Boys can’t skip. This is a well-known fact, discovered by me at an early age but one which has recently been shattered in the most horrifying way possible and I have now had to amend this statement to ‘men really shouldn’t skip.’ Let me explain.
I was fortunate enough to attend junior school at St. Hilda’s Convent School in a small town in west Yorkshire. Boys were allowed to attend up to the age of seven, girls went on to eleven. I have no idea why this was the case. Once a year we celebrated Commemoration Day which involved weeks’ worth of practising country dances on the ‘little field’, and more pertinently, maypole dancing.
For those of you who have managed to survive your lives until now without knowing what this is, it is basically a very long pole painted with horizontal stripes, sunk into the ground with long lengths of ribbons hanging from the top. Each of these ribbons was, in our case, allocated to a child. In a perfect world, as the dance commences the ribbons are meant to be intertwined and plaited either on to the pole itself or into a web around the pole. The dancers may then retrace their steps exactly in order to unravel the ribbons, simple. Now us girls aged 7+, who, at the end of the day, were born to skip, practised with glee, pigtails dancing in the breeze, as we proudly created the patterned webs around the maypole and on the day of the main performance, eagerly looked around to see if our proud parents were watching.
However, as mentioned, we also had boys, and boys were not born to skip. This in no way, shape or form, was detrimental to the nun’s plans to have them join us girls in the Maypole dancing. They would each be allocated a ribbon, which was held in their left hand, their right hand was placed firmly on their right hip. Position assumed, Sister Mary Elizabeth would then press play on the small and ineffective tape recorder, remember those?
The other nuns would start clapping along in gay abandon and the boys (and girls) were meant to set off dancing, weaving in and out and creating clever patterns high above their heads. The boys invariably missed the first beat or three and then would panic and run three paces before remembering that the preferred art form was to skip, and so would then throw in a random hop. Others would look around, see that they should have started and having lost their concentration, would either set off in the wrong direction, or just hop, changing legs occasionally and with an air of panic, would look up into the ribbon pattern that should be being created and would then invariably crash into the girl or boy in front. Houdini could not have escaped from the tangles that ensued. It was chaos.
I don’t know why I remember it so clearly, but even after all this time, names come back to me, Jonathan Parker, Graham Hunt, Phillip Weatherall and Michael Hanson. All wearing airtex blue shirts, grey shorts, knobbly knees, beige knee length socks and vile brown standard issue sandals, they would set off, hands on hips and completely bollox the whole thing up. I laugh at the memory even now. But who can blame them? Boys were just not born to skip. Pull girls hair, climb trees, shoot at each other with imaginary guns, yes, but skip, no. These kids are put on the waiting list for such private schools from virtually before they were a twinkle in the eye, in the efforts of their parents to give their proud heirs the best start in life. You can’t tell me that dads of Yorkshire gather their new born sons in their arms, look down at them proudly and say, ‘Son, one day, before we know it, you will be skipping round a maypole.’
I wonder how this affected them in later years, and how many ended up in therapy? Though being from Yorkshire, the land of ‘getting on with it’ and where therapy is a four letter word, they are probably still limping around, emotionally (and physically) scarred.
Thirty plus years later, (you don’t need to know exactly how many), I found myself in Rishikesh, one of India’s most spiritual cities, made famous by my least favourite band, The Beatles. It is an interesting place to visit if you haven’t witnessed an aarti (prayer ceremony) before. The ones that take place here on the banks of the Ganges are well worth seeing. Monks in orange and saffron coloured robes gather in their hundreds, mini cymbals are played, prayers are chanted over loud speakers, oil lamps are lit and bowls and bowls of flowers, marigolds and roses each with a single candle, are floated on the Mother Ganges as a puja or prayer offering. It is quite a spectacle.
Rishikesh, as with the other towns along the banks of Mother Ganges, Varanasi and Haridwar, is a purely vegetarian town, alcohol is banned and it attracts many many pilgrims and sadhus. Unfortunately Rishikesh also attracts more than its fair share of freaks. This sounds harsh, and I am sorry to be so cynical. I do usually believe very much in the “live and let live” philosophy, which is actually a very Indian sentiment. Yes, there are exceptions, in such areas as the India-Pakistan border to name but one, I am not going to delve into this further, but, by and large, Indians are a very tolerant people and absorb people into their society without so much as a second thought. The massive population here is like a giant wave, gathering people of all religions and denominations into its wake and carrying them along.
