Descending from the remote, barren landscapes of Spiti down into the subtropical environment of Rishikesh on the banks of the holy Ganges…I’m given a shocking re-entry into the teeming cauldron that is India. It feels like an abrupt assault from a sudden mass of humanity.
After 4 weeks in the sparsely populated Tibetan plateau, the transition is simply overwhelming.
Traffic. Traffic. Traffic. Cars, tuk-tuks, motorcycles. Dilapidated school buses transporting uniformed kids pass me at lightning speed – oblivious to the safety of their precious cargo. I’m engulfed in a sea of vendors, pedestrians, and rickshaw drivers. Driving behavior ranges from the absurd to mortally dangerous. Oncoming vehicles inexplicably flash high-beam brights in my eyes over and over again – blinding me exactly when I need to see them in order to avoid a head-on collision. Car horns bray an incomprehensible variety of messages from every direction. My mirrors are useless aids in this melee. I’m focused on avoiding random livestock wandering in the road. I’ve been suddenly transported into a crazy video game where survival entails nerves of steel, holding your line, and making no sudden moves.
I motor steadily through, taking it all in. What starts as a brutal attack on my senses gradually blurs into a moving stream of color, smells, and sounds. Unending roadside stands selling dal, chappatis, and vegetables. A multitude of fast food thali restaurants slip by. Women regularly appear out of the frenzy, calmly walking beside the busy road. They carry themselves with a grace and cleanliness that seems impossible, given the filth and pollution of shantytown life around them. Refusing to entirely succumb to these difficult living conditions, it’s clear that India’s women are the country’s backbone.
After three long days driving through this chaos, I finally reach the outskirts of Rishikesh. Cresting a hill, I’m happy to see mother Ganga for the first time – India’s Holiest of rivers – emerging out of the foothills of the Himalaya. I’m exhausted from a month of rugged traveling and anxious to settle into one place for 9 days of rest and filming.
As I pull into the guesthouse and park my bike, I realize that any fantasy I harbor about a sudden, enlightened social or environmental revolution instantly changing things in India is simplistic and possibly delusional. The country’s population, economic and infrastructure challenges exist on a scale most Westerners cannot fathom. Even the simple experience of riding into Rishikesh is overwhelming. It certainly underscored how complex and difficult the human condition is here.
I’m looking forward to a rest day tomorrow before hitting the town. I’m in Rishikesh to get a better understanding of the forces at play that help or hinder hope for a sustainable, positive future. I know – no matter what – the only thing I’ll be able to personally change here will be my own perspective…but that’s probably a good place to start.