Picture of the Week

The Taj Mahal.  One of those Wonders of the World that exceeds expectations.

Coffee’s Got Nothin on Chai

Chai (or more specifically, Masala Chai) is the staple liquid of India. A milk-based black tea flavored with cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and lots of sugar, chai is more ubiquitous than coffee, and in my opinion, is far superior in taste. Served by street vendors known as “chai wallahs (a wallah is a person that performs a service – you have your laundry ironed by a “press wallah”, your shoes shined by a “shoe wallah”, etc), you can order a chai in a train, in a food stall, in a museum, in a restaurant, or basically on any corner in all of northern India. Sometimes served in a teapot, other times in a glass, and occasionally in a plastic bag, masala chai will forever be one of my favorite hot drinks.

Personal Chai Teapots

Chai in a glass

All You Need is Love…and a Guide Named Raju Baba

As I mentioned in an earlier post, The Beatles came to Rishikesh in the late 1960s where they studied at the the Maharishi Mahesh Ashram and composed much of their famous White Album. Maharishi Mahesh is just down the road from where we were staying, so we had to go take a look. The ashram was up and running until as recently as the late 1990s (we even have a friend who has studied there!). However, due to its Beatles-infused popularity and the types of people (folks with significant drug use/abuse issues) it attracted, the city decided to shut it down.

That is a big shame as it is located on one of the most beautiful spots in the valley, overlooking both the river and the town itself. Though it’s only been 15 years or so, the buildings are in complete decay and it has quite a ghostly feel.

Decay and overgrowth have taken over the ashram

Ashram gate

Meditation caves

Technically the ashram is off-limits to visitors, however, it is a well-known “secret” that the guy who guards the gate will happily let you in for a few rupees. So that is how we found ourselves wandering through the ghost town that was once the famous and revered Maharishi Mahesh Ashram.

We wandered aimlessly, trying to determine what was what, when we ran into Miguel, a nice Spanish man who was wandering the premises with a guide. This “guide’s” name was Raju Baba (or so we were told) – a crazy old man decked out in the traditional orange guru robe worn by many spiritual pilgrams found throughout Rishikesh. I’m pretty sure he lives on the streets of Rishikesh and makes an odd dollar from tourists here and there – he may or may not be enlightened.  Needless to say he was a total character and we were quite amused to follow him around as he pointed out John and Yoko’s bungalow, the Beatles meditation room, and the best rooftop views of the complex. Who knew if what he was saying was true, however, we were thoroughly entertained and I would argue that our small tip for his services was well worth it.

Raju Baba

Cool stonework and architecture

Lecture and meditation hall

Sarah, Miguel, and Raju Baba

It was a very unique day, to say the least, and we can only hope that the city finds the right project to bring the beautiful setting back to life.


Cows are everywhere in India.  Deemed sacred by the Hindu religion, cows are free to roam as they like, in the streets, in your yard, on bridges, in intersections, etc.  The downsides to cows’ spiritual status are plentiful, including poop everywhere, traffic blockages, and occasional aggressive behavior.   But in India, nobody seems to mind.

Cows in the square

Cows on a bridge

Cows on the street

The Vibe of Rishikesh

Rishikesh vista

Rishikesh is special and fascinating for a number of reasons. First, its location at the foothills of the Himalaya and the headwaters of the Ganges (or Ganga, as they call it here) sets a beautiful backdrop. Flatness to the south, mountains (similar in size and feel to the Flatirons coming out of Boulder) cut majestically up from the wide and pale green Ganga (also a very holy body of water to the Hindus). The river here is relatively clean, and swimming in it is a common (and cold) activity. 2nd, its location away from normal Indian craziness (but it’s all relative). Rishikesh is actually the main city across the water and to the south a bit, and it’s regular old Indian mayham. The 3 main areas where travelers and pilgrams hang out are separate communities north of the main town and across the river – Ram Jhula, Lachsman Jhula, and High Bank. In all 3 of these, there is very limited traffic – mainly only scooters and motos, and then a jeep service between Ram an Lachsman. This is a very important factor in the development of the spiritual center this place has become. Most importantly though, this place is special for it’s spirituality, and the people that it draws in the pursuit of it.  Yoga capital of the world, the region is dotted with Ashrams where pilgrams come for serious study. Ashrams range in their price and focus, but most require adherence to a schedule of study, a dress code, a conduct code, and that participants be serious in their dedication. We considered staying in one of the lite Ashrams for a couple days, but decided that we could get the yoga/meditation we wanted just by dropping in.

