the glass and I tried to stir it in with a paper straw.
Once I had finished my food, I paid up and headed up to my room. I started worrying about being completely alone and that I might have made something of a mistake in heading out to do this. I could hear everyone downstairs talking and laughing. How was I ever going to be able to connect with them? I turned the TV on and discovered that all the channels were static. I was going to go mad. I struggled to switch off and get some sleep.
I woke up early the next morning and got ready for my first yoga class. They were held twice a day on the top floor. I wandered up and discovered a few people waiting outside. I made vague attempts to say hello and then we went inside. We were taught every day by Yogi Bobby. He was hardcore. It was next level to any yoga I had done before. It’s hard to explain how breathing and stretching can be so intensive but you’ll just have to believe me. Yogi Bobby had no time for our soft western bodies. He forced us to hold poses for uncomfortably long amounts of time.
His instructions of “loooongeeeerrr, looooonggeeeeer” were a running joke among the group.
After an hour, I went back to my room to have a shower and get dressed for breakfast.
I realised I could do socialising.
I could do breakfast.
It would be alright.
In the restaurant they put on a buffet-style breakfast. One of the girls waiting at the toaster started up a conversation with me. She was American and attractive. Her name was Brittany or Britney (of course it was). She asked if I was on my own and then asked if I wanted to join them. I looked over and realised there were a table of twenty women.
I could do socialising.
I could do breakfast.
I can most certainly do women.
Remember that scene in Love Actually where Colin (played by Kris Marshall) goes to America and hooks up with Elisha Cuthbert, January Jones and Shannon Elizabeth. That was me at breakfast. I held court over that buffet like the goddamn King of England. I found myself becoming more British as I went. I spoke in Cockney Rhyming Slang and told them all I was from London, which is only a lie if you’re not from America and know other places exist. I drank a lot of tea and showed off my bad teeth and they fell for my act hook, line and sinker.
I spent the day with them, got taken out for an amazing mushroom curry and ran around this huge temple in the rain. The thing was fourteen floors high and looked like a shopping centre mixed with a car park stairwell – very religious stuff. The place had all these statues and alcoves with shops in them. There were bells all around the place to announce your arrival to the deities. One of the girls, Katie took me to her favourite chai stall in the market opposite the temple. We sat there watching the world go by. It was like a tiny Indian Starbucks, but with just one man with a moustache there, who I wanted to cuddle.
The Americans were only in Rishikesh for the day so I knew I would have to make some new friends from then on but it was nice to have the company and to adjust to this solo travel stuff.
I awoke the next morning to find I was alone (again). Nobody else was in the morning yoga class. Yogi Bobby was super tough on me as a result. I think he missed all those attractive Americans too. At the start and end of each class he made everyone recite a prayer. I had never done it before. I figured we would skip it when it was just us but he insisted on making me recite the prayer anyway. I fumbled my way through it. It reminded me of when I was at school and had to play the recorder in a class of 30. I just mimed it then and got moved into the advanced class because they said I was so good.
When I messed up the prayer Yogi Bobbi would slow down and make me repeat a line again – like I was in a remedial class. At the end, he made me put my feet up on the wall and press my back into a raised block until I was suspended in the air like a magician’s assistant.
“I’m going to leave you there for thirty minutes” he said. I hoped he had got his numbers mixed up. I could feel blood pooling in odd places around my body.
I went to the ashram where The Beatles had stayed in the winter of 1968 while studying Transcendental Meditation under the guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. They charged 150 rupees for locals and 600 for foreigners. The mark up still meant I was only paying £6 to visit somewhere I had dreamt about since I was a child.
I spent an hour and a half on my own, wandering around the various dilapidated buildings that make up the site. I don’ t know if I was supposed to duck inside and have a look around but I certainly did and nobody stopped me. I found the bungalow where the Beatles stayed at the top of a hill and took pictures of every single cracked wall and dead leaf-strewn floor. I could hear prayers being chanted from the Ganges as I strolled through the place pretending I could feel some kind of spiritual power in the air.
That afternoon I ventured back to town and had some chai. Then I had afternoon yoga session – again Yogi Bobby pushed my body into weird positions and exaggerated his vowel sounds like they were stretched limbs.
My fourth day in Rishikesh allowed me to connect with another group – this time, Australian women who had checked into the rooms abandoned by the Americans. They were super friendly and possibly even louder. After breakfast I was taken on a tour of the villages in the mountains by my new best friend Anurag, who worked at the hotel. We talked about life in general and he asked why I wasn’t married. I was running out of excuses.
On the way back down the mountain he asked if I wanted to take a dip in one of the natural pools made by the ebbing river that headed down to become part of the Ganges. He then took the best photo of me that I’ve ever seen.
We swam about in our pants and I wondered if this was going to be the holiday romance I had been waiting for.
The rest of my day was mapped out for me. I went to get some chai and shared a cigarette with the stall guy who I had nicknamed Chai-man Mao. I then had lunch – another Indian classic – burger and chips. I followed up this heavy meal with an hour of head and body massage. It’s a good thing India recently legalised homosexuality because by the end of that hour I was ready to make my move on that man.
I then had another intense one to one session with Yogi Bobby before I was released to spend my evening out by the river.
The newest member of staff at the retreat, Aditya, had been offered the chance to take me down to Parnarth Niketan. There, on the banks of the Ganges, people were singing and putting little paper boats of candles and flowers into the water. The whole event was being filmed. There are 600-700 people that gather daily for this. It’s the same thing every night, like an episode of your favourite soap.
Aditya was so sweet and courteous, a real gentleman. He borrowed a motorbike from the hotel and I rode bitch as he instructed me on the various sights we saw along the way. He was a real gentleman.
That night I had dinner with the Australians and again had to hold court. They were really sweet and the conversation was a lot more spread down the table. They made sure I had plenty to eat, passing all the half-finished dishes of daal up to my end so I could get my eat on. I went to bed happy and full. It would be a long journey back to Delhi the following day.