The bus ride was horrible, horrible, horrible. It seemed like the driver took special pleasure in hitting as many potholes as he possibly could, lurching the entire bus forward violently, heads whip-lashing forward, babies crying. It took us all through the night, though I hardly slept a wink. When we disembarked in Rishikesh, I pulled my sunglasses down and stepped carefully onto the packed earth. Cows lounged in the dust, flicking their tails. The entire place seemed crystalline in the early morning light, high in the mountains, clean.
Eku walked straight up to me. “Where are you going?” she asked. “Uh, I have no idea,” I answered honestly. “Rishikesh?”
She flipped her hair impatiently. “No one stays in Rishikesh,” she answered. “You go further up the river, to either Lakshman Jhula or Ram Jhula.” I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know,” I said again. She seemed to be waiting for me. “I’ll go wherever you guys go.”
After a brief, violent argument with three local taxi drivers, the other girl stormed off, leaving Eku and I alone. We split a ride to Lakshman Jhula for fifty rupees each. “It should only be ten each,” she muttered, lighting a cigarette as we climbed into the back of taxi truck.
Eku was the kind of girl that made you feel instantly less cool. She was tiny, with doll-like features. Her long black hair spilled down her shoulders, ending at her waist in near-dreadlocks. She wore huge camo pants and had a puffy sleeping bag strapped to her backpack. She said things like “Achah!” when she was disgusted, and then she spit on the ground. She was a hard-core china-doll, but she was Japanese.
In town, we parted ways. She wanted a room at a guesthouse with pink painted walls, and I just wanted a clean room and a shower now. After I cleaned up, I wandered about twenty feet down the dirt road, and spotted what turned out to be quite possibly the largest backpacker hotspot in Lakshmanjhula. It was perched on a cliff, high above the flowing Ganges, and one of the suspension bridges that connects the east and west banks was visible not far from where we ate. I watched an orange-swathed saddhu bathe himself on the steps that led down to the water, returning to eat his lunch and puff on his chillum.
The guys at the table next to me had long hair and looked strung out. They kept talking about charas, Indian hash. One of them was philosophizing. “Think about it. Think about all of the things out there that don’t have a shape, man. Like, look at the open spaces, dude. What are those?”
There was another guy, shirtless, two tables down. The hippies fell into conversation with him while I listened, eating my banana cashew porridge. The shirtless guy spoke up. “Dude, I know this tattoo artist that does tattoos of like, nothing. You look at them, and you’re like, what the fuck is that, man?” He laughed self-consciously, waiting for a response. None came. He stubbed out his cigarette. The hippies had begun talking amongst themselves again.
“I mean, this guy has nothing. He’s just an artist, man. Imagine you asked someone what they had and they told you they had nothing. I mean, really, what would that mean, man? What does it really mean to have nothing?”
I tried to contain my smile as I listened to this jumbled conversation. On the banks of the river, the holy man stood up, wrapped his orange cloth between his legs, and walked away.