The entrance to Parmarth Ashram

There is a lot of focused brain power and spiritual energy in this place. A LOT. For all of the reasons above, Rishikesh is the perfect storm of elements to create probably one of the world’s most significant hubs of people energy. And you can feel it. Lots of Boulder people would dig the vibe here. Sarah gets a bit annoyed by all the travelers dressing the part (lots of people here wearing hippie clothes that wouldn’t be caught dead in them back home), but I think it’s just people getting away from their lives and getting into the vibe here.

Students of the ashram

The streets are lined with these unique beggars. Dressed largely in orange, this skinny old dudes with huge beards and long hair would very unobtrusively ask you for a donation as you walked by. As many people come to Rishikesh to cleanse and build up their karma, it’s a good place to be a(n apparently spiritual) beggar.

Rishikesh Beggar

There is NO alcohol in this city. None. Can’t have a beer with dinner, no wine, no hard stuff. There is one restaurant up in High Bank that has beer, supposively. Good for the budget though. Oh yeah, and no meat either. It’s so easy to eat vegitarian when meat is not an option. Haven’t missed it once since we’ve been here. Nobody offers it, nobody eats it, and the food is delicious.

Sunset on the Ganga

A Yogi’s Dream

Our next stop was Rishikesh, a hippie/yoga enclave in the northern state of Uttarakhand. Rishikesh made headlines in the late 1960s when the Beatles spent time in an ashram here writing their famous White Album. The Beatles ashram is now out of commission, but there are many others that are going strong. Thousands of Westerners and Indians visit Rishikesh every year to live the ashram lifestyle (à la Eat Pray Love), dedicate themselves to yogic study, and/or take in the beautiful scenery of the Ganga (Ganges) River flowing through town. It is a very spiritual place full of hippies and wannabe hippies, as well as true Indian gurus and wannabe gurus.


We spent a week in Rishikesh, relishing the relaxed vibe and relative peace and quiet that seems impossible to find in other parts of India. Though we considered staying at an ashram, we decided that we’d prefer the flexibility of making our own schedule so we opted for a guesthouse instead. That’s not to say we didn’t go with the flow and dive into what Rishikesh has to offer.

Parmarth - the most popular ashram in Rishikesh

Ted and I found ourselves doing yoga on several occasions – which were Ted’s first yoga classes ever and my first since college. We were entertained by our various teachers, each with their own style and expertise. One class had over 30 people in it as apparently our instructor was a renowned yogi – what did we know? Our second class was led by a rather feminine man with an adorable lisp and I could barely contain myself from giggling as he commanded us to relax our right nostril and our left nostril while focusing in savasana at the end of class. Another teacher was particularly into using breath when moving through the poses – he had us nearly hyper-ventilating. Needless to say, we learned that each yoga class is very different depending on who is running the show!

Prayer at the banks of the Ganga

We spent a few evenings doing guided meditation at an ashram which was a brand new experience for me. I have a long way to go towards ‘stilling my mind’, but I have to say that overall I enjoyed the experience very much and am intrigued to learn and do more.

And we both took dips in the holy Ganga River (as it is called). It was a quick dip as the river was freezing. Please note that this is not the dirty polluted Ganges that you are imagining. Up in Rishikesh, the water is a beautiful blue-green color, flowing from the Himalaya before it has yet to be contaminated with the filth, sewage, garbage and animal run-off that destroys it further south. The Ganga is of great religious importance to the country’s hundreds of millions of Hindus. We regularly saw entire families by the river edge swimming and splashing themselves with the water of this great river. Many families fill up jugs with the sacred water that they then take home with them for future use.

