I. The Girl
You spot The Girl on your first afternoon in Rishikesh. She is long-limbed and graceful, and she walks carefully along the path, as if not to disturb the dirt beneath her bare feet. She wears loose cotton pants, and tiny bells in her hair. She is smiling. Her stomach is browned and taut; the tiny hairs on her arms are bleached from the sun. When she spots a cow in her path, she stops to stroke its neck and whisper into its ear. You watch, and you wish you were that cow.
You think to yourself: If I have come here to learn Tantric sex, I want that woman to be my partner.
II. The Holy Place
Rishikesh straddles the Ganges just below the point where the sacred river comes roaring out from the mountains. The water here is clean and cold: In the morning, Hindu pilgrims tip offerings of fresh milk from the riverside ghats; in the afternoon, helmeted tourists -- Indian and foreign alike -- bump through the current in rubber whitewater rafts. Monkeys chatter in the trees along the shore.
As in other holy places in India, the dread-locked sadhus near the river do a steady side-business posing for tourist photographs. Middle-aged Indian men stroll the alleys, offering you marijuana in the same chirpy, unconcerned voice one might use in offering snack pellets to a pet gerbil. Kids here tug on your sleeve and ask you for ballpoint pens. You did not initially come here to learn Tantric sex. Rather, you stopped here en route to the Himalayas, on the recommendation of a yoga-obsessed friend. You are not much into yoga, but one charm of travel is that it frees you to be a dilettante. Just as you tried scuba diving in Thailand and windsurfing in Galilee, you intend to try yoga in Rishikesh and decide later if you really want to make it an active part of your life. Advertisements for yogis are pasted everywhere in Rishikesh, and you sometimes stop to read them. Your favorite comes from a certain Swami Vivekananda. "I mix the rational understanding of the West with the mystical approach of the East," his flyer states. "I will not bother you with religious nonsense, weird rituals, dogmas, or superstitions." The true selling point, however, is printed at the bottom. It says: "SUNDAYS: A step-by-step approach to the oral secret tradition of the Tantric schools of India and Tibet." You don't know a lot about Tantra, but you're pretty sure it's a technique that allows you to have sex for hours and hours at a stretch. You elect to remain in Rishikesh until Sunday and pay Swami Vivekananda's ashram a visit.
III. The Rooftop Restaurant
You've been staying in a two-dollar hotel in the heart of Rishikesh. Your room is small and bare, but you like its ascetic vibe. Sometimes you hear elementary Vedic chants coming up through the pipes in the bathroom. Other times, the pipes emit snoring noises, or the tinny whine of your downstairs neighbor complaining about his diarrhea. The showers run cold, but a boy at the front desk will bring you a bucket of hot water at no extra cost. There is a restaurant on the roof, and it serves Italian food. The lasagna is sub-par, but the view of the Ganges attracts a steady stream of diners, who gather to discuss yoga, Hindu philosophy, and where to find the street vendor who sells the bran muffins. Pink-faced rhesus monkeys infest the surrounding buildings, and sometimes they leap across to steal leftover garlic bread, or fight one another over bowls of tea sugar. The waiters chase them away, but they always come back. Though you have yet to see The Girl on the roof of your hotel, you do meet various other travelers. They say things like, "Yeah, yoga till Friday, then I go rafting"; or: "I'm just getting my yin and yang in order, getting a little exercise; it can't hurt." Some of the more earnest seekers explain to you how the seven chakras correspond to the seven planets, or how it's hard to travel in Cuba if you're a vegetarian.
Scott, a young guy from New Zealand, has also noticed The Girl. He tells you he thinks she's from Latvia, and that she is probably gaining positive karmic energy from your infatuation. "Mae West was actually one of the first Westerners to be aware of karmic energy, back in the 1930s," Scott tells you. "She took all that lustful male energy that was directed at her, and she cultivated it like a garden. It made her into a stronger person." The more you consider this, the more you enjoy the idea that -- even if you have not yet mustered the courage to speak to The Girl -- you are at least making her into a stronger person.
In the early evenings, you leave the rooftop and go for hikes in the forest outside Rishikesh. The black-faced lemurs that live in the trees there are gentle and graceful and shy. Unlike the rhesus monkeys that haunt the hotel rooftop, they do not squabble, bare their teeth at you, or try to get at your food. If you stand silent among the trees, they will walk out on their branches and stare down at you with calm curiosity.
IV. The Tantra Class
When Sunday arrives, you go to Swami Vivekananda's ashram, where you are met with two initial disappointments. First, you find out that men and women are required to take the class separately. Second, you discover that the Swami is not from India, but Romania. He is tall, bulky, and bespectacled, and he quotes Hindu scripture with vague Count Dracula inflections, pausing occasionally to brush a shock of brown hair from his eyes. Swami Vivekananda quiets the class and explains that it is difficult to get beyond a certain point of spiritual awareness unless you learn to redirect your sexual energy. "Tantric practitioners seek to reverse the Pavlovian connection between orgasm and ejaculation," he says. "Ejaculation is in-built for species reproduction, but it interferes with the true spiritual nature of orgasm."
