Back in the Seventies, when hipsters lived in Kabul, most backpacker trails converged on Kathmandu. When he got there, a German named Klaus missed wholegrain bread. So he made some himself, in clay pots on a kerosene stove. Before long, he’d upgraded to ovens, and started selling his loaves to fellow travellers; in Nepal and down in Goa by the beach, where he opened a restaurant with a bakery attached. Four decades later, there are probably more “German Bakeries” in India than McDonald’s.
Which isn’t to say that Klaus controls a franchise. He only opened a handful of outlets, then retired. The rest have mostly copied his basic recipe: create a space for foreigners and locals to mingle, and fill them up with glutinous golden brot, among other European treats. The German Bakery in Pune became such an icon of comity that Islamist terrorists blew up the building in 2010. It just reopened.
Many others are effectively holes in the wall with a sign, hawking croissants, cakes and cookies with the loaves. They’re found near ashrams, in far-flung Himalayan trekking valleys, and in most of the tourist ghettoes around the country. The holy town of Rishikesh has around ten. Even the largest has no connection whatsoever to the original, although its manager and his staff are from Nepal, where Klaus got started. With the resplendent title “Devraj Coffee Corner German Bakery & Restaurant”, it perches on a cliff beside the Ganges. It’s little more than a glorified shack with an open front, but its vantage point provides views of the fast-flowing turquoise depths below, and of the shaky bridge across to high-rise temples.
On a sunny late winter morning, all but one of its twenty tables are in use; the darkest in a corner at the back is still unoccupied. I sit and request a glass of fresh mint tea. Before long, I’ve heard at least a dozen languages (Hindi, Swedish, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, German, Chinese, Russian, French and Portuguese, plus several others I can’t place). The woman at the table in front of me sounds American. She wants to know how big the pizzas are. “Like, for one?” she asks, then settles on a soup.
From her flowing pyjama attire, and a fistful of paperwork, I assume that she’s come to study something yogic. If you listen to sages in loincloths by the river, Rishikesh is as old as the forested hills above. To Hindus, it’s an abode of ancient Gods, among them Mother Ganges herself. Pilgrims and mystics flock here from all over India and beyond. In the words of Lonely Planet, still the bible of choice for a chunk of the visiting white population, the town “styles itself as the Yoga Capital of the World.” As Yoga Journal puts it: “when you go to Rishikesh, your destination is ultimately the Self.”
I ask the American if she’s here to learn to teach. It’s hard to walk a few steps in Rishikesh without seeing adverts for a yoga teacher-training course. Several provide Yoga Alliance certification, an internationally recognized piece of paper available here at cut-price rates. What it certifies other than attendance isn’t clear: you can often sign up with next to no experience. Four weeks later you’re a teacher.
The American giggles. “No, I’m reading my horoscope.” She points to the page. “A Vedic astrologer said my 40th year’s gonna suck.” This from a woman who, from the looks of it, isn’t yet 30. She says she resigned from a bank for a four-month “spiritual tour” of India. Her last stop was the biggest human gathering on Earth: the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, where millions of Hindus descend for a bath at the sacred confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna.
“I spent five days camping with sadhus,” she says: dreadlocked ascetics who often commune with the Lord through a hash pipe. “One of them taught me to meditate. I had some amazing visions. Maybe that was the opium.”
She orders a muffin. It comes with a steaming glass of cocoa. “I need a chocolate hit,” she grins. She hasn’t yet encountered the ubiquitous “Daily Needs” shops, which cater to foreigners’ tastes with imported bars of Lindt, Lavazza coffee and cosmetics, and several brands of king-size rolling papers. I ask if her breakfast hit the spot. “It tastes like a vegan muffin,” she says, apparently unperturbed. It probably is. Eggs are illegal ingredients in Rishikesh. In fact, the whole town of 100,000 people is fully vegetarian by law. When a local trader challenged this last decade, India’s Supreme Court reaffirmed the “complete restriction on trade and public dealing in non-vegetarian food items, including eggs within the municipal limits.” (You can read the full judgment here, if you’d like to know more about the rules on handling “obnoxious items”, such as animal carcasses.)
