Taj Mahal 88 248.
(photo credit: RACHELLE OSERAN)
Many Israeli parents often wonder why our kids flock to India for their post-army trips. Some parents wish they, too, could experience the vibrant culture, the friendliness of the people, the serenity amid the bustle and chaos and all the excitement that travel to India generates, but feel that it's only for the young who are prepared to rough it. My recent trip to India showed me that the same experiences that attract the young can be enjoyed by older people as well.
We have a tradition in my family that before their induction into the IDF, I take each son (I have three) on a mother-and-son trip wherever he wishes to go. My oldest son and I spent a wonderful week in Rome and Florence. My middle son and I had fun hiking and camping in the Scottish highlands. My youngest son, Ariel, is being inducted this month, and we chose India as our destination.
I had recently participated in a two-month course on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction led by Dr. Dina Wyshogrod, a clinical psychologist and director of MBSR in Israel, and have been meditating regularly. An additional incentive was to do a reconnaissance trip before the group tour to India that Dina and I will co-lead in February.
Ariel and I landed in Bombay and immediately flew to Delhi. I had searched the Internet extensively before finding a travel company based in Delhi who would tailor this trip for us and include the regular tourist sites as well as the ashram. Having long passed the backpacking stage, I wanted to do this in relative style by staying at decent hotels and having an English-speaking guide and driver in an air-conditioned car.
Delhi is a fascinating combination of old and new lifestyles. Many tourists avoid India because of the poverty that is so apparent. Although it's impossible to overlook the poverty, I was entranced by the colors around me. Most of the women, including the impoverished, still wear saris of the most amazing hues.
From Delhi we drove for four hours to Agra where we stayed in a lovely hotel and had a delicious vegetarian meal. It is very easy to keep kosher in India.
We awoke early to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise. Arriving early also enabled us to avoid the crowds both at the entrance and inside the grounds. Unfortunately, the touts encouraging tourists to have their photo taken did somewhat detract from the serenity of the place, but nothing can truly spoil the majestic effect. I found it as beautiful and impressive as I had imagined.
From Agra we drove about five hours to Jaipur. Driving in India is challenging and the death toll on the roads is high (mostly among motorcyclists); the traffic intermingled with cows poses novel obstacles.
Jaipur is known as the "Pink City" because of the city-mandated pink paint on all the buildings. The bustling markets are colorful and the bazaar - several blocks of fantastic shopping opportunities - is a huge attraction. We stayed at a gorgeous hotel which is a "heritage house" owned by a wealthy family and converted into a hotel. This was true Indian elegance that included a lovely swimming pool and a charming rooftop where we had a lovely candlelight dinner, accompanied by a music and dance performance.
The main attraction in Jaipur is the Amer Fort to which we ascended on elephants. While this is, undoubtedly, very commercialized, it is fun and the scenery is spectacular as the palace is situated high in the mountains. The Indian music and the snake charmers added to the color and atmosphere.
I was still drooling over the saris and was dying to buy one, even though I rationalized that the only opportunity I would ever have to wear one would be on Purim. I asked our driver to take us to a sari shop where I compromised on a salwaar kahmeez - the pant/long tunic/scarf outfit that most modern young women wear. I chose a fabric and returned one and a half hours later to receive my new tailor-made outfit. The storekeeper explained that the average middle-class Indian woman owns about 20 saris, while socialites can own up to 100!
After dinner that night, our driver was taking us back to our hotel and explaining that the locals were celebrating the festival of the Hindu god Ganesha with processions in the streets. A traffic policeman blocked the road that led to our hotel and diverted us to a more circuitous route. We soon found ourselves in the middle of throngs of people celebrating in the streets.
After two nights in Jaipur we drove back to Delhi to take the train to Haridwar which is close to Rishikesh, the location of our ashram. As we approached Delhi we asked about the 15 square kilometers of modern, high rise buildings and were told that these were "call centers" belonging to foreign companies who outsourced their customer service departments.
THE SHATABDI Express train to Haridwar was fast and pleasant. It's easy to understand why train travel is the recommended mode of transport in India. Haridwar means gateway to God, and is regarded as one of the seven holiest places in the Hindu religion. There are several interesting sites, including a cable-car ride up a mountain to a Hindu temple. The evening Aarti ceremony on the banks of the River Ganges was fascinating. Beautiful "boats" made from banana leaves filled with flowers and a lit candle are cast into the river by people whose prayers are sanctioned by priests reciting blessings on their behalf.
The following day we drove to Rishikesh and checked into the guest house of the ashram. The rooms on the grounds are restricted to people who stay for a minimum of 15 days. Guests staying for shorter periods are accommodated in the guest house across the road. While the rooms are clean and bright, austere may be an understatement.
