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Taking the North Country to Northern India

Becky McCluskey

On to Rishikesh: October 26, 2004

The bus ride from McLeod Ganj to Rishikesh was a crazy-hellish 17 hours...ahhhhhh! But anyway, while we're here we're staying at a school/orphanage. When we first arrived it was so cute because all the little kids were there to meet us and they sang a welcome song and threw flowers at us. The school/orphanage, called Ramana's Garden, was started by this woman who used to be an actress in Hollywood. I have no idea how she ended up in India with all these kids, but she's got this incredibly amazing thing going on. She explained that all of the kids who go to the school are considered untouchables by society and would be picking up shit in the street (those were her exact words) but instead they live at the school and are getting a real education. Everything she told us about was really hard to hear, but really moving.

I guess this school is the only one in India that actually gives untouchables a real education. The only way for the government and rich people to maintain their power, as she explained, is to keep the people uneducated and use them basically as slave labor. Because the school is "disrupting" this order, they are in legal battles with the government all the time over the land which they need to grow food on. Since there are no laws regulating the use of pesticides, some of the vegies in the market have been found to have 100 times more poison than the max limit for safe human ingestion...so yeah, the school uses all their land to grow safe food on, but they've lost half of their land to the government and their growing season has been cut in half (to just 4 months) because of global warming (it's too hot for anything to grow). The woman explained that they are constantly running out of supplies and money, but they always find some way to make it to the next month. She said "When we have a lot, we give a lot, and when we have a little, we give even more." The place itself is simple but very beautiful and the kids are all really cute.

Ravana--one bad dude.

The first day we got here happened to be the religious Hindu holiday of Dussehra (or something like that, it has different names in different regions of India). So at night, our group went with all the little kids to see the celebration. A little background on the holiday (i'm sure some of this is incorrect but its the basic idea): a god kidnapped this beautiful woman and made this other dude and tons of other people angry...I think he was trying to take over the world...anway, whenever anyone tried to cut his head off, he grew 10 more...so one night, this goddess came to a soldier and explained to him that the bad dude can't be killed with violence and fighting, and somehow the soldier guy got this torch of light or something and went around the world with it, spreading light to put an end to the dark, evil dude. So I guess it took him 13 days to go around the world, so the holiday lasts 13 days, and on the last day he gets into a big fight with the bad guy and kills him with his ball/torch of light.

In Rishikesh all the people gathered together at the beaches on the shore of the Ganga River and watched a re-enactment of the killing of the bad dude. They made this huge papier mache replica of the bad guy (the height of a building) and had fireworks and stuff to represent the spreading of light. Then at the end the huge papier mache dude gets blown up...it probably isn't the safest holiday in the world, but it was really neat to see!

The next day was Sunday--they call it a holiday instead of the weekend--so the kids didn't have classes. In the morning they did their laundry and then they got to play for the rest of the day. Most of us had laundry to do as well so we went with the kids down to the Ganges River and got to experience hand-washing our clothes in the Ganga...something I never imagined myself doing. The Ganges definitely has its sanitary issues but since we're so close to the start of the river it's safe to wash your clothes in, and swim in, too (we did that later in the day- but it was freezing!!!!)

The next day the kids had classes and so we had some free time (which we spent buying chocolate :) )and then we helped them make these little Christmas decorations to send to their sponsors in America. Today is basically the same, they have class, so we have free time, but later we will help them with their homework, if they have any, and just play with them. Oh, but it's so cute...every night they all get together in this room, aptly named the dome, and meditate and sing together for about half an hour.

So the days and weeks ahead... we're leaving tomorrow to go up to the school's mountain retreat center. While we're there we're doing work in their gardens and other stuff they need help with, as well as taking yoga classes twice a day from this guy who is supposedly one of the best yoga teachers in Rishikesh. This is a big deal because Rishikesh is considered the capital of yoga in India. We'll be there from the 27th to the 5th of November. There is no electricity up there, so I won't be able to e-mail for a while and we won't know who the new president is for a few days!!!!!

As for the trek, things have been changed around. We could have gone on a 4-day trek, but it was a 10-hour drive to the trail head and so we really only would have been able to hike for 3 days. Everything would have been really rushed. So instead, at the mountain retreat, we are planning on taking some hikes and then afterwards will come back down to Rishikesh. We'll have a few days to explore more (because Ramana's Garden is very secluded from the actual hustle and bustle of the city).

Mike, one of our trip leaders who lived here for a few months, has a friend who is a really skilled tabla player. This friend and some of his friends said they would put on a performance for us of a piece that isn't heard very often, and isn't even allowed to be recorded, because it's one of those things that's passed down from teacher to student, and is meant to remain a secret. On the 7th to the 8th we're going to take an overnight rafting trip down the Ganges and then finally leave Rishikesh on the 9th. We have a 23-hour train ride to Varanasi where we will be from the 10th to the 23rd.

On the 23rd we are going to Bodh Gaya to take a roots course on Buddhism. We'll be there for a few days (to check out the descendants of that famous boddi tree that Buddha got enlightenment under). Then we'll take an incredibly long train ride that passes (hopefully) through Agra (to see the Taj Mahal) and then back to Delhi for a few days. Then it's back on a crazy long flight back to America!!! So thats the plan, but as it is India, things will most likely change as we go along.

Oh, and I'm kinda scared to go to Varanasi, because the woman who runs the orphanage said that they sent someone there a few days ago but they had to be emergency airlifted out because they got typhoid...something I definitely didn't want to know. Hopefully it won't be too bad because we'll be staying in homestays while we're there. We all know that we need to be super-extra careful, but I'm still a little worried. I'll write to you all again sometime after the 5th...when we have our new president :) .

Love you lots,

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2004 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475