This declaration yields a flurry of questions. Does a Tantric orgasm feel like a regular orgasm? "It does not." Does a Tantric orgasm still originate in the genitals? "Not exactly. It is not even purely physical; it is a spiritual orgasm." Is a spiritual orgasm really better than a physical orgasm? "Yes," the swami says, losing patience. "And a man who has tasted honey doesn't want to eat shit any more." Continuing in this culinary vein, Swami Vivekananda suggests that developing a Tantric awareness of sex is akin to cultivating a refined taste for food -- turning it into a spiritual act instead of a mere pleasure-survival reflex. The kissing, biting and massaging encouraged by the Kama Sutra, he explains, is not mere sexual foreplay, but part of a recipe for deeper spiritual awareness."Sexuality is not of the body, but of the mind," the swami concludes, "and it is through the mind that we wage war with the ingrained reflexes of the body. Tantric masters learn to keep their physical instincts behind the point of no return, and this yields sexual and spiritual rewards." Again, the class buzzes with questions. How exactly do you stay behind the point of no return? "Self-discipline is not a part-time job; it must be strengthened over time." But how? "By pulling your sexual energy into your mind and your chakras." But how do you actually do that while you're having sex? "You learn new ways to overcome your instincts; it's like training an animal by using a carrot." So is the carrot, like, counting backwards from a thousand or something? "No! Tantra is about mindfulness, not distraction." Eventually, Swami Vivekananda becomes exasperated with ejaculation questions. "Look," he says, "there are some pelvic muscles that can help control ejaculation, and the best way to strengthen them is to urinate in short, start-stop bursts instead of one continuous stream. But please. Let us stick to spiritual matters." As he says this, a palpable sense of relief fills the room. The swami continues to explain the mystical essence of Tantric discipline, but nobody thinks to ask any more questions.
V. The Girl, Part II
The following day, as if by holy miracle, The Girl shows up on the roof of your hotel. When her tea arrives, she stretches her long arms up above her head, and you watch the graceful curve of her torso, the flat ripple of her stomach. She opens her shoulder bag, takes out a bran muffin, and places it on her table.
You watch this, gathering up your nerve, and you think: Tantra is about mindfulness. Before you can approach her, however, a rhesus monkey hops down from a nearby roof and climbs onto her table. The Girl's smile brightens. Whispering something you cannot hear, she slides a hand forward and begins to stroke the yellow-brown fur on the monkey's leg. You watch, and you wish you were that monkey. Then, suddenly, the little pink-faced creature rears back and swats the teacup off the table. As The Girl flinches, the monkey grabs her muffin and leaps up onto an adjacent roof. For a moment, everything on the rooftop is still. The Girl stares down at the streaks of tea on her shirt. The monkey clutches the muffin and stares down at The Girl. Conversations stop, and everyone at the restaurant silently waits to see what will happen next. You fully expect The Girl to whisper up at the monkey -- to coax it down, cradle it into her arms, and walk off peacefully to share the muffin on the shores of the holy Ganges. Instead, her face reddens, and she snatches a tin of tea sugar. Curling her thin, lovely lips, she screams, "COCK-SUCKING FUCKING MONKEY!" The sugar-tin whangs off the roof and explodes into a grainy white cloud. The monkey blinks coquettishly at The Girl, and begins to nibble at the bran muffin. The Girl seizes a white plastic dining chair, and -- in what you now recognize as a California drawl -- bellows: "COME HERE, YOU STUPID LITTLE FUCKER!" Before The Girl can hurl the chair, an Indian waiter rushes over and places his hands on her shoulders. In what appears to be a weary and well-practiced routine, he tells her to please calm down -- that everything will be OK, that the monkey did not mean her any harm, and that he will be happy to clean up the mess and fetch her another tea. Roughly shaking off the waiter's touch, The Girl drops the chair and bursts into tears. She snatches her bag and runs out of the restaurant. Everyone on the roof smirks and turns back to their tea or lasagna. You flag the waiter, pay your bill and head for the forest.
VI. The Holy Place, Part II
As you walk through the trees, you keep quiet and look for lemurs. You're coming to realize that travel anywhere is often a matter of exploring half-understood desires. Sometimes, those desires lead you in new and wonderful directions; other times, you wind up trying to understand just what it was you desired in the first place. And, as often as not, you find yourself playing the role of charlatan as you explore the hazy frontier between where you are, who you are, and who it is you might want to be. Before long, you sense motion in the trees, and drop to a crouch. After a minute or so, a lemur walks out onto a branch, gray-furred and dignified, his tail curved up over his head for balance. As he stares down at you, you realize how privileged you are to be in Rishikesh. Later, when you return to your hotel room, you hear a strange, intermittent gurgling noise coming up from the bathroom pipes. For a moment, you can't place it; then, you smile at the sheer optimism of the sound.
It's your downstairs neighbor. He is urinating in short, start-stop bursts.
Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. His travel articles have appeared in National Geographic Adventure, Conde Nast Traveler, Salon.com, Slate.com, Best American Travel Writing 2000, and on National Public Radio. His articles can be found at rolfpotts.com and his regular musings at the Vagabonding blog.
The non-tantric photos in this article are courtesy of Rolf Gibbs, who chronicled a trip through India on his fine travel blog.
Story posted 12/30/05.
See more great Asia travel stories from book authors in the Perceptive Travel archives.