Unlike vegans, Indian vegetarians guzzle milk. But eggs are potentially animals, even when unfertilized. That doesn’t stop many restaurants from serving omelets, regardless of whether they’re listed on the menu. It’s unclear where the boundaries are drawn, and who enforces them, but you won’t find meat or alcohol sold openly. For that, you need to drive ten miles outside of town to some roadside sheds, where the “English Wine And Beer Shop” plies its trade. A cage of chickens stands outside, along with a handful of drooling red-eyed Hindu men.
Back at the bakery, the American departs. I switch to a table up front and grab a menu. There are 250 items to choose from. I scan the cafe instead. An Indian woman in Gucci shades whines into her iPhone. “This place is so ugly,” she protests in lilting English. In front of her, an overweight couple tucks into what looks like a noodle “Chinesh Dish”, as it’s written on the menu. They are also Indian tourists, here for rafting, as a leisurely bump down the river is widely advertised.
Then there’s a travel agent trying to do business with two Russian girls. No one gets into the dress code here as flamboyantly as Russians. One sports full-moon party flares covered in pockets. The rest of her is fluorescently accessorized. Her sidekick has gone for the virginal white-lengths-of-cloth look. Their guide keeps muttering reassurance. “I have no worries making,” he says, while skinning up a joint. All the tables have ashtrays, and they’re frequently in use. Cigarette smoke is the closest thing to incense here.
This jars a bit with the wholesome clientele. A Korean girl coughs and removes her headphones in frustration. I keep reading the menu. I can’t get worked up about “Mashed Potato”, let alone “Fried Bean Curd Veg Mush”. I hear a girl ask the waiter: “what’s the best thing you have?” He replies: “Oh my God, that’s an impossible question.”
I return to the counter’s display case of fresh-baked goods. Only two of these seem to be savory: spinach pie and burnt croissant. I order both and return to my seat with a bottle of Coke. The lunchtime crush has brought me company. A French girl now sits opposite, addressing Canadian friends to my right. All three wear bum-hugging yoga tights, which would raise eyebrows beyond the borders of the yoga capital: despite the recent gang rape and murder that galvanized Indians to stand up to sex crime, there’s still a more everyday penchant for groping, known as “Eve teasing”.
My egg-free spinach quiche provides distraction. It’s made with onions and a thick cheese crust, which caves in on the base when attacked with a fork. Its heaviness makes a change from rice and dal. I chew an end off my croissant. It reminds me of the vacuum-packed variants sold in the Balkans: a doughy blend of cake and sodden cardboard. My attention drifts again.
The yoga girls have been joined by two male friends. They’re all in their thirties, the average age here. A few are considerably older. Some wear luxurious trekking kit twinned with ethno-garb. There aren’t any college kids. That suits the manager. He says his business depends on attracting upscale backpackers, not the penny-pinching types who spend hours nursing one black tea.
My neighbors are getting excited about almond triangles. “Mmm,” says one of the girls. “It’s kind of like a pecan square, but with almonds.”
“And a triangle,” adds her friend.
“Trikonasana!” chuckles the third. “Sorry, too much yoga.”
One of the guys is from England. “This morning,” he announces, “I decided to give up sugar. But now you’ve tempted me.”
Behind us, a woman puts up posters for a course: “The Art of Conscious Living”. It’s traditional Ayurveda with a twist, she says. She’s Czech, but spends her winters out in India. A lot of the people I meet here do the same. Rishikesh is difficult to leave. I’ve come six times in the past 18 months, practicing yoga and working on writing, while avoiding London rent. It feels a bit like living in a bubble. Occasionally, I think I’ve had my fill. I settle the bill. It costs $2.
As I stand, a towering presence blocks my path: a man wearing nothing but a thin strip of cloth and a brightly colored waistcoat. His eyes gleam like pearls with a hint of trickster sadhu. “Coke!” he barks, as a single word of greeting. I wobble my head non-committally. He lifts my bottle, demanding another from a waiter, then looks at me. “You pay!” he declares, cackling wildly.
Once upon a time, I’d have done so, and spent the rest of the day getting blasted on his hash pipe. Instead, I shrug and walk away.
Daniel Simpson is the author of A Rough Guide to the Dark Side, a book about quitting his job at The New York Times to get mixed up with Balkan gangsters.
Top image: Rishikesh at sunset. Photo by Tylersundance