This was the schedule: 4:30 a.m. - wake-up bell, 5-6 - meditation, 6:30-7:45 - yoga, 8 - breakfast, 12 - lunch, 3:15-4 - lecture, 5-6:15 - yoga, 7-8 - meditation, 8:15 - dinner. All the sessions were in English, even though the accent was sometimes hard to understand. The library was open for a couple of hours in the morning and in the afternoon.
What were we getting ourselves into?
We arrived on a Sunday, which is a free day at the ashram, so we went exploring around our area, Ramjhula and the neighboring Laxmanjhula, both of which make up Rishikesh. This is a shopper's paradise where you can buy everything from silver jewelry and stunning pashminas to natural moisturizing cream. The prices are ludicrously cheap. Comfortable pants for NIS 12 and a colorful bag for NIS 15, and I probably overpaid as I didn't even attempt to bargain.
This is where many of the post-army Israelis hang out. In parts of Laxmanjhula, we heard more Hebrew than Hindi. Restaurants advertised humous and salad, falafel and schnitzel. It's easy to understand why they're here. The setting is truly beautiful, combining the Ganges and the mountains as Rishikesh is situated at the base of the Himalayas. The people are warm and friendly and you can experience the vibrant culture in the colorful markets.
We met up with a friend of Ariel who was passing through Rishikesh. She was traveling around India by herself for three months before her induction into the army. At dinner that night in the ashram we met several of the people who were staying there. Sunshine, from Minnesota, had been there since May but was going home soon. Yuliana, from Germany, was here for a few weeks, taking a break from her PhD studies. A Japanese group of yoga teachers and students were spending a few days. An Indian yoga teacher from Calcutta was there with his mother. We were the only Israelis.
Over dinner, which was tasty Indian vegetarian food (we did not have a single bad meal throughout our stay at the ashram), we were warned that the yoga classes were hard, but the three teachers were all patient.
We woke up the next morning at 4:30 and attended our first meditation session. For the first 15 minutes, the teacher gave an interesting lecture on what we should focus on and for the remainder of the time we were in blissful meditation. Ariel found it long but relaxing. The yoga session that followed was intense. Somehow the instructor managed to guide, inspire and challenge the Japanese and Indian yoga teachers, the novices and everyone in between.
Over the next few days we settled into our routine and were amazed by how hard we were working physically, while feeling so serene mentally. The teachers were all true masters, despite their youth. On a visit to the library, which holds a vast collection of books on yoga and meditation in a variety of languages, I saw our teachers reading and preparing their lessons.
We ate all our meals in the dining room, which provided us with a welcome opportunity to socialize. We were served our food by the kitchen staff. The cook came in, clapped his hands for our attention, and then led us in our pre-meal prayer: "Om, may He protect us both (the teacher and the taught) by revealing knowledge, may He protect us both, may we attain vigor together. Let what we study be invigorating. May we never quarrel with each other. Om, peace, peace, peace." It felt right.
This intense yoga/meditation practice was fundamentally transforming us from sleepwalking our way through life to being wide awake and developing compassion toward others. Enhancing our ability to "smell the roses" and being responsive to the needs of others intensified our appreciation of India - the people and the places. We loved interacting with the local people. They would come up to us and start talking, just to tell us about their lifestyle and to find out about ours. They are some of the warmest and friendliest people I've met.
After a few days at the ashram it was time to move on to our next destination. I was sorry to leave, but was comforted by the knowledge that I would be back in February with our group.
After Rishikesh, we drove up to Shimla, the capital of the Himachal Pradesh state, nestled high in the Himalayas. I wanted to treat ourselves to a few days of pampering at the end of our trip. After an extensive Internet search, I had chosen to stay at the Wildflower Hall Hotel which belongs to the Oberoi chain. I had often salivated at the beautiful photos of Oberoi hotels in travel magazines, but always thought that they were beyond my means. However, they often have special "deals", and the price we ended up paying was cheaper than several nice hotels in Eilat.
This was one of the most beautiful hotels in which I have ever stayed and the views, high in the mountains, are breathtaking. The emphasis on service and hospitality made us feel truly pampered. But the piece de resistance is the outdoor "infinity" jacuzzi where you can soak and enjoy the majestic vista.The two head chefs, on hearing from our waiter that I liked cooking Indian food, gave me (at no charge) a private cooking class, where I learned to prepare several dishes. They were very accommodating and adjusted their recipes when I mentioned that I don't cook milk and meat together.
So many young Israelis throng to India every year, but I hope that the older generation of Israelis will soon experience the same magic that has smitten the post-army youth over the years. I know I did.