Eastern Hemisphere, Travel

Christmas in Rishikesh

Christmas Eve

Do you remember what you did on Christmas Eve 2015? Well, we spent about six hours of it in a car, going from Chandigarh to Rishikesh. Getting from New Delhi to Rishikesh is really easy. But getting there from Chandigarh is sort of going “across the grain” of transportation. There’s no way to do it by train, and no good way to do it by bus. So we spent the extra money to travel by car. On arrival, our driver eventually found the way – thanks to Beth’s smart phone and Google Maps – to our hotel, a place called Hotel Vyas which is also a yoga studio called Nirvana Yoga. Mr. Vyas is both the resident yogi and the innkeeper.

Rishikesh was yet another vastly different city. That’s one impression I left India with after a month: that every city has a different tone. Rishikesh is in the foothills of the Himalayas on the banks of the Ganges River, what the Indians call the Ganga. It’s a very holy city, with lots of Hindu temples, the river being sacred to Hindus. And there is yoga all over, with a huge percentage of tourists visiting specifically for yoga training. It’s considered the yoga capital of the world. Alcohol and meat are forbidden in Rishikesh, due to its spiritual nature. So that put a new spin on Christmas right there.

While we were there, we were the only guests in the small hotel. As guests, we got a discount on yoga instruction, and so Beth and I took advantage by having classes with the two of us being the only students. We’d taken yoga classes before, but it’s been several years, and neither of us ever ever really advanced past the “beginner” level. Classes were done in a big yoga studio downstairs on the ground floor, while our hotel room was one level up.

We ended up doing a one hour yoga class each of the three days we were there. After doing very little proper stretching the past few months, that was a shock to the system. The morning after the first class, I felt sore in many places. But then that day’s class made me feel better, at least until the next morning, when I was sore from the previous day’s class. But then it was time to stretch everything out again.

In addition to the yoga classes, we also got a homestyle breakfast (optionally with chai or coffee) as well as afternoon chai some days for a small fee.

Yogi Vyas and his petite wife Mini (perfect name) were great hosts during our stay. They told us about their home towns some, and gave us as much information about Rishikesh as we asked for. Rishikesh has a few tourist activities, but they’re weird things having nothing to do with Rishikesh, like bungee jumping, white water rafting on the Ganges, etc. We can do that kind of thing at home (not that we would), so we mostly spent our three days there relaxing and wandering around town.

Here’s a little gallery of goofy photos of Beth and me at an overlook above the Ganges. The water is turquoise blue – not clear, but also not dirty brown.

Christmas

For Christmas we found that one of the nearby hotels was having a “Christmas gala”. So I called them up to inquire and they said to just come by and buy a ticket in advance, which I did. It started at 7:00pm Christmas night, and I think we got there about 7:30. That was the weirdest Christmas party I’ve ever been to. I expected it to be a bit awkward. I mean, we were in a vegetarian city with no booze, and I didn’t expect the locals to be able to really pull off an authentic-feeling American, English, or European Christmas dinner.

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The staff, a bunch of 20-something Indian men who apparently worked at the hotel, all wore reindeer antler headbands. That was cute. The first clue things were going to be extra weird was when we walked into the dinner hall and there were a couple of DJs sitting down behind a laptop connected to a big sound system with lights, and they were playing dance music really, really loud. Imagine a really boisterous dance party of a few hundred people going full blast about midnight on New Year’s Eve. That’s what it sounded like. Now imagine three tables of middle aged white people sitting around drinking water. That’s what it looked like. It was completely impossible to carry on a conversation over the music. We tried and failed. And apparently nobody felt like bumping and grinding at 7:30 on Christmas. I think every guest had the same idea, that the music needed to be way, way quieter. And this wasn’t Christmas music by any stretch of the imagination.

Finally someone pulled one of the antlered waiters outside to explain that we’d really like them to turn down the music. After that, the waiter passed on the request, and the music was softened by about 2 or 3 decibels. It was still too loud to carry on a conversation, and was still totally inappropriate to the theme of the party. The DJs just didn’t “get it”.

Later, at least one other person talked to them about the music, and then the DJs went passive-aggressive. They turned off the dance music, and replaced it with a chant to Shiva called “Shiva Shambo”. And then the next track was the same chant to Shiva but recorded by different performers. Same with the next track and the next. It went on like this for about 25 minutes – one recording of “Shiva Shambo” after another. So either these guys really had no idea what music should be played at a Christmas party, or they were so pissed off that they couldn’t play really loud dance music that they played this chant over and over in retaliation. Either way, I’ve never encountered such an unprofessional DJ, and really wonder how these guys got hired.

Here’s one recording of the chant that I found on Soundcloud. According to YouTube, there are “About 37,900” recordings of it there. Imagine this for 20 minutes.

About this time, after 25 minutes of “Shiva Shambo” there was a power outage. I was in the bathroom at the time. Suddenly it got dark, and it was really quiet in the main hall, and then I heard one of the guests shout, “Hurray! No more music!” Power got restored in a few minutes, and after that the DJs switched to playing an instrumental loop of the first four bars of the chorus to “Jingle Bells” as it might sound from a karaoke machine. They played this same six second loop over and over and over, nonstop. It was still playing about a half hour later, when Beth and I finally left.

The food at the party was good, and the reindeer waiters did their best. But everything was totally overshadowed by the terrible DJs.

The Rest

The day after Christmas, we took an Indian cooking class from a man who owns a little store not far from our hotel. The class was more expensive than it probably should’ve been, but we ended up making enough food for seven people. Since Beth and I only add up to two, and they kept the rest, we also fed the man’s family as part of this. Taking a cooking class was high on our list of priorities for our India trip, and with only a couple days left, it was now or never.

Here are a few photos I took, mainly to jog my memory about how to make certain things. We learned how to make momos, dal makhani, chana masala, and vegetable biryani.

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Here is a short video I shot of the teacher’s wife demonstrating to me very slowly one way (probably the easiest technique) for sealing momos. Even after trying two or three times, none of mine looked as good as the worst of hers. That’s what 30 years of practice does, I guess.

After yoga class on December 27, we went down to the river to hang out for a bit. We watched some birds, waved at rafters floating by, and just enjoyed the afternoon.

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Then we went exploring a little more and eventually found a place that’s alternately called Cafe Delmar, the Beatles Cafe, and the 60s Cafe. I’d read about it as a must-see place, with good western food, which we were in the mood for. They were playing one of Billy Joel’s first albums, and we got some supper, then found our way back to the hotel.

The next morning we took a taxi to the nearest airport, about 30 minutes drive away, and caught a plane to New Delhi. We stayed in an airport hotel, and the next morning we left India and flew to Thailand. That was the end of our month in India.

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