There is the ripe and slightly damp stench of cow dung near a row of dusty white signs and narrow shop fronts. Bright sari-ed women clash. They walk together along a gravel road with cows and vehicles. The woman who sold me the leaves to feed the cow and the little girl begging in a dirty emerald green salwar kameez are further down the street, like tenacious jewels. I am apprehensive, under a happy, bold exterior; I’m about to seek paths alone. Groups of young men make kissing noises at me when I pass. I nut out my journey north on tiny timetables, sleeping in uncomfortable three-tiered bunks on no-frills night trains with strangers, or sometimes in a ‘ladies carriage’ if I can get one. I wait in a bus stop with a few Indian couples and families at midnight drinking steaming masala tea. In the northern mountains, where it’s cooler and the Ganga is almost aqua, I take a flute lesson on the roof of a white stuccoed building with my teacher, and our sounds are carried by a friendly breeze. I wash in my guesthouse’s cold water using a bucket and feel utter contentment. I talk with travellers — some enamoured with India, and, an Englishman, for whom the love affair has soured. I meditate with a group and become friends with an Israeli girl. We go to meet the Maharishi lounging noble as a sphinx on a wicker chaise lounge. Sari-type curtains drawn over the windows in his small hut colour the morning light a deep magenta. I am nervous when I step into his other world and I’m not sure of the protocol; the Maharishi is an ageing presence with with his long white beard, furrowed brown skin, but he also seems to retreat as a mole does. We kneel before him briefly and leave. Later that afternoon, standing on a footbridge in the sun over the rushing river I pinched myself — was that really the wise, charismatic man the Beatles fell for? I also learned about diplomacy as my friend told me about Israel and the defence force she’d had to be a part of.