Rishikesh and its hippies lounge where the Ganges pounds out of the mountains and onto the plains. Which means, if you want to get to Gangotri, you have to take a bus on kilometers of winding roads up, sideways, and over those gorgeous, life-threatening chunks of stone, dirt, trees, and villages.
A rusted, dust-encrusted, creaking medium-sized machine swerving along tiny-sized roads that are not usually actual roads, but dirt tracks marking where landslid rocks, dirt, and trunks have been plowed aside.
The plastic window can be slid aside to provide direct access to crisp air. Too afraid to fully lean out and be exposed to aggressive vehicles speeding along or potential branch-whipping, depending on which side of the bus I was on, I spent hours and hours at a time gazing at the distant snowy peaks or the skinny Ganga far below.
The bus careened close to the edge, not always out of insanity but mostly because that was where the road went. My fellow passengers seemed unperturbed compared to me, the lone white person, as we creeped around rock piles and splashed through streams. A four-wheeling fearless bus packed with people so that some stood, clinging to the ceiling bars and each other.
Isolated villages, at only a cluster of houses at a time, could be seen spotting the mountainsides, completely surrounded by trees and cliff. We would dive close to the Ganges, crossing one of the rusty bridges, and then weave back and forth up up up until she snaked far below. Then near apple orchards (the Hindi sounds like “apple gardens,” although it could have been misspoken English) and closer, closer to the distant whiteness.
Gazing at the fast-descending cliff outside my window, I imagined us slipping over the edge, could see the bouncing bus full of unwrapped saris and burst packages destroying trees and trailing the random guard rail; and thought that if we fell, twisted, into the river, we would be sent to Heaven immediately.
Because, come on, it’s the Ganges.
I needed that week. The meditation, isolation, major chilling: travel teaches me to love the simple joy of a safe place to rest, and the significance of being able to call home. Failed technology prevented my writing since I left Rishikesh, and the quiet space left behind was, fortunately, acceptable and possibly even useful.
Departure slowly seeped into my thoughts during the last days in that strange town. Reasons remain irrelevant, as I have the unbelievably lucky freedom of flexibility that allows me to move when I am ready and to linger as needed.
A slow extraction finally brought me to an enormous parking lot in a different part of town, with no discernible bus station in sight. The setting sun drove a quick search that finally produced a strange hexagonal structure (of course, in the opposite direction from which I first looked) and an answer — I could not buy a ticket for my 4 a.m. bus until an hour or so before.
Men stretched out on the dais surrounding the ticket booths, thin blankets and sheets of plastic covering the dusty floor. Not a single sari in sight. Darkness settling in, I knew that I risked a failed plan, dropping the Ganga’s mountainous home and limited bus schedule if I was overly exposed. I would have to abandon Gangotri if I could not ensure my safety through the night.
At the station’s adjacent guest house, I asked for permission to sit on the front step and wait. The manager accepted, and, fears eased enough to keep the plan in place, I stayed. But soon the mosquitoes pushed me into the lobby; there were no rooms available, and the dorm was full of men.
Shielded by a collection of people that would be forced to hold each other accountable, the hands on the clock swung round and round, as the cricket game was won and lost, and slowly, slowly, I was left with the teenagers who remain in the lobby all night. I should have been frightened, but the two dangers, set against each other, neutralized them: the dozens of sleeping men were close to the hotel, even within sight, so that shouts would be easily heard. And these teens had chatted without aggression or agenda; I handed over my mp3 player so that one could listen for a moment, as we discussed the game playing on the small television mounted on the wall.
Around 1 a.m., one teen pushed the tables together and pulled out a mat to sleep. I wiggled a bit in my chair, exhausted yet charged from caffeine. A few minutes later, he disappeared and returned with another mat, sheet, and pillow, and laid them on the floor on the other side of the room. For me.
So tired that tears crinkled in my eyes out of delight and gratitude, I decided to trust him, and fell onto my mattress with my phone next to my face, alarm set. Comfort heightened by the stiff metal seat, I slid away into unconsciousness thinking about how significant his actions were in this culture.
Around 3 a.m., I woke him as gently as I could so that he could unlock the front door. He crawled out of bed and, to my surprise, led me out the door to the ticket window. He spoke with the man in the booth, made sure I was safely on the correct bus, and refused to accept a tip. He did not linger as most men would, nor did he ever behave inappropriately toward me.
Securely in my spot on the bus, I stared, thinking about how dangerous that should have been, and how protected I turned out to be. A powerful kindness.