An accidental visit to jewel of an eco-resort, Ananda in the Himalayas

The following travel essay was revised and updated from an earlier post at my now archived blog, Travel With Reason, for discussion and use in my teaching this spring at University of Montana. 

By Ron Reason

Of the 36 countries I’ve visited, none is as defined by uncertainty as India. It is not the place for the traveler who is not open to surprise – the delightful, but also, the prospect of the unpleasant. (The Wes Anderson film “Darjeeling Limited” defines this perfectly, when travelers on an Indian railway awake to realize they are stranded in the middle of nowhere; the conductor has lost his way. “How can we be lost? We are on a train!”)

Mishaps and unexpected detours led me to the luxurious Ananda in the Himalayas, tucked away, on the grounds of a maharaja’s palace, in the country’s northern Uttar Pradesh district. Arriving unsettled, unshaven and unshowered for a week, I and three companions are at first (politely) declined even admittance past the front gate. An hour later, we are checking into our suites and changing into our kurta, traditional white male garb, planning our Ayurvedic treatments and macrobiotic meals for the coming days.

When roughing it goes awry

It all starts out so promisingly: 10 days backpacking with a small group in northern India,  visits to sacred sadu huts and rural villages, some yoga, sweeping views of the Himalayas, camping amid the rolling green hills:

But oh, that eight miles of hiking per day? Our dear, daffy tour guide actually meant eight hours. And this year, by the way, the monsoons are running a bit late:

And India, you see, doesn’t quite maintain trails as we do in the U.S. We hike through rivers, where a fellow hiker trips and cuts his head in a water buffalo trail, actually a raging stream. One companion, a strapping fellow from San Diego, comes down with dysentary on Day One and has to be carried by mule for several days. One night, our lodging can only be described, generously, as a manger:

After about a week of this, Dysentary Dude and Head Wound Guy start to conspire: How do we get out of this? I myself am headed directly to East Africa for a month of serious work, and cannot afford illness or injury, so I join in and listen closely. The next day, our drivers are to  meet us at a local village to take us on to our final 4-day trek. We tell our tour guide, we want out.

Back to Rishikesh

Off with our driver we go, on the 12-hour journey back to Delhi, intending to spend one night in a motel of sorts where we had stayed in Rishikesh, the Ganges town perhaps made most famous as a place of enlightenment for the Beatles. Five minutes shy of town, on a scenic mountain road, one member of our party notices a small road sign: “Ananda in the Himalayas: THIS WAY –>.”

“Stop the car!” he orders the driver. “I think I know this name.” He is certain this is a hotel cited in a recent Conde Nast Traveler as a Readers Choice for something or other. (Turns out to be: Best Eco Resort.) Zipping to the front gates we go, only to be told, by security guards who no doubt want nothing of this dirty crew in tank tops and shorts, “sorry, no room at the inn.”

Somehow our driver, Raj, a jolly Punjab (this may be redundant, if you know anyone from Punjab), figures out a way to motor past them, up the drive and toward the immaculate entrance, a staircase lined with two waterfalls in blue marble:

We barrel into the lobby, Raj clearing the way. “These guys need to use the bathroom.” A gorgeous hostess emerges to insist, in a lobby so empty it’s almost ghostly, that we need to be quick, as the resort is currently “full up.”

Back from the restroom, we ask as politely as possible if we can at least see a room, for “a potential future visit.” She knows we aren’t going anywhere soon, and reluctantly summons a bellman and a golf cart to show us a few rooms. “This will be OK, but there are NONE available.”

Of course we fall in love with the lush grounds, the pools, the rooms. We return to the lobby, and without a word, one of us hands her an Amex Black Card. While we are indeed filthy from the week in the hills, this must have quickly given her the impression we are capable of cleaning up quickly. “I’ll be right back,” she says. Moments later, the credit card, a receipt, and keys to two rooms. We send Raj back to his family in Delhi for a bonus four days of freedom – he is delighted.

Instantly we feel at home amid floating ghee candles in pools of marigolds and rose petals:

 

Within the hour, we’ve staked out territory poolside, and head to lunch at the world class restaurant, noted for regional and macrobiotic cuisine. Our golf cart driver returns later to fetch us for dinner. “We are instructed not to reveal any information related to our guests,” he whispers. “However, last week Seal and Heidi Klum enjoyed a stay at the suite next to yours.”

In short order, our trials on the trails of Uttar Pradesh become a distant memory. Aside from the pampering, one highlight is the hotel’s arrangement of a private dance performance by students at a local orphanage, survivors of neglect or abuse of varying kinds:

Karma, if you believe in that kind of thing

This story of Indian travel surprise, good and bad, ends with a bit of karma, if you believe in such. Raj reveals a shocker when he picks us up on our final day to head to the Delhi airport.

“Have you heard what’s become of your tour guide?” I want to ask,  you mean the one who scheduled our journey perhaps a bit too close to monsoon season? And who arranged for only 10 days of sherpas and mules, instead of the usual 14 we learn this journey usually requires?  “He’s had his leg crushed in 100 places by a huge boulder, dislodged by an unknown hiker above him while leading your group up a glacier.” (As I said: India is not the best in maintaining its trails.) He had to be hauled on a stretcher down the mountain, spend the night in a clinic with no doors or windows and wild dogs running the halls, until he could be driven the remaining  9 hours to Delhi – on some of the country’s most nerve-rattling roads. (He ended up getting top notch repair back in New York, and resumed his  yoga practice six months later.) Turns out, the instinct of some of us to cut short our original itinerary had been right on the rupee.

For more of my photos from Ananda in the Himalayas, visit this link. 

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