A cold dip in the Ganga

Plastic jugs for sale - take some holy water home with you

So, though we didn’t do much in Rishikesh, per se, we did our best to take advantage of what this spiritual center had to offer and found that we quite liked what that entailed.


India has some interesting social norms when it comes to public displays of affection, romantic or platonic. As a general rule, women and men are not allowed to show affection for one another. In many places, women must cover themselves completely so as not to attract the eye or attention of the opposite gender. In a culture that still relies heavily on arranged marriages, dating is forbidden and many men and women don’t even meet their life partners until they are soon to be wed. There simply is not a lot of flirting (publicly, at least).

However, it is quite normal for both men and women to show platonic affection to others of their own gender publicly. Behavior that would likely be perceived as homosexual in our culture is simply a demonstration of everyday friendship. It is typical for men to embrace, hold each other, and then hold hands while they walk down the street. For us, a handshake that lasts for more than a couple seconds starts to feel awkward, and when the Indian man at the other end of the shake doesn’t let go for 30 seconds, I’m feeling like, ‘let my hand go dude’. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a little overt brotherly love – it’s just not what we’re used to. But it’s quite a bit harder to accept the cultural norm that women are not to be seen by men. Gender equality has quite a long road ahead here in India.

Indian Food Is Amazing

I’d just like to take a moment here to recognize the utter deliciousness of Indian cuisine. We’ve been big fans of Indian fare for years, and one of the big draws of visiting India was eating the food. And I must say, we were anything but disappointed. While we never fully knew what we were getting, it was nearly always delicious. Our favorite dish was the Thali, which is tray of different curries – kind of like a sampler platter. Each thali would be different, featuring the restaurant’s curries of the day.

Thali from Rajasthan

Our last meal in India - a Varanasi Thali

Other favorites include dosas (super thin pancakes wrapped in a tube and filled with curry), malai kofta, and butter chicken.

Masala Dosa in Delhi

Paneer Dosa

In an effort to learn how to recreate this deliciousness at home, we even took a cooking class. We’ll give it a try when we get back, but I have a feeling we won’t quite be able to capture the rich flavors that burst out of ever bite here.

India – Pakistan Border Closing Ceremony

Yep, that’s right. EVERYDAY at the sole India-Pakistan land border crossing, an amazing ceremony of sorts occurs. The word ceremony suggests something subdued and official however, this presentation was anything but. The closest thing I can equate this spectacle to is a sporting event. There are so many people and so much energy and such ridiculous competitive antics that it was nothing short of spectacular.

As mentioned in my cricket post, India and Pakistan are bitter enemies, and this border closing event is an opportunity to literally shut the door in the face of the other every night. The evening we went to watch this thing was just a couple short weeks after India won the World Cup of Cricket (a HUGE deal which included beating Pakistan in the semi-finals) so I think we experienced a particularly patriotic crowd. I am not going to do this ceremony the justice it deserves but I will mention some of my favorite parts and see if I can’t paint a picture.

Whistle-happy guard seating us in the VIP section

Thousands gather to witness the ceremony nightly

Just as in a sporting event, there were bleachers filled with thousands of excited Indians, waving flags on one side of the border and hundreds of Pakistanis doing the same on their side of the border. The Indians won in overall attendance hands-down.

Ted and I were quickly directed to the VIP section which, for some reason, all the foreigners are assigned to sit. We sat in a section of bleachers with great seats that we shared with hundreds of our Indian VIP friends.

Before the actual ceremony began, there was a whole production to create excitement and drum up intense national pride. This is achieved by a master of ceremonies, if you will, who is dressed in a white, nylon-y track suit, who uses his microphone to lead cheers, encourage flag waving and organize the festivities.

The MC/cheerleader struts his stuff

What festivities, you may ask? Well, young women and children take turns carrying a rather large Indian flag and running up to the border gate with it, waving it toward the sad, sorry Pakistanis and then running back. This is in front of a crowd of people who shout and cheer them on.

