After a few shocking days in Delhi, which should disabuse anyone of the notion that India is a paradise of spiritual pilgrimage where you can comfortably disconnect from the world and “find yourself,” I traveled to the Himalayas, where such notions are the lentils and rice of the backpacker’s conversational diet.
Most of the backpackers I met wore some self-styled Indian costume — flowing robes, sarongs, tunics, parachute pants with oriental designs (elephants were a popular motif), and Hindu deity print tees. There was a high density of man buns, dreadlocks, and multi-cultural tattoos, all promising their own unique synthesis of enlightenment. I say “self-styled Indian costume” because the majority of Indian men and a sizable amount of the young women are dressed in a conservative Western fashion. These tourists show up one day in jeans and North Face pullovers, and emerge the next looking like Gandhi on the salt march. Their costumes provide a good metaphor for the value exchange of New Age globalization: your clothes, my comfort; your religion, my enlightenment; your food, my sophistication; your economic and political well-being, not my problem!
For the most part, they seem to hang around all day, smoke hashish, and listen to trance music, occasionally forming embarrassing music ensembles at night (the yoga-ashram crowd is further south). The most pervasive backpacker hangout is, mysteriously, the “German bakery.” There is at least one in every city or town frequented by backpackers. I have no idea what denotes them as being particularly German (surely not the yak cheese sandwiches). Swiss is also a common descriptor of backpacker infrastructure — Swiss cottage, Swiss garden, Swiss living. This is probably meant to suggest comfort and cleanliness, but I think the deeper implication is neutrality.
Most of the backpackers I talked to occupy middling positions in their respective societies, envoys of stagnating opportunities in the West. They are overeducated service workers, bored office employees, but here in India they are still rich white (wo)men. You are constantly reminded of this fact. Crowds of Indians eagerly vie for your money (the train station in Agra was an amazing sight—it was like a stock market for tourists, with rickshaw drivers yelling out bids). This is a great psychological gratification, a sort of roundabout vindication. Under the sheen of posture and discovery, the backpacker circuit is often just feel-good poverty tourism. This became clear when I listened to a group of backpackers passive aggressively vie to demonstrate their traveler credentials via self-induced hardships—“I had to drink the Delhi water for two weeks,” said one man—oblivious to the depravity of this exercise amidst the wholly involuntary poverty that surrounded them.
Israelis are probably the largest national contingent on the backpacker trail. (Granted I was there during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when many Israelis travel abroad, but younger Israelis on post-army trips maintain a steady presence throughout the year—enough, at least, to justify a Chabad house in Rishikesh.) Many stores had welcome signs in Hebrew (in English too, of course, but not in French, Germany, Italian, etc). In a village of eight hundred in the Kulu Valley, there were posters on the wall, in Hebrew, advertising an Israeli artist’s “tour of performances in India!”
The word “Israel” essentially has no meaning for the average Indian. You draw a blank look, or they simply associate you with the other Israeli tourists. (A story I heard: an Israeli is talking with an Indian. The Indian asks him how many people live in Israel. “About six million,” the Israeli answers. “Six million?” the Indian replies in disbelief, “There’s six million in India right now!”) In India you don’t hear about Palestinians, no talk about occupation, security, terrorism. You’re just somebody from the West, which is many Israelis’ greatest ambition.
A strange effect of backpacker tourism is that rural villagers, who live in what were once some of the most insulated places on earth, are more accustomed to seeing foreigners than urban Indians (who will often stop you and ask for a picture). In a remote Himalayan village of two hundred, we stayed in the guest house of a former high-altitude combat solider in the Indian army. He spent a decade living on the country’s mountainous borders with Pakistan and China, but has since devoted his life to eco-tourism, sustainable agriculture, and Osho-inspired meditative practices.
On one of our last days, he announced he was setting up an Indian sweat lodge for the guests, something he said he does a few times a year, himself a regular practitioner. This sweat lodge, by the way, was Indian as in Native American, the Karl May sort of Indian, transmitted to our host by a friend described as “a Swiss mystic.”
The sweat lodge consisted of a teepee with a pit of smoldering coals in the middle, surrounded by glistening, half-naked bodies. I generally hate this sort of thing, but I hate myself even more, so I agreed to enter. Sweat begins to stream from every pore; your face feels like it is on fire; and breathing, rather than abating this sensation, only accentuates it. While I tried to put my head as close to the ground as possible to breathe whatever air wasn’t suffused by suffocating heat, a couple of Russians insouciantly laughed and chatted away like it was just another day at the sauna. Soon they began chanting traditional hymns, which they had learned in Mexico, where they had sat in a sweat lodge for eight hours while tripping on Ayahuasca.
Christopher Columbus set out more than five hundred years ago to find a more secure passage to India, slaughtering and enslaving the native population he encountered instead; and now that we have effectively killed them all and confined the remaining few to ghettos, their spiritual practices live on the in the place he was originally trying to reach.