Dhera Dun, India – I had never known an Indian train to leave on time, so I was shocked when I missed the 10:20 express to Yamunanagar. I was five minutes late and it had left on schedule.
I had just finished a three-week trek to the glacial sources of the Yamuna and Ganges rivers, and was eager to start my kayaking trip down the Yamuna river. Carrying 100 pounds of folding kayak and equipment, I summoned a bicycle rickshaw to take me to the bus station.
I planned to paddle 1,000 miles down the Yamuna to its confluence with the Ganges at Allahabad and then continue 200 miles down the Ganges to Varanasi. I had come up with the idea a few years previously, on my first trip to India.
While arranging to take a tourist boat in Varanasi, there had been much haggling over the price and someone said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have your own boat? You could go anywhere!” The seed was sown. Now, three years later, I just had to find the river and start.
While waiting for the bus, a group of young, neatly dressed Sikh pilgrims with brightly colored turbans asked me what was in the big red bag. When they learned of my plans to kayak to Varanasi, they insisted, “You must come with us to Paonta Sahib. It’s a very holy temple on the bank of the Yamuna.” A quick look at my map showed it to be 50 miles upriver from Yamunanagar and still in the Himalayan foothills-but they told me there were no rapids.
We were soon rolling down the road in a rickety old green bus with the boat securely lashed to the roof-a good thing, considering the jarring potholes. From the hill above the town of Paonta Sahib, Vicky, one of the Sikhs, pointed out the gleaming white marble temple. I pointed out the rapids.
The pilgrims invited me to stay with them within the temple compound. We stayed on the second floor of a bare concrete dormitory overlooking the ornate white marble temple. I spent the day learning about the history of Sikhism and assembling the boat. By nightfall I was tired, excited about starting-and a bit nervous about the rapids.
The next morning just after sunrise, we carried my boat, Moganga (a conjunction of my wife’s name, “Mo,” and Ganga, Hindi for the Ganges), down the winding stairs, across the mosaic marble temple compound and down to the water.
As we neared the river, a fisherman in an inner tube bobbed past, bumping down the rapids. I felt confident that Moganga could handle the rapids if an inner tube could. I waved good-bye and paddled out of a slowly moving back eddy. With a yank, the swift current grabbed the front end and nearly capsized me. I made a quick, flailing recovery and sped down the first of many sets of class I and II white water.
Although the Moganga occasionally bumped over smooth stones, the kayak handled the bumping unscathed.
The current swept me along at a quick pace and, by mid-afternoon, after paddling past heavily forested banks, I came to a dam. An engineer there told me, “You’ll never make it to Delhi by boat.
It’s impossible. Better you take a bus.” I thanked him for his advice and portaged with the help of a group of chattering young boys and a bossy adult who yelled directions at them, to no effect.
Over the next few days there was very little activity along the river. Vast expanses of tall, swaying grass with wispy white tips were punctuated by a few dusty villages and occasional fields of bright yellow mustard. The villages were small and few had shops.
When I inquired about restaurants, people took me into their homes and fed me. An apple farmer visiting his nearby orchard explained to me, “The people share because they want to-after all, you could be a god.”
Five days into my trip, in the village of Tanda, I was brushing my teeth near the river with a group of 20 onlookers when a young man came over and invited me to stay at his house. At the age of 18, Iftakar was already a doctor, Urdu poet, chicken farmer and English student.
We spent the evening on charpoys (string beds) set outside the chicken shed talking about the river, discussing his poetry and eating fiery vegetarian food prepared by his mother. His family’s house is ten feet from the edge of the brown earthen cliff overlooking the river.
Later, when Iftakar’s friends arrived, I learned that one of them, Masquel, used to live in front of Iftakar. The now calm river had claimed his family home during the last monsoon. I suddenly realized that the strange circular stone and brick tubes I’d seen sticking up from the river were the remains of wells from washed-away homes.
The following night I camped and was up by 5:30 a.m. to start my paddle to the capital of New Delhi. A wrinkled old man with a stubbly gray beard helped me get the boat into the water.
As I was sitting with my feet out of the boat, intending to wash the thick, dark mud off, the old man came over and gently scrubbed each foot. I floated away looking back, and he bowed once before struggling up the bank and walking away.
I paddled past increasingly developed areas, and was on the northern outskirts of Delhi by noon. Paddling up to a dam with the city’s water intake plant nearby, I approached a rusted perimeter fence to ask a group of curious workers if I could come through to portage.
“Are you from Pakistan?” one of them asked. I was in for trouble. Two guards and a crusty old sergeant who was wearing faded khakis that were a size too small marched me to the guard house, a small dark concrete building.
I panicked at the thought that my trip might be over after just seven days. Luckily, after a few minutes of rummaging through my belongings, I found my passport, proving that I was indeed an American.
Faces brightened noticeably and old Sarge now brought me a cup of tea and wanted to know if I had met his brother in California.