Two of dozens of women and girls running the flag to the border and back

There is also dance music blaring that leads to a large, informal dance party in the middle of the street. Think Bollywood movie dancing – hands twisting and pumping; heads bobbing and bobbling. It was amazing. Meanwhile music and such was happening on the Pakistani side as well but it was nothing in comparison and we really couldn’t see what was going on over there that well.

Impromptu Dance Party

Just when Ted and I though it couldn’t get any better – the ceremony began. The emcee’s job now becomes quite important as he introduces the very serious soldiers who will be partaking in this evening’s festivities. Out they come with the most high-kicking, elaborate, and dramatic marches we have ever witnessed.

Killer hats!

Gotta look closely, but check out this guy's kick!

Once lined up, for no reason we could determine whatsoever, a soldier from the Indian side and a soldier from the Pakistani side had a yell-off. That is, they each yelled into a microphone on their respective sides of the border to see who could yell longer. They did this about 5 times and each time the Pakistani guy won. The Pakistanis were very excited about this, but it is the only thing they had going for them as far as we could tell. The Indians were having much more fun.

Once the yell-off concluded, the soldiers took turns doing their elaborate marches to the border (this is being mirrored by Pakistani soldiers on the other side). Finally the head honchos from each country march fabulously up to one another, stopping just inches apart, exchange a brief but hardy handshake, lower the flag, and turn around and close the border gate behind them.

Lowering of the flag, at exactly the same speed, so as not to let your country's flag come down first

So concludes the border closing ceremony for another night. Just when you think that everyone will start filing out of their seats and head home, the music blasts back up and the dance party resumes. As we make our way back to the rickshaw, we noticed that the emcee was shaking hands and signing autographs. Are you kidding me? This was just too hilarious! As I type this I am again laughing out loud. You seriously could not make this stuff up. Ten out of ten!

There IS Such a Thing as a Free Lunch!

Sikh pilgrims from across the globe converge on the Golden Temple at a rate of thousands per day. For many, this is the trip of a lifetime. For others, it’s an annual visit. For all, it is a welcoming experience of unparalleled hospitality.

Every visitor to the Golden Temple, Sikh or not, is invited to free meals, served throughout the day, to up to 40,000 people daily. At first I was hesitant to accept – after all, I’m not a believer of their religion, and the complimentary food program was not designed for free-loading backpackers. But after being encouraged by a number of Indians to join in, I left a donation and gave it a go.

What an experience. The Golden Temple meal program might just be the most efficient restaurant on the planet. Hundreds of people are led into a large room and sat in rows on the floor. As others continue to file in, the first row is handed a plate, bowl, and cup, followed quickly by men with large ladles and buckets full of curries, dal, and rice. The chipati lady is close behind, followed by a little girl pouring water into everyone’s cup. The eating commences immediately, and Indians eat fast. No need for silverware, it’s all scoop and push with your fingers. Within minutes, the servers are back around for 2nd servings, though its hardly necessary after the heaping portions given on the first round. Within 15 minutes of walking in the door, over 250 people have been fed, and the room is nearly empty, save the cleanup crew, who come in with large mops to clean up the mess that accumulated on the ground (particularly around my plate – eating rice and curry with your fingers is rather messy for the inexperienced).

Serving hundreds - bucket-style

One of the most orderly endeavors we witnessed in all of India

The food, prepared in the biggest pots I’ve ever seen in my life, is surprisingly tasty, and most certainly filling. The people around stare at me as they eat, but with big warm smiles, and my neighbors practice their English and invite me to their home. While seemingly out of place as the only white guy in this huge room of Sikh pilgrims, I feel completely welcome at the meal, happy to have enjoyed what will surely be one of the most unique eating experiences of my life.

The kitchen - wood in the center for cooking, huge pots boiling curries in the back, and a chapati lady on the left

Lots of meals means lots of dishes, and lots of people to wash them

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