However, for me, there is just something intensely irritating about many of the westerners who come to Rishikesh, the majority of whom have just one sole purpose, which is that of ‘finding’ themselves. I refrain from quips about remaining lost. You want to do some soul searching, fine. You want to learn the art of inner peace and meditation, again, fine. You want to learn about another culture whilst doing so, great! But why ensure that you look utterly ludicrous whilst doing so?
The more recently arrived may satisfy themselves with meditation on the banks of the river, searching for Nirvana and pondering on their inheritances/trust funds. These I can cope with. But if Nirvana isn’t found rather speedily, the rot can quickly start to set in. Phase two ensues with the purchases of wafty, baggy cotton or hemp trousers and grungy tops that are the standard issue uniform for western Nirvana seekers. Then the shaving stops (women as well as men), washing starts becoming more and more intermittent, dreadlocks start to form and a calm and peaceful demeanour spreads across the face. Don’t be fooled. In more cases than not, it is not inner peace that has caused this, but rather the ganja which they soon learn to source around the town. The ones who stay on beyond this stage, move on to phase three. This involves flouncing around in orange robes, dreadlocks firmly in place, we even saw a dreadlock “comb over” on this trip. Seriously! That is someone who should have gone home years ago! Those in this phase, develop a vastly superior air and throw derogatory looks in the direction of any ‘tourists’ who venture to ‘their’ town, just to witness the aarti spectacle.
Given my cynicism, but having survived Haridwar quite successfully we decided to venture into Rishikesh main, to wander around, see the aarti, tick it off the ‘to do’ list and head safely back upstream. It is a fascinating place, sadhus wander around, chai wala’s are chatty and bowls of colourful flowers line the streets. I love all that, though the beggars are a little depressing. However, it was all going rather well with lots of great photo opportunities.
Then we saw the white skin and the orange robes approaching the ghats and decided to leave while the going was good, despite this being before the main event. As we headed down towards the bridge that would take us to our tuk tuk, which, and I kid you not, had a picture of a semi naked lady on the outside, and a red light on the inside, my companion prodded me and pointed. I glanced warily in the direction of her subtly outstretched digit. Approaching, rather too quickly for us to avoid, were six dreadlocked and very grungy foreigners, all male. The lead man was playing a wooden flute, and his five companions were not only clapping along but skipping too with perfect technique and in unison. The nuns from St Hilda’s would have been so proud had these been the grown up versions of their maypole prodigies. For all I know they might have been, but I wasn’t going to hang around to find out. Flouncy floaty-robe-clad foreigners are one thing, to discover they were Yorkshire men would have broken my heart.
Post rafting bonfire and chaiWe set off back upstream, to a Rishikesh that I could relate to and enjoy immensely. You see, it has a relatively new incarnation of being an adventure destination and a very beautiful one at that. It offers twelve to twenty four km stretches of white-water rafting, beautiful trekking, fun kayaking, amazing birdlife (and not the birdlife that our tuk tuk driver was interested in) white sand beaches, evening bonfires, BBQ’s and the occasional bottle of Old Monk (shhh). Now this is a Rishikesh that I can handle, to the point where we ended up staying an extra five days. The majority of rafting guides are Nepalese, the trekking guides are from India. The common attire is either shorts, t-shirts and a life jacket, or shorts, t-shirts and walking boots and they all spend a lot of time in the water. Not only that, but not one of them, not a single one even knew what skipping was though they would grin knowingly at the mention of foreigners in orange robes.
Having said all that, it is not for me to judge what makes men happy or determine their behaviour or dress codes. Suffice to say that Rishikesh now comes in two parts and never the twain shall meet. You choose which aspect of the destination more suits your personality and aspirations. For me, as far as the main city goes, The Beatles have a lot to answer for in a way that goes way beyond the music which has been inflicted on us for years. As far as the skipping goes, well, who knows who taught the guys in Rishikesh? But, as far as our nuns are concerned, I am sure that neither India’s 300,000 gods nor their own God Almighty can blame them for adding a little humour to their devout lives.