The officer in charge, whose right arm was in a cast-maybe because he’d been fighting other kayaking terrorists-explained that they had detained me because the dam was a restricted area. I asked how I could know this, as there were no signs posted. “Of course there are no signs, it is a secret.”
After another hour of questioning they helped me carry the boat up to the road and flagged down a truck that took me to Delhi.
In Delhi I stopped by the city’s Water Board. A helpful man told me, “The rivers of India are for everyone, so you may go where you please.” He explained that ten dams protect the city from floods and that I should start from below the last of these at the southern suburb of Okhla.
The following day, I left a duffel bag of trekking gear behind to be mailed home later, and hired a bicycle rickshaw to Okhla. In Okhla, there was a police post next to a set of steps leading down to the river, but the two officers just waved and went back to their newspaper as I carried the big red bag to the concrete steps at the river’s edge and assembled Moganga.
The now lighter boat handled better as I paddled toward Mathura, 200 miles away. It saddened me to see that the river banks were strewn with plastics and rotting garbage, and I recalled a newspaper article I had read that said that the E-coli count here was 9,000 times the safe limit.
Yet, several hours later, in the countryside, as I paddled past fishermen who were sitting in inner-tubes and casting their nets over the side, the river seemed in much better health.
I had forgotten to get water before leaving Delhi, so I stopped at an isolated farm and asked two men repairing a motorcycle if I could draw water from their well. The next thing I knew I had been invited to lunch. The wife of one of the men brought roties with ghee (unleavened, round bread with clarified butter) and vegetarian curry while my hosts looked on with wide, kind smiles. Following the main course, one of the farmers peeled apples for me.
Afterwards, as I paddled back out into the current with my new friends waving from the banks, I felt quite spoiled.
Throughout the afternoon I played leapfrog with a wide wooden boat also headed downstream. At 4:00 we both stopped for the night, and a well-dressed farmer from the boat encouraged me to stay in a tiny, nearby village. He didn’t live there, but he talked to people in the village, who happily took me in. After he left, there was no one who spoke English, so I struggled with my very limited Hindi.
The five older men quickly returned to the business of smoking tobacco through a large hookah. The women were nowhere to be seen. Then, one brash old lady appeared and loudly demanded to know what I was doing in her village. Her questions were punctuated by wildly gesturing hands. She didn’t buy my story about arriving by boat. I motioned for her to follow me, but that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, like the Pied Piper, I led a group of small giggling children to the boat.
With their help, we carried it back to the village to show her. For the next 15 minutes her questions flew at me. My not speaking Hindi didn’t matter-she wanted answers. That night, I fell asleep under the stars covered in a thoughtfully provided dusty, dark-brown blanket while the men sat around their hookah, which was still bubbling away. In the morning the old woman brought me a lassi, a slightly salty yoghurt drink, before I set off. Her suspiciousness from the previous night seemed to have dissipated, and I appreciated her kindness.
On my final afternoon before reaching Mathura, several older women carrying baskets of produce began prostrating on the high river bank while calling down to me, “Baba, Baba!” (holy man, holy man!). Unsure of how to respond in a holy fashion, I gave them a big cheery wave.
Minutes later, a white catfish jumped out of the water, up my sleeve, flapped down my belly and then slithered into the sea sock. I managed to stay upright, but I dropped my paddle in the panic. I freed the slimy, 8-inch fish and retrieved my paddle before continuing on my way.
Night had fallen by the time I entered Mathura. I used the lights of the city as a guide to find my route along the river. Suddenly, a power cut plunged all into darkness.
Within minutes, the dirty orange glow of hurricane lamps again helped me on my way. Old pages from a guidebook led me to the Hotel Agra, less than 50 meters from the water. The staff seemed a bit confused by my paddle and somewhat muddy appearance, but when they saw the boat they were most helpful, and I was soon checked in.
The next day, I leisurely paddled along the town’s waterfront where Krishna, a Hindu God, was born 3,500 years ago. I spent an hour watching seven men build a wooden, flat-bottomed boat completely by hand.
Their tools included a string-and-bow hand-powered drill. They told me it would take them a month to build the 30′ x 7′ craft at a cost of US $300. Before leaving, they offered me water, which I politely declined-having seen them gather it straight from the polluted river.
After a week-long break from paddling, I took all of my extra equipment by overnight train to Varanasi, 800 miles downriver, in an effort to lighten my load. There I found a small lodge on the bank of the Ganges, Kumiko Pension, run by a friendly Japanese lady and her somewhat eccentric Bengali husband, Shanti.
He told me that I would never make it from Mathura to Varanasi, because, “One, you will be eaten by crocodiles; two, you will be murdered by bandits; three, it is impossible; and four, you will be eaten by more crocodiles.”
Still, Shanti kindly locked my bags away for safekeeping after I promised him there were no bombs, weapons, guns or illegal drugs in them.